America Tropical

Travis Wilkerson

America Tropical… for a true, democratic narrative; a mass, public art; immediate and urgent and infinite.

 

1
David Alfaro Siqueiros was already legendary when he arrived in Los Angeles in 1932. Like millions of Latin Americans before and after him, he went to California in desperate need of opportunity. The famed muralist had spent the preceding years in prison and under house arrest amidst a wave of intensifying state repression directed against members of the Mexican Communist Party.

The U.S. to which Siqueiros had fled was in the throws of the Great Depression. Millions of people were out of work. Millions more had lost their homes. The government had begun expelling hundreds of thousands of people of Mexican descent, including tens of thousands of legal U.S. citizens.

Despite his radical reputation, Siqueiros was invited by the founder of the Chouinard Art Institute to teach a course on mural painting. This seemingly innocuous invitation would alter the trajectory of modern art.

Upon his arrival in Los Angeles, Siqueiros immediately made contact with artists active in the Communist Party who coalesced around the John Reed Club. The most advanced artists quickly formed the Los Angeles Bloc of painters as a collective movement to develop a new and genuinely revolutionary public art.

For their central course project at Chouinard, the Bloc were offered only an exterior wall, rather than the expected indoor space for their collective mural. The Bloc quickly grasped the potential significance of the literal movement of art from the academy into the streets. Such a development had the potential to transform the class character of art itself.

The Bloc experimented with new techniques such as slide and film projection along with new materials including the use of early spray paint, prefiguring the emergence of graffiti art by half a century.

The resulting mural, Street Meeting, was bold, cinematic and defiant, depicting black workers engaged in political street agitation. As legend has it, Madame Chouinard was outraged by depictions of miscegenation, especially in the context of political activity. Within days, the fresco was whitewashed.

Despite the controversy surrounding Street Meeting, Siqueiros and the Bloc were then charged with an even bigger canvas atop the Italian Hall on Olvera Street, where an blank 18’ x 80’ wall stood above the self-conscious mixture of romance and commerce, aimed at inventing Los Angeles tourism.

The resulting mural, a magnificent and unprecedented monumental painting, proposed a new vocabulary for modern art, built atop the ruins of an indigenous vernacular.

At the center of the painting is a singular, anguished image. Here is how Siqueiros described it: “…in the midst of this imposing vegetation that coveys the idea of a cosmic drama already tragic in itself, we painted contemporary reality, the symbol of the dark Indian laborer crucified under the North American eagle.”

He called the painting:

 

America Tropical Oprimida y Destrozada por los Imperialismos

Tropical America Oppressed and Destroyed by Imperialism

 

2
Five hours to the west of Guatemala City, in the verdant, steep slopes of a small volcano, lies the village Xexac. The village is at once strikingly beautiful and crushingly poor. The village has 2,000 residents, mostly living in the wooden and cinder block shacks that line the dirt road that snakes through the center of town.

The villagers speak to each other in Quiche, a Mayan language, and cook with firewood. There are six churches in the village but only two cars. A handful of young people dress in skinny jeans with spiked or dyed hair, but most of the women still dress in traditional knitted skirts and embroidered cotton shirts. Most of the villagers have never even been to Guatemala City, let alone another country.

It is 2003. Manuel Jamines Xum is 30 years old. Orphaned at the age of 2, he was raised by an uncle. He supports his wife Isabel and 3 young sons (including a newborn) with the $15 a week he earns at a coffee plantation on the outskirts of the village. They live together in a dark, cinder-block room with a dirt floor, no bathroom, and nowhere to sleep but on wooden planks.

Everyday, as he walks home from the plantation, he passes newly built haciendas in pastel colors with Spanish colonial-style columns, spacious porches, and wrought-iron windows. They are built with money sent back from men who’ve left the village for California, where it’s said you can make $15 an hour, instead of a week. Manuel Jamines begins to wonder if he should go too.

It’s good,” his wife tells him, “you should go.”

