Art in the Time of Art-Washing
I longed to feel the Redz Bar of my queer adolescence. The establishment had closed its doors in 2015 after more than fifty years as one of the few spaces in East Los Angeles for Chicana lesbians to congregate in conviviality. Redz, which reopened in late 2016 as Redz Angelz, continues to be important to me and I wanted to recognize it for its historic role in providing that crucial space with an evening featuring the filmic works of Oakland-based artist Xandra Ibarra; I had organized the event, which marked my return to the bar under its new ownership.
The evening was my fourth and final program for this year’s Dirty Looks: On Location film and performance series. Ibarra’s work resonates with Redz’s history in how it addresses the queer and colonial histories that brought Mexicans from El Paso to East LA throughout the twentieth century. The event was my attempt to tether the two cities, an umbilical cord that queers a history of Mexican migration following the Mexican Revolution.
Ten years ago I would have felt good, in an uncomplicated way, about the program’s intent and execution. Now, I couldn’t help but think I was setting myself up for a call-out, given the current political climate wary of artists in a Boyle Heights I hadn’t lived in since 2010, a neighborhood burdened by a housing crisis reaching its boiling point. Intimidation tactics like doxxing had been standard practice for a neighborhood that had become somehow alienated by Chicanx art — not the Chicanx art championed by the late Sister Karen Boccalero (often credited as the founder of Self-Help Graphics & Art), but not not championed either; this was an art that had become the nouveau signal of a Boyle Heights in transition. An art by Chicanx artists who took flight into and out of prestigious BFA and MFA programs and have returned to a neighborhood that had once been epicenter to Japanese migrants who came to LA en masse after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, followed by Jewish Eastern Europeans in the 1920s and ’30s.
My anxiety is new and emerged recently in response to an unusual Instagram message I woke up to last fall: my Latinx identity, or so I gleaned from this message, was being co-opted by a Boyle Heights gallery to push out low-income renters from their Boyle Heights apartments. “Who is this,” I hissed to myself. I texted Paul, a young Chicano raised in Hesperia who was my friend and the curator of the exhibition in question. He explained that the main person behind the incendiary Instagram account was a white trans art bro whose wealth was publicly known, an organizer who had fallen out with members of his cohort who had recently opened a new gallery in Boyle Heights; the gallery was backed by New York investors, inspiring necessary scrutiny. All of these details were part of an anecdotal register permeating a Los Angeles arts community struggling to make sense of the stain of art-washing (the term for arts organizations that help scrub the stink of gentrification from developers seizing upon real estate opportunities). The accuracies are what we lose in the constant, unrelenting discourse anchored in perception and optics. Or what happens when no one interfaces in person anymore.
Naming these identity markers of the caller is important. It’s how a politic of identity gets determined. The caller used these declarative call-outs as a strategy, a provocation: as a mean-spirited critique of the artists’ authentic Latinidad — some had one non-Latinx parent, others trust-funded or were just “too white” to even be considered “real” Latinxs. No one in that exhibition was trust-funded to my knowledge, but that isn’t even the point.
That call-out felt like we were being asked to show our papers.
It was effective in some ways. Some of the artists haven’t shown since that episode, which played out mostly on social media. Having their identities leveraged in a public and virulent way had startled them into an anxious silence. Several of my friends and acquaintances had liked the image, a stress-scrolled admission of their approval on a timeline no one stops to contemplate anymore, I thought. I had never heard of the anonymous IG account critical of many Latinx artists making art about East Los Angeles in East Los Angeles.
How could Chicanx artists make work without somehow engaging a Chicanx epicenter?
I lurked on the account to see a post calling out my old friend Tanya Saracho, showrunner for Vida (which, according to its website, is a dramedy series about “Mexican-American sisters from the Eastside of Los Angeles”), for selling out Boyle Heights. She is referred to as a whitetina.
Was I a whitetina? Or a whitetinx, to remain congruent to my old-school bulldagger swagger with new-school queer theory presentation? Why wasn’t I called a “leva” (short for levantado, a name reserved for someone who was elevated or uppity)? Was my desire to move slowly above my station — a glacially-paced social mobility — a problem? Was asking to get paid for a performance a problem? Was wanting what I was owed a problem?
