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The Chilean Mural Brigades in America, and the Art of Resistance

Artworks of the Orlando Letelier Brigade recalled what poet Pablo Neruda once said: “Murals are the people’s blackboards.”

Jeff Huebner

In the summer of 1979, the Orlando Letelier Brigade, a group of mostly Chilean-American muralists, arrived in Chicago as part of a 12-city painting tour. In collaboration with Chilean exiles and the local community, the artists commandeered a railway viaduct on Humboldt Boulevard at Bloomingdale Avenue, in the predominantly Puerto Rican Humboldt Park neighborhood, and spent more than a week painting social-justice statements on its concrete walls. The artists’ act recalled what their fellow countryman, poet Pablo Neruda, once said: “Murals are the people’s blackboards.”

Direct and immediate, the artwork was rendered in a bright, bold, flat graphic style similar to that of the people’s mural brigades that were mobilized in Chile in the 1960s and ‘70s under democratically elected Socialist president Salvador Allende. The brigades were largely crushed after the September 11, 1973 military coup that brought Augusto Pinochet to power with the collusion of the CIA and Henry Kissinger’s State Department.

“Our intention was to create Chile solidarity murals—inform folks about conditions in Chile while reviving an art form that was outlawed,” OLB co-founder and Los Angeles public artist and muralist Francisco Letelier wrote in an e-mail.

The brigade’s Chicago mural shared some of the same messages as those created by the collective during their 1979-80 tour in San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, Eugene, Denver, New York City, Champaign-Urbana, and other cities, drawing local sponsors and painters along the way. Murals affirmed human and workers’ rights while expressing Latin American and international solidarity as well as fellowship with those living under Pinochet’s fascist regime. Chilean symbols, like flags, five-pointed stars, and guitars (representing artistic freedom) were shown with locally specific images, like factories and other landmarks. Chicago’s also included a wall of heroes with Chilean and Puerto Rican nationalist figures.

Often depicting hammers, saws, and wrenches, the artworks urged citizens, workers, and artists to take up the tools of democracy building to resist oppression everywhere. At Casa Nicaragua (later Casa Sandino) in San Francisco, for example, the group happened to have been painting on the day (July 19) the revolutionary Sandinistas ousted corrupt US-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza, prompting the addition of liberation symbols, according to an article in the Fall 1981 issue of Community Murals magazine. In Coos Bay, Oregon, the brigade did a mural in support of International Longshore Workers Union Local 12, which refused to load and unload cargo to, or from, Chile.

In 1980 the group also traveled to Nicaragua and worked with local muralists and other artists and volunteers to paint five murals in the country in support of Sandinista ideals and programs, with murals having themes such as literacy, education, and employment as well as FSLN heroes and heroines.

As the OLB said in a statement: “[Mural painting] has been a process that allows people to express their ideas, while affecting their environment and the lives of those around them. This act is a cultural gesture of human expression and commitment. Through the act of painting a mural, people are united forever as a result of their collective effort.”

The relatively short-lived but influential Orlando Letelier Brigade (or Brigada Orlando Letelier) was named for an exiled former Chilean ambassador to the US and foreign minister. He was imprisoned and tortured after the 1973 coup, along with thousands of other Popular Unity government officials as well as intellectuals, teachers, artists, and communists; over 3,000 people, including popular folk singer Victor Jara, were murdered by the regime. Letelier was eventually released after international pressure, and then expelled. He moved to Washington, DC, to work for the Institute for Policy Studies, a left-wing think tank, and became perhaps the military junta’s most outspoken critic.

On Sept. 21, 1976, Letelier, 44, was assassinated in a remote-control car bombing along with 25-year-old colleague Ronni Moffitt in Sheridan Circle on Embassy Row by a Chilean death squad; declassified documents indicate that Pinochet personally ordered the killing. (Her husband Michael Moffitt survived the blast.) Until 9/11, it “constituted the most brazen act of international terrorism ever committed in the capital of the United States,” writes Peter Kornbluh in The Pinochet Files: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability.

At the time, Orlando’s son Francisco Letelier was a 17-year-old Bethesda, Maryland high school junior and aspiring artist. A year or so later, he and an older brother José formed the mural brigade in memory of their father, along with René Castro, an exiled Chilean artist, and Beyhan Cagri, a Turkish-American woman, though they were joined by a changing cast of local artists and volunteers as they toured the country. Francisco eventually earned a BFA from University of California-Berkeley, and an MFA from UCLA.

