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Recollectives

The Curve, CultureFirst, 2016—Young Hispanics seeking to rediscover their cultural roots, from traditional ethnic foods to Spanish fluency, is nothing new. However, during our travels to more than 12 cities around the country, we soon learned that the trend toward “retro-acculturation” has evolved from solo mission to group affair and is as much about reclaiming one’s cultural heritage as it is about sharing it with others. Here are the stories of a few of the Hispanic artists, academics, and suburbanites who are banding together to remember, reclaim, and reintroduce their identities on a collective—rather than a personal—level.

Texas or Bust

In the middle of nowhere, otherwise known as Marfa, Texas, Claudia Aparicio-Gamundi, 30, is constructing an art installation for a festival at El Cosmico, an 18-acre indie motel made up of brightly painted Airstream trailers and indigo teepees just a few yards from a border patrol station. The piece, a series of mirrors etched with animal faces, asks viewers to confront their primal selves, but what excites Aparicio-Gamundi the most is the proximity to this ominous station. Because she is an undocumented immigrant artist, her life and work are constantly fraught with the instability of her status, a fact that made even the trip from her home in Austin, Texas, to this festival a gamble: the route is dotted with border patrol checkpoints that threaten her with deportation, even though she’s been in the United States for more than half her life and hasn’t left the country in 13 years. But this shadowy existence is what fueled her drive to become an artistic activist. Rather than hiding in obscurity beneath the complications of her identity, Aparicio-Gamundi makes herself known and highlights the unstable nature of her limbo culture. “For the longest time, it was like, ‘Don’t look at me. You’re not supposed to see me. I could get deported.’ And then eventually I said, ‘Forget this. I’m going to be seen.’” This is part of what pushed Aparicio-Gamundi to start the Puro Chingón Collective, an Austin-based radical Latino art trifecta that publishes zines and curates shows specifically for Hispanic artists. Aparicio-Gamundi and her cofounders, Claudia Zapata and James Huizar, both 31, were also motivated by the lack of representation of people like them in the traditional art world. Now, she says, a much-needed community has been born. “We’re connecting people and opening a door that was shut for a long time.”


50% of Hispanic respondents want to protect and preserve their culture; 50% want to push culture to new frontiers. 


This door-opening is not unique to this pocket of Texas. While first-generation Hispanics were taught to assimilate, often losing their native languages and customs, the second and third generations worked to personally reclaim their lost identities and embrace the rich cultural heritage damaged by the melting-pot mentality. And now that these personal identities have been reconciled, many Hispanics are looking to collectively connect and reconcile common Latino sub-communities across the country. In the case of Puro Chingón, the collective is literal—the artists produce works together. But beyond a niche art scene, this movement is about resurrecting dormant political factions, reclaiming cultural identities, and preserving what assimilation threatened to abolish.

Although all three are of Mexican descent, these members of Puro Chingón have taken on a chosen identity to further distinguish their cultural affiliations and experiences. Aparicio-Gamundi, who was born in Mexico, identifies purely as Mexicana, while Huizar identifies as a Tejano, or a born-and-raised Texan of Mexican descent. Zapata chooses to identify as Chicana, a subculture that rose out of a collective need to illuminate the duality of growing up as an American and a Mexican. And for each, this identity choice offers a window into personal understanding while reconciling his or her place in the broader society. “You never feel right growing up in any space in the United States because you just don’t see yourself in popular culture,” Zapata said of the Mexican American experience. “You don’t see yourself in history. You don’t see yourself in any ruling bodies at all. So you always feel disconcerted. And until you find these essentially conceptual communities in terms of identity, you’re always uncomfortable. When you do finally find them, everything falls into place.” For Aparicio-Gamundi, everything fell into place when she decided to stop hiding behind her undocumented status. Huizar’s “aha” moment came when he realized that his interest in creating work about blue-collar rural Texas was an expression of his own Tejano identity. Zapata was in college when she discovered Chicano texts that finally revealed her background in history. “Once you know your history, you can envision a new future,” she said.

