Latinos in America
Margaret Garcia: Latina Portrait Artist, Muralist, and Chronicler of Los Angeles History
Art has long served as a tool to educate, inform, and persuade. Chicano artists in alliance with Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers’ movement painted murals that sought to inform and persuade the public to support the grape boycott. Mural artists in East Los Angeles portrayed the horror and injustices of war in Vietnam. Art has many dimensions and also serves several
important purposes, including enabling us to see the world in profoundly different and innovative ways. Margaret Garcia, whose four decades of painting were recently recognized in a solo show by the Museum of Ventura County in California, explained that her art has a purpose–to communicate with the viewer. We learn from the vast body of work she has painted over the
years that she expects and hopes viewers consider reexamining misrepresentations about history and culture.
Garcia began painting at a young age. At age five, while in kindergarten, she brought home a crayon drawing which so pleased her father that he declared–”You are an artist.” She recalled that moment with pride and remembered feeling “elevated.” The thought of being an artist made her feel special. By age eight or nine as her skills evolved, she painted her first portrait.
Garcia always loved to draw and paint. Upon graduation from Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights, she began her journey to significantly advance her study of art. She attended San Fernando Valley State College and Los Angeles City College in the period 1969-1972. She later completed her course work in the Master of Fine Arts program at the University of Southern California.
Early in her career Garcia was best known as a muralist. She was the lead artist in the mid 1970s for a famous California mural near Venice Beach, “Two Blue Whales,” which depicts two large blue whales frolicking in the ocean. The Greater Los Angeles Council of the Deaf commissioned Garcia to paint a mural to honor the 1984 Deaf Olympic Games held in Los Angeles.
One of the most challenging and important mural works undertaken by Garcia was a commission to paint a historical mural at Universal City Metro station. Los Angeles Metro selected a Southern California artistic team to create a series of panels dealing with the surrender of Mexican California to American forces at La Cahuenga in 1846. The mural project became quite controversial.
Until the late 20th century, California historians traditionally neglected stories of people of color, thus Golden State history constantly needed refreshing. Californians born and educated elsewhere never learned the state’s history in their schooling. Nearly 10 million people live in Los Angeles, and almost half, 45 percent, were born outside the state of California. California residents arrive from other U.S. states as well as from nearly every country in the world. It is not surprising that many newcomers are unfamiliar with the state’s distinctive racial and ethnic history. Not everyone is aware, for example, that the Golden State at the time of European exploration represented one of the most diverse Indigenous populations in the Americas. The original inhabitants of California arrived in the region more than ten thousand years ago. The Spaniards arrived only three hundred years ago. Few Spanish women were allowed to emigrate, and the vast distance between Spain and the Mexican provinces that are now California contributed to the blending of what Mexican philosopher Jose Vasconcellos called “La Raza Cosmica.”
The 18th century founders of Los Angeles hailed largely from the Mexican province of Sinaloa where inter-marriage of the Spanish colonists with Indigeneous people as well as with African slaves was more common than other regions of colonial Mexico.
When Garcia accepted the commission to design and create the historical tiles of the Universal City Metro station, she knew the task would be exacting. She had to capture, in a relatively small number of tile panels, the historic meeting between the leaders of the Mexican Californio forces and American forces tasked with signing a peace treaty. Under the guise of Manifest Destiny, American forces easily defeated the poorly armed Mexicans in California. Garcia, determined to give honest interpretations of the events, painted the participants on both sides of the short war with dignity and respect.
The Garcia tile murals included portraits of General Andres Pico, the brother of Mexican Governor Pio de Jesus Pico, one of the wealthiest men of the California provinces. When General John C. Fremont led the American invasion of Southern California in 1846, the majority of the Spanish-speaking settlers identified as Mestizos, having intermarried with the Indian population. The Californios, who were all Mestizos by the mid 1800s, co-existed with the Indigeneous population of the region. Garcia’s historical representation of Mexican influence in California history demonstrated that history needs artists who do not fall prey to stereotypes and are able to provide objective and truthful historical visual narratives and interpretations.
Garcia resides in the Los Angeles neighborhood Echo Park, and her recent landscapes of the Echo Park Lake capture the community’s expressively radiant colors. I knew Echo Park when we lived in Los Angeles in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Chicano artist Carlos Almaraz’s canvas paintings first introduced me to Echo Park which he painted with brazen colors unfamiliar at the time to most Chicano art lovers. Margaret Garcia gives the park life with her lush green landscapes and an extraordinary rendering of bright yellow sun rays reminiscent of work by Impressionist painters.
Garcia “chooses an angle that avoids downtown, the political powerhouse of L.A., snuffing it out entirely,” commented art critic Jimmy Centeno who was especially impressed with Garcia’s painting of Echo Park which “spans across the skyline with comforting blues and yellow hues. It is tender and kind. Her strokes are soft, curvy, long, playful, and jazzy.” Garcia excels in her application of color. Viewers notice the influence of the Mexican masters, Diego Rivera, Jose C. Orozco, David A. Siqueiros, and Frida Kahlo, in her work, but also the color experimentation of the Impressionist painters, in particular Paul Gauguin.
In many Chicano art circles Garcia is known as one of the best portrait painters of her generation. Many of these portraits are of close friends or family members. Some of her portrait paintings are of people in her community–the vendors at the park are of special interest. Her American Dream painting is an example of her effort to capture the life and experiences of her community.
Garcia sees exciting days ahead. Her solo show at the Museum of Ventura County has been moved to La Plaza de Cultura y Arte in Los Angeles for viewers to enjoy until the summer. Actor Cheech Marin is the largest collector of Garcia’s work, and her art canvases were recently exhibited at the extraordinarily successful opening of The Cheech Museum in Riverside, California in the summer of 2022.
Copyright 2022 by Ricardo Romo. Photo credits as noted above.