Tag Archives: Gilbert magu Lujan

Chile: The First 9-11, Part 2, by Isabel Rojas-Williams

6 Aug

My Life in the US

In the United States I lived in Los Angeles at 4901 S. Figueroa, in Highland Park. I worked as a clerk for the York PumpIsabel Rojas-Williams Maintenance, Inc., which took care of maintaining gas stations. Its office was exactly where the Avenue 50 Studio is located today. It was owned by a Chilean, who paid me half the minimum wage. I will be forever grateful to this man who gave me the opportunity to have my first job in the U.S., which allowed me to continue helping my family educate my younger siblings. I hardly spoke a word of English but became immersed in this new world, into which the Anglo workers at the shop integrated me. I worked from 8 to 5, and then attended ESL evening classes at Franklin High School.

By this time my future husband had moved to Los Angeles; he knew my boss. He and I decided to move in together. We lived in a studio apartment at the old building on Figueroa & Avenue 50. I could walk to the post office to send letters to Mom and to my siblings. (Phone calls to Chile were $50 a minute at that time so everyone wrote instead.) The Highland Park Library was also within walking distance so I could check out books written in Spanish; there weren’t many so I read them all over and over. I was lonesome for my family, my language, and my culture.

During the 1970s many Chileans arrived in San Francisco; political activists created groups of resistance formed of the refugees arriving from abroad to oppose Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship. Berkeley’s La Peña Cultural Center was founded by Chileans in 1978 in response to the 1973 overthrow of President Allende. “Song of Unity,” the mural on the façade of La Peña (on Shattuck Ave & Prince Street), was created as homage to Pablo Neruda, Violeta Parra, and Victor Jara, among others.

In Los Angeles I did not find or know of a group of Chileans doing as much political work as those in the Bay area. I felt isolated and I felt I was not doing my part to help the country I left behind. I was, as all immigrants, trying to survive. But I was also searching for something to identify with politically. It was at this time, when I became aware of two art studios I would see on my walk to the market, the post office, or the Highland Park Library. Highland Park was home to two Chicano artist collectives: Mechicano Art Center (Figueroa and Avenue 54) and Centro de Arte Público (Figueroa and Avenue 56), which included some of the most important Chicano artists of their time: Carlos Almaraz, Frank Romero, Judithe Hernandez, Gilbert Magú Lujan, Leo Limón, Barbara Carrasco, and John Valadez. These artists were greatly influenced by the messages the great Mexican masters depicted in their murals.

As a young woman, I was highly inspired by lovers and philosophers Simone De Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, the intellectual-power couple of the 20th century. They were my political and intellectual inspiration and I wanted to be like them. So, like De Beauvoir and Sartre, I didn’t want to get married. Eventually I did, however, in order to give birth to my son and to appease my mother. My husband and I had brought jewelry (inherited from our grandparents) with us when we left Chile. (That’s about all we brought with us.) At that time, many businesses in East Los Angeles were owned by Jewish families. As the Chicano Civil Rights movement began to grow in the ‘60s and ‘70s, those families felt uneasy and began to liquidate their stores and move elsewhere. We sold some jewelry we had brought from Chile and put a down payment on a franchise that sold Singer sewing machines in the heart of East Los Angeles (Whittier and Fetterly).

Here it was that everything began to shift for me. East Los Angeles in the 1970s was home to radical strains of politics and a feeder for the Vietnam War, to which disproportionate numbers of Latinos were consigned. Murals were appearing, and it was here where, for the first time, I saw the conceptual art collective ASCO (Willie Herrón III, Harry Gamboa, Jr., Gronk, and Patssi Valdez), who often staged the equivalent of living murals in East Los Angeles and in downtown streets. I soon noticed how murals were appearing in East Los Angeles.

Murals.Moratorium BandW

1973. “Moratorium: The Black and White Mural” by Willie Herrón IIIrts, Boyle Heights. Photo from The Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles’ website by Robin Dunitz

Murals. Walking Mural

1972 ASCO’s “Walking Mural.” East LA. Harry Gamboa photograph (1972)

“Somos dueños de nuestro propio destino” (“We own our own destiny”), 1971-72: http://us.fotolog.com/muralespoliticos/46296516/. http://us.fotolog.com/muralespoliticos/46296516/

Murals. Song of Unity

1978 “Song of Unity” (“La canción de la unidad”) at La Peña, Berkeley. Photo @ Pablo Cristi

I finally found what it was that I could identify with in Los Angeles. I realized that Chicano issues were the same as mine, as the Chilean ones. The issues depicted on the Chicano murals spoke about the very struggles the muralists from Ramona Parra Brigade (BRP) spoke about when defending Allende’s government in Chile in the 1970s. The BRP began to mass-produce murals throughout Chile to defend Allende’s government. When Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected government, persecuting and eliminating anyone who opposed him, muralists with their brushes and paint began to oppose the military regime that established the bloody 17 years of Pinochet’s dictatorship. I fell in love with the murals and I realized that my sociopolitical work had just begun.