Just an hour south of Puro Chingón’s Austin stomping ground, in San Antonio, we found the scholarly activist Rene Jaime Gonzalez, 31, on the San Antonio College campus. The perfect picture of a future professor in his button-down shirt and narrow glasses, Gonzalez inherited the Chicano identification from his parents, along with his activist tendencies. His parents were part of the original Chicano movement of the 1960s and ’70s, which worked to both illuminate the experience of growing up Mexican American and fight for equal rights, but also to reclaim indigenous heritages lost when the Spanish conquered Mexico. Now, according to Gonzalez, the movement is more focused on sustaining the communities that the original activists fought to bring together. “Social movements in the 20th century had to literally kick down doors to create ways for people. Now that we are in the door, we are rearranging the furniture to our liking.” In the 21st century, the issues aren’t as clear-cut as they were in the 1960s. Gonzalez is a self-described example of what old-school Chicanos fought for: he has access to better education, equal rights, and a sense of identity. Once that was obtained, many people dropped the Chicano title, leaving a generational gap in the movement. And that is what Gonzalez—along with Puro Chingón—is working to recollect. “We’re still just trying to redefine what our identity is and how it is going to fit in today’s time,” he said. (Read Rene Jaime Gonzalez’s essay “¡VIVA LA RAZA! ¡HUELGA! ¡VIVA LA CAUSA!” below.)

New (Mexico) Roots

“I would much rather paint an almost 90-year-old herbalist’s portrait than ever paint a Latina woman with a Dia de los Muertos face. Because to me, this is defining my culture. This is defining who I am as a person. This is defining my communities.”

—Nani Chacon, 35, New Mexico


As we continued our western journey through the Chihuahuan Desert, we began to see that this kind of redefinition is common among many young Hispanics. When we crossed into New Mexico, we found the artist Nani Chacon, 35, painting a mural on the side of a building along one of Albuquerque’s main thoroughfares. Chacon is redefining her cultural identity through her large-scale paintings. Alone in a small parking lot, wearing a Smiths t-shirt and a brown felt hat, Chacon was painting a vivid portrait on the wall of an herbal medicine shop: Draped in a bright blue scarf, Maclovia, the shop’s 89-year-old gray-haired proprietor, peers through glasses. Nearby, a hummingbird and spindly dandelions stand out against the red brick wall. For Chacon, this is more than a job or even an artistic expression. This is a manifestation of her cultural heritage—part Diné, as the Navajo prefer to be called, and part Chicano—with family roots planted firmly in New Mexico long before New became part of its name.

Chacon didn’t come to this manifestation right away, however. Because she grew up partially in the city, she says, she was influenced by popular American culture and lost some of her connection to the native philosophies. Still, much like the founders of Puro Chingón, she was disturbed at a young age by not seeing herself in this pop culture or in history. So as a young artist, she began to “brown” the past by painting 1950s Hispanic pinup girls. The work was well received, but she wasn’t satisfied. “I did the pop culture stuff, but then I started looking for deeper content, because I felt like our beauty wasn’t just skin-deep.” She began to reexamine and reclaim what made her culture so special, which led her to focus on the more ethereal qualities she had lost touch with: the intensity, the intellectualism, and the sacred connection to the earth. Now she paints subjects like Maclovia, who is native, and she is careful not to perpetuate the stereotypes found in mainstream Latino art (the Virgin Mary, the Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead) or native art (men in headdresses, clay pots). “I would much rather paint an almost-90-year-old herbalist’s portrait than ever paint a Latina woman with a Dia de los Muertos face,” she said. “Because to me, this is defining my culture. This is defining who I am as a person. This is defining my communities.”

All across the country, we saw this embrace of authentic representation and an aversion to classic stereotypes in response to the mainstreaming of Latino culture. Consider Chipotle, essentially a successful integration of a Mexican cultural mainstay—food—into broader American culture. Prior to its current public health challenge,* Chipotle had a positive effect on the fast food industry. But the white-owned company has had a polarizing effect within the Latino community: by some (53%) it was considered a great representation of Mexican culture, and by nearly as many others (47%) an appropriation, much like the Day of the Dead and Cinco de Mayo—which, by the way, is not Mexican Independence Day, but rather the anniversary of an important battle that was selected by Mexican beer companies to market to Americans. In this mainstream landscape of misinformation, Hispanics have been confronting the question of how to reclaim their heritage while still being a part of popular culture. And for many, this is a complicated question. While Gonzalez noted that Hispanics are simply trying to maintain their culture and are not interested in serving it up to a mass audience, the members of Puro Chingón have decidedly mixed feelings on this topic. Said Huizar: “I want to be validated. I think we started Puro Chingón to see ourselves in the art world, to see if we could do it. I don’t know about being validated by a white audience. I understand that we have to be clear in our message, but there are some things that some audiences just aren’t going to understand.” On the other hand, Pete, 33, a systems analyst for the Texas School for the Deaf, said that it’s up to Hispanics to play a bigger role in the way their heritage is served up to popular culture: “We have not educated ourselves as a culture enough or been brave enough to own businesses of our own, to make multibillion-dollar industries. We’re robbing ourselves, and somebody else is taking our culture and creating opportunities for themselves that we could do for our own culture.”

