Author: Emma Lodes
A Chicano gangster looms with his arms extended, crucified on a cross, with a tattoo of the Virgin Mary across his stomach and burning cigarette in his mouth. Across his chest sprawl the words: “SOY lLEGAL”. The modern artistic rendition of Christ, a potent symbol of immigrant plight in the U.S., is the work of famous muralist George Yepes. Last Thursday, Yepes came to Occidental College to expose the powerful meaning behind his craft in a talk sponsored by the Latin American Studies Department.
Hailed by the L.A. Weekly as “Los Angeles’ greatest living Baroque artist”, Yepes is renowned for work depicting ethereally beautiful women and for incorporating world history and literature into his art. His work is featured in forty museums and is prominent in the collections of icons such as Madonna, Sean Penn, and Anthony Keidis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers; his album cover for Los Lobos was listed as one of the “One Hundred Best Album Covers of All Time.”
At Occidental, Yepes focused his talk on immigrant issues and transnationalism, themes he draws upon in many of his murals. A native of Mexico, Yepes was four years old when he crossed the border into the United States in the trunk of a car. His understanding of the immigrant plight is based partially on experience. His murals are reminiscent of the Mexican tradition of murals as both artistic and political interventions. He has brought the tradition of murals for political change across the border and is making dramatic statements across the United States.
His discussion centered around an analysis of his mural “Soy Ilegal,” a twenty by eight foot mural that demonstrates immigrant plight and the changing face of the new world into a face of many cultures, ethnicities and religions. Yepes used 800 sheets of 24 carrot gold to carve and paint ”Soy Ilegal”, then sanded it down to conjure up the rough edges of a rally. He drew upon a variety of cultural images to create the piece, including pieces from Medieval and Antiquital Europe, novels he drew inspiration from, photographs of Aztec artifacts, and art from the American Revolution. Yeppes included those images in multiple slides, layering cultural and historical facts to allow the depth and power of his work slowly manifest itself throughout the presentation.
“Soy Ilegal” is a collision of contrasting and controversial images that intend to “paint a site of conflict” in regard to immigrants in the United States. The idea is that Chicanos and Mexican immigrants’ lives are filled with conflicting worldviews. The subject of the painting is a modern image of Christ, a chicano gangster crucified on a golden cross and adorned with images and script in multiple languages. Yepes explained that the figure seems to say, “Here I am– analyze me. What does all this mean?”
For Yepes, the meaning of “Soy Ilegal” is in the viewer’s reaction, and he works hard to elicit a reaction. “Chingón”, or “Bad ass mother f*cker” bedizens Christ’s abdomen. Chinese calligraphy down his throat reads “Maria” to honor his mother. Above his head, “I.N.S.” brings the Immigration and Naturalization Service into play, pointing fingers at the government’s role in immigration. Yepes further taunts the government with Shakespeare’s “I did not come here to praise Caesar”– Mexican immigrants do not come to the United States to praise the President, he said, they come to work. On the other hand, the phrase “Work Shall Set You Free,” in German, originally used at Auschwitz Death Camp in Nazi Germany, also appears– this highly controversial addition directly compares Mexican Immigrants with Jewish Holocaust prisoners. Spikes in Christ’s hands double to symbolize the Transcontinental railroad spikes used by Chinese laborers, reaching out to previous under-appreciated immigrant labor in the United States.
Yepes’ carefully chosen examples and allusions show that the plight of the Mexican immigrant is nothing new; it has been going on throughout history. They demonstrate the transnational and multicultural reality of today’s world, and the importance of understanding our connections with other cultures and religions.
“Soy Illegal” was created for the future. According to the most recent census, the United States is 3% multiracial. In college age students, 30-40% are of mixed descent. The United States is diversifying, and diversity will change the politics of our country. Yepes predicted that by 2050 the concept of “Soy Illegal” will make sense to our country.
Yepes said he paints “conflict”, but the conflict isn’t necessarily in the subject matter of the art– The perception of his art as a rendition of conflict comes from the viewer and their emotional reaction. Yepes told of old women passing “Soy Ilegal” and crossing themselves to honor the figure of Christ; others find the image offensive or sacrilegious.
Despite the title of his talk being “Art for Political Intervention”, Yepes does not label himself a “political activist.” He emphasized that the legacy of his art lies in the hands of the viewer. Political change may not come now, but Yepes knows that his art prophesizes the future of our country as increasingly multiracial, multicultural, and multi-religious. The fact that his art is so well known and celebrated speaks to the strides our country has made in acceptance of racial and cultural differences. Yepes said ”Five hundred years ago they would have burned me on the stake for painting ‘Soy Ilegal’.” In the future, historians will look back at his art and say, “This guy really knew something.”
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