Celebrating the narrative | December 28, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - December 28, 2012

Celebrating the narrative

New Stanford mural honors the stories and storytellers of Latino, Chicano, indigenous cultures

by Rebecca Wallace

Holding a conch shell full of pigment, a Mayan storyteller writes the tales of her people on the trunk of a ceiba tree. Characters and creatures swirl around her and overhead: an Aztec butterfly, symbol of movement and balance; the two ancient warrior twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque; a jaguar in a creation myth.

The latest murals at Stanford's El Centro Chicano burst with color, but artist Juana Alicia had more than aesthetics in mind. She wanted to help students feel at home.

Both Stanford students and aspirants come to the Chicano/Latino student center: for cultural programs, academic support, tutoring and socializing. When they walk in the front door, the new mural, "The Spiral Word: El Codex Estanfor," is right there to greet them with images and stories of their heritage. To remind them that they as Chicanos and Latinos are part of a community at Stanford.

"We don't have a long history at higher-learning institutions as more mainstream people do, and we often don't come from families who are familiar with working in those systems. And we're not really adequately prepared sometimes in our high schools for any major university," said Juana Alicia, a faculty member at Berkeley City College who has also taught at Stanford, U.C. Santa Cruz and other colleges.

"My goal was to be not just welcoming, but educational," she said, adding that she hopes viewers feel "empowerment and political involvement in reading that story."

The first panel of the mural, done in digital print and acrylic paint on a canvas panel attached to an inside front wall, highlights the young Mayan storyteller. Bare-chested and serious-faced, the scribe sits and writes her stories, her tattoos a hybrid of cultures: Mayan, Aztec, Samoan, African.

"The universe is sort of covering her," Juana Alicia said. She noted that El Centro students had expressed a desire for the mural to represent the many facets of the Latino culture, with its roots in African, European and indigenous civilizations.

Overhead, the second panel of the mural takes the form of a frieze, in mixed media on paper. With great detail, this "codex" section sweeps across a long horizontal panel, "connecting generations with a continuous sinew of narrative," Juana Alicia wrote in an artist's statement, adding, "The panels are presented on a gently folding surface, meant to echo the folding form of the original Mesoamerican books."

The codex begins with a jaguar breathing song into a conch shell, leading into the story of the birth of the warrior twins. Scenes of conquest and slavery emerge, with the Mayan scribe's story continuing in images of "the burning of her libraries, the entrapment of her indigenous and African brothers and sisters, the slave ships landing in the Americas, forced labor in cane and henequen fields, and in the silver and copper mines," Juana Alicia wrote.

Uplifting images of resistance and revolution follow. Faces include those of the Cuban poet Jose Marti, the Chilean composer and folklorist Violeta Parra, Mexican Zapatistas, and the Mujeres de Negro (Women in Black), mothers of the "disappeared" women of Juarez, Mexico. A section on global modern plagues including nuclear warfare leads into "The Future," a panel depicting ecological renewal and hope.

On the ceiling, another panel is devoted to a blooming nopal cactus done in digital print and acrylic paint on canvas. The resilient plant is a metaphor for strength and rebirth in the most difficult of times. It's a commonly used symbol by the artist, who also thinks of the plant as a source of sweetness. Also called the prickly pear, the nopal yields syrup for tequila and tender segments for food.

The mural was installed at El Centro in the spring and formally inaugurated in November with the help of poetry, blessings and a ceremony with students, faculty and staff.

Juana Alicia was inspired in her project by many authors from Latin America, in particular Eduardo Galeano. In turn, her mural has been inspiring creativity in students. One of the inaugural speakers was Stanford senior Aracely Mondragon, who read a trio of poems she had written after seeing the mural.

The image made her think "about the power of the scribe's voice to maintain a people's existence," she told the Weekly later. Even when colonization, slavery and other forces eat away at a culture over time, "a woman's voice can restore stories," she said.

At El Centro, director Frances Morales said she feels fortunate to see the mural every day. It's right outside her office. "It's so vibrant. It has so much history and culture," she said. "It's like a short story." When it first went up, "people would walk in and just stop. They were beyond words," she said. "You could see the pride in seeing something so professional done in the center."

"The Spiral Word" is also in good company at El Centro, which has boasted colorful murals for decades. A bright Malaquias Montoya scene has stretched across the front exterior wall since 1981, with intense faces and hands reaching forward. Inside the center are other murals by Cesar Armando Torres and Martín Martín. There's also a previous mural by Juana Alicia that she created with the Yo Puedo Program for Latino high school students in the 1980s, though it has been partially covered up by a building renovation.

Juana Alicia has a long history with Stanford. Her first arrival on campus in 1984 was at the invitation of the late mural artist Jose Antonio Burciaga. She taught a class about Latinas and art, and students worked with her to create the "Mujeres de Fuego" mural at the entrance to the Chicano/Latino-themed dorm Casa Zapata.

Juana Alicia created the new Stanford mural after gathering students' opinions on the topic through meetings and surveys over two academic years, she said. Her daughter, a dancer, served as the model for the Mayan scribe in the mural's main panel. "It was a wonderful, intimate experience for her."

Stanford is currently closed for winter break, though campus visitors can see most of the mural through El Centro's glass doors. When the university reopens on Jan. 7, visitors will be able to go inside to view the mural weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Info: El Centro is at 514 Lasuen Mall, Building 590, Old Union, Stanford University. Go to http://studentaffairs.stanford.edu/elcentro or call 650-725-9735.