READING CHICANX: LOS TENIS DE CUAUHTÉMOC
This year’s Day of the Dead print, Los Tenis de Cuauhtémoc, from Self Help Graphics (SHG) is a breakthrough not only for the artist, Dewey Tafoya, but for SHG. There is only one problem: one must know how to read Chicanx—without words.
Through this print, Tafoya has upended the notion of what Day of the Dead stands for. He has layered the ubiquitous track shoes hanging from a wire with meanings that show how much he has thought about this moment in his career. Tafoya has been a fixture at SHG for fifteen years; helping as a volunteer, assistant printer, master printer, T-shirt printer, etc. Being chosen to create the annual print has been a big deal among Latinx artists on the Eastside for decades. Like the MacArthur grant, one doesn’t apply; one is chosen. Tafoya has made the most of this opportunity.
Tafoya has upended the image that has been built up over the years of what a Day of the Dead print is supposed to look like. The hanging tenis are backgrounded by raging fires that both recall and portend doom as they burn through the woven cloth underneath. But the shoes hang almost oblivious to the danger. They are untouched because they are survivors. The key to the piece is found in the design on the shoes. Tafoya has taken Nike up on its offer to customize the Nike Cortez—a reference to conquest, colonialism and latent colonialism—by placing an indigenous symbol often found on Codices, shields, pyramid walls, ceramics and huipiles, and later inscribed in murals, prints and other creative forms of resistance throughout Aztlan.
The fires in the background remind one of the recent and pending California fires and the fires of torture and genocide that were used to destroy the Aztec empire almost 500 years ago. It was on April 21, 1519, that Hernan Cortez landed in Veracruz where he set upon the conquest of Mexico. It took two years to complete the deed but the lust for more gold remained. To find hidden treasures, the feet of Cuauhtémoc, a successor to Moctezuma, were burned. Thus, the sneakers are covered with a Mechica symbol to protect the Chicanx people from the destruction and death that some would have us suffer to this day. And here is the most important point Tafoya is making: Five hundred years later, the Chicanx people have adapted and survived. Rather than dwelling on death, the tenis protect our people from the fires of destruction and cultural decimation. They rise like a phoenix from the ashes of cultural genocide, and through cultural memory. Death has been overcome; La Cultura survives. Through this print, we no longer dwell on the death of individuals, but on this auspicious quincentenary—not to mention the current climate—it’s our survival that Tafoya celebrates. It will give us strength through these times. Tafoya has deliberately kept any words off the image. If it had not been designated as the Day of the Dead image, it’s coded message might have been missed altogether. Only those who can read Chicanx can get its full meaning. The work follows a long line of artistic works going back almost 500 years where indigenous artists hid messages among the angels, saints and profane works they created for their colonizers.
This is also a breakthrough for SHG. The early posters were announcements of the event beginning with the 1973 version created by Antonio Ibanez, a co-founder of SHG, that included a crude map of the procession from Evergreen Cemetery to SHG’s first location. The next year, Beto de la Rocha would elaborate, mentioning both Los Four and ASCO as participants in the day’s festivities, along with political slogans of the time. The posters evolved to works of art with Gronk’s 1982, 10th anniversary print setting the standard for an aesthetically pleasing work. With varying degrees of aesthetic quality, the Day of the Dead print became a much collected and must sought-after endeavor. But in 2006, “Dia de los Germs” by Jaime “Germs” Zacarias, brought new life to the process by turning away from a calavera and focusing in on a masked luchador. Shizu Saldamando’s 2016 “Alice Bag” print-executed on a handkerchief, took another step away from the conventions that had guided the annual print since 1982. Alice Bag was not dead—she was the headliner for the evening’s festivities. Saldamando foregrounded a living musical legend. Tafoya’s 2018 print mentions nothing about SHG, Day of the Dead, where and when it will be held, or who will be performing. SHG is secure enough to know that the gente come on this day because they know Day of the Dead will happen as it has for forty-five years.
This essay is written by guest Blogger, El Trece.