To focus on the transformation of cultural attributes, I would like to paraphrase a statement from a catalogue, The World of María Enríquez de Allen, written about my mother's work by Harold Allen (my stepfather) for the art exhibition held in 1981 at the Fondo Del Sol Visual Art & Media Center in Washington D.C. Harold Allen describes the art of María Enríquez de Allen as being "an appealingly odd and new hybrid amalgam of exotic and passe attitudes and skills which is neither pure Mexican nor all-American, but something between." I want to use this as a point of departure to present revealing qualities about the transfiguration of artistic expression after the transplantation of culture occurs, where one has to reorientate oneself within a new and foreign culture, as in my mother's case, and mine too!
Beyond the initial cultural shock, there is a psychocultural metamorphosis that develops as one is absorbed in the acculturation process by the three A's of adaptation, assimilation, and appropriation. There are many levels of acculturation dependant on one's age when one first enters a new culture, and one's own willingness to change (to acquire a new cultural identity), or if one is a child, the parents play a decisive factor in determining how much of the native culture the child retains. Of course the environment and peer pressure also play an important role here. Besides the fact that it is harder for adults to adjust, in my mother's case, she was so proud of her Mexican heritage that she refused to hardly give up any of her cultural identity, so her acculturation level was, I feel, below 20%. Nevertheless she was able to change her nationality and work within the system in spite of the fact that she hardly spoke English.
In my case, I was introduced to my new culture at the age of ten, so my level of acculturation is considerably higher than my mother's. I feel that it is above 70%, and it could have been higher but I chose not to give in totally. I even tried to bring it down to around 30% or lower when I spent several years performing with mariachis in East LA. Why would I want to do such a thing? The reason for this is too lengthy to include here but it has to do with cultural recapitulation in order to come in contact with major portions of my personal identity so that I could reclaim part of my past.
This brings us back to Harold Allen's comment on mother's art not being "pure Mexican nor all American." Now, does this make it Chicano? I think so because it is an interfusion of two different cultural perspectives, the Mexican and the American. This is precisely what makes it Chicano, the fact that it has influences from both sides. Since the two cultures are dissolving into one another they cannot be 100% pure. For an artist to live within a foreign country for more than thirty years, it becomes almost impossible to maintain unmixed the essence of his/her original cultural identifiers. Then again what is pure? It is true that some form of cultural purity can be found within some aboriginal peoples of the Americas. But in terms of our contemporary culture, factors tied in to the passage of time, make certain that it keeps itself in a constant state of evolutionary flux; especially now that the World Wide Web will provide inventive societal patterns, different customs, and aesthetic influences which will blend with each other to create new cultural changes.
It is no different in our case where we have the convergence of these two traditions being incorporated into one's art, producing new cultural traits which we call Chicano, not Mexican, not American, but Mexican-American. But this last classification creates a problem because it is like saying American-American or Mexican-Mexican. In other words it is reduplication. Why is it redundant? Because Mexicans born in Mexico, are North Americans, simply by the fact that they are born in an American land, the continent of North America, just like Canadians are also North Americans. Many people seem to think that North America stops at the southern US border and that Mexico is Central America, but they just do not know their geography or have never looked at a world Atlas. So does that mean that Chicano(a) Art is more American than American Art because it is twice so? That is an intriguing question.
Then the other aspect of Chicano(a) culture remains, this being tied to the fact that we are a "conquered" people; Mexico lost Texas and all of the Southwest to the United States. But in spite of this, we have not lost our identity because we have ancient ties to these American lands. In Mexico this bond to the land and its ancient traditions is so strong that in some parts (such as in Jalisco), fair skin and blue-eyed people proudly say that they are "Indios." Obviously the Spanish conquest failed to conquer the ancient Mexican spirit. We have always been here, our people's history dates back for thousands and thousands of years while Europeans arrived here just a few centuries ago.
In today's world, the information age, it becomes almost impossible to understand the ignorance (which turns to arrogance) of some people when they express their belief that the reason why Columbus is said to have discovered America was that these were virgen lands, that nobody was here until the Europeans "found" this place. Just today someone expressed this to me! Yes, it is incredible that in the 21st century this is the mind-set of many "educated" Americans. Others recognize that, true, there were people here, and then they will add "but they were discovered." This becomes an insult to native Americans when our nation's educational system teaches everyone that these lands, which belonged to great indigenous nations, were "discovered" as if our people were not human enough to have the privilege of consciously recognizing their very own existence.
Unequivocally, there have been several magnificent civilizations in the Americas; The Olmec, Mayan, Incan, and Aztec, just to name a few of the great ones. That is why for us Columbus did not "discover" anything, he just happened to accidentally stumble upon this continent in his search for India, and that's why he committed the error of calling the people in these lands, "Indios." So it is not a "discovery," it simply is a coincidental arrival.
But to get back on track, for those Chicanos(as) whose ancestors had been here (north of the Rio Grande) before their lands were taken over, their culture was never "transplanted," so how does the acculturation process apply to them? Because of the long exposure to the American culture throughout the generations, it just seems logical to think that everyone (and many did) would have assimilated the new American culture 100%, but not so, as we have a Tex-Mex culture and other singular cultures in New Mexico and other states, particularly in the Southwest. The Mexican culture has persisted—it is hard to erase a deep rooted heritage that goes back to ancient times.
As it seems to be the case with all conquests, the conquerors also end up adopting part of the conquered people's culture especially if they are strangers to the land and their culture is young. For example, the "all-American cowboy" culture is an anthropological ditto of the Mexican vaquero or ranchero culture which existed in the West long before the American colonists went there. Mexican cuisine (tacos, burritos, etc.) has become part of the "all-American" diet. In New Mexico, Mexican corrido music is very popular with everyone there. It is a blessing that this is happening because the mainstream had neglected our culture for so long.
When I first curated a Latino Art exhibition in 1976 I was accused of being a racist. They did not understand that Latino(a) Art was not being shown much and that we had a need to share our creative experience. Imagine if somebody now accused Arizona State University of being racist for publishing a book on contemporary Chicano(a) Art! I would like to think that we live in different times and that the passing of a quarter of a century has produced many positive changes. Yet it is still difficult to find social and artistic references to our culture within the mainstream media but little by little we are gaining ground as more and more people realize that everyone wins from sharing the creative spirit—we learn about accepting diversity in America and gain tolerance, respect, and admiration for others.
As more aspects of the Mexican culture get assimilated into the American culture (such as the incorporation of Day of the Dead exhibits into the mainstream and the celebration of children's birthday parties with piñatas), perhaps the day will come when Chicano(a) Art will gain the national recognition it deserves because it is and has always been American-American. This book, Contemporary Chicana and Chicano Art: Artists, Works, Culture, and Education will certainly help pave the way towards that day.