“The Closing of Whittier Boulevard” by Frank Romero (1984)

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Nov. 9, 2016 is the day when many in the United States woke up. Tears fell from tired eyes, a sickening fear shook many to the core. People flooded social media with outrage and disbelief. But what became a gut punch for millions of people that day has been a reality for many in this country for decades. Before the 45th | Action/Reaction in Chicano and Latino Art is an exhibit that tells the stories of those communities who have been relentlessly persecuted, ignored, and taken advantage of long before 45 took office.

Chicano art rose out of the 1960s Chicano Civil Rights Movement also known as El Movimiento, famously lead by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. With many struggling between their Mexican and North American identities, the movement brought many of these communities together, instilling a much-needed solidarity among groups of Mexican-Americans living in the U.S. In an attempt to bring to light social, political, and economic injustices, the movement inspired artists to create work against racism and disempowerment in the U.S. while also celebrating their heritage.

Before the 45th tells this story, mostly through art from the 1970s to the present. All of the artists are California-based. Quite a few of their earlier works feel eerily relevant today. Frank Romero’s 1996 painting of “The Arrest of the Paleteros” is a prime example of the injustices then and now. He depicts a man and his family selling popsicles, but the police are persecuting them. An act that brings joy to neighborhoods is met with great force. In the painting, children, women, and men frightfully put their hands up in front of police, who have their guns up and are ready to shoot. It’s a powerful scene, with the backdrop of a colorful neighborhood falling prey to an undeserved punishment simply because of the color of their skin.   

Carmen Lomas Garza’s “Tamalada” is a depiction of a more joyful time, showing generations of a single family in the kitchen making tamales—a day-long laborious tradition. In “Quinceanera,” Garza continues the theme of family tradition with the coming-of-age 15th birthday party with girls donning pink ball gowns and tiaras. These celebrations bring Mexican traditions to the North American home, passing through generations like a family heirloom.  

The works in Before the 45th cannot be pinned down to a single issue, nor do they all exclaim with colorful vibrancy. The LGBTQ community within the Chicano Movement was largely ignored until the 1980s because of the machismo of the movement’s early years. With the fear of HIV/AIDS spreading faster than the disease itself, Chicano artists started to focus their work on social issues in an effort to fight discrimination. Enrique Castrejon’s “Investigation of HIV Cell #1 and #2” places layered HIV strands behind a frame, resembling an unsolvable and complicated mathematical problem. Castrejon, Ruben Esparza, and Miguel Angel Reyes’ “The Affirmation of Eden” is a culmination of Casterjon’s HIV cells layered on top of a man and a woman, with the words, “Silencio + Ignorancia = Riesgo” (Silence + Ignorance = Risk) plastered on the bottom. It is a powerful addition to the exhibit and a visual reminder to stand up and speak out.  

The enormity of Before the 45th is balanced with the most simple of gestures in Antonio Pelayo’s “Baldes Vacios” and “Los Tres.” Small, framed, extremely detailed pencil drawings stand out even against the biggest paintings in the room. “Baldes Vacios” depicts two men, two trashcans, and a mop—no background—drawn against the paper’s white space. Similarly, “Los Tres” features three happy children sitting on a pony. Their facial expressions inspire happiness after such a heavy exhibit. The children look straight at you, and the men—satisfied in their daily routine—allow us to peer into their beautiful souls.  

There’s much to learn from the rest of the artists in the exhibit, a necessary view of the resilience of this community told through an autobiographical lens.  

Fittingly, most of the works in Before the 45th are on a loan from AltaMed, a hospital in California. The hospital wanted to have artwork that made the patients feel at home in a country where many of them don’t always feel welcome. This important work has thankfully reached a wider audience, with a history lesson you didn’t learn in school.

2829 16th St. NW. Free. (202) 728-1628. instituteofmexicodc.org.