On Artivists, Anniversaries and the Ascendancy of the Moon

by Abel M. Salas

For 20 years, a loose-knit, all-woman collective of artists, activists and exponents of “urban indigenism” have gathered in March and April to celebrate the transformative power of the sacred feminine. From students and family caseworkers to former Pete Wilson protestors; from immigrant rights advocates to youthful staffers at barrio non-profits; from neighborhood stakeholders to LGBT warrior womyn, they assembled each spring on LA’s Eastside to share the unique Mujeres de Maiz expression of modern day syncretism.

For you milenios, let me simply say that syncretism occurs when two or more disparate belief systems, often spiritual, are combined to create a blended one that works, a prominent example of this being contemporary danza azteca, which often venerates Catholic icons such as the Virgen de Guadalupe.

Many in the early Mujeres de Maiz class of cohorts had come of age under the Bush presidency and equated it with the worst aspects of warmongering patriarchy. Raised with hip-hop as their natural soundtrack, a few among them—including MdM co-founder and figurehead Felicia Montes, were equal parts Public Enemy and straight up paisa proud, enough so to rock banda and norteño even before Chalino Sánchez arrived to give those distinctly Mexican musical genres a narco-gangster makeover.

Enter las Mujeres de Maiz, among them Montes, a child of the movimiento whose father had been a founder of an East LA Brown Beret chapter only generation before. The skinny had it that during an action in protest of then California Governor Ronald Reagan during an appearance at the Biltmore Hotel, things got out of hand after a fire was lit in a trash can somewhere in the building. Several young activists, as a result, were suddenly confronted with the swift and fearsome power of a state which had determined that radical Chicano activists, largely fresh-faced college kids from East LA, represented a clear and present threat.

Carlos Montes, one of several protestors who were charged during the Biltmore fracas, exiled himself to Mexico. Those who stayed to face the charges, were represented by attorney and writer Oscar Zeta Acosta, a colorful, larger-than-life figure by all accounts. All of this to explain the world and the perspective his daughter Felicia would have been privy to before her own activist bent exerted itself.

It was the era of 187 and a pogrom targeting Mexicans—or those who looked Mexican—embodied in the livid, apoplectic xenophobia of Governor Pete Wilson, a blatant racism that has returned with a vengeance and is likely the reason for Trump’s surprise election to the White House.

FE, as the younger Montes has chosen to self-identify, embraced conscious hip-hop and spoken word while being profoundly—as were many of us—inspired by the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas. In the interest of full disclosure, this writer was not immune to the romantic revolutionary pull of an indigenous rebellion that sought dignity and justice for those who had been colonized first by Spain and then again by an aggressive U.S. brand of invasive, unfeeling capitalism. My own journey to la selva Lacondona is detailed in a 1994 article for an alternative weekly more known for its music coverage.

In that post-modern flux where Zapatismo and hip-hop and the quebradita held hands while cross-pollinating, Chicana and Latina artists, artisans, poets, MCs and jaraneras banded together under a standard emblazoned with a symbol for corn, the staple common to indigenous peoples across both North and South America. By declaring a connection to the land and our traditional sustenance, the founding Mujeres de Maiz were also issuing a call in support of autonomy for native and tribal communities.

They were recreating the Movement, making sure it bore no resemblance to any previously organized political opposition to institutionalized power structures which privileged men. In the process they would begin commemorating International Women’s Day with a day-long, open to the public event featuring: crafters and an artisan market; a visual art exhibition; MCs and live musical acts.

That day-long event has now become a year-round series of cultural events, exhibitions, performances, workshops and seminars developed exclusively for women. This year, the celebration was launched at La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, next door to Placita Olvera in downtown L.A. The MdM 20th Anniversary extravaganza will continue through late May.

FE, who studied art formally and has an MFA from Otis likes to describe the work of blending art and activism as “artivism,” a term I first heard in 2003 from a group of young people in Hollywood who were preparing to launch the Artivist Film Festival and Award Ceremony. International in scope, the festival would emphasize and recognize filmmakers who addressed issues of development, social justice and the environment.

So it is only fitting that Montes has made it a significant part of the language she uses to frame both her personal and professional narratives, particularly in light of her role as an MdM co-founder and the organization’s principal programming administrator.

It may well be that the Mujeres de Maiz were still just a fledgling crew of lady MCs and sweatlodge neophytes learning the complex rhythms and steps to songs in the traditional danza azteca repertoire when the word construct based on fusing “art” and “activism” first made it onto my radar. But the intent is no less real.

I distinctly recall that the young Hollywood types organizing the Artivist Film Festival went to great lengths to make me feel welcome and included at several Cat & The Fiddle meetings.  They had noble intentions and admitted they were having trouble connecting with Latinos. Maybe that’s why they were so eager to bring me on board in some capacity or other.

But here we are, and none of that matters because in the two decades that have elapsed since that first MdM International Women’s Day commemoration, artivism and herstory are alive and well. If the professionally curated and formidably iterated all-woman’s art exhibition currently installed at La Plaza de Cultura y Artes—just a stone’s throw from the DTLA Arts District—is any indication, this year’s 20th MdM anniversary is just a portent of loftier and more important things to come.


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