He borrows $5,000 at 20% interest in order to pay the smugglers who will get him across the borders. The family’s shack and tiny plot of land are offered as collateral. Even if he dies, the debt won’t be forgiven.

The night before he leaves with 15 other men from the village, Manuel Jamines says goodbye to his uncle, the man who has raised him, Manuel Esquipulas Jamines. The old man is a leader in the village and tells him to be careful and to return home quickly. He already has four sons in Los Angeles and he’s asked them to look after Manuel.

"May God bless you," he says, "And no matter what, don't ever drink alcohol and don't give in to vices."

 

3
Siqueiros knew that the central image of America Tropical would inflame viewers in the Los Angeles of 1932. Indeed, he stayed up all night the night before the mural’s unveiling, painting the central image alone, so as to protect other members of the Bloc. As he put it: “I knew people would attack it. That didn’t surprise me. But I also thought people would fight to defend it.”

He would be sorely disappointed. Without ceremony and barely a whimper of protest, America Tropical was whitewashed and nearly forgotten for another forty years.

 

4
It is 4 years later, 2007. Manuel Jamines has found himself in a crowded concrete world he couldn't have imagined. The wild beauty of the Mayan highlands has been replaced by the aging brick tenements of the Westlake district. It's a grim, dense cityscape dominated by gang graffiti, stores selling plastic toys and discount clothing, and tall buildings crammed with people living on top of one another.

Manuel Jamines shares a small studio apartment with 11 men near the Home Depot parking lot where he competes each day for scarce work.

The $15 an hour never materializes. Soon, work at $7 an hour dries up too, as construction disappears when the California economy collapses. Some weeks, he can't afford to pay his rent or call his wife back in Xexac. His debt with the lender in Guatemala has now more than doubled.

Manuel Jamines, who never cared much for alcohol back home, begins to drink. His cousins scold him and urge him to go to church. He tries returning to church but is left empty by it. He’s indescribably lonely and begins drinking more and more.

Word reaches his wife who pleads with him to sober up and return home.

"How can I?'" he asks. "I have to get rid of the debt."

 

5
After the destruction of not one but two of his greatest works, Siqueiros left Los Angeles and returned to Mexico. But the Los Angeles Bloc of Painters accelerated their efforts to "abandon decisively the treacherous illusion that art can exist for art's sake."

They undertook to paint "portable" murals based on accounts of the trial of the Scottsboro boys that showed, among other things, Klansmen whipping a roped black man. On the morning of February 11, 1933, the John Reed Club was raided by officers from the LAPD’s anti-communist “Red Squad. Brandishing lead pipes and guns, they destroyed the murals by shooting out the eyes and genitals of the painted Scottsboro boys in a perverse act of figurative violence.

At a subsequent trial, the judge dismissed their claims against the Red Squad, ruling that the painters had probably mutilated the paintings themselves to call attention to their cause.

 

6
By late summer 2010, Manuel Jamines’s debt has more than tripled, to $20,000 and because of the depression, there’s no work to be found. Manuel Jamines is a shadow of his former self. In fact, people in the neighborhood now consider him a bolo, a town drunk.

One Sunday morning, his cousin Isaias Jamines finds him on 6th Street at Union. It’s just 9 a.m. but he’s already been drinking for hours. They briefly argue as Isaias tells him to quit wasting his money on alcohol and go home. Manuel tells him to fuck off.

A few hours later, Manuel is completely wasted. He’s standing on the corner of 6th and Union, waving a knife in an ineffectual manner, and shouting incoherently. Manuel Jamines, it seems, is now a broken man.

In the manner drunks turn on strangers, a pregnant woman and her friend send Manuel Jamines into a mindless rage. The police are summoned and 3 bicycle-mounted officers quickly arrive. They confront Manuel Jamines, demanding he drop the knife in both English and Spanish.

But Manuel Jamines is blindly drunk and barely speaks Spanish, much less English. He doesn’t drop the knife. Instead, he lunges pathetically towards the officers who shoot him dead on the spot, the corner of 6th and Union.

