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Documentary Review:  "The Murals of Aztlan"

by Mark Guerrero

     In 1981, my friend the great artist Carlos Almaraz called and asked me to send some of my music to James Tartan, the director of a project Carlos was working on.  It turned out to be the documentary "Murals of Aztlán."  Tartan gathered nine of the best Chicano muralists to paint murals at the Craft and Folk Art Museum, which was across the street from the L.A. County Museum on Wilshire Boulevard.  I knew many of the artists personally such as Carlos, Frank Romero, Willie Herrón, John Valadez, and Wayne Healy Alaniz.  I also admired the work and talent of all the artists involved, as well as the East Los Angeles Chicano muralist movement in general.  James Tartan liked my music, but asked me to turn the songs, which had vocals, into instrumentals so that the images in the lyrics would not conflict with the visual images on the murals.  The songs I had sent him were my compositions "On the Boulevard" and "Pre-Columbian Dream," which I had recently recorded.  I decided to call Jose Hernandez, a very talented mariachi musician with whom I had just done a project, to help me "instrumentalize" my songs.  (Jose is now the leader of the famous Mariachi Sol de Mexico, one of the great mariachis in the world.)  Due to our limited budget, Jose brought in a four violinists and he played trumpet.  I had the two inch 24 track tape, so we muted my vocal and added the strings and Jose playing the melodies of the two songs and presto, we had instrumental versions of my songs.  As it turned out, Tartan used the instrumental versions of both songs and the vocal version of "On the Boulevard" in the documentary.

     The documentary starts with the artists being interviewed in front of their blank walls discussing their plans for their murals.  Some had them sketched and planned out ahead of time, while others such as Willie Herrón and Gronk had no plan.  They just went ahead and painted what came to them as they went.  The other artists doing murals were Judith Hernandez, and Wayne Healy Alaniz' fellow Streetscapers David Botello and George Yepes.  As the artists painted their murals, the public was allowed to come in and talk with them and ask questions.  Some of these exchanges were used in the documentary.  The paintings are being created and are shown at various stages of their development on camera.  The artists are also interviewed as they work their magic.  The murals were painted on several floors of the building over the period of a month.  At the end of the month all the paintings were completed.  The end results were phenomenal!  These artists are all world class.  The Chicano art movement that came out of East L.A. in the late 60s/early 70s was nothing short of an artistic renaissance which went hand in hand with the East L.A. Chicano musical explosion during the same period.  "Murals of Aztlán" aired on PBS several times in 1981 and each artist and I were given video copies of the documentary.  I was pleased to find out that finally a DVD has been released of "Murals of Aztlán" by the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.  It was released in 2004, but I didn't know about it until 2009, when I happened to "google" the title.  I was very happy about it and ordered it right away.  Added to "Murals of Aztlán" was a short documetary on Los Four, an artists group consisting of Carlos Almaraz, Frank Romero, Gilbert "Magu" Lujan, and Beto De La Rocha.  Beto's son is Zack De La Rocha, who gained fame in the band, Rage Against the Machine.  All the artist featured in "Murals of Aztlán are still living and working as of this writing in 2009 with the exception of Carlos Almaraz, who passed away in 1989.  This is a documentary that should be in the collection of anyone interested in Chicano art and culture.



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Mark Guerrero
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