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Nuestras murales: Comunidad and the value of dialogue

“The Last Supper of Chicano Heroes” (1988) by José Burciaga is one of Stanford’s most controversial murals. Its critics have raised a fuss over Burciaga’s choice to have socialist revolutionary Che Guevara depicted as a hero despite the atrocities he committed against Cubans during Fidel Castro’s rise to power. Residents of the Chicano/Latino theme dorm Casa Zapata, who serve as this Stern Dining mural’s unofficial stewards, have shot back that the mural is open to numerous interpretations and therefore is not intended to represent the views of the Zapata community.

An attack on the mural could, in one view, be an indirect way to critique specifically Chicanos and Latinos living in the dorm. Immediately prior to the above debate, this community, or comunidad, had been under attack, along with other communities of color, by the campus’s conservative publication, the Stanford Review, during a particularly rough student government election season.

I sympathize with concerns that critiques of an ethnic community’s art can be proxies for attacks on the community itself. Artworks do not usually lend themselves to such easy meanings that aesthetic considerations are always reducible to primarily political statements. Few people would interpret art hanging in a museum that way, yet that is precisely how Chicano murals are too often interpreted.

A reading of Burciaga’s mural as a primarily political statement is particularly unfair. My own interpretation is that the mural is about the multiplicity of views among Chicanos, that as a product of internal critique and discussion among over 200 Chicano activists and students, the mural serves as a metaphor for the role of dialogue as a foundational principle in a free society and for comunidad.

“The Last Supper of Chicano Heroes” should enjoin members of comunidad to live up to their principles. Dining underneath the mural reminds me that my ethnic heritage connects me to a tradition of dialogue. The worthiness of that tradition should be judged by the instances when defending dialogue proved most difficult. Here, I want to examine how arduous ensuring unfettered dialogue can be and to how instructive Burciaga’s mural is towards achieving that end.

During his time as Zapata’s resident fellow, Burciaga polled community members for their choice of Chicano heroes to include in the mural. He asked both Chicano students at Stanford and older Chicano activists from the 1960s living in the Bay Area. While the activists concentrated their votes among a small group of people who either played important roles in the Chicano Movement or served as symbolic historical figures during it, the students spread theirs out among 240 candidates.

Many of the students’ choices were included in the mural despite not being the most popular choices. As Burciaga explained in his essay collection “Drink Cultura,” the community-oriented nature of Mexican and Mexican-American culture made identifying individual Chicano heroes difficult. Aside from obvious candidates, on which many students agreed with the activists, many students voted for the everyday people in their lives: “mothers, fathers, grandparents, Vietnam veterans, braceros, campesinos and pachucos.” Most of the students’ choices stand behind the selected few Burciaga depicted sitting down for supper. Without these people to fill in the background of the mural, the sense that the mural represents a Chicano community invested in communal values arguably disappears.

The mural models conviviality as a cornerstone to Chicano community. Living with one another requires more than deferring to whatever the majority backs; we must be willing to inhabit the same spaces, even when we disagree on matters as foundational as who our heroes are or what we believe. By the time Burciaga painted his mural, conviviality played a leading role in a Chicano canopy of ideas. A steadfast commitment to dialogue was its wellspring.

Genuine dialogue can be much harder to achieve outside of choosing a mural. In the messiness of campus politics, dialogue has been effectively redefined into a form in which each side presumes itself right and brooks few disagreements. During my time at Stanford, this kind of dialogue has occurred whenever one side dons the mantle of the oppressed, only to forget that others, including those with whom they most deeply disagree, have cause to suffer too.

One particular moment stands out to me because I am a proud member of my comunidad, yet I witnessed it failing to uphold the value of dialogue.

The moment was provoked by the Stanford Review’s ill-conceived response to the activist coalition Who’s Teaching Us? The Review chose to satirize the coalition by releasing a list of demands, one of which angered comunidad:

“WE DEMAND that Stanford builds a wall around El Centro and makes MEChA pay for it.”

Because the demand targeted a Chicano/Latino community center and singled out a Chicano/Latino advocacy group with language peculiarly similar to then-presidential-hopeful Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, members of comunidad interpreted it as a racist dog whistle. For the children of Mexican immigrants especially, the demand hit too close to home.

Comunidad responded to the demand by having its members stand together in a wall of unity. The protest, of which I was a part, was intended as a show of resilience. We were reaffirming our commitment to each other as members of the same comunidad. Many of us who stood together continue to share memories of that moment over social media or in conversation.

What I dwell on most, though, is our collective failure to stand with those members of the campus community who were then persecuted for their commitment to dialogue as a foundational principle. The Review provoked a reaction that many of its writers — including myself at the time — did not anticipate. Nonetheless, even when the reaction was at its most distressing, many of its writers refused to retract their views. Doing so would have implied a shallow understanding of dialogue as a principle worth defending only when it is easy or convenient to do so.

After publishing its “demands,” the Review staff was put almost immediately under attack. Activists filed at least 43 Acts of Intolerance against the Review’s editors. Many even phoned individual editors’ current employers to demand their firing. I feared that if I didn’t publicly disavow the Review, I would be threatened next.

