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Cinco de Mayo

4 May

In 1862, France is considered the greatest military power in the world. It has not lost a battle in fifty years. On May 5th, a force of 6,000 French soldiers confronts a troop of 2,000 poorly armed Mexican militia in the town of Puebla in Mexico. If the Mexican side loses, Mexico becomes part of the French empire and the confederacy will win the U.S. Civil War.

Some background:

At this point in history, Mexico has already been Independent since 1821, it has survived the U.S. – Mexico War (1846-48), which has massively decreased its territories, and is tentatively piecing itself together after a bloody civil war (1858-61) – otherwise known as the “War of Reform”. The country’s economy is in such bad condition that the newly elected President, Benito Juárez, declares a moratorium on all foreign debt.

In response, France, Britain and Spain land in Veracruz in October 1861 and begin an occupation of the Mexican Gulf Coast. The diplomatic representatives from Spain and Britain come to an agreement with Juárez and leave. France, however, remains and, aided by conservatives (who had been on the losing side of the War of Reform), sets out to occupy Mexico. The Emperor of France, Napolean III, is aware of the growing power of the U.S. in the Western world and wants to use the payment default as a reason to occupy Mexico and install his relative, Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph von Habsburg of Austria, as Emperor. Once that plan was in place, France could then turn north, aid the confederacy and divide the U.S. into two smaller, less threatening countries.

U.S. President Abraham Lincoln is aware of this threat and sympathetic to the Mexican cause, but has to depend on Mexico to keep France at bay until the confederacy is defeated and he can provide direct intervention.

On May 5th 1862, the French army reaches Puebla, a town only 100 miles from the capital. Expecting the attack is Texas-born Mexican, General Ignacio Zaragoza who has fortified the city and waits with a militia of men – mainly poor, of indigenous or mixed heritage, from an agricultural background, and armed with antiquated rifles and machetes. They defend Puebla against a highly trained, well provisioned French cavalry with heavy artillery, under General Laurencez.

La Batalla de Puebla (The Battle of Puebla) lasts from dawn to evening, by which time France retreats with close to 500 casualties. Mexico loses fewer than 100 men in the encounter.

Although the win is shortlived – Napolean III uses the defeat to send more troops to Mexico, and succeeds, briefly, in making Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian ruler of Mexico –  the battle bolsters Mexican resistance. In 1866 France begins to recall its troops to Europe, the U.S. is able to lend more political and military aid, and in 1867 Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian is tried and executed by order of Benito Juárez.

Cinco de Mayo today:

Cinco de Mayo is celebrated annually in Puebla, where re-enactments, parades and other activities are organised. In the 1960s, many Chicano scholars and activists realised the potent symbolism of the battle – Mexico versus an invading European force – and promoted Cinco de Mayo celebrations as a source of ethnic and cultural pride. Today, it has gained widespread popularity in the U.S., though there is, at times, some confusion between Cinco de Mayo and Mexico’s Independence Day, which is celebrated on September 16th.




Smile Now, Cry Later: Freddy Negrete and Chicano Black-and-Gray Fineline Tattooing

5 Jan
smile now, cry later

Smile Now, Cry Later

If you’ve ever seen an image of a chola with smoking guns or two theatre masks- one smiling, one crying, joined with the phrase “smile now, cry later”- you’ve seen an original Freddy Negrete work of art. The tattoos in Blood in Blood Out (1993), Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997) and Blade (1998) are also his handiwork. He has appeared on the television series Marked (2009), been a guest judge on shows like “Ink Master” (Season Two), and more recently been a central figure in the feature documentary on American tattooing, Tattoo Nation (2013).

He is one of the pioneers of Chicano black-and-gray fineline tattooing, one of the most commonly used styles of tattooing today, yet for all his impact on the world of tattoo art, Negrete remains relatively unknown to the general public.

Freddy Negrete

Freddy Negrete

The son of a Jewish mother and Mexican father, Freddy Negrete grew up in Los Angeles in the 1970s. Frequently in trouble with the law, he spent time in and out of juvenile halls. While there, he became fascinated with the tattoos of the other men, so much so that he decided to try it out for himself. He was shown how to put a basic tattoo machine together, using different items available – tattooing is illegal in the prison system, but more on that later – and taught some basic application techniques. He started tattooing himself at the age of eleven and by the age of eighteen he was almost completely covered in handpicked tattoos. During his time in youth authority, Negrete was moved to a program for the “criminally insane”. In an interview with Kristie Bertucci, he explains that the staff at this program were more lenient when it came to tattooing and so he spent nearly every day of the next three years honing his skills.

