Who was César Chávez? It might surprise you, but Mestizo Coffeehouse’s Ruby Chacon says she still is asked that question. The Mexican labor union leader—who died 16 years ago—arguably did more than anyone to bring attention to the plight of migrant Latino workers upon whose backs the economy of the United States is partly built, relying as we do on inexpensive yet questionably legal labor to provide cheap consumer goods and services.
Mestizo has taken on the combined role of coffeehouse, art gallery and community meeting place for people in the West North Temple area and beyond, and it hosts openmic poetry and music regularly. So it was natural for Chacon, who owns the establishment along with her husband Terry Hurst, to install an exhibit celebrating the life and work of Chávez.
“We didn’t want to have exhibits just talking about race or ethnicity,” she explains, “because then it seems segregated. But if we have an art show about one of our heroes and let everyone submit works for it, then it opens up a dialogue.”
In the past, she has produced shows themed around the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. Chacon still hears people call Chávez a Communist. But she explains, “President Obama got his ‘Yes we can’ from Chávez.
Originally Chávez said, ‘Si Se Puede,’ which translates into that.” She notes that recently, Obama spoke to the United Farm Workers of America and discussed the importance of Chávez.
Half the exhibit is culled from a competition among Salt Lake City School District students from kindergarten through high school, some of which is inspiring and showcases the students’ reverence for the labor leader. Olin and Izel Bernal- Villapando’s portrait of César Chávez in different types of beans is an ingenious use of a foodstuff to capture their feelings about the man. “Heart of the Land,” by 19-year-old Britney Flores, is a work in the great tradition of great Mexican surrealists, a large visible heart in the painted figure as her face turns into roots of a tree. “Chávez is an inspiration,” Flores notes on her statement. “He really was the heart of the land.” Her work is also inspired by the traditional Mayan calendar.
David Maestas draws the inspiration for his abstract paintings from “a spiritual connection to the Southwest.” His “The Cross and the Sun” is a tryptich with gold squares on earth-tone backgrounds. Argentinan photographer Jose Carrasco depicts the aftermath of border crossing attempts with “El Teni” (a single tennis shoe deserted in the road) and “El Camino” (a river scattered with remnants of tattered clothing). Veronica Perez’ iconic paintings “La Mano” with a hand holding a grain of corn and “La Botella” resemble playing cards. “La Botella” is one of the most pointed images in the show, a wine bottle pouring out grapes, some of which bear the visages of skulls.
The space is hosting a reception on May 15; Chacon explains that Mestizo runs its exhibits usually 45 days instead of a month, to stretch out their limited resources. “We are relatively new and are having difficulty obtaining funding,” she explains. Opened nine months ago, the place is run on a shoestring.
A “Teatro Campesino”-inspired play by Rene Zepeda has been postponed from a planned April 17 performance; Chacon expects it to be ready for the May 15 reception. Like everything about Mestizo, Chacon notes, it’s progressing organically, and you have to let things happen as they will. But Mestizo seems to be making a difference in the community. “A lot of people who don’t have an outlet elsewhere feel like this place gives them a voice,” she says.
CELEBRATING THE LIFE AND INSPIRATION OF CESAR CHÁVEZ
Mestizo Coffeehouse, 631 W. North Temple, 801-596-0500. Through May 17