Photo by: Mayra Vanessa Lopez

Altares at Grand Park

Header photo taken by Mayra Vanessa Lopez

Under the beautiful moonlight in Downtown Los Angeles, I strolled through Grand Park to see the various, dazzling altares/ofrendas set out in remembrance of lost relatives and ancestors. There was a display of fascinating, colorful calaveras painted on large wooden cutouts of traditional Día de los Muertos skulls.


This captivating art installation took place on October 31st. Extending four blocks, this Día de los Muertos exhibition allowed community members to experience the traditional, as well as modern day, ways of celebrating those who have passed and memorializing the past. It is a day in which the curtain between our two realms—of the real, present world and of the afterlife—is lifted and so that we may share the day.

The Altares at Grand Park, held directly in front of City Hall, were decorated with various ofrendas, or offerings, both by the master altar makers of the exhibition as well as by community members. People were encouraged to bring photographs, write notes, and/or sign their names on some of the altares. Men and women dressed as catrinas/os visited the altares, dressed in traditional clothing with their faces elaborately painted.

I made sure to write a special note to my godmother who I lost several years ago; as I wrote her name, I automatically felt in touch with not only her spirit, but also to my culture.

The first altar I saw as I began my tour of the art exhibition was one dedicated to Trayvon Martin—a 17-year-old African-American male who was fatally shot and killed, yet received no justice for his murder. We see here the bridge between the Latinx community and African-American community, making a powerful statement of solidarity.

The statement becomes even more effective as you look over the altar and see Los Angeles City Hall helping illuminate the already vibrant memorial. Ten elegantly designed calaveras, five to each side of the altar, were displayed to illustrate another important piece of the Día de los Muertos’ tradition. The calaveras have come to symbolize the revival of an individual into the next stage of life. One calavera, in particular, grasped my attention almost immediately. It was one representing Brown Pride, which was initiated during the Chicano movement of the 1960s; with this skull we can see the connection between contemporary and traditional empowerment through the Latinx culture—contemporary in that it reflects a recent social movement for Chicanx pride and power, and traditional in that it reflects a long-established spiritualistic custom to convey the unity between the two very different, but still socially and culturally relevant ideologies.

Apart from altares and calaveras, there was a large art piece entitled “Till Death Do Us Part…”—symbolizing the classic wedding chapel scene decorated in wedding glass boxes. This scene is meant to portray eternal love, as the bride and groom are elegantly dressed calacas. The materials used to create this artistic installation were re-purposed plastic—an ode to the notion and belief that love lasts a lifetime and that the spirits of our passed loved ones will always be with us.

I have never felt so in touch with my culture and community; various men and women around me joined together by emotionally and physically engulfing themselves with the art exhibition. Witnessing the Altares at Grand park was an eye-opening experience. As Grand Park seemed to purposely place this installation of important aspect of Latino ritualism and culture within the heart of the city, it appeared to hold an underlying proclamation: the raza is present and we are not going anywhere.

The Disappointing History of Photography Legend Cindy Sherman

The unfortunate and jarring realization I made about the art community through a female photographer’s racial bigotry

My first week here at UCLA, I was eager to begin utilizing the amazing resources now at my fingertips: books, professors, and discussions composed of intelligent people who were eager, just like me, to begin a journey of self-discovery and learning. So, on a sunny afternoon during Week 1, I paid a visit to the arts library.

As an art major, I made visiting the arts library a top priority. Photo books are a source of motivation and release and I find a lot of comfort in them. I scanned the long hallway of photo books, particularly hoping for a good selection of female photographers, and picked up three works, one of which was by famed fine art photographer Cindy Sherman.

Cindy Sherman, a female photographer, is best known for her self-portrait projects where she takes on an array of human identities. She is well known in the photography community and has been someone I looked up to a lot, as a female photographer myself.

The book has a collection of some of her most provocative projects. I reached a collection of scans of some of her photoshoot notes, when a line in her jumbled writing caught my eye.

In explaining what models she’d like to use for an upcoming project, Cindy describes them as “stupid looking model-types (but ethnic-dirty).”

Photo by: Gabrielle Biasi

Sherman’s photoshoot notes, published in “Cindy Sherman: Retrospective” on page 119. Photo Credit: Gabrielle Biasi

It took me a moment to comprehend what I had read. Was Cindy equating ethnic people to looking stupid…to being dirty?

I decided to investigate.

I googled “Cindy Sherman Racist” and was greeted with 685,000 hits. Among those were various articles on a photo series she did in 1976 titled “Bus Riders”, where she portrayed 15 different characters she saw at bus stops. Five of those characters were black, which she decided to portray using blackface.

