There's No Place Like Aztlán

Embodied Aesthetics in Chicana Art 1

Alicia Gaspar de Alba
University of California, Los Angeles

"I don't know where [Kansas] is, but it is my home, and I'm sure it's somewhere."
—L. F. Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

When Dorothy of the film version of The Wizard Of Oz pronounced the magic phrase, "there's no place like home," and was consequently able to return herself to Kansas, she was learning the quintessential lesson of all displaced, misplaced, and replaced people: home, or place, is a fundamental aspect of identity. If, as Dorothy discovered, there is "no place like home," then home is in a sense a utopia, a place that is not a place, an imaginary space occupied by memory and desire. As a "place where one's domestic affections are centered," 2 home is different from any other place; it is not the same as any other place. For as magical, colorful, and marvelous as the Land of Oz was, Dorothy admitted to the Great and Terrible Wizard that "I don't like your country, although it is so beautiful" (Baum 1994, 91 ); instead, she articulated her preference for the familiar, albeit humble and not-so-beautiful place she called home. [End Page 103]

Exiled from her land, however, she must navigate the challenges of displacement in an "uncivilized" 3 and exotic country, guided only by the singular quest to return home to a specific place, Kansas, and a specific person, Aunt Em. Like all exiles, Dorothy yearns for reunification with the maternal body that signifies home. The problem is, she doesn't know how to get back, or even where in the topography of Oz it might be located. Somewhere, on the monochromatic side of the rainbow, is a land called Kansas, but the only place where it exists in Oz is in Dorothy's domestic affections.

In differentiating herself as not belonging to the Land of Oz, Dorothy enacts the diasporic condition as a body out of place and out of self. Through this recognition of her difference, through her process of dislocation and the challenging of her mind, heart, and courage, Dorothy finds her identity. With that comes her ability to return herself back to the homely prairies of the Midwest, a power she has unknowingly carried with her all along in her silver shoes (or ruby slippers), but had not been able to use until she reached the end of the Yellow Brick Road, her journey of self-discovery.

Dorothy's story is of interest to me because it illustrates issues that I have been thinking about for a number of years about how artists living in exile—diasporic artists, as well as artists who are indigenous but dispossessed exiles in their own homeland—represent their journeys toward wholeness in the absence of place, where place signifies a home, a nation, a community, a landscape, or even a body. A mythology of place evolves, and the mythos gets translated into what I call place-based aesthetics, a system of homeland representation that immigrants and natives alike develop to fill in the gaps of the self.

For nearly 40 years, the myth of Aztlán, or the lost land, has been at the core of a Chicano male identity and has had a formative influence not only on Chicano psychology, but on Chicano cultural production as well. Based on racial pride, historical awareness, brotherhood, cultural unity, and the claim to nativity to the land base of the Southwest, the myth of Aztlán calls for the reclamation of "the land of our birth," a lost or stolen mother land that was taken involuntarily, and that the Chicano " hijos de Cuauhtémoc " were destined to redeem through the political as well as the cultural manifestations [End Page 104] of El Movimiento. In this gendered relationship to land (or homeland), sexual politics is clearly articulated into the ideology of Aztlán and its representation in the arts. This article will explore the concept of Aztlán as both an aesthetic category and a cultural myth of origin, looking specifically at how the gendered politics of the myth shape and signify an aesthetic tradition that is deeply rooted in a place of contradiction, a place which is both the "free" American West and the "conquered" Mexican North. What cultural negotiations are necessary to mitigate these opposite locations and contradictory interpretations of land and history? How does one claim space in the territory of the oppressor and demand the rights and privileges of citizenship, and at the same time stake out a private sanctuary for the disenfranchised and the oppressed? If Aztlán is the dominant conceptual framework for interpreting Chicano identity, activism, and cultural production, then what are the perceptible differences between the visual art produced by male nationalists and the work produced by feminists within the Chicano nation of Aztlán? How do Chicana artists represent the homeland? Have they gone "beyond" Aztlán?

Beyond Identity

Back in the multicultural heyday of the 1990s, I attended a symposium on Latin American art sponsored by the art history department at the University of Texas. The symposium purported to find a new rubric under which to study the art of the Americas south of the border, including the art created by Chicanos and Latinos in the United States—all lumped together under the politically correct/incorrect label of "Latin Americans." This new critical framework by which to study the art of the Americas would go, according to the title of the symposium, Beyond Identity, that is, beyond an essentialist interpretation rooted in the artist's country of origin, both because national identity was a reductive view of the art, and also because the assumption of a unified cultural character known as "Latin America," supposedly evoked and represented by the art made by Latin Americans, was as false as the assumption of a culturally unified and therefore indivisible United States. "Scholars of Latin American art," wrote the organizers of [End Page 105] the symposium in the event's brochure, "no longer submit Latin American art to the demoralizing and generalizing question of how a certain piece of art represents its country of origin. Rather, contemporary scholars are now concerned with post-identity issues in Latin America: how Latin American art is a complex and distinct expression, which reflects the diversity between and within the countries that comprise Latin America."

I agree with critics of the "identity" paradigm that nationality is not the only way to understand Latin American art; but then, nationality is not the only way to configure identity, either. In seeking to move forward, to advance "beyond" identity as a paradigm within which to contextualize the art of Latin Americans, the organizers of the symposium were operating under the belief that nationality itself is synonymous with "country of origin." Though willing to acknowledge, and indeed seeking to account for, "diversity between and within the countries that comprise Latin America," the organizers never got the point that in a world of globalization and transnational capitalism, a world created by markets as much as by movements of people, place of origin does not explain or define identity.

"It is the trope of our times to locate the question of culture in the realm of the beyond, "says Homi K. Bhabha in "Beyond the Pale: Art in the Age of Multicultural Translation" ( 1993, 62 ). Bhabha deconstructs the notion of "beyond" as both a modernist term that presupposes the existence of a future and the notion of progress (as in: there is something out there, beyond here and now, toward which we are inevitably moving), and as a postmodernist term that exists between moments of the present. Those moments of "presence" are characterized by contradiction and negotiation between the differences that frame any given identity. As Bhabha says, it is "theoretically innovative and politically crucial . . . to think beyond narratives of origin and initiatory, initial subjects and to focus on those moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of 'differences'" (62). Paradoxically, what is produced in this articulation of differences is identity, and the paradox lies in the fact that identity literally signifies the opposite of difference.

Rather than visualizing the "beyond" in terms of a future, in terms of the twenty-first century, for example, Bhabha sees the "beyond" occurring simultaneously in the present, in that moment of identity in which a subject [End Page 106] negotiates her/his differences. By asking "How are subjects formed 'in between' or in excess of the sum of the 'parts' of difference?" (63), Bhabha suggests a new way of interpreting identity based on an analysis not only of the several "parts" that make up the whole of one's identity, but also of the interstices between those parts where the idea of excess or beyond is located.

If we translate this idea into an equation of signifiers, it could look something like an elongated, if superficially simplistic, problem in addition. Identity = race + gender + class + sexuality + language + generation + nationality (and/or place of origin) + religion + political identity + vocation + education + anything else that might signify the self. 4 For Homi Bhabha, the "beyond" lies not outside of any of these terms or identities, but in the spaces in between them, which he calls moments of presence. Thus, to go "beyond identity"—in Bhabha's universe, anyway—is to "think beyond narratives of origin," and to focus instead on the several interstices that exist between our individual and collective differences. In the friction created by the interaction of these signifiers lives the spark that we call identity.

In a sense, we could say that Dorothy was "beyond identity" in the Land of Oz; she was beyond the place in which she was the same as others, and found herself negotiating differences between this place and that place "over the rainbow." It was the articulation of her desire ("I want to go home") and her resistance to hegemony ("I don't like your country") that gave her the agency she needed to claim her full self, and with that came her ability (her poder ) to replace herself in Kansas and return to the familiar safety of Aunt Em's arms.

As the Emmy Award-winning PBS documentary on the U.S.-Mexican War showed, Chicanos/as (like other dispossessed people) cannot go "beyond identity" in the same way that either Dorothy or Latin Americans can go beyond identity—that is, beyond the preoccupation with and (in the case of artists) representation of nationality—because of a very real problem of geography, of contested terrain, territorial loss, and a conceptual homeland that, as Guillermo Gómez Peña says in his performance poem "Border Brujo," "float[s] on the ether of the present tense of California and the past tense of Mexico" (85). He is of course alluding to Aztlán, which rather than a "no-man's land" is more accurately a "no-place" land, a utopia. If identity [End Page 107] in the arts has for some time now been configured through place of origin, and if that place of origin is no-place except in the utopian imaginary construct of Aztlán, then identity for Chicano artists must be rooted in nonexistence, in the subjunctive netherlands of desire and imagination ("if only I had a homeland), rather than in the lament for a lost wholeness ("there's no place like home"). Clearly, to fully deconstruct the paradoxes of identity in the visual arts, identity must be problematized beyond place of origin; but also, place must be seen as more than a physical location or landscape.

