Oaxacan street artists bring Mexican muralism to Los Angeles

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In Los Angeles, we mark our neighborhoods with symbols of ethnic and cultural pride. And murals are strong representations of those identities. From South L.A. to Venice, and from Boyle Heights to Hollywood, street art tells us a lot about the people who live in those parts of town.

Roberto Vega and Rosario Martinez of Colectivo LaPiztola
Roberto Vega and Rosario Martinez of Colectivo LaPiztola (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Bricia Lopez brought in a pair of Oaxacan muralists known as Colectivo LaPiztola to paint the bright orange facade of La Guelaguetza – her family’s restaurant in Koreatown.

“I travel to Oaxaca with my brother often, to get inspiration for the restaurant,” Lopez said. “To always keep it new, and being in touch with the people in Oaxaca, and being in touch with what’s going on in Oaxaca.”

For this mural, the artists chose the image of a young boy and girl in traditional Oaxacan clothes. The girl is holding an ear of corn, while the boy holds a chicken. Rosario Martinez of LaPiztola says their hope was to capture the ideal expressed in the name Guelaguetza, a big annual festival in Oaxaca. The word also translates as “to receive and to give.”

“Well, this one is also keeping in mind the meaning of ‘la guelaguetza’ – in the concept of sharing,” Martinez  said. “That’s why we started from the root.  Also because a lot of Oaxacans live here and many of them have families now who don’t know Oaxaca. And so we started the mural with children precisely because so many have children and they don’t know Oaxaca. We wanted them to see what children were like over there. But we also wanted to show how they can share, for example, the chicken and food like corn, the main staples of Oaxaca and Mexico.”

IMAG2496The girl also has a bandana on her face, which Roberto Vega of LaPiztola says is an important symbolic element of the mural.

“It’s a symbol of resistance – like managing to resist outside influences in order to conserve our traditions and culture,” Vega said.  “And also, we deal with corn because we’ve been working on resisting the genetically modified corn that has been doing away with millions of years of local corn. It’s getting contaminated and it’s already happened a lot in Oaxaca. And so there’s a fierce struggle against genetically modified corn and that’s also reflected in the piece.”

LaPiztola’s work isn’t just art, it’s political. The name itself is a play on the Spanish words “lapiz” for pencil and “pistola” for pistol.  And after the Mexican government squashed a teacher’s protest in Oaxaca in 2006 and months of protests followed, you could see more and more of their work around Oaxaca.

“There are a lot of social causes in Oaxaca, it’s big there and so we began with a social movement, applying design as a form of protest and a little more as activism,” Martinez said.

“I think it was important because initially it was the only way we had to communicate because the media was controlled, obviously, by the government – radio, television, all of it,” Vega added. “So street art was the only thing we had to, for example, stay informed about what was going on with the cartels, etc., and the murals were also to encourage the people to keep up the struggle, not get demoralized.”

Longtime Chicano artist and activist Judy Baca says their technique of using hand-cut stencils and spray paint let them put up their work fast – so there’s less risk of being targeted by police or drug traffickers at home.

IMAG2505“They’re very well trained artists, they’re graphic designers who are using stenciling as a way of speeding up the production on the street,” Baca said. “But they’re very intricate graphically, beautiful designs. So they’re not just simply their names and they’re not personal advertising, but they’re about ideas. So in that sense they are keeping the grand tradition of Mexican muralism, the tradition of muralism as an activist tool, and at the same time they’re using techniques that come out of the graffiti art street culture.”

Of course, Mexico is known for muralists, typified by the work of “los tres grandes” – artists Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. But while Colectivo LaPiztola’s mural is art – and it’s political – for Bricia and Fernando Lopez, owners of Guelaguetza, it’s also good business.

IMAG2478“We’re actually, down from Olympic, from Western to Hoover, we’re the only Mexican-owned business, and everything else is, I’m guessing, something else, so we just wanted to make a statement, that we’re here,” Fernando Lopez said.

The grand opening for the mural at Guelaguetza is tonight at 7 p.m. It’ll be a celebration of all aspects of Mexican and Oaxacan culture – the food, the mezcal, the music, and the art.