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The Interpretation and Representation of Latino Cultures: Research and Museums Conference Documentation
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Challenging Traditional Curatorial Practices: Transcript of Discussion Session

Challenging Traditional Curatorial Practices

Historicizing Narratives

Borders and Diasporas

Aesthetics Beauty

The Body: The Real and the Symbolic

All Abstracts



MS. PEREZ:  I'll try to keep my comments short because I want a discussion from the audience and plus we have a reception to go to.  But I have to say that at the end of the day, and it's not my favorite position to be in, many of the things that we have heard today have been quite illuminating to me even though I listen to a lot of people talk a lot.

            But to gather a group like this together to talk about these issues I think it's terribly important especially in the context of this institution.  I always say when I have an opportunity, and never give a microphone to a Puerto Rican, they say, when I have the opportunity I always say that just the sheer presence of bodies just in a room at the Smithsonian changes everything. Just the numbers and that the people are here just changes everything.  And so I am glad and honored to be amongst all of you on this panel in particular.

            I'm going to start with a quote from Richard Handler and he says that, "The collective individual can realize itself only through constant production, through a continual objectification of what is imagined to be its authentic culture, but objectification inevitably unbounds the bounded entity that constructs the desired totality.  This is because the processes of cultural objectification are as much a part of national culture as the cultural stuff that is objectified.

            "The museum as an institution is as authentic a piece of culture as the pieces in its collections but if the processes of displaying, framing, interpreting culture are themselves part of culture they cannot be bounded and controlled during the same moment in which they bound and control whatever it is that they constitute as a cultural object."  And in this case I think it's Latino culture.

            If there is anything that has been clear to me at least today is how a Latino exhibit is impossible or let's just say the Latino exhibit, right?  And why an exhibit should not hold a curator hostage.  Because the curatorial endeavor should, after Tato Laviera's beautiful tribute, be liberating. It sounds self-serving and perhaps it is but she never takes anything for granted at the Smithsonian.

            Who are we?  I come back to Jose Limon's question this morning.  Are we part of that ever present North American conundrum, e pluribus unum, we are many, we are one, the mystery that we are supposed to take as faith like the mystery of the divine trinity.  We should understand it if we're Catholic.

            How do we open a space for exploring Latinidad, Hispanidad, Chicanismo, Latino power, immigration, aesthetics, music, history, art, geography, performance, migrant laborers, farm workers, religion, politics, trans-nationalism, civil wars, Latinos in baseball, rasquachismo, and even the Caribbean baroque?  How do we talk about the ever shifting, changing, and transforming of our histories in all of the permutations that keep happening all the time?  How do we deal with who we are and what we embody with what we do in the context in which we do them?

            The Smithsonian, the El Museo del Barrio, the Mexican Museum, the Museo Americano, books, publications, records, CDs, and I also understand, and very personally I do, that we have a responsibility to create the spaces so that these multiple stories that we heard today not only on this panel but throughout the day get told, they get performed, screamed, yelled, or even whispered softly and lovingly into somebody's ear, somebody who will listen, maybe.

            How do we do this?  To me the papers here today provide specific examples of the complexities of exhibiting Latinos by giving us particular instances of exhibitions.  To me it's mostly intervention and activism.  It also shows us the importance of understanding particular histories and particular practices.

            But I ask are we responsible to find the so-called commonalities amongst ourselves?  Do we have to always do that? An what does it mean to talk about a Pan-Latino experience?

            Today I ask you to please help us understand and explore the conundrum of the Latino in the particular.  How do we even approach this really very important question that I don't think we deal with very specifically or we don't deal with it enough?  And is it an appropriate question to ask?

            So, please, there are microphones on the sides of the room, and I hope that we have plenty of time for discussion.

QUESTION:  I have just a couple of things I want to say, not so much questions. It's really very enjoyable to hear these presentations by, as Tomas was telling to me, the new shakers and doers, and just two comments, one, Professor Ybarra, I appreciate very much your presentation and especially your comments about macho, which is another concept and phrase of so many that have been taken away, appropriated, misappropriated, by the mainstream culture and malappropriated with malaprops like "mucho macho" and things like that.  When I go to a fast-food restaurant in Phoenix they ask me if I want my salsa sauce so I appreciate that.