The cop who shoots Manuel Jamines is well known in the neighborhood. He even had a nickname: Pelon or “Baldy.” People say he’s a racist towards the Central Americans and that he likes to fuck with the street vendors.

The neighborhood erupts, for three straight nights, into demonstrations so angry they nearly explode into full-scale riots.

 

Overpowering a bolo should have been easy for police,” the laborers say.

The officers could have knocked him down with one of their batons…”

With a Taser…”

Taken him to prison…”

Deported him…”

If this is such an elevated country,” one man asks, “how could something like that happen?”

 

On the morning after the third and final day of rioting, September 8, 2010, Government and Art world dignitaries gathered at Avila Adobe House, the oldest house in the city, to break ground on a new interpretive center at the site of the Siqueiros mural. The event was the culmination of decades of tireless activism by then young Chicano artists in defense of what remains of Siqueiros’s masterpiece. When they rediscovered the mural, they found something wounded on the verge of destruction. What had not been whitewashed had been attacked with malign neglect. Despite the condition, they covered what was left with cardboard and plywood. The mural would be 80 years old before it finally reappeared.

 

7
Days later, back in the village of Xexac, the body of Manuel Jamines lies in a casket outside the cinder-clock shack where he once lived with his wife and 3 sons. He is dressed in a pinstripe three-piece suit, far nicer than anything he’d ever worn in his lifetime.

The cries of his wife are so piercing they rise above the sound of the brass band that followed the coffin down the dirt paths of the village.

"Walijoq caewaj!" she yells over and over again in Quiche. “Wake up, my love. Wake up, my love.”

Down by the river, a man who left the year before Manuel Jamines has nearly finished his gleaming two-story, six-bedroom mansion, which villagers gawk at through giant gates.

It's empty. He works in a factory near skid row in Los Angeles, cleaning vegetables seven days a week. And since he's been gone, his wife has left him for another man.

 

8
The mural is irretrievably damaged, but will at least be preserved in its present condition. Because the mural was whitewashed, it exists in an almost ghostly condition, barely colored, along a mutilated face. Still, the central image of a crucified Indian laborer remains visible and haunting, hovering over the streets of downtown.

The U.S. is in the grip of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Millions of people are out of work and millions more have lost their homes. City budgets are collapsing and social services are being eviscerated. Hatred of immigrants is rampant and escalating, and the nation is fighting multiple foreign wars.

But nothing they did could destroy the mural. Tropical America was mutilated, but not destroyed.

In the same way they’ll never destroy the spirit of the people, now matter how they oppress them.

 

Notes
The film will be of feature length corresponding to the above non-fiction treatment, though subject to radical ruptures. The film will shot using an absolute minimum of resources, in a highly self-sufficient manner. The filmmaker will spend a considerable duration in and around the neighborhood where Manuel Jamines lived and worked, documenting that world in the fullest, most sensitive, and most aesthetic manner possible. Whenever feasible and appropriate, the filmmaker will utilize hybrid forms, blurring the hard frontier between fiction and documentary.

The filmmaker has been strongly influenced by the New Latin American cinema and especially wishes to explore the ideas and methods of radical collective cinema as explored and articulated by Jorge Sanjines and the UKAMAU group in Bolivia.

America Tropical… has the potential to create something outside the typical avenues and limitations (in terms of class character and social engagement) of contemporary film and art practice. The vision of the project is entirely in keeping with Siqueiros’s revolutionary and highly democratic but ultimately suppressed creative ambitions.

As he wrote, “By situating ourselves within the reality of our era, we can create the art classics of our time.”

We have no such expectation of creating “masterpieces”, or “art classics.” Indeed, those notions themselves are connected to a narrow definition of art and its value. Instead, this project has the capacity to be of significant and unique social value. “By situating ourselves within the reality of our era…” we can acknowledge and offer expression to a community that is profoundly marginalized in the very American society its labor sustains, serving the highest social function of art.