Mexican Americans trace their roots to various historical moments, including the annexation of Mexican territories by the United States in the 19th century and subsequent waves of migration. The Mexican-American community encompasses a broad spectrum of experiences, from families who have been in the U.S. for generations to recent immigrants seeking new opportunities.
Culturally, Mexican Americans have played a pivotal role in shaping the American mosaic. Their contributions extend to areas such as art, music, literature, cuisine, and traditions. Chicano art, for instance, has emerged as a distinctive and influential genre, providing a platform for artists to explore themes of identity, activism, and the intersection of Mexican and American cultures.
In the realm of literature, authors like Sandra Cisneros, Rudolfo Anaya, and Julia de Burgos have captured the nuances of the Mexican-American experience, offering narratives that resonate with readers across cultural backgrounds.
Cuisine is another notable aspect where Mexican-American influence is palpable. The integration of traditional Mexican flavors and culinary techniques has enriched American gastronomy, with dishes like tacos, burritos, and guacamole becoming beloved staples.
In the complex tapestry of my personal and cultural journey, the creation of the painting “Mexican American” served as a profound expression of the inner conflicts and self-discovery I experienced during a pivotal period of my life. Having traversed the educational landscape from elementary school to law school primarily using English, the unspoken societal norm discouraged the use of Spanish within the academic realm. However, as my legal career unfolded, a twist of fate led my first clients to be Spanish-speaking individuals, prompting a reconnection with the language of my infancy.
The socio-cultural milieu at that time was marked by a burgeoning resistance among young Chicano teachers and students against discriminatory practices in the Los Angeles District. These practices sought to strip children of their cultural identity and heritage. This ignited a deep self-questioning, a quest for identity, as I grappled with the question, “What am I?” It was against this backdrop that I embarked on the creation of the painting.
The canvas became a visual representation of the emotional turmoil within me. The vibrant warm colors and dynamic brushstrokes on the left side captured the passionate and expressive nature of my cultural heritage. The central portrayal of two half faces, one male and one female, symbolized the clash between traditional gender roles in Mexican culture and the emerging women’s liberation movement in the U.S. during the 1960s.
The stark contrast between the Madonna-like depiction of the Mexican woman and the nude Anglo female, symbolizing newfound freedom, encapsulated the cultural shifts and societal transformations occurring at that time. The substantial cross on the Mexican side highlighted the profound influence of church rituals in Mexican lives, while the smaller gold cross and floating dollar bill on the American side reflected a perceived connection between American values and monetary pursuits.
The juxtaposition of the Mexican Revolution (1914) and the American Revolution (1776) through ghost-like colonial soldiers underscored the differing temporal perspectives ingrained in Mexican and American cultures. The colossal clock dominating the American side became a powerful symbol of the U.S.’s preoccupation with time and the pursuit of individual rights, concepts that held less prominence in Mexican culture.
The Aztec pyramid and the bullfighter stood as poignant symbols of the amalgamation of Indian and Spanish cultures, giving rise to the Mestizo identity and ultimately the Mexican people. The seamless merging of colors from the severed head of the Aztec into the Mexican man and woman conveyed a sense of continuity and cultural heritage. In contrast, the severed head of the American Native and African floated isolated, representing their perceived disconnectedness in American society.
The Liberty Bell, a prominent feature on the American side, symbolized the concept of individual rights, a notion not entirely aligned with the prioritization of respect for authority in Mexican culture. Painted during the 1960s and featured prominently in Chicano movement publications, the work titled “Mexican American” continues to resonate today. It prompts introspection and sparks conversations about identity, cultural duality, and the ongoing journey of self-discovery. Through the artistic process, my identity crisis found resolution, and I embraced the realization that success required embracing both cultures. I emerged as a new American—a fusion of two rich cultural backgrounds—and in this realization, I discovered a profound love for my Mexican roots.