When he was finally released, he continued tattooing from his apartment. As gang member, Negrete’s customers were often fellow gang members and his tattooing regularly included images associated with Chicano street gangs, many of which drew from their Mexican cultural hertiage: portraits of La Virgen de Guadalupe and Jesu Cristo, Aztec gods, Adelitas, Zapata and other Mexican revolutionary figures, as well as images from lowrider culture, gang affiliation symbols and ornate calligraphy.

Unlike conventional tattoo shops of the time, which only used tattoo machines that worked with groups of needles, Negrete used the ‘prison-style’ tattoo technique, which used a single needle – because tattooing was illegal within the prison system, inmates constructed machines from different odds and ends available to them. This could include the engine of a radio or cassette player, a toothbrush, pen, guitar string, pencil eraser. It always meant a single needle. This single needle application allowed inmates to produce finer line work and detail in their tattoos than contemporary tattoo shops.

Homemade tattoo gun.

Homemade tattoo gun. Image via Temporary Service.

Ink was also a highly prized commodity in prison. It was sometimes made using the rubber of boot heels or burning baby oil and cotton in a metal tin, using the blackened dust that remained after burning the oil and cotton mix, soot mixed with shampoo, pen ink, melted styrofoam. The black ash was then mixed with water to create ink. This restriction in colour and tones meant tattoo artists in prison had to find new ways of dealing with shading and light. Gradation techniques differed from artist to artist, and was accomplished by watering down the ink, changing the depth of the needle penetration or shading over sections in order to build up darker tones. Although some shops now use whites and grays when tattooing black and gray tattoos, black ink and water alone remains the traditional method.

Traditional American tattoo flash. These usually had a nautical theme and were popularised by artist Sailor Jerry

Traditional American tattoo flash. These usually had a nautical theme and were popularised by artist Norman Keith Collins aka Sailor Jerry (1911 – 1973)

Around this time, Traditional American, with its thick blue-black lines and bold, solid colours, was the popular tattoo style. It had a strong connections with the US military, especially the Navy. Black and gray tattoos were associated with gang members and prison convicts. However, the combination of fine line work, precise detailing and new shading techniques meant that ‘prison style’ quickly started gaining favour outside the prison system, with members of the public actively looking for shops that could, and would, replicate this style.

Negrete’s work eventually came to the attention of Goodtime Charlie and Jack Rudy – who is best known for inventing the single needle for the professional tattoo machine – in Good Time Charlie’s Tattooland on Whittier Boulevard. As he tells Kristie Bertucci:

They discovered that the people in East L.A. didn’t want color work and just wanted black, and the reason for that was because everybody wanted it to look like they got it done in prison. They saw tattoos that I did and sent word for me to go over there and eventually they gave me a job there.

When Goodtime Charlie decided to retire, Don Ed Hardy bought the business and renamed the shop Goodtime Charlie’s Tattoo Land. Hardy was fascinated with the new style coming out of East L.A. and decided to help push it out onto the international stage.  Negrete, for his part, was amazed at the colours and scale of Hardy’s work. Negrete was used to small scale tattoos. Prison tattoos were generally small so they could be completed quickly, reducing the risk of getting caught. Hardy’s influences came from Japan, where full body suits are common practice. By working together, both artists learned much from each other in content, form and technique. Hardy also advised Negrete to change the name ‘prison style’ to ‘black-and-gray fineline’ tattooing, which it is most commonly referred to today.


Japanese body suit.

It was not always such a clear path for Negrete, however, either professionally or personally. An Evangelical movement called Victory Outreach visited and converted many gang members in East L.A., including Negrete. He used his new faith to help him fight his alcohol and drug addiction. He even quit tattooing for ten years when he was told that it was a sin. During this decade, he kept busy in other ways, earning a bachelor’s degree in biblical literature and a master’s degree in apocalyptic literature. Eventually, however, he began to question the arguments he had been given against tattooing, and decided to return to his craft.

In 2005, tragedy struck home, with Negrete’s eldest son killed in gang violence. The death hit him hard. He returned to heroin and found himself back in prison. “Here I was — 50 years old, back in prison, tattooing with a homemade machine for soup, just like I did when I was a young kid” (bound by ink).

