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Photo: Isabel Rojas Williams

The path-breaking exhibit at UCI’s University Art Galleries, Aztlán to Magulandia: The Journey of Chicano Artist Gilbert “Magu” Luján, is an opportunity to rethink the Trump Administration’s efforts to build a “big, fat, beautiful wall” along our southern border.

The exhibit, a retrospective of Gilbert “Magu” Luján, an iconic figure of the Chicano art movement, is part of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, a multi-venue initiative focused on Latin American and Latino art in LA. Exhibit curator Hal Glicksman, pointing to its relevance for us today, writes that the show’s signature piece, El Fireboy y El Mingo (1988), conveys Luján’s “core belief that there are different kinds of people in the world, and that we can interact with those who are not like us in a positive and accepting way.”

Joseph Morales: Aztlán to Magulandia presents a world beyond borders, an alternative to the world of walls we inhabit today.

Mr. Trump’s repeated attacks on immigrants have been called “a tragedy for America.” Mr. Trump’s proposed barrier, says Wendy Brown, a renowned political theorist, is chiefly “a wall against immigration.” The Luján exhibit, on the other hand, tells another story: Aztlán to Magulandia presents a world beyond borders, an alternative to the world of walls we inhabit today.

Luján brings to life the ancient myth of Aztlán. Aztlán is the mythic homeland from which the Mexica (popularly known as the Aztecs) migrated southward to establish Tenochtitlan, the foundation of modern-day Mexico City. In the 1960s, during the civil rights movement, Aztlán became a sacred history for many Chicanos; some suggested the original Aztlán was located in the US Southwest. For Luján, Aztlán was an avenue to reimagine people and politics in Southern California.

As an educator at UCI, I have worked to support students affected by the rise in prejudice that has accompanied Mr. Trump’s presidency. This is reminiscent of the anti-immigrant sentiment that permeated California in the 1990s, during Luján’s career.

The world Luján created in his art, what he called “Magulandia,” isn’t the world we live in. However, it does what civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. encouraged during a recent talk at UCI. In the age of Trump – with increasing displays of hate, violence, and extremism – the Luján exhibit shows “there is another side.” There is a side of America that values equity, diversity, and inclusion.

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Luján is a map-maker. In Returning to Aztlán (1983), the world we know is turned upside down. Latin America is in the north; the US is in the south. We see a lowrider car driving south across an inconsequential border.

Luján is also an urban planner. He re-imagines suburbia, lining streets with Aztec pedestrians, earthy gardens, and Mesoamerican architecture. Southern California is recast as an equitable space in both Los kachinas y la babe” making a suburban barrio study (2003) and Magulandia Study – Suburban street meeting a holyman (ca. 2003).

One legacy of Magulandia is the hope and beauty it offers a new generation. Can a lowrider car be more than an ethnic stereotype? Is it possible to find common ground between opposing ideas? These, among others, are some of the questions the Luján exhibit poses alongside the prejudice, bias, and bigotry that have come to characterize the age of Trump.

Aztlán is old-fashioned for many in the Latinx generation. Aztlán is also un-American for many in the white nationalist movement. In Luján, Aztlán becomes Magulandia; Magulandia is Luján’s attempt to imagine a more inclusive world.

While the Trump Administration moves forward with its plan to build a barrier along the southern border, Aztlán to Magulandia: The Journey of Chicano Artist Gilbert “Magu” Luján shows there is always another side of the wall.

joseph morales

Joseph Morales

Joseph Morales specializes in critical race and ethnic studies. He holds a PhD from UC Berkeley and has published articles and opinion pieces in peer-reviewed journals, The Huffington PostEducation WeekLatino Rebels, Library Journal, and LA Progressive. The opinions expressed here are his.