Sunday, August 22, 2010

"Los Tres Grandes": Finding The Voice Of a High School Junior

Souls trod off to the Mexican Revolution by Jose Clemente Orozco
"The New Democcracy" Mural by David Alfaro Siqueiros
"Tenochtitlan" mural by Diego Rivera

Los Tres Grandes

I was just a junior in high school when my Junior Composition teacher assigned my first Term Paper, on a subject of our own choosing.

When I scrambled in terror reading the guidelines for the assignment, library research, footnotes, citations, a bibliography, I felt overwhelmed. I would be doomed to a D or F paper; I knew it! Although I had been an avid reader to this point, and I loved libraries, I had never written a term paper. Where would I even start? I panicked!

As the due date loomed, I forced myself to choose a topic. Since I was of Mexican decent, maybe I could choose something Mexican. Since I loved art, I should choose something to do with art, right? So I decided to look under "Mexican Art ". In these days, they still had the old, dog-eared Card Catalogues in our library, listing bibliographies of books and periodicals by subject, by title, by author, in alphabetical order. You would pull out the long wooden trays with little the brass handles on the ends, and thumb through the alphabetized listings. I even loved their smell.

Then, by accident (or by Fate), I found a book enttiled "Los Tres Grandes", full of color plates depicting the paintings of three of Mexico's greatest muralists, Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Mind you, I was a scrawny little 17-yr. old kid who never even knew Mexico had artists, let alone famous ones!

The book was filled with beautiful color plates of murals created in public spaces throughout Mexico during the 30's, 40's and 50's by these prolific painters. When I began to read about their lives, their philosophy, their art, I was stunned. It had no idea that art could be such a powerful commentary on society. Art could be public. It could be big. It could glorify, but it could condemn. I had grown to believe art had to be pretty.

This art glorified the raw endurance of the poor, Los Pobres, the indians, the Meztizos, the downtrodden. And it condemned the audacity of the Church, the priests, the brutality of corrupt politicians, the inexhaustible materialism of fat politicos, the rich, Los Ricos through 300 years if colonization, a war of independence and and a revolution.

I dutifully copied quotations, including page numbers on my little 3x5 cards as instructed.  I found a few more books, articles and recorded all the bibliographical information, the titles, authors, publishing companies, editors names and dates of publication for my bibliography and sheepishly turned in the finished product,  convinced I that with a little luck, I might even score a C- on it.

Weeks passed and we went on to other assignments. I dreaded the day the papers would be returned. I held my breath when it finally arrived. My English teacher addressed the class: "Class, before I turn back these papers I want to read to you one paper. It is an outstanding example of what a term paper should be". It was mine!

I shrank in my seat as she read, convinced that everybody just knew it was my paper. I turned red.  I would be laughed at. I would be ridiculed. But instead, my fellow students congratulated me. That moment is now thoroughly engraved in my book of good memories.

I would go onto to love and master the art of writing Term Papers in college. But more important, was having discovered my roots, my connection to my people. This was to direct my life's work which continues to this day.

In the years that followed, I would make several pilgrimages to Mexico to stand before the real murals for myself. Nothing, not books, not articles, neither plates nor reproductions could be a stand-in for this.

But wait, maybe that's not the whole truth. Having researched the lives of these maestros, Los Tres Grandes, their work, and their accomplishments only made the experience of gawking at massive walls and cielings filled with their murals, all the sweeter, albeit bitter-sweet.


#167 Dad said...

Nicely done, Rick. I'm looking forward to reading your book. You are planning on publishing your stuff, right?
As a side line, my academic decathlon students were unable to access Diego Rivera websites from school district computers. Word on the street was Rivera was a little to subversive.
Tailgunner Joe Lives ON in Arizona!

Juicy Elle said...

This is very inspiring. I just returned from a 3 month study abroad in Mexico. I couldn't agree with you more about how amazing the murals are. Please continue writing, you capture tons of emotions that others find a hard time expressing.