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Artpace diagrams Spanglish, the irresistible future of South Tejas

Language may be a barrier, but the human race often lays seige to it in short order. Such is the case in South Texas, where Spanglish, an evolving hybrid of Spanish and English, is the lingua franca. Spanglish is the gas that powers an economy - from the Empresarios de México to the chilangos shopping at La Cantera to the landscapers grooming Olmos Park's hedges - that puts enchiladas on the table and delivers cerveza más frío to the masses. Uttered with pride by gringos and Chicanos alike, it's also a pervasive reminder that the politics, and power politics, of the nation are a-changin'. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, more than 30 percent of Texans are of Latino or Hispanic heritage. In San Antonio that number rises to almost 60 percent; in the border boomtown of McAllen, it's more than 80; Laredo is 95 percent Latino.

Calvin with an attitude and a sombrero, above, created by Beto Gonzales with window-tinting film and adhesive vinyl.

Oddly enough, for a cultural phenomenon as ubiquitous as air, when Spanglish isn't ammo for the culture skirmishes (Loosing My Espanish: A Novel, is one new title powered in part by assimilation anxiety, and don't forget the "English-only" Luddites), it often goes completely unacknowledged except by recent transplants, who can revel in it with unjaded palates. Artpace Assistant Curator Kate Green, a recent convert, has put together Spanglish, a group show in the Hudson (Show)Room that explores the nuances of a society that is less bicultural than nuevo cultural.

Gary Sweeney captures the theme with his chicken-wire fences. Each 8-foot-high segment is filled in with plastic pop-ins manufactured by a Texas entrepreneuer (Put-In-Cups) who wants to capitalize on the fetish for pushing Styrofoam roadie cups into said fencing to create a blue-collar billboard: "God Bless Our Troops," etc. A giant pixelated eye, topped with barbed wire, greets visitors at Artpace's door: Welcome to America, land of barriers; if you can get through you can realize the American dream - to have your own fence in which you can spell out the dialect-transcendent "Go Spurs!" Upstairs another section of fencing asks, in Spanish, How many undocumenteds are there? "Sin Cuenta," replies the third, which translates as "without count," but spoken quickly sounds like "50," a smart-aleck reminder of our government's neglect of border issues.

A fence with Put-In-Cups (more colorful and durable than Styros!) by Gary Sweeney, left, are in the group show Spanglish at Artpace through January 22.

Irony plays a decisive role in Spanglish, which walks the fine border line without moralizing, although Luz Maria Sanchez' sound installations, including a wall of power horns replaying police-radio communications from the Laredo-Nuevo Laredo divide, remind us that real lives are at stake where the cultures are actively clashing. And a Chicano character labeled "Coyote" appears in new work by Cruz Ortiz, "coyote" being another name for a smuggler who brings Mexicans across the U.S.-Mexico border for a fee - a cabrón to some, a necessary evil to others.


Noon-5pm Wed-Sun, noon-8pm Thu
Through Jan 22

445 N. Main

Spanglish is a uniformly strong show, but its most pleasurable moments are delivered by works that, like Sweeney's, use the peculiar aesthetics of our hybrid culture to make their point. Beto Gonzales' window-tinting film and vinyl decals subtly mock the role the automobile and other consumer goods play in group identity: His jaunty Calvin wears a sombrero, a reminder that no aesthetic choices are value-neutral.

Ann-Michèle Morales addresses the double-edged sword of consumer choice head-on with "Del Dicho al Hecho Hay un Gran Trecho," a cartoon-real road that leads to two sets of thought bubbles containing Morales' elegant, OCD illustrations and popular dichos, or proverbs, one set in English, one in Spanish. The work's title translates roughly as "It's easier said than done." When it comes to resisting Spanglish, that's doble true.

By Elaine Wolff

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