The Sensibility of Chicana Rascuache

Amalia Mesa-Bains

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Vernacular, vulgar, inferior, tasteless, and insensible are all terms associated with kitsch. The discourse on kitsch and its relationship to the postmodern avant-garde has been marked by multiple definitions. The work of Gerardo Mosquera1 in particular has placed kitsch in a recuperative setting, where the Cuban artist who stands outside the everyday embellishments of kitsch can employ the "inferior" to speak of the arbitrary definitions of the "superior." The examination is expanded to make distinctions between mass-produced objects and the intimate expressions of sincere decoration in the domestic space. As Mosquera points out, there is a need for greater classificatory information, and a more specific definition of this phenomenon. Within this process of clarification, meaning and usage become even more crucial. When is kitsch recuperated, by whom, and for what aesthetic intention? Many of these same concerns for meaning and usage can be brought to bear on the Chicano phenomenon of "rasquachismo," or the view of the downtrodden. Tomás Ybarra-Frausto elaborates:

Very generally, rasquachismo is an underdog perspective--los de abajo . . . it presupposes a world view of the have not, but it is a quality exemplified in objects and places and social comportment . . . it has evolved as a bicultural sensibility.2

In rasquachismo, the irreverent and spontaneous are employed to make the most from the least. In rasquachismo, one has a stance that is both defiant and inventive. Aesthetic expression comes from discards, fragments, even recycled everyday materials such as tires, broken plates, plastic containers, which are recombined with elaborate and bold display in yard shrines (capillas), domestic decor (altares), and even embellishment of the car. In its broadest sense, it is a combination of resistant and resilient attitudes devised to allow the Chicano to survive and persevere with a sense of dignity. The capacity to hold life together with bits of string, old coffee cans, and broken mirrors in a dazzling gesture of aesthetic bravado is at the heart of rasquachismo.

The political positioning of Chicanos emerging from a working- class sensibility called for just such a defiant stance. Raised in barrios, many Chicano artists have lived through and from a rasquache consciousness. Even the term "Chicano," with all its vernacular connotations, is rasquache. Consequently, the sensibility of rasquachismo is an obvious, and internally defined tool of artist-activists. The intention was to provoke the accepted "superior" norms of the Anglo-American with the everyday reality of Chicano cultural practices. Whether through extensions and reinterpretations of the domestic settings, the car, or the personal pose, rasquachismo is a world view that provides an oppositional identity. Unlike the Cuban recuperation of kitsch, rasquachismo is for the Chicano artists a facet of internal exploration that acknowledges the meaning sedimented in popular culture and practices. Rasquachismo then becomes for Chicano artists and intellectuals a vehicle for both culture and identity. This dual function of resistance and affirmation is essential to the sensibility of rasquachismo.

In the counterpoint between kitsch and rasquachismo two major differences are apparent. First, kitsch serves as a material or phenomenon of taste through mass-produced objects or style of personal expression in decoration, while rasquachismo contains both the material expression but more importantly, a stance or attitudinal position. Consequently, the meaning of each is inherently different. Secondly, its usage reflects a radically opposed instrumentality for the artists. Kitsch as a material expression is recuperated by artists who stand outside the lived reality of its genesis. Conversely, rasquachismo for Chicano artists is instrumental from within a shared barrio sensibility. One can say that kitsch is appropriated while rasquachismo is acclaimed or affirmed. Rasquachismo is consequently an integral world view that serves as a basis for cultural identity and a socio-political movement. As such, rasquachismo has not been limited to the visual arts, but in fact has been used as a major sensibility in theatre, music, and poetry. The tragicomic spirit of barrio life, as Ybarra-Frausto details, has been a present form in the early actos of Luis Valdez's "Teatro Campesino," in the poetry of José Montoya, in the works of the Royal Chicano Air Force (RCAF, a conceptual artists' collective), in the urban street pageantry of "ASCO" of Los Angeles, and in the border spectacle of Guillermo Gomez-Peña. Rasquachismo can thus be seen as a redemptive sensibility linked to a broadbased cultural movement among Chicanos. As the first generation of their community to be educated in universities (after hard-fought battles in the Civil Rights period), these artists employed a bicultural sensibility. Operating as an internally colonized community within the borders of the United States, Chicanos forged a new cultural vocabulary composed of sustaining elements of Mexican tradition and lived encounters in a hostile environment. Fragmentation and recombination brought together disparate elements such as corridos (Mexican historical ballads), images of Walt Disney, Mexican cinema, and mass media advertising, and even Mexican calendario graphics and American Pop art. This encounter of two worlds could only be negotiated through the sensibility of rasquachismo, a survivalist irreverence that functioned as a vehicle of cultural continuity. In many respects, the rasquache defiance of Chicano art production has served as an anecdotal history for a community repudiated and denied in institutional history within the nation as a whole. In so doing, rasquachismo provides the anecdote that critical theorist Walter Benjamin refers to: "Anecdote brings things closer to us in space, allows them to enter our lives. Anecdote represents the extreme opposite of History . . . the true method of making things present is to image them in our own space."3

