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5 Must-Visit Latino Art Museums In California

For me, the most visual and obvious impression one has when first stepping into the state of California is the Latino art.

Here I go again with definitions. Do you like the term ‘Latino?’ I’m unsure. Latino is a term used in the US to refer to anyone from Latin America. (Whoa, that’s broad.) The term is often incorrectly used as a synonym for Hispanic, even though Hispanic refers to Spanish-speaking origins only. Latin American, on the other hand, could include Carribean countries as well as Brazil. Meanwhile, Chicano is a political term created by a group of activists in the 1960’s to refer to people of Mexican descent and born on U.S. soil. (Sure, I make these terms sound that simple, but they’re not. The words are much more fluid and also ever-changing.)

So bear with me as I create this “Latino American Art Trail”. The museums themselves don’t seem to mind the term and as I present them, you’ll see how politics, culture and art combine to form a valuable set of concerns. What I do know is when visiting these gems, I gained a profound respect for the curators of these exhibits.

1) At the Diego Rivera Gallery at the San Francisco Art Institute the entire institute brims with intense modern art. I would go as far as saying that to speak about California without mentioning Diego Rivera and his influence on the state would be to speak about H2O without the hydrogen.

Diego Rivera Mural

2) Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana (MACLA), San Jose: This art space has open-mic performances, punk, live shows and thought provoking art exhibits. In 2011, for example, they presented A Body Parted: Shrapnel of Present Time: An interdisciplinary work that takes a multi-layered approach to immigration and border crossing as well as Utopia/Nightmare: The American Dream by Victor Cartagena with sound elements by David Molina. Pretty intense.

San Jose Moviemiento

Outside the Castellano Playhouse next door, a quote said: “Art is the heart’s explosion on the world. Music. Dance. Poetry. Art on cars, on walls, on our skins. There is probably no more powerful force for change in this uncertain and crisis-ridden world than young people and their art.” Luis J. Rodriguez

3) Arte Americas, Fresno: With three galleries of rotating exhibits as well as a Latino literature & history library, this downtown gem has Latino musical “greats” on the outside of their building. Arte Americas are a non-profit Latino cultural center and have been around for over 25 years. They host folkloric and modern artists as well as dancers, writers, musicians and the Nights in the Plaza concert series every summer.

4) Museum of Latin American Art (Molaa), Long Beach:  Founded in 1996, the museum in dedicated to contemporary Latin American art and they have stellar permanent and temporary exhibitions, including an original Jose Clemente Orozco (Mexico 1883-1949). He is one of the most important twentieth century muralists next to Diego Rivera. Below you can see his Joint Chiefs of Buffoons, where Orozco depicts the Mexican army as an uncoordinated group of clowns (testimony to how disappointed Orozco was that the Mexican Revolution failed to change the lives of the Mexican people).

Museum of Latin American Art (Molaa)

Another interesting artist (out of so many) is Ruben Ortiz-Torres (Mexico b. 1964) who presents his In Retratos de Vida y Muerte/Portraits of Life and Death, as part of a series of photographs made in Guanajuato, Mexico. During the cholera outbreak in that state in 1833, the mineral properties of the land naturally mummified the skeletons. The area made such an impression on Ortiz-Torres that he used photography to show the collision between the punk aesthetic in Mexico and the ancient worship of death.

5) Self-Help Graphics, East Los Angeles: Established in 1973, Self Help Graphics & Art is one of the most welcoming and amazing visits you’ll ever make. Not a museum, but rather a visual arts center, Self Help Graphics services the predominantly Latino community of Los Angeles and offers workshops, Day of the Dead events and daily programs for youth and adults in the art of printmaking and more. Their website explains that they want art to be looked upon as a spiritual form of expression and cultural affirmation.



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