Wall Stories: Chavez, Cigars, Murals, Marxists and Manongs

Chavez, Cigars, Murals, Marxists and Manongs

I brought the wood cut outs along with the box full of acrylic paint jars. It was my second trip to Cuba during the “special period” of the 1990’s and this time I was going to paint a mural in Santiago as part of the international Internos project. Getting the paint onto American Airlines is another story, not because it was paint but because the jars were in boxes and boxes were not allowed on flights to Mexico during the holidays so people could not bring gifts to their families. Nice corporate policies.  The wall in Santiago was still a mystery but the wall I was after was for the new Sonoma State Library so I was multi-tasking.

I was finalist in a competition to do a Cesar Chavez Memorial and I did not honestly expect to get the gig. I decided to do the mural out of layered wood cut outs that I could stain, carve, stencil and burn into. When I got to Santiago they were very disorganized so I had time to make my little wood cut out experimental maquette. The Cuban artists did not know who Cesar Chavez was. As I stuck the vinyl letters to spell out his quotes on the image of Chavez fasting I told his story. My fellow artists were barely interested in California labor history. They were very interested in the precious jars of acrylic colors and medium I had managed to get on the island via Mexico without a Cuba stamp on my passport. The lovely faded and distressed paint on their buildings was not a fancy first world art installation. They were somewhat more interested when I told them my great grandfather was a Marxist cigar maker, one of the German immigrants who had brought socialist ideas to America.

I really enjoyed making that maquette in the old Russian apartment building overlooking a big blue pool that was unswimmable because they had no chlorine. A small torture on hot humid days. On my first trip to Cuba to learn Afro Cuban Music and Dance, the pool at the University in Havana was emptied and filled every three days. I still got a yeast infection. Too much information but I always digress when it comes to swimming. The swimming pool at Sonoma State was big and chlorinated. The committee could not resist my layers of wood design and overall concept. I dare say it was quite a cute maquette and they kept it.  I wish I still had it in my mountains of old proposals that will some day either be dumped or put in a climate controlled room. Your guess is as good as mine.

The Cesar Chavez Memorial Mural was a joy to paint. The Sonoma State Gallery was closed that summer so I had it all to myself. For a muralist these were premium conditions. The most illuminating part of the experience was meeting with the farm workers to talk about their experiences and reading the powerful words of Cesar Chavez. The other equally important part of the mural was placing the two Manongs, whose picture I found in an old newspaper, with Chavez at the center of the design. I stenciled the facts often overlooked in the history of the United Farm Workers. It was the Filipino workers who first voted to strike on September 8, 1965.  A Cesar Chavez historian that I had consulted in my research objected to this centerpiece and emailed me angrily. Over the years I have also received appreciative emails from Filipino American students who did not know of this hard fought history.