KCET: LA/LA Place + Practice

Local Sitings of Latin America



Misael Diaz


What do we mean when we speak of Latin America?

It’s a question that will be at the center of local and international conversations catalyzed by the Getty’s next Pacific Standard Time initiative LA/LA, which will reflect on the social and cultural relationships between Los Angeles and Latin America through a series of research initiatives, exhibitions and publications in collaboration with cultural institutions throughout Southern California culminating in 2017.

The recent LA/LA Place + Practice symposium held at the San Diego Museum of Art and at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles brought together Tijuana and Los Angeles activists, artists, curators, and scholars to share their work and reflect on the ways community-based responses to local social, political and economic terrains in the border region and to enrich discourses on diaspora, migration and history in relation to Latin America.

Organized by Bill Kelley Jr., Ken Gonzales Day and Pilar Tompkins Rivas, with support from Scripps College, the Getty Foundation, the Getty Research Institute, and the San Diego Museum of Art, these discourses underpin many of the PST research initiatives underway and that will feature prominently in exhibitions that will be part of the LA/LA initiative.

LA/LA Place + Practice grew out of a series of conversations between local artists, curators and scholars in Los Angeles, including Kelley, Day and Rivas, who recognized that the lack of institutional and academic interest in the field of Latin American art history in Los Angeles prior to this moment, meant that this vast cultural terrain was still relatively uncharted for many institutions participating in LA/LA.

The ideological and geographic idea of Latin America is a bit nebulous too.

Terra incognita — unknown lands, was what cartographer Martin Waldseemüler labeled the newly charted super continent to the West of Europe and Africa in his 1513 reworking of the Ptolemy Atlas.

This was not the first time the land mass was included on a world map, and this was also not the first label given to the territory.

Previously in 1507, shortly after the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci’s voyages to present-day Brazil demonstrated that the land was not contiguous to South Eastern Asia, but in fact part of a distinct continent, Waldseemüler published a world map, Universalis Cosmographia, where he called the territory “America.”

The map was part of a larger book “Cosmographie Introductio,” authored by Matthias Ringmann who wrote: “Inasmuch as both Europe and Asia received their names from women, I see no reason why anyone should justly object to calling this part Amerige, i.e., the land of Amerigo, or America, after Amerigo, its discoverer, a man of great ability.”

Waldseemüler objected to the name enough to erase it less than a decade later, opting for the label Terra Incognita as an acknowledgment that much of the territory was still unknown.

By that time however, the name America, the feminine version of the name Amerigo in Latin, had become popular, and only two decades later, it had become the widely accepted name used by cartographers to refer to not just the southern portion of the continent, but its northern counterpart as well.

But today, where does Latin America begin, where does it end?

Does it perhaps begin or end with Tijuana?

After all, Tijuana is the northernmost city in Mexico — a fact not lost on the city given that its motto is “aqui empieza la patria” (“this is where the homeland begins”), indicating its awareness of its geopolitical position as a gateway not just to Mexico, but to Latin America.

Or does Latin America perhaps begin/end with Los Angeles?

In addition to a historical connection to Latin America — the city was claimed and founded as part of New Spain, before becoming and remaining part of Mexico until 1848 — Los Angeles is arguably the most representative cultural gateway to Latin America today, thanks to diasporic communities from Mexico, Central America and South America that are living, working and creating in the city while still maintaining social, cultural and economic ties to their home countries.

According to the 2013 census, Latinos comprise 48.3 percent of the entire population of Los Angeles — problems with the census notwithstanding — an estimate that one in every two people in the city have a personal connection to Latin America, speaks volumes about the strength and significance of the LA/LA connection.

In this sense, Latin America is not only over there, but it is here too — it is a symbolic (social and cultural) landscape as much as it is a physical territory, it is historical and contemporaneous, sited and dislocated, fixed and in-flux. “Es aqui y alla, a la vez” — it is here and there at the same time — and as a result, it can be argued that Latin America is not just a physical place where one lives, but symbolic terrains that one enacts as one lives: practices born from/through the land that ultimately transcend spatial boundaries, connecting people and places.

The organizers of LA/LA chose to begin a conversation locally, “so that we can begin talking about Latin America here, before we talk about Latin America over there,” as Kelley explains. Additionally, recognizing that the structure of PST meant that the conversation would be happening largely across and between institutions, the symposium was designed to allow cultural practitioners without major institutional visibility (whether by choice or otherwise) to participate in the conversation.

LA/LA Place + Practice organizers Bill Kelley Jr. and Ken Gonzales-Day welcome and opening remarks. LA/LA Place + Practice May 2, 2014. San Diego Museum of Art. | Photo by Bauman Photographers.

