Once upon a time, the Frito Bandito, a cartoon character with a big sombrero and thick accent, pitched corn chips. The Bandito was retired in 1971. Frito-Lay banished him because Mexican-Americans protested that the advertising campaign slandered them.
Chicano artist Melesio "Mel" Casas was protesting the same kind of stereotyping when he painted Brownies of the Southwest (Humanscape 62) in 1970. As one in a series of his "Humanscape" paintings, it takes on the many meanings of "brownies," from the chocolate dessert to the little girls' organization. He even turns the Frito Bandito into a silly Aztec god.
Casas was, of course, punching back at mainstream American ideas about "brown" people. In today's charged political climate, in which immigration is a hot topic, the exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, "Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art," brings to light the conflicted feelings of the Mexican-American, Cuban-American and Puerto Rican communities.
Should these communities, many of them immigrants and their descendants, relinquish their heritage and assimilate, or should they celebrate what makes them different? The artists in this exhibition are torn. "We are neither Mexican artists nor Anglos," said Chicano artist Frank Romero. "We are in between."
In the St. Petersburg exhibition, Puerto Rican artist Adal rigged up a battered suitcase that sports a video screen on its side. Footage from the 1961 film West Side Story shows the Puerto Rican characters dancing. You hear readings of Nuyorican (New York-Puerto Rican) poetry and you can sway to the ebullient music of Puerto Rican musician Tito Puente.
"We are multilayered because so many different cultures and races came through Puerto Rico with the slave trade," Adal once said. "We became a sort of fusion of all those experiences and ideas. I was raised to feel that I had many different dimensions that I could choose from." His well-traveled suitcase celebrates the fusion of cultures in a joyous way without losing the essence of any of them.
Luckily, you can compare the works in this exhibition with those in a show across Tampa Bay that also closes Jan. 22. "Complicated Beauty: Contemporary Cuban Art" at the Tampa Museum of Art offers a vision of a tortured island nation whose people feel stifled inside a decaying society as well as being trapped on an island. These artists are trying to reconcile their own multiple heritages, ranging from the indigenous Taino tribes to the Spanish conquerors to that of the United States.
Cuban patriot Jose Martí once said, "A genuine man goes to the roots. To be a radical is no more than to go to the roots." Ana Mendieta, who along with Maria Martinez Canas is represented in both exhibitions, goes to the roots when she carves her body's shape out of the soil itself.
Given the current political whirlwinds and Tampa's historic relationship with the island nation, the exhibition is a wonderful chance to glimpse inside the minds of the Cuban people. Read a review of that exhibit at tbtim.es/review.
Viewed together, these exhibitions offer a rare opportunity to see how the artists in both shows relate to what Martí once called the "tiger," meaning the colossus that is North America.
Contact Joanne Milani at firstname.lastname@example.org.