The Children of Imperialismo

Guatemala City mural. Photo courtesy Glenn Stern

A majority of Americans think George W. Bush is a lousy president, and you'd pardon the guy for thinking that even God is against him. His Iraq war adventure is going worse than badly, hurricane season exposed the flaws in his crony cabinet, and now Latin Americans are turning to lefty politicians to solve their region's Conradian poverty, civil wars and corruption. Progressives rule in Argentina and Brazil, and Bolivia just elected its first indigenous president, Evo Morales, a man who thinks his countrymen should grow more coca and has vowed to become "Washington's nightmare." Chile continues to shed the free-market policies so carefully erected by Milton Friedman and Augusto Pinochet. Mexicans look likely to replace the neo-liberal President Vicente Fox with Andrés López Obrador, Mexico City's lefty mayor. And the cult of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez has attracted millions of acolytes from among the poor of the Spanish-speaking world; he is this generation's Fidel Castro.

All of these men openly question Bush's every foreign policy move, from immigration and the war on drugs to the proposed Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA). On this latter point, Latin America's new wave of leftist leaders is especially wary: the neo-liberal policies pushed by Washington during the 1980s and 1990s didn't bring the prosperity and free trade promised by the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations but produced further poverty in a continent that has lived for 500 years in the shadow of Europe and the United States.

Keep this in mind when you see "Unauthorized Manifestations: Voices From the Other Side" at Santa Ana's SolArt Gallery. Orange photographer Glenn Stern's photos of political graffiti from across Latin America depict a continent seething, a people ready for change, a rejection of everything capitalist and American.

Stern's photos are more than mere snapshots. Most of the graffiti in the exhibit is little more than scrawls; if the messages weren't so powerful, you'd mistake them for the hurried work of a cholo tagging the side of an Anaheim liquor store. While Stern is interested in the message, what captivates him more is the medium, the environment that gives birth to the political graffiti. Most of his photographs are landscapes, long-range shots that stretch and warp buildings and streets. In Santiago, Chile, for instance, Stern depicts the base of a colonial-era building painted with the slogan "Muerte al estado, Viva el individuo"("Death to the state, long live the individual"). The building spills out of the frame, suggesting (to me, at least) progress and a positive future; a solitary woman walks toward the sign.

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Stern depicts some of the usual talking points of the Latin American Left—the celebration of Che Guevara, the critique of privatization, imperialism, capitalism and the United States. Some of the images are heavy-handed: in one, a swastika-emblazoned boot and Stars-and-Stripes sock on a wall in Guatemala City is about to crush a mass of upraised arms. But Stern also captures regional variety: Chilean manifestos tell the plight of the country's Mapuche Indians; an ornate Uruguayan flag is accompanied by a plea to maintain public ownership of the national oil company; in Venezuela there's a simple "¡Viva Chavez!" My favorite is the strangest: a Mayan woman in Guatemala next to a wall where someone has written "Korn." What does the Huntington Beach bro-metal band have to do with overthrowing the shackles of tyranny—is it a joke, a Third World mash-up of hardcore music with that staple of the peasant's diet? But the Mayan woman's face has the quality of a Walker Evans portrait: she has seen the worst of times, and there's no guarantee that she will triumph.

Other than the city and country where Stern shot each photo, there's no commentary accompanying the pictures in "Unauthorized Manifestations." That's a good thing. This is an exhibit that, in lesser hands, could've become an anti-imperialist screed worthy of a Pacifica Radio commentator. Stern wisely lets the anger of Latin America burn on its own.

A postscript: this great exhibit is typical of entrepreneur/provocateur SolArt owner Sali Heráldez. But she's in danger of shutting down. The city of Santa Ana refuses to grant her a business license—not enough parking spaces, they say. Heráldez's struggle to stay open has reduced her personal savings to almost nada. Be a good patron of the arts: see "Unauthorized Manifestations," enjoy the free coffee and slip Heráldez a few bucks to save this small gem.


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