Jose Guerrero does make art in his Pilsen studio. In fact, he’s getting ready for a show as we speak. But mostly, Gerrero gives tours of all the murals around the Pilsen neighborhood. It’s because of this that he calls himself an amateur anthropologist.
Amateur anthropologist? I repeat. Seems to me like you’re a pretty well-established anthropologist.
Jose Guerrero laughs hard for a minute, slapping the table in front of him.
I’m glad you said that, he says. Did you hear that, Margaret? I’m an established anthropologist. He turns back to me. I hope you write that down in your article, he says. Established anthropologist.
So you’ve watched Pilsen and Humboldt Park change since 1964. Do you think art has impacted the sense of community in Pilsen, and have you seen anything similar happening in Humboldt Park over the last 40 years?
Well, in Humboldt Park, they do have art. All communities appreciate art. The thing is that the people arriving there were not appreciating it. It’s slum art, it’s viaduct art, they say. But now, it’s accepted. A lot of people got different opinions about art. Even the artists themselves talk, and they say this. When I hear people talking too much, it seems like they want to get high class or something, you understand? I think art is very important, and the highest form of art, for me, has been going on for a couple of million years. The cave people, you know? What’s political about that? A cave painting? It’s economics, primitive economics.
Art has always been, in my case, very important. ‘Cause I’ve learned a lot of from watching. There’s a fellow, named Damian Garcia, 1980 he went to the Alamo. The Alamo is when, in 1836, they actually stole Mexico, and killed as many Mexicans as they could kill. And yet they call them heroes. When I was a kid, I thought they were heroes. I didn’t know no better. When they had stage plays, I wanted to be Davy Crockett. Stupid. You don’t want to be Davy Crockett—he’s the one who killed your grandpa! But as the years go by, you learn. This fellow, Damian Garcia, went over and climbed the Alamo. And it was him and about two girls, maybe about your age. They got up there, they tore the Texas flag down—boom—cut it and sent it flying to the ground. And put up a red flag. Then the guy got up there and the women, with a megaphone: The Alamo is a symbol of white supremacy! It’s an insult to the Mexican people. They stole their land. And right now they’re stealing their culture, they’re stealing their minds.
That is true, you know. Now they got this farm in Texas, where people can assimilate. We don’t use the word white. Here, white is a political word. Italians are white, Arabs are white. Mexicans are minorities, even though you might have blue eyes and blond hair, you’re a minority. So it’s just a political word. And in Texas, New Left organizations fought for the right for us to be called white, so we could be accepted in schools. When it said, For Whites Only, well, we were there too, because we’re white too. It gets adopted, and next thing I’m white. So it’s a political word, see?
The Mexican people got so traumatized that they Anglofied themselves. They don’t speak Spanish. They speak English all the time, or their children are called Ericson, or Tommy. No more Panchito, Panchitas, it’s more like Tiffany and Brittany. But the culture is always important. It’s how people satisfy themselves or introduce what they have done, or celebrate their achievements. Culture is very important. This is what we see here in Pilsen.
A lot of people say, That happened a long time ago man. Forget it, drop it. I mean, this is history. Well, we’re still being affected by it. There’s still people who say that we shouldn’t be here, just like people in Arizona. I’ve seen pictures of people in Arizona crying, and I compare it to the Jewish pictures—it’s the same thing. There’s a guy standing there pointing a stick and saying, Let me see your papers. If you say this is democracy, I know different. This is fascism. When they act like that, this has nothing to do with democracy.
Do you think that art and mural-making are effective combatants against fascism?
Now I say that, see, and not everybody agrees. From my point of view, art can be used as propaganda. Because propaganda means you take a certain situation and blow it up. For instance, with all this oil spilling, you’ve seen on the TV where it’s just like clouds of it under the water. There was a good picture, good illustration, because look at the millions and millions of dollars just going up. Millions and millions. How come people are starving in Haiti? Why can’t they just have a little crumb of that, they’d be OK. They’d have hospitals, they’d have schools. They’d be a hundred percent better, just from part of that spill—not all of it. But that’s not the game, that’s not what they do. They want to dominate. Domination is what they want. And we’re still in the same situation as we were a long time ago. We haven’t advanced that far. Maybe we’ve move a little bit, but we need full emancipation.
So art and murals promote emancipation?
Murals promote you bettering yourself, and having self-respect, and not being ashamed of who you are. I come here and see portraits of Pancho Villa, portraits of Che Guevara, portraits of Emiliano, portraits of Frida Kahlo. So people can say, Whoa, we’re not as bad as I thought we were. We got intellect.
Like when I went to Mexico for the first time, a long time ago, in the ’50s. I was a teenager. I’d never seen middle-class Mexicans. It was the first time I’d seen them because in Texas most people work in factories. Middle class, I had seen in comic books. Archie and them, the house they lived in. I would watch the comic books on Sundays, or even the cartoons where Tom and Jerry were walking around, and yet you could see the maid was black, you know, her legs. So that’s art, and it influences people.
So of course, to me it’s important. Some people say it’s not, but to me it is. I see murals, and I say that’s a great thing. Like Hector Duartes has got one over there on Gulliver’s Travels. Gulliver, and why is he tied down with wires? Because he’s talking about the border and Gulliver was a traveler who had no papers either. He was mistreated. If he did something they appreciated, they said, He’s OK, he benefits. Otherwise they tied him down. It says a lot, you know.