Music and Art, Chicano and Not

Los Lobos played my local neighborhood festival this past weekend. Listening to the music almost drowned me in nostalgia and sadness, while at the same time smacked me with joy. Let’s just say it was a confusing weekend.

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La Fete de Marquette 2018, from the ferris wheel

I help to run the merch booth at La Fete de Marquette, an eastside Madison music festival that just completed its 18th year. Held around the same time as Bastille Day, Fete has focused on music from the French diaspora. France being an old colonial power, this means that—lucky for Madison–the music featured has generally been from many parts of the world: Africa, the Caribbean, France, Louisiana. But this year that francophone emphasis was tossed like a head from a guillotine when the venerable band from East LA gloriously took the main stage on Sunday night.

Despite the white women who, in the close crowd at the front of the stage, bounced and happily flailed their arms to songs like Carabina .30-30, the tall white dudes who cut in front of me and the short couple next to me, filling in the small breathing space we had amid the hot humid air and blocking our view, or the drunk white woman who spilled beer on me while trying to squeeze past then wiped my breast in a failed attempt at drying me (and maybe apologizing?), I had a good time. Really. The music was, well, these guys know what they’re doing. Steve Berlin played with the really compelling opening band, Making Movies, and still withstood the sweltering heat to play the main set. David Hidalgo, Louie, and Cesar delivered their powerhouse sound sans probleme, and the young drummers kept everything moving, even putting on a water show that thrilled the crowd.

The nostalgia for me was overwhelming. I have seen this band in Detroit, when the Bad Livers opened for them in what might have been the strangest billing ever. The crowd was a mixture of bluegrass punk hipsters and extended Latino families, all waiting for hours on a cement floor for a show that started very late but enthralled everyone in attendance. I have also danced to their music at the now defunct Frog Island Festival in a small city park in Ypsilanti, Michigan, in the pouring rain, drenched but dreading the time when the band finally called the show when they felt endangered by the lightning and the water cascading off of the tent around them. The last time I saw them was at the classist disaster that is Ravinia, where I sat behind a wealthy white family and watched the mother text on her oversized iPhone that “these beaners really can rock.” The white season ticket-holders left early, and with all of the rules of the place, none of the many enthusiastic fans on the distant grass were able to take the empty seats or dance nearer to the stage. The show rocked, but also sucked, for the audience as well as (I am certain) for the band.

Being in the crowd at the stage this weekend made me think of Old Town in San Diego, where, so close to la linea, Mexicanidad is made safe for consumption. It’s all chimichangas and paper flowers, margaritas and flounced skirts. It’s the table of gringos who jump up and chase down the mariachis in the middle of their meal, leaving their open wallets on the table and their leather jackets hanging on their chairs. My latinidad is some of these things (I like a nice margarita, I’ve shopped and lunched at Old Town), but it’s also much more. It’s bad spanish, great food, unruly hair, a vague sense of exclusion, but an innate understanding of mestiza; it’s a confusing place.

Which shouldn’t bring me to Gronk, but it does. A few weeks ago I worked with a colleague to host a group of Latino middle school students for an hour at the museum. Because there are works by two—two!–Latino artists on view in the entire museum, I chose Gronk’s painting as the focus of our visit. The painting by Gronk that is in the galleries is on Spanish bark paper, which may be similar to the traditional bark papers of Mexico that, you know, held written histories in codex form, but were burned during the conquest, leaving only a handful still in existence. Gronk’s choice of material may make reference to this ancient process, but his imagery captures more recent developments in its vocabulary that riffs off of the murals and graffiti of LA.

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GRONK (GLUGIO GRONK NICANDRO) (American, b. 1954) Fragments of a Landscape 1994 Acrylic on Spanish bark paper 78 x 78 in. Chazen Museum of Art, Harry and Margaret P. Glicksman Endowment Fund, Juli Plant Grainger Endowment Fund, and Cyril W. Nave Endowment Fund purchase, 1995.4

My intention was to make a connection between ancient archaeology and Gronk’s notion of “street archaeology,” how, in his wandering around his city, he is looking, seeing, sketching, and incorporating his visual experience into his work. I pretty much failed at achieving my goal of elaborating on this idea of archaeology with middle school students, but I was able to introduce them to a contemporary artist’s work and his observational practice as an example of a latino artist in this world who has been making art every day for a long time (starting with morning coffee; see @elgronk on Instagram for some examples of his visual finds).

Why write about Los Lobos, the Chicano band from East LA, and Gronk, the Chicano painter and conceptual/performance artist? Two experiences of Mexicanidad, both from Los Angeles, each very different. I don’t know LA, and it has taken my entire life to overcome the anti-LA bias that comes with growing up in San Diego. I am also not Chicano—with an Anglo-American father and a Mexican-American mother, we were raised in a white suburb and only visited our Mexican-American family in Arizona on weekends or holidays. I do not know details of these artists’ lives, but I understand there are important differences–gay, straight, extended families, neighborhoods, studio practices, fame, industry biases, communities, histories.

But Los Lobos, their sound and their music, is intertwined with my mid-western experience, and that close relationship makes me think of Gronk’s daily drawing, how this life-long activity of playing music or making art—of developing a practice–enables the creation of a world. Los Lobos, through many years of music-making, have carved out genre-breaking careers that have made them undefinable—rock? Latin? Blues, jazz, jam-band?–and taken them from weddings to neighborhood festivals to the White House and around the world. And Gronk, through his art practice that incorporates drawing, painting, and performance, has made art on street corners, in university museums, galleries, private collections, and on opera stages.