Space in a community as a contributing member: this was my dream of a rightful place at the family dinner table. Permission, when necessary, to be a loving gadfly.
I was living in Tucson and had to think about how a poem of mine could be capable of aiding and abetting community displacement when I myself had to leave a Northeast Los Angeles neighborhood to improve my lot in a queer life. I knew displacement well, even as I was often contacted for work about queerness, brownness, and how the two intersect in an ever-changing LA landscape. I had been asked to include this poem in the small publication for Facing, a show focused on Latinx portraiture at the artist-run gallery BBQLA, a space whose controversy was new to me. Timo Fahler, son of an Oklahoma Chicana, is one of two guys I know who runs BBQLA, and I liked him enough to agree to participate. We had hung out in Marfa that summer, both of us in collaborative efforts with our mutual friend, the adobero artist Rafa Esparza. About four artists had pulled their work before Facing opened, in response to the Instagram call-out. Some may have done so in fear of retribution or in solidarity with local low-income residents at risk of being displaced. There were empty spaces on some of the BBQLA walls, a gesture making visible the choices each artist made. The opening, which I attended, served freshly smoked brisket and coleslaw and cornbread for free.
How to briefly illustrate a brown life in the arts? Many of us come from humble beginnings and move toward the arts as a promise of sustainability beyond survival. We make an art that calls on the ancestors who survived encroachment and expulsion, disaster, and disease. We tell their stories through our own. Our stories may have been intercepted by a new level of financialization. How to make art and a life that isn’t influenced by market forces or able to operate outside of exploited labor and toxic consumption? How to leave our art behind when some of us are told our artistic projects were putting poorer people in jeopardy? We were forming identities in need of empowerment through expression while trying to arrive at answers that could satisfy similarly circumstanced detractors (even those who owned homes in these neighborhoods). Most of us priced out of apartments once a lease agreement came to a close. No one owed us anything and yet we had a right to be there.
Who knew a Latinx immigrant middle class could exist only to quickly be undercut by a government that values its corporations more than its citizenry?
My parents were part of that class, which meant a modest mortgage in Southeast Los Angeles and sunrise drives to see the dentist in Tijuana. They met at El Mercadito on 3rd and Lorena in the early 1970s while my mom lived in a spartan one-bedroom in the Estrada Courts housing project. My dad a Mexicano from Pachuca, Hidalgo, working at a pressing plant in Vernon, and mom a Salvadoran woman barely making it doing piecework as a seamstress downtown. I was born at the county hospital before it became LAC+USC Medical Center in Lincoln Heights. Before USC offered its employees a housing purchase subsidy starting at $20,000 to buy homes in neighborhoods like Lincoln Heights and the South Central communities surrounding the main university campus. I was baptized at Our Lady Queen of Angels across the street from the old Plaza Olvera Street, and I grew up in Huntington Park and Bell Gardens. I saw Vaginal Cream Davis open for the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black when I was seventeen, playing in bands and palling around with the Yao Sisters from Emily’s Sassy Lime, the other teenage girls of color in that Jabberjaw milieu that went on to contribute to various underground cultures. Over a span of fifteen years, I have lived in Silver Lake, Echo Park, Lincoln Heights, and Montecito Heights. I found my first community outside of my immediate family at Bienestar Human Services in East LA on Beverly Boulevard, in the form of support group meetings for Latina lesbians. I learned about collectives and made zines and organized showcases for Black and brown queer and woman-identified emerging artists hungry to connect with one another. We only had access to places like Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica, an organization that was eager to bring our voices to its black box theater. The Westside welcomed us. In fact, I never had a gig in East Los Angeles the entire time I performed with a queer butch ensemble called Butchlalis de Panochtitlan.
These are my papers. Do my agitators deserve this entry point into my history?
