“Dick Islands is my name in English,” Ricardo Islas says, sipping his iced tea and laughing.
Growing up, Islas' teachers told him “Richard” was his “English name.” And so Ricardo became Richard for several years; it wasn't until he started painting that he finally reclaimed his name. “I think I went back to Ricardo just out of pride,” he says. “If painting can give you a voice, I didn't want to pretend to be someone else.”
Islas found that voice in 1999, after enrolling “for fun” in a painting class with associate professor Robert J. Sanchez at Mesa College. “I think Robert's been my biggest influence,” Islas says. “He saw what I was trying to create in class and helped me develop and refine my ideas. He always made it a point to show me articles and books on Chicano artists so I could see what was possible, and I was able to see that Chicano art didn't have to be just for Chicano or Mexican people. It could also be for everyone else, too.”
Islas' art is rife with Chicano and Mexican themes, and it often pokes at powerful, historical and even sacred topics with dark humor. It was this sort of content—images that were often flat-out gruesome and disturbing—that drew attention to his work.
“Tecato”—slang for junkie—is one of Islas' early works that helped solidify his status in the San Diego art scene as a serious painter and muralist. The painting depicts a naked man in a bathtub. Around his arm is a tourniquet, and lying on the floor next to him are a needle and a lighter. He has a tear drop tattooed just below one of his eyes and the image of the Virgin on his chest. Across his belly is the word “CALECIA,” a slang term for Calexico, Calif., the border town where Islas grew up.
Growing up in Calexico, Islas became keenly aware of the politics of the border at an early age. He experienced the border city—the two countries and cultures—in all its positive and negative attributes. As a U.S. citizen, Islas was allowed the luxury of easily crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, but he was also aware of those without the privilege. He witnessed people jumping the fence, and the Border Patrol swooping in and picking them up for deportation.
Another early painting, “Alarma,” depicts a young man on the ground in a pool of blood. “Alarma” was inspired by the cover of a magazine by the same name, which he saw as a young kid on one of his many trips to Mexico. “It's a memory that's always stayed with me,” Islas says. “I couldn't picture an 8-year-old kid looking at that stuff here in the U.S. I think it left a lasting impression on me about the terrible things that happen in this world.”
The themes of Islas' work aren't always so morbid. He says sometimes he does lighter work to keep his sanity and that he frequently mixes elements like children's games and toys into his work. For a series called Toys Rn't Us, he painted popular U.S. children's games and gave them a Chicano-style edge. “Chicano Operation” is one of these paintings modeled after the game Operation. In Islas' version, rather than remove bones and things from an Anglo-looking guy, you can remove popular prison tattoos from a Cholo-looking guy with a big Mexican-looking mustache.
Islas is showing some of his Chicano and border-themed work in Visual Migrations, an art show that kicks off Deportation Nation, a series of cultural events focused on the topic of deportation, including film, spoken word, music and art, happening at different San Diego venues through Feb. 7. The art show opens at Centro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park at 7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 31.
In the meantime, Islas will be busy painting new and slightly different works for a solo show opening at Voz Alta's space in Barrio Logan on April 4. He'll go back to his “English name” and alias, Dick Islands, for this one and move into the lowbrow sector—painting more comic and cartoon-style work that has less serious subject matter than his other paintings.
“One of the paintings for the show is of Adam and Eve and the snake,” Islas explains, “but the guy is Mexican, and so he's killed the snake and is wearing it as a belt.”
As for the name change, “I decided to make a joke of the whole name situation,” he says, smiling. “I figured, if I was Richard, my friends would call me Dick; so I became Dick Islands—sounded like a porn star name to me.” And so, for the sake of humor, he went with it.
Visual Migrations will be on view at Centro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park from Jan. 31 through March 8. www.centroculturaldelaraza.org. Check www.myspace.com/islasarte for more on Ricardo Islas.
Depicting deporteesBrent Beltrán, an event organizer and one-half of Calaca Press, an independent publishing house specializing in Chicano literature and poetry, is featuring Ricardo Islas and other artists like him for Visual Migrations, an art exhibition kicking off Deportation Nation, a series of cultural events focusing on the issue of deportation.
Beltrán, who sometimes goes by the pseudonym Cal A Vera, says he chose Islas to be in Visual Migrations because of the Chicano artist's dramatic depictions of border culture.
“Through his eyes,” Beltrán says, “we get to see the gritty, traumatic and sometime humorous nature of life en la frontera.”
And if the work in the visual-art component of Deportation Nation isn't vivid or telling enough, Beltrán hopes his stance on the cruelty of deportations will come through loud and clear in the film screening of Break of Dawn on Thursday, Feb. 5, at Rosalie Hill Hall at the University of San Diego. The film's director, Isaac Artenstein, will be on hand to discuss his film and the significance of the life of Pedro J. Gonzalez, the first Spanish-language radio broadcaster in Southern California and a singer-songwriter who spoke out against the forced deportation of thousands of Latinos in the 1930s and '40s.
“With the recent immigration raids taking place throughout the U.S.,” Beltrán says, “we thought it'd be timely to talk about deportations now…. I think what's happening—the separation of families—is very disturbing; it basically tears apart entire communities, and we wanted to use art as a means to say that these things are not correct.”
The other means Beltrán's using are spoken-word and music. At 7 p.m. Feb. 6, at the San Diego Central Library, poets including Olga Garcia and Viet Mai will perform. And from 8 to 10 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 7, the bands Los Alacranes, Quino and Son Sin Fronteras will play at USD's University Center. The concert will culminate in a collaborative performance of Woodie Guthrie's “Deportees,” which, in part, goes something like this:
They're flying 'em back to the Mexican border / To pay all their money to wade back again / Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita / Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria / You won't have your names when you ride the big airplane / All they will call you will be “deportees.”
—Kinsee Morlan and Katherine Sweetman