Written by 9:22 pm Far Out, Reported, Visual Art

Drop Out. Tune In. Start a Revolution.

Mario Torero on leaving art school, his place in the Chicano art movement, and fifty years of bringing color to the streets.

Peruvian American artist Mario Torero was raised in a socially and politically aware environment, so in the late Sixties, when the boomer generation began to revolt against authority and old rules, he joined the Black Panthers and later the Brown Berets, using his art as a contribution.On April 22, 1970, Torero and other activists occupied San Diego’s Chicano Park to keep it from being turned into a California Highway Patrol station. They won the battle, and today the park is a symbol for the Chicano movement in the United States.

Torero briefly attended San Francisco Art Institute and San Diego State. He had dreamed of becoming a serious artist, but soon found the establishment “too slow and backward.” He left school and was again sucked into the revolution, doing street art, Chicano-style, always looking for a perfect wall to paint. Torero plans on renovating his famous Los Angeles mural We Are Not A Minority! this summer and will be featured in the Smithsonian Institute’s upcoming exhibit, Chicano Revolution in Graphics, on September 11, 2020. I spoke to Torero about his artistic journey and aspirations on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the opening of San Diego’s iconic Chicano Park.

Mario Torero in 1975. Photographer unknown. 

Do you remember the moment you decided to leave academia?

The revolution was full-on outside. And [at the universities] they were acting like they didn’t know what to do next. They were wasting time and learning how to draw. I already know that shit. I’m here to produce. We just had liberated Chicano Park. If I had been more patient, I could have stayed there, perhaps. But I was too restless.

I had romanticized art school. [I had to go to art school] if I wanted to be a serious artist. Then I felt like I was wasting time. I was hanging out, didn’t know what to do, nobody was giving me any direction. I was walking in a hall in San Diego State in 1971, feeling lost. The students and faculty were playing softball. They were bored or trying to get inspiration as if they had all the time in the world. I just stood there and couldn’t take that. That farce, that lameness, that vacuum, that soulless place. They were turning them into idiots, disappearing from the world… I wanted the world to know I was here. I admit that.

How you define “Chicano”? Are you using this as “Latinx”? “Hispanic”? Traditionally Chicano means of Mexican descent. You were born in Peru and migrated to California before getting caught up in the Chicano art movement. How do you define your own identity as Chicano?

I was born in Lima, Peru and in 1960, when I was twelve years old, I migrated to San Diego. I was supposed to assimilate but because of the apartheid environment that I found myself in I was absorbed by the local black community and learned what racism was and how it worked. Later, in my early twenties, I joined the Chicano Revolution where I became a leader among the new artivists forming at that time. The new Chicano Movement called for a complete decolonization of our own recent culture, so we rejected all labels placed upon us indigenous by the invading European forces. Overnight in 1970 we transformed from Latin-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Peruvian-Americans, any kind of lesser-than-Americans labels, into our own new indigenous identity of being now “CHICANOS,” a new liberated people’s culture. So, the system didn’t like that. They called us “Indians,” “Hispanics,” “Latins,” now “Latinx,” etc., trying in vain to eclipse our movement. To me Chicanos means new humans, regardless of color or origins. We are “Americans” because we are citizens of this country, but in our own understanding we are indigenous Chicanos. That’s how I describe myself, as a Peruvian-born Chicano.

The mural We Are Not a Minority! in east Los Angeles was created in 1978 by Mario Torero, Rocky, El Lion and Zade. Photograph courtesy of Mario Torero. 

What is the creative process behind painting a mural?

First of all is the need: we need some color. Our murals came out of our wishes to express the plight of the community. They became the voice of the voiceless. Our murals reflected our way of life, our dreams, our nightmares that we wanted to change. We were facing ourselves. And of course, we were very influenced by Mexican muralists: Diego Rivera, Orozco, Siqueiros, and Frida. It was an immediate way to get our art shown to the public. We wanted to be in galleries and in museums. But [those places] were closed to us. They wanted white art. Our shit is political art and they hated that. Now we have our own galleries, our own museums and our own murals. We didn’t ask for permission. We just did it. [We use] rainbow colors because that’s what you see when you eat magic mushrooms and peyote. There are rainbows everywhere. Everything has a purple line around it, vibrating. [Then we plan the mural] through the community. They give us support, they donate paint, food, they send their kids to paint with us. We gather everybody’s ideas and make a list to make sure we incorporate every one of these ideas in an image they want to project. We sketch it first [before we paint the mural].

