This summer I started training to become a docent at the Chinese American Museum (CAM) over at the Pueblo de los Angeles Historical Monument — aka Placita Olvera. Although I ultimately decided that I could not give the time to it that it deserved, I learned so much from the few training sessions I attended. As a historian, trained by elite academic institutions, it is, to me, imperative to know how people understand historical narratives — people who don’t sit around and read tons of historical monographs written by others who do the same. I was reminded how difficult it is to put lots of information into a teeny tiny chunk of time.
Back in July, when Manito D and Nicole were visiting, we saw the Street Art exhibit at the MOCA. It was pretty remarkable. Over the previous months, I’d read the critiques of the exhibit — particularly how the exhibit did not include many Los Angeles based street artists. Walking through the museum, the omission was glaring. Still, it was well-done. I wish I’d had more time to read about the artists and the history of graffiti.
My favorite was the wall of train cars. I have always been fascinated by train graffiti. My ex was a graffiti artist and DJ, and we spent hours talking about it, how he planned his pieces, stories of jumping over fences to get at a train car in a rail yard. In my MA program, I wrote my thesis on Chinese and Mexican railroad workers and U.S. empire. Now my book begins and ends with the railroads, although they are not the center of the story. Mexican workers lived in train cars — boxcars that railroad companies used to house workers, and which, according to reformers and city officials, were part of the “housing problem” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Chinese and Mexican children played on or near the tracks, and recalled the feeling of rattling floorboards as the trains passed by their homes. Folks who lived in boxcars built homes and communities, despite the poor housing conditions that were available to them. Train car graffiti just smacks US imperialism in the face by highlighting everyday lives of actual people. Especially when it covers the corporate signage on the sides of cars, and then those cars travel across the continent.
Patrick Martinez’ pieces (the ones he is standing in front of in this photo) are at the Chinese American Museum as part of their “Dreams Deferred” exhibit. It is a great exhibit where LA street artists respond to immigration reform. The same week I went to the exhibit at the MOCA, I was fortunate to attend a session led by one of the curators at CAM, who told us in more detail about the artists and their pieces. What’s truly amazing about it, to me, is how, in the conjunction with the Museum’s exhibit, called Remembering Angel Island, the art exhibit links Chinese exclusion and current day immigration/border restriction debates. The Angel Island exhibit highlights the experiences of border-crossing for Chinese, in the midst of border restriction during Chinese Exclusion, in a way that shows their dignity, their experience of crossing the border, of enduring interrogation by US officials, of living in inhumane conditions while in confinement, all so they could make a life, join family members, live. The artists featured in the Dreams Deferred address current-day renderings of border restrictions. It is not very different today.
The MOCA exhibit got all the play, because well, it’s the MOCA. If you didn’t get to see it, maybe you can catch it in another city if it moves. Unfortunately, it left LA already.
But I have to say, the CAM exhibit is more powerful and more meaningful, in part because it is more politically focused on one topic, but also because it is historicized well. Both the street art and Angel Island exhibits are incredible. Go see them before they leave in December/January!
(photo via Patrick Martinez | Hustlemania @ Known Gallery)