It’s Not What It Is - Published in UCLA’s Aztlan: A Journal For Chicano Studies (2014)

Part 1: Imagine my surprise, at the age of 25, when I realized that I knew very little about the Chicano Movement. Sure we had heard of Cesar Chavez from our history books and while we knew he was important, the details were limited and those available were convoluted at best; these were Texas textbooks after all. This rather important omission remained cloudy until I began my studies under artist and professor, Bruno Andrade, who encouraged me to reflect on my own background and heritage as inspiration for a new body of work. Grace Barraza-Vega, a fellow classmate, gave me her own version of the Chicano sensibility; chillantes, culturally-specific iconography, patterns and motifs, and a particularly important use of allegory. I resented the indiscretion of not learning about this sooner and I didn’t know where to place the blame. 

Part 2: It was clear when I began my coursework towards my MFA that the rest of my classmates knew a few things that I didn’t. While I had been adequately prepared on the technical aspects of stretching a canvas and working with paint, I suffered tremendously in my first graduate-level art history course. The material presented was dense and laden with theory that I had little to no knowledge of; I spent the better part of that course pretending to know things when I could get away with it and squeezing in what I did know when I felt it was relevant. My musings and continued exploration of Chicano Art didn’t interest my classmates and I would have abandoned the topic had it not been for Professor Noah Simblist. Simblist guided me through the theory and provided opportunities for dialogue where I could connect the new concepts I was learning to my own work. 

 Part 3: I became interested in words early on in my childhood. It was my mother’s mission to help me learn the alphabet before kindergarten and cursive writing before I made it to the first grade. Neither of my parents made it to high school and they were hell-bent on making sure we would get an early start in our journey there. I am not completely sure whether I actually learned the phonetics of each letter, but I do remember catching on to mimicking the letters my mother wrote early on; it was drawing after all and she knew I was already interested in doodling. She purchased a children’s encyclopedia, slowly paying off each volume in the set. This was perhaps one of the greatest gifts my parents gave us growing up and not surprisingly, the least appreciated at the time. I was fascinated with the dictionary and I wouldn’t put it down. I was intrigued, primarily, not with the definitions but with the letter origins that were illustrated on the pages initiating each section of each letter in the alphabet. I understood early on that letters were nothing more than images attached to sound and that, alike to many things in history, they had been through several revisions. As I grew older this fascination drew me into calligraphy, graffiti, and hieroglyphs; other forms of embellished words that were also images or vice-versa. 

Part 4: Adrian Piper’s piece, Cornered, 1988 was an intriguing installation that aroused my interest in ideology and led me to Louis Althusser’s, Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. Keep in mind that this was still early on in grad school. I read and reread that essay several times over before I got an inkling of understanding of what it was actually trying to tell me. I spent the better part of a semester reading that text, breaking it down, making sure that I understood it; I finally did and my mind was officially blown. Once I got a grip on this piece of theory, everything else seemed to fall into place. I took a course on Mexican Art during my last semester in grad school when a new professor arrived at the Meadows School. Dr. Roberto Tejada offered a class titled, Mexican Art in the Expanded Field; this class was the only one offered that dealt with anything Mexican in all my years of study, so I jumped at the opportunity when it presented itself. It was through this course that I grasped and sharpened my abilities to decipher the rhetoric of both image and words. This understanding of ideology and rhetoric gave me access into a new model of thinking of which I wasn’t a seasoned participant. It was new and it was exciting but if these concepts opened some doors, I grew even more curious as to which ones were left to open. This is where I began to really consider what access meant, who created points of access, and what the implications were when access was granted or denied. 

