Mariano Gonzales: Art and Resistance “As hispanics we have to be twice as good as anybody else"
BY Gabriela Olmos
It was not easy for Mariano Gonzales to make his way as a Hispanic in Alaska. He says that, “As Hispanics, we have to be twice as good as anybody else to be considered as good.” He felt forced to perfect his artistic techniques so that few would dare to question them, and instead must confront what they say. “People are always kind of stuck with the message of the pieces because they can’t fault me on how the art was made,” and that makes Mariano feel proud. Born in Texas, Mariano spent his early childhood in El Paso surrounded by other Hispanics. Like many Latino children, Mariano spoke English at school and Spanish among family and some friends. In 1959, when Alaska became a state of the US and Mariano turned eight, his family moved to the Last Frontier. When he arrived in Alaska, “I was encouraged to forget everything, particularly Spanish. Nowadays it’s really great that so many people are interested in the language, but in Alaska when I came up it was a bad thing. You didn’t want to speak Spanish, and you didn’t even want to look like you spoke Spanish. Some of us couldn’t help it, so we either survived or were beaten down by it.”
Now we are used to living in a diverse Alaska, but it was not always this way. Mariano recalls that under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Alaska was identified as one of the states that discriminated against minorities. Also in 1998 an “English only” initiative, which forbade the use of other languages in State government functions, was passed. “What this boils down into is a deep, fat insult; a slap in the face.” In this context, Mariano learned to read people as a way to survive. “I found out ways to know where people were from, and that usually gave me an idea of how big a racist they were, how much they hated Mexicans.” Mariano realizes that today many people do not recall Alaska’s recently racist past, “but that cannot be.”
Mariano sold his first art piece when he was in fifth grade. He had seen the natives’ totem poles. And without knowing about their significance, he carved a similar one, two feet tall, which was sold in an auction. From then on during his student years, he used his spare time to produce art. Upon entering college, he did not have any burning desire to be anything in particular, “so I became an artist by default”. Mariano earned his degree in painting and printmaking, and then enrolled in the Alaska Visual Arts Center, a gallery and teaching space created for native artists. There were workshops in fibers, metals and sculptural arts. Mariano found a niche in printmaking and metalsmithing. “Up in Alaska, as a Hispanic you’re not anything. You are not white, you are not native, you cannot be taken seriously as an artist.”
Mariano started himself in the art of metal-working at the time of the oil boom, so he sold many pieces to the oil immigrants. Over time his passion for art has led him to seek new technical challenges. In a well-known piece, he printed puffins making fun of the 1998 “English only” campaign, and used tortillas as the medium.
Later on he was accepted in the Rhode Island School of Design, one of the country’s best places to study Art. He soon realized that he had a long way to go to reach the level of his classmates. “For me, failure was not an option,” says Mariano, who made every effort and earned his degree.
When he returned to Alaska he won a grant from the Alaska State Council of Arts to establish a metal studio. “I found out very quickly that I do not like to do creative work for anybody else. People have such crappy ideas!” So he decided to make a living by photographing social events.
He became an instructor at ACC (Anchorage Community College). Very soon after, he was named Chair of the Art Department. When the ACC merged with UAA in the late 1980s, his teaching position was made redundant, so the administration decided to focus one position on digital art. “There was a lot of controversy about me being hired. There was a part of the faculty that did not agree with it. At one point the fight got so ugly that some signs were put out by the head of the Art Students Association saying that the art department wanted to hire somebody who was a minority computer artist.” A meeting was scheduled to discuss the issue. When Mariano learned that it was public, he decided to show up. No one there dared to question him—except, ironically enough, for a Latina. Mariano was reminded of the immigrants’ story: “Just like that idea of the bucket of crabs, where you can’t crawl out because the other crabs in the bucket will drag you back.” He went on to teach metals, graphic design, drawing, sculpture, and digital design at a college level. Mariano says that, from his perspective, “art is an experience: it doesn’t matter if it’s manifested in a picture, an object, or a process.” Art is therefore not in the piece, but in the person who looks at it. “It is collaborative. The artist does not control what the viewer sees.”
Mariano’s work questions political reality. He says: “I have never liked bullies. Growing up in Alaska as a Hispanic I encountered a lot of bullies. There are many types of bullies. The worst are those who do it to exert whatever power they think they have.” Mariano says that sometimes those bullies come to political power: “George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Trump now,” and considers his work as a comment on those who exercise their power without stopping to think of the rights of those who they step on. The artist adds: “If you put these people in a room naked, who would they be? No one.” Art, he says, “is the only resistance that I have. So I’ll use it whatever it happens. If I can change a person’s mind I’ve been successful.” When asked if he is afraid of the consequences that his pieces might bring to him, he says that he thinks of Federico García Lorca, the poet killed in the Spanish Civil War: “I guess I don’t have to worry. I have lived a good life. You cannot let those kinds of fears run you, because then the bullies are successful.”
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