            But my primary comment is to Jose Alamillo, the token macho among this group. I just wanted to mention that our Hispanic Research Center has produced a CD-ROM on Cinco de Mayo, the history.

            Here's the point I just want to make.  In addition to Mexico City and Puebla the Cinco de Mayo is celebrated by the Amerindian community and in my opinion is the most important, in addition to being many other things Amerindian victory between la noche triste and the taking of Mexico City by the native speaker Zapata in 1913. Some of you may know the work of Diego Rivera in the Palacio National, the history of Mexico.  One of the friezes of that ongoing sequential mural evokes the celebration of Cinco de Mayo by the Amerindian community which takes place every year and has taken place every year for maybe 137 years except it doesn't take place on Cinco de Mayo.

            It takes place on el fin de semana of carnival and ends on Fat Tuesday.  So let me just conclude by inviting you, Jose, and others of us who want to take back this extremely important date to collaborate with us.  We've just produced one first version of this Cinco de Mayo CD.

DR. YBARRA:  I just wanted to let you all know if you're doing the research on Cinco de Mayo in Baltimore there is not that many Mexicans.  There's a growing number but not that many.  But they have huge Cinco de Mayo celebrations in all the bars.  I mean, just exactly what you said is exactly what's happened.

            In all the different places you have the happy hours and all this kind of thing.  So I always thought that was contradictory that they don't even know who we are, primarily, but they know that on Cinco de Mayo they can exploit that selling of the beer at the bars.  So if you ever want to travel to the East and do your research there's a community there waiting for it.

MS. PEREZ:  Just combine it with St. Patrick's Day.

MS. DAVALOS:  I feel a little disadvantaged by this thing.  The first is a comment echoing Marvette's eloquently stated not the Latino exhibit.

            I think what we're seeing is this difficult moment in which we haven't been around long enough.  Ethnic studies itself, the existence of our community centers, they're about 30-some years old.

            So what I think we see in El Museo del Barrio is precisely what will happen if we don't pay attention to, first, the question of the middle class and how they view professionalization and, secondly, what it means to do in practice Latino Latinidad. So a comment to that I think the caution is we haven't had enough time under our belt with our own.  Even if they are nationalistic identities we haven't had enough time with them.

            The second is a question for Reina and Mary Teresa.  I think we need to think a little bit more clearly about the paradigm of inclusion and exclusion.  The shows that Reina put up, one of them was curated by Chon Noriega.  The other he was a co-curator, the poster show.

            We're certainly in the door.  We're not permanent but there's a sense.  Even the Road to Aztlan show in LA, Victor Zamario Taylor was a co-curator.  So I think we need to understand that we're not welcome 100 percent but I think if we operate with the model of inclusion and exclusion which comes from the paradigm of multiculturalism we're going down a dangerous path.

            So I would encourage us to find what other paradigm that we're actually functioning under because under the model of multiculturalism you can just make the question satisfied with a Latino show, with a Latino curator, with one right token, and you fill in the blank, and even if it's not one token it still is only 400 items in the collection at SAAM, right?  I just hope that we'd press that question a little further.

MS. PRADO:  Press the question not to go?

MS. DAVALOS:  To avoid what I would think is the simple paradigm right now of inclusion versus exclusion.

MS. PRADO:  I think you're absolutely right in alluding to those three shows, at least in the case of Los Angeles that even 25 years after Los Four and even 15 years after Hispanic Art in the United States and even 12 years after CARA that the model was still there, that the same model was still there on how to present Chicano/Latino art.

            In the show "Road to Aztlan," quite honestly, I went to go see it because I wanted to see the contemporary part and I had to go through who knows how many halls of other stuff.  That other stuff is still as valid in the show "Road to Aztlan" but what does "Road to Aztlan" look like with just that last gallery section?

            If that last gallery section had its own space at the LA County Museum of Art then that would have been like a coup but it didn't happen that way.  It had to be placed along with the pre-Columbian exhibition.

            So for me that's part of that larger project, what has happened in Los Angeles, and this might be the case in other places but in looking at just Chicano/Latino art and how it's been curated and then looking at how do you do this politics of inclusion and exclusion.