Upon viewing the nauseating images, I knew I had unfortunately discovered the classic trope white artists often use in their artwork.

Time and time again, whether through orientalism, primitivism, or exoticism, white and western artists have used non-white identities as props: Gauguin and his works of Tahitian women, Matisse and his works of Moroccan women, Edward Curtis and Native Americans, are all classic examples of this worn out custom.

In uncovering Sherman’s blackface portraits and ethnic offenses, I felt the beginning of a difficult journey for myself as an artist unfold. I began to reevaluate the female artists I considered admirable: Cindy Sherman, Sophie Calle, Imogen Cunningham, Dorothea Lange, Annie Liebovitz. They are all women who overcame the male dominant field of photography, but they are all white women.

As a white passing Latina, I am aware of the privilege I have, but my connection to Latino culture is embedded in my soul. Because of this, I have always felt more connected to female artists of color. Unfortunately, women of color are rarely found in art education and history curriculum and art galleries. Carrie Mae Weems, Nikki S Lee, Wendy Red Star, Ana Mendieta, Yurie Nagashima, and Pun Ho Yun are the few female artists of color I have discovered through friends and digging deep on the Internet. They were absent from textbooks and lectures despite their impactful artistry.

I still admire the white female photographers and the obvious talent and work ethic they have, but seeing the lack of women of color in photography is disheartening. I hope that the art community, here at UCLA and across the world, will join me in re-molding this unfortunate reality of art and photo history. All artists must come together and help elevate female artists of color, so that every young artist learning their craft can have the relatable role models I never had been taught.

Siege at Standing Rock

On the afternoon of October 27th, a militarized police force of more than 100 officers responded to, raided, and arrested over 140 members of a resistance camp lying directly in the path of the proposed $3.8 billion Dakota Access pipeline, on the Standing Rock Indian reservation in Cannonball, North Dakota.

Using concussion grenades, rubber bullets, and shotguns armed with bean bag rounds, the responding police force shot at, bruised, bloodied and injured the steadfast water protectors of the resistance camp. The advancing police were clad in “riot gear with automatic rifles lined up across North Dakota’s highway 1806, flanked by armored personnel carriers, a sound cannon, Humvees driven by National Guardsmen, an armored police truck, and a bulldozer.” The officers were more than equipped to engage in battle with a small army. Was all of this really necessary for a large group of unarmed Native Americans asking to protect their sacred lands and clean water?

According to the Los Angeles Times, “Protesters said that those arrested in the confrontation had numbers written on their arms and were housed in what appeared to be dog kennels, without bedding or furniture. Others said advancing officers sprayed mace and pelted them with rubber bullets.” The described scenes are enough to evoke past images of Native Americans being mistreated by US authorities. Claims of sabotage came out as video footage showed an armed company security contractor who attempted to infiltrate the camp of water protectors. According to Democracy Now, “In the video, the contractor can be seen pointing the assault rifle at the [water] protectors as he attempts to flee into the water. He was ultimately arrested by Bureau of Indian Affairs police.”

This latest flare up of confrontations between water protectors and law enforcement comes more than a month after the September 3rd incident near Lake Oahe, where “security guards working for the Dakota Access pipeline company attacked Native Americans with dogs and pepper spray” who were attempting to stop company tractors already in the process of demolishing a sacred burial site. In response to the attacks, on September 9th the US Departments of Justice, Interior, and Army Corps of Engineers, backed by the Obama Administration, stepped in requesting “that the pipeline company voluntarily pause all construction activity within 20 miles east or west of Lake Oahe”—some 40 miles north of the Cannonball resistance camp. It was later found by the Morton County Sheriffs that the company guards were without the proper licenses to do security work in North Dakota, according to Democracy Now.

The Dakota Access pipeline stands as a very real threat, not just to the local Native American land in North Dakota, but to every community in its path. Once constructed, the pipeline “would carry over about 500,000 barrels of crude [oil] per day from North Dakota’s Bakken oilfield to Illinois,” according to Democracy Now. “Since 2009, the annual number of significant accidents on oil and petroleum pipelines has shot up by almost 60 percent, roughly matching the rise in U.S. crude oil production, according to an analysis of federal data by The Associated Press,” reports the Chicago Tribune.