Place-Based Aesthetics

In the early part of my research, as I worked at constructing a theoretical paradigm for understanding the relationship between place, identity, and gender in aesthetic development and production, I studied the historiography and exhibition books of African American, Latin American, Cuban, Filipino, Native American, and Chicano/a art. I also looked at the artistic production of the women's art movement in the 1970s, particularly art that depicted what Judy Chicago and Miriam Shapiro referred to as a "'cunt positive' attitude" (Frueh 1994, 192 ), as well as the work of gay and lesbian artists whose images of overt sexual practices catapulted the National Endowment of the Arts into a paranoiac reactionary frenzy in the early 1990s. From this exploration, I discovered seven separate aesthetic systems that substantiated my theory of place-based aesthetics:

  1. Race-based aesthetics (African American artists)
  2. Diasporic aesthetics (Asian American, Filipino, Cuban, Central American, Latin American artists)
  3. Santería aesthetics (Caribbean and Brazilian artists, called "Candomblé" in Brazil)
  4. Indigenous aesthetics (Native American artists)
  5. Aztlán aesthetics (Chicano artists)
  6. Feminist aesthetics (women artists subscribing to a "feminist" agenda)
  7. Queer aesthetics (gay, lesbian, and queer artists) [End Page 108]

All of these aesthetic practices, I found, were rooted in specific constructs of place, but they also problematized the subject beyond "place of origin" to include race, religion, community, and the body as sites of identity. This essay is part of a larger work that explores each of these systems in more depth; but here I will give a general description of the first four systems before moving on to a more detailed analysis of the Aztlán aesthetic and its disidentification by Chicana artists who practice the politics of feminist embodiment in their aesthetic productions. I will conclude with brief examples of this "embodied aesthetics" in the work of three Chicana artists.

Race-based aesthetics is a name given to a movement of American art that stirred to life approximately 30 years after the modernist "avant-garde" began appropriating the images and styles of Africa, Native America, the Pacific Islands, and pre-Columbian countries, which eventually resulted in mainstream movements such as "cubism," "surrealism," and "primitivism." As early as the 1920s, African American art historians Alain Leroy Locke (1885 - 1954), James Vernon Herring (1887 -1969), and James Amos Porter (1905 -1970) began to postulate theories about a "racially-based" aesthetic system that would help galvanize the political spirit of African American artists, and at the same time counter the racist appropriations of the avant-garde.

Early African American scholars noted that what was most needed in critical circles was a scholarly compendium that began not with the enslavement of the African in the New World, but with the history of the ancient empires of the African past where art played a central role in birth, life, and death. (Driskell 1995, 7 )

This new modern aesthetic system looked to Africa (the motherland) and to the ancestral arts of Africa for inspiration and content, and gave rise to an artistic production that was known in the twenties as the New Negro Movement and that later became the "Harlem Renaissance," a rebirth not of Harlem per se, but of the African soul that resided in Harlem.

Melding modernist styles and techniques such as abstraction, minimalism, cubism, collage, and assemblage with Egyptian-style figures painted in profile, images of slavery and bondage, African masks, Yoruba gods and [End Page 109] goddesses, Egyptian pyramids, colors and designs reminiscent of African fabrics, and other signifying iconography of the African past, African American artists were able to represent a cultural ideology rooted in the African homeland but transplanted to the formal environment of the Euro-American art world. The purpose of this art was to stir the historical memory and cultural pride of African-descended people in the United States, and in so doing, to produce political empowerment and social commentary about racism, poverty, and the color line.

A major difference between African American and Euro-American artists is that the former know their politics is racial, while the latter claim that their politics is economical. Although the two propositions are not mutually exclusive, the African American one gets specifically to the heart of the downtrodden, who believe that poverty is not the cause of racial bias but the result. African American art proponents establish their case by the evidence of their relationship between their color and their disenfranchisement. (Morrison 1995, 39 )

Although called race-based aesthetics, it should be noted that race operated as a signifier for place, and place signified both the African homeland and the social location of a slave-descended population in the United States. Thus, African American artists in the early part of the twentieth century, particularly those who were part of the Harlem Renaissance, found a way of politicizing their identity through representations of a place most would only see in exhibitions of black artists from Africa—a place that had no claim of nativity for them, but that nonetheless had roots in their racial memory.

In the 1960s, African American race-based aesthetics gave way to Pan-Africanism, which, "more than a concept of race," according to Keith Morrison,

is the collective celebration of African culture the world over by black people especially, but also by others who are dedicated to the African experience. . . . The bond of these people of color seems to be Africa, not only [End Page 110] because many share this legacy, but because African Americans have paved a path for universal cultural redemption through their telling of the African story. (Morrison 1995, 38 )

Pan-Africanism is one form of diasporic aesthetics. Rather than focusing on roots, diasporic aesthetics explores the reality of being uprooted, the act of cultural migration from a native homeland to a foreign country, and the perpetual desire of returning.

Filipino American artist Carlos Villa believes that one of the primary questions artists of the diaspora ask is: "What's the difference between staying and leaving?" (quoted in Baerwaldt 1997, 55 ). Home, then, becomes a shifting signifier; it can mean motherland, adopted country, or alien nation. In the existential process of staying and leaving, simultaneously, are the implied negotiations of coming and going, of taking and leaving behind, of borrowing and inventing that Filipinos, Cubanos, Salvadoreños, Chilenos, Argentines—and other artists of immigrant origins—must engage in on a daily basis. The key word here is, of course, immigrant. Unlike the forced migration of Africans in the seventeenth century (read slavery), or the repeated invasions of Euro-Americans endured by the indigenous populations of the New World (read conquest), Third World immigration—whether for political or economic reasons, as an act of will or of survival—is, like the emigration of Jews out of Europe from the sixteenth century to the twentieth, a diasporic experience, an exile from home and nation.

"Diaspora is a culture without a country," say Elazar Barkin and Marie-Denise Shelton in their volume Borders, Exiles, Diasporas. "Diaspora is about choice" ( 1998, 5 ). Though I disagree with their assertion that diasporic peoples always have a choice about whether or not to leave their homeland (how much choice is implied by a Holocaust, for example?), there is, eventually, the choice, or at least the possibility, of returning. Filipina writer Jessica Haegedorn speaks to this notion of return very eloquently:

I who had been away [from the Philippines] so long that I almost qualified for the title of foreigner was gripped by the conviction that I too had a city and a history to reclaim, and it may be that writers in my position, exiles or [End Page 111] immigrants, expatriates are haunted by a sense of loss, some urge to reclaim, to look back, even at the risk of being mutated into pillars of salt. But if we do look back, we must do so in a knowledge that gives rise to profound uncertainties—that our physical alienation from [our countries of origin] almost inevitably means that we will not be capable of reclaiming precisely the thing that was lost. Then we will create, in short, fictions, not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands, Philippines of the mind. (Quoted in Baerwaldt 1997, 86 )

Those imaginary representations of "home," like the nostalgic contemplations of "returning" are as much a part of the diasporic aesthetic as representations of the leaving.

