Enrique Chagoya’s Superheroes and Super Villains

by Ruben C. Cordova August 19, 2019
Enrique Chagoya with two versions of 'Their Freedom of Expression. The Recovery of Their Economy,' 1984

Enrique Chagoya with two versions of ‘Their Freedom of Expression. The Recovery of Their Economy,’ 1984, 80” x 80”, charcoal and pastel on paper. When a Salvadoran immigrant who hated Reagan vandalized the original (right) at the Mission Cultural Center in San Francisco, Chagoya made a second version (left), now in the collection of the San Jose (CA) Museum of Art.

This article is the first of three in a series. To read part two, please go here

Para leer este artículo en español, por favor vaya aquí. To read this article in Spanish, please go here.

Enrique Chagoya is a stupendous draftsman and printmaker, as well as an obsessive scholar and bricolager of Mesoamerican codices (pre-Columbian and early colonial books). He is a highly promiscuous mixer of cultures, an up-ender of artistic hierarchies, and a brilliant and caustic political satirist. Our paths crossed many times in the San Francisco Bay area in the 1980s and ’90s, and I caught up with him recently when he lectured at the San Antonio Museum of Art in connection with its current Men of Steel, Women of Wonder exhibition [through Sept. 1]. This article examines his first large-scale political satire (pictured above), three works that use Superman imagery, a recent political painting, and the artist’s reflections on the age of Trump. 

Chagoya was born and raised in Mexico City, and he was taught how to draw by his father, who worked at the Banco de México. His father’s office housed a veritable museum of forgery, with plates and counterfeit paper currency side-by-side. This provided the ten-year-old future artist with his first exposure to the concept of forgery/artistic appropriation. “This blew my mind,” recalls Chagoya. 

On June 10, 1971, Chagoya, who was then a high school student, had one of his formative political experiences when he participated in a student demonstration for educational reform, political freedom, and democratic and union rights. It was the first large demonstration in Mexico City since the Tlatelolco Massacre of 1968, when hundreds of peaceful students were killed by government forces. This 1971 demonstration, now known as the Corpus Christi Massacre, resulted in the death of around 120 participants. The police blockaded the march. Los Halcones (hawks), a paramilitary group (some of whom had been trained by the C.I.A.) that served as campus spies and provocateurs beat the demonstrators with bamboo sticks. Then they shot them with pistols and rifles, and chased them with knives attached to their sticks. A knife-stick wielding Halcon was just a few feet behind Chagoya when he narrowly escaped by making a cat-like leap over a closing metal gate, which gave him sanctuary in a small shop. “It was one of the most scary experiences of my life,” recalls the artist. “I feel lucky to be alive after that.” This narrow escape taught Chagoya “how dangerous it could be to have a critical mind and how deadly it could be to use my freedom to demonstrate and to use my freedom of expression — rights granted in the Mexican Constitution.” The Halcones even pursued the wounded survivors to the Rubén Leñero hospital, where they killed them in their beds. Chagoya recalls that many students were “disappeared”: they were never seen or heard from again. This massacre is depicted in Alfonso Cuarón’s film Roma (2018).

Chagoya studied political economy at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (1973-75), whose faculty included many eminent scholars, including refugees from other countries in Latin America. Chagoya also made political cartoons for union newsletters. Before finishing his degree, he took a job in Veracruz in a rural development program run by the Instituto Nacional de Capacitación Agraria (INCA). Chagoya also did a stint organizing farmworkers in the Texas Rio Grande Valley in 1978. He moved to the U.S. when his first wife, who was an American living in Mexico, had to return for medical reasons in 1979. “I did not emigrate,” explains the artist, “I was imported.” Chagoya worked as a graphic designer and illustrator in the Bay area. His disappointment in the economics programs at the local colleges led him to seek an artistic vocation. Chagoya received his BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1984 and his MFA from the University of California at Berkeley in 1987. From 1987 to 1990, he had a very rewarding experience as the artistic director of the Galería de la Raza in San Francisco, which was one of the most important Chicano/Latino nonprofit organizations in the country. Chagoya began his teaching career in 1990, and he is currently a full professor in the department of Art and Art History at Stanford University.