            But then you have institutions like the Japanese American National Museum.  It's a national entity but it's also the local because it's going to include its neighbor of Boyle Heights because of the history of Japanese Americans in that community.  And it's not just Japanese Americans.  What came out is there is actually a trajectory of different communities co-existing together.

            So that's why I'm saying that maybe that's one direction that we're going.  But yes, you're right, unfortunately because of how museums operate, like the Santa Monica Museum of Art there's a lot more questions. You have East of the River that showed there and then you had Free Style.  But yet it's like because of two colored shows, pardon the phrase, they show up in that institution.

            So as much as I agree that we need to approach this paradigm of inclusion and exclusion this is how these institutions have operated in Los Angeles.  So if after 25 years, or actually maybe "Oscar" was really I think the first intervention at the LA County Museum of Art, you can count them on your hands.  It's been less than 10 shows which have been organized by ÄÄÄÄ themselves.


MS. PEREZ:  You had a comment about the same question?


QUESTION:  It's a comment along the following lines.  Speaking as a borderline Chicano curator who probably has curated the Chicano and Latino shows that have crossed over to mainstream institutions, Walker Art Center, San Francisco, MOMA, et cetera, I just want to say what a challenge it is to work in those spaces and maintain one's intellectual and research-based integrity when one is negotiating as an independent curator.

            At the same time there is an agency of curatorship and it has to do with not just having the privilege of being invited to co-curate an exhibition at these spaces but also what one demands and how one accepts so that if you analyze "The Road to Aztlan" or ultrabaroque aspects of post- Latin American art that's currently traveling or any of the other exhibitions I think it's important to see them as part of a larger context, that is to say, to look at the visitors that these shows brought in, to see what works were acquired by Chicano and Latino artists from these museums, to see if there's been any follow-up in terms of programs or if they have any follow-ups in terms of exhibitions being planned, and also how they are responsible to their funders, particularly foundations.

            So one I think needs to look at the big picture of the curatorial practice and to see that complexity and those layers and then it very well is not the paradigm of inclusion/exclusion but rather of intervention and in that intervention of hopefully shifting and challenging the institution in some manner.

            I think that where one should apply the paradigm of inclusion and exclusion is not to accept shows when one is invited that are going to perpetuate the Latino and Chicano stereotype and have that institution return to business as usual when they have done the show.  Thanks.

QUESTION:  I have something to add along those lines, too, talking about putting together exhibits that address our heritage, background, culture, history, and those things, and that's that we seem to be able to get people in strategic places in terms of developing content or developing the themes of the exhibit but there's another key that I think is important, too, because we know that museums in this country are economically very feasible organizations and institutions and there are also opportunities in the curatorial process in putting together exhibits for us to also hire folks from within our communities to do things like the designing, the fabrication, the printing of any sort of ancillary materials.

            I think when we get in position with some of these mainstream organizations that's an area that we need to also push in because a lot of us that work with community-based organizations we know and that's how we operate and that's how we're able to operate, use contractors and from the plumbers and to those sorts of needs, every day needs, to the specialist as well.

            And I think that we need to try to push the mainstream organizations also to hire, to invest in the community as another layer, not just on an intellectual level but also on a very pragmatic, economic level.

            That's not what I came up to ask, though.  I wanted to just address this to Yasmin.  I enjoyed all the papers but one of the things that I just wanted to put there was our organizations, museums, and cultural centers are really asked to do a lot.  We're asked to assess the needs of our community as well as serve those needs and then we have all of the pressures also to appease and comply with funders and funding policies and all of that.

            I think that that's a challenge and I think that your presentation really brings into focus nicely that our own institutions have a lot of pressures externally but also internally, a lot of masters that we want to serve.  But looking at serving our community there is so much need in terms of just needing to develop resources and just offering basic services.

            A lot of times our cultural and arts organizations also are surrogate social service organizations as well so we have a very big mission to accomplish and it's very difficult.

MS. PEREZ:  Do you want to comment or say anything?

MS. RAMIREZ:  No, I completely agree.  What I would just add is that I'm not a spokesman for the museum.  I can't tell you everything that it faces but I know that at least with this new board that the pressure very much, and maybe it's something it's very endemic to New York, is to fit in.

            Right now because of limited resources the museum has tried very hard to fit in with the other paradigm of the traditional museum.  As a result I think the more adventurous kinds of community-based endeavors haven't been allowed to have fruition and that's unfortunate.

