By: Tommy Vinh Bui
I’ve always found myself inexorably pulled and piqued by significant moments in LA history wherein public art is stifled and notions of free speech are threatened. Call it a predisposition toward the prohibited. So with alarming regularity do I find myself in public libraries steeped and surrounded by dusty books on the subject. Or flexing strained eyes at blurry microfilm poring over details buried in time. The annual appointment with my optometrist to add another millimeter to my lenses is a fair trade-off in my estimation.
Which brings me to the topic of today’s article. A library-fueled regaling of a nearly vanquished iconic Los Angeles mural and the topsy-turvy tale of its fruition. Renown Mexican artist David Alfaros Siqueiros found himself expelled in 1932 wherein he sojourned to Los Angeles briefly as a political refugee. During this time period he rendered his ground-breaking eighty-by-eighteen feet mural América Tropical: Oprimida y Destrozada por los Imperialismos. The message of the mural was straightforward and without compromise. It was meant to be received as a provocative and powerful political message and indictment of United States imperialism and the historical injustices inflicted upon Latin America. The mural was a candid interpretation of the social and political tensions that were brewing during the period. An unapologetic response to the persecution of several marginalized populations within the United States during this era. It was a trenchant and tireless work of artistic expression that acutely advocated for the oppressed.
The fresco is unflinching in execution. Rankling in its resolve. Siqueiros worked under the cover of night and with the aid of twenty other artists to fully realize the artwork. The mural depicts an indigenous figure in the throes of anguish as he is crucified on a cross adorned with an American eagle. A Mayan pyramid serves as the backdrop with armed revolutionaries at-attention as sentinels on the wall. Able and ready to defend their lands. Symbols of pre-Columbian architecture and ancient indigenous societies are also portrayed in smoldering ruins and tragic desolation. The location of the mural is also significant. The Plaza at El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument at the time was regarded and reputed as a site of radical political free-speech and epicenter for civic demonstrations and Chicano movements.
The reception to the mural initially was one of both outcry and adulation. But mostly the excoriation and umbrage overwhelmed the accolades. Consequently the mural was deemed incongruent with the locale and out of place politically and city officials sanctioned the swift censorship and whitewashing of the controversial artwork. And there it lay dormant for years until the late 1960s when the veneer began to deteriorate and peel. The mural was rediscovered and restoration began in the 1970s in a partnership between the Getty Conservation Institute and the City of Los Angeles along with a cadre of committed historians and civic leaders. Efforts were mustered to preserve, protect and revivify the emblematic mural. It finally reopened to new and eager public eyeballs in 2012 to much fanfare and newfound appreciation eighty years after its originally unveiling.
Today the Siqueiros’ artwork has the distinction of being the oldest existing mural in Los Angeles. The artwork was restored to its full luster and now has a protective canopy covering and a viewing platform to encourage public observation. In addition, there’s also an Interpretive Center dedicated to Siqueiros’ significant and lasting influence on the Los Angeles Chicano Muralist Movement. It’s heartening to see a mural rejuvenated and renewed and an incisive invitation to new generations to engage in lively discussions concerning censorship, tolerance, and other themes of social justice.
The plumes of dust circulate within my deflated lungs as I re-emerge from the library basement. Eyes bleary and tanned from hours of uninterrupted microfiche screen gazing. I head yonder to Olvera Street to have a gawk and gander at the mural.
And let the artwork breath new life into my parched retinas.
Tommy Vinh Bui is a paragraph-peddler hailing from the bonnie barrios of Pacoima. He has an assortment of lugubrious-sounding degrees and was a Peace Corps volunteer in a dusty and distant land long ago. Tommy has an unswerving interest in intellectual freedom and his fingertips and keyboard reflect this. He may have impulse control problems.