Interview with Arturo Romo-Santillano

It’s an outstanding terrific day, a beautiful great day, you know, isn’t this exactly why we don’t live in Chicago, Seattle, Missoula, London, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis or Denver, one of the reasons we’re here? Breezy December days—sunny, high seventies like this—knock me out, and I’m happy to be driving around with Eastside artist Arturo Romo. Romo has an art exhibit at one of the only galleries that matters, Galeria Tropico de Nopal, on Beverly, [from September 25, 2009]. Ostensibly I am interviewing him about his art and about his show and everything, but I heard this rumor about his aunt, and I have to slip the question somewhere. Romo is the nephew of Paula Chrisostomo, the protagonist in the new HBO movie, Walkout, directed by Edward Olmos about the East L.A. walkouts and the jump starting of the Chicano movement. The question is, hey, you know your aunt they’re making the movie about? Is it true she’s Filipina, but since it’s an HBO Hollywood movie, they’re going to give her a race-change operation and turn her into a Chicana?

            What’s more important in the world, anyway, real life or movies? Reality or illusion? Let’s not fool ourselves. As I drive I tell Arturo, who at 26 is slim and dark and kind of serious with long hair in a single thick black braid, I want to know all about his art exhibit, but I’m itching to ask this question about his famous aunt and the movies, while just now we’ve turned onto Indiana from Whittier and I start looking for Oscar de la Hoya’s gym where he sponsors boxing programs for kids. I am downing the last of my paper cup of coffee and I thought de la Hoya’s gym was on Indiana in a remodeled pink stucco church that takes the prize for ugly, but we must have missed it. Indiana takes an overpass over the 60, and I figure we must’ve missed it because the gym is south of the freeway.

            “Ah, shit!” I say, tossing my cup out the window. The coffee is gone and I’m still semi-retarded as usual. I always hope coffee will help me think better. What a beautiful day it is, too.

            “What?” Arturo asks.

            “Nothing,” I say. “Something I was supposed to remember. But I can’t. Anyway, the art exhibit, your show at Tropico. What’s it called? Chingazos Echoing Inside the Echo Chamber? Do you want to explain that title a bit? I mean, chingazos, you know, people on the Westside, what are they gonna—”

            Arturo answers without hesitation, “Chingazo is like getting cold-cocked in the dark, chingazo’s metallic element is vomit, its plant is stinging nettle and dirt clods, its month is February. Chingazo comes from the root verb chingar, which means among other things, to screw, to throw into chaos, to make cloudy, to leave ruined, to throw down. Chingazo is neither here nor there, but that’s why it hurts so much when it fucks you up.”

            All right, I got that, or the little $100 digital recorder does, according to its tiny red eye. “Yeah, okay,” I nod, encouragingly. The idea I have is that chingazo is like picking yourself up from a sucker punch. Art that comes at you with a sucker punch, or bounces back from one? Or both.

He adds, “The echo chamber is like a house of mirrors, except within the echo chamber the imagery overlaps.”

            What about that? We’re in Boyle Heights—Casa del Mexicano, knobby microwave radio towers, birria storefronts, First, Fourth, Sixth—numbered avenues streaming downtown,  indifferent restaurants called Siete Mares, Evergreen Cemetery with vagrant bones, Gold Line expansion, etc. I worked on Soto about a decade ago. Time for a general question? “How would you characterize your work? What do you see as the role of art?”

            Arturo reflects. “Well I think of my work as a response to the world at large, I see it as a response to the type of sad isolation and sameness of everything—my response to oppressive, closed imagery, and apathy, and multidimensional, raging violence is to put some type of subversive image or iconography out there. I mean, I think all of these numerous violences come from that mainstream culture that promotes isolation and conformity—it’s like a perfected closed system. I guess I see that subversive image as being a magic that can break open that shell of consumerist illusion and at the same time never be absorbed into that system.”

            I brake for a stop sign, the avenue ends, and Arturo points, indicating a left across the Fourth Street bridge. We take the narrow old bridge with ancient street lamps suspended above one of those half-hidden neighborhoods in Boyle Heights leftover from the twenties or thirties, the old clapboard houses, some of which still open out on unpaved alleys and others only accessible by parking at the bottom of the hill and climbing stairs up a terraced slope, small bungalows with tiny cement yards. Laundry flutters brightly in some yards like pictures of days gone by.

            “You work in different media. Is that a way to bring that multidimensional, ah, magic to bear on objects?”

             “Yeah, magic and making lists are kind of the same— like assigning attributes to specific deities that conflict totally with each other— like you were saying, Giver of Life and Filth Eater. I think that’s exciting, it makes everything resonate and vibrate, because the contradiction keeps it from being firmly grasped and understood. I like the idea of a self-subverting image.”

            I had mentioned the Aztec gods had dual aspects, positive and negative, accent on the negative. Name-dropped, the goddess Tlazolteotl flitted through the conversation. “Pull over a sec,” Arturo says when we get to the end of the bridge.

