Screen Shot 2012-11-29 at 8.38.28 PM(Gary)

A Culture Not Ones’ Own

Written by Gary Gardner

Charles Wilkinson would define white Americans as deriving from lack of culture. I myself am a white American pursuing education in the most cultured city on the planet. Arguably according to Wilkinson my presence here would not contribute to such culture. In semi agreement with Wilkinson's argument I have found myself in the past clinging and extremely comfortable with a culture that is certainly not my own in a woman I dated for three years that defined what was good about my transition from civilian life the United States Army. She herself was kind and her family was so accepting, I felt part of it after a few months taking up the constant invitations to join them for dinner at their home. This family was Mexican, and for some time I felt as much part of this family as I did my own. It led me to wonder what roots this life style and why is it so different from my own. A member from this family would always put their family first. This initiative can sometimes be for worse or better for example, if one of the children wants to go a way to school, away from family, it would appear to me that most Mexican families would not allow such. The child themselves would feel obligated to stay take care of them regardless of the potential outcome from leaving. I found myself curious about why I felt the way I did that about this family, and if I could find an answer in their history and by understanding their history understand a bit more about myself. What better place to look than in San Francisco.

Nestled in the heart of the Fort Mason center located at Marina Boulevard San Francisco is the Mexican Museum. Open since 1975 the museum was founded by Peter Rodriguez. The museum was the realization of Mr. Rodriguez's vision that the institution be created in the United States to exhibit the expression of the Mexican and Mexican-American people. The museum voices the complexity and richness of Latino art throughout the Americas encouraging freedom of thought amongst any Mexican person. 

It has a small reception room/gift shop, followed by two showcase rooms for Mexican as well as Chicano/a art. The exhibit is broken down into five different types of collecting areas: ancient culture, colonial culture, popular art, fine art, and contemporary art. Though not divided accordingly, the two rooms nonetheless have a distinct folk culture of both the ancient and modern works and the other strictly modern. 

As you pass the reception desk, to the right you come across the smaller of the two showcase rooms, though undoubtedly, the more traditional of the two. Immediately overwhelmed by colors , you step inside to grasp a feel of both authentic Mexican culture and art infused in not only the art, but the walls themselves manifested in the bright colors plastered there. The two themes of the room were dedicated to the ancient culture that many Mexicans have come to share in the proud and ruthless Aztec tradition as well as the venerated Jesus Christ and his beloved Mother Mary. Both had nearly equal shares of the room which brings a very common underlying theme in Latino culture, especially in Mexico and the U.S. The religion of the old gods and the religion of the new God is something that has lived together since the days of the conquistador invasion. The pride in the Aztec strength shows in the way the thousands of years old Corn god bowl is displayed. The way the rest of the figurines, some dating back as early as 500BCE, are pushed to the front of the room, as if to remind people of where exactly they come from. This legacy, while not forgotten, is mixed with the divine of the Catholic faith. Mother Mary is no longer a woman with milk white features, but one of benevolent brown ones. The Lady of Guadalupe arises to take her place as one of the most beloved figures in Latino culture, a mixture of the old and the new a symbol of the Mexican people.  The evidence is clearly hung neatly on the walls, the angels surrounding her. A figurine of the Madonna holding her baby Jesus is another symbol ingrained in Latino culture. The idea of youth and motherhood, of nurturing your child is displayed in the divine, but also in the last few paintings in the room. The fantastic show of female painters demonstrates the strength of the Latina female, as well as the self-depiction of the Latina female in society’s view of her. A portrait within a portrait paints a stark reality of what is in the sense that everything constructed about us is ontological.

As you exit the past into the contemporary art portion of the museum, the placard reads that the exhibit is made possible by Don Julio Tequila. Is this a telling example of what represents the Latino culture itself, tequila? It is something to ponder as it might be something that takes away from the authenticity  that is Latino heritage and on-going culture. A placard on the adjacent wall recognizes a far more commendable message than that of Don Julio tequila. The Intro writes…” this traveling exhibition project represents an ongoing institutional commitment to the presentation and acquisition of contemporary art as a vehicle for exploring the rich diversity of the Latino experience within the culture and to the encouragement of dialogue among the broadest possible audiences,” David J. de la Torre who is the Adjunct Curator of Visual Arts. This exhibit is meant to represent the differences in Latino heritage and the expression of the people underneath this banner.

One of the interesting connections of Latinos culture to that of American culture is the use of popular culture in both cultures. There is a tie that links both cultures through both sports and cars(and obvious American pastime). The sports figurine is one of a brown animal with a dodger’s baseball cap. The Dodger’s being a symbol for Mexican American fans everywhere, as there is no where else in the United States that more Latinos come to watch their favorite players play, players that are more Latino than they are American. Another venue of popular culture that is depicted through this room is the car as a material possession, an entry into American society, an object of the status quo. The wheel of a car is embroidered in gold to represent the material value placed in possessions that Latinos value in which to gain acceptance in a new society driven by consumerism and possessing the best things. 

Another interesting Latino connection is with one’s roots as a culture, rather than a spiritual thing. In one of the pieces of art, Viva Paredes represents her struggle to regain her connection with her roots in her work, “ My Pocha Tongues, 2005. Blown Glass filled with Medicinal Herbs.” In the piece, she has several  glass blown tongues hanging on the wall filled with different ceremonial herbs and medical herbs passed down from her grandmother(a healer) to herself. Raised in a Mexican American family, her native language, or tongue, was rooted out, and therefore, her connection with the past was lost. However, with the herbs, she is able to heal her multiple tongues, thereby patching her frustrated relationship with the language of her ancestors and the ancestral meaning passed down from generations. The frustrated relationship, as is a part of many Latino Families, stems from the need to assimilate to the main culture, thereby leaving the old culture to rot and be completely forgotten. 

Winding down to the back of the exhibit, we see again, the emergence of the female as a strong character in the Latino culture. In contemporary art it makes much more sense. After the drafting of NAFTA, the woman in not just Mexican culture, but of all Latino culture, is a symbol of the breadwinner, of the one who goes out to work long hours to pay the bills. There is a sense of power, but also one of vulnerability. In Tania Candani’s piece, “Don’t Stop(From Mattress Series) 2003, there is a sexual  vulnerability to Latinas. She brings together thoughts, expressions, and looks of a sexual act and reduces it to a mattress, therein reducing Latin women to objects and something to be objectified. Whether or not she believes Latin women to be objects or merely objects of society that are always objectified in the presence of a machismo far greater than themselves, there is nonetheless a scorn for the defenselessness and a defiance that is admirable.