The months of protest against the Dakota Access pipeline not only oppose its construction but strive to assert Native Americans’ rights over their reservation. They assert their right to protect the water, land, and local environment all under an 1851 treaty with the United States. The site of the resistance camp is within the boundaries of this treaty, “which [water protectors] say makes the entire area unceded sovereign land under the control of the Sioux.” The path of the Dakota Access pipeline is in violation of their sovereign rights, which sadly continues a long history of broken promises from the US government. Activists also claim that the pipeline does nothing for the locals on the reservation, who risk the most with potential oil spills and other environmental hazards. Winona LaDuke, long time Native American activist and executive director of the group Honor the Earth, argues that opposing the pipeline not only benefits the locals but helps in the fight against climate change. LaDuke states “It’s time to end the fossil fuel infrastructure. I mean, these people on this reservation, they don’t have adequate infrastructure for their houses. They don’t have adequate energy infrastructure. They don’t have adequate highway infrastructure. And yet they’re looking at a $3.9 billion pipeline that will not help them. It will only help oil companies.”

If it’s more information you want about the Dakota Access pipeline, don’t run to your cable news network. Sadly, most UCLA students have only heard about the violence in Standing Rock from friends or on social media. Tiana Austel, a 4th year student, stated that she hasn’t “seen it on any major news outlets.” Most of what she hears about the Dakota Access pipeline comes through her food studies courses and philanthropic circles.

Other students agreed that there was a lack of mainstream coverage on the events taking place in Standing Rock. “It’s not getting enough coverage,” says Karla Duarte, a junior transfer. She stays informed through friends and online articles posted on social media because the “news is being really biased.” Her friend, Samantha Gonzalez, said she only heard about the Dakota Access pipeline through social media as well.

Strangely enough, our generation’s fascination with social media provides some relief from the mainstream media blackout, so students can still catch some of the Standing Rock story–but is it enough? Ryan Perry, a fourth year student, claims he doesn’t watch a ton of television, yet he is still aware of what’s going on through friends and social media, although it is “extremely limited.” In response to the treatment of Native American water protectors, Ryan stated “These are people who have a home there. How many more Native Americans do we need to move around?”

When most major news networks are silent on the violence in Standing Rock, water protectors and other activists have found hope through other means to tell the world about what’s really going on in North Dakota–#NoDAPL!

Proposition 58: Bilingual Education is Beneficial

With Proposition 58 on the ballot this November 8th, citizens across California are questioning whether a bilingual curriculum would benefit K-12 students.

Proposition 58 is a response to Proposition 227.

Also known as the “English in Public Schools Act,” Proposition 227 removed funding from previously thriving bilingual schools in 1998, requiring California public schools to teach English language learners in English only classes. Therefore, English language learners were limited to one year of bilingual classes and were then subjected to an entirely English education.

“Non-English Languages allowed in Public Education Act,” otherwise known as Proposition 58, would no longer limit English language learners to English-only education; it demands that school districts develop programs that ensure rapid acquisition of English through “dual-language immersion programs for native and non-native English speakers” alike.

Supporters of the proposition claim that this would facilitate rapid English proficiency and that it would provide English speakers an opportunity to learn a second language. This would ultimately encourage “intercultural interactions and empathy.”

In an environment that is currently not fostering respect for cultures, and is becoming more blatantly disruptive, delineating behavior is encouraged, students in an extremely diverse environment such as California, would benefit from learning each other’s differences through their linguistic barriers. This would allow the community to embrace differences, rather than fostering a bland, disingenuous, and unrealistic emphasis on similarities.

Proposition 58 has the potential to create a California that thrives off of cultural diversity and that is more inclusive of immigrant populations.

While some believe that a bilingual education would only discourage the rapid acquisition of English proficiency, studies have proven otherwise. The Journal of Applied Research on Learning explains that bilingualism does not cause a delay in the acquisition of a new language.

Bilingual education provides numerous benefits to children. Canada’s York University discovered that bilingual preschoolers have a greater cognitive flexibility, or a greater ability to understand conflicting visual and verbal information.

This refers to the ability to quickly transition our thought process from one concept to another; in essence, it’s the ability to simultaneously think about multiple concepts in a functional way that can efficiently reshape our ideas. Thus, bilingual children are more aware of the pivotal role language plays; such understanding contributes to an earlier acquirement of social skills compared to that of their monolingual peers.

Furthermore, North Carolina State University examined a pool of 120 ethnically diverse, low-income students in elementary school and compared their performance in bilingual classrooms and English-only classrooms. Their research found that students in bilingual classrooms were able to rule-switch and had more inhibition than students in traditional classrooms.

Most of the opposition to Proposition 58 is due to a common misconception that bilingual education effectively hinders students’ acquisition of English.

Much of earlier research projected bilingual education as detrimental to English Language Learner’s acquisition of English. Such early research found that third graders enrolled in bilingual education since kindergarten perform worse than those who were enrolled in English-only classes. However, it is important to note that these same bilingual children are likely to read as well or even better than those in English-only programs by the time they reach fifth grade; and, as a bonus, these students are equally proficient in two languages.

Therefore, voting yes on Proposition 58 would be a wise decision for California voters because the benefits of a bilingual education heavily outweigh those of an English-only curriculum.