This gray area of representation versus appropriation is a specialty of Andrew Leo Lovato, a Santa Fe native who is an associate professor of speech communication at Santa Fe Community College. Lovato is the author of several books, including Santa Fe Hispanic Culture: Preserving Identity in a Tourist Town, which we gathered to talk to him about. As we rolled into Santa Fe in the late afternoon, through the downtown built of picturesque, earth-tone adobe buildings accented with occasional turquoise detailing, it was easy to see why both Chacon and Lovato call the city a native Disneyland. Santa Fe is a center for native arts, but much of it is geared to a wealthy white audience. And as it becomes an increasingly popular place to live, native New Mexicans and Hispanics are being priced out, which is threatening the area’s culture and history. As Lovato put it, “They painted the downtown brown, and the brown people moved out.” This forced exodus is the focus of Lovato’s work, and as we shared drinks with him, we were all a little enthralled with his gentle professorial oration about the complexities of culture and identity.


“It’s OK to share culture, but don’t dilute your culture to the extent that it becomes a commodity and you’re losing it for economic gain.”

—Andrew Leo Lovato, associate professor of speech communication, Santa Fe Community College


For Lovato, there is no easy answer to the reclamation and integration conundrum. Like Pete, Lovato put some of the responsibility on Hispanics themselves. “It’s OK to share culture, but don’t dilute your culture to the extent that it becomes a commodity and you’re losing it for economic gain,” he said. “Because you can make money, yes, and you can take your culture and fabricate it in a way that’s digestible, but don’t lose it. Don’t give it away. Don’t take away its core and its essence. I think the big word is authenticity. Once you lose authenticity, you can’t get that back.” At the same time, Lovato knows that it is the outside influence—the tourist economy—that is forcing the Latino and native cultures in Santa Fe to commodify themselves or leave. Thus, Santa Fe’s art and customs get served up in diluted ways for a non-Latino audience. But stopping this cultural crisscrossing is also not the answer, according to Lovato. “Culture is dynamic and fluid, and it changes. It makes for a healthy culture to be able to incorporate different influences. If you have a stagnant culture that doesn’t ever change, it will wither and die. You need to be able to incorporate change into your culture, but at the same time, can you maintain an identity?”

Hola North Carolina

All these identity questions may not seem surprising for this corner of the country, but this trend is not limited to the Southwest. Smash cut to suburban North Carolina, where the scenery is exceedingly lush and green and the population is decidedly paler in comparison. Hispanics make up just 9% of the state’s population, but you wouldn’t know it at the annual Hola Charlotte Festival. Here, some 60,000 attendees gather in Charlotte to celebrate Latino culture, and representatives from the 13 Latin American countries that make up Charlotte’s Hispanic population showcase traditional dances, food, and art. The atmosphere is stereotypically vibrant and colorful: young girls in frilly dresses and bright red lipstick twirl to mariachi music played by musicians in black suits, while the aroma of spicy food fills the air. But nothing about the festival is stereotypical. Thirty percent of attendees are from non-Hispanic backgrounds, according to Edgar Saucedo, the executive vice president of Norsan Media, which founded Hola Charlotte; the festival is about “trying to integrate everybody—the Latino community with the American community.” It is not just for Hispanics to celebrate their heritage or for non-Hispanics to commodify Latino culture; it’s a place where everyone can come together and learn to share cultures.

Charlotte’s population is 13% Hispanic, a number that has been steadily growing during the last 10 years. In fact, Charlotte is the fastest-growing Hispanic market in the United States, and this may be why a festival like this works so well here. Saucedo moved to Charlotte from Mexico nine years ago and was at the forefront of the mass migration. Back then, however, his culture was not tolerated in the way it is now. He remembers speaking on the phone in Spanish in grocery stores and being told by those around him to speak English. Now the city is more diverse, but it’s still mostly a first-generation population, which has led to a need for Spanish-language radio and TV, Mexican restaurants, and other resources for these newcomers. And that building-from-scratch mentality has become a huge benefit to the community. Rather than having to reclaim and recollect what years of not-so-successful cohabitation of cultures has wrought, the Hispanic population of Charlotte gets to choose how, why, and when to share its culture on a collective level. While Hispanics in other corners of the United States don’t have the luxury of this control, this is essentially what they are all attempting to do: choose to be a part of the broader American culture on their own collective terms.


