K Paoletter 33: Raza Sí, Guerra No

From Toward a People’s Art: The Contemporary Mural Movement (1977)

Los Artes Guadalupanos de Aztlán formed in the fall of 1971, when Samuel, Albert, and Carlos Leyba painted a mural of safari animals in the yard of a school in Santa Fe, only a couple miles but a world away from the plaza’s boutiques and the tony galleries of Canyon Road. The mural was a tribute to their twelve-year-old brother George, who had just died of an overdose. After they were done, the brothers managed to wrest $3,600 from the city to train clients of a local methadone clinic in art, and the ragtag group painted four more murals over the course of six weeks that riffed on Chicano motifs mostly culled from the pre-Cortés civilizations of Central America. The training program didn’t stick, but it had served to introduce the Leybas to Geronimo Garduño and Gilberto Guzman. A collective established, the artists began scheming about how to put into practice the ideas they had garnered from the work of Mexican muralists like Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, as well as the radical San Francisco publication TRA: Toward Revolutionary Art.

“Those first six weeks had been easy because we were simply looking for painters, bringing them together,” Garduño later wrote. “Now that we were together, we had to define precisely what we wanted to do. One thing was clear: We couldn’t go on doing pretty pictures of zoo animals and pastel Aztec gods.” Through a group that was organizing independent candidates to run in the next year’s elections, the artists met Roman Salazar, who was making a longshot bid for mayor and happened to live on Canyon Road.

Salazar agreed to let Los Artes Guadalupanos de Aztlán paint his utility shed with a mural they called Lady of Justice. Wrapping around two walls of the small structure, the mural’s main figure is a muscle bound, mustachioed Chicano. Over his right shoulder, a woman in a white gown yanks on the chain binding one of his hands, rending it with explosive force. In her other hand, she hefts one half of the balancing scales traditionally associated with the blind, Grecian personification of law. The other half of the scales is held by the man in his unbound hand. Styled like a bird’s nest, it cradles a family, red and yellow stripes of a radiant sun rising behind them. 

A few days after the mural was completed, the columnist Jim Maldonado described the “furor” it had created in the Santa Fe New Mexican: “Some are saying it’s against the law; some say it’s interesting; some say they will find some way to get it off the wall, some say they see nothing wrong with it.” Maldonado himself seemed to be in that last camp, writing, “The message is simply ‘equality and justice’ and a revitalization of pride and spirit.” Nevertheless, he noted that, “although ordinances are silent on the subject of art and murals on walls, there are Historic District regulations. And there is a regulation which controls the color of houses in a historical district.”

That Historic District designation was no small thing. When New Mexico achieved statehood in 1912, Santa Fe issued its first urban plan, which recommended that all new buildings on “old and ancient streets… conform exteriorally with the Santa Fe style.” That provision was officially added to the city’s code in 1957, and to this day everything north of Paseo de Peralta and east of St. Francis Drive is governed by one of the most restrictive historic preservation regimes in the country, even as the businesses that occupy all those charming adobe buildings are often identical to what can be found elsewhere. There’s a Starbucks on San Francisco whose window is framed by blue Spanish tile and an outpost of a corporate chain on Jefferson, where wooden vigas protrude under a neon sign reading BUMBLE BEE’S NEON GRILL. The Reporter, the local alternative weekly, wrote in 2017 that the “adobe Disneyland” of Santa Fe’s historic center had in turn inspired some odd sights on the city’s newer Southside, “from the stone façade on the McDonald’s on St. Francis to the faux-dobe on the Target and the Walmart Supercenter.”

The “Santa Fe Style” all of these buildings are either nodding to or legally obliged to replicate was first articulated by the Museum of New Mexico, whose staff photographed dozens of the buildings that survived from the Spanish and Mexican eras shortly after the institution was founded in 1909. Not long after, the architect John Gaw Meem turned the Santa Fe Style into an international brand, designing 150 houses in Santa Fe, renovating the La Fonda Hotel, and creating a master plan for the University of New Mexico. In a 1934 essay for American Architect, Meem sought to reconcile his affection for the city’s design heritage with the demands of modernism. “The world is filled with traditional forms,” he wrote,

“But measured by modern ideals most of them are outworn; and their retention in contemporary practice is, in reality, the practice of archeology.

“Here and there, however, one finds the opposite. Some old forms are so honest, so completely logical and native to the environment that one finds — to one’s delight and surprise — that modern problems can be solved, and are best solved, by use of forms based on tradition…. In a world tending more and more toward inevitable standardization — welcomed from the practical point of view, but spiritually repugnant to us — it is truly refreshing to feel that in our contemporary architectural movement is still an opportunity for the expression of ancient values.”

Meem went on to describe the Pueblos of New Mexico as comprising “truly aboriginal American buildings, uninfluenced by any other culture, except possibly the allied ones of Central America.” He also suggested the peculiar commonality between the restrained design of adobe structures with the form-follows-function ethos of modernism, describing them as “flat-topped rectangular masses devoid of ornament, the aesthetic effect depending almost entirely on the relative proportions of the masses.” But while traditional Pueblos, as well as the cliff dwellings of Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde that predated them, were built in a communal fashion that roughly approximates a contemporary apartment building, Meem’s Santa Fe Style was applied almost exclusively to single-family buildings and businesses.

