América Tropical, a celebration of Mexican music dedicated to the works of noted muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, recently debuted at Walt Disney Concert Hall attracting an audience of over 1500. The performance featured an orchestral tone poem playing in the background while a video of Siqueiros' work appeared on the screen, displaying his controversial mural América Tropical - Los Angeles' first outdoor mural. The video graphically recreated the mural's censorship as the image emerged from underneath a veil of white paint, portraying the initial attempt to silence its message and its reemergence decades later as the paint faded.
Mezzo-soprano Suzanna Guzman provided vocal accompaniment as the video paid homage to contemporary muralists that have derived inspiration from Siqueiros' talent and activism. Adding to this multimedia event was the debut performance of the Mexico City Philharmonic, a portrayal of the artist by actor Sal López, and a Mariachi concerto by Los Camperos de Nati Cano.
The initial seed funding for the June 6 performance was provided by a 2006 UC MEXUS faculty grant awarded to Steve Loza, UC Los Angeles professor of ethnomusicology, who provided the musical score. Loza conceived of a multi-media approach that would pay tribute to not only the Siqueiros mural, but also other Mexican artists from theater, film and music. Thus, Loza collaborated with UCLA colleagues José Luis Valenzuela of the Department of Theater and Judy Baca, from the Department of Chicana/o Studies to provide the narrative and visual imagery components of the concert.
Loza was inspired by Siqueiros' mural, located on a wall in Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles, as the centerpiece for the performance because of the timeless quality of the subject matter. "The mural reflects the mestizo experience," Loza said. "The whole statement is about American imperialism. The social/historical issue in many ways still reflects what's happening today, so this mural from 1932 is so timely and relative - especially in terms of immigration."
Controversial since its 1932 unveiling, the mural is an 18 x 80 foot masterpiece whose central figure is a crucified indigenous peasant with an American eagle, symbolic of U.S. imperialism, hovering ominously above. This is set against a backdrop of a decaying Maya pyramid engulfed by foliage signifying the obliteration of indigenous cultures.
The part of the mural that could be seen from Olvera Street was whitewashed shortly after its completion, with the remainder of the image completely obscured within a year. As Loza explains:
The mural created a lot of negative reaction on the part of the more conservative, more patriotic part of the community. I guess they weren't much into freedom of expression. The mural was Siqueiros' impression because he saw so many Mexicans exploited. He was presenting his own expression of what was going on.
A resurgence of interest in the mural began to grow when, four decades after it was created, peeling paint slowly revealed the mural's existence. "By 1970 a reawakening in the Mexican community had occurred," Loza points out. "Siqueiros created the first Mexican mural, so politically and socially that created interest in a restoration."
According to Loza, the initial collaboration that produced América Tropical is likely to continue beyond the original performance. Ideally, he would like to work on this kind of concert every year, noting the importance of having other Mexican symphonic performances in Disney Hall to understand that Mariachi is as important as symphonic art. Additionally, he hopes to take Amčrica Tropical on tour: "The piece will live on. UC MEXUS gets part of the credit because they created the framework."
Those interested in seeing the actual mural will have an opportunity beginning in late 2010 or possibly early 2011 when, following a more than a decade-long conservation, it will be unveiled. Conservation was undertaken by the Getty Conservation Institute and the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, a Los Angeles city department. Unfortunately, due to chronic neglect combined with the corrosive nature of the materials used to create the mural, the art can never be fully returned to its original, pristine condition. However, the central message the image evokes endures.
Half of the proceeds derived from the concert will be used to establish a scholarship for college-age students majoring in the arts.
(for additional information contact Louise Bachman, Reporting Analyst, UC MEXUS Grants Programs; firstname.lastname@example.org)