I see Santería aesthetics as a combination of diasporic and race-based aesthetics, for it uses as its nutrient source the rituals, forms, and symbols of the Afro-Cuban religion known as Santería. Originating in the Yoruba religion of Africa, and transplanted to Brazil, the east coast of Mexico, and the islands of the Caribbean by the slave trade in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Santería hearkens back to the racial and spiritual homeland of Africa at the same time that it also signifies the Latin American landscapes, colonial histories, and Catholic syncretism of its diaspora living in exile. One could say that while race signifies place in race-based aesthetics, in Santería aesthetics, place is signified by religion; indeed, as a nature-based religion, Santería is always tied to the natural landscape from which it is born and wherein it is practiced. Thus, Santería makes the homeland more mobile, for it can be rooted to any latitude and longitude that the orishas (the gods and goddesses of Santería) find hospitable. Nowadays, "the orishas inhabit Manhattan and Miami, Los Angeles and Kansas City, [and] the Hudson is as much La Sirene's and Yemaya's as the Caribbean is . . ." (Viera and Morris 1996, 186). Hiding in the guises of Catholic saints, 5 the Afro-Cuban orishas have their own names, character traits, and personal preferences, and each one requires representation and worship through his/her own colors, clothing, foods, natural elements, and other symbolic objects, which the orisha must find aesthetically pleasing (Lindsay 1996, xvii). The aesthetic, then, has a sacred function, and the practice of making and assembling these ritual [End Page 112] objects in an altar or a throne is akin to the practice of making art. Contemporary Latino and Latin American artists who work in the Santería tradition and represent this Afro-Cuban spiritual belief system employ the styles and forms of the art world—namely, installation, sculpture, performance, conceptual art, and earth/body art—to create a place-based aesthetic system that transcends continents, landscapes, and geopolitical boundaries. 6

Unlike Santería aesthetics, where art functions in the service of the sacred, some subject matters for indigenous artists, particularly if they pertain to sacred rituals meant only for insider eyes, are off-limits to artistic representation. Only those "images associated with nature and landscape and [public] ritual life [are] found in mural painting, pottery, and textile design, and, of course, rock art" (Rushing 1991, 13 ). In Indigenous Aesthetics, Steven Leuthold defines indigenous aesthetics as aesthetic practices of "people who are minorities in their own homeland, [and] who have suffered oppression in the context of colonial conquest. . . ." As native self-representation, indigenous aesthetics "express place attachment" (3). Place attachment is not landscape art; it is a sustained affective tie to the land and to the community that has occupied, used, and cared for the land since time immemorial. Thus, place attachment is attachment to land, to community, to culture and memory. In contrast to race-based aesthetics, which looks outward from the colonial experience to a collective memory of a homeland that will most likely never be seen, indigenous aesthetics is born from within the colonial context, and looks inward into a collective experience of the homeland's colonization. "The question of indigenous self-representation can only arise in the context of neocolonialism," argues Leuthold (31). In that context, indigenous aesthetics is concerned with portraying a native community's process of self-determination, cultural survival and continuity, preservation of traditions, negotiation of inside/outside dynamics, political empowerment, and economic sovereignty. In this aesthetic system, community becomes the signifier for place or homeland, for dispossessed people, particularly Native Americans, are also deterritorialized people, relocated by government edict to reservations that lie far beyond their place of origin, or that occupy token space on the map of their own homeland. Within this colonial (and neocolonial) context, then, that which cannot be claimed by a [End Page 113] flag or a homestead—in other words, the native community more than the land base—becomes that place of attachment, that common ground in which indigenous identity is rooted.

Aztlán Aesthetics

What the different aesthetic systems discussed in the previous section have in common with Aztlán aesthetics is that they are all, to quote Leuthold again, "aesthetic practices that express attachment to place." But place means more than geographical location. For Third World people in the United States, place means race, religion, community, and (as we shall see later) body, as well. Central to all of these practices is the concept of homeland, the idea that the land of the artist's birth or the place of origin of the artist's people/group/race, as well as the history and cultural beliefs and practices of that land—all inform the content and theme of the art.

Like race-based aesthetics (which to a large degree includes both diasporic and Santería aesthetic systems), Aztlán aesthetics depicts a strong spiritual, physical, and symbolic connection to the artist's place of origin. That place of origin, however, is not Mexico, for as many Chicana and Chicano writers who have made that journey have discovered, when natives to Aztlán—that is, Mexican Americans—go "home" to Mexico, they find that Mexico is not the homeland after all, but a foreign land in which they are perceived as "gringo wannabes" and "sellouts" to their Mexican culture. Nor is the United States the homeland, for within that territory, natives and descendants of Aztlán are viewed as foreigners, outsiders, interlopers, wetbacks, and illegal aliens.

Like indigenous aesthetics, the Aztlán aesthetic is a representation of both territorial dispossession and cultural reclamation. The dispossession aspect of this aesthetic can be extrapolated from the many visual and literary allusions to war and its tropes and "heroes": the Mexican War for Independence in 1810, when the native criollos and mestizos of Mexico, led by an insurgent priest, Father Miguel Hidalgo, held their ground against the Spanish colonials and brandished the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe like a nationalist banner for a sovereign nation; the U.S.-Mexico War, which took [End Page 114] place between 1846 and 1848, but really started ten years earlier with the Alamo and the illegal Anglo invasion of Texas;the Mexican Revolution, 1910 -1921, that made heroes of civilian guerillas Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa, and their female followers, epitomized by the image of la soldadera, or la Adelita;and finally, the war in Vietnam, which claimed a disproportionate number of Chicano lives on the front lines and gave rise to martyrs back home like Rubén Salazar, the Chicano journalist killed during an antiwar demonstration in downtown Los Angeles. Another Chicano resonance with Vietnam was the notion of foreign occupation of a sovereign territory, an issue that would be duplicated in U.S. invasions of the Panama Canal, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. In the same vein, gang-related wars, turf wars, economic wars, social wars—all fought in the streets and homes of the large urban centers of colonized Aztlán—gave another face to the meaning of community loss.

The dispossession aspect of the Aztlán aesthetic also connotes land itself by depicting campesinos, braceros, and farm workers laboring in a land that no longer belongs to them under the most inhumane of working conditions that included the short-handled hoe, pesticide poisoning, and lack of stability in wages due to no union representation. Advocates for the farm workers such as César Chávez and Dolores Huerta, who founded the United Farm Workers, thus form part of the heroic iconography of the Aztlán aesthetic, and images of hands and arms, of furrows and crops bespeak both the dignity of the workers and the indignities visited upon their bodies and working lives. One of those continuing indignities, particularly in the wake of California's blatantly racist Proposition 187, 7 is the issue of deportations from Aztlán, as well as border crossings into that contested terrain between the lost and the promised land.

The other side of the coin, the reclamation aspect of the Aztlán myth, becomes visually manifest in the proliferation of Aztec and Native American iconography that gets reproduced in Chicano murals—particularly that of Indian heroes like Moctezuma and Geronimo 8 —and indigenous symbols like the Aztec calendar. We find multiple representations of indigenous practices engaged in by both male and female nationalists, such as ritual dancing and curanderismo, or faith healing. [End Page 115]

But the concept of reclamation is perhaps most aptly expressed in the varied and constant depictions of "home" and " familia " that we find breeding quite prolifically in the work of both Chicano and Chicana (heterosexual) artists, particularly in the first decade of the Chicano Art Movement. In Aztlán aesthetics, then, we could say that familia becomes the primary signifier for place of origin, and place of origin amalgamates mother's womb, barrio or neighborhood, and regional landscape—all of which constitute the lost and living homeland in the Chicano imagination.

By region, I mean more than "the West" or the "Southwest," although they, of course, must come into play against the mainstream imaginary of what those places and directions really signify. Within the West and the Southwest, there are many regions, many different landscapes: the arid desert of the El Paso/Juárez border is not the same as the high desert of northern New Mexico, with its forests and mesas. The rain-soaked beaches of the Pacific Northwest coast offer vastly different vistas from the congested cement beaches of the Los Angeles freeways. The fertile fields of California's Central Valley do not produce the same crops or images as the scorching furrows of south Texas or the stream-fed acreage of the Rocky Mountain states. Regional differences, I argue, are as crucial to shaping an artist's aesthetic vision as gender or political identity, as we will see later when we take a quick look at the place-based art of Patssi Valdéz, Delilah Montoya, and Carmen Lomas Garza.

Chicana/o culture is not a diasporic culture, but instead what I have called elsewhere an alter-Native culture, i.e., an Other indigenous culture to the land base now known as the West and the Southwest (Gaspar de Alba 1998). The historical fact that Chicanos/as constitute a legacy of nativity to this land base gets submerged under the "immigrant" rhetoric typically applied to people of Mexican descent since the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. Like indigenous aesthetics, Aztlán aesthetics pertains to a people that is colonized in its own land, and portrays the cultural hybridity that occurs as a result of that colonization. Generation by generation, Chicanos lose their connection to the Mexican past and become ever more melted into the American present. Thus we have non-Spanish-speaking Chicanos, for example, for whom the language of their grandparents is as remote from their [End Page 116] experience as walking on the moon. We have assimilated Mexican Americans who forgot, rejected, or simply never learned their cultural history. Memory, then, the missing link between the past and the future, is what must be restored. Knowledge of Aztlán must replace historical amnesia. Aztlán becomes the memory, and the aesthetics of Aztlán portrays not only the social environment in which Chicanos live their daily lives, but also multi-faceted images of the mythologies, histories, ideologies, and conquests that have shaped the collective memory of la raza cósmica deAztlán.