The Orlando Letelier Brigade was modeled after similar political mural collectives that were active in Santiago and other cities in Chile during Allende’s Popular Unity campaign and presidency. The most famous, the Ramona Parra Brigade, was founded by socialists and communists in 1969 and named after a 19-year-old nitrate-lab worker shot and killed by government forces during a 1946 demonstration. By 1970, there were 120 of these brigades throughout Chile, according to Rod Palmer in his 2008 book Street Art Chile. Their murals’ intent was mass political education to help galvanize working people’s support and catalyze radical social change.

“Each brigade was composed of 15-25 students, artisans and workers, each brigade member having a designated role,” such as planners, outliners, backgrounders, fillers, and guards, Palmer noted. “In the lead-up to the elections of 1970 BRP [Brigada Ramona Parra] murals had to be rapidly painted,” which continued after Allende’s 1970 victory. The brigades worked with people in isolated towns, as well as in housing developments, factories, parks, and on city streets.

The murals—influenced by Cubism, Cuban revolutionary posters, comics, and Beatles’ Yellow Submarine-like graphics--were characterized by the use of cheap tempera paint and primary colors, especially reds, blues, and yellows, with figures and other symbols outlined in black. Often created along long low walls, their texts and images were easily apprehended, even from a distance, even while passing by on buses or cars.

Muralist and critic Eva Cockcroft--co-author with John Pitman Weber and James Cockcroft of the landmark 1977 Toward a People’s Art: The Contemporary Mural Movement, the first book-length study of US community murals—worked with Ramona Parra Brigades in Santiago in the summer of 1972, early in her calling as a muralist. She found the groups’ working methods and popular revolutionary content inspiring, not only for her Livingston, New Jersey-based People’s Painters group but also for the burgeoning American mural movement. She died in 1999.

“Their images were for the most part positive and affirmative,” she wrote in TAPA. “Their colors were bright, not necessarily naturalistic…They had developed a Chilean style and method of work that had organically grown out of the demands of clandestine painting placed on them during the repressive years of the preceding governments. Technically, they executed simple, powerfully drawn symbols over large, flat areas, capable of being quickly filled in with almost any color by any person with a paintbrush.”

Cockcroft was also struck by their works’ collaborative, communal ethos. “The collective execution of these murals is perhaps the most important element for art in general, a significant departure from the concept of individual ‘genius’ as a prerequisite for the creation of ‘art,’” she wrote in “The Death of a Mural Movement,” in the January-February 1974 Art in America. “There was in the brigades a strong group solidarity. Individual style was not encouraged, although experimentation and innovation were prized.” Can anyone ever imagine Art in America running a similar article today?

Still, like topical posters for a political rally, the brigade murals were never meant to be permanent: They were pitched to a particular place, time, and issue. Messages changed as quickly as events, and artworks often got painted over with new designs weeks later, according to Palmer. In contrast, if restored, some US community murals have remained relevant for years and even decades to come.

When Pinochet came to power, murals were erased, brigades suppressed; artists were killed, imprisoned, exiled, or went underground. In New York City, Eva Cockcroft was outraged. In October 1973, a month after the coup, she organized 50 artists and other volunteers, some from Chile and other Latin American countries, to re-create a 100-foot-long section of the Ramona Parra Brigade’s iconic quarter-mile-long Rio Mapocho mural on a SoHo street based on photographs and using a series of 8’ X 4’ laminated panels. Along with images of flags, fists, and guns, the section included the words NO TO FASCISM. She later displayed the 25 panels outside the Chilean National Airlines office on Fifth Avenue.

“A work of art created collectively to celebrate the hope of freedom has been resurrected to protest the loss of that freedom,” commented critic Lucy Lippard on Cockcroft’s actions in her collection Get the Message? A Decade of Art for Social Change.

In Chile, popular artistic revolt against the dictatorship began by the mid-1980s, as Ramona Parra, Elmo Catalán, and other mural collectives re-emerged using both paint brushes and spraycans as part of the street protests that led to the anti-Pinochet NO campaign and plebiscite. Pinochet ruled until 1990, and was arrested in the UK in 1998 at the request of Spanish authorities on torture charges. After a lengthy legal battle in which he was returned to Chile, indicted on human rights violations, and placed under house arrest, he died in 2006.

The Orlando Letelier Brigade traveled with Chile Information Project members during its 1979-80 American tour, and while in Chicago they set up photograph displays and information panels in the downtown Richard J. Daley Center. “Our murals were set up with help from new Chileans in exile and refugee communities and people who were interested in helping Chile,” said Francisco Letelier.

