America Tropical

Carol Jacques

It was 1932.  The Great Depression was devastating the nation. Throughout the southwest US, immigrant workers from Mexico were among those being blamed for the economic crisis. Mexicans and Americans of Mexican descent were rounded up and deported to Mexico based on the color of their skin. No questions asked.

A group of civic boosters wanted to increase tourism in Los Angeles. They commissioned David Alfaro Siqueiros to paint a mural at Olvera Street. The boosters decided that the mural’s theme should be “Tropical America.” A lush image of Latin America would fit in with the newly created Olvera Street, where Mexican vendors sold their handmade wares and homemade tamales. Siqueiros accepted the commission.

David Siqueiros, Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco are considered to be the three greatest Mexican social realist muralists of the 20th century. Siqueiros was not only a great artist. He was also a union organizer, an international political activist and a soldier. He fought in the 1910 Mexican Revolution and against fascists in the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939. He was a man of tenacity and was frequently jailed and exiled for his beliefs.

For a period of months while painting “America Tropical” at Olvera Street, Siqueiros worked with the “Bloc of Painters.”  The group, which included Siqueiros’ students and such volunteers as the well-known artists Millard Sheets, Phillip Guston and Harold Lehman, assisted with the painting of the mural. The Maestro worked alone, through the late night and early morning hours of the day of the unveiling, to complete the centerpiece of the mural.

On the morning of October 9th1932, “America Tropical” was unveiled. The centerpiece was a crucified Indian with an American eagle perched upon the top of the crucifix, surrounded by Aztec pyramids and lush foliage.  “It was a masterpiece!” “No, it was an abomination!” It was, in fact, whitewashed shortly after it premiered. The Maestro was deported.

The late 1960s and the 1970s in Los Angeles… The Chicano Movement is alive… Brown Berets… High school walkouts… The controversial death of Ruben Salazar. Ruben was the sole Chicano journalist at the Los Angeles Times to be reporting on what was going on in “East Los.” At Olvera Street, the Siqueiros Mural begins to seep through the white wash. Like an apparition, you can see the outline of the Indian and the foliage again. “America Tropical” gives birth to the Los Angeles Mural Movement.

It is 2010. In Los Angeles, there is a big recession and many mortgage foreclosures. There are similarities to 1932. The Mural appears again…

On September 8, the Getty Conservation Institute and the City of Los Angeles broke ground on the conservation of the mural and an interpretive center. The completion target is Spring of 2012. After all these years, Angelinos and tourists will at last be able to see this legendary artifact. The Interpretive Center will tell many stories of “America Tropical” and of David Alfaro Siqueiros, a man whose spirit could not be broken.


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