            But the museum was for a long time working in that way.  It just wasn't able to sustain itself after a couple of things, including I think the backlash against multiculturalism and affirmative action.  On the one hand you had this backlash.  On the other hand you had this push to diversify. It is hard.

            What I wanted to get across mostly is that it pained me a lot when I would read my elders being called ethnocentric and that's why I decided to go out there because it was very painful to me.  I know that these people when they say we want to remain Puerto Rican it doesn't come from a place of excluding others and I felt that certain people on the board were putting out such slanderous information that it really hurt me a lot.  And that's why I decided to perhaps permanently damage my relationship with El Museo del Barrio for this other end.


MS. PEREZ:  Gladys?


MS. PENA:  I have been involved with El Museo del Barrio for I think more than 20 years and I have a long history with the issue of El Museo and was involved with three of the organizations.  I know many of the board members and I know the structure of the museum and the staffing at this point and the kind of programming.

            My biggest issue with El Museo right now is the fact that the board of directors whether they're Puerto Rican or Latinos are not considering in a serious manner what that institution's mission is or should be as a museum of art and culture.

            They have no concept of what their institutional obligations are as custodians. They continually allude to the fact that the reason they're doing this is because of funding, because they are attracting more money through funding sources, private, corporate, and governmental funding sources.

            I think that as a community we have not learned, as the gentleman previously stated, to intervene at that level and say to them you haven't even approached the Puerto Rican community to ask them for help in the area of funding and programming.

            There are many colleagues here that I have worked with for many years and none of us have ever been approached about helping the museum, not only in their programming, in their funding, and their organization of the administrative infrastructure of the museum.

            So I think that we have to begin to look at the issue of El Museo and other institutions in a very realistic manner even though it hurts us and it pains us to even say this is not about Latino, Puerto Rican, or anything.  I think we really need to identify whether in fact they're acting responsibly in terms of what their responsibilities are as board members and staff in the institution that has a major responsibility as custodians of history and culture.


QUESTION:  I have two quick remarks.  I have one remark for Reina and then one that may be applicable to the rest of the panel.  I agree to a large extent, Reina, with your trajectory of analyzing the exhibitions of Chicano art in Los Angeles as privileging particular forms of identity formations or discourses.

            Yet there are also moments within some of the catalogues that you print up that I think also need to be problematized a little bit.  So to do that I have to say that I was involved with Just Another Poster exhibition although because of my doctoral candidacy status at the time was not given the title curator, another interesting little hierarchy there.

            Within that show there was the component that I contributed to the show, "From Pachucos to Punks," which with the inclusion of Boy George and to plug the Chicano punk band within that exhibition does not fit the standard trajectory from Los Four to "Road to Aztlan" that you mapped out so I just wanted to point that out.

            Then I just also wanted to say I was struck by what you described in Los Angeles and I totally agree with you here as a kind of spatialized battle for turf wars. These are also then battles over public representation, battles over access to the means of public representation, that the museums to a large extent fill.

            As I was hearing that reiterated I had to go to Secretary Small's discussion this morning about funding at the national level and how if it's not for the defense industry then it's not fundable.  Then I was thinking about the point that Mary Davalos brought up earlier about inclusion and exclusion.

            So I wonder if this other paradigm of defense and offense might be more applicable for our discussion or if it might be more regressive.  I don't know.  Big question.  Sorry.


MS. PEREZ:  I think we'll take one more and that will be it if you want to say something about what he said.


MS. RAMIREZ:  Over drinks.


MS. BAHTI:  I'm also interested in the idea of language within inclusion and exclusion and offensive and defensive.  I just wanted to suggest a word like "access," which is hard to have a prefix for, that you can measure by degrees, some level of degree of access, where if you had access you would have to have some level of access or you'd have no access, which would then eliminate this idea of inclusivity or exclusivity because with those you're either in or you're out.

            There has to be a way to say yes or no on a certain level and I don't think we get that with inclusivity or exclusivity.


MS. PEREZ:  May I make a comment? Steve Velasquez, our collections manager who is back there in American History, knows we have accession and deaccessions all the time at museums so we accession objects and then we deaccession them, too.

            So thank you everybody for coming.

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