The other day I was having a conversation with a co-worker about an article I’ve been working on for the upcoming, Encyclopedia of Latino Culture, Volume 3: From Calaveras to Quinceañeras (available 11/30/13). I revealed the topic I was writing on was Graffiti within Xican@ and Latin@ culture, which sparked a mild sense of hostility on the part of my colleague, as he believed my article to be promoting gang activity and vandalism. While it is undeniable that these elements do exist within the graff writing scene, I strongly believe arguments like this are oversimplifications of an otherwise fascinating subject matter. Beyond the deep historical connections between Xican@ culture and graffiti, the areas that I found to be most interesting are the ways in which this art form can be used in the frame work of decolonization.
For many artists, graffiti is not merely a way to get one’s voice and name up on a wall. It also provides an avenue for Xican@ graffiti writers to make their culture visible. This is an extremely important point, especially if we’re to consider how colonization has worked to eradicate entire civilizations in the Americas. We also cannot forget the long standing practice of eliminating culture— boarding schools that sought to “kill the indian and save the man” come to mind. Not to mention the countless ways in which colonized peoples are inferiorized and made invisible within the dominant (settler) culture. With that said, by incorporating elements of indigenous and cultural symbolism into their work, Xican@ graffiti artists are participating in a form of decolonization.
Indigenous symbolism in graffiti works to publicly display a connection between Xican@ culture and Indigeneity.
The influence of the Chicano Movement and the rise of cultural nationalism in the 1970s can also be seen within Xican@ graffiti.
The graffiti writer in the above clip explains the connection between his work and his culture by including a skeleton. By doing so he is drawing a direct link to Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) and his art. We also can see him drawing a “stylized eagle with wings shaped like an inverted Aztec pyramid”—the same symbol used by César Chavez and Dolores Huerte’s United Farm Workers organization. By the artist using these cultural elements he is tying this piece not only to his cultural roots but also to el movimiento.
Guisela Latorre’s, Walls of Empowerment: Chicana/o Indigenist Murals of California, provides an additional way to comprehend how Xican@ graffiti acts as a decolonial practice:
With graffiti Text, where readability is often secondary to visual impact and design, we witness a writing system that seeks to either return to an imagelike state or just undermine the distinction between the two. Ivor Miller contends that graffiti writers’ manipulation of words represented “the resistance by colonized people to redefine themselves by manipulating the rules and logic of the colonizer’s language.” Joe Austin maintains that “the twisted, fractured or crumbled letters” of graffiti make the Western alphabet come alive and disintegrate at the same time… (108)
Graffiti, within the context of Xican@ culture, can act as a means for marginalized peoples, who have been rendered invisible within the dominant culture, to construct a visible identity within a public space by deconstructing the colonizers own language. For instance, many Xican@s have been disconnected from their cultural tongues as a result of being forced to speak and write in English while in the k-12 school system. By not allowing bilingual education to exist and inferiorizing non-English languages generations of Xican@s were pressured into believing that the only way to be seen as part of American culture was by erasing elements of their Xican@ heritage (this happened to my family as well). By challenging this reality, Xican@ graffiti artists are participating in a very public artistic decolonial performance.
Contrary to what my co-worker would have you believe, the use of indigenous and cultural symbolism along side the deconstruction of the English language moves Xican@ graffiti out of the space of mere vandalism and an art form unique to gang culture. What we can see is graffiti within Xican@ culture is an art form that borders into the process of decolonization and reclamation of cultural identity, not to mention the reclamation of voice in the public arena.