In 1984, Chagoya joined more than 1,000 artists and activists in the “Artists Call Against U.S. Intervention in Central America,” which featured exhibitions, panels, and other activities in New York City. As noted in the general statement (immortalized in a Claes Oldenburg poster), the focal point was the 52nd anniversary of the January 22, 1932 massacre in El Salvador that “marked the beginning of the systematic destruction of the Salvadoran culture.” Another key passage of the general statement declared: “If we can simply witness the destruction of another culture, we are sacrificing our own right to make culture.” Chagoya utilized the cheapest possible materials to make Their Freedom of Expression. The Recovery of Their Economy, which he initially considered “a political work rather than a work of art.” Chagoya had been an abstract artist in Mexico, and his use of red and black reflected the lingering influence of the Russian Constructivists.  

Enrique Chagoya, Their Freedom of Expression. The Recovery of Their Economy, 1984,

Enrique Chagoya, ‘Their Freedom of Expression. The Recovery of Their Economy,’ 1984, 80” x 80”, charcoal and pastel on paper, collection of the San Jose (CA) Museum of Art.

In this drawing, Chagoya transplants the withered face of President Ronald Reagan (perhaps reflecting Diego Rivera’s mummy-like image of an elderly John D. Rockefeller) onto the body of an enormous Mickey Mouse. Similarly, Chagoya plasters the visage of Henry S. Kissinger onto a diminutive mirror image Mickey. Both Mickeys are graffiti artists who paint slogans from buckets of blood. Reagan hypocritically paints the slogan “Ruskies and Cubans out of Central Ame… .” Since 1898, the U.S. has been involved in 41 regime changes in Latin America.

Little Kissinger adds: “By the way keep art out of politi… .” The medium of this message is literally the red blood of the victims of “intervention.” Instead of grinding pigments, Reagan and Kissinger grind corpses. A foot drains into Reagan’s bucket, and Kissinger’s features a large finger. The latter might be a reference to Víctor Jara, a musician who was one of the thousands of Chileans who were tortured and murdered after the 1973 coup partially engineered by Kissinger (President Richard M. Nixon’s Secretary of State in 1973-74). Jara’s hands were reportedly amputated, though evidently his torturers merely crushed them, tauntingly commanded him to play a guitar, and then shot him 44 times. In any case, the finger is a horrific detail, made all the more terrifying by the sense that it is trying to crawl out of the bucket of blood. As is noted in his Stanford website biography, Chagoya “uses familiar pop icons to create deceptively friendly points of entry for the discussion of complex issues.” These seemingly innocuous characters are deployed to critique colonialism and the “oppression that continues to riddle contemporary American foreign policy.” Kissinger has the most blood-soaked hands in Washington D.C., and no high official has had bloody hands longer than he. Kissinger, who was an advisor to President Johnson, secretly tipped off Nixon that Johnson was trying to end the Vietnam War on the eve of the 1968 presidential election. By monkey-wrenching Johnson’s peace plan, Nixon won the election. New York bankers were informed of Nixon’s sabotage of the peace process so they could profit economically from the inside information.

After this treachery, as many as a million Vietnamese and Cambodians and more than 20,000 American soldiers died before the war was brought to an end.

Kissinger advised President John F. Kennedy prior to Johnson and Nixon. Kissinger was National Security Advisor from 1969 to 1975, and after Nixon’s resignation he remained Secretary of State for President Gerald S. Ford. In 1984, Kissinger chaired Reagan’s Commission on Central America, which provided cover for the president’s controversial policies in Nicaragua and El Salvador. More recently, he has tried to advise President Donald S. Trump. 

Chagoya’s title refers to plans to impose the “free market” theories of Milton Friedman on Central America (and the rest of the world) as part of Reagan’s Cold War crusade, which rejected the détente of presidents Nixon and Ford. Efforts to create equitable societies — as in Chile and Nicaragua — were mischaracterized as Soviet machinations that directly threatened the U.S.

