in Texas. Romero grew up in East Los Angeles, which has long had a large Latino community, but, according to Romero, "it certainly wasn't a 'little Mexico.' There were a lot of Eastern European Jews, Japanese, and White Russians."2 In Romero's neighborhood, Boyle Heights, a mixture of ethnic groups defined the character of the community, much like New York's Lower East Side in the early 1900s. The Romeros spoke English at home. Once he began to be identified with the Chicano art movement, Romero had to learn Spanish. He sheepishly admits that his wife, Nancy, of Russian-German heritage, speaks it better.
In 1974 several California museums, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, hosted an exhibition of "Los Four," an art collective that included Romero, his close friend Carlos Almaraz, Gilbert Luhan, and Beto de la Rocha.3 Romero was thirty-three at the time and already a fully formed artist. As he put it, "My earliest recollections are of doing drawings and being an artist. I was accomplished by the time I was in kindergarten."4
I'm very proud that I'm Chicano. . .
It doesn't make me less American. I think it makes me more American.
During his years at California State College in Los Angeles, Romero met Almaraz, who was no more technically skilled but was able to introduce him to the practical realities of being an artist. After college, Almaraz moved to New York, hoping to make his reputation there; Romero joined him in 1968. Nothing about the New York art world seemed hospitable to these Southern California natives. Minimalism was king, and colorful, urative oil painting was out.
My earliest recollections are of doing drawings and being an artist. I was accomplished by the time I was in kindergarten.
The Chicano civil rights movement had been building since the late 1960s, and by 1971, when both Romero and Almaraz had resettled in Los Angeles, artists were beginning to play a noticeable role.5 Trips to Mexico, where they experienced the part of their heritage represented by muralists José Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera, and political discussions with fellow artist Gilbert Lujan eventually led Almaraz and Romero to join with Lujan and de la Rocha in establishing "Los Four." Romero has acknowledged the consciousness-raising process that finally brought him to his activist role: "At the time, the term [Chicano] was totally alien to me. I didn't like it. I came out of that melting pot where it says we're all American."6 And even during the height of his political consciousness, he maintains he was always "more concerned with art issues" than with politics.7
Nevertheless, Romero found himself first validated by the art establishment as a Chicano artist and a member of a group that had political associations.
At the time, the term [Chicano] was totally alien to me. I didn't like it. I came out of that melting pot where it says we're all American.
The exhibition featured a thirty-foot mural executed in spray paint. Romero remembers the importance of color in the show -- "also content, expressionism that spoke directly to people"8 -- and the exhibition's unexpected impact: "People really responded to that show. It wasn't meant to be a major show. It was actually a small show in the back room and it sort of got out of hand. Actually, it broke attendance records at the County Museum."9
Not everyone was happy with the exhibition. Artforum's critic Peter Plagens questioned the artists' sincerity and authenticity, suggesting that they deserved little praise since, even if they represented a legitimate aesthetic, these four "had been corrupted" by art schools and other affiliations with the establishment.10 By this reasoning, only uneducated Chicano artists could be trusted to be "real" Chicano artists.
I do very serious paintings about pain and suffering, but they are done with a Latino sensibility, where we laugh at death.
Fortunately for Romero, his association with "Los Four," which continued for several years after their landmark exhibition, had positive consequences for his career in several respects. It brought recognition for his work as well as that of other artists of Mexican-American background, which helped to validate the cross-cultural elements characterizing their styles. "Los Four" also allowed him to participate in the Chicano civil rights struggle. Moreover, Romero's street-art activities with the group taught him how to reconcile issues of content and style, bringing him into the mature phase of his art. "There was a tremendous period of growth," he said, "I learned . . . how to be a professional artist."11
Despite the star status Romero enjoyed after the exhibition, he claims he didn't sell a work of art for many years. Continuing to support himself as a designer until the mid-1980s (working much of the time for Charles Eames), he produced a prodigious number of paintings, employing his distinctive vocabulary of images evoking the urban environment of Los Angeles, the open spaces of the Southwest, and the simplicity and warmth of Mexican folk art.
The incident depicted in The Death of Ruben Salazar represents one of the bitterest events in the history of the Chicano struggle.
By 1983 Romero's professional stature was such that the organizing committee for the Olympics selected him to paint a large mural celebrating the 1984 games in Los Angeles. Romero's whimsical composition of fantasy cars in rainbow colors, set off by fanciful hearts and cartoon palms, transports viewers to the L.A. of their dreams. Even when Romero's works deal with unhappy subjects like death, they are exuberant and irresistible. About such works he says, "I do very serious paintings about pain and suffering, but they are done with a Latino sensibility, where we laugh at death."12
Some of Romero's most serious paintings were to come soon after the Olympics project. Following the years of "Los Four," Romero stayed away from overtly political subjects, but his three major paintings in this genre, dedicated to a series of violent confrontations between the police and members of the East Los Angeles Chicano community in 1970, are among his masterpieces: The Closing of Whittier Boulevard, The Death of Ruben Salazar, and The Arrest of the Paleteros [ice cream vendors].