Part 5: It wasn’t long before I began to question the direction my work was going in. Who was accessing this work? Where was it being exhibited? Who was the audience for the pieces? Were people that are like me getting an opportunity to see these paintings and drawings? Did they care to? Did they get what I was trying to convey? Did it matter if they got it or not? I consider art to be a language and understood that like any other language, if one hadn’t practiced or become fluent in it, it was likely that it was misunderstood if not completely ignored. Why weren’t more Hispanics visiting our museums and cultural institutions? Did the visitors at galleries become whiter as I grew older or were people like me simply not attending openings and lectures? In hindsight, I must have stood out with my tattoos, goatee, shaved head, and Dickies. Maybe not, the art world has a good way of ignoring certain things when it’s convenient. As I found the answers to these questions, I took out the resentment I felt on my paintings and drawings. I destroyed or gave away the work I had created, abandoned the studio for a year, and refused to make new work. I became interested in and voraciously researched socially engaged models of art production and began a pilot residency program with the West Dallas Community Centers. I began to work with the kids that went by these centers and along with my students from the Meadows School, began to carry out collaborative projects with community members that were directly linked to social issues they had to deal with on a daily basis; drugs, violence, lack of nutritional food, joblessness, and the urban renewal that was taking place in their backyards. We provided them with access to the arts and they provided us with a wealth of experience in dialogue, community organizing, and a lesson on the failures of assumptions. We had assumed we knew the community and the people there, but we left that project having learned more than what we had to offer them. 

Part 6: I picked up painting and drawing again after I moved in with other artist friends of mine. Oscar Mejia, a brilliant artist based in Dallas, was a previous classmate and student. Our conversations dealt with the realities of being Hispanic artists within an art world that is still largely Anglo-driven. He knew I had my own points of view regarding galleries, museums, and other type of art institutions. He boldly challenged me with the question, “Then why are you even painting and drawing if no one will get to see your work!” It was a good question. I work on paintings and drawings because I learn through each piece that I create. Aside from learning technique I also practice what I feel is a wonderful premise to being an artist; even when there is a right way, it doesn’t mean it’s the only way. I continue to learn that art is less a thing and more of a way; a way of thinking, a way of learning, and a way of doing. I once heard a colleague say, “Don’t trust an artist that can’t cook.” I think he was getting at something by offering this warning. I digress. My art work is a visual representation of our condition as people who are largely driven through word and image. It explores how even the filthiest of language or most tragic of circumstances can be embellished, covered up, or revised to arrive at something beautiful or desirable; a realization that at times has negative, real-world implications. I know this because I also follow politics closely and the method in which our beloved leaders speak illustrates the many decorative words they use to make a bad idea sound like a good one; leading many of us to vote against our best interests. I know this because the images of an ideal existence are plastered over products that we don’t need and could never change our social status. I know this because stories are passed on from generation to generation that connects our bloodline to former presidents or heroic figures, even when the likelihood of these stories being true is slim to none. I know this because at some point someone decided that teaching a Mexican-American kid about the history of his culture in the U.S. and the struggles his predecessors had to go through to afford him some version of “freedom,” was not really that important. I know this because I still exist within a situation that is reluctant to spill its secrets on one side of the cultural border and reluctant to fully let me in on the joke in the other.  

 Part 7: These past few years I have revisited and revised my own ideas of what constitutes a Chicano. I certainly don’t fall into the school of thought that suggests specific imagery or iconography makes one a Chicano; if anything, I feel that these types of images can serve to perpetuate stereotypes of our culture for those outside of our cultural border; hence the use of abstraction in my work. Although I am fluent in Spanish, I certainly don’t think that this is a legitimate measure of what may constitute a Chicano. I think I sway towards the old school understanding of what a Chicano is or may be. A Chicano’s identity is fluid, in constant flux, and is a manifestation of all the best attributes of the trickster that has learned to exist on the threshold; not at home here, nor there, but everywhere. A Chicano makes due, period. A Chicano is not always Mexican-American and not all Mexican-Americans are Chicano. A Chicano is equipped with and maintains a high political consciousness; not the liberal/conservative dichotomy, but rather politics with a capital P. They learn to understand the social forces acting upon them but are not victims. They utilize this knowledge to better navigate and strategize around a world, which at the moment, still provides a substantial number of obstacles towards the goals we set for ourselves. If others care to believe that painting pictures and making drawings fits you into this category, then more power to them. Maybe it does. My own definition could be wrong; these are only ideas after all and they have a habit of changing from time to time.

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Bernardo Diaz | #bdOther ©bernardodiaz2021
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