The idea behind Frontera, a 45 minute animated feature-in-progress, is simple. John Jota Leaños aims to retell the history of the United States and Mexico in the contemporary languages of cartoons and popular music. But Leaños, who teaches in the Social Documentation program of UCSC’s Department of Film and Digital Media, was a visual and installation artist before he turned filmmaker and an activist in both incarnations. He knows that the lines between nations or genres are rarely as clear on the ground as they are on a map.
“We began more than a year ago,” Leaños says “to think about ways to tell untold stories—or undertold stories—in American history.” The “we” is a team of Xicano-identified collaborators Leaños has been working with for the past several years: San Francisco based writer Sean Levon Nash, New Mexican composer Cristóbal Martinez, animators including Texas artist Natalia Anciso and Reno artist Crystal Gonzalez, plus the Tucson mariachi ensemble Los Cuatro Vientos
Their common area of concern is the US/ Mexico borderlands as constituted both in the past and in the present. Their interest lies not only in a geopolitical boundary, but in the territories of identification scattered across a common landscape. “Especially now, Leaños says, “with the emergence of new digital technology and new political and policing strategies, the border has become fluid. The elasticity of the border makes the issue a lot more complex.”
Frontera, draws on three less-than-household-word events spanning 170 years from the 17th to the 19th centuries. The first is the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, when seven separate and sometimes warring peoples in New Mexico joined forces to push the Spanish conquerors out of Santa Fe and back to Texas; The second is the Taos revolt of 1847 when, during the Mexican/American war, Mexican and Pueblo residents joined to assassinate the newly appointed American governor of New Mexico, Charles Bent. The final episode is at least a year from production, Leaños says, and will look at the California Gold rush. “How it became the epicenter for mass migration and mass racial and political and economic conflict.” That conflict included John Sutter’s using local Indians as slave labor.
The trick, Leaños says ”is trying to make the history relevant today. To draw connections, draw lines not necessarily a to b to c, but to show that this complicated kind of formula is a legacy. “The medium, of course, is part of the message. We’re working on multiple ways of having people view these episodes,” he says. ”Not only on public television, and but also film festivals, and on the web and downloadable webisodes that can be viewed on any mobile device.” Fluidity is a plus in a delivery system.
Leaños came San Francisco State from Pomona in LA’s Inland empire. Both places are border cites, bilingual and bicultural. His early work as a an MFA candidate took traditional forms. He was a photographer and also did a series of sculptures, The Burden of Objective Representation, that paired antique devices—globes, hourglasses–with tongue-in-cheek titles like “Post-historical object against equidistant positioning.”
As a volunteer in schools and community art programs he found himself exploring digital media both an aesthetic and a mass communication tool. Projects like Mapping Myself which had middle school students combine their photographs and writings in large mosaic-like self-and-family portraits, suggested parallels between the multiple platforms emerging with new technology and the fragmented experiences of his urban, often disenfranchised students.
Adopting Critical Art Ensemble’s maxim. “by any media necessary,” Leaños began experimenting with hybrid forms in his own work. One result: the multimedia opera Imperial Silences which combines projected animations of his political Mother Goose, and ABCs of war with a live performance of an underworld journey and onstage dancers and mariachi band. The opera, which has been performed in New York and Los Angeles, will open at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art in September.
Leaños’s definitive turn to animation came when he was teaching at Arizona State University. One of his students there was a member of the newly formed Los Cuatro Vientos, Southwest-born veterans of a larger mariachi band, they wanted to take the music in a different direction. Their take, which Leaños describes as being “a kind of Chicano north of the border mariachi” and “interestingly fluid” included influences drawn from hip hop and pop and rap.
In the same period, Leaños was looking for a new direction for politically based art. He had recently created a project on Pat Tillman, an Arizona Cardinals football player whose death while serving in Afghanistan was only slowly and reluctantly revealed to be the result of friendly fire. Leaños’s poster, in which a green-bereted Tillman announces that “the war on terror resulted in the disastrous end to my life,” drew huge volumes of hate mail, though Tillman’s family had themselves refuted the military’s attempt to cover the facts and use their son as a poster hero for the war effort.
In the aftermath, Leaños says he thought: “There are so many political posters in the world, why was this one so shocking to people? I know—the theme, and the person—but I also keep looking at the aesthetics. My question to myself was: How do I do critical work about taboo issues in America that is informative and possibly transformative without getting a knee jerk reaction? Where is there a buffer?” At that point, he says, a light bulb went on and he turned to ancient teaching tools—nursery rhymes and ABCs –that could be presented in the brightly animated and cheerfully scored form familiar from children’s television.
Blending serious history and popular art forms has a parallel history in the corridos that mariachis compose, and in the biting political cartoons of Mexico’s José Guadalupe Posada (with whom Leaños conducts a lengthy imagined dialogue in his essay, “Dead Conversations on Art and Politics.”)
As in those genres, part of the buffering that occurs in Leaños’s Los ABCs: a Wartime Primer from the Other Side, or in his Deadtime Stories with Mariachi Goose and Friends, comes from a disarming, almost innocent lack of polish. Leaños identifies it as rasquachismo.
“A lot of Xicanos play around with that term, rasquache“ he says. He defines it as “an aesthetic of the poor, a DIY notion of how to create a certain kind of feel, a barrio notion. Its laughable too. It doesn’t look ‘right.’ It’s not all fine tuned.”
“We’re using the medium in the way that we can, he says, and we’re getting better at it. But animation can be so technically challenging that three seconds sometime take three weeks to do. And we re trying to figure out how to do it with the limited amount of funds that we have.”
Work has recently shifted into high gear thanks to a sabbatical and the news in April that Leaños has been awarded a 2012 Guggenheim Fellowship. In Frontera Leaños and his illustrators and animators are drawing on more sophisticated techniques that combine layers of historical and mythological images, and an interplay of black-and-white, old-map-sepia and vivid, dreamlike color.
A major influence he says is the Cherokee artist, Joseph Erb, who uses animation (and the Cherokee language) to tell tribal myths and elder stories. In Frontera the sky serpent of the Pueblo myths is a central –and visually dramatic—motif. The myth itself, Leaños says becomes both witness and narrator. “I see it as a documentary form, even though a lot of these stories are what we’d consider mythological. They are documenting a paradigm, a way in which the community sees the world.”
At this point they are still on the third draft of the script for the first episode—the one about the Pueblo Revolt. Documentary animation is research based, Leaños explains. “There are old stories and old histories that have been told and at the same time there’s so much missing from the archives. The Spanish records from the 17th century are kind of tainted—they have a very particular perspective. As for the indigenous perspectives, they’re there, but they’re really kind of quieted and very internal. Some people say the pueblos have Spanish documents that they haven’t released—still.”
Working in the Rio Grande region means another border to cross. “Not being from there, Leaños says, I’m an outsider. And an outsider perspective is damning, but it also can be a benefit in a lot of ways, too. So I’m trying to quilt this history together within a script—we’re talking about hundreds of years through ten minutes. Its really hard. But it’s also a way of telling the story: What has to be edited out and what points have to be made. What to look for and how to look—that something we’re trying to get at.”
As for the Pueblo Revolt itself, he says, “you have all these different peoples who speak several different languages. Some of the pueblos didn’t like each other, some of them were at war with each other, but during the Spanish colonization they came together. It’s one of those moments when the 99 percent expelled the one percent.“
He continues: “It’s an amazing look, I think, at how we can put our differences aside and do what is necessary to create a real revolution. It was done through the acknowledgement that we are being occupied, and how do we get out? How do we look beyond the situation, and come to terms with its reality–and change it?”
San Pedro, CA