The Unwhitewashing of América Tropical

Pubblicato sul sito Getty – Sep 04, 2023  By Lilibeth Garcia

Amid sunbaked adobe buildings, visitors find rows of stalls bursting with colorful Mexican trinkets, mariachis strumming guitars and guitarróns, and the aroma of fried taquitos wafting from food stands. A tall, wooden cross stands proudly in its center, commemorating the city’s founding with the carved inscription, “El Pueblo de la Reyna de Los Angeles…September Fourth 1781.”

La Placita, the city’s oldest district, is part of El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument. El Pueblo’s market, historic buildings, restaurants, and several museums draw millions of tourists each year, but for Ibarra, it’s simply home. She grew up a few miles east of El Pueblo’s Olvera Street, and members of her family were baptized at La Placita Church, founded in 1814.

Despite her proximity to LA’s birthplace, Ibarra didn’t learn about its deeper history, such as the significance of David Alfaro Siqueiros’s América Tropical, an 80-foot-long mural in El Pueblo, until adulthood. The mural was painted over shortly after its completion in 1932—you’ll learn why in a moment—and had it not been for the work of activists and scholars as well as conservation efforts carried out by the City of Los Angeles and Getty, she might never have heard of it, let alone seen it.

Two years ago, América Tropical took on a new meaning for Ibarra when she became a Getty Marrow intern assigned to El Pueblo’s History & Art Division. Now a full-fledged employee of the division, she scours the city’s archives, assists with museum tours and operations, and organizes community events. For the past 10 years the division has also been tasked with caring for the site of América Tropical. But for Ibarra and the rest of the team, that also means keeping its story alive.

The Whitewashing of América Tropical

On Easter Sunday 1930 the Oakland-born entrepreneur Christine Sterling launched Olvera Street as a Mexican-themed marketplace designed to draw tourists to a nostalgic version of the city’s Mexican past. In preparation for the 1932 Summer Olympics in LA, and in the spirit of civic boosterism, a local Olvera Street art gallery director commissioned the renowned painter David Alfaro Siqueiros—one of a trio of artists, along with Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, known as “Los Tres Grandes”—to paint an idealized tropical scene on the gallery’s second-story exterior wall.

Siqueiros would depict something else entirely though: an Indigenous man lashed to a double cross, with a Maya pyramid emerging from a dense jungle behind him. Perched above him is an American eagle, and two revolutionaries crouch nearby, one taking aim at the eagle with his rifle. Far from portraying an idyllic landscape, the mural bore weighty critiques of Indigenous suppression, imperialism, capitalism, US foreign policy in Latin America, and even the romanticized depiction of Mexico on Olvera Street.

Within 18 months, the part of the mural visible from Olvera Street was painted over; by whom remains a mystery. Within about a decade, the entire mural had been whitewashed, an erasure that mirrored the experiences of local residents. A year before the mural was created, the LAPD sealed off the streets surrounding the plaza. Units poured in, officials questioned everyone there (an estimated 400 people) on their immigration status, and arrested 18 of them. The plaza would become infamous for sweeping deportation raids throughout the Great Depression, a period when Mexicans were among those scapegoated for the country’s economic downturn.

“We had been requested to paint Tropical America, and we could not lie by painting a false Tropical America; we had to paint the true, authentic Tropical America,” Siqueiros said in 1933, evidently aware of the plaza’s reputation. He found out about the mural’s fate through newspaper clippings. “Without a doubt my work was destroyed because of its theme, because of the content that I had put into it.”

Conserving LA Art History

Despite growing up in and around El Pueblo, Ibarra would first become aware of Siqueiros’s mural in 2018 during an art history course at East Los Angeles College (ELAC). Watching a documentary about the work, she learned about América Tropical’s profound influence on the Chicano mural movement in the 1960s and how conservation professionals, including senior project specialist Leslie Rainer from the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI), were trying to preserve it.

