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"The Road to Aztlan' Doesn't Get Viewers All the Way There

<i>Male Figure, </i>Casas Grandes,  14th-15th Century
Male Figure, Casas Grandes, 14th-15th Century

"No one, no one, no one truly lives on earth."

-- Anonymous, Pre-Hispanic poem

<i>Verdadero Retrato de Santa Maria Virgen de Guadalupe, Patrona Principal de la Nueva España Jurada en Mexico, </i>by Josefus de Rivera y Argomanis, 1778
Verdadero Retrato de Santa Maria Virgen de Guadalupe, Patrona Principal de la Nueva España Jurada en Mexico, by Josefus de Rivera y Argomanis, 1778

Like Atlantis, Camelot, Eden, the Ark of the Covenant, or Excalibur, the existence of Aztlan is contestable. Some say this ancestral homeland to the Aztec people is an imaginary place, while others point to evidence of its existence throughout the Americas. Aztlan is part mythology, part geopolitical landmark, part organizing concept, and part philosophy. It's cloaked in romance and steeped in history. The exact physical location of Aztlan is unknown. However, in the indigenous Nahuatl language, Aztlan means "the place of the herons" (or place of whiteness, as herons are white). Therefore, some scholars believe it must have been located near estuaries in coastal Northwestern Mexico. Others have gone as far as to name San Felipe Aztlan, Nayarit as the ancestral Aztlan. Whatever its location -- geographically or imaginatively -- its influence on the cultural psyche on the region stretching from Central America to the Southwestern U.S. is unquestionable. The Mexican writer and education minister José Vasconselos first conceptualized Aztlan in his 1925 essay "La Raza Cosmica: Mision de la Raza Iboamerica" ("The Cosmic Race: The Mission of the Ibo-American Race"). Vasconselos urged Mexicans to embrace the rich history of their indigenous roots, and postulated a world composed of "the definitive race ... built out of the genius and with the blood of all people ... capable of [a] universal vision."

Inspired by Vasconselos' words, Chicano activists used Aztlan as a source of affirmation and an organizing concept during the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Today, Aztlan is considered a source of cultural pride or a bemusing relic of Sixties-era political activism. And some have not heard of it at all.

<i>Parrot Effigy Figure</i> Colima, 200BC-500AD
Parrot Effigy Figure Colima, 200BC-500AD

Now, Aztlan is the subject of an exhibit titled "The Road to Aztlan, Art From the Mythic Homeland," organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in cooperation with the Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes/Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia, Mexico. Austin is one of only two cities to host the exhibit, and it's being jointly hosted here by the Austin Museum of Art (AMOA) and the Texas Fine Arts Association (TFAA). The exhibit is divided between two venues: The pre-conquest portion of the exhibit is at the AMOA; the contemporary works are at the TFAA's Jones Center for Contemporary Art. Together, the show has 250 pieces of art and rare archeological artifacts created during a 2,000-year period.

The most comprehensive part of the exhibit is the early portion (roughly the years 700 to 1550), and it is nothing short of wondrous. Eight "worlds" or regions represent the various early peoples (Mimbres, Honokam, Ancestral Pueblo, et al.) where the mythos of Aztlan was (or is) present. The spread and influence of cultures on one another is revealed through the appearance of similar iconography throughout the various worlds, artistic processes, or precious materials acquired through trade. The pre-Hispanic book or codex, as in the facsimile of the Codex Boturini, fashioned after an early 16th-century Mexican codex, are written in a highly expressive, nonalphabetic language documenting significant events including contact with other peoples.

As in many early civilizations, a defining cosmology appears in the design of many artifacts. Reifying the spiritual is not only present in the ornamentation of devotional objects, but in everyday vessels as well. A rabbit dancing on the crest of the moon; parrot-headed serpents or beak-faced humans; lizards, fish, or depictions of mythic creatures interacting with humans adorn the ordinary bowl as well as the ritual palette, as in pieces from the Honokam (800-1400), Mimbres (1000-1500), or Casas Grandes (1250-1500) worlds. In less conspicuous imagery, the spirit world appears symbolically in dazzlingly intricate spiral and line designs, representing the four elemental directions, or the cyclical nature of life, found most distinctively in the Pueblo World (700 -- 1500). Some of the most dynamic objects are sculptures carved from volcanic rock. Pieces like God With Maize and Flowers (c. 1200-1519) embody a dual reverence for deities and the beauty found in simple earthly pleasures.

<i>Uprising of the Spirit</i> by Enrique Chagoya, 1994
Uprising of the Spirit by Enrique Chagoya, 1994

The artwork of the Post Classic era (900-1519) and especially the period peculiarly titled Spanish Impact (as opposed to "conquest," the period from 1521-1847) contain more traditional, two-dimensional works of art like paintings on canvas, wood, or paper, and textile weavings. Though the pieces in this portion of the exhibit are less enchanting than the earlier period pieces, they are extremely instructive in the ways that indigenous peoples appear through artistic techniques used in Spanish colonial artwork. The use of feathers, highly prized for their beauty and associated with mythic deities, appear in images of Christian saints painted on wood or paper. The most spectacular piece in this portion of the exhibit, a large oil painting of the Virgin Guadalupe (1778), not only has the Mestizo Juan Diego (to whom the Virgin first appeared) in the foreground (he usually appears as a smaller figure in the background), but also presents him in his indigenous persona.