Mapquest to Aztlán

Who knows the way to Aztlán? Shall we consult Mapquest? Shall we tap our heels three times and repeat Dorothy's magic phrase? Most of us who identify as Chicanos and Chicanas probably think we know all about Aztlán. We know that Aztlán is a cultural myth of Chicanismo, the myth of the lost homeland that galvanized the Chicano Movement. John Chávez argues in The Lost Land: The Chicano Image of the Southwest (1984) that Aztlán is the central organizing belief that forged the radical Chicano consciousness of the 1960s. 9 According to this cultural myth, Aztlán is the conceptual homeland of Chicanos/as, said to be the Aztecs' place of origin prior to their migration and settlement in the southern valley of Anahuac, which is present-day Mexico. Believed to be located in what was once the Mexican North and what is now the American Southwest, and home to over twenty million Mexican-descended peoples, Aztlán represents the Chicano homeland. Chávez argues that this myth is a fundamental component of the politicized Chicano consciousness. Indeed, Aztlán is the foundation of the most basic tenet of Chicanismo—cultural nationalism—and its attendant themes of carnalismo (brotherhood), familia, and community pride, upon which the Chicano ideology of "El Movimiento" was built.

In Chicano nationalism, the Indo-Hispanic culture of Mexico (along with its Columbian and pre-Columbian history) becomes the abstract Chicano "nation" of Aztlán, championed by the primary symbol of maternity and cultural hybridity, the Virgin of Guadalupe. By pledging allegiance to the culture of Aztlán, Chicanos demonstrated pride in both the indigenous and [End Page 117] mestizo aspects of their Mexican heritage, including Catholicism, Aztec and Toltec theology, the Spanish language, and native cultural practices and beliefs. This pride forged a sense of nationalistic loyalty to an imaginary homeland and gave rise to a mestizo identity rooted, quite literally, in the land base of the American Southwest. Thus, says Chávez, "the belief that the Southwest (especially the areas long settled by Mexicans) is the Chicano homeland and the belief that Mexicans are indigenous to and dispossessed of the region are beliefs that have had a formative and continuing influence on the collective Chicano mind" (1).

Paradoxically, Aztlán was conceptualized as a nation autonomous and separate from the United States, but "La Causa Chicana" that this homeland myth inspired was as much about achieving equality of education and opportunity as American citizens as it was about affirming the separatist spirit of Chicano identity and resisting assimilation, racism, and historical amnesia. While separating themselves politically from the dominant culture and value system of the Anglo colonizer, Chicanos also considered themselves exiles in their own land, and protested their social and political marginalization within what Rudolfo Acuña calls "occupied America."

The contradictory and paradoxical nature of the Aztlán struggle was further reproduced in the gender dynamics of La Causa, which dictated the proud liberation of the "macho" and the willful subordination of women in the movement. "Chicanos are an occupied nation within a nation," writes Cherrie Moraga in "Queer Aztlán: The Re-Formation of Chicano Tribe" (1993), "and women and women's sexuality are occupied within Chicano nation" (150). Moraga spells out the danger she sees in the strategy of separatism which "can run dangerously close to biological determinism and a kind of fascism" (149). But the other inherent danger to Chicano nationalism, "its institutionalized heterosexism, its inbred machismo" (148 -49), is directly related to a male perception of land that is not contained to Aztlán. [End Page 118]

Myths of Origin, or, The Mother and the Virgin

As a cultural myth, or myth of origin, Aztlán has much in common with the Judeo-Christian genesis story, for example, or the Anglo-American myth of the frontier, which is another way of saying Manifest Destiny. According to the myth-symbol-image school of cultural analysis espoused in the field of American studies, cultural myths are typically expressed in symbols or images that resonate with a culture's deeply held beliefs, values, and goals, out of which a national or cultural identity can be extrapolated or defined. Thus, cultural myths function as both creation stories and political ideology.

Manifest Destiny gave Euro-Americans the legal right and spiritual obligation to spread Christianity and Western civilization from "sea to shining sea"—from the eastern seaboard to the western coast. It was, in other words, the collective destiny of Anglo-Americans to migrate west toward an open land on the edge of civilization—a frontier, if you will, filled with untold opportunities. The discovery of gold in California a few weeks before the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo only reinforced the idea of that frontier as a golden land of promise and plenty. Not only was it the Anglos' moral duty to conquer the land and civilize its backward and ungodly natives, but it was also their divine mission to flourish and prosper on that land.

The myth of the frontier is expressed in the symbol of the garden, which itself was represented in two opposing images: (a) the garden as paradise, and (b) the garden as wilderness. 10 As a paradise, the image of the garden symbolized for the Anglo pioneers a free land for free men recently liberated from the yoke of European colonialism and anxious to sow their independent seeds across the West. But the garden was also a wilderness, a "meeting point between savagery and civilization," as Frederick Jackson Turner described it in 1893 in his seminal (I use the word on purpose) paper, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" ( 1996, 3 ). For Turner, the frontier signified the place in which the transplanted Europeans actually became Americans; thus, he saw the frontier as the place of origin for the American mind and character (which, naturally, was also inscribed with a specific race, color, and gender). [End Page 119]

At first the frontier was the Atlantic Coast. It was the frontier of Europe in a very real sense. Moving westward, the frontier became more and more American. . . . Thus the advance of the frontier has meant a steady movement away from the influence of Europe, a steady growth of independence on American lines. And to study this advance, the men who grew up under these conditions, and the political, economic, and social results of it, is to study the really American part of our history. (Turner 1996, 4 )

Certainly, the landscape movement of the nineteenth century pictured precisely what that significant frontier held in store for pioneering, enterprising white citizens of the New World seeking to escape the crowded cities of the eastern seaboard: a boundless horizon of uncharted and unclaimed real estate rife with natural resources. In Lure of the Local, Lucy Lippard explains that the controversial 1991 exhibition The West as America showed "how nineteenth-century landscape and genre paintings reflected this dichotomy [of the East as metropolis and the West as wilderness] and lured settlers westward where farmers were pictured in vast fields as their Eastern counterparts went about their tasks in cramped farmyards" (Lippard 1997, 134 ).

Both of these views of the garden saw the agents as male—industrious, progressive, dominating—and the land (as well as its native inhabitants) as female—abject, stagnant, passive. We can read westward migration, then, in two ways: as an act of raping the virgin, metaphorized, for example, by the image of the plow, the covered wagon, and the church steeple, all cutting steadily into and across the landscape; but also, in the symbolic imaginary that interpreted the "West" as the new garden of Eden to be husbanded by the intrepid pioneer, as an act of marrying the land to build an empire. 11

"Pushed aside by the course of empire," writes Erika Doss in "'I must paint': Women Artists of the Rocky Mountain Region" (1995), "the Rocky Mountain landscape and its indigenous population were central to the construction of the mythical American frontier but essentially disposable when it came to the business of conquering, and settling, that place " (210; emphasis mine). Rather than a mother land to which they wanted to return, or with which they were seeking reunification, these Anglo-American trailblazers imagined the "West" as a virgin, just waiting to get hitched to the wagon of [End Page 120] Western civilization. Rather than displaced sons in a constant state of separation anxiety, these Anglo pioneers imagined themselves hardy, rugged husbands and future fathers.

"In the gendered dyads that structure the Western imaginary," says Amy Kaminsky in After Exile: Writing the Latin American Diaspora (1996), "the exile occupies the male position—or at least one of them—of child in the process of separation, while the feminine position is the maternal place left behind" (6). As a lost land, Aztlán is a metaphor for the vanquished Indian mother—the raped, abject mother iconographed by La Malinche—as well as the sacred, all-powerful mother iconographed by La Virgen de Guadalupe. Chicana historian Emma Pérez argues that Aztlán is not actually an internal colony of the United States, but rather a "maternal imaginary" of the dispossessed Chicano psyche. In The Decolonial Imaginary: Writing Chicanas into History (1999), Pérez describes the Chicano version of what Kaminsky sees as a prevalent leitmotif in the literature of South American men living in exile: the image of nation as maternal body. Says Pérez:

The nationalist imperative is to move back in time, a regression, a return to the mother, but the mother cannot be Malinche. She must be La Virgen de Guadalupe; she cannot be sexual. She must be pure for the nationalist dream. In this way, Aztlán is not an empirical, internal colony, but an imaginary, a maternal imaginary. . . . And the land is maternal; it is pure, virginal; it is where the family will all be safe in the womb. Hence, nationalism becomes a return to the mother—Aztlán—where woman can be only metaphor and object. (122)

Like one of the mythic lost tribes of Israel, Aztlán is a lost nation, and Chicano nationalism, i.e., allegiance to the nation of Aztlán, is a sense of devotion and loyalty to a land that is as much a sacred place of origin as the site of original sin—i.e., miscegenation—connoted by the rape of conquest (both Spanish and Anglo). Somewhere between shame and veneration is where Chicano nationalism is located.

