by Ellen Shershow
was living in St. Thomas. Corzone, a skinny, impossibly blonde
girl from L.A. ran up to a group of us, flushed with excitement-
have you heard! she squealed, we all looked blank. Its
all over L.A.! Rioting! Stores being broken into, people
running around in the streets its all over south central, spilling
into east LA!
was my first introduction to the culture of Los Angeles, and to
anything to do with East L.A. specifically. I was nineteen, and
had grown up in a predominantly Jewish suburb of Boston-far away
from East L.A.
Wednesday Harry Gamboa introduced a very different picture of
this enclave. Gamboa began with a summation of his life thus far.
He told us that he was born in East Los Angeles. Los Angeles itself,
he explained, is divided and subdivided into separate lots of
religious and ethnic groups.
grew up in a time when freeways were just being built. In order
to build these freeways, houses had to be leveled. Primarily,
these were houses of his friends. Gamboa told us of many hours
spent helping to set these houses on fire. These freeways now
surround East L.A., so that it essentially forms a kind of island,
almost a separate country, composed almost entirely of Chicanos.
continued, explaining to us that if you live in this isolated
environment, than the very sense of isolation begins to pervade
you life. Even without meaning to, people become insular. Other
folks begin to ignore you; you begin to ignore other people. The
result of such isolation breeds things like police brutality and
fires. In Gamboa's own words a kind of worst case scenario.
This is the world in which Harry Gamboa grew up.
L.A. was also a place were everybody seemed to be constantly performing
for others. There would be low rider cars, complete with interior
chandeliers, parked in the yard of a household that had no money
continued with a story about his first day of kindergarten in
Boyle Heights. He entered the classroom and was instructed by
the teacher to sit in the corner of the room with a giant cone
--a dunce cap-- on his head. The teacher affixed the words Spanish
to the dunce cap. Gamboa was told to stay in the corner of the
room with the cap atop his head until he could speak English.
had declared cultural war on him. Gamboa accepted the offer and
declared war right back.
act continued into high school were Gamboa got straight F.
The level of expectation for him and his friends was extremely
low. Not surprisingly, his high school had the highest drop out
rate in the country. Because of plutonium coming out of Nevada,
a great many of his friends died of leukemia and most of the rest
died in Vietnam. By this time, Gamboa had already witnessed close
to forty murders and seen nearly forty horrible accidents. He
humorously describes himself as the anti Forest Gump.
in high school, Gamboa became very active within the Chicano movement.
He found he was good at this. Along these lines, Gamboa wanted
to create words that didn't yet exist. For instance, the word
Chicano carried with it racist ideas among Chicanos.
Gamboa wanted to (re)claim these derogatory words and empower
them. In order to do this one has got to build a history, along
with a myth and image around these words.
the idea of performing for others as well as the above ideas about
the Chicano movement in mind, Harry Gamboa began to work with
two friends, Patsy Valdez and Willie Heron. It was 1972. If you
were Chicano and you wanted to be an artist, you essentially had
the option to be a muralist. So the three embarked on a project
in which they became a walking mural. Patsy was the Virgin de
Guadeloupe and Willie was a Christmas tree. They came out of
the wall and walked the streets of East L.A. They walked for
two and a half miles, and the end of which they had a procession
of over 200 people behind them. Gamboa photographed this event
and sent the photograph out to several publications. The photograph
got published. During that same year, Gamboa visited the L.A.
county museum and discovered that there was a complete lack of
Chicano artists represented. So he and Patsy Valdez and Willie
Heron came back and spray painted their names on a wall outside
this time, Gamboa and his peers began to make things they called
no-movies. They would shoot false film stills,
print up invites, and invite people to show up in, say, an empty
parking lot for what was supposed to be a movie. When people begin
arriving at the set place, they found there was nothing there
except other people like them. This, among other things, was based
on the notion that Chicanos are almost completely missing from
continued with an extensive list of his performative pieces. The
most striking to me was a fictional photograph of a dead man,
lying in the middle of a busy Los Angeles street. Gamboa convinced
the media that this was a photograph of the last gang member killed.