In an effort to play up the positive "impact" of the Spanish conquest, many elements of this often brutal, bloody and painful history go unspoken. The most interesting, but subtle evidence of Spanish influence is in how spiritual concepts or deities are no longer present in handled objects, but captured in visually pleasing items meant for display. Though charming, the wood carvings of Santo Niño de Atocha and other saint figures appear lifeless when compared to the earlier indigenous artifacts and artworks, which by the very fact they were meant for human contact are imbued with a sense of purpose and life. This move away from the physical to the intellectual experience of spiritual practice is enormously intriguing. What is the psychic cost of having one's means of worship changed, however subtly, or, in the language of most conquerors -- for their own good? This question is not addressed in this section of the exhibit.

These last two sections cover less ground than the previous sections and provide an unstable bridge to the contemporary portion of the exhibit at the Jones Center (more on that later). The didactic panels and object labels throughout the exhibit are accessible and thoughtfully provided in English and Spanish. But because of the amount of information, it would have been useful to have the historical text available on audio headset as the viewer peruses the exhibit. Subdued or poor gallery lighting often made reading some of the text difficult. This was most noticeable at the facsimile of the Codex Boturini when another gallery patron inadvertently cast a shadow over the text, making it impossible to read. These annoyances at least provide a welcome excuse to revisit the exhibit a second or third time.

<i>Southwest Pieta</i> by Luis Jiménez, 1983
Southwest Pieta by Luis Jiménez, 1983

There is an unexpected message in the AMOA portion of "The Road to Aztlan." While many reportedly search for spiritual grounding following the unsettling events of Sept. 11, seeing how these "primitive" cultures coalesced the spiritual with the everyday without "modern" self-help gurus or self-esteem cheerleaders is humbling. Coming away with this knowledge is perhaps the most profound legacy the exhibit has to offer.

Recovering the Past

Fully understanding Aztlan in all its literal and symbolic definitions may not be necessary to appreciate "The Road to Aztlan." But knowing the creation myth and how deeply it fed a generation of modern Chicano activists, scholars, and artists is helpful. In most versions of the myth, the Aztecs emerged from the center of the earth through seven caves, founded Aztlan, then journeyed in search of other places to settle. The documented history of the Aztecs indicates they were indeed nomadic. Evidence of their travels appears in artifacts from Northwestern to Central Mexico, where they ultimately came in contact with highly developed civilizations like the Toltecs. The greatness of Aztlan, it is said, came from the efforts of various cultures to emulate the greatness of each other.

While Chicano nationalists stake a hard-core claim on what they call the ancestral homeland (the Southwestern part of the U.S.), what resonates with a greater number of Chicanos is the metaphoric Aztlan: the spiritual tethering of a grand, ancient world to the present. Or, as artist and curator Amalia Mesa-Baines explains, "The powerful symbolism of Aztlan as an ancestral homeland emanated from the deep Chicano/a sense of dislocation ... experienced in the aftermath of the Mexican-American War ... as well as the earlier Spanish colonial invasion."

Chicanos (and Mexicans) used the mythology and cast it through prisms of art, poetry, music, and dance, to rock en español, to "rasquache" (i.e., "low') tattoo, and to low-rider art. The cultural production from this moment in Chicano history, otherwise known as the Chicano renaissance, is explosive in its direction, breadth, and continuation to the present. Given this, the contemporary portion of "The Road to Aztlan" is breathtakingly meager. The few pieces on view at the Jones Center are provocative, but the expectation I had that this portion of the exhibit would be as comprehensive as the AMOA portion was not met. There were missed opportunities in tying the pre-conquest section to the contemporary. How helpful it would have been to point out how the mapping of memory in pre-Hispanic codices is echoed in the charming family scenes of Texas' own Carmen Lomas Garza and the ex-votos created in the last century. Or how the twin figures Hanahpu and Xblanque, the spiritual protectors of the underworld in Mayan legends, manifest themselves in the photographic portrait by James Luna (Half Indian, Half Mexican, 1991). One wonders if the contemporary portion of the exhibit was an afterthought.

Still, there are pleasures to be found in the contemporary pieces. Enrique Chagoya blends humor and social commentary in his codex, Uprising of the Spirit. Mickey Mouse and Superman juxtaposed with Aztec figures and scenes of the conquest are both chilling and hilarious. And how often do you see low-riders in a mainstream art gallery, as in Gilbert (Magu) L'jan's Trailing los Antepasados? The use of humor in contemporary Chicano art is an enormous topic largely unaddressed, as is the purposeful appearance of domestic or street culture (i.e. "low" or "rasquache"). Chicano art is not just "Viva la Raza" posters calling for aid to the farm workers. The breadth of this work is as expansive as any other living art trend. It would have been fortunate to see more of this in the contemporary portion of the exhibit.

In spite of these complaints, Austin is most fortunate to have "The Road to Aztlan." While the pre-conquest portion is much stronger than the contemporary, both deserve a look, if for no other reason than to whet your curiosity. An excellent exhibit catalogue is a "must have" for students of Mesoamerican and Chicano art. The excellent essays by notable scholars and art historians like Victor Zamudio-Taylor, Amalia Mesa-Baines, and Miguel León Portillo alone are worth the price ($40 paper, $50 hard). end story

"The Road to Aztlan" continues through Dec. 30 at the Austin Museum of Art, 823 Congress, and the Jones Center for Contemporary Art, 700 Congress. Call 495-9224 or 453-5313 for info.

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The Road to Aztlan, Art from the Mythic Homeland, Nahuatl, José Vasconselos, La Raza Cosmica: Mision de la Raza Iboamerica (The Cosmic Race: The Mission of the Ibo-American Race), Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Art

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