On August 29, 1970, more than 20,000 demonstrators marched in East LA. The march was called The National Chicano Moratorium Against the Vietnam War.
“Many of my friends had already been drafted and were either fighting, had been killed, or had already returned wounded from the war. So I had a very direct connection to the war, and was very much against it,” says Harry Gamboa Jr., an artist who was 18 years old during the march.
The march began peacefully, but ended in widespread violence, arrests, and three deaths. Journalist Ruben Salazar was among those killed.
“When the tens of thousands of people coalesced at the end of the march at a park, they were attacked by the police, which was the LAPD, LA County Sheriff's Highway Patrol, and undercover agents using various forms of weaponry and gases,” Gamboa Jr. says. “It was a concerted effort to break up all civil rights demonstrations.”
That day had lasting effects on Chicano culture, politics, and art.
“For a lot of artists, that police crackdown became this real instigator,” says Carolina Miranda, who wrote about this for the LA Times. “It was this incredible moment, this flourishing of art that came out of this painful moment of history.”
There was an explosion of murals across LA in the 1970s. Several art organizations and collectives formed, including Asco, Self Help Graphics, and LA’s Day of the Dead celebration.
Gamboa Jr. was a founding member of Asco, which means disgust and nausea in Spanish.
“The media response to [the Chicano Moratorium] portrayed Mexican Americans as being violent thugs, and the opposite was true,” he says. “And it occurred to me that it would be very important for me to become a photographer, and to document, interpret … and contribute a higher level of absurdism to the visuals as a way of generating a counter to the narrative that would hold true to the Chicano experience.”
Gamboa Jr. says Asco’s work was ignored by mainstream art institutions. In 1972, he and other Asco members spray painted their names on the outside of LACMA after its director rejected their idea for an exhibit and told them that Chicanos create graffiti, not art.
Nearly four decades later, LACMA curated a major retrospective of Asco’s work.
“The institutional representation is still weak,” says Miranda. “The collecting has been very spotty, and that's where it starts. By collecting these artists’ work, by preserving it, by curating it into shows, you are making it part of the canon, you are making it part of the conversation. And in a lot of LA museums that is still not happening.”
— Written and produced by Kathryn Barnes