Robert C. Buitrón


The history and myth of the American frontier, and American and Mexican pop culture inform my work of the past eleven years. Family and my family’s lost indigenous heritage (Apache and Purepecha) fuel my attempts of reconciling the systematic and institutional erasure of these heritages in Mexican society with the systematic and institutional assimilation of American society. Of the many questions I raise, or yet to raise, the two most prominent are how has this erasure and assimilation affected and influenced the general Mexican population, and how has erasure and assimilation affected my family, its self-definition, and my self-definition.

Since 1989 I have used humor in my work to address cultural and political issues. As I developed the artwork, I did not have the intention of making visually beautiful and contemplative, collectible work found in many museums and galleries. I sought a wider audience outside of those walls, an audience that has a different understanding and perception of beauty and contemplation. In retrospect I ask myself I could have created humorous and beautiful images, and whether I want to do that now. Will beauty subvert or divert the viewer from the issue? I don’t know. If the work from the past ten years had been sublime would it have had the same affect? Dwelling on humor and its practice in the visual arts displaces my primary concern – activating an analytical process that begins with laughter or the preposterous. In this and past work I hope that my sense of humor – and observation – will engage viewers into this process while facilitating a dialogue.

Robert C. Buitron

Statement, September 2000

When I had made arrangements with the performers of Popo In Therapy I had not anticipated that I could have used some therapy myself as I was preparing the photographic equipment for the scene. The night before I had successfully photographed the famous Mexican singer, Lola Beltran, after one of her performances, with Ixta. Her agent permitted me one shot, and I managed to get a second one with Lola’s cooperation due to my fumbling the first shot. I walked out of backstage elated. In my camera I had the image of Lola Beltran with Ixta.

As I prepared for Popo In Therapy I had not carefully checked my camera for film. I opened my camera back to load new film and quickly noticed that the camera still had film inside it. I quickly closed the camera back and winced first, then cried. I couldn’t believe that I had exposed the roll of film that contained only two frames of Lola Beltran and Ixta. All the effort I had applied to entering backstage and acquiring permission disappeared in two seconds. My carelessness stunned me.

Fortunately my friend, Kevin Flynn, who plays the shrink, provided therapy of a sort by slipping into his actual profession of counselor, and telling me he doesn’t have much time to help. “Besides,” he continued, “you may have damaged only one frame since you were quick in closing the camera back.” I conceded to his optimist outlook and quietly prayed to the cosmic and photography spirits that they spare me further suffering.

Of course Popo (played by artist Ramon Delgadillo) sympathized but he agreed with the shrink.

Dreams have a significant role in my life, and this role derives from family custom, the discussion and interpretations of dreams on a regular basis. When I began the series “The Legend of Ixtaccihuatl y Popocatepetl” I created another myth, another story surrounding the series. I haven’t found any evidence to prove this myth, however on the other hand I haven’t found any to disprove it. For some reason I recall waking suddenly after dreaming many of the images I staged for the series, and getting out of bed to write the titles and descriptions of the staged images I had dreamed. I do have that list in my journal but no indications that they came from a dream.

As I worked on the series I considered many questions based on my experiences and observations. What kind of reaction would Indians have to visiting a shrink? What would impel an Indian to schedule and appointment, and to actually sit and talk about one’s troubles or dreams. I imagined the conflicts an Indian, a mestizo, a Mexican (and for that matter any person who lives outside EuroAmerican traditions) might have entering and immersing into the American society, a new community with different customs, beliefs, and standards. In my narrative Ixta y Popo came from a world and a time that did not have computers, global positioning satellites, and television.

Popo In Therapy refers to the complexities and challenges of life, such as culture clash, changes, conflicting standards of behavior, adjustment, and negotiating a path that provides a way to reconcile old perspectives with new perspectives. The image contains objects that suggest conflicts: the self-help books in the foreground to the calendar on the wall in the background; Popo in shirt and tie along with headdress and ceremonial instrument (and he even has a hole in the sole of his shoe); and a shrink in a stereotypical pose to Popo’s suppressed angst. And that, the parody and humor, provides sufficient release to laugh at oneself in a reflective manner and move forward…

As a postscript, Lola did manage to survive on one frame.

Continuing my interest in popular culture and humor, I moved from Mexican popular culture to American popular culture with the series “El corrido de Happy Trails” (starring Pancho y Tonto). This series uses the sidekick characters from the television series of the Cisco Kid and The Lone Ranger. The series title also plays with language to refer to the histories behind corridos and “Western” ballads. Can you imagine Roy and Dale doing a corrido duet a la Happy Trails style?

Since the Mexican has been in present United States territory for 152 years, I asked why U.S. history books did not contain any passages highlighting contributions Mexicans had made to the development and advancement of the country. Were Mexicans only bandits and laborers? Where was my family in the making of the frontier?

However I did not limit my questions to the history of the American West and its blatant omissions. I turned the camera to look at the Chicano and Mexican community and its history (just a s I had in the series “The Legend of Ixtaccihuatl y Popocatepetl”). The image, Pancho Asks Tonto if He’s mas indio que espanol, comments on a specific modismo and a discredited scientific practice, phrenology.

To this day, whether in my extended family or the Chicano/Mexican public, I hear the phrase “…mas indio que espanol” to explain physical characteristics attributed to Indian peoples, or to explain idiosyncratic behavior, behavior or action that does not derive from reason, in other words savage-like as an Indian. I heard my abuelita make that remark to my abuelito numerous times. She’d turn to me afterwards and say something such as “es porque tu abuelo es Apache, Mescalero, muy terco.” The insult had double power from my perspective, since my abuelito was Apache Mescalero, a mestizo. Of course the exchange of words between the two suggested a couple’s quarrel, but the context was more complicated than a petty disagreement.

The notions and practice of racism, prejudice, and discrimination within the Chicano and Mexican community revealed contradictions and hypocrisy. How could a group claim discriminatory treatment in the U.S. when they practiced it themselves, a custom developed over 508 years? For me this also raised questions about the relations and perceptions “American” Indians have towards Mexicans and vice versa. Do “American” Indian peoples accept Mexicans as having an indigenous heritage; and why do some Mexicans in the U.S. capitalize on an indigenous heritage spiced up with New Age tendencies, “American” Indian mannerisms, and tourist-style faćade when back in Mexico they may have avoided anything blatantly indigéna?

In the Cisco Kid television series, Cisco gently ridiculed Pancho for his odd behavior or way of thinking, and then they would burst out laughing about Pancho’s silly notions. Of course Pancho’s silly notions sometimes rescued Cisco. The origin of the Lone Ranger repeats a historical pattern in U.S. history – the Indian saves the Anglo’s ass. But I always asked what Indian would have a name such as Tonto. Hollywood depicted Pancho as a sometime dumb, fat greaser (though paired with a charming and skillful caballero) and Tonto as a quiet, strong Indian who acted dumb but wasn’t.

So what happens when the subordinates, the sidekicks, hit the trail together without their jefes? The series presents one outcome that suggests economics dictates as one force in a complex snapshot of surviving with integrity intact.