Comunidad’s wall of solidarity had us spectacularly donning the mantle of the oppressed. Activists on campus chose to target the Review largely in our name. Either we did not see members of the Review staff suffer, or we did not care. Some of us were members of Who’s Teaching Us?, the activist coalition the Review satirized. In original the list of demands we helped draft, we put pressure on the University to undo the silences obscuring our presence within canonical history and literature. But when push came to shove, we condoned, or at least did not intervene in, attempts to silence others on our campus.

It should not have mattered that the Review was being provocative. The Review has made a habit as a publication of publishing what they can reasonably anticipate will provoke overreactions all while under the aegis of wanting dialogue. What was different about the Review’s “demand” was that even its staff was taken by surprise by the intensity of the reaction. Rarely have the conditions for living out one’s principles been ideal. We should have upheld dialogue as a matter of principle, and that includes when the people asking for dialogue do not seem particularly sincere or deserving.

Dialogue, depicted in our murals as the principle structuring our comunidad, should have compelled most of us to confront a wave of public opinion with a simple request to not silence others in our name, but it didn’t.

We failed to uphold one of our principles. Worse, we revealed that we don’t hold dialogue as one of our foundations, after all — that some of us are willing to defend or vouch for dialogue only when it conveniences us.

“You would rather I stay silent,” wrote Elliot Kaufman, then an editor for the Review, in an op-ed he penned in response to activists’ attack on Review staff.

Kaufman has twice critiqued “The Last Supper of Chicano Heroes” for its inclusion of Che Guevara. The first time, as mentioned above, Zapata’s ethnic theme associates (ETAs) published an op-ed in response. In it, they emphasized the dorm’s openness to criticism and stated their hope that the op-ed would “open the door for further engagement.”

I am not sure whether the op-ed was a candid invitation for Kaufman to visit Zapata, or if it was an attempt to rhetorically silence him by implying that if there was anyone who didn’t want sincere engagement, it was him.

When he critiqued the mural a second time, the content was largely the same. But the rhetorical situation had changed. The Review was not in the campus spotlight. Fidel Castro had just passed, and members of comunidad were divided on Che Guevara’s legacy. Zapata would have gained little and risked alienating some members of comunidad had it called for dialogue. So it didn’t; dialogue was inconvenient.

Or, more accurately, dialogue with students outside of comunidad was inconvenient. Instead of responding to Kaufman via an op-ed or other public statement, the ETAs organized a debrief at Zapata for its residents and a panel composed of members of comunidad. Dorm staff were concerned more with addressing internal tensions stirred up by the mural, such as those between students with a nascent Chicano Movement-era fondness for Guevara and Castro and the children of Cuban exiles.

Comunidad does not shy away from dialogue between its own members. When difficult conversations are brought to the fore, such as whose concerns matter when comunidad represents itself to outsiders, internal dialogue isn’t only crucial to providing a space for healing and reflection; it can be the right, principled thing to do.

But the dual missions of choosing how to best represent oneself and abiding by one’s principles can also overlap. One should not be confused for the other.

When deciding how to respond to the Review’s “demand,” members of comunidad also urged internal dialogue. The wall of unity was the most popular response suggested. There was disagreement among those of us there about whether it was right to persecute Review writers by calling their employers. But we didn’t doubt that there needed to be a response. In fact, the facilitators of the event framed the dialogue, in announcements to mailing lists and in the event agenda itself, as a method of deciding how to best respond to the Review. A response to activists on behalf of a persecuted Review, however, was not on the table.

Matters of principle demand of us that we take the other side’s concerns seriously as claims bearing upon us. Ultimately, it  is our values that are at stake. When we do wrong by other people, we incriminate ourselves. Politics does not ask for such introspection or, frankly, commitment. All we have to do in matters of politics is decide what would be most beneficial for the group. Questions of principle are secondary — a means to an end. Even when it heals or produces unity, a dialogue guided by politics remains a dialogue strategically deployed.

That’s not really dialogue.

I ask for dialogue in its truest form. A dialogue worthy of ourselves as a comunidad. One that impels us to critique those among us who would offer a dialogue of lesser value.

Zapata’s strategic deployment of dialogue is not atypical. Neither was our collective response to the Review. Both are symptoms of a larger failure within comunidad to commit to dialogue as a matter of principle.

Other groups on campus, such as the College Republicans and the Stanford Review, fail in the same way, and “dialogue,” for these other groups, often reads as cynical ploy. What sets comunidad apart is that the internal dialogue it has provided genuinely tries to be inclusive of all members, regardless of disagreements on who or what they value — just like in “The Last Supper of Chicano Heroes.”

I would like comunidad to exhibit the kind of dialogue modeled off of “Last Supper,” but for everyone on campus. Dialogue needs to be as visible and as accessible as that mural. Only then will this specter — that dialogue is not being defended as a matter of principle — finally disappear.

Contact Miguel Samano at msamano ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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