Connecting to Her Ancestors through Art

Art hangs from the painted green walls in an apartment filled with paintbrushes and containing a canvas with a work in progress. In a small apartment near Echo Park, there lies bright paintings that have helped a young woman reconnect with her heritage.

Ana Ruth Castillo was born in Los Angeles in 1982 to Guatemalan parents, economic refugees during the civil wars of the 1970s. She grew up in various parts of LA such as Inglewood, Southbay, and eventually graduated from high school in South Central. At six years old, she had the opportunity to visit Guatemala because of the access allowed by the government to the refugees. Her parents took Ana and her sister to visit the family members that still resided in the country.

It was through those visits when she first realized the difficulties in relating to her parent’s country. “I was always considered gringa,” she says when talking of her childhood visits. It was her first time she was introduced to poverty. Before then she didn’t know another world less privileged existed, fueling her desire to learn more about her parent’s native country.

A section of "My Ancestors Presente"

She became attracted to the trajes of Guatemalan’s indigenous villages. It was difficult to learn about the culture she was not part of, but loved since a young age.

In the US, she was disheartened that there was never a space where she could learn more about her parents’ country. Her visits to Guatemala showed her there was another world, and she looked for its history, her ancestor’s heritage, but could never find it.

Ana asked herself, “Where the hell am I from?”

That sense of displacement was a big push for Ana who graduated from UC Santa Cruz in 2006 with a degree in Latin American and Latino Studies. It was in college where she first took a chance in art. Ana and her friends began to have “art nights” by bringing different art supplies to paint for a fun night in on a Friday night. Soon creativity took over. She took art as a means to put onto canvas everything she had learned and felt about her culture. “How do you give continuity to everyone who came before you?” said Ana.

Ana sees her paintings as a responsibility toward her culture and her ancestors. Through her most personal art pieces, called “My Ancestors Presente,” Ana believes that she honors her ancestors for this space and time.

Her sense of cultural displacement from it is a “big part of why I paint what I paint,” said Ana. “The more I paint the more I want to get better. At this point I have to get better.” Her art incorporates Guatemalan cultural myths like her painting “Ixel” depicting grandmother moon, or the common problem of searching for identities in a world with man-made borders shown in “Borders and Struggles.” Her art is like a collage of everything that she associates with on a personal or cultural level to her parent’s homeland. Ana looks toward the future on how art can now allow her community to connect to their culture

Ana is a strong supporter of the reviving the LA mural movement. In addition to taking part in the Restoration Project at the Great Wall of Los Angeles, she is also painting a mural in Xela, Guatemala, her mother’s hometown, at Café R.E.D.

Café R.E.D. focuses on the arts as a way to support the local the community and its economy. She explains that whenever she is taking part in creating a mural, many people, especially the youth, come to help. “Public art is important,” said Ana, “[it] has that function to bring people in and public art should represent the people who live there.”

“As central Americans, my parents were the first generation to come to America and stay here,” said Ana. She believes it is important to create something for the next generation. She hopes a museum would be available for children so they could have a place that would teach them where they come from. She believes that this is the responsibility of the Latino community, which she expresses through her art.

She recently became a part of the Central American Writing Arts Collective in Los Angeles. It is a one-year old collective where painters, writers, musicians, poets, and media makers of various generations come together to share their work.

Ana’s vision is the same as the collectives: a space where artists and other members of the Central American community could teach history through art to the children of future generations.

“I can not go back to practices that have become lost over time and conquest, but I can honor what I have learned and retained and put in canvas,” said Ana.


To see more of her art, see the Winter 2012 Issue and visit her website.

From Nada to Impresionada

The mural featured at the end of the movie was created especially for the film. Photo by Odd Lot Entertainment.

The film “From Prada to Nada” is a rehashing of Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility.” When their Mexican father dies, sisters Nora and Mary are forced out of their Beverly Hills mansion and in with their aunt in East Los Angeles.

The marketing of the film focused on the materialism of the two girls, especially because they are forced to move to a low-income neighborhood. I feared another attempt at repackaging Latino culture in a superficial film for the masses. Surprisingly, it sweetly and comically portrays two young women learning to embrace their roots and family.

Despite having Latino servants who cook traditional Mexican food and a Mexican father with a big bigote who has mariachi for his birthday, Latino culture hasn’t actually been a part of Nora and Mary’s lives. Moving to East LA with their aunt and being befriended by a tattooed neighbor may be the archetype of Latino neighborhoods, but the portrayal of this neighborhood moves beyond the cholos and helicopters they first encounter. It becomes a hub of Mexican heritage, Spanish language, artwork, and community.

Nora transitions easily to her new home, learning Spanish, and dressing in colorful indigenous clothing. She uses her lawyer skills to take on a pro bono case defending Latino maintenance workers who were unjustly fired and eventually setting up an office to give free legal advice.

Mary takes longer to adjust, at first only identifying herself as Mexican to protect herself from cholas who call her a white girl and to impress her Mexican TA from school. In the end, she comes to accept her identity as something that is a part of her, not as something to portray.

Growing up, Nora and Mary experienced fragments of Mexican culture because of their father, but they did not have a community in which they could see all the pieces fit together and appreciate it until they moved in with their aunt.

One delightful aspect of the film is the featured street art. There is scene in which Bruno, the tattooed neighbor, teaches kids about the art and its significance (even referring to Judy Baca, a muralist and a professor at UCLA), creating the image of a flourishing community that also has beauty.

Another great perspective presented by the film is the diversity within the Latino community: their entrepreneur father, gardeners and servants in the mansion, the undocumented workers in East Los Angeles, the cholo in the low-income neighborhood, Latinos in the university, and the Latino artists. The range of Latino cast members is greater than a similarly mass-marketed film “Beverly Hills Chihuahua”, in which they only seem to exist as gardeners or in Mexico.

The last scene includes a mural with the words “Soy Americano? Soy Mexicano? Que Soy?” These are questions many Latinos—not just of Mexican background—are likely ask themselves as they experience Latino culture in an American society. This film may have felt superficial to some, but at least I cannot deny the depth it presented with those last words.

Three out of four stars.

Repainting History at the Los Angeles River

LOS ANGELES – History can be taught in many ways, from lectures and textbooks, to videos and murals.  Founder of Social Public Art Resource Center, Judy Baca, taught Los Angeles County the history of its own people through the creation of the Great Wall of Los Angeles mural in 1974. Throughout the years, Judy, fellow muralists, and at risk youth expanded the mural to it’s current state of 2,754 feet. Now the Great Wall is losing it brilliant colors, bringing Judy, new, and past muralist – including UCLA students – to the restoration of what is now part of the history of Los Angeles. The October restoration is just the beginning of this process, which will continue until next year. These photos follow the restoration, which Judy says, “is healing the wound of the river.”

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