Within the visual arts, rasquachismo as a sensibility has been a major force. The regional discourse in Chicano rasquache has been both rural and urban. For example, the hubcap assemblage of David Avalos has fused the amulets of Catholicism with urban car art into a new icon, the "Milagro Hubcap." The rural ethos has been essential to the rasquache sculpture series of Chiles in Traction by Chicano artist Ruben Trejo.



To look within the rasquache production of Chicano art, and to locate the work of women requires a description of both the barrio and family experience and the examination of its representation. This examination necessitates the application of feminist theory to this representation.

The day-to-day experience of working-class Chicanas is replete with the practices within the domestic space. The sphere of the domestic includes home embellishments, home altar maintenance, healing traditions, and personal feminine pose or style.

The phenomenon of the home altar is perhaps the most prolific. Established through continuities of spiritual belief, pre-Hispanic in nature, the family altar functions for women as a counterpoint to male-dominated rituals within Catholicism. Often located in bedrooms, the home altar locates family history and cultural belief systems. Arrangements of bric-a-brac, memorabilia, devotional icons, and decorative elements are created by women who exercise a familial aesthetic. Certain formal and continuing elements include saints, flowers (plastic, dried, natural, and synthetic), family photos, mementos, historic objects (military medals, flags, etc.), candles, and offerings. Characterized by accumulation, display, and abundance, the altars allow a commingling of history, faith, and the personal. Formal structures often seen are nichos, or niche shelves, retablo, or box-like containers highlighting special icons, and innovative uses of Christmas lights, reflective materials, and miniaturization.

As an extension of this sacred home space, the frontyard shrine or capilla (little chapel) is a larger-scale, more public presentation of the family spiritual aesthetic. Capilla elaboration can include cement structures with mosaic mirror decoration, makeshift use of tires, garden statuary, fountain lighting, and plastic flowers. In both the home altar and capilla, the transfiguration relies on an almost organic accruing of found objects and differences in scale, which imply lived history over time. For many Chicanas, the development of home shrines is the focus for the refinement of domestic skills such as embroidery, crochet, flowermaking, and handpainting.

Related to the creative functioning of the domestic sacred space is the ongoing practice of healing skills. Special herbs, talismans, religious imagery, and photos of historic faithhealers are essential to this cultural tradition. Young women learn from older women practices such as limpias with burned herbs, and the application of homeopathic cures. Regional context contributes to the healing discipline, particularly in the Southwest.

In the larger area of domestic decoration, the use of artesanias such as papercutting, carving, and handpainting are prevalent. Added to the use of folk objects is the widespread popularity of almenaques, or Mexican calendars and movie posters. The centrality of family life directs the sensibility of "domesticana"; Chicanas are frequently raised in hierarchical roles of male over female, old over young.

The emphasis on gender stratification creates boundaries within family roles in which women gain responsibility for child rearing, healing and health, home embellishment, and personal glamorization. This traditional picture is enlarged in families within urban centers but nonetheless remains relatively consistent.

Chicana rasquache (domesticana), like its male counterpart, has grown not only out of both resistance to majority culture and affirmation of cultural values, but from women's restrictions within the culture. A defiance of an imposed Anglo-American cultural identity, and the defiance of restrictive gender identity within Chicano culture has inspired a female rasquacheism. Domesticana comes as a spirit of Chicana emancipation grounded in advanced education, and to some degree, Anglo-American expectations in a more open society. With new experiences of opportunity, Chicanas were able to challenge existing community restrictions regarding the role of women. Techniques of subversion through play with traditional imagery and cultural material are characteristic of domesticana. Within this body of work, we can begin to apply critical viewpoints of feminist theory.


Feminist Theory

To understand domesticana Chicana, it is necessary to impose a criticality that places art production as more than reflective of ideology, but rather an art production that is constructive of ideology. Art then becomes a social reality through which essential world views and identities, individually lived, are constructed, reproduced, and even redefined. The construction of the feminine through patriarchy relies on a network of psycho-socio relationships that produce meaning. Such meanings are created by the ways in which patriarchy positions us as wives, daughters, sisters, and mothers. Theorist Griselda Pollack elaborates:

The meaning of the term woman is effectively installed in social and economic positions and it is constantly produced in language, in representation made to those people in those social and economic positions--fixing an identity, social place and sexual position and disallowing any other.4

