Barbara Carrasco was starving. She had just dropped off her husband, the artist Harry Gamboa Jr., at LAX and driven cross-town to meet me at their old hangout, Phillipe’s. As we sat down with French dip sandwiches and talked about her life and work I realized that underneath the easy laugh and unpretentious manner there was an incredible strength that had allowed her to travel from the projects of Mar Vista, to the halls of UCLA, to battle the sexism and racism from both the Anglo and Chicano communities, to work with Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, to get her MFA at Cal Arts and to beat cancer.
Currently she’s enjoying a temporary victory in one of the biggest fights of her career. Her mural, L.A. History: A Mexican Perspective, is on display at the Natural History Museum until August 18th as part of the exhibition, Sin Censura: A Mural Remembers L.A.
Rarely seen since it was first created and immediately censored in 1981, the mural shows Barbara to be the Chicana Stanley Kubrick, representing the history of the city and its people from the beginning of time to their Hollywood future. The mural is a beautiful and sophisticated reminder that we may be a “Sanctuary City” now, but it hasn’t always been that way.
PANCHO LIPSCHITZ: When you grew up in Mar Vista Gardens was it for ex-military only or was it the projects?
BARBARA CARRASCO: Back then you had to be former military personnel and my dad was a Korean War veteran.
LIPSCHITZ: And both your parents were artistic.
CARRASCO: They were both talented. My mom could draw good and my dad would draw women. He was talented. I got it from them both, I guess. But they didn’t pursue it.
My mom got a scholarship in high school to study art and then her grandmother from Durango Mexico wouldn’t allow her to go. And it’s just weird how she did that to me. I had a scholarship to go to Otis. “Mom, why not?” I really could have benefitted from that. She was really old fashioned. I think because I was the oldest girl she thought “you have to do this.”
LIPSCHITZ: Talk about your fight to get into art school at UCLA.
CARRASCO: Initially I was accepted to UCLA the campus but rejected from the art department. I thought that was real odd, so I went to the planning office. I don’t know what made me go to the planning office but any student has the right to ask for the ethnic breakdown of any department. So that’s what I did. I forget the exact number but there were over 700 students and there were 30 people of color in all those five areas; theater, dance, film, graphic arts, painting, sculpture. I thought, “Oh my god, that’s all there is?”
So I made an appointment to see the dean. I showed him the breakdown and I said, “You tell me if this is fair or not, but I consider it really unfair to me or to anyone else who applies here at UCLA.” He reflected on his own experience coming from Italy and he tried to buy a house in Westwood and wasn’t allowed to because of discrimination. I think he really listened to me because I was accepted a week later into the art department.
LIPSCHITZ: What year was this?
CARRASCO: ’76 – ’78. I was only there two years and graduated. And in that department there were very few students of color, and the teachers were all white males. Some of them were absolutely great artist, teachers. And some were terrible. I had a teacher tell me, “Why don’t you make a giant burrito sculpture.”
LIPSCHITZ: How did you get involved with the Farm Workers?
CARRASCO: I met Cesar Chavez in 1976 because my boyfriend was a student at UCLA, and he took me on campus when Cesar came to talk. I did the flyer for that event. I did a portrait of him and that drawing is at Stanford right now. He was speaking at Ackerman Union, so in the elevator he autographed the flyer that I designed.
His speech really inspired me. I heard him talk and I thought wow, I went to Catholic school for eight years and here was the epitome of a good Catholic; dedicating his entire life to improving the lives of farm workers; the most exploited workers in America.
So after his speech I came up to him and I said, “I’d love to work with you.” I told him I was an artist and he said, “We need artists to get our message out.” So that began a 15 year association with him, doing lot of hard work. Huge banners, 30 x 30 foot banners, 8 x 10’s, a lot of small ones depending on what it was.
LIPSCHITZ: I read that Carlos Almaraz was painting banners and they would just fold them up.
CARRASCO: He was my predecessor. He did enormous banners. I thought mine were big but his were five times bigger. Then he did a mural inside the Farm Workers union in Keene, California. It was supposed to be Cesar and Dolores and all these other people, but everybody looked like Carlos. But he was a good mentor and friend.
LIPSCHITZ: And do you remember meeting Dolores Huerta?
CARRASCO: I met her at the Farm Workers headquarters. I was going up there a lot to paint. I was painting in what they called the North unit. It used to be a tuberculosis hospital. Cesar used to come up to visit me and Dolores. I got a chance to sit down and talk to her and meet all her 11 kids. She was just really supportive, a very nice lady. I was really young when I met her and I really admired her.