One of those was Chicago Mural Group founding director John Weber. In Chicago, he helped the OLB secure the Humboldt Park wall—he and a youth crew were working on another mural on the next viaduct over, two blocks away—and donated paint to the project. “But they really did 98 percent of it all,” recalled Weber, who continues in his sixth decade as a Chicago public artist and muralist.

Many collectives, young and old, from revamped Ramona Parra Brigades to new socially and culturally engaged crews, continue painting today in street art-rich Chile, a country that could be among the early pioneers of the collaborative outdoor political mural, first painted by Allendist artists in 1963.

In lieu of forming mural brigades, Francisco Letelier has found other ways to get his public art seen around the country. Last year, the 40th anniversary of the Letelier-Moffitt murders, he and a group of Latino students created a portable, five-panel mural Todas las Manos (All the Hands) in homage to his father, his colleague, and other social-justice heroes and martyrs. Unveiled at American University Museum in Washington, D.C. last September, the 10’ X 40’ work is traveling to different locations around the US and Chile. It is currently at the Institute for Policy Studies in D.C., before heading to the University of California Washington Center; Santa Cruz, CA; and the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago. Murals, he commented, are “still one of the most powerful forms of expression there is.”

Community-involved protest or oppositional murals have declined due to a panoply of factors—even though we’re grappling with the same social ills and issues, some even more critical, that artists addressed on neighborhood walls during the early years of the Chicago-born mural movement in the late 1960s and 70s. “One explanation for the lack of political content in today’s murals is that vast segments of the American populace are no longer propelled by the electric, ever-growing momentum that fueled the great struggles of the 1960s: civil rights, peace, disarmament, free speech, feminism,” wrote muralists and authors Jane Weissman and Janet Braun-Reinitz in a Fall/Winter 2005 Public Art Review article, “Community, Consensus, & the Protest Mural.”

That’s still true—to an extent. But the political climate is changing—even if the murals haven’t. Decades later, the “great struggles” have helped fuel a new and ever-growing protest movement: civil rights, peace, disarmament, free speech, and feminism are very much in the forefront again in the Age of Trump, as well as issues such as racism, immigration, climate change, rising inequality, criminal justice, health care, and so on.

The organizational infrastructure is already in place for arts activists to rise up (now even more pressing, with the looming decimation—or demolition—of national arts and humanities budgets). Every major city (even some medium-sized and smaller ones) has at least one community public-art nonprofit or group, with a core group of dedicated artists and muralists; most large metro areas have several. In addition, spraycan/graffiti crews or collectives as well as independent muralists, street artists, and other activists can join in. With the aid of social media, newer and older generations of artists could all be quickly mobilized into orchestrated teams, in concert with local communities, that would cover walls with urgent messages in paint, aerosol, vinyl, paste, and other media—acts of mass artistic resistance that can affirm as well as persecute, inform as well as indict, seek justice as well as reflect injustice, and reveal truth not alternative facts.

Too often in recent years, community murals—artworks in which artists collaborate with neighborhood groups and residents to plan, design, and create walls—have become vehicles for urban beautification, decoration, and revitalization, or history and heritage themes, rather than often blunt tools for airing grievances, concerns, struggles, and aspirations, although pieces celebrating racial, ethnic, and community pride certainly help empower, too. Legal or illegal, painting on a public wall is still a political act, as it projects the right of the people to use art to publicly portray themselves, on their own terms--not, as is often the case, terms set by government or municipal public-art officials.

Virtually nothing survives from the Orlando Letelier Brigade’s public-art legacy in the US. The last barest vestiges of the untitled Chicago mural—a panel on the viaduct’s northwest side showing a life-size male fieldworker carrying a shovel and female musician brandishing a guitar—was whitewashed by the city several years ago, before the defunct elevated rail line was converted into the “606” pedestrian/bicycling greenway. But the group’s socially conscious artistic spirit won’t be erased. It could inspire an insurgent movement of mural brigades across the US to fight Trump and his inner clan of extremists and white nationalists, and act as a defiant counterforce to his regime’s daily tweets and torrents of lies, demagoguery, racist hate, xenophobia, and fear mongering.

As collectives like the Orlando Letelier Brigade have showed, the quickly mobilized and executed community-involved protest mural can still be a vital and powerful form of public artistic expression, along with other mediums such as removable non-woven media “parachute cloth” murals, spraycan art, demonstration agitprop, signs, banners, posters, etc., that could still be used to inform and agitate—to help foment mass resistance and popular opposition during the reign of another neo-fascist authoritarian.

Jeff Huebner is an arts journalist and freelance writer with a special interest in public art and community-based art, including contemporary murals. Photos by the author.

Copyright © Jeff Huebner. All rights reserved.