Notes on Mexican Art, Social Movements, and Anzaldua's "Conocimiento"

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Breaking out of your mental and emotional prison and deepening the range of perception enables you to link inner reflection and vision--the mental, emotional, instinctive, imaginal, spiritual, and the subtle bodily awareness--with social, political action and lived experiences to generate subversive knowledges.--Gloria Anzaldua (2002: 542)

IN ADDITION TO BEING ARTISTS, ELOY TARCISIO, FRANCISCO TOLEDO, LUIS ZARATE, Niceforo Urbieta, and Marcela, Vera, whose work I discuss here, have been protagonists in several of Mexico s contemporary social movements. Yet their role as social change agents is not well understood or appreciated by most scholars of social movements. Perhaps, in part, this is because the dominant structures of modern European thought make it difficult to readily comprehend what performance artist Maris Bustamante (a contributor to this issue) has often told me is a distinct logic at work in Mexico, where culture is deeply influenced by pre-colonial, indigenous structures of thought and aesthetics. I am not suggesting a genetic phenomenon in which contemporary Mexicans inherited some biologically distinct sense of time, space, beauty, and rationality. I am referring to the sociocultural reality of indigenous memory, as described by historian Enrique Florescano (1999): in Mexico's syncretistic cultures, despite the Spaniards' determined efforts at cultural eradication, core structures and values from pre-Hispanic thought have been reproduced (and transformed) in daily life through symbols, rituals, ceremonies, fiestas, popular sayings, myths, oral histories, and the like. (1) (Consider, as one obvious example, Mexican Catholicism: All Saints/All Souls days are fundamentally enactments of pre-Hispanic beliefs about death, and for many the Virgin of Guadalupe is another manifestation of the Nahuatl-speaking people's Tonantzin and the Oaxacan Christ, el Senor del Rayo, is the Zapotec's last emperor.)

The work of the artists I describe below is, in one form or another, about the recovery and re-creation of social memory and historical systems of thought and knowledge within contemporary conditions. And therein lay their contributions to movements for social change. Until somewhat recently, such cultural phenomena were largely unrecognized by social movement scholars and activists alike. Much of the social science literature on social movements, like modern European approaches to knowledge, emphasized the "rational," "objective," and quantifiable elements of movements: their composition, organization, resources, and measurable outcomes. For scholars like me, who did a youthful tour of duty in the Marxist-Leninist Left, such tendencies were reinforced by our laser-like focus on winning state power for the proletariat.

However, a decade ago, social movement theorist Alberto Melucci (1996: 68) noted "a renewed interest in cultural analysis which corresponds to a shift towards new questions about how people make sense of their world, how they relate to texts, practices, and artifacts rendering these cultural products meaningful to them." Our understanding of social movements and social change in general had begun to respond to a variety of developments inside and outside the academy. Feminist scholars such as Donna Haraway (1988) dared us to question any claims of "objectivity," insisting that all knowledge is "situated" and "embodied." Scholars of race and ethnicity, such as Stuart Hall (1994), argued for the centrality of culture, claiming that all identities are constructed within representation. And on the ground, a plethora of new social movements were clearly ignoring the wisdom of counsel to keep their eyes on the prize of party building, proletarian revolution, economic modernization, and state power.

An anthology edited by Alvarez, Dagnino, and Escobar (1998: 7) is an excellent example of an approach to social movements that recognizes the centrality of cultural processes of representation and signification. …