Tropical America

Background Information

1932, David Alfaro Siqueiros, 18H' x 82'W. Olvera Street
Upon his expulsion from Mexico in 1932 for political activity, Siqueiros settled in Los Angeles for six months. During that brief time, he completed three murals. The first, "Workers' Meeting," was painted at the Chouinard School of Art, where he taught a class on fresco painting. He painted the last mural, "Portrait of Present Day Mexico," (which still exists) at a home in Santa Monica. But Siqueiros' most important mural in Los Angeles was his second -- "America Tropical." The powerful political statement was executed along the exterior of the second floor of the Italian Hall, where the Plaza Art Center was located.

The title was suggested by Francis K. Ferenz, the director of the Plaza Art Center, who, along with Dean Cornwell, one of the muralists of the Los Angeles Public Library, sponsored the work. Commercial companies donated paint, cement, mechanical equipment and wood for the scaffold. Siqueiros, assisted by approximately 20 artists known as the "Bloc of Mural Painters," began the mural in mid-August. He worked primarily at night, painting with an airbrush after the design was outlined on the wall with a projector. The fresco, made of cement rather than the traditional plaster, was completed the night before its dedication on October 9, 1932.

As the visual and symbolic focus of the piece, an Indian peon, representing oppression by United States imperialism, is crucified on a double cross, capped by an American eagle. A Mayan temple in the background is overrun by vegetation, while an armed Peruvian peasant and a Mexican campesino sit on a wall in the upper right corner, ready to defend themselves.

So emotionally charged was this allegorical imagery that within six months, sections of the mural visible from the street were painted out. Within two years the work was completely covered. Portraying the struggle against imperialism was particularly offensive to Christine Sterling, the leading promoter of Olvera Street, because it did not conform to her image of a docile and tranquil Mexican village.

Virtually forgotten for years, the mural was rediscovered in the late 1960's when the whitewash began to peel off. However, it was severely damaged shortly thereafter by exposure to the sun. A plywood cover, which now hides the work, was finally installed in 1982 to prevent further deterioration. Ultimately, the mural will be restored and displayed for public view.

In executing this work, along with his other murals in Los Angeles, Siqueiros extensively used mechanical equipment, such as the airbrush, for the first time. "Tropical America" is also significant in Siqueiros's development as an artist for it was his first attack on American imperialism. Most importantly, it was the first large mural in the United States that created a public space by being painted on an ordinary exterior wall. So unusual was its location, that at its dedication, Cornwell predicted it would stimulate the execution of murals on similar blank walls. But it took the political and social upheavals of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement 35 years later for the prophecy to come true. When murals appeared in urban neighborhoods across the nation during the 1960's, "Tropical America" acquired its most far-reaching significance by becoming their predecessor and prototype.

Text provided courtesy of Michael Several, Los Angeles, April 1999.

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