After his release, Mark Mahoney offered him work in the Shamrock Social Club. Negrete took the job and works from there today,

Front part of full Chicano body suit

Front section of a Chicano body suit

along with his son, Isaiah. He also runs a tattoo shop apprentice program with the Beit T’Shuvah, a Jewish treatment centre for teenagers struggling with heroin addiction. “I have these kids as young as 18 years old in my group that are already heroin addicts”, he explains to Mike Landers. “During our meetings, I always find an opportunity to give them actual lessons from my life, so they look up to me because I can relate and I make the group fun”. Negrete credits this program, and the founder, rabbi Mark Borowitz, with his own addiction recovery.

Although his life has all the makings of a classic Hollywood movie, his place as a pioneer of Chicano black-and-gray fineline remains too far in the shadows. With an autobiography in the pipeline, and the growing demand of his work by celebrities, this may be set to change.

I never thought that prison-style black-and-gray would get mainstream, but now it’s worldwide. It was just some troublemaker east L.A. cholo art, but black-and-gray and I are here to stay. (inked magazine)

For more on Freddy Negrete and other Chicano tattoo artists, check out Tattoo Nation:

Transitions and Continuities in Contemporary Chicana/o Culture

19 Jun

On 24-25 of June, University College Cork will hold the first major Chicana/o conference in Ireland. A host of academics from across Europe and the Americas are due to present papers on a diverse range of topics under the rubric of “Transitions and Continuities in Contemporary Chicana/o Culture”.

Running concurrently to the two day conference are two art exhibits by Chicana artists Alma Lopez and Celia Herrera Rodriguez. Lopez’s exhibition, “Our Lady and Other Queer Santas” ties in to the European book launch of “Our Lady of Controversy”, edited by Alma Lopez and Alicia Gaspar de Alba.

our lady of controversy

Our Lady of Controversy

This book hosts a collection of essays by Chicana writers who respond to the controversy surrounding the first exhibition of Lopez’s digital print “Our Lady” in New Mexico in 2001. On Friday 24th she will also be presenting a video screening of “I Love Lupe”, a video that accompanies the book and records interviews by Chicana visual artists who have also re-envisioned and re-imaged La Virgen de Guadalupe in their own art.

Xicana Codex of Changing Consciousness

Xicana Codex of Changing Consciousness

Celia Rodriguez’s work “enAguas enTlalocan / Prayers for Mother Waters” accompanies the worldwide release of “A Xicana Codex of Changing Consciousness” by award winning Xicana lesbian, feminist, writer, educator and dramaturgist, Cherrie Moraga. The book is a collection of Moraga’s writing that spans over a decade and is her first publication since her 1997 biographical work “Waiting in the Wings: Portrait of a Queer Motherhood”. Rodriguez’s images appear and compliment Moraga’s writings throughout the book, using a contemporary twist on the style used in ancient Aztec codex. Her watercolours will also be on display Friday and Saturday in the same room as Lopez’s pieces.

The exhibition will be small but is free to the public and definitely worth a visit for any Chicano/a researcher in the country, or indeed anybody interested in contemporary Mexican American art.

Xicana Caminante

Xicana Caminante by Celia Herrera Rodriguez

Blowout! Sal Castro & the Chicano Struggle for Educational Justice: review

12 May Blowout!

BLOWOUT!: Sal Castro & the Chicano Struggle for Educational Justice.

by Mario T. Garcia and Sal Castro


Blowout! is the testimonio of American educator and activist Sal Castro. A phrase adapted by a Garfield High School student from a jazz term that means “to be expressive”, Blowout! was heard from tens of thousands of high school students, primarily Chicano, as they walked out of their classrooms in 1968 in protest at the poor quality of education they were receiving in East L.A. Carried out over a ten year period, this book is the result of hundreds of hours of recorded conversations compiled by historian Dr. Mario Garcia with Sal Castro as well as with a wealth of other students, teachers, administrators, artists and activists who knew Sal personally, many of whom had also been part of the 1968 High School Blowouts.

These blowouts are hailed as the impetus of the urban Chicano Movement, following on from the rural Chicano Movement that had begun some time earlier with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers thus placing Sal Castro as one of the most important Chicano Civil Rights activists of the 60s and 70s. This is the first time his story has been written.

Garcia frames the main autobiographical text of Blowout! with an introduction and epilogue that situate Castro’s story within that of the larger Chicano Movement. In the afterword, Garcia outlines the strong links between Castro’s approach to teaching and the theories of Brazilian pedagogue and educational theorist, Paulo Freire. While Freire is no stranger to most educators today, during the 60s and 70s his work was not widely read outside of Latin America. Castro was completely unaware of his work. However, the concepts of conscientização (conscientization or critical consciousness) are undeniably present as you read through the testimony of Sal Castro.