La creación de Xibalba

Tienta la tierra y acuéstate en ella y siente su vibración. Si acercas tu oreja a la tierra húmeda del atardecer escucharas un zumbido, algo distante, casi insignificante. En las entrañas de la tierra donde ningún alma viviente a llegado, vive un ser. Un ser agobiado, atormentado y solitario. Apenas si es oíble, apenas si es perceptible, su llanto terrible.

Cada noche solloza el creador de Xibalba, el dueño de un dominio de espíritus. Llegan ahi las almas perdidas, las almas que están olvidadas. Él se llama, Amotlein. Pero no siempre fue el dueño de Xibalba.

Amotlein una vez vivió entre nosotros. Un ser simple y algo distante. Cada día se levantaba dando gracias a los Dioses por el milagro constante del nuevo amanecer. Pudiera decirse que él era el ciudadano ejemplar, el más cuerdo y sensato del Anáhuac. Pero ningún hombre es eterno, ningún hombre es incorruptible.

Un atardecer se bañaba en el Lago de las Aguas Puras, que queda en una remota tierra escondida por una persiana de montañas y bosques, cuando sintió que alguien lo observaba, que alguien lo espiaba. Como ya estaba oscureciendo, Amotlein se vistió con prisa y cogio su tilma emprendiendo su camino hacia su choza humilde. Al dar el primer paso Amotlein se quedó tieso.

“No me temas,” le dijo una voz profunda, algo ronca, pero dulce al igual.

Enfrente de Amotlein había una mujer de pelo largo, liso y algo rojiso. Sus ojos eran grandes, cafés como el cacao. Y su piel radiante con tinte de olivo. De ella emitía una esencia dulce de flores silvestres, y su cara se iluminaba con la resonancia de un fuego ardiente.

“Me llamo, Nochtli,” le dijo la mujer de pasiones.

Amotlein se quedó con ojos abiertos, de búho alertado. Ella se acerca a él. Amotlein se quedo inmóvil, su mirada perdiéndose en ella, entrando en un transe en que él ya nunca pudo zafarse. Tomo sus manos y los dos se metieron al Lago de las Aguas Limpias. Ahí consumieron su pasión. Tentando y reconociendo cada parte de su ser. Fue tanto su amor y lujuria que las aguas empezaron a burbujear en un hervor tormentoso.

Al despertar Amotlein se encontró rodeado de lodo, en un cráter profundo. Profundo como un lago. En él emergió una sed profunda, un deseo insaciable de sentir el calor de ese amor volátil. Queria él amar y ser amado. Queria hundirse una vez mas en el cuerpo de Nochtli. Ser acariciado por suave y tenue olor. Desde ese dia Amotlein traía una dama a lo que una vez fue el Lago de las Aguas Puras, gozandosela. Pero nadie lograba saciar esa sed que tenia por la mujer de la mirada de fuego.

Tanta fue la obsesión, que cada noche lloraba en lo que una vez fue el Lago de las Aguas Puras. Sus lágrimas cristalinas llenaron el lago hasta que se desbordó, inundando el bosque cercano.

Los pájaros fueron los primeros en huir, y después siguieron algunos jaguares, ranas, y monos. No todos los animales tuvieron la suerte de salvarse y murieron ahogados en el lamento de las aguas torrenciales. Después Amotlein golpeó el suelo con sus puños llenos de angustia, provocando un terremoto que cuarteo la tierra inundada que lo rodeaba; dejándolo en una isla enorme y solitaria. Su llanto cesó y ninguna lágrima le brotó de sus ojos achicopalados. Estaba seco. Habia llorado todo el agua en él, pero su alma no dejaba de pensar en la tierna Nochtli.

El fuego de su corazón, que la añoraba, le prendió fuego a su cuerpo. Amontlein se achicharro, su piel humeando, desprendiéndose de su cuerpo pedazo por pedazo. Los ojos gelatinosos se le derritieron. Y el cabello en polvo quedó. Casi nada quedó de Amotlein, solo quedó su esqueleto vibrante, vivo y animado por la llama de la pasión.

Una vez más hirvieron las aguas y se volatizaron. Después el fuego intenso secó y agrietó la tierra. La tierra ahora tenía la misma sed de Amotlein. Lo único que sobrevivió, lo único que creció del voraz incendio y de la gran sequía, fueron los nopales con tunas. Amotlein tomo la fruta del nopal y se espino, pero disfruto de su carne dulce. Por fin sacio su alma. Para ese entonces ya era muy tarde, pues Xibalba ya se había creado y en él un rey se habia encontrado.

Desértico, árido, desolado,
Es el alma del mal amado.