San Francisco

Armando Rascón

Armando Rascón, who grew up in Calexico, remembers the border between California and Mexico as a place of benign transition; his mother often sent him to Mexico to buy tortillas. Today, of course, crossing the border is like going to the moon: steel grates used during the Gulf War as portable desert landing strips have been installed upright to form a fence. A piece of that fence, a module of the military mindset, hung on a wall in Rascón’s installation, Occupied Aztlán, 1994, next to a small video monitor playing Orson Welles’ A Touch of Evil, 1958. Made in and around Calexico—and starring a brown-faced Charlton HestonWelles’ film illustrates an easy confluence of cultures along the border, at least if you read around the Hollywood stereotypes. In that confluence, Rascón sees the fluid cultural spaces of his childhood. Still, the side-by-side contrast of the tremulous video field and the rusty, steel fence suggests a more recent hardening of perennial U.S. anti-immigrant stereotypes. The exotic Hollywood Mexican of the ’50s is gone, replaced, for many Americans, by a brown, faceless wave of immigrants.

There are many such overlapping, contested spaces in Rascón’s installation. They are not so much ironic as paradoxical. Opposites—such as the gringo space of the Hollywood stereotype and the fluid cultural spaces of the artist’s memory—seem to coexist in ways that are neither strident nor polemical, but searching, self-critical, ultimately generous, and always firm in their political assertions.

Contesting the “higher doctrine” encoded in the history lessons of his youth, Rascón mounted 20 of his fourth-grade history tests and drawings on a long wall beneath old and recent photographs of his family and friends in Calexico. The school papers, endearing for their careful cursive and “good” rendering, become archives of the inculcation of the dominant narrative of Anglo culture. Three decades after his earnestly “right” answers were written, a more fluid conversation begins to emerge between the school (and its pedagogical imperatives), the teacher (as the moral authority), and the young artist. It is here that Rascón “takes issue” with his teacher, school, and country.

A beneficiary of the Chicano Movement of the mid and late ’60s, Rascón sees a continuing need for social and political activism among Chicanos in the arts. To this end, Occupied Aztlán is a brilliant interweaving of visual imagery, writing styles, archival documents (including the FBI files on the United Farmworkers Union, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act), family photographs, maps, a fictitious speech written for a fictitious Latino gubernatorial candidate in 1996, and emancipatory texts crucial to the formation of the Chicano Movement.

The centerpiece of Rascón’s installation was a research station linked by computer to a network of interested others that enables an alternative doctrine to be formulated and archived. It can become a form of communal memory that is proactive, not reactive. For some theorists, border culture is a zone of the perpetual dislocation of identity, language, communal narratives, and history. It is the dispersed post-Modern site of the itinerant postcolonial subject. For Rascón it is home, the fluid but contested cultural space of his childhood—and a model of political agency. In this sense, Occupied Aztlán can be considered a post-Modern “site” of the Chicano Movement.

Jeff Kelley