Who are your inspirations and influences? 

My father was one of the leaders of Lima, the Bohemians of the ‘50s. He always pointed things out to me. He taught me to use the eye. He taught me that if you master the eyes and the hands, the rest was easy. But I didn’t know I was going to be an artist. I started to do more art because it was in the psychedelic times in the mid ‘60s. In 1964 I dropped out of high school and joined the Black Movement. [I also] went to the library and checked out books. I wanted to know everything about every master. Modigliani, all the greats, classical, renaissance and modern. But when I ran into [the work of Salvador] Dali at 19, I said I got to be an artist. We took LSD and the colors and the dimensions, and our imagination… the doors were flung open and we were looking at everything. Everybody was on it, magic in the air… The natural way of being is to be artistic, to dance, music, the moment you express yourself, you’re making art. But Dali became a world unto itself.

Mario Torero in the selfie, Mario Inca (2010). Photograph courtesy of the artist. 

What makes you different from other artists?

What made me different than other artists was that while my father was accepted in the mainstream and was very successful, it didn’t bother me that I was going to be famous or not. I was already outstanding and I knew that.

Living in the U.S., I went to school with black and brown people. I got caught in the police raids and I started to understand what racism and what persecution and prejudice was all about. It triggered my curiosity of linking art and politics. I came to the black panthers as a young activist, as a young follower until a friend of mine got shot in San Diego and it scared me. Many of us went underground. And there for the first time, I made contact with Mexican Americans. Together we developed a whole new philosophy of peace and justice. I became one of the leaders of Chicano Movement. Chicanos are different from other Americans. We are influenced by our roots, by our colors, by our art, and how we’re persecuted by the police. How we were not let into the mainstream in a segregated society. We became autonomous, and rejected colonialism. We started developing our own world. Painting murals made us different. You go out in the world in the United States and everything is brown, white, and pale. There is no color. It’s very Puritan. It was very frightening thing for them to see colors. The police were definitely against colors. When we put colors on our walls in the Barrio, it was a defiance of 500 years of repression.

Do you have a favorite work you want to talk about?  

El Picasso is the one that is me. I painted it in 1969. When I was working in my father’s office in the ‘50s, I watched a lot of artists doing art. That’s why I’m so successful. I learned a lot of tricks from the masters. Some of the artists were painting bullfight scenes on tiles and then selling them to the tourists. I watched and learned all the passes of the bullfighting. I learned all about the bullfighting display. I started doing them. The artists started buying from me and selling to tourists. El Picasso is a bullfight scene. I painted it when I was 22. It’s an example of what I call Cosmic Art. Primarily looks like an image of something in the space among the stars, in the galaxies, floating, very symbolic. 

Where do you see your place in art history?

Picasso (1969). Mario Torero. Acrylic painting on board, 36 x 48. Photography courtesy of the artist.  

As an outstanding leader of the new Chicano school of art. Wherever the Chicano movement is, I want to reconnect us. We need an anthology of the pioneers because that’s how I want to be remembered. That’s the prophecy: 500 years ago, they said Quetzalcoatl is coming back. And Quetzalcoatl has come back in the spirit of Chicanos. We’re here now, and this is part of the change.

What are you working on now?

Three years ago I was discovered by the Library of Congress, who are collecting a good amount of my art, and then by the Smithsonian, which is featuring me in their upcoming art exhibit Chicano Revolution in Graphics, opening in D.C. on September 11, 2020. After that happened, I began a lifetime of art work inventory, not only of my work but of my father’s art collection. The D.C. national institutions are also interested in my father’s works and they want to induct our archives into the Smithsonian Collection. As a celebration of 50 years of the Chicano Movement, I am being honored in Sacramento by the Royal Chicano Air Force, the RCAF, and Cal State Sacramento with a lecture, art exhibit, and painting a mural in the local Chicano Varrio of Sacra. I hope to finally renovate the most famous mural of Los Angeles, “the city of murals,”located in East Los Angeles, the We Are Not A Minority! mural. Just in time at the end of summer for the opening of the Smithsonian art show where my iconic poster that gave birth to the East L.A. mural will be featured.

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