The daily experience of making or listening to music, of making or looking at art—how does it influence our lives? Is it an escape, a luxury, or is it the basic rhythm, the pulse, the bass that moves us forward and provides the structure that underlies everything? I imagine the band members of Los Lobos play music every day, like Gronk and his daily coffee drawings. I am no musician and not much of an artist, but I think about both and interact with both just about every day.

Why do I put up with white women who flail their arms and bounce, blocking my view? Because of the music, man. Because there needs to be more than just two works by Latino artists on view in the galleries. Because those students still don’t see themselves represented in the museum.

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Los Lobos on stage at La Fete de Marquette, 2018

Stories

Another play-reading at APT, the last of this year’s Winter Words series. A beautifully written fable about the power of naming, the force of metaphor. A woman learns. She farms, she helps to birth foals, she takes labor into her own hands, she controls her name and thus uses language to define herself and her world.

A friend sends me a story and asks for feedback. In our discussion I encourage him to practice his storytelling skills. So he does, at a local story slam. He performs wonderfully, taking third place. He has written for years, has conducted interviews, and even participated in a writing workshop as he works to shape a long and complex personal story into a book. But this is his first ever outing on a story-telling stage. I guess I am now a coach.

And this week I am fresh off a professional development program. OK, not just any program. THE program in my museum world: the Getty Leadership Institute NextGen program.

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I should be elated. Of course I am thrilled that I was able to participate, thankful for the support. But I am also stunned, mostly by the sheer volume of the words that have poured down upon me over the last month. Words and ideas like wave after wave, and even two days after completing the program I still feel as if I am swamped and drowning. It almost doesn’t matter where I try to start swimming, I am too far out to make progress in any direction. One of my cohort wrote that she is still trying to figure out what in the hell happened to her over the onsite week. I inhabit this same space.

It is the space where words are not yet complete. They are forming, but they are still sharp and the ideas they communicate have dangerous edges. I tried to use some of the words today and they felt hard in my mouth, they came out rough, I had to work to make them not cut. What the hell happened? I have so much to say but no words for any of it yet.

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It’s like the bones that are excavated at La Brea. They are lifted out of their encompassing mire, then soaked and carefully cleaned. The darkened solution is strained to capture every seedpod and insect part that was caught during the same era as the bones of the animal that perished, trapped in tar. I need time to sift through that debris, to examine the minutiae, to discover what corollary life exists.

The words are the tools that scrape away the accretions, they transform a mass of tar into a trove of scientific wonders. Like knives into fowl, words transform the world. What will be found, what will be created, when the bird becomes food, when mammoth is transformed into fossil? What happens when my friend learns to be comfortable on stage telling his story, or when I get command of mi idioma, mi lengua? Necesito controlar mi lengua. Y luego, para usarlo.

 

 

The River

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Kukuli Velarde, Sta. Chingada: The Perfect Little Woman (detail), 2006. Private Collection.

Last week I attended a play-reading at American Players Theater in Spring Green, WI. Their Winter Words performances are few in number, but held in the small theater these evening events feel like super-secret meetings of an artistic Justice League—heartfelt, dazzling, and sincere. The readings are simply staged and completely engaging, as they are followed by talkbalks with the audience, cast, and director. They are a wonderful and rare experience.

This episode featured a small cast and the director Robert Ramirez presenting The River Bride, a graceful and gorgeous play by Marisela Treviño Orta. As just a reading—no set, costumes, or larger theater magic—the words and story were in the spotlight, all achingly beautiful, devastating, yet hopeful. I’m not sure if I care to ever see this play staged, as this reading by these actors has taken up residence in my mind and promises to stay for a very long time.

Driving back through the night along dark country roads, the carload of theater-goers analyzed the play. Some agreed with the director, that the main focus of the fable was the failure to seize the day and act upon dreams and desires. I was convinced that the selfishness and greed of one character drove the story, impacting all the other characters. But I have changed my mind. I see now that the heart of the drama is indeed a failure of nerve, of effort, of voice, and specifically, how such hesitation clears a damaging path for the overly ambitious.

And here is where I relate a beautiful, poetic play to a business book.

In my workplace, we have a new boss who brings contemporary management tools and techniques into a museum setting. Every day is refreshing, yet also challenging. Just one example: the staff has read and discussed a few chapters of Kim Scott’s Silicon Valley new hope rah rah manifesto, Radical Candor. Reading a management book in no way approaches the joyful aesthetic experience of hearing Treviño Orta’s play read aloud, but these texts have an important commonality: they both consider what happens when individuals seize too much, too often; the damage and destruction that result from an imbalance of power when aggression is not checked consistently—and, most importantly, the mediating potential for persistent assertiveness.

Is it wrong to hold onto the heartache that is at the center of The River Bride, to utilize a fictional loss as a spur to action, at work? To transform Helena and her hesitation into a warning about professional silence and complicity? Can poetry be combined with the dictates of management? Carpe diem? “Care personally, challenge directly” is Scott’s mantra to transform relationships, and thus the workplace. And I am beginning to see some truth there. Balancing personal ambitions with candid feedback and daily responsibilities is challenging, but actually made easier if you care about what you are doing.

A fable set in the Amazon informs activities in a midwestern office. This is the reason I work with visual art, why I see plays and movies, read poetry, and yes, even business management books: to better understand life, its conflicts, complexities, and incongruities. To drive for hours through the dark night, talking about language and people and meaning and motivation, then discover new angles on these same issues in the bright light of the workplace, the experience of the play is extended, the words sing again and again. This is on my mind as I prepare for a truly exciting professional development experience. I see that my office is on the edge of a river, filled with the calls of the birds and the clicking of the dolphins, home to much noisy, productive, difficult, and promising work.