La Gente: El Movimiento/The Movement


Staff of Life by Emanuel Martinez, 1976, Acrylic on cement, donated by Chicano/a Murals of Colorado Project

Inspired by Indigenous stories and deities that guide the cycles of life, Emanuel Martinez interprets the identity of Chicano people by depicting Malinche and Cortez as deities. They sit as reflections of each other, each holding the arm of their offspring. A stalk of corn grows through the genderless figure in the center and sprouts a Mestizo head representing the racial identities that stemmed from the Spanish conquest of the Americas. 

The Staff of Life mural is symmetrical throughout, with mirror images that represent the duality of the Chicano identity including the skeleton of an Aztec (Mexica) eagle warrior lying opposite the skeleton of a Spanish conquistador, and a statue of an indigenous deity holds up one side of a stone pedestal with the other side held up by a statue of Jesus.

The three faces of the “mestizo head” is a celebration of mixed-race heritage, a profile of Indigenous heritage, combined with European heritage, primarily Spanish, and in the center, a mestizo. In the 1600s, the term described an ethnic/racial category for people of mixed-race, also known as castas in the Spanish Empire. In Mexico and the United States, the term was embraced to symbolize the creation of a new culture and people in the Americas, including African and Asian ancestry.

The Mestizo head, created by Emanuel Martinez in 1967 on an altar for Cesar Chavez after ending a 25-day hunger strike in California protesting the mistreatment of migrant workers became an iconic symbol during the Chicano Civil Rights Movement. The term Chicano (Xicano) does not describe an ethnic group, the self-proclaimed term was embraced by social justice activists of Hispano, Mexican American, Latino, and other mixed heritage ancestry from the American Southwest. Tri-face symbolism is represented in ancient Mesoamerica and in historical art in Mexico. The Mestizo head during El Movimiento and today, symbolizes a sense of self for many in Colorado and beyond.

Matachines Dance Staff

Martín Cortés, the first son of Hernán Cortés, is considered the first Mestizo. He was separated from his mother, Malintzin, at a young age and traveled with his father around the world, but his half-brothers eventually pushed him out of his father’s favor, and he was exiled from Spain.

Malintzin, also called Marina and Malinche, was the daughter of a noble Mexican family. After her father's death, she was sold as a slave to a chief in Tabasco. Hernán Cortés chose “Marina” for a member of his military staff, but she later became his lover, interpreter, and advisor during the Spanish conquest of the Mexica (Aztec) Empire. Malintzin has been described over the centuries in conflicting terms, from traitor to victim to the mother of the mestizo people.

In the U.S. Southwest, there is a dance known as “Matachines,” in which Malintzin is portrayed as a young woman dressed in her white First Communion dress. This dance is one of the few traditions shared between the native people and the Spanish, symbolic of El Mestizo. Though the dance varies from region to region, Malintzin is thought to represent purity, dawn, or the moon. For Chicanas, Malintzin was celebrated and embraced for her resilience and resistance.  Malinztin is often portrayed in Chicano art: murals, poetry, and theatre.