|Oct 27 2010
In 1932, during the heyday of pulp and in the midst of the Great Depression, a Mexican artist named José David Alfaro Siquieros was commissioned to paint an 18 by 80 foot mural on a wall above Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles. Olvera Street at that time was a contrived copy of an idyllic Mexican village market, designed mainly to bring tourists to that part of town and help clean up L.A.’s image, which due to gangsterism and police corruption was as bad as those of places like Chicago and St. Louis. The mural’s theme was to be “Tropical America,” and when completed the piece would be partially visible from the street and would fully face City Hall.
But Siquieros was aware that all around Southern California police were breaking up union meetings, beating ethnic minorities and deporting Mexicans—even those who were American citizens—by the boxcar-load. So instead of the idealized tropical mural his benefactors expected him tounveil, he used spray paint and bold colors to create a shocking protest piece. The central figure of the mural was a Mexican or Indian man bound to a strange, double cross with an American eagle perched above, talons extended.
The piece embarrassed city fathers. It was immediately condemned and whitewashed, but not forgotten. Almost from the day of its censoring, Mexican-American activists fought to have the mural restored and now they’re getting their wish. Because of the covering of white paint, the original piece survived where it would otherwise have weathered into nothingness. Now the white paint is being cleaned off, and what remains of the original mural is set to go on display in 2012, with a digital image projected on top to fill out the colors and missing segments.
Siquieros died in 1974 after a long career and copious acclaim. One of his most enduring murals adorns one of the buildings of the UNESCO protected Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. When he wasn't paiting he found time to have many political adventures. For a time, he was forced to go into hiding because of his close links to a group that tried to assassinate Leon Trotsky. His political activities cost him numerous commissions, yet the quality and influence of the pieces he completed was undeniable, and he continued to grow in stature.
Today his art resides in places as far flung as Teheran and Washington, D.C.’s Smithsonian Institute, which is kind of funny when you consider those two countries can agree on art but little else. But in any case, to the list of places where Siquieros has made a lasting mark, he'll be adding, almost eighty years late, L.A.’s Olvera Street.