What will it mean to implicate and include the communities — or at the very least, artists and cultural/social practitioners working with/in Latino communities — that will be represented by these institutions in a conversation at these relatively early stages of planning exhibitions garnering international visibility?

It is hard to predict what reverberations LA/LA Place + Practice will have, but a conversation was effectively initiated — the symposium was the second most-attended conference in the history of the Getty, indicating a strong beginning to what should be the start of an ongoing dialogue between communities and institutions.

After all, an important aspect of the conference was engaging a richly heterogeneous terrain of practices attempting to address complex issues with/in Latino communities, practices which highlight the fact that even locally, there is an immense amount of diversity that transcend and/or actively defy categorization, problematizing the umbrella descriptors “Latin America” and/or “Latina/o,” revealing in the process affinities and frictions across/between communities and practices.

These points of contact, these affinities and frictions, percolated throughout the conference, identifying terra incognita, discursive sites in need of continued interrogation and conversation.

These are a few points and questions that I have been returning to in the time since the conference:

What’s in a name?

The conference began in San Diego by calling attention to the act of Naming, with a panel focusing on Latino representations and identity. Writer Sharon Mizota spoke to the duality of naming as an act that is both empowering, but also constraining, sharing examples like the work of Daniel J. Martinez that open avenues for thinking and speaking about race in ways that avoid the pitfalls of stereotyping.

On the same panel Luis C. Garza, presented his work with the iconic La Raza magazine photo archive, a testament to the power of self-representation as a decolonial strategy. In his presentation, Garza stressed the importance of self-naming and self-documentation, speaking to the interplay between Xicano (Chicano) identity, the political movement that coalesced around this identity, and photographers that emerged to document the lived reality and struggle of Chicano communities in resistance.

Garza’s presentation was echoed during the closing of the conference by East LA’s Las Cafeteras, who spoke about their practice of radical storytelling through song as a way of narrating counter-histories, citing as inspiration the African proverb that states that “until the lion has its own storyteller, history will always glorify the hunter.”

La Raza, Vol. 1 No. 1 Cover, Aug. 1970.
La Raza, Vol. 1 No. 1 Cover, Aug. 1970.

To return to a proposition made by Mizota, I wonder if the relationship between these histories and stories are becoming more intimately connected to sites and places of the everyday, and less so to symbolic territories and imagined communities? In other words, is identity today delineated less by fixed conceptual/ideological political parameters following the rubric of nationalism, and constructed more as a fluid process of cohabitation?

Locally, one might point to the fact that in the TJ/LA region we find several dominant discourses of identity in relation to place: Chicanismo drawing from a connection to Aztlán as an indigenous homeland, and Transfronteridad [Transborderism] drawing from the cross-border experience that defines life along the border, coexist with more traditional conceptions of identity derived from the city/nation state one was born in and/or where one’s parents were born (Angeleno/U.S. American, Tijuanense/Mexicano, Mexican-American, etc.). How are these collective models for identity shaped, negotiated, problematized or complimented when they are thought as part of the Latin American diaspora, in relation to phantom territories? How is collective identity constructed by immigrant communities in TJ/LA, in relation to these discourses and to other diasporic communities that are uprooted, dislocated, nomadic, and/or in-flux?

Archive = noun + verb (place + practice)

The archive was a recurring focal point throughout the conference, a space identified as ripe for reclamation, a space from which to narrate collective histories in opposition to dominant narratives.

Ken Gonzales-Day presented his project of mining of the archives of European and U.S. museums in search of sculptural depictions of indigenous peoples of the Americas. Upon finding such pieces, Gonzales-Day photographs these to create a collective archive of historical narratives relating to racial imaginaries and quasi-scientific discourses linked to racism and ethnic discrimination — discourses that are literally kept underground, tucked away in the basements of cultural institutions, away from public view and thus public scrutiny.

Caribbean Fragoza and Romeo Guzman presenting their work as South El Monte Arts Posse. LA/LA Place + Practice May 2, 2014. San Diego Museum of Art. | Photo by Bauman Photographers.
Caribbean Fragoza and Romeo Guzman presenting their work as South El Monte Arts Posse. LA/LA Place + Practice May 2, 2014. San Diego Museum of Art. | Photo by Bauman Photographers.

KCET contributors Carribean Fragoza and Romeo Guzman, of the South El Monte Arts Posse, and Mónica Meyer, of the “Pinto mi Raya” newspaper archive in Mexico City, also presented alternative archives — relating to the working class immigrant communities of South El Monte and the binational cultural initiative InSite respectively, which attempt to preserve and narrate alternative histories of places and practices often overlooked and/or misunderstood.

In these and other presentations, the archive emerged as a site of historical contestation that can be opened to analysis through creative processes of translation and recontextualization. And, as practice, the archive emerged as a modality through which emergent histories pertaining to Latino communities can be preserved and narrated.