But what, exactly, is nationalism? Etymologically, the word springs from nation, which itself springs from the Latin word natio, which means birth, [End Page 121] nation, and people. In Spanish, the connection is more obvious: nación / nacer and nacionalismo / nacimiento. The word native is also connected to birth, and hence, to mother. Nationalism, then, is a claim to nativity, a fierce allegiance to the womb (the land) that gave birth to the people that constitute the family (the nation) of Aztlán. Although we could see nationalism as a form of mother worship, where mother represents homeland and where nation represents familia, the mother's worth is purely symbolic, a vehicle for nationalist redemption from the shame of conquest.

There are several ironies to Aztlán. To say, "I am native to Aztlán" is to say I was born of an imaginary mother, conceived in the immaculate devotion of a dispossessed progeny in search of a symbol to galvanize their mythic "return" to their place of origin. Thus, while the offspring of Aztlán are very much a material and historical reality, the mother land is an imaginary construct that came into being through the political imagination and literary representations of the Chicanos who conceptualized "El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán": poets Alurista, Ricardo Sánchez, and Rudolfo "Corky" González. We could say, then, that Aztlán (the concept of motherland, not the land base) was born of the son, not the other way around. Another irony is that, in Chicano nationalism, the object of devotion and loyalty is female (land) or female-centric (familia), but the objective of the revolution is male control of both terrains. It is, in other words, a reconquista, a reconquest of the land (and, by extension, of the female body) that will assure the liberation and survival of the race.

Virgins, Mothers, and Whores, Oh My!

Both the Chicano ideology of a conquered mother land and the Anglo-American ideology of a free and primitive virgin land look to Aztlán/the West as the place of opportunity and rebirth, and both gender land as a female. How does the juncture of these two cultural myths which have had a formative influence on the cultural character of their respective nations, by virtue of occupying the same land base, intersect in the Chicano psyche (whether Chicanos like to admit it or not)? How does the common denominator of gendered dynamics that connects these two myths create an [End Page 122] aesthetics of place, a representational politics of homeland, that depicts the same place of origin as both vanquished mother and potential, if primitive, virgin?

As we have seen, the two main characteristics of the myth of Aztlán are loss and recuperation. The consequences of loss became effective on 2 February 1848 at the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, which sold the northern half of Mexico's land base to the United States for $15 million (one of the best real-estate swindles in the history of the Americas) and transformed the Mexican citizens who chose to remain in the occupied North into second-class residents of annexed territory. Literally overnight, then, they lost their citizenship, their country, and eventually their land and their language. This is the point of contact between the myth of the Frontier and the myth of Aztlán, though the latter had not yet surfaced in the consciousness of the displaced descendants of the Treaty. It wasn't until 120 years later that the myth of Aztlán was born, and the recuperative aspect of the myth kicked into high gear, serving as the catalyst for the first manifesto of the Chicano Movement, entitled "El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán."

In the spirit of a new people that is conscious not only of its proud historical heritage, but also of the brutal "gringo" invasion of our territories, we, the Chicano inhabitants and civilizers of the northern land of Aztlán, from whence came our forefathers, reclaiming the land of their birth and consecrating the determination of our people of the sun, declare that the call of our blood is our power, our responsibility, and our inevitable destiny. (Rendón 1996, 306 ; emphasis mine)

It would be misguided, I think, to imagine that "El Plan de Aztlán" was not written, in part, as both rebuttal and response to the ideology of Manifest Destiny. As opposed to the "chosen children of God," whose destiny and divine right it was to move toward the frontier, to conquer and civilize "the West," we have "the people of the sun" (a reference to the Aztec sun god, Huitzilopochtli, by the way) whose destiny it is to move into the streets, the fields, and the classrooms to reclaim and civilize the Mexican North. Both are driven by their male desire to control the land and by the "call of [their] [End Page 123] blood"; be it white or brown, race is still the driving force, the power, behind their movement.

The emphasis on "forefathers" in the passage quoted above, just like the reification of male unity we see in the following phrases—"Brotherhood unites us, and love for our brothers makes us a people whose time has come... " and "Our cultural values of life, family, and home will serve as a powerful weapon to defeat the gringo dollar value system and encourage the process of love and brotherhood"—all indicate the sexual hierarchy that will prevail in the nation of Aztlán, and the heroic role that the brothers are going to play in the struggle, aided and supported, of course, by their "Adelitas."

"The problem is the gabacho, not the macho," was a popular slogan of the Chicano Movement, implying to the " hocicona " (loud-mouthed) women who were protesting too much about Chicano sexism that, first, their loyalty was to their race, not to their gender, and second, that as long as las hermanas were working to liberate the macho, they were also working to liberate " la familiade Aztlán. "

As a metaphor for the brown-skinned cosmic race forcefully forged during the Spanish conquest of the so-called New World, the trope of " familia " functions as both figurative and literal reminder of conquest, hybridity, and cultural survival. Thus, familia (from the Latin word famulus, which means a gathering of slaves) encompasses each Chicano's own immediate and extended relations, as well as all Mexican-descended peoples who are engaged in the struggle for liberty, continuity, and dignity in the face of colonization.

For all of its connotative function, however, this aspect of the Aztlán aesthetic is the most problematic for me as a feminist critic because, as we well know, both "home" and "family" are heavily gendered areas; that is, they set the mold for gender identity and political interactions between the genders. Home and family are, moreover, considered part of the domestic domain, and as such are believed to be under the control of women. Chicano patriarchy, however, always asserts its own preeminent control of women's lives and bodies, and, for as much "power" as women may be said to wield within the home and family, they are nevertheless subservient to the almighty 'Apá. [End Page 124] Famulus , indeed; only the laws of the Father govern Aztlán, though it is the Mother who is pictured over and over again as holding the family, the house, and thus the culture together. This imbues the mother figure with a biological mystique and a symbolic role as the beating heart of Aztlán. Any divergence from that role, be it through a political engagement with the ideology of women's liberation, as in the case of Chicana feminists, or through rejection of the heterosexual imperative, as in the case of Chicana lesbians, immediately casts Chicanas who subscribe to either or both of these choices in a suspect light.

Viewed as "wannabe" white women, Chicana feminists are still accused in some inner circles of betraying the Chicano revolution and subscribing to a divisive politics that breaks up the " familia "—both symbolically, by criticizing the "brothers" and " jefes " of the movement and calling them on their sexism and heterosexism, and literally, by not using their sexuality in the service of breeding new revolutionaries for La Causa, or simply by "refusing the favor" 12 of male domination. To represent this betrayal of La Raza, the "Malinche" label is branded on all who would put gender or sexuality on a par with race or class as sites of oppression and struggle.

In this postmodern age of shifting signifiers and signifieds, and in the same way that early feminist artists reclaimed the word "cunt" and that gay and lesbian discourses have reappropriated the word "queer" and invested it with the power of self-naming, Chicana lesbians [and feminists] can take "Malinchista" away from the oppressive and degrading signification of patriarchy. . . . To be a Malinche is to be a traitor: to the essentializing, stereotypical, male-privileged gender codes of the race; thus, Malinche is a new mirror for Chicana posterity to look upon and in which to be reflected. From this mirror arises the mirror of Malinchismo, a new theory of Chicana resistance. (Gaspar de Alba 1998, 144 )

Witness Yolanda López's famous triptych, which casts the Virgin of Guadalupe as an Everywoman committed to empowering her own life—by working at a job outside the home for 30 years, for example, or running a marathon—rather than waiting around on a pedestal of womanly perfection. 13 [End Page 125] How about Ester Hernández's vision of the Virgin as a tattoo on a woman's back, being offered a symbol of female sexuality by another woman's hand; or Guadalupe as karate expert kicking at the face of both patriarchy and racism; or Ester's reinscription of the Statue of Liberty as a pre-Columbian Libertad, welcoming her "poor" and "oppressed" gente south of the border into the free land of Aztlán? 14 In the mixed-media triptych, "Las Tres Marías," Judy Baca critically interrogates the virgin/mother/whore stereotypes which Chicano patriarchy has fixed over women's lives. 15 Flanked by the representation of a 1940s Pachuca on one side and a 1970s Chola on the other, the middle panel is a mirror in which the viewer has no choice but to see him/herself reflected. By positioning the viewer in the paradigm, the piece ridicules the stereotypical representation of Chicanas that we see over and over in Chicano patriarchy: a refrain of mothers, daughters/virgins, and whores—with, actually, one of those Marys receiving most of the limelight.