Zimmerman Library at the University of New Mexico, one of John Gaw Meem’s signature designs.

As Santa Fe matured into a global art destination, its most desirable addresses became those within the Historic District surrounding the Plaza and near Canyon Road. Houses in the area regularly sell for more than two million dollars; some list for as high as five. Once you cross St. Francis, less than a mile away, poverty rates nearly double as per capita income drops from $65,000 to $29,000. The racial profile of the community also completely flips, from 67 percent Anglo to 72 percent Hispanic, and life expectancy drops by ten years. All told, Santa Fe ranks as one of the most unequal communities in the country, with a ratio of the top one percent of earners to the bottom ninety-nine percent that’s roughly equivalent to Los Angeles or Boston. Albuquerque, on the other hand, ranks just above Clarksburg, West Virginia.

The mural by Los Artes Guadalupanos de Aztlán, then, presented something of a challenge to the prevailing ethos of the city. Here was honest-to-goodness artwork that evoked the deep history of New Mexico, but in a way that didn’t necessarily comply with the design standards that had been purportedly set in place to preserve that history. “As long as we confine ourselves to our own barrio, it’s okay,” Garduño told a reporter from Albuquerque, “but as soon as we try to paint in the restricted section we get into trouble.” When asked how long the mural on Canyon Road took to paint, Gilberto Guzman quipped, “two hundred and fifty years” — placing its origins roughly around Diego de Vargas’ reconquest of Santa Fe following the Pueblo Revolt.

Ultimately, the Historical Style Committee decided that they had little standing to force Roman Salazar to repaint his shed. In announcing the decision, the committee’s chair, Marguita Purdy, said, “Murals other than this one are very impressive — especially the animals in the tot-lots.” Though this comment made her low opinion of Lady of Justice clear, Purdy demurred from offering a specific objection to the mural. Instead, she announced: “Since there is no ordinance regarding art or murals at this time, the Historical Style Committee has no authority regarding the murals or art on Canyon Road.” 

“Public art is a great threat to people who peddle pictures,” Garduño reflected in an essay documenting the early history of Artes Guadalupanos de Aztlán:

“The galleries, those great makers of an artist’s fame and fortune, are a laugh, a great shuck. And, together with the “artists” who put themselves at their mercy, they have duped the world. Art as a class privilege has not only reduced the artists to a sniveling wretch who goes around sniffing the behinds of gallery owners, it has also created a set of in-between parasites, the gallery owners themselves. But worst of all, it has degraded art by giving it money value, as opposed to social value, educational value, and cultural value.”

The collective felt the brunt of this sort of monetization after “a very enthusiastic young man who followed us around” with a camera began creating an “extensive portfolio” of their work. The muralists didn’t much care until they realized how much money the photographer had made selling prints cataloging their works to curious art aficionados elsewhere. “By the time we found out this nice young man had earned a couple of thousand, he had packed up and gone home to New York. And Artes Guadalupanos de Aztlán? Well, we were still bumming a dollar for gas for our ’51 Chevy pickup to get to the wall.”

I wrote the cover story for this month’s issue of Harper’s, about how the way the media’s approach to covering the climate crisis has shifted over the last couple years from provoking fears of outright apocalypse to reassuring readers that things might not be so bad, after all. As usual, the truth, I think, lies somewhere in between. If you want to hear a little bit more from me about the story, I had fun chatting with Violet Lucca for the Harper’s podcast a few weeks back, so make sure you give that a listen. (Since the magazine has a fairly strict paywall, please let me know if you’re unable to access the essay and I’ll be happy to hook you up with a PDF!) I was also thrilled to be included in the latest release from Wildsam, a company that makes really lovely and insightful tourism guides. They asked me to write an essay about landscape photography for their new guide to Southwestern art, so please do pick that up — the book is beautiful and features some really amazing artists, including some personal faves and fellow New Mexicans like Tony Abeyta and Rose B. Simpson. 

Pacification, the new film from Albert Serra, is one of the most striking things I’ve watched in a good long while — a discomfiting portrait of 21st Century colonialism and the darkness that lies at the heart of the arrangement no matter its historical parameters. Set in Tahiti, the movie follows the French government’s chief representative on the island as he slowly loses control, beset both by Indigenous activists trying to reclaim their homeland and the French military, which is rumored to be organizing the resumption of nuclear testing. The film is breathtakingly beautiful — this is Tahiti, after all — and Benoît Magimel’s performance is downright riveting. But most memorable is the leisurely way that Serra unfolds the story, evoking a sense of dread and fear even as the principals in the brewing conflict mostly laze around drinking cocktails with little umbrellas. Pacification screens this month at the Roxie in San Francisco and Time & Space Limited in Hudson, NY, along with some other theaters in California, Texas, and Pennsylvania, so catch it in a theater if you can.

That’s all for now. Thanks, as always, for reading and subscribing. You can find me on my website, or deep in the bowels of one of Montréal’s fabulous friperies, pondering if I could pull off a truly excellent Chicago Bulls sweater from 1995.

Your pal, 


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