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Interview with Jaime Córtez, Program Manager at the Galería de la Raza, San Francisco, CA, USA, August 14, 2001

Entretien avec Jaime Córtez, directeur de la programmation, Galería de la Raza, San Francisco, CA, États-Unis
Gérard Selbach
p. 101-106

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1Located at 2857 24th Street, just off Mission Street, at the heart of the Hispanic district in San Francisco, is theGalería de la Raza

2Co-founded by René Yáñez (cf. interview infra) and Ralph Maradiaga in 1970, the Galería was initially funded by the San Francisco Neighborhood Arts Program (NAP) which provided the salaries of the directors, equipment and a small budget for exhibitions for a dozen years. The opening showed awareness and compromise on the part of the SF City and of art activists as it occurred at the time of the Chicano Movement led by ideals of empowerment and self-determination in every field. Artists wanted to contribute in their own way to the creation of a social and political awareness and the promotion of a cultural identity amid the Chicano and Latino community, hence the need for exhibition sites that were denied them by large museums as well as by galleries. Arts and activism went hand in hand according to the initiators of this movement who were hoping to unite la Raza.

3The Galería’s exhibition schedule displayed the vast array of subjects that were of concern to the artists in the seventies and eighties: Gráficos de Argentina-Brazil-Costa Rica, 1972; Canto in Cuba, 1973; Colors of the Guatemalan Indians, 1974; Molas for the Cuna Indians, 1975; Komix: The Philipino Perspective, 1976; Movie Posters from the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema, 1979; Faces of El Salvador, 1982; Images of the American Indian Movement, 1983; From Prison Walls: Artwork of Puerto Rican Patriots, 1987.

4Geographical self-assertion no longer ranks first on Latinos’ political agenda as integration has tended to erase narrow nationalist differences and to dip artists into a kind of Hispanic melting-pot. The exhibition mounted by the Galería in August 2001 went one step further, proving their much broader, even universal, preoccupation. Called Tecno-Promesas: Putograpfia Virtual and designed by Los Cybrids, a group of three young Latino artists, the installation criticized the impact of computing and the Internet: “an immersive tec-no experience exposing the passive acceptance of Information Technologies and the litany of optimism about the possible future of the planet.”


Gérard Selbach (GS): Who launched the Galería and what were the motives for opening it?

Jaime Córtez: The Galería was founded in 1970 by a group of mostly Mexican-American artists and activists, inspired to establish this gallery because they were finding they had great difficulties getting any kind of attention from curators in the private sector galleries and in the art nonprofit institutions. There was a lack of understanding, appreciation and interest in what they were doing. So they took the matter into their own hands and founded the Galería.

GS: How was it funded?

JC: At the beginning they had extremely low budget. As they built more exhibitions, they got more credibility. It went snow-balling until, at a certain point, the City first, then foundations became interested in funding them. They had an idea, a bit of money and a lot of enthusiasm.

GS: Who were the artists?

JC: Artists in their twenties or thirties, linked to the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement. They focused their attention on the Vietnam war, farm workers’ issues, labor causes and bilingual education. The Galería came out of these movements. In fact it was the artistic wing of a political movement that founded this gallery.

GS: Was it the reason why their works were not accepted by art galleries?

JC: These issues were of no interest to private galleries on Union Square and their clients were not interested in farm labor or social issues. It was another planet. It was not their avenue of concern.

GS: Has the situation changed over the years?

JC: I think over the years it has. The Galería has become the institution in its own right and has begun to make real inroads. An example was in 1995: I have here a poster showing the 25-year retrospective of the Galería at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, one of the three main art palaces of San Francisco. These artists had been doing that for 25 years already. And also during that time, there is a core of artists who founded the gallery that entered the canon of Latino artists and American artists in general. Over time they have had some exposure in commercial venues and major art institutions. An institutionalization and cultural cachet were accrued by these artists. But it remains an uphill struggle getting exposure, interest and understanding of the work these artists were doing.

GS: Has the change been brought about by the growing presence of the Latino population in the US?

JC: It is partly the answer, the sheer number. It is true that governments, private businesses and institutions, all have to contend with the tremendous Latino population of California, Texas, Florida, New York or even Illinois. A growing attention has to be paid. On the more positive note, there is a cultural shift where people have greater openness and greater sensitivity to different cultures. It is both a passive attitude where people have to contend with the sheer number of Latinos and an active one where the activist Latinos and their allies have forced the issues front and center. Some pressure has also been more institutionally based. For instance, an arts-funding organization (the SF Art Commission, the California Arts Council, the NEA or NEH) may say: “OK, you are an art institution based in California, then we want your programming and exhibitions to be more reflective of the population of that State.” It has been a top-down pressure too from Government-grant organizations and foundations that want art institutions to be reflective of the community they are serving.

GS: Is one of your main missions “to serve your community”?

JC: We started out of an activist Latino movement and we continue to feel to be part of Latino-based politics, which is intrinsically what we do. Not only locally, regionally, but nationally as we are known all over the country as a Latino art organization.

GS: So you want to disseminate the message further afield?

JC: We have always been interested in doing that and increasing the interest, appreciation and understanding of Latino art. Right now we are working on the design of a Web site so that we can expand and have an online gallery.

GS: You were referring to Latino artists becoming “canons of art.” Does it mean there has been some sort of “americanization” of their art or a “latinization” of American art?

JC: That is an interesting issue. I think it is a combination of both. Some, the best known, were doing works that people tended to look at more and have now a broader appeal, whether that be of content or technique. Those who came out of the Galería to have a more national profile, generally, did not forsake the politics they came out of. They remained firmly in that. It was their cachet because they were offering an observation and a critique from their perspective as a member of the Latino community. In many ways, they held on to that.