Among Chicana feminists, this paradigm has come to be known as "las tres Marías" syndrome, in honor of the three Marys who were present at the Crucifixion of Jesus: The Virgin Mary, Mary the Mother of James, and Mary Magdalene, sister of Lazarus and reformed Whore. "Implicit in the virgin/ mother/whore trilogy of oppressions represented by the three Mary's of the Crucifixion are the images of la Virgen de Guadalupe, la Llorona, and la Malinche—the female trinity of Chicana identification that [Chicana artists, writers, and theorists] have reappropriated to their own ends" (Gaspar de Alba 1998, 139 ). Employing the politics of "disidentification" that José Muñoz discusses in his book by the same title, these "gender nationalists" (as Chicana feminists have been termed by macho and male-identified compatriots in Chicano/a studies) (Garcia 1996, 190 ) choose not to separate completely from the dominant ideology of Chicanismo, but to "transform its cultural logic [of sexism and homophobia] from within, always laboring to enact permanent structural change while at the same time valuing the importance of local or everyday struggles of [Raza] resistance." (Muñoz 1999, 11 )

Actually, my current project on place, identity, gender, and aesthetics emerged out of my dis-ease with the rigid patriarchy and entrenched sexism of Chicanismo, and led me to question whether Aztlán, as both concept and aesthetic, signified the same thing to women as it does to men. Land as [End Page 126] mother/womb/virgin is the dominant construction in Chicano cultural nationalism. To what extent do Chicana artists and writers apply or oppose this patriarchal ideology in their own aesthetic constructions? If Aztlán is populated by machos, misogynists, and homophobes, as well as by more middle-of-the-road types who nonetheless subscribe (consciously or not) to las tres Marías as the appropriate role models for women, then to what degree does the male nationalist construction of Aztlán inform the political identity of Chicana artists?

My hypothesis is that, rather than expressing their attachment to place as either dispossessed of or exiled from their native land, Chicana artists have a more intimate and embodied connection to place. Whereas Anglo and Chicano men have already laid claim to the land as either their virgin or their mother, Chicanas are actively deconstructing and reconstructing the Malinche face of las tres Marías, the ideological aspect that represents the traded, penetrated, and bifurcated body of the land. It is, in other words, a politics of the body and of self-creation; rather than "they took my place of origin" or "I was forced to leave my place of origin," Chicana artists seem to be saying "I am my place of origin." Transmuted into art, this politics of the body produces an embodied aesthetic, one that frees the Chicana artist from the shackles of a relational identity as someone's wife, mother, daughter, or mistress. Instead of dispossession, ownership, or reclamation of a place outside the self, embodied aesthetics uses the body as the signifier for place. As such, the body functions as site of origin, bridge between worlds, and locus of liberation.

In this article, I have employed a Chicana feminist praxis that Emma Pérez (1999) calls "sexing the colonial imaginary"—that is, using sexuality as a methodology by which to reveal the trappings of sexual power that are embedded in colonial acts such as the conquest and occupation of a foreign territory.

Where women are conceptualized as merely a backdrop to men's social and political activities, they are in fact intervening interstitially while sexing the colonial imaginary. In other words, women's activities are unseen, unthought, merely a shadow in the background of the colonial mind. Yet Chicana, [End Page 127] Mexicana, India, mestiza actions, words spoken and unspoken, survive and persist whether acknowledged or not. Women's voices and actions intervene to do what I call sexing the colonial imaginary, historically tracking women's agency on the colonial landscape. (Pérez 1999, 7 )

Let us see now how three Chicana artists from completely different landscapes in Aztlán—Southern California, northern New Mexico, and south Texas—engage in the task of "tracking women's agency on the colonial landscape" of their respective homelands.

The Body as Place

The art of Patssi Valdez from Los Angeles; Carmen Lomas Garza from Kingsville, Texas; and Delilah Montoya, herself born in Texas and raised in Nebraska but with ancestral roots in northern New Mexico, is located squarely in the landscapes, histories, and politics of their respective regional homelands. By looking at and comparing the impact of regional differences between Southern California, rural south Texas, and northern New Mexico, 16 and exploring how those differences are represented in the art and politics of these diverse Chicana artists, I suggest that it is possible to analyze the hidden role that place —not just as homeland or motherland, but as body and self—when intersected with gender, plays in the construction of a politicized aesthetic vision.

In Patssi Valdéz's work, Aztlán has been condensed into one room, a room of shadows and vertiginous angles, of bright chromatic tones and inanimate objects swirling with life. Hallucinations of identity, stability, and home haunt the perimeters of the room. This is the inner-city Aztlán; the Aztlán of drive-by shootings and high school blow-outs; the Aztlán of over three million Mexicans and Propositions 187, 209 , and 227; the schizophrenic, multigenerational, ultra-mestizoized, and technologized Aztlán of Los Angeles. In the early days of her artistic career, Patssi's motto was, "I'm going to paint my way out of this place." "This place" referred specifically to the East L.A. barrio where she grew up, a place riddled with violence, racism, and the perpetual sense of entrapment. Embodying an aesthetics of claustrophobia, her [End Page 128] landscapes are in the main interior ones, where the outside is either completely shut out of view, or poses a more serene perspective than what's on the inside, and the chaotic images of home she paints with such vigor symbolize the artist's displacement and confusion in that milieu of contradictions and cultural brouhaha that is Southern California. But Patssi is also a highly politicized artist, both as a Chicana artist seeking retribution for racial exclusion from the mainstream art world, and as a Chicana feminist no longer willing to abide the pervasive stereotyping of her gender. Rather than weeping women and suffering mothers, Patssi's female iconography depicts queens and goddesses, not at the mercy of their social environment, but in control of their respective emotional and topographical realms. These images suggest that the only way out of the claustrophobia is through leaving the house and embodying her own power as both a woman and an artist.

Figure 1
Delilah Montoya, Jesus Is Stripped, Station #10, 1992, Cibachrome, 8" * 10", private collection. Used by permission of the artist.

Delilah Montoya, biologically half-Anglo and half-Hispana, politically full-blooded Chicana, trains her camera on the spiritual practices of her mother's native land, northern New Mexico, and therein finds the link that ties her to the landscape of her chosen homeland. For Delilah, spiritualism [End Page 129] is the binding force of Aztlán. From her collotypes of the Sacred Heart, a symbol which connects the baroque world of European Catholicism with the religious practices of Aztec worship, to her "Saints and Sinners" project, which uses iconography used by the Penitente brotherhood as a type of visual alchemy that transmutes sin into purity, Montoya's photographs return again and again to the themes of life, death, and salvation. The most telling of these images are what she calls her "glass jar series," which "refers to the alchemist's method of transmutation. The alchemist places a material together with a catalyst in order to change it into a superior material. The jar symbolizes the corporeal and the materials placed inside symbolize the soul. . . . The exterior environment in which the jars float represents the land as altar space. . . . The exterior landscape echoes the interior ambiance of the jar." 17 Thus, the human body and soul, as represented by the jar and its contents, are made sacred by the land. Often, however, there is dissonance in Montoya's work, such as the severe beauty of a northern New Mexico landscape whose resources—natural or human—have all been tapped and contained by either a monolithic theology or a capitalist power plant. Or the drug-addicted body hovering inside a crack house that itself is cracking to reveal the dry, spiritually void adobe underneath. Or the memory of the newlyweds killed in a car accident by the side of the road. Or the beating, living heart of Aztlán, densely textured and layered with religious and political meaning, as imagined by Chicano gang members and spray-can artists from the barrios in Albuquerque. We could call Delilah's aesthetic an embodiment of spirit—of the land, culture, and daily life of her mother's homeland and her own chosen place of political allegiance.

