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Victor Zamudio, stager of Chicano art shows, studied under Herbert Marcuse

"My great opportunity came from the Museum of Modern Art in New York City"

— When the time came for Victor Zamudio Taylor to be born, his mother, Guadalupe, deliberately crossed the border -- into Tijuana. She and her husband, Regino, were determined that their son should be born a Mexican.

"For my parents it was very important that we be born in Tijuana," says Zamudio, now 43, "on Mexican land, on Mexican earth."

Zamudio tells his story under the leafy columned patio of the Museum Cafe, sipping cappuccino outside La Jolla's Museum of Contemporary Art. In more ways than one, this is the triumphant return of the native son. Zamudio is visiting as one of the world's experts on contemporary Latino and Chicano art. He came to help curate next year's "Ultra Baroque" show, which is expected to throw new light on Latin American, Chicano, and border art.

"San Diego-Tijuana is what I would call an index of cultural transformation and exchange," he says. "It's a region unto itself. Institutions here and in Tijuana have created a very intense and interesting artistic climate. And what is interesting is that San Diego and Tijuana institutions have a more north-south axis. The Americas. Not the standard California-New York-Paris focus."

Zamudio is one of a new breed of "freelance" curators who take their expertise on the road. He will stage Latino and Chicano art shows anywhere from Budapest to Brooklyn. Latin American art is in. Museum directors and art patrons are realizing it tells the story of our times: the collision of cultures and the confusion and enlightenment that follow.

For a long time, neither Zamudio nor the art he championed was taken seriously. His crusade for Latin American and Chicano art has been a push all the way, with help from such coaches as his parents and UCSD's radical philosopher of the '70s, Herbert Marcuse.

Zamudio now triangulates between his home in New York, where he has close associations with the Museum of Modern Art; Washington D.C., where he advises the Smithsonian on their Latino and Latin American art program; and to a new appointment as curator of Casa Lamm, a richly endowed museum in Mexico City. He has invitations to lecture everywhere from Madrid to Auckland to the Canary Islands.

The art world's attention to the problem of identity between neighboring cultures puts Zamudio in the middle and in demand. In the elitist world of art, Zamudio has made it. He says it's all due to his parents and Balboa Park.

"Education was very important in my house growing up," he says. "If it involved culture and education, there was no limit as to our activities. My parents were members of the San Diego Zoological Society and the San Diego Museum of Art, so we grew up spending weekends in kids' programs and young-adult programs in Balboa Park. Either at the Museum of Man, the Museum of Art, or the zoo. Our parents would drop us off there, and we would attend all these weekend programs. I think that's what got us all interested in the arts at an early age. My two brothers and me."

His parents' enlightened attitude wasn't because they were wealthy and well-educated. "My father was a diesel mechanic. He was a brilliant student who couldn't go on to university, and my mother was an avid reader and a lover of art and history -- and a housewife."

Zamudio's family story is at least partly a refugee's story. "This sounds like a Garcia Márquez story," he says. "My father's family were refugees from Christian wars in Mexico, in the late 1920s. The Zamudios had an ice cream shop in Colima. My paternal grandfather would bring blocks of natural ice down from [a nearby] snow-capped volcano on the backs of donkeys. He made ice cream and sherbets out of that.

"In 1927 he was forced to leave Colima. He was a Catholic. He was accused of being in favor of the church. So he took his eldest son and went to the port of Manzanillo. And the first boat leaving was bound for Ensenada. They hopped on board and wound up in Tijuana.

"My mother, Guadalupe, is from an old California family, Meléndrez, and she also has American Indian blood. Part of her heritage is Pai Pai-Ti Pai [Kumeyaay].

"My mother's father was a son of an English immigrant family to Sonora. That's where we get the 'Taylor' name. She lived on a ranch in Baja and also in Ensenada. And she would spend summers in San Diego with her godmother, in a house right across from Balboa Park on Upas Street. She'd hear lions roar at night."

When Guadalupe married Regino and came to live in San Diego, they agreed: their children must become bilingual, bicultural, at home on either side of the border.

Victor's parents held to their vows. When Victor was 13 they sent him to prep school in Sonora. "I attended junior high and high school there and then returned to San Diego and enrolled at UCSD. I studied literature and Latin American studies."

That's where his life changed. "I was quite rebellious. At that point I didn't think it was important to attend university." His parents found an unlikely ally in the battle to change his mind: radical philosopher Herbert Marcuse.

"Between him and my parents, they talked me into going to school."

Marcuse (pronounced Mar-koo-za) remains etched in UCSD lore as the German-born Marxist philosopher and advocate of change who supported "resistance, disruption, subversion of the existing order." The New York Times called him the "most important philosopher of our time," but also "angel of the apocalypse." Ronald Reagan tried to have him fired. Angela Davis became his acolyte. Victor Zamudio Taylor became his student, and later, a friend who helped him in his old age.

