Our America: The Legacy of a King

Media - 2013.15 - SAAM-2013.15_1 - 79450
Marcos Dimas, Pariah, 1971-1972, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment, 2013.15, © 1971-1972, Marcos Dimas
SAAM Staff
Blog Editor
January 24, 2014

Curator E. Carmen Ramos discusses the legacy of Martin Luther King on contemporary Latino artists in our exhibition Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art now showing at the American Art Museum.

On Monday I reminded my kids that Martin Luther King Jr. Day is one of the most meaningful national holidays that we observe in the United States. Dr. King led a movement that urged our country to live up to one of its most fundamental ideals—that all people are created equal. Often referred to as a day of service, MLK Day should also be a time of reflection on the impact of the civil rights movement for all Americans.

The civil rights era is resonant in many works featured in Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art, which remains on view until March 2, 2014. Several artists in the exhibition came of age during the 1960s and 1970s when the movement thrived and had ripple effects in communities across the United States. Not only did activists and organizers like César Chávez, Dolores Huerta, and Antonia Pantoja build on Dr. King's legacy and demand Latino equal rights in the arenas of labor and education, some Latino artists created works and organizations that challenged traditional racial hierarchies that undergirded American society.

Many artists found ways to marry their art and activism. Artists Ester Hernandez, Xavier Viramontes, Amado Peña, and members of the Royal Chicano Art Force, created posters used in marches and beyond that supported the activities of the United Farmworkers (UFW). A young Emanuel Martinez built the altar where César Chávez broke the twenty-five-day fast he undertook to protest unfair employment practices and unsuitable work conditions for migrant laborers.

Rupert Garcia and Malaquias Montoya also created posters in support of the UFW during their student years. Garcia and Montoya continued their activism through the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF), a student group that demanded ethnic studies across college campuses in California. Their works on view in Our America come from a later period in their careers, but still convey their on-going commitment to international human rights and domestic immigration reform. Montoya, in fact, created the screen-print Me Hechan de Monjado in 1983 as debates around the U.S. Immigration Reform and Control Act intensified.

For Latino artists of Caribbean descent, the demand for racial equality and later Black pride was especially relevant to aspects of Latino history and culture. Artists Marcos Dimas and Jorge Soto Sánchez became cultural leaders of a Puerto Rican civil rights movement that pioneered in the exploration of African diasporic dimensions of Puerto Rican culture. Their works suggest that Afro-Puerto Rican subjects were both worthy of representation and investigation. Dimas' Pariah recasts a dejected member of society in his respectful portrait of a black person. Soto Sánchez created many works informed by his respect for Santeria, an Afro-Caribbean faith. His hand-colored screen-print includes figures that sprout heads from joints and other parts of the body and evoke ritualized spirit possession central to the practice of Santeria in which a deity "mounts" or "rides" a devotee.

These are just a handful works that reveal the links between the civil rights movement and Latino artists working since the 1960s. Visit Our America and to see more connections in works by Juan Sánchez, Oscar Castillo, Frank Romero, Freddy Rodriguez and Franco Mondini-Ruiz and others.


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