I sat down the other day with Jose Romero, Jr., a long-time friend of mine is who is also an incredibly painter and Xicano artist. Jose’s very unique style of Xicano art has been developing over the last couple of decades and it’s amazing. We talk a little about that and his upcoming role with the Colegio Chicano del Pueblo.
Ernesto Mireles: Jose Romero Jr., you and I share a unique perspective into the Chicano mentality, as we both grew up in the Midwest, out in the Aztlan Diaspora, fighting with white boys every day trying to be all like no we're Chicano, we're Mexican, and now you’re also going to be working as a professor in the Colegio Chicanos del Pueblo. That's what we're going to talk about today. Jose, I'm really glad that you're here. Maybe you could start off by telling us all a little bit about yourself,
Jose Romero Jr.: A little bit about myself? Like you said, we've known each other for maybe what 30 years? I went to Michigan State studied visual arts there, then I went to the Leslie College of Art and Design in Boston, and got my MFA there in visual arts, I’ve been working as an executive chef for many years.
When you started the Colegio Chicano del Pueblo, something clicked in me and I wanted to be a part of that. I wanted to use my academic background and give something back. It's always been there in the back of my mind to do something along those lines and I'm very into our exploring our Mexican American identity in different ways.
By pushing it forward and bringing it to the forefront, you know, because of our lack of representation in the Midwest. I am excited to be a part of the Colegio, and to keep pushing Chicano art.
Ernesto Mireles: I was thinking about how long we’ve known each other. We actually met when you were in high school and I was one of the MEXistas at Michigan State. Jose joined us there at MSU shortly afterwards. But him and some other students, a group of Chicanos students there in the Lansing School District reached out to us and we helped them start an underground newspaper – what was the name of that newspaper?
Jose Romero Jr.: Oh my god, El Loco.
Ernesto Mireles: Yeah, yeah, that was that was fun. I remember one of the writers was Big Daddy Aztlan, and that was like back in 1993. That was fun, it's interesting to think about how you know the same people in different ways over the course of your life. The way that things change for everybody, and thinking back to those experiences like that underground newspaper it was great.
Jose Romero Jr.: It ruffled a lot of feathers, that's for sure.
Ernesto Mireles: Speaking of ruffling feathers, I know that I've told you this before, but I'm a big fan of your artwork. I would really like for you to describe your style, and talk a little bit about why artwork is so important to the Xicano movement.
Jose Romero Jr.: For the movement it solidifies us in a timeline of our own. Art puts us somewhere we've never been and have always been shut out of. That's one of the reasons why I feel teaching for the Colegio is important.
For many years during the Chicano movement of the 60s and 70s, our art was outsider art. It was always looked over as something that wasn't art. But we're here, you know, we're living human beings creating art, and for people to tell us that we're second class or that our art is not relevant to the timeline of art is bullshit. That's one of the reasons why I kept going and got my MFA in visual arts.
I am an artist, and as a Xicano artist I knew what I what I had to do. I had to give myself the academic part of what I was doing as an artist. It wasn’t until grad school where my style, kind of Frida'd up, but mine's more of an autobiographical, surreal. I mean, it is like Frida actually, you know, autobiographical, it's surreal. I focus on a lot of trauma, my relationship with trauma, male relationships between fathers, brothers, uncles and family, and speaks to a lot of people.
I did a show in Boston, and I had a gentleman that was looking at one of my addiction pieces
called Malevolent Combat, it’s a painting of me wrestling with this, you know, skeletal monkey image in the sky. He must have been from England or something he had an accent. He was staring at the painting, and I was walking around introducing myself as the artist, and when I got to him he broke down in tears, and told me that painting was what he was struggling with - alcoholism. That was his monkey. That was his battle every day for the last 60 years. He has been battling alcoholism, and he was like, that painting is my life. I was like whoa.
Ernesto Mireles: That's deep.
