The Muse on Cesar Chavez Avenue

An L.A. studio where community activists enabled a Chicano art explosion

| July-August 2009

Four miles east of downtown Los Angeles is a neighborhood where telenovelas blast out of storefronts as women ferry babies and folded laundry back to pastel stucco houses stacked three deep in a lot. Taco trucks serve the blocks as faithfully as mail carriers, the smell of frying onions lingering in their wake.

On a corner of Cesar Chavez Avenue, a single building takes up most of the city block, unremarkable except for its one defining feature: It is wrapped in chicken wire, frosted in cement, and layered with smashed glass, glazed tiles, dinner plates, flowerpots, coffee cups with handles still attached, and the head of a ceramic goose. It is a landmark, built from fragments of the community, applied carefully by hand. One small sign identifies it as Self Help Graphics & Art.

In 1970 Franciscan nun Karen Boccalero began printmaking with several Mexican and Chicano artists in an East Los Angeles garage. “Sister Karen had the idea that Latino artists didn’t have a venue,” says artist Roberto Gutierrez, and the group formed what is now known as Self Help. After holding a few shows they moved into a small location down the street, and in 1978 they moved to their current location, a building owned by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which negotiated a rent of one dollar a year.

“We didn’t just get free rent,” says Armando Duron, a former president of the board of directors. “We got it because the building was empty and it was better to have us here.”

The neighborhood was gamier back then, and Self Help provided a sort of gang-diversion program for kids, giving them a place to go after school. But last year, the archdiocese sold the building to a private developer and it’s unclear whether the center will be allowed to stay.

Poking through the flat files of Self Help’s archives is like a tour of the Chicano art movement. Some art critics would say this is where the visibility of the movement began, a movement that has now been exhibited all over the world, collected in museums and coveted by collectors. It begins with Los Four, the collective of local artists (Frank Romero, Carlos Almaraz, Gilbert Luján, Roberto de la Rocha, and, later, Judithe Hernández) who are widely credited with creating the Chicano visual vocabulary during the 1970s: Mexican and Aztec imagery, blended with the street art of the neighborhood. Today it’s artists like Shizu Saldamando, Vincent Valdez, Germs: a raucous remix of cholo, punk, and graffiti.