            I park on Fourth, we exit to the streetcorner, the adjoining street sloping below the bridge and a little black and white pooch rushing out from a hole under a house and standing at the edge of his yard to bark. He’s a tiny dog, but he tries to make up for it by fierce ferocious barking. “Snoopy’s the guardian of the Fourth Street bridge,” Arturo says, “Huh Snoopy? Hey Snoopy!” Arturo says. We laugh, and walk toward him. Snoopy decides we have the advantage, and beats a retreat back under the house. Arturo has been snapping photos with his camera. “Come on out Snoopy!” he calls.

            A big guy comes out of the house in his undershirt. “What’s the matter?” he asks.

            “Just taking some pictures,” Arturo says.

            “What for?” the guy asks.

            “Of your dog,” Arturo replies.

            “Why? What did he do?”

            “Nothing! We like him. We like your dog,” Arturo says.

            “Oh,” the guy frowns, puzzled. “Okay,” he says thinking a bit too hard about that, then he ducks back inside, the screen door slamming. Later, Arturo inserts this clip of digital video he shot of Snoopy barking on a website he designs and produces,, that maps significant cultural and historical sites throughout East L.A. Later, we see Snoopy re-emerge to guard his end of the Fourth Street bridge.

            Walking around the old neighborhood briefly, we’re passing by the remnants of a nursery, with a dead car in a gravel driveway, a No Trespassing sign and glass house that looks like it’s still in use. We’d like to check it out but the sign stops us. I ask Arturo about his project called the Botanica Poder del Mestizo, which seems to draw on the healing mythology and actuality of a thousand years of Mexican herbalism. And vegetal images appear in his work, from digital snapshots of trees and bushes, to nopal cactuses sprouting from the groin of a hanged man, to a man reclining—perhaps dreaming he is dead—under the jagged spears of the maguey century plant. Arturo discusses the mysterious connection that exists between humans and plants, the vegetable inertia of human lives, the overlapping vibrations, tonalities and tendencies that exist, the creative forces that co-join people and plants.

            Back in the car, west on Fourth into the orangish glare of afternoon sun, I ask, “What about influences on your work? How do you see your work relating to other Chicano art or artists?”

            “Seems like most Chicano artists my age went to some type of school— most Chicano artists of the movement didn’t go to school, or if they did it was later— and weren’t part of this crazy system of being picked up by a gallery at your last open studio. I’m done with art school. It’s like the same illusion of freedom that we all complain about in society at large— we have the appearance of freedom of thought, but we all tend to think the same things, and I don’t think that’s coincidence or human nature. I mean, one of the things the Chicano movement attempted to do was draw eyes away from Howdy Doody or whatever— to create an alternative culture that wouldn’t be as uh,” Arturo rephrases, “out of sync with our everyday. I see too many people coming out of art school with a boring idea of what exciting work is all about. The thing is, I think of galleries— it’s like they only give you one ladder to climb, a certain type of gallery, a certain type of people to associate with, certain way to talk about your work, certain frame of reference to see your work through— that makes for a certain boringness. But it’s also a super hard path to walk, trying to fit a Chicano of L.A. experience into one of the modes they give you.”

            It strikes me that this is an opportune moment to stick in my question about the movie about Paula Chrisostomo and the Chicano Movement. But he’s talking about something else. “I want to see figures and ideas that are open. Things that seem to be changing, in flux, operating with change in mind.”

            “What about artists who were part of the Chicano Movement,” edging the conversation toward the movies quite successfully in my mind, I add, “You mentioned—”

Romo goes on about precedent-setting Chicano artists: “That’s why I like Asco, they seemed to reject and embrace at the same time— it’s like they grabbed a piece of that formative Chicano language and stopped it from setting into stone and played with it for awhile. People always say nowadays that Asco’s work was good because they didn’t do what everybody else was doing, calaveras, lowriders, you know, but I don’t think they were good because they rejected that stuff— they were good because they had something to say and weren’t afraid of crossing boundaries put up by mainstream culture or Chicano culture or intellectual culture or any culture.”

I can finally just jump out and ask that question I wanted to ask. Also, I have to pull over for the sirens, for a fire engine and paramedics going by. Then some cop cars roar by, heading toward Soto. It gives me time to think. Arturo keeps his concentration intact, I don’t know where mine is, I pull back into traffic while Romo’s talking about the social role of art being revelatory and duplicitous, insidious and relentless, always attempting to peel back people’s false consciousness instilled in them from the ordinary, the every day they come to conceive of as real and factual. Messing with that. Meanwhile, I am thinking to myself, what the hell was I thinking about? I had some question about some movie, or Harry Gamboa, or something. Now I can’t remember my question; we reach Soto Street and we have to make a decision. “You hungry?” Arturo asks.

“Yeah, sure,” I say.

He continues, “I think hybrid forms need to be understood from within, you have to at least try and know what being half and half is— it’s probably not enough to just put two things together.”

I can’t even understand what he’s talking about any more. See the show though. It’ll be a great show. Arturo says, “And hybrid forms don’t just talk about two things at once— they talk about so many things— it’s like that combination creates all kinds of noise and dissonance and new ideas are thrown off of that hybrid with all kinds of unpredictability. Hybrids are irresponsible and won’t do what you tell them to.”

Time for some coffee.

“How about Homegirl Cafe?” I ask, “You like that place?”

“Yeah, sure,” Arturo says. “Let’s go.”


Holy Jolina! opening at Galeria Tropico de Nopal
1665 Beverly Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90026
September 25, 2009