Reagan and Kissinger seem like bad students, forced to write on the chalkboard as a form of discipline. They appear to have written their first halting drafts in black, before graduating to blood. Kissinger’s writing in particular seems childishly inept, like multiple chicken scratches. Reagan was never terribly bright to begin with, and CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl recalls he was as “shriveled as a kumquat” and suffering complete mental blank-outs in 1986. By rendering Kissinger so small and inept in comparison to the doddering president, Chagoya unmasks him as a hapless nerd. But all this cleverness would be for naught without Chagoya’s formal mastery, his incisive lines, the stark patterns of light and dark, the massing and balancing of form, the expressivity of jagged borders and nervous under-drawing. 

Chagoya’s drawing was very well received, and it was reproduced in leading journals such as Artforum. It also significantly impacted the artist’s future work. Though it was intended to be a “one time shot,” Chagoya discovered that the 80” x 80” format (dramatically rendered in red and black), was very effective as a gigantic “editorial cartoon.” I first saw them in his MFA exhibition at the UC Berkeley Art Museum in 1987, and they are always a visual treat. At the time, Chagoya noted that these drawings were deeply personal and that he would not know what to do if someone wanted to buy one. As it turned out, they sold quickly, and I felt fortunate to be able to borrow Double Agent (1989) for a Latin American survey exhibition I curated at the Mexican Museum in San Francisco in 1997. 

Enrique Chagoya, Double Agent, 1989

Enrique Chagoya, ‘Double Agent,’ 1989, 80” x 80”, charcoal and pastel on paper, collection of the artist.

In this drawing, President George H.W. Bush does double-duty: he flies like Superman (though he has a smiley-face emblem, rather than a super-S on his chest, in keeping with his jocular public persona), and his oversized head is also attached to a caped Smiley Superdog. 

Enrique Chagoya, Double Agent, detail.

Enrique Chagoya, ‘Double Agent,’ detail. Note Bush-dog’s bloody paws and the red handprints that evoke blood.

This big dog head turns almost 180 degrees to smile back in approval at his super-self. Meanwhile, Smiley-Bushman’s x-ray vision reveals drug paraphernalia that references the C.I.A.’s role in trafficking cocaine for the benefit of the Nicaraguan Contras. At the same time, his super breath reveals severed human limbs. Though they recall Milagros (miracles), the tin votive offerings that devout Catholics pin to saints, the bones and blood are indications that these limbs are real. Implicitly, Bush’s super powers work these miraculous crimes without the use of hands: as if willed into existence by a god-like creature that knows how to keep its hands clean. Chagoya places great importance on the indexical marks of his own handprints, the traces of his creative processes. But these marks can also read as the fingerprints of crimes against humanity, of the stains Bush has left on history, on the world itself, and on the people who inhabit it. 

Though Bush was recently buried with effusive praise, Arun Gupta highlights his many misdeeds: “As CIA director in the mid-1970s and as Ronald Reagan’s vice president, Bush helped forge a world of strongmen, wars, cartels, and refugees that continues today.” The Iran-Contra scandal combined attempted regime change in Nicaragua, drug trafficking, the exchange of weapons for hostages with Iran, and corrupt banking. But that’s just the tip of Bush’s criminal iceberg, which Gupta says “coddled dictators and death squads, undermined democratic institutions” and “created the conditions that helped give rise to Donald Trump.”

Enrique Chagoya, Uprising of the Spirit, 1994

Enrique Chagoya, ‘Uprising of the Spirit,’ 1994, 48” x 72”, acrylic and water based oil on handmade amate paper, collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