I remember I went to Hemet, where there was a Farm Worker demonstration, and I was scared to death because a whole SWAT team came out of a big truck. I just looked at Cesar and said, “I know you’re a great man, but I don’t want to die.” He just looked at me and he said, “No, we have a permit, Barbara.” He was just so calm. it calmed me down. The way he spoke he was just a little calm person. I really liked that about him. I never once saw him raise his voice. Dolores would take me to the staff meetings and it was really good to hear everybody discuss things that were relevant to the farm workers.
LIPSCHITZ: I think what’s interesting about your work is that it ranges from 30 x 30 murals to delicate drawings the size of postage stamps. You told me that in school you used to make small drawings to hide them from the nuns.
CARRASCO: Yes, on my desktop. I did little drawings on there. But I was also inspired by all the religious drawings and all the missalettes. We had to go to church every day before school and then on Sundays. I got in trouble a lot for drawing on the table in Catholic school.
There was one nun in the 4th grade who really encouraged me. She felt sorry for my family because we were poor and so she gave us free milk. Sister Mary Ann. I think about her all the time because she let me go to Summer school for free, she tutored me for free. She was just a wonderful person.
When I was telling her the story of how poor we were I think that got to her. In the second grade I was asked to stand up and tell what I ate for breakfast. I said, “one egg and a glass of Kool-Aid,” and the whole class laughed. I remember getting so confused, so I ran home crying and my mother brought me back and she was really angry with that nun. She said, “How dare you ridicule my daughter. We’re poor. That’s nothing to be ashamed of. Everybody in the projects is poor.”
Years later I did a painting about growing up in the projects and it was at the Vincent Price Art Museum, so kids from East L.A. were coming there and I remember a lot of kids came up to me and said, “That’s exactly what I ate for my whole life in the projects.” I had groceries coming out of a bag and it was SPAM, Tang, all artificial foods.
LIPSCHITZ: I read in another interview where you said you felt pressure to do political art or else you’d be labeled a vendido [sold]. But it seems to me that Almaraz, John Valadez, Frank Romero, none of them were doing overtly political work, but no one said that about them.
Scenes from the 1968 East LA walkouts.
CARRASCO: They preceeded me. Jesus Trevino describes me as being part of the 2nd wave of the Chicano movement. Which is true. I’m four years younger than Harry and all the people that were involved in the walkouts. I was 12 years old then.
So later when I worked with the Farm Workers there was a whole group of younger people, especially at UCLA. I was the first woman editor of La Gente. We did all these political articles and I remember thinking that was my job to do those articles.
When I met Harry, he’s the one who changed everything for me. He was my real good friend. We would meet here at Phillipe’s and he would say, “You know, Barbara, you’re doing work for everybody else. What about your own personal work.” And I never thought about it. He said, “You need to do your own work also.”
I remember thinking, he’s right on some level because when I did the pregnant woman on a ball of yarn I was a student at UCLA so that was my first personal work of art that I did and I could not believe the response I got. Everybody really loved it because they could relate to it somehow. A lot of older women told me that they felt exactly like that, that their role in life was just to have a baby and to be a mother and nothing else.
I did it because my brother treated his wife like that. She was pregnant, and she said she was thinking about going to college and he said no, you have to have the baby. I just looked at him and I go, we have the same mother. Our mom’s a strong professional bowler. She was raised by the champion bowler of Mexico.
So I did the woman with the ball of yarn. It was done for one reason, reflecting my brother’s treatment of his wife. But then, after I did it, so many people thought I was talking about forced sterilization. I didn’t even know about forced sterilization; that women in Puerto Rico were being sterilized without their consent. So it’s really weird when you create an image it takes on a life of its own and relates to different people in different ways. Whatever their perspective is on a particular issue or their life perspective.
LIPSCHITZ: I sometimes wonder why you are not better known as an artist, but it seems like your career lost some of its momentum when you were diagnosed with cancer.
CARRASCO: It takes a long time to recover. I had a bone marrow transplant. I’m lucky to be here. They gave me a 50% chance of surviving.
I think what helped me a lot is that Harry was really good to let me not worry about making money and to just get well. It was really hard because Barbie was such a tiny little girl, and I was just so tired all the time. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.
LIPSCHITZ: Now you’re fully recovered?
CARRASCO: Yeah, 21 years. You know, I worked at Children’s Hospital for three years and I saw these kids come and go, and I always thought about those kids when I was going through the procedures, because one procedure is really painful and I couldn’t imagine the kids going through it.
They were drilling a hole in my hip and my doctor told me, “If it makes you feel any better, most of the men, they scream real loud during this procedure.”
LIPSCHITZ: How did you come up with the design for the LA Mural.
CARRASCO: I was at the CRA (Community Redevelopment Agency). I was an employee there alongside Carlos Almaraz, John Valadez, Judithe Hernandez, Dolores Cruz. We were all draftspersons there. It was a good 9-5 job.