Subsequently, this photograph was published with such a caption,
so that it was viewed within the media as truth. After its publication,
there was a significant decrease in gang activity for the next
an artist, Gamboa believes that it is good to create work, but
that that work should not just get stuck in a drawer, forgotten
about by all except its creator. Following his idea about empowering
Chicanos, Gamboa uses his ideas as visual elements that will change
the very way Chicanos are viewed in our culture.
by Joseph Sweeney
in Los Angeles, California, Harry Gamboa, Jr. grew up in East
L.A. As the freeways grew larger, East L.A. became increasingly
separated from the rest of the city. It now exists, Gamboa says,
as an island. An island populated mostly by Chicanos,
which is ignored by the rest of the community surrounding it.
Gamboa talks of the educational system, the actions of people
in his home community, and the governmental neglect and hostility
that contributed to his dissatisfaction with the dominant culture
of the United States, and provided for him the material on which
to base his art and activism. The journey he describes is that
of an outsider artist, and a group of artists, satirizing the
absurdity of their daily lives in order to shed light on deeply
rooted social problems.
in life he was forced to learn English to survive in the educational
system, and was made to feel bad about speaking Spanish. Once,
a teacher placed a kind of dunce cap upon his head, with the word
Spanish on it, and was told that he would wear it
until he spoke English. Gamboa describes this as the moment where,
cultural war, was declared on him, and his community,
and he had to fight back. As he grew up, he saw the people in
his neighborhood performing for each other. They would dress elaborately
just to do simple things like go to the corner market, or invest
a great deal of money in detailing their cars, while other aspects
of life, such as food and education became secondary concerns.
Education was also a secondary concern for those supposed to teach
in East L.A. The faculty and the police on the campuses of the
local high schools often contributed to the violent conditions
in the schools. This educational environment, combined
with the death of many of Gamboas childhood friends from
leukemia (courtesy of the fallout from the US Governments
nuclear testing sites being carried into L.A. by the Santa Anna
winds), and many more deaths of friends in Vietnam (another US
Government action that resulted in the deaths of a disproportionate
number of Chicanos), caused Gamboa to become a political activist
in high school and college.
was the alternative to the army or poverty for men from East L.A.,
so when he was graduated from high school, Gamboa entered college.
It was during and after college, when he was in his early 20s,
that he realized he wanted to create Chicano stars in Hollywood.
This was a reaction to the fact that he had been bombarded by
the pop culture of the United States that presented images only
of white America. The small domestic performances observed in
East L.A. as a child can be seen in the performances and spectacles
that Gamboa and his artist friends in the group Asco constructed.
The two aspects of the work that come through most clearly are
themes from Gamboas early life: absurdity and the creation
of a positive experience from a negative one. By creating a walking
mural, and making (or at least creating advertising for)
No-Movies, two fairly ridiculous sounding proposals,
Gamboa and his colleagues questioned the believability of the
media. They made the statement that good Chicano artists were
not just muralists as the art presses, and other outlets would
have liked to believe and sometimes the public is told about or
taught events that simply do not happen. Also, when surrounded
by the multiple deaths of young people due to gang violence, fabricating
and photographing a scene called, Last Gang Member produced
a temporary cease fire in a street war. An image that could have
been seen as just another death in a series of violent acts was
altered by the accompanying text, The Last Gang Member Killed
in East L.A. In the same way the name Asco, which
means nausea, came to signify a healthy experience, and a derogatory
term like, Chicano came to be an empowering word,
an image of death seems to have spared lives.
the apparent absurdity in the art of Asco have roots in Dadaism,
or does it simply stem from the preposterous situations experienced
while growing up in East L.A.?
a textual or verbal explanation accompany some or all of these
art projects in order to fully understand or participate in them?
a conscious and/or immediate understanding of a work by an audience
needed to make political art function in the way it