This painting features a print that depicts Spanish atrocities committed against indigenous peoples in the Caribbean by Theodor de Bry, who made a suite of images for Fray Bartolomeo de las Casas. Living people are incinerated in a burning hut, a crowned man hangs from a tree, while mounted soldiers with lances pursue fleeing natives. Superman flies out of this print, his arms and legs spread as if he is summoning all of his powers. The yellow rays indicate that he is locating his foe. Implicitly, Superman, who is usually posited as the defender of the American way, is either the anachronistic ally or the successor of the colonial miscreants. This puts an ironic spin on the title. Superman faces off against none other than Nezahualcoyotl, who was dubbed the poet-king of Texcoco. Arrayed in full-feathered finery, with his gold labret and tufted cotton costume, he is beginning to swing his obsidian-bladed club at the man of steel. Nezahualcoyotl was a philosopher, a notable poet, a talented engineer, the compiler of a great library, a strict enforcer of laws, and, according to a descendant, a ruler who forbade human sacrifice. In short, he was an Aztec era equivalent of a renaissance man, and, fittingly enough, Chagoya’s Nahua hero figure. His Europeanized image is copied from the post-conquest Codex Ixtlilxochitl, which was made on European paper. Chagoya restored the warrior king to traditional amate paper (made by boiling and beating tree bark), but he also retained the French collector’s stamp (on the right of Nezahualcoyotl). The Russian Constructivist print behind Nezahualcoyotl is El Lissitzky’s Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (1919). Originally a reference to the Red and White armies in the Russian Revolution, the title takes on new meaning in this context. The European print is no doubt a source of power for Nezahualcoyotl. Each side has one source from the 16th century and one source from the early 20th century as colonial oppressor (Superman) faces off against the indigenous poet-king. 

Enrique Chagoya with Crossing 1, 1994

Enrique Chagoya with Crossing 1, 1994, 48” x 72”, acrylic and water based oil on handmade amate paper, collection of Julia L. Lanigan, photograph by Ruben C. Cordova

Crossing I also pits Superman against another figure from the Codex Ixtlilxochitl, and it is also made on amate paper. But here Superman’s alter ego is a literal colonial pilgrim — a disguise that is even more sexually repellent than Clark Kent’s glasses. He sheds his big, buckled black hat and pulls aside his somber garb to reveal his skin-tight super uniform. Conveniently, these colors echo a favored Russian Constructivist color scheme, which is reinforced by red and black bars. These colors were also prevalent in Aztec codices, and the books themselves were colloquially referred to as in tlilli in tlapalli (the red, the black). In Crossing I, Superman/Pilgrim faces off against a Europeanized image of Tlaloc, the Aztec rain god. He holds a bolt of lightning he stands atop his pyramid tower. 

Enrique Chagoya, Crossing 1, detail of flying saucer

Enrique Chagoya, ‘Crossing 1,’ detail of flying saucer. Photograph by Ruben C. Cordova

A small red and black flying saucer hovers behind Tlaloc. It carries the gods Mictlantecuhtli (the god of death) and Quetzalcoatl (in the form of the wind god Ehecatl) as they appear in the Codex Borgia, which is likely a pre-Hispanic codex. Ironically, Chagoya represents the indigenous people as “alien” invaders and Superman as the homeland defender. (This phenomenon is well known in Texas: witness the newcomers known to posterity as the “defenders of the Alamo.”) Superman directs threats at the presumed invader: “I don’t know what hole you crawled out of or where you came from—but I’m sending you back!” This quip is so eerily similar to threats currently directed at people of color in the U.S. that it could have been ripped from yesterday’s headlines. 

Enrique Chagoya, Crossing 1, detail of Superman’s head and speech bubbles.

Enrique Chagoya, ‘Crossing 1,’ detail of Superman’s head and speech bubbles. Photograph by Ruben C. Cordova

Crossing I is in the Men of Steel, Women of Wonder exhibition. I assumed from the catalogue that the quote was made up, but Chagoya assured me it was taken verbatim. I found it in the Death of Superman issue (vol. 2, issue #75, Nov. 1992), where the quote is directed against the creature Doomsday. Superman kills Doomsday in an epic battle, but he succumbs to his wounds and expires in Lois Lane’s arms (though both warriors are subsequently resurrected). Thus we can expect a mutually fatal engagement between Superman and Tlaloc. Chagoya provides an explanatory narrative in the catalogue essay by Adrianna Campbell: “These two characters become symbolic proxies for the collision between the earlier European colonizers of North America and the Native Americans. I hope people see the paradox within the fact that the first ‘illegal aliens’ to arrive in North America were the Spanish Conquistadors and the Pilgrims, who did not have any passports and were acting against the law of the land of hundreds of Indigenous Nations. In this sense the contemporary undocumented immigrants aren’t different than the first ones (with good and bad qualities). We should not dehumanize them.”

