New book explores role of art in Latino activism

Edward McCaughan, chair of the sociology department, writes in a new book about visual art that helped propel Mexican and Latino American political movements of the 1960s, '70s and '80s – activist efforts that have strong parallels to immigrants’ rights movements today..

A photo of Edward McCaughan, chair of the sociology department.

Edward McCaughan is chair of the sociology department.

But the process of finding art for the book, titled "Art and Social Movements: Cultural Politics in Mexico and Aztlán" (Duke University Press), was no small task. Over the ten years he spent researching, McCaughan scoured galleries, museums and even personal art collections to find images from activists of the times.

"One of the unexpected treasure troves I found was going to interview the widow of a militant who had disappeared when the Mexican military was repressing the town of Juchitán in the '70s," McCaughan explained. "She had a shed on her front patio where there were dozens and dozens of posters. She saved them all because she knew they were important, but they hadn’t been preserved."

Finds like this helped him delve deeper into the mindset of the dedicated activists and artists from three grassroots mobilizations that sought to increase social and political representation for marginalized Latino groups in Mexico and the U.S.

"Several of the pieces I chose are really iconic, well-known images," he said. "But I chose many images that went beyond the traditional narrative of the movements and that I felt revealed more about them."

 Cultural Politics in Mexico and Aztlán.”

"Art and Social Movements: Cultural Politics in Mexico and Aztlán" was published in March by Duke University Press.

The first campaign McCaughan examined grew out of a 1968 massacre of protesters in Mexico City by government forces trying to maintain order as Mexico prepared to host the Summer Olympics. The second was an effort by the Zapotec indigenous people of southern Mexico in the 1970s and '80s to assert their autonomy though a political party called Coalición Obrera, Campesina, Estudiantil del Istmo (Coalition of Workers, Peasants and Students of the Isthmus, or COECI). The third was the mid-1960s Chicano movement that sought civil rights for Mexican American students, workers and families who were being subjected to racism and police brutality in their communities.

McCaughan analyzed particular pieces that helped galvanize and propel these activists, from simple posters announcing protests to interpretive paintings symbolizing the role of women in Mexican society.

"Part of what makes art particularly effective in a political context is that it engages all of our senses in whatever the struggle is," he said.

For example, one poster from the Chicano movement by the artist Malaquías Montoya, titled Vietnam Aztlán, depicts Vietnamese and Chicano men standing back to back above the word "Fuera" ("Out"). The 1972 piece, made during the turbulent end of the Vietnam War, is meant to invoke the colonial oppression of Vietnamese people as being experienced by Chicanos in America.

Vietnam Aztlán, a 1972 poster by the artist Malaquias Montoya

"Vietnam Aztlán", a 1972 poster by the artist Malaquias Montoya.

McCaughan’s interest in the movements came in part from his own time spent as an activist and organizer in the Bay Area and Mexico. He worked with the North American Congress on Latin America and other groups before coming to SF State.

He sees similarities between the art of these campaigns and more contemporary events like recent Occupy and immigrants’ rights protests.

"I was struck by how many of the images people (in current protests) were carrying on banners and picket signs that came out of the Chicano and Mexican movements that I was studying," he said. "A lot of them were the exact same images."

McCaughan’s book is available now at online retailers and at the SF State Bookstore.

-- Philip Riley