Unlike most other testimonios, Garcia peppers Castro’s accounts with quotes from different people and news articles. While there is the obvious danger of fracturing the narrator’s story, in this case it has worked quite well and the fluidity of the text is maintained. Moreover, Castro repeatedly emphasises his desire to empower the students and community, to have them speak out so the infrequent additions adds a symbolic connection between teacher and community that suits the text.

Blowout! tells the story of Sal Castro from his early childhood in Mexico to his present retirement. His firsthand experience of discrimination in the U.S. educational system as both a student and educator; in the U.S. Army where he experiences Jim Crow during his travels in the South; and society in general like when his father is returned to Mexico after WWII as part of the “repatriation” program thus forcing his parents to separate, which ultimately leads to their divorce, all provide insights into the challenges faced by immigrant communities in the U.S. at the time. These experiences would also help Castro as he critically assessed and challenged the U.S. education system. He gives personal accounts of the Zoot Suit riots, the Watts riots, the Chicano Moratorium against the war in Vietnam and more. As a teacher of history and politics as well as his background in campaigning for various senators – including John and, later, Robert Kennedy – Castro masterfully contextualises the political and social climate of the 60s and 70s in the build up to, and the later repercussion of, the blowouts, all the while managing to maintain a sense of humour that can only endear him to the reader.

This book is a strong asset not only to Chicano Studies but also to U.S. History, Political Sciences and Education Studies. While it is the testimonio of Sal Castro, it is ultimately the story of young High School students who finally found a teacher who believed in them and gave them the courage and opportunity to protest the inequalities they already knew about and faced daily in their schools and colleges. Although many problems still persist in the education system, the enduring legacy of the blowouts is visible in the ever increasing enrollment of Chicanos and Latinos at third level institutions, a greater presence of Latinos as teachers as well as on educational boards and the emergence of Chicano Studies as an elective in High Schools.

Between Borders

20 May

Just received a copy of Between Borders (ed. Del Castillo, Adelaida R.)

An expensive purchase, but I really needed to get a hold of essay by José E Limón entitled “La Llorona, The Third Legend of Greater Mexico: Cultural Symbols, Women, and the Political Unconscious.”

After delving through the last two books, I found myself looking for religious symbols in the protests in Arizona. As La Virgen has transcended political borders, moving as a cultural and political symbol from Mexico to the US – from the Mexican revolution to the United Farm Workers’ protests – it was vaguely surprising to find no image cropping up in the plethora of videos and news articles I have come across so far dealing with either SB1070 or HB2281.* However, the protests have not been completely bereft of Catholic iconography, with the Sacred Heart of Jesus appearing in artwork displayed in the Art Campaign of Alto Arizona, among others.

With a strong tradition of mural and other street art on the borderlands and beyond, it is not surprising to find some excellent artwork being produced in response to the current political landscape of Arizona. However, instead of the Virgen or other Aztec figures, as have been reproduced in the past, artists appear to be taking inspiration from more Eurocentric white supremist groups. Nazi Germany iconography – the swastika and Nazi uniforms – and the KKK uniform appear over and over again. This is not surprising, given the threat of racial profiling which protestors fear will arise from the bill.

Arizona citizens who are pro the immigration and/or Ethnic Studies bill, or who are simply fed up with the protesting and threats of boycott action from neighbouring states have also produced their own artwork. There is one in particular which has appeared on twitter a few times; a photoshop of a cactus to look like someone flipping the bird (unfortunately I’ve lost the link, but when I find the right one, I’ll post it). It’s concise, but forcibly portrays the anger and resentment brewing in opposition to the groups of protestors.

*It should be noted that as a non-US citizen writing from outside Arizona I am constrained to what is appearing on the internet. There could be other iconography appearing, however my research has not yet uncovered any on the internet. Any arguments/proof to the contrary are greatly welcome!

Arizona immigration law comes under legal fire

30 Apr

There has been some major controversy in the last few days over new immigration law (SB 1070) signed into Arizona state law by Gov. Jan Brewer.

With everyone from Obama to Shakira hitting the headlines over the legislation, which is set to become law 90 days after adjournment of state Legislature (meaning August), just what is this new law and why is it so controversial?

First of all, the actual text itself Arizona Senate Bill 1070:

HTML version from a business law firm situated in central Phoenix, Arizona

PDF format from who describe themselves as a news wire for lawyers.