On a purely formal level, one fascinating aspect of Chagoya’s painting is his creation of a palimpsest, a layering of images one finds in European and Mesoamerican codices. Initially, he made the figure of Tlaloc far too large (his lightning bolt is almost as big as Superman). But instead of concealing this abandoned image, he lets it subsist with other ghostly painterly traces. Oddly enough, Chagoya also partially effaced Superman’s words, a paradoxical gesture that forces the viewer to puzzle over just what is or is not significant or intentional in this painting. Clark Kent’s fake nerd glasses get the same ghostly treatment. Yet we still have the destabilizing sense that something vital is beyond our visual comprehension: that is because Chagoya painted another picture on the other side of this painting, and it is partially visible through the translucent paper. Given the large red dots at the top, it is probably based on the Codex Borgia. Chagoya enjoys combining the visual language systems of comics and codices. He notes that though pre-Columbian codices are non-phonetic, they are still “very precise” — like Western musical transcriptions, some traffic signs, airport signage, etc. 

While Chagoya grew up with Superman and Mickey Mouse as part of his cultural currency, he had to study codices and Mesoamerican cultures. He puts these various images in the service of Reverse Anthropology, which upends the normative colonizer-to-colonized relationship. He approvingly cites the example of the The Border Art Workshop/Taller de Arte Fronterizo (BAW/TAF), which made sardonic films of Aztecs conquering Europe. In Chagoya’s practice, it entails using indigenous imagery and materials, such as amate paper, and “cannibalizing/appropriating” Western images, often reversing conventional significations: “Superman is no hero… Mickey Mouse is a symbol of colonialism.” 

Chagoya has rendered a substantial presidential rogue’s gallery: from Nixon to Reagan to Bush 1 & 2, and now Trump. It is only proper that we get his verbal reflections on the age of Trump: “Donald Trump and the Republican Party are the biggest threat to the planet (let alone to our national security). The world is less safe than three years ago in terms of nuclear annihilation, pollution and acceleration of climate change, emerging dictatorship alliances (and support from his administration that serves as a role model), extreme polarization of politics, white supremacist terrorism at home and abroad, collusion with financial oligarchs that increases corruption, collapse of mainstream western institutions… .” But Chagoya is also heartened by the mutual aid and cooperation between Jewish and Muslim communities after they were attacked in the U.S. Chagoya also points to Ron Rael’s border wall seesaws, used simultaneously by children on both sides of the border, which he says “gives me hope.”

Enrique Chagoya, Bathroom Painting, 2018

Enrique Chagoya, ‘Bathroom Painting,’ 2018, acrylic and water based oil on canvas, 16” x 20”, collection of the artist

Chagoya’s Bathroom Painting renders Trump as a monstrous Salvador Dalí-like hemorrhoid head (replete with pustules and varicose veins) emerging from a knobby buttock-neck. One need not be an art historian to feel that Surrealism is the most relevant reference point for the times in which we live, and we should not be surprised when exquisite artistic beauty is often leavened with horror. We save the last word for Chagoya’s young nephew, who, when engaged in trash-talking one-upmanship, gave this show-stopping insult: “You look like a painting of my Tio (uncle) Enrique!” 

Ruben C. Cordova is an art historian, curator, and photographer. His next curatorial project, which includes a print by Chagoya, is “The Day of the Dead in Art,” which opens October 24 at Centro de Artes in San Antonio.

Men of Steel, Women of Wonder‘ is on view at the San Antonio Museum of Art through Sept. 1, 2019.



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Max Bridges August 20, 2019 - 12:20

I really enjoyed reading this article. Thank you!

Ruben C. Cordova August 22, 2019 - 19:01

Thanks, Max. I really enjoyed writing it! He’s an incredible artist.

Tim Atseff August 20, 2019 - 14:18

From Goya too Chagoya. Political art at it’s best in real-time while the blood runs hot.

ruben c cordova August 22, 2019 - 19:05

Chagoya is never at a loss for blood, Tim.


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