The Chicano rights movement, fueled by the Vietnam antiwar protests, reached its height in the early 1970s. Demonstrations in East Los Angeles often brought police officers sent by the county sheriff as well as the local Los Angeles police.
Romero's passionate rendering of [The Death of Ruben Salazar] communicates the horror associated with what in essence was a political crime.
The incident depicted in The Death of Ruben Salazar represents one of the bitterest events in the history of the Chicano struggle. On August 29, 1970, thousands of demonstrators participated in a Vietnam War moratorium march through East Los Angeles that ended with the group gathered for a program in Laguna Park.
He continues to do projects that have social relevance and contribute to the community in a concrete way.
Later in the afternoon, after the crowds had thinned and the arrested demonstrators had been bused away, Salazar, an investigative reporter for KMEX-TV, the Spanish-language station, joined some journalist friends for a beer in the nearby Silver Dollar Bar. A historian recounted the chilling sequence of events: "Soon afterward deputies surrounded the bar allegedly looking for a man with a rifle. When some occupants . . . attempted to leave, police forced them back. . . . Police claimed that they then broadcast warnings for all occupants to come out; witnesses testified that they heard no warning. . . . [The police] shot a 10-inch tear-gas projectile into the bar. . . . It struck Salazar in the head."15 Salazar's unfavorable coverage of the police had brought threats on many occasions. His death and the subsequent exoneration of the policemen involved proved to many that the Chicano quest for justice was still a long way from resolution.
Romero's passionate rendering of the event communicates the horror associated with what in essence was a political crime. A formal tour de force, the work's visual impact combined with its explosive content puts us in the middle of this human-rights drama.
Romero has chosen to dwell more on the joys and pleasures of life than on its disasters.
Romero's expertise as a painter of socially conscious themes is evident here. But he is an artist with a rich repertoire of symbols and subjects. An accomplished printmaker, photographer, sculptor, and ceramicist, he has developed his vision in many different media as well. In addition, he continues to do projects that have social relevance and contribute to the community in a concrete way. He has worked with high school students and inner-city disadvantaged youth to create public murals; he also has supported and contributed art to a Los Angeles organization providing legal help to victims of police misconduct. Above all, Romero has chosen to dwell more on the joys and pleasures of life than on its disasters. His enchanting ceramic landscape ensemble, Pingolandia, neon sculptures, and vibrant paintings are the creations of an artist determined to demonstrate our triumphs as well as our tragedies.
Jacquelyn Days Serwer
2. Ibid. The artist added more detail to the quotation in comments to the author, 18 December 1995.
3. The University of California, Irvine, and the Oakland Museum were the other two museums hosting the show.
4. Romero, quoted in Marva Marrow, Inside the L.A. Artist (Los Angeles: Peregrine Smith Books, 1988).
5. See Steven Durland and Linda Burnham, "Art with a Chicano Accent: An Interview with Denise Lugo-Saavedra on the history of Chicano art in Los Angeles," High Performance, no. 35 (1986): 41-44, 50.
6. Romero, quoted in Durland, "Art with a Chicano Accent," 43.
7. Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation, 1965-1985 (Los Angeles: Wight Art Gallery, University of California, 1991), 356.
8. Romero, quoted in Todd Gold, "Painting the Streets of L.A.," Southwest Profile (November- January 1992-93): 1.
9. Collette Chattopadhyay, "A Conversation with Frank Romero," Artweek, 3 September 1992, 23.
10. See Peter Plagens, "Review: 'Los Four,'" Artforum (September 1974): 87-88.
11. Romero, quoted in Gold, "Painting the Streets of L.A.," 17.
12. Romero, quoted in Lisa McKinnon, "At a Museum Near You! Carnegie Survey of Frank Romero work is cause for exclamation," Star-Free Press, 11 September 1992, 3.
13. Chattopadhyay, "A Conversation with Frank Romero," 23.
14. Rodolfo Acuna, Occupied America: A History of Chicanos (Northridge: California State University, 1989), 347.
15. Ibid., 348. For a full discussion of the incident and its aftermath, see the following articles from the New York Times: Robert A. Wright, "East Los Angeles Calm After Riot," 31 August 1970, 32; and "U.S. Inquiry Urged For A Riot Victim," 1 September 1970, 23.