By Angelica Jimenez–
In Mexican folklore, Aztec icons Popcapetl and Princess Ixtaccihuatl are remnants of a culture destroyed by Spanish conquistadors during the early 16th century.
According to legend, Popo wanted to marry the princess but first have to prove himself a warrior. He returns triumphant but only to find that his love, believing he died in battle, has killed herself. Popo takes her limp body to the highest mountain in hopes that the show would revive her, but she never awakens. The two remain frozen silhouettes on two snow-covered mountains in Mexico.
Artist Jesus Helguera’s painting of this image was reproduced in a series of calendars in 1940. Now this iconic scene is as ubiquitous in Mexican-American homes all over the United States as crucifixes and figures of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
But for Chicagoland photographer Robert C. Buitrón, they became an opportunity to speak to larger issues of identity and political disfranchisement. Buitrón, 57, created his own series of calendars from 1990-1992 turning the image on its head.
In his series, The Legend of Ixta and Popo, Buitrón places the Aztecs in modern-day scenes. His art takes a satirical tone addressing cultural and political issues.
“I identify as Chicano; I grew up with these calendars,” explained Buitrón. “I wanted to contemporize it and address issues Chicanos are experiencing.”
While he says the series was well-received overall, not everyone understood his message.
“The National Museum of Mexican Art (in Chicago) didn’t care for the calendar; the bookstore didn’t want to carry it,” said Buitrón, pausing to ponder. “My interpretation was that it didn’t fit with constituents in Chicago; many of the people in the community might have just crossed the border and might find it offensive.”
Displacement, invisibility and assimilation are all parts of the Mexican migration story that remains buried for some. Instead of filing away this painful part of our history, Buitrón uses it to convey larger messages about who Mexican-Americans are and where we are going.
“One thing I encountered is that you have to be informed about U.S.-Mexican history, Chicano history,” stressed Buitrón. “I wanted to treat it in a humorous way like [Stephen0 Colbert and [Jon] Stewart are doing—making a point in a different way.”
Deeply entrenched in the Chicano political movement in Arizona during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, he spent his childhood a world away in East Chicago, IN. Buitrón moved to Arizona when he was 18 and called the western state his home for more than 20 years. It was in Arizona where he developed as an artist.
“I loved it,” Buitrón said. “I never saw a cactus, except in movies.”
Photography wasn’t his first love, however. He was a musician first and only unexpectedly gravitated toward visual art.
“The reason I got into photography is because I wanted to become a tourist. That had a lot to do with my family traveling to Texas and Mexico,” explained Buitrón. “We’d pull over to the designated scenic area, and I saw all of these people with these big, giant lenses. They looked like they were doing important things.”
At age 12, he won his first Instamatic camera as a newspaper delivery boy. Buitrón admits his skills needed work.
“I was really lousy at it,” Buitrón said. “I had a camera that didn’t have a functioning light meter; I didn’t understand exposure concepts.”
His skills improved, and he earned his bachelor’s degree in fine arts photograph at Arizona State University in 1980 and a master’s in fine arts at the University of Illinois-Chicago in 1996. Buitrón has been an exhibition curator and currently teaches photography at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn and Chicago State University.
Admiring the work of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, Buitrón humbly describes himself as competent but determined to do his best work. That work closely examines issues of Mexican-American cultural identity, gender identity and racial discrimination.
In Pancho Asks Tonto If He’s Mas Indio Que Espanol, Buitrón tackles an issue of prejudice hidden deep with Mexican-American psyches.
“In terms of internal prejudices; my own personal experience encountering discrimination did influence what came out in these pictures.”
Buitrón draws parallels between the racial segregation of African-Americans and that of Mexican-Americans.
“We weren’t slaves, but we were discriminated against,” Buitrón said. “We had separate water fountains, and that part of history is not acknowledged.
Los Angeles-based artist Henry Gamboa Jr. met Buitrón in 1983 in Phoenix during his time with the MARS Gallery, an alternative art space.
“Robert’s impressive photography,” Gamboa Jr. explained, “Utilizes social satire and commentary as it incorporates documentary works to create a vision that strengthens the Latino community’s view of its relationship to others.
Fellow photographer and curator Celia Alvarez Muñoz notes that Buitrón’s work can make people laugh, think and questions ideas that we, especially as Mexican-Americans, have been taught to accept.
“No words are necessary in his photographs,” said Alvarez Muñoz. “I know Robert’s work paved the way to/for the bolder and more absurdly political artistic statements of succeeding Chicano/Mexicano performance artists and photographers.”
Buitrón’s work is not something to be merely glimpsed or quickly scanned, Alvarez Muñoz said, it needs to be absorbed to be fully understood.
“You have to look at his images, individually and collectively, very carefully for he packs a wallop!” Alvarez Muñoz enthusiastically explained.
Buitrón’s latest project came to him while caring for his in-laws who are suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. He had to take time away from other projects to focus on what he describes as a “challenging” and “enlightening” experience.
He decided to photograph his in-laws. He doesn’t know what the photos will end up being nor whether his own emotions and struggles will become a part of the series.
“When you want to do something you’re passionate about and have less time to devote to it, it becomes very frustrating,” Buitrón explained. “Will my frustration/personal experience become part of the project? It could reflect my own challenges as well.”
Buitrón doesn’t want to take himself too seriously and sees satire as the most effective way to get the point across.
“Humor is the highest form of communicating,” Buitrón said. “It’s a teachable moment, an enlightening moment without hitting someone over the head with a hammer.”
A special thanks goes to the West Chicago City Museum and Curator Sally DeFauw for helping to make this feature story possible.
Angelica Jimenez earned her Master’s degree in Journalism from Columbia College in December 2010. She continues to be a freelance writer and is on the staff of a Chicago-based advocacy coalition.