The journey into the art galleries of Los Angeles, California for two muralists from the collective Los Tlacolulokos Activos began in Tlacolula, Oaxaca.
Painting signs for the local businesses in their small town as a way to fund their passion for art as resistance rather than art for art’s sake, Cosijoesa Cernas and Dario Canul became close friends and business partners forming the collective, whose name is a play on words blending their hometown name and the term “loco/loko," meaning crazy.
Los Tlacolulokos Activos is loosely made up of several friends from their hometown, but at the backbone of the group are Cernas and Canul.
Caught in the aftermath of the 2006 civil unrest in Oaxaca, the pair began to paint murals depicting the dysfunction of a country in perpetual recovery from political upheaval and the imminent erasure of unscathed tradition through globalization.
Some of their most popular murals showcase young Tlacolulenses donning traditional attire, heavily tattooed with Mesoamerican grecas from neighboring Zapotec temples, intermixed with prison-style spider webs and Old English lettering, the resulting influence and style of Chicanos as portrayed in popular culture, influencing newer generations of Oaxacans like them. This mishmash is a unique representation of chaos and tradition in present-day Oaxaca.
The birth of Oaxacalifornia
Economic uncertainty along with state repression continues to force an overwhelming majority of Oaxaca’s population to migrate to the U.S. in search of a chance at stability.
In the 1940s the U.S. sponsored Bracero program allowed the first large migration of Oaxacans to California. Thus beginning their "American Dream," like that which has motivated all current immigrants experiencing the spread of globalization.
A recent study of Oaxacan migrants, reveals over 96 percent of Oaxacans choose to migrate to Los Angeles, California. Despite challenging living and working conditions in California, it is home to many of the 17 Indigenous groups from Oaxaca. An estimated 250,000 Zapotecs currently reside in Los Angeles, California — making it the largest concentration of Oaxacans outside of Oaxaca thus earning its unofficial title among Oaxacan in the United States as Oaxacalifornia.
Visualizing language: Oaxaca in Los Angeles
Back in Tlacolula, Oaxaca, the two budding street muralists began to challenge the existing art scene of their generation. As Tlacolulokos they continued to develop their art in direct resistance to the growing popularity of the sale of Indigenous art. They did not identify with the many local artists faring well on the sale of kitschy art pieces featuring Indigenous Oaxacans in servile positions and unoriginal portraits of historical figures affiliated with past revolutions: Benito Juarez, Che Guevara, Frida Kahlo and pop art hand grenades sold to tourists and international art collectors eager to own this art produced by Oaxacan artists also experiencing the 2006 uprising. Motivated by a strong sense of conviction, Los Tlacolulokos vowed to “molestar con nuestro trabajo,” or “cause a stir through our work.”
Dr. Xochitl Flores Marcial, a cultural consultant and professor, is also originally from Tlacolula, Oaxaca. Her specialized research in Zapotec studies in Tlacolola inevitably led her to Los Tlacolulokos and their controversial mural art. Marcial played an influential role in recommending the collective as featured muralists for an emerging partnership with the Library Foundation of Los Angeles, the Getty Foundation and Pacific Standard Time.
Maureen Moore, Associate Director of ALOUD noted, “Multiculturalism interests us, Los Angeles is multicultural and the library is a place where we invite people of all cultures and languages."
This partnership will produce over 60 cultural activities throughout Southern California beginning with "Visualizing Language: Oaxaca in L.A.," an exhibit that will feature a series of murals completed by Los Tlacolulokos produced by Moore. These murals measuring 13 feet high will be hung at the Central Library’s historic rotunda to contrast the “Discovery of the Americas” mural that was done by Dean Cornwell in 1933. The group's mural is a critical and honest depiction of how globalization and migration shaped the Oaxacalifornian identity.
Street mural culture has no borders
During their first visit to Los Angeles, Los Tlacolulokos paid homage to the street art culture the city is recognized for around the world.
“We knew we had a job to do but we also knew we had to give back to the history of street murals in Los Angeles that heavily influenced our vision as artists,” said Canul.
The group painted a prominent street mural titled, “South Central Dreams,” for the Oaxacan-led Indigenous rights organization the Indigenous Front for the Binational Organizations of South Los Angeles that features their vision of an Oaxcalifornia woman, with spider web face tattoos and a black panther tattoo on her arm, holding her smartphone in one hand and covering her face with a bandana ready to take a selfie.
Janet Martinez, who is a board member with FIOB and the model for the “South Central Dreams” wall, finds their artwork to be innovative, describing it as “a way to see Indigenous people in a new lens outside of their folkloric role.”
Martinez views the artist’s reinterpretation and the tattoos painted on her likeness as artistic license. “There are Indigenous people residing here that still migrate into the U.S. and it’s important to represent that in this community as well as to acknowledge the historically African American history of this neighborhood since many people may not know,” said Martinez.
Odilia Romero, vice coordinator for FIOB, has been organizing the Oaxacan communities based out of South Central Los Angeles for over 16 years.
Romero considers the preservation of Oaxacan traditions in the U.S. as important as political advocacy. FIOB has helped establish Indigenous cultural awareness by providing interpretive services of Indigenous languages in courtrooms and hospitals and by hosting literature conferences and community events that celebrate Oaxacan traditions and its rich and varied cuisine.
The older generations of Oaxacans that are more traditional have complained to Romero and FIOB about the “South Central Dreams” mural.
“They disagree, they have told me that’s not us! They ask me why would FIOB even approve that they tattooed Janet’s face,” said Romero.
“But this is who we are, there’s a whole generation of us that are in between identities, you’re both, somos de aqui y tambien somos de alla,” she adds, meaning we are from here and where are from there.
“Tlacolulokos are telling the other side of Oaxaca through their art, the story of the younger Oaxacans getting tattoos. The younger generations that may not dance or play traditional music band but are painting, drawing, singing in jazz, punk and ska and hip-hop bands, she said. “I love that they challenge those stereotypes many people have of Oaxacans like that we are servile and limit their knowledge of us to how beautifully we dance the Guelaguetza,” she adds with a knowing smile.
The second street mural is painted at Self Help Graphics, an art studio historically recognized as a bastion of Chicano art since the 1960s in East Los Angeles.
This mural is titled, “Oaxaca Ungovernable,” depicting a young Oaxacan woman, a friend of the artists wearing a traditional Oaxacan headdress and huipil tiping her Lokes sunglasses below her nose, her body and face adorned in tattoos reminiscent of bandana art mixed with Zapotec temple patterns.
The decision to paint this wall in this iconic location is deliberate, relating the political resistance of Oaxaca they have experienced with the current resistance from native East Los Angeles residents fending off gentrification that is threatening to oust them from their neighborhood.
Dario Canul is the child of a widowed single mother, his father was tragically killed. He struggled throughout his childhood having to work to survive. As he sees it, if he had grown up any other way perhaps he would have become “an awful ignorant PRI (Mexico's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party) supporter.”
Cosijuesa Cernas is a talented photographer and continues to explore his creativity as a self-taught DJ and videographer. Cernas could have followed in his family’s footsteps, playing college baseball while completing higher education to become a politically active teacher like his parents, but he found his form of resistance in a different expression.
The completion of their foremost mural project in the U.S. along with iconic street murals marks a new manifestation of Indigenous history in the U.S. that addresses the Oaxacalifornian Indigenous experience of migration, that like their artwork refuses to be ignored.
Daniel Morales Leon contributed to this article.