Carmen Lomas Garza's domestic vignettes of rural life in south Texas in the 1950s contrast sharply to both Montoya's and Valdéz's work. Gone is Montoya's almost anachronistic quest for the spiritual syncretism that resides in the heart of Aztlán; absent are Valdéz's claustrophobic imaginings of inner-city survival. Instead, Lomas Garza offers us a pastoral tranquillity that, on the surface at least, reads almost like a eulogy to innocence. In her inimitable " monitos " style, often equated with folk art, primitive art, and children's art, Lomas Garza offers us a child's view of daily life in her neck of Aztlán. The rituals that define the community's social and familial life—the [End Page 130]
 Delilah Montoya, Jesus Falls a Third Time, Station #7, 1992, Cibachrome, 8' * 10', private collection. Used by permission of the artist.
Figure 2
Delilah Montoya, Jesus Falls a Third Time, Station #7 , 1992, Cibachrome, 8" * 10", private collection. Used by permission of the artist.
 Delilah Montoya, Till Death Do We Part, 1992, Cibachrome, 16' * 20', private collection. Used by permission of the artist.
Figure 3
Delilah Montoya, Till Death Do We Part, 1992, Cibachrome, 16" * 20", private collection. Used by permission of the artist.
[End Page 131]

Christmas Posada, the making of tamales, the visit to the local healing woman, the church bazaar with its inevitable cake walk, the telling of Llorona stories on the front porch, the birthday piñata party—all of these get rendered in the most minute and meticulous detail. The child's eye takes it all in, remembers these tiny details that spell "home," and those community gatherings in which the child was safe from the racism and linguistic terrorism of the south Texas schools that she had no choice but to attend; and the adult, the artist, fashions the child's memories and her own politicized consciousness as a Chicana into an aesthetics of healing.

"Children's art," Lomas Garza said in an interview, "is very simple and direct. If you want to see a message, it's right there. That's what I wanted—to be direct, simple, easy to read. I wanted to make the point that the aspects of Chicano culture that we take so much for granted are beautiful and worthy of depiction in fine art." 18 Not surprisingly, those cultural aspects that are taken for granted all relate to the environment of the home, the domestic space ruled by women. It is because she focuses on women's lives, and because she employs a method some find to be infantilizing or "cute," that Lomas Garza has always been considered a "safe" artist, both by her own Chicano counterparts in the Chicano Art Movement and by art critics like Paul Richards of the Washington Post, whose review of her show at the Hirshhorn in 1995 lamented the fact that there were no "cockroaches to be seen" in her pristine kitchens.

And yet, they miss the point, for safety is precisely what the child growing up in the midst of rampant racism and virulent hatred against "greasers" most craved. Operation Wetback was in full force; McCarthy was hell-bent on persecuting anybody believed to be an outsider and potential enemy of the state. Restaurants were still allowed to post their "No Dogs or Mexicans Allowed" signs in the window. To be home was to be safe, even if violence or danger always lurked around the corner, or even in your own backyard. To paint safety was to heal from the wounds caused by the social circumstances and political history of Mexicans in occupied Texas.

As an embodiment of healing, Carmen's work resonates not just with other Tejanas and border women who share her history, but also with every new generation of Chicanitas who find themselves present in a mainstream [End Page 132] museum, their culture eulogized and valued, a subject of aesthetic representation rather than ridicule or marginalization. For all of the ways in which Carmen has been attacked by her own Chicano compatriots for her lack of an overtly political (read "male-inscribed") message, nothing could be more political, nothing could say " viva la Raza! " more lyrically or loudly, nothing could assert the power of physical presence on the landscape of colonized Aztlán more than the portrayal and celebration of cultural memory and survival in the face of conquest, dispossession, and violence.

Beyond Presence?

A couple of years ago I was invited to comment on a panel on "Latinos in Museums" for the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association. The scholars and museum professionals on that panel were interrogating how Chicano/a and Latino/a identity is placed, dis-placed, mis-placed, and re-placed in museum representations. Although "identity" was the object of scrutiny, the true subject of the panel was the difference between space and place, which the panelists were configuring as the museum, be it an anthropological institution or a community center.

In her paper, Constance Cortez of Santa Clara University examined the interplay of place and identity by positioning her Imágenes e Historias/ Images and Histories—Chicana Altar-Inspired Art exhibition in three different places, their differences marked not only by regional location (East Coast, West Coast, and north Texas), but by each venue's historical relationship to and understanding of Chicano/a identity. 20 Indeed, as each venue proved, not only does location shift identity, it also shifts the meaning of an exhibition, and Chicana identity can be interpreted as Hispanic in one place, Mexican in another, and what I call "Born-Again Aztec" in a third, depending on the place in which that identity is being represented. "[A]s things turned out because of the distinct geographic loci of the institutions, a different aspect of Chicano identity was privileged over others at each of the venues. The show was hispanicized at Tufts, indigenized at Santa Clara, and Mexicanized at Texas Tech" (Cortéz 2001, 3 ). Despite curatorial intention, it was ultimately place that determined how Cortéz's exhibition was to be [End Page 133] installed, displayed, and received. Does this mean identity, like beauty, exists in the eye of the beholder? Or that identity, as representation, as art, as substitute for bodily presence—whether the white museum administrator, the tourist, or the "authentic" Mexican interprets it—becomes a kind of cultural currency that reduces race, ethnicity, and gender to the equivalent of a donkey cart?

At the Smithsonian Institution, the subject of another of the papers on the panel, the matter of presence versus representation of Latino/a identity, has been a critical issue since the release of the 1994 study "Willful Neglect: The Smithsonian Institution and U.S. Latinos," conducted by the Smithsonian Institution Task Force on Latino issues. What Magdalena Mieri's paper revealed was that at the Smithsonian, Latino/a identity remains willfully neglected and marginalized at nearly every level of representation: collections, publications, employment, exhibitions. Programming, at least since 1992, was the one area in which more Latino/a presence could be measured in the form of theater, music, film, and educational lectures and seminars; however, Mieri concluded, true institutional transformation could only occur if the Smithsonian went "beyond presence and achieve[d] full representation" ( 2001, 3 ). Again, we are back to that question of "beyond" that we saw at the beginning of this paper, and which the organizers of the 1995 University of Texas conference saw as a critical new way of interpreting Latino/a art, "beyond identity."

To go "beyond presence" at the Smithsonian, Mieri proposed a project of online/virtual exhibitions that she called the "Latino Virtual Gallery," as a space in which "full representation" was possible. On a purely personal basis, I love the idea of the Latino Virtual Gallery, particularly as a teaching and research tool. Cyberspace is, after all, the new frontier, and Latinos/as have always been iconographed as "new world" citizens. Virtual exhibitions would certainly be cost effective, and would offer unprecedented opportunities for all sorts of inter- and intracultural collaboration. But I keep worrying about this point: How can we go "beyond presence"? To be present means to be there, to exist or occur in a place. If we can say that presence is measured in terms of how many bodies are standing in one place—sort of like angels dancing on the head of a pin—and if, as Magdalena Mieri suggests, virtual [End Page 134] reality is the only space at the Smithsonian Institution where Latino/a identity can be fully represented, then wouldn't it be logical to say that rather than improve Latino/a representation at the Smithsonian, the Latino Virtual Gallery would actually make the situation worse, would not only enable the continued marginalization of Latinos/as at the Smithsonian, but would actually contribute to our virtual nonexistence, that is, our non-presence? If Latinos/as can be virtually everyplace, they can also be actually no place at the Smithsonian, as occupying bandwidth in cyberspace is not the equivalent of standing in place. I worry that by providing cyberspace representation as an option to "willful neglect," we might, in effect, dislodge that single foot wedged in the door of the master's house in 1992. If we stop existing as bodies in a place and rely on the representation of our bodies in virtual reality, then what institutional transformation have we really achieved? Through a virtual gallery, will Latinas and Latinos be fully embodied, or merely imagined at the Smithsonian?

Similarly, through the Aztlán aesthetic, will Chicanos and Chicanas be fully present, or merely represented in the art world? An imaginary homeland, I argue, like a virtual gallery, is not a place, but a conceptual space that only perpetuates our "non-existence." It is a technology of memory, a device meant to help us remember and represent our history as colonized subjects in the Americas, as internal exiles in an occupied homeland; but rather than locate us bodily in the land base that we claim as our place of origin, it dis-locates our identity from that place, and leaves our bodies out of the equation of signifiers that connect our multiple and diverse "moments of presence" (Bhabha).