Given this proposition, is the Archive to be thought of as public space? Are processes of translation, interpretation and narration moving towards being made public, collective? How can these be open to negotiation? Can communities become co-producers, participants, and/or stewards of archives? How would popular archives shift the conversation relating to memory, history, documentation and interpretation in relationship to Latin America locally, and abroad?

Radicalizing the local

Estudio Teddy Cruz, Street Views of Existing Land Use, from Casa Familiar: Living Rooms at the Border and Senior Housing with Childcare, 2001-present.
Estudio Teddy Cruz, Street Views of Existing Land Use, from Casa Familiar: Living Rooms at the Border and Senior Housing with Childcare, 2001-present.
Patricia Valencia and Aida Salazar presenting on the history of Regeneración a dynamic community hub for social, cultural and political engagement in Highland Park in the 1990s. LA/LA Place + Practice May 2, 2014. San Diego Museum of Art. | Photo by Bauman Photographers.

In his presentation, Teddy Cruz argued for the radicalizing of the local, proposing immigrant neighborhoods as incubators for rethinking civic agency and urban design. By bringing community leaders to the bargaining table alongside political and economic institutions, Cruz seeks to creatively imagine urban design as a way of amplifying the creativity of immigrant neighborhoods like those in San Ysidro, CA.

Artbound contributor, Marco Vera, of Mexicali Rose, and Patricia Valencia and Aida Salazar from Centro Regeneración, presented alternative visions of cultural and political community hubs that exist and perhaps even draw their sense of place and practice from being outside of institutions: hubs that function as gathering places and cultural centers in/through which community members can come together to forge solidarity through cultural production and political activism.

Whether it be in the construction of political and social relationships that can translate into physical infrastructure as in the practice of Cruz, or in the construction of social/relational networks established through culture to form non-hierarchical scaffolds that allow collective concerns, energy and creativity to translate into political action, these practices look to radicalize the local and create platforms for engagement that exist and respond to the scale of the neighborhood, situating these as entry points for understanding and deconstructing larger systemic political and economic issues that have repercussions locally, regionally and globally.

How can this critical position be negotiated effectively when engaging with institutional frameworks? How does one maintain a productive autonomy from the systems that we must critique not only from without, but at times from within? When must autonomy be absolute, and when/how does it become a specter, a fantasy of independence that obscures a reality of isolation, or of an absorption that depoliticizes the local?

Intimacy Between Labor + Migration

 Cayetano Juarez of Cocina Abierta Collective, Cocina Abierta Collective: Help Wanted, 2014.
Cayetano Juarez of Cocina Abierta Collective, Cocina Abierta Collective: Help Wanted, 2014.

One final point of departure that I have been returning to since the conference, relates to the various practices that are born through and call attention to intimate, familial relationships between migration and labor. Artists are speaking to collective experiences of migration from first-hand, personal perspectives that tease out the intimate triangulation between migration, place, and labor as a collaborative act of production.

Rafa Esparza has been collaborating with his family to construct mud brick structures drawing from his father’s knowledge of this labor. Christina Sanchez, from the Cocina Abierta collective, began working to bring attention to wage theft in the back-of-the-house restaurant industry — and provide new discursive platforms for engaging with workers and consumers to consider ethical dining — in large part as a result of her husband and collaborator Cayetano Juarez’s experience as a back-of-the-house-worker in Los Angeles. Carmen Argote‘s minimal and geometric reflections on home grew out of her binational upbringing and her father’s trade as an architect. Adriana Trujillo and Jose Inerzia’s (POLEN‘S) experimental documentaries incorporate footage from their personal family archives to speak about the many ways and reasons bodies travel into/out of/around Tijuana.

POLEN Audiovisual, still from Skin Destinations, 2012.
POLEN Audiovisual, still from Skin Destinations, 2012.

Ultimately, the conversations that were a part of LA/LA Place + Practice perhaps prove to be most useful not as definitive moments for naming the terra incognita that stretches between Los Angeles/Latin America, but rather as collective echoes of the spirit of these projects: proposing a model for exchanging knowledge based on a willingness to participate in an intimate approximation, an approximation that begins with what is most familiar and extends that familiarity outwards in search of connection.

Operating within this framework, unknown discursive territories that will emerge as part of PST LA/LA, should be understood not as sites in need of definition or resolution, but rather as opportunities for engagement with and approximation to Latin American communities locally, regionally and abroad, opportunities to institute open dialogue and collaborations that can establish a more intimate and familiar understanding of the relationship between Los Angeles and Latin America.

In this way, the terra incognita can become more proximate and familiar even it is not and perhaps cannot be fully understood or comprehended.