“Once you know your history, you can envision a new future.”

—Claudia Zapata, 31, Puro Chingón Collective


 

“¡VIVA LA RAZA! ¡HUELGA! ¡VIVA LA CAUSA!”
By Rene Jaime Gonzalez (as mentioned above in Texas or Bust)

These were the cries heard on the front lines of the student walkouts at Edgewood and Sydney Lanier High Schools in San Antonio, Texas, in the 1960s and ’70s, in the impassioned calls to action from speakers at neighborhood park podiums addressing crowds gathered at political rallies, and in the righteous slogans written on picket signs carried by farmworkers in their pilgrimage march toward the capital. Residing deep in the heart of what was once the Mexican state of Coahuila y Tejas, Chicano culture in San Antonio has a uniquely urban story to tell.

The genesis of the Chicano movement—an amalgam of working people and middle-class Mexican American students, educators, and community organizers—was founded on principles of reform and revolution in education, politics, and civil rights with the commitment to maintain and strengthen community ties. The seeds of my involvement in Chicano culture started with my parents’ participation in the Chicano movement on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin in the 1970s. In my childhood household on Sunday mornings, the sounds that I heard coming through the kitchen stereo speakers were the canciónes rancheras (ranch songs) and corridos (folk ballads) sung by the prolific Mexican recording artists Pedro Infante and Cuco Sánchez. I dusted off old books and read the poesía (poetry) of Alurista and other literary works focused on the folklore of the mythical region of Aztlán.

In my parents’ day, social movements like the Chicano uprising had to kick down the door of the house of mainstream society for inclusion and fight for any scrap of recognition. Now, with rights won and a new generation moving toward the front lines, we find ourselves rearranging the furniture. Many of the hard-fought demands driving la causa (the cause) were eventually won and institutionalized, but Chicanos gained much more than representation within the system: they redefined their own ethnic identity through artistic innovation and academic self-expression, solidifying a cultural legacy with a foundation of rediscovered historical roots.

When I was growing up in San Antonio, this innovation and expression manifested itself in the four elements of hip-hop culture: B-boys, DJs, graffiti artists, and MCs. By the time I graduated from high school, I had immersed myself in the local B-boy scene, grounded by my identity as a Chicano and battling along with my crew at regional competitions and hip-hop conventions. Spinning all-vinyl funk, soul, and hip-hop records, I’ve also shared the stage with the venerable MC and DJ Marco Cervantes, Ph.D., an assistant professor of bicultural and bilingual studies in the Mexican American Studies Program at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Outside of the classroom, he performs under the alias Mexican Stepgrandfather with the hip-hop collaborative Third Root, mixing classic Mexican song with new hip-hop and rap. His message is the unification of the cultural crossroads between black and brown (or the “Afro-Mestizo connection”) and the empowerment of disadvantaged youth—an innovation of cultural expression at its finest.

Whether I’m catching wreck on the nightclub dance floor as a B-boy, hosting a writing workshop at a local literary center, or participating in the democratic process at municipal public hearings, the Chicano spirit runs through the lifeblood of my 21st-century community at large. As they have since its inception, activism and community continue to stand as the backbone—the heart and soul—of our contemporary Chicano culture here in San Anto.

Brand Opportunities

PROVIDE A PLATFORM FOR HISPANICS TO SHARE THEIR CULTURAL HERITAGE.

Hispanics want not only to see authentic representation around them, but to create it themselves. Provide forums for them to collectively amplify their own cultural interpretations.

SUPPORT THIS NEW CLASS OF RECOLLECTIVE ACTIVISTS.

Artists, academics, writers, and other creative people are coming together to bust myths and stereotypes about Latino culture in interesting, innovative, even beautiful ways.

REPRESENT LATINO CULTURE WITHOUT APPROPRIATING IT.

Cultural cues that are deep, meaningful, and authentic are resonating amidst a sea of commoditized traditions, including Day of the Dead face paint and Cinco de Mayo–themed happy hours.

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