"He was a very important figure for me. He instilled a love for knowledge and culture that was practical and related to seeking truth and having ethical stances -- not being afraid to say that something is wrong or good. What was particularly interesting was his vision that art had a purpose in life. That art could express experiences that couldn't be expressed in other disciplines."

Zamudio's crusade for Latin American artists may have begun when Marcuse held a study group on the philosophy of art. "We demanded that instead of looking at the European classics as examples -- like Balzac or Goya or Goethe -- that we also look at Latin American literature and Latin American artists. We got him to read [writers like] Gabriel Garcia Márquez and look at Latin American visual arts. That was amazing. That someone in his late 70s could start a new track there and let himself be led by these late-teen-early-20-year-olds to say, 'Let's look at aesthetics but let's utilize Latin American examples.' "

It wasn't so easy for Zamudio to find qualified tutors for his Latin American graduate art studies. "When I was going to graduate school, there was not one Ph.D. in the country that had been trained by a Latin American [modern] art specialist."

Zamudio went to Princeton but soon felt confined by academe. He began freelance lecturing and advising on his areas of specialty, modern and contemporary Latin American art and art made by Latinos in the United States.

"My great opportunity came when the Museum of Modern Art in New York City hired me [in 1993] to lecture on a very important and controversial exhibition called 'Latin American Artists of the 20th Century.' " Latin American art was just starting to get traction and respect. So was Zamudio.

"I was three years lecturing at the Museum of Modern Art, advising different institutions -- San Antonio Museum of Art in Texas; Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; I began to advise Mexican institutions. I started to curate my own exhibitions."

European assignments followed, then an invitation from the Smithsonian, and earlier this year, the Televisa Cultural Foundation appointed him curator if its collection of modern art and ancient photographs.

Zamudio sees himself as one of a new breed of curators.

"I am part of a growing number of curators between their late 20s and early 40s who find it very interesting not to be tied to one institution. In a sense it's reflecting the increasingly global character of our world and the interaction of our world."

Two of his gigs are as guest curator for upcoming exhibitions at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), and here at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The Los Angeles exhibit is called "The Road to Aztlán; Art From a Mythic Homeland." That's scheduled to open in 2001. The La Jolla show, due in September 2000, is called "Ultra Baroque."

Look for questions of identity, Zamudio says, but more in the content than the style of the art.

"The generation of Chicano artists from the 1960s and '70s up to the early '80s were working with themes involving history, spirituality, with identifiable icons like the virgin of Guadalupe, the bleeding heart, references to pre-Columbian art and culture, to Mexican popular culture, and also to religious cultural [elements] like the altar. That was an affirmation of an identity. These artistic practices were calling attention to the fact that Chicanos are different. As Americans they're different. As Mexicans they're different. But now what happens, from the late '80s to our decade, is that Chicano artists -- and other Latino artists who are firmly grounded in their culture -- are not interested so much in working with identifiable forms and images, but are rather part of the international scenario."

He says "Ultra Baroque" will show a Latin America exuberant, ahead in its vision of the world.

"The baroque has particular forms and expressions in Latin America, because Latin America didn't go through the period of 19th- and 20th-century industrialization, as European states did. So it remains more vivid. And also in Latin America there was an exchange, an intermixing, a mestizaje between Indian, African, and European peoples, from the very start of colonialism. So you have the phenomenon of what you could call 'cultural syncretism.'

"If 'cultural syncretism' is a characteristic of contemporary [Western] culture, it has been a phenomenon in the Americas for the last 500 years. So in many ways, current global issues or concerns are anticipated in Latin America. That's what the exhibition is about, but it's looking at artists who use a variety of media. Video, photography, sculpture, painting. The artists that we're considering from the [San Diego-Tijuana] region -- we haven't finished our list of artists yet -- you may not identify them formally [as being from here], but you will be able to relate to the themes they're dealing with."

Zamudio says the "Ultra-Baroque" feel also stems from a very 21st Century "horrore vacui" -- fear of emptiness.

"They have to fill every moment, every little space. If this art is the 'overripe fruit of a tottering [Western] civilization' [as some have said], it is also the fruit of dramatically changing technology, communications, political and economic globalization, and increasingly intimate cultural exchange. It's a monster, but it also expresses today's wonderful new possibilities."

He sips his cappuccino, which has cooled.

"And that's why I'm back here in San Diego, at the MCA."

He suspects he may be back again. As curator of Mexico City's Casa Lamm, he's always looking for places to exhibit, because the museum has very little exhibition space of its own. "I'd love to bring them to Tijuana." He thinks a moment. "And perhaps to Balboa Park, which gave me the taste for this life."

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