I had always wanted to present my work in the communities that raised me — East Los Angeles, from the North to the Southeast of the Los Angeles River. But presenting venues were few except for Josefina López’s Casa 0101, a tiny black box that did everything to support emerging theater artists. But I wasn’t a theater artist. I was into performance art and Brechtian approaches to narrative. It took a series of turnstile changes in these neighborhoods to make room for organizations with missions to present work by queer brown and Black artists, particularly those with roots in these communities. These call-outs tend to reify the torment of Latinx queers (many of them children of Mexican and Central American immigrants) whose initial response as residents of these neighborhoods is to flee.
These were the conditions that underscored my attempts at eking out a creative life, working in arts non-profit organizations and universities as a low-tiered administrator. I moved out of Los Angeles and into a San Francisco housing fray that saw me move three times in a year. I had landed a job as a community arts curator at one of San Francisco’s larger arts institutions that had received over half a million in funding to do community-based projects in SoMa, the Mission District, and parts of Oakland. I have lived the contradictions before what we saw happen in Boyle Heights. I moved four times in five years and each time put me deeper into a debt I contend with daily. That financial stress was a bonding rite with other artists and non-profit workers who were living collectively just to be able to live.
Mine might not be the Molotov-cocktail instigations of a radical militant, but I can be counted on to model other ontological possibilities for younger artists-in-the-making who benefited from mentorship and continued dialogue in spaces that wanted us there. I’m not calling for civility even as I struggle to understand how white artists who use social practice to support a sector of the community that is inarguably living in precarious conditions might turn around and suggest the emerging Latinx artists they have taught in their art school classes and shared spaces through exhibitions might be met with vitriol. A simple desire instilled in many Latinx children of immigrants is to improve the circumstances that condition a life under capitalism. That often requires some of us to endure the professionalization that comes with higher educational institutions, including learning from masters of relational aesthetics (and agreeing to their logics when what we do is called community art).
I’m always thinking about histories repeating themselves, how we come for each other as a way to fend off being come for ourselves. Living in Arizona has me concerned with queering the Southwest and remembering how Mexicans fleeing the Revolution of 1910 and its violence created many Angelenxs with El Pasoan roots. Xandra Ibarra is from El Paso. Her work charges the connections between her city and mine — their borderlands and their histories of colonization — through a feminist queer femme lens. It’s important for Ibarra’s work to be shown in Redz Bar, a lesbian bar that opened in the late 1950s and catered primarily to queer, working-class Chicanas. It’s important for those conceptual bridges to emerge for those of us who live in Boyle Heights and in exile from the embattled neighborhood. However, sometimes bridging means having the good-intentioned white friends living and lurking in our networks be the ones who can afford to remain in these neighborhoods. When artists and organizers (like me) present the optics of these events to those friends it situates those of us (like me) who lie in the political liminality as champions of the marginalized subject/brokers of the white gaze.
Is this what moving beyond survival looks like? Does it mean having to lose some semblance of a self constituted through surviving racist policies that structure the ways we inhabit contested publics — whether it’s a sub-par primary and secondary education or speaking in Spanish at the chain restaurant in a better-resourced adjacent neighborhood? Some might say I choose this loss, and doing so requires a selling out. Do I sell out so you don’t have to? This essay exists on a site that lives inside an institution that has played its own role in displacing a local community under duress; approximately 4,000 people in the South of Market area were pushed out to make room for the Yerba Buena Gardens, where Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and SFMOMA are located. Various lawsuits challenged dislocation, financing, and environmental concerns, including the successful 1970–1973 Tenants and Owners in Opposition to Redevelopment (TOOR) suit, which emerged over the relocation process, halting development but not permanently. It’s easy to critique these development endeavors when they’re elsewhere, not where one lives or longs to return to. When it’s your old neighborhood you have to stop and wonder how your complicity persists even when brown bodies — our brown bodies together — are more suspect in navigating the same sociopathic capitalist regime than others whose careers have arrived on the backs of those same brown bodies they proclaim to fight for.
Others will argue that these are exactly the opportunities our families risked their lives for when coming North for a better life. Whatever that means anymore.