In this way, the domestic sphere--with all its social roles and practices--culturally remains fixed in patriarchy unless representation of that world calls into question such practices and thereby contributes to its change. In particular, the feminine is charged with this potential for emancipation. The bedroom and the kitchen convey a centrality but also an imprisonment. With the advent of the modern metropolis, the polarity of public (male) space and private (female) space has taken on a splitting intensified by urbanization. In addition, the rural traditions within the Chicano community have encapsulated the private, restricted domain of women in a unique fashion, while strong kinship patterns in extended families have deepened the psycho-socio network of female roles. The domestic chamber then has become a space imbued with both a sense of saliency and isolation. Once again, Pollack's work on feminine space in representation becomes a critical frame:

The spaces of femininity operate not only at the level of what is represented in the drawing room or sewing room. The spaces of femininity are those from which femininity is lived as positionality in discourse and social practice. They are a product of a lived sense of social relatedness, mobility and visibility in the social relation of seeing and being seen. Shaped within sexual politics of looking they demarcate a particular social organization of gaze which itself works back to secure a particular ordering of sexual difference. Femininity is both the condition and the effect. 5

This condition and effect remain in place unless the representation, like language, relocates or repositions the feminine. Spatial ambiguities and metaphors can function to shake the foundational patriarchy in art through challenging works. Domesticana begins to reposition the Chicana through the working of feminine space.


Chicana Domesticana

The work of Chicana artists has long been concerned with the roles of women, questioning of gender relations, and the opening of domestic space. Devices of paradox, irony, and subversion are signs of the conflictual and contradictory nature of the domestic and familial world within the work of the Chicana artists. In domesticana Chicana, the creation of a familial space serves as a site for personal definition for the artist. For Chicana artists using the rasquache stance, their work takes on a deeper meaning of domestic tension as the signs of making do are both the affirmation of the domestic life and a challenge to the subjugation of women in the domestic sphere. This domestic tension signifies the contradiction between the supportive aspects of the feminine and the struggle to redefine restrictive roles. Cherished moments stand side by side with examinations of self, culture, and history in visions of a domestic chamber that is both paradise and prison.

Characteristics of domesticana include an emphasis on ephemeral site-specific works. This emphasis arises from Chicano survivalist responses to the dilemmas of migration and impermanent community celebrations. Much of the work innovates on traditional forms such as the reliquary, capilla, domestic memories of bedroom altars, vanity dressers, ofrendas (or offerings for the Mexican Day of the Dead), and everyday reflections of femininity and glamour. The extension of these forms through domesticana serves as a retrieval of memory, capturing in permanent imagery the remembrance of things past. Chicanas make use of assemblage, bricolage, miniaturization and small box works, photography, text, and memorabilia to create a mimetic world view that retells the feminine past from a new position. Narratives of domesticity and ruin are presented in a redemptive enunciation in the language of domesticana. Artists use pop culture discards, remnants of party materials, jewelry, kitchenware, toiletries, saints, holy cards, and milagros in combined and recombined arrangements that reflect a shattered glamour. Chicana artists working in domesticana may use hyper-feminization juxtaposed with destruction and loss in a persistent reevaluation of the domestic site.

The works act as devices of intimate storytelling through an aesthetic of accumulation of experience, reference, memory, and transfiguration. Artists whose work embodies domesticana Chicana include Santa Barraza, Carmen Lomas Garza, Celia Muñoz, Patricia Rodriguez, and Patssi Valdez.



The expansion of a feminine rasquachismo as domesticana has been an attempt to elaborate both intercultural differences between Cuban kitsch and Chicano rasquache as well as intracultural differences between Chicana domesticana. Like all explorations, terminologies must remain porous, sensibilities never completely named, and categories shattered. As Victor Zamudio-Taylor reminds us, Chicano art and domesticana "shatters the reified universe and breaks the monopoly of the established discourse to define what is real and true."6

The redefining of the feminine must come from the representational vocabularies of women if we are to undo the wounds of patriarchy and colonization. That is the challenge of new views of space, of the new domesticana defiance.



1 Gerardo Mosquera, "Bad Taste in Good Form," in Halan (1985).

2 Tomás Ybarra-Frausto, Rasquache: A Chicano Sensibility (Phoenix: MARS Artspace, 1988).

3 Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken, 1969).

4 Griselda Pollack, Visions of Difference: Femininity, Feminism and the History of Art (Putledge Press, 1988).

5 Ibid.

6 Victor Zamudio-Taylor, "Contemporary Commentary," in Ceremony of Memory (Santa Fe, N.M.: Center for Contemporary Art, 1988), p. 14.


Amalia Mesa-Bains, Venus Envy, Chapter One (First Holy Communion, Moments Before the End), 1991



Amalia Mesa-Bains can be reached at: support@zonezero.com