Murals. Dreams of Flight

Photo © Isabel Rojas-Williams. “Dreams of Flight” (1973-1978) by David Botello

Isabel. Son Pablo Cristi

My son Pablo Cristi and his wife Natsumi Iimura (2013)

I remember walking around in the August heat very pregnant. My son, Pablo Cristi, (named after Pablo Neruda, Pablo Picasso, and Pablo Casals) was born in the heat of the summer. I brought him with me every day to the sewing machine business in East Los Angeles. My son would ask me who my Chilean role models were, because for Mexicans there were so many, such as Cesar Chavez, Siqueiros, La Adelita, Hidalgo, and all the heroes of the Mexican Revolution, whom he learned about from his young Mexican American friends. By now I was divorced and as my son grew older, I was exposed to more and more murals in L.A. Many years before I decided to study art history, I learned about and met through my son, who is now a visual artist himself, many artists long before I saw their artwork in books. My son would invite me to Self-Help Graphics to see exhibitions of emerging young artists that have been writing the history of our city in our “open-air galleries” all over Los Angeles.

Little did I know that driving my young teenage son to make “pieces” or to watch murals being made by the L.A. River or under the bridges on Santa Fe Yards would spark my passion for this art. Although neither of us realized it, my son was educating me about Los Angeles culture through his own and other artists’ street art.

Epilogue: My Life After the ‘70s

Then the story came full circle. I became even more fascinated by muralism while completing my higher education at Cal State L.A. I was one of fifteen graduate students in Dr. Aguilar’s Master Seminar, the Seminar that evolved into the remarkable “Walls of Passion: The Murals of Los Angeles” photo-documentary at the school. By this time I was immersed in the history of Los Angeles murals and reading about “Los Tres Grandes” (“The Three Greats”): Orozco, Rivera and Siqueiros, and their inspirational influence on the Los Angeles muralists in the younger artists’ search for identity, racial and political activism, and connectedness to their roots. I learned how the “Three Greats” inspired generations of muralists in the city of Los Angeles and in the world.

As my son grew, so did my knowledge of street art and my awareness of how these muralists and graffiti artists march behind a common banner, fighting with their brushes and their spray-cans against war, inequality, and other socio-economic issues. I learned how murals create a direct connection between artist and viewer. I learned that muralists’ quest for communication, empowerment, and education compel these artists to create ideological works for the community and to confront those observers with the social issues that affect the lives of the artists and the marginalized communities alike in richly diverse Los Angeles.

Since my son was able to discuss art with me, we lived and breathed murals to the point that each of these murals we discussed became, in a way, ours. Once out in the streets and the parks (in areas that in many cases I had never before visited), we began to understand that the murals of Los Angeles could not exist without the communities in which they sit just as we have also begun to realize that Los Angeles would be greatly diminished without those murals.

In 2009 my son and I both received our master degrees, an MFA and an MA. The open-air galleries of Los Angeles bridged the generational gap between us, giving us both the opportunity to engage in the experience of artworks that transform the city walls into beautiful creations that should be preserved as our city’s artistic, cultural, and historic legacy. I became the executive director of the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles in 2011. My son is a visual artist who has exhibited throughout the US; he has also painted a mural for peace in North Derry, Ireland and in West Oakland, California. Pablo is currently the co-chair of the Visual Art Department of Oakland School for the Arts.

Isabel. Husband Stephen Williams

Isabel Rojas-Williams and her husband Stephen Williams

2013 will mark the 30th year since I met Stephen, my husband. While I was going through a painful divorce, I met a man who spoke to my heart and my intellect. For the first time in life I met a man who would read Shakespeare to me during rainy nights, recite poems by e. e. cummings when happy, and read Pablo Neruda’s poems in Spanish to remind me of my country and my family. He also shared with me his love of jazz, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, the Grateful dead, and the Rolling Stones. He helped me raise Pablo as one of the most understanding stepfathers ever!  Together we blurred the lines of two different cultures that melted into one. Strangely enough, Stephen’s ancestors departed from Scotland into two Americas: Chile in South America and to the United States in North America. It took five generations for Stephen and I to find each other. Stephen is currently a college counselor at Eagle Rock High School and an adjunct professor at both Los Angeles City College and East L.A. City College.

About My Mother

Chile. IsabelCanalesEspinoza.Mother.12-13My mother is turning 83 this year. She gardens, cleans, and cooks everyday (“because she wants to”). She spends the cold Chilean winters knitting scarves, socks, and gloves for the needy. She goes to church on Sundays. If the weather allows it, she has tea with her “Golden Years” friends on Wednesdays. She is known for raising money or gathering groceries for the families of the imprisoned, and at Christmas time, she helps an orphanage with little gifts for 80 kids. In this latter project she involves everyone around her and that includes her six children, her grandchildren, and her great-grandchildren. She is one inspirational woman and she is my mother!