The GCI’s efforts dated back to 1988, when Getty began a collaboration with the City of Los Angeles not only to conserve the mural but also to safeguard, interpret, and provide public access to it. This led to a study of the environment around the mural and the design of a protective canopy, an interpretive center, and a viewing platform. All work was completed in 2012, and that same year, 80 years after its creation, América Tropical was re-unveiled to the world.

Ibarra’s interest in local art history grew while attending ELAC, and her professor encouraged her to apply to the Getty Marrow Undergraduate Internship program, a paid summer internship that places students from backgrounds underrepresented in the arts in core areas of museum work: curatorship, conservation, education, publications, and public programming. To date, 175 LA-area arts institutions, including Getty, have hosted more than 3,500 interns, introducing college students to career possibilities in the arts. El Pueblo hosts a Getty Marrow intern every year.

After a string of retail jobs, Ibarra had never considered an internship before. But after learning about the Getty Marrow program, she applied persistently. The fourth time was the charm. By then, 2021, she had transferred to UCLA to earn a bachelor’s degree in art history. “I knew I wanted to be in a museum somewhere,” she says. “But I didn’t know where that dream would lead me.”

She landed in El Pueblo’s History & Art Division and worked under Edgar Garcia, a Getty Marrow alumnus himself and assistant general manager of El Pueblo. She also worked with GCI conservators—the same people she had seen in the América Tropical documentary.

Although visitors can experience the mural from a rooftop viewing platform, working alongside conservators allowed Ibarra to see it in stunning detail, both with her naked eye and through photogrammetry, a process used to create an immersive virtual model of the mural.

“Siqueiros was actually here,” she remembers thinking. “You can see a lot on the platform, but being up close is a whole different experience. I never thought I’d be able to see something like that in my backyard.”

El Pueblo’s History & Art Division hired Ibarra in the fall of 2022. Now she and the rest of the department are caring for the mural into the future, since Getty had committed to monitoring the mural for 10 years following the completion of conservation work in 2012 and then transferring responsibility to the city.

In addition to Garcia and Ibarra, the team entrusted with monitoring the mural, shelter, viewing platform, and interpretive center include Priscilla Bravo and the museum guides of El Pueblo—all native Angelenos who are passionate about protecting what they also consider to be their home. “Looking after América Tropical is a tremendous civic responsibility for my team and me as it entails protecting a major piece of our city’s artistic and cultural heritage for current and future generations,” Garcia says. “To not do so would be to effectively whitewash the mural again.”

Rainer, who started working on the mural in 1996, believes it’s being left in good hands. “El Pueblo is building a team of people to care for América Tropical and its site, as well as their other museums and historic and cultural properties, and they are deeply invested as stewards of the mural and its site.”

The Future of América Tropical

Kids from local elementary, middle, and high schools often take field trips to El Pueblo, squeezing into historic buildings to learn about LA’s past. Teaching them about El Pueblo is one of the most gratifying parts of her job, Ibarra says. She herself didn’t know much about art history or that she could pursue it as a career until her senior year of high school, when a teacher took her class on art and architecture tours around LA.

Ibarra occasionally shadows Bravo, who maintains museum operations and leads museum tours. Bravo has transformed the museums’ tour scripts to include parts of LA history not commonly taught in the public school system, like the Chinese massacre of 1871 and the coercive repatriation of Mexicans during the Great Depression. “Some of the stories here on Olvera Street have been buried to highlight other histories,” Bravo says. “But we have a great history department now, so we’re in a spot where we can really shine a light on the histories that have been pushed away.”

“When we bring up what was happening in LA during the 1930s, like the unconstitutional deportations happening here at the plaza, the kids get really interested,” Ibarra says. “Young kids are learning about local history in ways I didn’t. Third grade teachers are coming in asking for lectures on América Tropical. High schoolers are lingering to ask questions. And some educators are visiting the site for the first time and saying, ‘I’m adding this to my curriculum.’”

Students are also surprised that they can see América Tropical with their own eyes—and that the work is so massive.

“They hear about the mural’s history, and that may or may not be impactful,” Ibarra says. “But seeing the work right in front of them—that’s when they realize, this is something that matters.”