Playing it safe

In Smithsonian style, the Current grabs a chewy handful of Latino-esque goodies from the melting pot

Cesar Chavez, labor leader

Henry Cisneros, political phoenix

Jennifer Lopez, Selena

Cubanos, oral fixes

Chicle, Aztec chew

Chiquita, edible colonialism

A T-shirt being sold outside Museo Alameda
“And a new story will be told ...” is the cinematic tagline for the long-awaited Museo Alameda, San Antonio’s Smithsonian-affiliated tribute to Hispanic culture that opened in El Mercado in April after a decade of fundraising.

It’s actually an old story, and the Museo’s baffling combination of contemporary art and socio-historical souvenirs unintentionally captures the cyclical tale: a new immigrant group lands on our shores or is overrun by America’s expansion. At first it is rejected by the WASPy powers that be, but as it gains an economic foothold, political influence follows. The social clubs and churches that once were refuges become status symbols and ladders, its icons become national heroes and heroines (perhaps with a little whitewash), national holidays and honorary streets come close behind (Ask Fiorello LaGuardia, or Richard Daley). Monuments, too, at which point we have to confront the crucial question: When they put you on a pedestal, does it mean that you’ve arrived, or that you’re already done for?

Neither. You’ve metamorphosed, because the market economony follows the laws of the physical universe: Material is not destroyed or created, it’s merely repackaged. The heavy rolled rrrr’s not encouraged in an investment banker and no longer welcome in broad Hollywood stereotypes, might still be useful in nostalgic vignettes. Especially since assimilation, once desired, is now reviled.

Mainstreaming does in fact exact a heavy toll. Andy Benavides’s beautifully executed mural that bisects the bottom floor of the Museo records the exchange: Two hands, a child’s and an adult’s (his son’s and his) raised not in protest, but in what could be the Pledge of Allegiance. Written on the palms are virtues that that are admirable, but hardly belong exclusively to one ethnic group: loyal, hardworking, community-oriented.

Despite the effort of neo-Aztlan optimists to portray the Museo as part of a friendly reconquista, it is, as playwright (and Current contributor) Gregg Barrios notes, an agreement to “tell the American story from a Latino perspective.” If it were the other way around, perhaps MAS’s opening exhibitions would have engaged one of today’s hottest political topics, immigration, or given a nod to the role that Communities Organized for Public Service played in claiming real political power for Mexican-Americans.

“Where is the struggle?” Barrios asked as we walked through George Cisneros’s elegaic, wordless film tribute to religion and familia and John Dyer’s conjunto portrait gallery.

But if in an effort to fulfill its prediction that it will be the most-visited museum in the region, the Museo’s opening shows avoid the thorny topics and the physical clashes, you can at least find clues to the cultural battles that have raged, often silently, in our institutions in the work of Franco Mondini-Ruiz. One of the artist’s hilarious and pointed sculptures greets visitors at the Museo’s entrance: Venus de Milo, almost life-size, atop a stack of pancakes.

Mondini-Ruiz is perhaps the most accomplished practitioner and champion of rasquache — an aesthetic that elevates dime-store to divinity, and that Barrios sums up as “my shit is just as good as your shit.” Mondini-Ruiz’s personal rasquache was forged in the union between his uppercrust European father and his working-class Mexican mother; nurtured by the recently closed Tienda Guadalupe on South Alamo; and first realized in the early ’90s at his South Flores Infinito Botanica.

For the Museo, Franco recreated a corner of Casa Mireles, a family botanica on Laredo Street that closed in 2004, where he would buy vintage merchandise for his shop. When Mrs. Mireles’s daughter called to tell Mondini-Ruiz that the store would be closing, he asked her to save everything they didn’t sell. MAS impresario Henry Muñoz convinced the Mireleses to donate many of the fixtures, including the antique display cases used in the Museo’s store.

The Casa Mireles installation — drawers for dried herbs, colorful Mexican sodas and cheery boxes of fideo, and more saints and virgins than you can shake an incense holder at — blends into the gift shop, surely the best museum store I’ve been in, with small affordable artworks by Mondini-Ruiz and Alejandro Diaz among the enticements.

If marketability equals success in America, not everyone is happy with the triumph. For academic and critic Pablo Miguel Martinez (also an occasional contributor to the Current), the juxtaposition suggests that the entire culture is for sale. But Mondini-Ruiz rejects the distinction between shop and gallery. “My thoughts are, in my culture, art blends into everything: food, sex, religion, how you live your life, and commerce,” he says. “The artists of San Antono are hairdressers, taco makers, landscapers, gardeners — `for generations` that’s the only forum we had to show our art.”

If only so much critical thought went into the downstairs Smithsonian gallery, which functions as an advertisement for the various branches of America’s Attic. In one brief stroll, you encounter sculptor Luis Jimenez’s searing “Man on Fire,” a reclining nude by Fernando Botero, an astronaut’s spacesuit, a necklace designed by Paloma Picasso, and most jarringly, a little red evening bag used by Laura Bush next to a “Freedom Now” poster from the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington. “What are you telling us?” Martinez asks, gesturing at the poster. “It’s as important as Laura Bush’s purse?”

“Context is always so important, and I don’t know if that’s happening yet ... it’s confusing if you have only a passing awareness of it,” Martinez adds, as we stand surrounded by the Mexican comedian Cantinflas, American-born Jimenez, and Colombian native Botero. Even if you trust that later exhibitions will highlight the Chicano movement, for instance, or give Cesar Chavez his due, with the exception of contemporary work by Mondini-Ruiz and a handful of other local artists, the Museo has given us a disappointing debut that trivializes the distinct Mexican-American, and Cuban-American, and Puerto-Rican, etc., experiences.

A fundamental oversight is the lack of individual voices telling the stories that the Museo’s PR promises. “That’s what the museum is telling us we’re going to do,” says Mondini-Ruiz. “We should talk about what we’ve endured, what we’ve accomplished — this museum needs to brag.”

For now, the Latinos the Alameda claims to represent speak most loudly in the musical exhibits upstairs, which doesn’t appease Barrios, who recalled Mayor W.W. McAllister’s infamous backhanded compliment as we stood before Cisneros’s lovely but silent film: “Our citizens of Mexican descent are very fine people. They’re very fine people. They are home loving — they love beauty, they love flowers, they love music, they love dancing. Perhaps they’re not quite, let’s say . . . as ambitiously motivated as Anglos to get ahead financially, but they get a lot out of life.”

In a deep twist of irony, the opening exhibitions of the Museo Alameda seem to have embraced this stereotype rather than turned it on its head.

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