By Claudia Meléndez Salinas
The Salinas history that always fascinated Álvaro Márquez is not of the Steinbeck type, the romanticized version of rolling hills and empty lands domesticated by European settlers. Márquez prefers the type of history that was not taught at Alisal High when he was a student: the rancho period of Spanish land grants that effectively erased the history of Native Americans throughout California and gave way to a complex relationship with his own present as a Chicanx child of immigrants.
“There’s a reason we’re not taught that history because it benefits certain narratives about the history and development of this place,” he said during a recent visit to his place of birth.
After finishing high school in 1999, Márquez received a scholarship to study at Brown University, where he earned an undergraduate degree in history. His curiosity about the past and how immigrants have come to the United States fuels his curiosity and his scholarship. One of the topics he focuses on is “overlapping regimes of displacement” as it relies on the replacement of one group of people – i.e. Native Americans — with another, Spanish and AfroMexican immigrants, and later with another – Anglo Europeans. That’s one of the topics he explores in some of his artwork.
A visual artist, printmaker, educator and researcher, the Salinas native is busy making public art pieces in Los Angeles, where he has been living since 2008. Earlier this month, a proposed art installation off a major freeway in the City of Angels finally received approval from the federal government — and he just accepted a job at the J. Paul Getty Museum coordinating field trips for low-income students.
Márquez sat down for an interview with Voices during a recent visit to Salinas. The interview was edited for length and clarity.
VOMB: You describe your life in Salinas as both rough and beautiful. What was beautiful?
Álvaro Márquez: The sense of community. When I grew up in the East Side, it was such a humble community but the neighbors talked to each other, kids played together, we watched out for each other. I had a beautiful childhood in the sense that it was a real community. When we were struggling, the neighbors would share food with us. We would take some of the neighborhood kids on vacation with us. Even my mom, she just retired … and I asked her, “Do you think you’ll ever leave?” “No, my neighbors are here.” She came when she was 16 from Mexico. This is her home. Those are the memories I have from Salinas. I defend Salinas all the time, it’s a place that has been maligned, and let’s not omit the racial and class dynamics of Monterey County … the sense of apartheid in Salinas, the class hierarchies here in terms of the growers and the rest of us. Those are things that shape how I view the world, shape my politics, shape the decisions I make.
VOMB: And what wasn’t beautiful?
AM: It was a rough time. There were more than 40 homicides in one year and I was afraid of wearing red (or) blue. My mom would not let us go out into the streets. I lost friends who were not gang-involved. I have ample reasons of being afraid, of being stuck here.
Going to Brown was a really hard experience. I recognized the privilege that so many people had and I never saw in my community, and realized we were all in the same situation. I saw kids vacationing in the Hamptons, driving Porsches and BMWs, with parents who are judges and lawyers who are going to get them a job. It’s a different universe. It was a very humbling experience that politicized me even more and made me appreciate Salinas even more.
VOMB: What made you decide to become an artist?
AM: I’ve done art since I was a child, I drew. I loved art but I felt it wasn’t a viable career path. As a good immigrant son I had to become a doctor, a lawyer, a professor. And so that’s the route that I took. That’s why I ended up in a Ph.D. program (at USC in Los Angeles), I felt that pressure. When you grow up being told that you’re “less than,” you do everything you can to show that you’re worthy. I realized when I was a Ph.D. student that I did not need the doctorate to feel worthy, that I was doing it for the wrong reasons. I finished my master’s, but I realized the academic route was not for me.
At USC I was doing a track on visual and cultural studies, and I realized that all my interests are in art. But I don’t want to write about art, I want to make it, and it’s a hard life, I’m not going to lie to you. It’s a lot of freelancing, a lot of hustling. I’m in the process of looking for full-time work — L.A. is an expensive city. I don’t have the aspiration to become a blue-chip artist who sells paintings for $50,000. It’s not that I would not like the money, but what it takes to get there is not something I want to do. Right now I’m trying to find a path that allows me to keep making the art I want to make without having to worry about fitting in a particular space.
VOMB: You are very good at promoting your current projects on social media. Tell me more about one of them.
AM: With a team of professors and students of (Los Angeles Trade Technical College) we have a really cool project using my artwork as a base for the landscape architecture design. It’s going to be over 500 feet of art on a fence in a new green space that’s part of a new initiative called Greening L.A. The professor I’m working with, Marcela Oliva, is a real shaker and mover committed to giving students opportunities, not just to make public art but (also committed to collaborating) with working-class students so they get the experience they’re going to need when they go out into the community and labor market. As an artist and educator, it’s a great opportunity to work with students and educators, and to do something that is community-driven. They want to make the space usable for residents of South L.A. It’s a space that’s vacant, full of graffiti and unhoused people. They invested quite a bit of money to turn it into a green space with some community gardens and we’re planning to add some pedagogical elements.
VOMB: Your exhibit “Ecologies of Displacement” was part of the FREESTATE show at El Segundo Museum of Art last year. What was the inspiration for this project?
AM: I made an installation of the history of Indigenous erasure in California and its relationship to climate change. In this continent, the arrival of Europeans initiated a different relationship to the world over the natural environment. The land gives to you, but in return you have a responsibility to give to the land.
The way I found my way into indigenous issues (was through my interest) about gentrification in Los Angeles. I moved to L.A. at a time when gentrification was exploding. I saw the change in the community where I was living, I got priced out of the community, so I started making work around gentrification. But because I have a historical interest about the deeper history of this, (I realize) this does not happen in a vacuum. It’s about state policies, it’s about economic structures, and the more I dove into the history I realized in L.A. place is shaped by overlapping regimes of displacement. We romanticize the Mexican national period, but there is a much more complex history to be explored there. Claims to land, claims to nationhood at the time, were built on indigenous erasure and removal. That, to me, as somebody who identifies as Chicanx, is a complicated thing. How do I reconcile the history of settler colonialism and my role as an immigrant? And that’s really the root of that line of inquiry. This is the stuff that informs my work. Digging into maps (from Cal State Dominguez Hills and the L.A. County Library), and learning about the history I started to think, how can I visualize this relationship between all these periods?
VOMB: How does nature play into your work?
AM: The natural environment is not separate from the human, and because of this Eurocentric notion of the self that was brought with Europeans, there’s been this degrading of the natural environment and along with that goes that notion of private property.
How can humans, one person, own a lot of land while other people are left unhoused or left struggling to pay the rent? That’s a conception that’s very violent and serves as a basis for so many of the issues we’re facing today. And when did that start here? With the arrival of Europeans. I don’t want to paint the simplistic narrative that indigenous people are somehow pure. They’re complex beings too, theirs is complex history; but the history that I learned growing up was not that history. I learned the history of the Missions, of how great Junipero Serra was, how Monterey was the capital of the area. Yeah, that’s great, but that ignores that before it was the Mexican capital, and that took place because the Spanish came and colonized the area. It’s so complicated, there’s so much nuance in history, especially now in an age when there’s so much ideological spin in either direction.
To see more of Álvaro Márquez work, visit his website.
Featured image: Álvaro Márquez and his son Raymi stand outside The Cherry Bean in Downtown Salinas during a recent visit. | Photo by Claudia Meléndez Salinas
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