GS: You said that Latino artists had difficulties being recognized …

JC: Sometimes they were not understood, mostly they were ignored. But also because of the decades the community has spent here, Latino representations, images and symbols have become more accessible, familiar and appreciated. In lots of homes around San Francisco you can see a candle and a photo of the Guadalupe. It is a Mexican and Central American type of object. Lots of people have adopted it. For many it can only be an aesthetic object, a pretty image or maybe they feel a kind of spiritual connection with this religious figure that is so central in terms of religious belief and in the life of people in Mexico. You can now see here that kind of proliferation.

GS: So apparently, Latino artists have an influence on American art …

JC: I would say, regionally in States like California, New Mexico, Texas the aesthetics is that of Native American and Mexican American artists. A more cynical way of looking at it is to say that America is so culturally and visually voracious that eventually everything will get channeled through it because it is always looking for something new, catchy and visually striking. And these traditional icons have so much juice to them that everything will get absorbed, digested. America gets influenced for better and for worse.

GS: Do you have connections with other communities, Asian or Native?

JC: Just this year in February, we mounted an exhibition of Asian and Latino artists. The title was A(T)LAS. The focus was art and geography. It was such a young bunch of artists and it was interesting to see the resonance between the works of both groups of artists dealing with displacement, migration, transmigration and identity.

GS: How far or in what way do Latino artists help define the identity of local Latino community?

JC:  I think they have been instrumental, essentially through public art in any community where you have murals. They build national mythology, identify icons. Artists are central to that. It is also a source of civic pride: to be more often the poorest community but also the most lavish with art because everywhere on the walls you have those murals. In any area where you have lots of Mexican-American artists, you will see a wealth of public art. Through those murals you will build up national mythologies and national identifying icons. They are central to that. It is also a source of civic pride, the Latino neighborhood being among the poorest communities but also the most lavishly built with art because it is everywhere up and down the walls, up and down the streets. Artists have been central in that process.

GS: Is your mission part of that process too?

JC: We want to educate, to build a dialogue with the community and anyone else that can benefit, that is wonderful. We work for that to happen. It is a dialogue, it’s us talking to Latino communities.

GS: Do you establish this dialogue with schools and teachers as well?

JC: Historically we had strong connection with schools, especially during late October and early November. The Galería was the place where the Day of the Dead’s celebration started up. That was a Chicano interpretation of the Mexican religious tradition. And over the years, it grew bigger and bigger and the Galería was at the center of that. The founding director René Yáñez was the originator of this. During that season dozens and dozens of classes would come and see the altars that have been put up at the Galería. We have in the past few years no longer been doing the exhibition because, if that was a San Francisco tradition that came out of this gallery, lots of other galleries have taken up the idea of doing altars, etc.. We felt there was much less need for us to do likewise and we had to move on to new ideas. That was our involvement with school groups. We are trying to rebuild that relationship because teachers liked altars as they are teachable. There was plenty of material that was written on it and was something kids could do themselves from the principles they had learnt. Altars are very teachable and kid-friendly as all kids have had an experience of losing someone, a relative, a pet or a public figure.

GS: You said you are moving on to new ideas, what are they?

JC: For the past six years, we have had a program called Re-generation, the emerging program. That was established in the mid-nineties because we suddenly realized the Galería was 25 years old. Out of it has come a whole group of successful Mexican-American artists. They were reaching their mid-career or more and they turned round and said: “Hey, where is the next generation of artists? How do we continue to perpetuate that dialogue with the community?” So we set to work on the next generation of artists.

The exhibition here is part of the next generation. We are excited about it. They are representing new esthetics. They are moving away from the traditional way and style of representing Latino politics. They have new ideas, use new technologies and have a computer-generated mural outside. All go together. That billboard has had dozens and dozens of temporary murals painted over the years. Archeologically speaking, it would be interesting to have a cross-section of that. It started with brush-painted murals, then spray painted ones, then in the last two years, the format changed and we now have computer-generated murals. That is typical of what new artists can offer. There are not that many of our older artists that are interested in that format. They are a bit skittish about it, thinking it is not that much of an artistic feat to paint a mural, while young Latino artists like playing with iconic images and symbols. They continue playing with those visual traditions, sometimes reverently, sometimes irreverently or even iconoclastically. Every new generation likes giving their own version of the myths, likes exploring new imagery or reinterpreting the stories that build their identity. That is the ongoing dialogue with the past, with the present and with the future.

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Gérard Selbach, « Interview with Jaime Córtez, Program Manager at the Galería de la Raza, San Francisco, CA, USA, August 14, 2001 »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. II - n°6 | 2004, 101-106.

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Gérard Selbach, « Interview with Jaime Córtez, Program Manager at the Galería de la Raza, San Francisco, CA, USA, August 14, 2001 »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. II - n°6 | 2004, mis en ligne le 30 octobre 2009, consulté le 29 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Gérard Selbach

Dr. (Paris V, France)
Gérard Selbach, assistant professor at the University of Paris 5, France, and researcher at the CERLIS-Paris 5 and the National Scientific Research Center (CNRS), has as a main field of research American art, art museums, Native American museums and museology. Beside publishing articles and contributing to conferences, he has published Les Musées d’art américains: une industrie culturelle (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2000) and is about to release Les Musées amérindiens: du vol du sacré à la métaphore identitaire (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2004). He is also a contemporary art critic with <>

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