One of the main problems arising from this bill is the right of any law official to ask anybody they believe may be an illegal immigrant/alien for some form of identification. The type of identification accepted include a valid Arizona driving license, a valid Arizona nonoperating identification licence, valid tribal enrollment card or other valid tribal identification, or any US federal, state or local government issued identification. In other words common forms of identification are acceptable. However, opposers to the new bill are not opposing the forms of identification. It is the fear of racial profiling that has dominated debates surrounding SB1070. Moreover, if you are found to be an illegal alien, you may be arrested rather than simply expelled from the country as the bill makes being an illegal in Arizona a state crime. As some have pointed out, this law would assume that all persons have their ‘paperwork’ with them at all times – a point compared to fascist dictatorships by those who oppose the bill.

So who signed in Senate Bill 1070? Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, who believes that God has placed her in a position of power so she can do good work(which may also help explain why she removed state domestic partner benefits). She also vociferously denies that the bill will lead to racial profiling and believes that the worry circulating about people getting arrested is all “hype.” What is most definitely not hype, however, is the backlash Ms Brewer will get from the Latino community in the upcoming elections if the bill does get through. As it stands, The National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders are seeking an injunction to prevent authorities from enforcing the law, and fifteen-year Tucson police veteran Martin Escobar who works as night patrol in a heavily Latino area of Tucson has started proceedings for an injuction against officers stopping, questioning or detaining suspected illegal immigrants. These were the first two lawsuits in reaction to the bill. There have since followed a slew of others, including three cities within Arizona state – Phoenix, Flagstaff and Tucson – who are also considering lawsuits to block the law. The Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and other Civil Rights organisations are also mounting legal challenges.

However, some argue that her support of the Bill comes in to balance the loss of support from Republican voters after her approval of the temporary sales tax earlier in the year. And indeed there are those, like the legislation’s chief sponsor, Republican Rep. Russell, Pearce, who are confident that the law will be supported when voters go to the ballot box (Once measures are approved in Arizona by voters it can only be repealed via the ballot box). And he is not alone in his sentiments; other border states have voiced support, with Republicans in Texas, Colorado and Minnesota stating that they will or hope to introduce similar legislation to their respective states.

Several polls have also indicated higher approval ratings for Brewer since she signed the bill – though some contest the validity of these polls as they either solely polled Republicans or were begun only days after the bill was signed. The long term affects are yet to be seen for either Jan Brewer, the Republicans or Arizona state.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon denounced the bill as discriminatory. Mexico has issued a state warning to its citizens not travel to Arizona as they could meet with hostility and for anyone in Arizona who gets detained by police officers to immediately contact the embassy. They have also called on their more affluent citizens not to holiday in the state. Tourism, according to the Independent, has already been hit, with people even from within the US canceling holidays and conferences. Other nearby states, such as San Francisco and LA have either stopped city employees from travelling to the state or are considering boycotting the state in some other manner. Mexico has also called for a boycott, with Mexico being Arizona’s main importer that would hit the state hard, but it would hurt Mexico just as hard.

Geography has also played its part in Arizona’s plight.

An occasionally-ugly history of race relations is largely an accident of Arizona’s geography. Its largely-unfenced southern border is one of the best-trodden routes for immigrants from Mexico to cross to the more prosperous US. As a result, around 30 per cent of the state’s population of 6.5 million are Hispanic. The Department of Homeland Security says roughly 460,000 of those are thought to be illegal immigrants – although the recession has seen their number decline by 100,000 since 2008.

The importance of immigration reformation has come to the fore with the President weighing in on the debate. Barack Obama has also criticized the bill, with the New York Times quoting him as saying that the bill would act “to undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans, as well as the trust between police and our communities that is so crucial to keeping us safe.” His emphasis is on a tackling immigration on a national level through law reform to avoid “irresponsibility by others.”

With elections on the way and boycotts coming from both within the US and across the border in Mexico, will Arizoans look to how the bill deals with immigration or how it affects their state economy? And with immigration policy becoming a hot topic in Capitol Hill, will this affect the embattled Democrats in the November elections?

Some extra opinions since I wrote this piece:

Overview of Arizona Law (SB1070): Evaluation and Opinion by Immigration Attorney Jalesia “Jasha” McQueen Gadberry Summary

Huffington Post: The Arizona Immigration Law: Some Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Arizona Politics

Wall Street Journal: Untangling Immigration’s Double Helix

29 Mar

Found a great site recently at

Travelling the length of the U.S.-Mexican border, the crew have masterfully collected a mosaic of mini-documentaries revealing the lives of those who populate the politically charged border area.

They also have a blog here