Regarding the DIA Conspiracy Theories
By Leo Tanguma
“To the many people who have viewed or MAY view my DIA murals in the future, I wish to explain their thematic subjects and their meanings. I do so after seeing repeated postings on the internet suggesting the most outrageous and sinister interpretations of my murals by conspiracy theorists. Those ridiculous assertions, however, have caused confusion among some and it is for their benefit that I write these lines
First of all, I am Mexican-American, and very proud of my community, our culture, and our historic struggle for social justice and self- determination. I identify with other oppressed groups here in the U.S., and with oppressed people everywhere.
I would also like to briefly tell of my experience as a muralist, having painted for more than forty years. I have painted murals in poor barrios and ghettos, in public schools, universities, prisons, churches, in one migrant camp, and even in stately art museums. More importantly, almost all of my murals have been painted with young people, troubled youth, and street people, as well as with highly educated artists and numerous university art students. I have painted with young school children as well as senior citizens.
The most recurrent theme in my numerous murals across the years has been the struggle for human liberation and human dignity. My work has been totally open in the midst of many people, accessible to everyone.
My first work in Colorado was a sculptural mural on the subject of gangs and gang violence. Our sponsor was Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church and Father Pat Valdez, its then pastor. We constructed, primed and painted this unusual piece in the Church’s community hall. It was entitled, “Let Us Walk Together” or “Caminemos Juntos” in Spanish. Being in the community hall made the work visible at all times and young people came to view the mural, including gang members. In that setting I conducted discussions about the mural’s subject, seeking, as I always do, to stimulate dialogue among young people on the subject being painted.
This work was my introduction to Denver. There followed a number of smaller wall murals and two large sculptural murals and I felt welcomed in this community. With these works I tried to say that murals can be focal points depicting social issues in mirror-like reflections of ourselves. I realize that these ideas are not new, but I tried to put them into action. Some of my works have been called “painted sermons” or pictorial admonishments about injustices in society. Reflecting a community’s cultural identity and pointing out the cultural beauty of a people is a very important purpose of murals.
In 1985 – 1986, I designed a sculptural mural to protest American intervention in Central America. My design was of a jagged cross showing the crucifixion of the Central American peoples by oppressive governments supported by our own leaders in Washington.
Its meaning was clear and honest and among the vast number of people who saw it were Salvadoran and Guatemalan people living in Denver. Its dimensions were 33 feet high, with its transverse being 27 feet wide by 45 feet in width at its base. The average width of the narrow spaces of the cross was 7 feet. See attached photos and description. In 1988, I was asked by the Denver Art Museum to paint a mural within the Close Range Gallery. I was given no conditions; no concerns were expressed to me about its possible political content. With no obstacles to my expressing my deeply held ideas, I developed a sculptural mural composition depicting my Mexican-American community coming to rediscover our cultural heritage and history. When it was exhibited as a work-in-progress my assistants and I entered into a daily dialogue with museum visitors most of whom were receptive and accepting. The work’s dimension; a wing-like form extending 12 feet in height, in its central area, tapering down to 72 feet in a semi-circle width. A separate part of the composition was a form 8 feet high by 23 feet in length. See attached photos and description.
Mexican-Americans, or Chicanos, have the wonderful heritage of Mexican mural painting and the example of revolutionary muralists who painted the struggle and heroism of the Mexican people, 1920 – 1960. During the Chicano Movement, 1965 – present, many aspiring and activist mural painters in our barrios had the opportunity to visit and meet some of the surviving masters of the Mexican revolutionary muralists.
Some visited Gonzalez Camarena, others Pablo O’Higgins, and many, including me, visited Siqueiros, the last of Los Tres Grandes (Those were Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros). Inspired by truly great masters, and others not as well known, Chicano mural painters produced even more meaningful murals. In my case, I visited and took many younger Chicano artists to visit and meet Mexican muralists, especially Siqueiros.
I was also most fortunate to study under Dr. John Biggers, an African- American art professor and muralist at Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas. I found that Dr. Biggers was a personal friend of Pablo O’Higgins and other Mexican muralists, and in fact, taught students about Mexican muralism. Thus I received the invaluable example and encouragement of Mexican muralists, and the instruction of an African-American master.
I shared these experiences with university students at various schools, including the University of Northern Colorado where art students and I painted a two story stairwell, depicting the life and times of the highly respected Hispanic professor, Dr. Martin Candelaria.
Along with Denver murals, I have painted in other states: North Carolina, Oregon, Chicago, and California. While stationed in Germany with the U.S. Army, I painted a number of murals in our unit’s recreation and service room.
Prior to moving to Denver, I had painted murals in Houston and a few other sites in Texas. Houston, however, became a nightmare for my family and me. This was due to what some perceived to be the radical nature of my murals and my viewpoints on social issues. When I reflect back on those struggles, I realize that I did not paint from dogmatic or political convictions which other activists seemed to have. I came to realize that what compelled me to paint were the moral and religious values I had learned as a youth which taught me to fight injustice wherever I could. I had gotten involved with the on-going Chicano movement whose goals I identified with. The first instance when I realized that my murals were somehow different was when a writer for a Caribbean magazine, 1981, called my murals “painted sermons.” It seemed that others too saw my murals as moral admonishments rather than mural depictions guided by dogmatic conviction murals it included a depiction of such an injustice being corrected or resolved.