To remember Aztlán is as much a ceremonial act as a political endeavor, yes; but remembering is not returning. Aztlán, the homeland, is a purely mythic place. Tapping our heels three times and invoking Dorothy's exilic lament will not get you back where you belong (assuming you ever left). Despite the title of a recent traveling exhibition, there is no "road to Aztlán." Despite any markings on the mountain, you can't really drive to Aztlán. 19 You can fly to Cuba or Africa; you can follow a road map to one of the Indian pueblos in New Mexico. But to get to Aztlán, you have to suspend your disbelief and go into an X-Files -like dimension, where the past and the present [End Page 135] converge in one place, and where the more you learn of the aliens, the more they sound like yourself. Really, Auntie Em, there's no place like Aztlán.


Alicia Gaspar De Alba is an associate professor and founding faculty member of the César Chávez Center for Chicana/Chicano Studies at University of California, Los Angeles, and also the associate director of the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center. She is the author of La Llorona on the Longfellow Bridge: Poetry y Otras Movidas (Arte Público, 2003); Sor Juana's Second Dream: A Novel (University of New Mexico, 1999); Chicano Art Inside/Outside the Master's House: Cultural Politics and the CARA Exhibition (University of Texas, 1998); The Mystery of Survival and Other Stories (Bilingual, 1993). She is also the editor of Velvet Barrios: Popular Culture and Chicana/o Sexualities (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2003). Her second novel, Desert Blood/The Juarez Murders, is forthcoming from Arte Público Press in 2005. She is a native of El Paso, Texas, and recently organized an international conference on "The Maquiladora Murders, or, Who Is Killing the Women of Juarez?" at UCLA, co-sponsored by Amnesty International.


To see reproductions of the artwork of Patssi Valdez and of Carmen Lomas Garza discussed in this article, please see the following publications: A Piece of My Heart/Pedacito de Mi Corazon: The Art of Carmen Lomas Garza . New York: The New Press, 1991; and Patssi Valdez: A Precarious Comfort/Una comodida precaria . San Francisco: The Mexican Museum, 1999.

1 . The research for this work was supported by the Rockefeller Association Fellowship for Latino Cultural Study at the Smithsonian, the Institute of American Cultures at UCLA, and UCMexus.

2 . Webster's College Dictionary, 2d ed. (New York: Random House, 1997), 622. One of the definitions of place is "the portion of space normally occupied by a person or thing" (994). The word utopia comes from the Greek ou [not] + tóp(os) [place].

3 . "I do not know where Kansas is, for I have never heard that country mentioned before. But tell me, is it a civilized country?" [the Witch of the North asks Dorothy].

"Oh, yes," replied Dorothy.

"Then that accounts for it. In the civilized countries, I believe there are no witches left; nor wizards, nor sorceresses, nor magicians. But, you see, the Land of Oz has never been civilized, for we are cut off from all the rest of the world. . . ."

(Baum, 11-12)

4 . In my case, my list of signifiers would read like this: Mexican + female + middle class + lesbian + bilingual + first-generation Chicana + U.S. citizen + fronteriza + born-again pagan + feminist + writer/poet/professor + Ph.D. + "Xena" fanatic.

5 . Elleguá, the trickster god of the crossroads, likes to hide behind the mischievous Santo Niño de Atocha; Changó, the fierce lightning rod of social justice whose colors are red and white, has chosen Saint Barbara as his Catholic alter ego; Changó's wife, Oshún, sexy goddess of fertility, creativity, and love, likes the disguise of the Virgin of Charity, patron saint of Cuba, with the three little figures in the canoe at her feet staring up at her in absolute adoration. I dedicate this essay to the santera who first introduced me to these three orishas in 1987; to this day, " esta Mexicana " wears the elekes she prepared for me in her Spanish Harlem botánica.

6 . The most notable of these Santería artists were the Cubans Wifredo Lam, Juan Boza, and Ana Mendieta.

7 . Passed in the state of California in 1994 by an overwhelming majority vote, this [End Page 136] Proposition denies basic health care and educational rights to undocumented immigrants and their children.

8 . Moctezuma was the reigning emperor of the Aztecs at the time of the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the sixteenth century; Geronimo led a band of insurgent Apaches who fought off Anglo invasions of their homeland in Arizona in the nineteenth century.

9 . Certainly, an analysis of the prevalent leitmotifs in the art and literature produced by Chicanos—that is, by Chicano men —in the early years of the Chicano Movement substantiates Chávez's point. José Antonio Villareal's Pocho (1959), Corky Gonzales's I Am Joaquín (1969), Armando Rendón's Chicano Manifesto (1971), Tomás Rivera's Y no se lo tragó la tierra (1971), Ernesto Galarza's Barrio Boy (1971), Aristeo Brito's The Devil in Texas (1972), Oscar Zeta Acosta's The Revolt of the Cockroach People (1972), Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima (1972), and Ron Arias's The Road to Tamazunchale (1975)—whether through fiction, memoir, or poetry, all represent Chicano identity as a process of loss and recuperation, as a consciousness that is native to and yet dispossessed of the cultural homeland of Aztlán. The names of the first Chicano art groups and galleries reflect the same allegiance to cultural nationalism: Los Toltecas en Aztlán, Congreso de Artistas en Aztlán, Los Artes Guadalupanos de Aztlán, Los Pintores de Aztlán, El Grito de Aztlán Gallery, El Centro Cultural de Aztlán, Casa Aztlán. Not to mention the name of the flagship journal of the field of Chicano studies, Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies, housed at the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, and of which I serve as co-editor.

10 . See Henry Nash Smith, The Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971); Perry Miller, Errand into the Wilderness; Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967); and Patricia Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1988).

11 . The most famous of these Western landscape paintings is John Gast's "American Progress" (1872), "where Native Americans and bison are beset by the onslaught of advancing Anglo civilization—wagon trains, railroads, prospectors, and farmers—guided overhead by a gigantic Gilded Age female clad in loosely flowing drapery and carrying a schoolbook and a rope of telegraph wire" (Doss 1995, 210).

12 . Borrowed from Chicana historian Deena J. González. For a feminist, historical analysis of native women's accommodation and resistance to colonization in the nineteenth century, see her book Refusing the Favor: The Spanish-Mexican Women of Santa Fe, 1820-1880 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

13 . Reference to Yolanda M. López's Guadalupe series (1978), which includes "Margaret F. Stewart: Our Lady of Guadalupe," depicting the artist's mother as a seamstress Guadalupe sewing her own mantle of stars, and "Portrait of the Artist as the Virgin of Guadalupe," which depicts López as a marathon runner in Guadalupe drag stepping off [End Page 137] the Virgin's dark crescent pedestal. According to the artist, the angel trod under the Virgin's foot in the marathon image "got in the way."

14 . "La Ofrenda" (1985), "La Virgen de Guadalupe Defendiendo los Derechos de los Xicanos" (1975), and "Libertad" (1976), respectively.

15 . "Las Tres Marías" by Judith Baca is owned by the National Museum of American Art, a Smithsonian Institution.

16 . For a similar approach to place, gender, and aesthetics in the visual art of Chicanas, including a very helpful comparative chart on the characteristics and experiences of artists from three different regions, see Marianne L. Stoller, "Peregrinas with Many Visions: Hispanic Women Artists of New Mexico, Southern Colorado, and Texas," in The Desert Is No Lady: Southwestern Landscapes in Women's Writing and Art, ed. Vera Norwood and Janice Monk, 2d ed. (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1997), 125-45. The first edition of the book was published by Yale University Press in 1987.

17 . Talk delivered by the artist at the Puro Corazón: Chicana Art Symposium held at Pomona College, February 1995.

18 . From the brochure to "Directions: Carmen Lomas Garza," an exhibition of her work held at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1995).

19 . See the catalog to The Road to Aztlán: Art from a Mythic Homeland, ed. Virginia M. Fields and Victor Zamudio-Taylor (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art/ University of New Mexico Press, 2001). In "Queer Aztlán," Cherrie Moraga writes that on a desert road just east of San Diego, she saw the word AZTLAN "in granite-sized letters etched into the face of the mountainside" (151).

20 . The exhibit of 11 women artists working in the traditional altar medium ran from October 1999 through December 2000, and was installed at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts; Santa Clara University in the Silicon Valley, California; and at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas.


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CR: The New Centennial Review 4.2 (2004) 103-140