Jose Romero Jr.: It was wild for me. This guy was much older than me. He was probably like in his 60s or 70s and broke down in tears, and that told me I was on the right path that the way I'm painting now is how I want to paint. But I'm not going to just hold myself to that. You know, there's other things I want to explore and there's other things I am going to explore. It's a really hard way for me to paint, it takes me a while to paint that way. You will see the pictures and you'll see what I'm talking about.
Ernesto Mireles: When I started really seeing some of your stuff, I was blown away, man.
For me and I think this is true of where we come from in the Midwest is that we we're forced to understand what it means to be Chicanos in relationship to everybody else, and I would argue that's something people who live in the Southwest don't really experience. I mean, they experience being Chicanos in terms of how it relates to other Chicanos but in the Midwest, you have to declare this identity. You have to fight to keep it. When I see stuff like your work I think it shows that Chicano art is really all of these things together.
Like this old man you were saying was probably from England. I mean, he's not Chicano, you know, (but he felt it) that's right. He felt it, which means that it was doing the work that art is supposed to do by transcending the simple differences between us and speaking to the humanity of the people who are who are viewing the art or who are a part of what's going on. I think that's an awesome story Jose.
Jose Romero Jr.: It's an experience that stuck with me since graduate school because this happened shortly after graduate school and I was like, if I got anything out of graduate school it was that to be able to get to that level as an artist, to be able to talk through art because of grad school. I was a painter. You know, always. Now I'm a storyteller, that's what grad school did for me. It gave me an extra weapon as an artist. Now I don't want to create just to create. I want to create with messages. I want one of my pieces to stop you dead in your tracks in an art gallery or wherever you're at and be like - Whoa.
Ernesto Mireles: That's powerful becasue so many people really define themselves as just one thing. I think when you when you reach a certain level of mastery in whatever you're doing you also reach a moment when you realize that one thing actually is the culmination of all of these other parts. So, to claim the title of storyteller, particularly through art and through the type of art that you do, I think it's a bold move on your part, and shows once you really know how to do something you can take that in any direction that you want to. I think that's really cool. Tell us a little bit about what it is that you want to do with this course, with the Colegio Chicano.
Jose Romero Jr.: The class I put together for the Colegio is called Exploring your Post Chicanismo. So that’s what we're going to do. We're going to focus on multiple art forms from wherever you from your environment, your location, your different cultural influences that help you create your Chicano identity wherever you're at.
Because one thing I do know is that Chicanos from the Midwest, we're not like Chicanos from California. We're not like the Chicanos from Texas. We're not like the new Chicanos from New York City, and there are Chicanos in New York City a lot of us. We're all culturally different because of our environment and our location.
Like you said, some of us have the luxury of being Chicanos all day, every day with no obstacles, and some of us have to choose to be Chicano in the middle of nowhere. I think seeing the different art created in different locations geographically is going to be interesting for me to see as well. Because the art is going to be so different. Wherever it is being made, so I'm very interested and excited about interacting with these students, you know, to see what they come up with.
Ernesto Mireles: It almost seems like there's a systematic effort to deny the ongoing evolution of Chicano
culture, of Chicano art, of Chicano politics. At that time in the country, there were maybe like nine million of us, according to the U.S. Census. Now there's between 40 and 50 million. Right. There's no way we have less cultural output now than we did in 1970.
I think what was really thrilling to me was the idea we would be facilitating a conversation across the country among people who are interested in producing art on a grassroots level. We don't want just one Chicano artists. We want 10, 20,100,1000 people across the country in these little rural communities they live in these isolated spots like you were talking about, you know, producing cultural output that inflames and inspires other people to continue to claim that Chicano identity. It may be one of the good things about the internet.
Jose Romero Jr.: I think it's going to be interesting. I think it's going to be fun and I think it's going to it's going to open up everybody's eyes, and for somebody out there creating art, maybe all by themselves, for them to know that you're not alone, you know that there's, you know, a huge amount of us creating art and we're going to keep creating art. But through the Colegio, maybe we can get we can get some more going.