An incident in which I was involved, as a fifth grade elementary school student set a course for me. This happened on day when I drew on my classroom’s blackboard my classmates and I killing our town’s brutal, murderous and racist sheriff, and being severely punished and humiliated by a school teacher. That episode, innocent as it seems, established a rebellious attitude in me, and set the course I still follow as an artist. After more than forty years of painting, I am thankful for having been able to do the many murals I have painted despite many sad and painful obstacles along the way.
Here I wish to list a few of those obstacles which did, in fact, succeed in stopping, or destroying various of my mural projects:
“The Americanization of a Chicano”: My mural in progress at the University of Houston, destroyed in 1972.
“The History of La Raza”: My murals at the McAshan Community Center, destroyed in 1974 when the Center’s building was sold to a business enterprise.
“Humanity in Harmony with Nature”: A sculptural mural abandoned by my funding sponsors, in 1982. Why? It was never explained by Houston’s Art Council (my funding source) even though I had reason to believe that pressure brought upon the Arts Council to cancel my mural because of the mural pointing a finger at Petro-Chemical Companies along the Houston Ship Channel for their despoliation and pollution, as well as for causing children to be born with physical deformities.
The destruction by fire of my mural studio, in 1975, by arson: along with paints and thinners, compressors slide collections, numerous books, drawing tables, scaffolds, were a number of drawings and painting I was compiling for my first one- man-exhibition, which of course did not happen.
The cancellation of our projected Bicentennial murals”: On Washington Ave., in 1975. Again, a reason for this was not given.
“The People’s Judgment Against Institutionalized Brutality and Racism”: DISAPPEARED!! My sculptural mural (in progress) condemning police brutality in Houston and Texas, was taken away never to be seen again, April, 1983.
Still, I do not want to leave the impression that all was sadness and tragedy in Houston, for I have memorable experiences there also. One of these was our mural on Canal Street depicting the Mexican-American community. This work, measuring 18 feet high by 240 feet wide, became a centerpiece of Chicano art in Houston, with great attention from the community and thousands of viewers from other Texas cities. I entitled this work, “The Rebirth of Our Nationality,” 1972 – 1973.
With this vast mural as a background, we discussed its imagery and meaning with local residents, students, ministers, street people, vatos locos, drug users, ex-cons, yuppies, professors, prostitutes, nuns, and people from every walk of life. There developed a great intimacy between the community and us artists. This work made the Chicano community proud, happy, and grateful for being represented with beauty and dignity in an attention-getting and inspiring mural. This work, even though in great need of repainting after more than 28 years, remains visible on Canal Street. Even though we were never able to secure funding for this work, we took 18 months to complete it. I directed and painted this mural while an art student of Dr. John Biggers at Texas Southern University.
Another was our two murals at Cuney Homes, a public housing community in Houston’s Third Ward. Painting with African-American youth, we executed “Free at Last” and another mural entitled, “We Must Never Forget.” The welcoming spirit of that community to me, a Chicano, is most moving to recall. The more so because the commission came at a desperate moment when unemployed, penny-less and my wife terminally ill, I had, it seemed, nowhere to turn. Those two murals remain one of the most memorable experiences in my life.
I recall the seventeen young men with whom I painted who called me Mr. Leo. The neighborhood women, upon seeing my daughter, Leticia, play Baptist hymns on the Center’s piano, were surprised that we, being Mexican, were Baptists like themselves. I recall taking my Cuney Home kids crabbing in La Porte, and stopping at a Dairy Queen where all the whites sitting there got up and left at seeing us enter. La Porte is a small town near the Gulf Coast about 25 miles southeast of Houston. Pasadena is located midway between Houston and La Porte. On the way to La Porte, we saw and stopped in the parking area of a building in Pasadena decorated with an enormous sign across the width of the building which announced in large black letters “Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.” Each of these incidents was followed by a discussion among us as to the reasons for the prevailing racism and hate in white people. My kids were sombered at first, but then developed a defiance, which I heard more than once, saying “I’m black and I’m proud.” Memorable is also us bringing five gallon containers filled with crabs ready for cooking. I remember my kids hurrying down from the scaffolds to greet pretty girl passers-by with, “You want me to tell you about our mural?” and afterwards feeling great about the points they had scored.
When we arrived in Denver, my three kids, my mother, and sister were not sure what to expect, but were pleasantly surprised at the friendliness and hospitality of the community. Our cousins took us to Mayor Federico Pena’s election party at the events center. Thus began our residence in Denver and we faced the future with hope and promise. The great beauty of Colorado, its people, and the magnificent mountains left us in awe as we settled down in our beautiful new city and home.”