One of the architects comes to me and said that the guy from McDonald’s across the street, on 3rd and Broadway, wanted a mural outside of his building. She said, “would you be interested in doing the mural?” I go, “Yeah, that’d be great.” I was 26, so I was real thrilled.
So then I had to come up with a sketch, and they said I could do anything to do with L.A. Right away, I don’t know why, I just thought I should do the history of L.A. So when I met with Bill Mason, one of the curators of at the Natural History Museum, he showed me the original title of L.A. — El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río Porciúncula. So right away I thought, “The queen of the L.A. river; I’ll do the history of L.A. in her hair.” It came to me like that. I see a lot of historical murals and they’re very fragmented and I wanted something that was flowing and the hair was perfect.
LIPSCHITZ: How was it managing all the different artists and kids who worked on it.
CARRASCO: Well the first thing I did was I realized a mural this big, there’s no way I could do it by myself. So I immediately called Glenna Avila — she was the head of city-wide mural projects — and I said, “I would love for you to get involved with this mural and if we can hire kids it would be even better.” So through the summer youth employment program the kids were hired.
We set some ground rules early on. I said, if there’s one fight, I don’t care who starts it, you guys are fired. And they all looked at each other. I said, I could do this with just the artists, but I thought it would be a great opportunity as a young person to work on a mural, especially a historical mural. Because I remember when I was young all the older artists used to say, “Well, come back in 10 years.” I remember feeling a little rejected.
The artists, when you’re working on a mural, the first thing is that you have to be compatible and respect one another. I liked Yreina (Cervantez) and I thought she would be perfect. She’s good with people, good with kids.
LIPSCHITZ: You also went into different communities to ask people what they wanted to see.
CARRASCO: When we were doing the Japanese internment camp scene I asked people from three different Japanese organizations to come see the mural. I asked them what are your thoughts about this? Do you support this? All of them said yes, it’s a reminder of something that never should have taken place or be repeated. I loved the letters they wrote in support of the mural.
I went to the descendants of the Gabrielino-Tongva tribe and asked them, “What do you think I should put in the mural that reflects your experience and your culture.” And they stressed being one with nature and respecting the land. I think that’s the best part of mural making, meeting people in the community, because you don’t get a chance to really do that. I think a good muralist makes an effort to meet people. Because when it’s a historical mural, when it’s a mural period, it’s not your personal work. It’s a public work of art and it should involve the public.
LIPSCHITZ: So did you finish the project and then they rejected it?
CARRASCO: The sketch was approved, and then for some reason after the mural was finished they carefully went back and looked at all the scenes. They called me into a meeting. They had images outlined in purple and images outlined in red and they said, “these are just suggestions, we’re not asking you to eliminate anything, but we’re asking you to consider taking out some of those images so that the work doesn’t look crowded.” They were really diplomatic about it.
The central figure in the mural, L.A. History: A Mexican Perspective, is taken from the photograph above of Barbara’s sister, Frances Carrasco, c. 1981. Photo courtesy of Barbara Carrasco.
They had the Japanese internment scene up there and that was the weirdest thing. They said, “The Japanese don’t want to be reminded of the internment camp.” And with Biddy Mason, the last black slave in L.A., they said the same thing, “Blacks don’t want to be reminded of the last black slave.” And I go, “None of you are Black and none of you are Japanese, so go ask them.”
I think when you’re young, I was more gutsy back then than I am now. I wasn’t afraid at all. I figured, what could they do? Just what they did. They censored it.
At that point I thought it’s more important to fight against censorship than it was to include their suggestions. I couldn’t do that. I remember being in shock, and I remember some artists who had nothing to do with the mural project say to me, “Why don’t you just be smart and take out the scenes they want you to take out. Make it easier on yourself. Do you know how powerful these CRA people are?” I just said, “I don’t really give a shit about that part. I care about the integrity of the work.”
Details from the landmark mural, which was originally sanctioned, then censored, by the CRA
The CRA asked me to seek legal representation, because I did go to the media. I was on “2 on the Town,” and also Bill Stout was a real famous guy on Channel 2 news. He did a story on the evening news and the first thing he said was, “You would think you were in the Soviet Union with the way this artist has been treated.”
LIPSCHITZ: So what are your plans for the future?
CARRASCO: I want to do a lot more images of women. I’m in a show about the mother-daughter relationship. I’m doing a children’s book about growing up poor, and all the little tiny stories that we as poor people can relate to. Some of them are funny stories. I don’t want to make it all a downer.
Like this one painting I did of my mom putting my hair up and my eyeball is stretching all the way up, because my mother used to do it really tight. But it’s not only Mexicans; it’s Black girls that say, “My mom did the same thing to me.”
Pancho Lipschitz is on Instagram @pancho_lipschitz