THE FOUR YOUNG Chicanos would meet daily in the International House of Pancakes on Atlantic Boulevard, looking a little conspicuous for East Los Angeles in 1971. The men's collective grooming included fishnet stockings, jeans appliqued with paw prints, freshly shaved eyebrows, and jackets resembling outsized, customized tuxedos; the black-cloaked woman gleamed of crimson cosmetology. Thoroughly broke, they ordered cups of hot water, adding ketchup to make tomato soup, although sometimes waitresses would swap meals for the drawings the guy wearing fishnets would ink onto paper napkins.
It was a better deal than they knew. Those napkins, the ones that are still around, are now being collected by the Smithsonian Institution.
Their creator, known only as Gronk (the name plucked by his mother from a National Geographic she read during labor), is currently featured along with six other Los Angeles residents--Carlos Almaraz, Gilbert Lujan, John Valadez, Roberto Gil de Montes, Frank Romero and Robert Graham--in the most lavish exhibition ever of works by Latino artists living in North America. Curated by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, it opened at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston last May to reviews that found it brilliant, albeit controversial. Titled "Hispanic Art in the United States: Thirty Contemporary Painters & Sculptors," it will come to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in February, 1989. The show's detractors fault it for avoiding work that reflects the plight of Chicano barrios, for largely neglecting women artists and for using the generic term \o7 Hispanic\f7 --rejected by many as a bureaucratic homogenization that lumps persons of Mexican heritage born or raised in the United States with Puerto Ricans, Cubans and other Latin Americans.
Yet supporters and detractors alike agree on one thing: The Corcoran show is filled with gorgeous art. Along with a recent cluster of Hollywood triumphs by Cheech Marin, Luis Valdez and Edward James Olmos--to the accompaniment of such musicians as East L.A.'s Los Lobos--it suggests that non-Latino Americans, including those residing west of the Los Angeles River, are discovering that home-grown Latin culture transcends \o7 nachos \f7 and \o7 fajitas\f7 . But while Los Lobos complete another world tour, and while L.A. Chicano artists are exhibited in Tokyo and Cannes and at MIT, many Latinos still wonder whether recognition from outside means that their people will someday be appreciated and prosperous in this city.
"Shows like the Corcoran throw a bone to a few people," says Isabel Castro, acting director of Plaza de La Raza, a Lincoln Heights arts center partly supported by public funds she says are inadequate to serve the millions of Latinos in Los Angeles. "Sometimes there's a little meat on the bone. If a proportionate amount of the taxes paid by the Latino community ever came back here, we'd be in good shape."
Says Candace Lee of West Hollywood's Saxon-Lee Gallery, which represents Gronk: "If a Chicano artist catches on, it's as an individual. Very few people who sell or buy art give a damn about East L.A. It's an upper-class, radical-chic fantasy to think that we do."
Yet, there is a growing perception in the marketplace that the sheer numbers of Latinos in the United States are creating opportunities that never before existed--a perception supported by the $54-million box office reaped by "La Bamba." "Now," says the film's writer-director, Luis Valdez, "I can write leading roles for Chicano actors who before usually played pimps and pushers. Today it's possible for Linda Ronstadt to reveal to the world that she's half-Mexican and put out an album ("Canciones de Mi Padre") that's not only a critical but a commercial success."
But the increasing visibility of Chicano artists has raised an unexpected issue: Does making it in L.A. mean isolating themselves from the origins that initially inspired them?
The Painful Birth Of Asco
IN 1971, handsome Willie Herron had shaved his eyebrows as a sacrifice, praying that God would save his brother John, whom he'd found behind their home on City Terrace Drive, perforated with 100 ice-pick wounds. That same night, with John's survival hanging on intravenous tubes, Herron returned to the alley and pounded on the back door of his aunt's bakery.
"\o7 Si, mi hijo\f7 (Yes, my son)," she agreed, weeping, after he had explained what he wanted. He then climbed a ladder, hauling up cans of house paint and oil-based enamel he'd thinned to a wash, as two \o7 cholos\f7 from his brother's gang guided him with flashlights.