How Mexican and Chincanx Activism Flourished in 20th-Century Los Angeles

Installation view, Regeneración: Three Generations of Revolutionary Ideology at Vincent Price Art Museum (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

LOS ANGELES — “La constitución ha muerto” (The constitution is dead), declared a photograph published in a 1903 edition of the satirical Mexico City newspaper El Hijo del Ahuizote. In the image, funeral wreaths and Mexican flags hang from the periodical’s offices, while staff writers and editors flank a faded portrait of former president Benito Juárez, whose democratic and liberal reforms were being undone by the dictatorship of President Porfirio Díaz. Banned from publishing writings critical of the Díaz government, two of the men in the mock funeral, brothers Ricardo and Enrique Flores Magón, would flee the country months later and continue their political agitation in the United States.

Life in the US for the Flores Magón brothers was spent fomenting revolution while evading arrest. In Los Angeles, the anarchists from Mexico found a base of operations and many allies willing to host their activities. La Aurora, an anarchist bookstore and library on 654 North Spring Street, disseminated copies of the Flores Magón’s newspaper, Regeneración, while the Italian Hall, on 644 North Main Street, was a meeting place for not just Italian immigrants and radicals, but also the Flores Magóns and other exiled members of their far-left Partido Liberal Mexicano (PLM).

Regeneración, which ran in Spanish, English, and Italian editions for 18 years, ceased operations in 1918 after the Flores Magóns and the PLM suffered setbacks in the form of surveillance, arrest, and imprisonment. The newspaper’s influence on Mexican and American political movements, however, would extend over nearly a century by inspiring successive generations of artists, writers, and activists. The cultural production and political activism that emerged during that time is the subject of Regeneración: Three Generations of Revolutionary Ideology at the Vincent Price Art Museum.

Reproduction of Regeneración newspaper (1900–1918)

In 1970, Chicana activist and feminist Francisca Flores founded the Regeneración journal, naming it after the anarchist newspaper from the 1900s. Later, in 1993, a group of artists started the community art space Centro de Regeneración. Both projects shared the satirical edge and revolutionary politics of their early 2oth-century namesake. In the show, examples of writings, print media, drawings, photographs, and music are presented thematically rather than chronologically to demonstrate the common lineage of artists and activists. By doing so, the anti-imperialist struggles of the Flores Magón brothers are aligned with the Chicanx movement of the ’70s and transnational support for the indigenous Zapatista movement of the ’90s. They also reflect the evolving strategies and ideologies of diverse groups in challenging common issues like police brutality, government surveillance, and corporate power.

The 1970s Regeneración journal published news, essays, artwork, and poetry that contributed to feminist thinking within the Chicanx movement, taking the mantle of women who were part of the PLM and labor movements of the past, like María Talavera Broussé and Lucía Norman (partner and stepdaughter of Ricardo Flores Magón, respectively), who were powerful orators and organizers in their own right. Francisca Flores would have a fateful meeting with a young Harry Gamboa Jr. that led to the latter becoming an editor of Regeneración. Gamboa went on to form the art collective Asco with founding members Patssi Valdez, Gronk, and Willie F. Herrón III. These artists contributed writings and images to the journal and later staged some of their most famous street performances and interventions, one of which echoed the mock funeral staged by the Flores Magón brothers and editorial staff of El Hijo del Ahuizote more than a half-century earlier.

In “Stations of the Cross” (1971), costumed members of Asco carried a wooden cross and led a mock religious procession to a Marine Corps recruitment station as a statement against both the Vietnam War and religious conservatism. A year later, they defiantly spray painted their names on the entrance to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) in protest of institutional prejudices against Chicanx artists. This intervention, most famously documented in a photograph of Pattsi Valdez titled “Spray Paint LACMA,” was regarded by Asco as the first Chicanx conceptual art piece to be exhibited at LACMA.

Installation view, Regeneración journals (1970–1975)

The Centro de Regeneración (also called Popular Resource Center), in the Northeast Los Angeles neighborhood of Highland Park, was co-founded by musicians Zach de la Rocha and Rudy Ramirez; the space served as a hub for activists, artists, and young people to coalesce around issues like racism, police brutality, and indigenous rights. Posters, recordings, and photographs from the time period document a prolific output of artworks, concerts, performances, and protests that not only aligned with previous political and aesthetic movements, but also offered material support and solidarity to contemporary struggles both domestically and abroad.

Artists associated with the Popular Resource Center continued traditions of defiant street interventions and protests. In 1998, Regeneración members organized a funeral parade of cardboard coffins at MacArthur Park to protest the Mexican government’s massacre of 45 indigenous Zapatista members in the state of Chiapas. These were followed by mass protests at the Wilshire Federal Center, which led to political banners being unfurled over the 405 Freeway, and silhouettes of bodies being wheat-pasted on buildings of major banks that colluded with the Mexican government in the Chiapas massacre.

Installation view, flyers and posters from Regeneración / Popular Resource Center (1993–1999)

The Regeneración center and its pirate radio station Radio Clandestina would relocate several times during the late ’90s before formally dissolving in 2002. While the community center leaves behind a rich legacy of art and activism, Highland Park now faces economic and cultural changes that may shift the character of the neighborhood and further distance it from its recent past (the Popular Resource Center’s address for many years is now a vintage shop that deals in mid-century modern furniture). It’s clear, however, from the exhibition that political art-making and organizing are unlikely to slow down or disappear from the Los Angeles region as they have continued unabated for over a century. It may only be a matter of time before we see another form or iteration of “Regeneración” to champion the very same causes that once led the Flores Magón brothers and their comrades to write, draw, and speak their convictions into existence.

Reproduction of Regeneración newspaper (1900–1918)
Installation view, photographs of Ricardo and Enrique Flores Magón
Installation view, political cartoons from Regeneración: Three Generations of Revolutionary Ideology
Installation view, black-and-white photographs by Elizabeth Delgadillo-Merfeld
Installation view, Regeneración: Three Generations of Revolutionary Ideology

Regeneración: Three Generations of Revolutionary Ideology continues at the Vincent Price Art Museum (1301 Avenida Cesar Chavez, Monterey Park, CA) through February 16, 2019.

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