Looking at Art – Mural de La Plena

Welcome to Looking at Art. Here’s what we do: I just spend some time looking at the piece, writing down thoughts & questions I have. Thinking about how it makes me feel and trying to make connections. Then I will do some research and report back to you with any details that are relevant to the piece. Finally, I put all that together and contemplate how the piece’s meaning has changed for me & what my big takeaways are. Today’s selection is:

Mural de La Plena (1952-1954)
Rafael Tufiño
Painting, Mural, Oil on Masonite (20 panels)
4.6 m x 9 m

I chose this piece because it comes from Puerto Rico, and Ariana is from Puerto Rico. Beyond that and the essential information above, I have yet to learn about the history of this mural. I do know bits & pieces of Puerto Rican history. It is a colony (labeled ‘commonwealth’) of the United States. Puerto Rico was handed over to the United States in 1898 after being a Spanish colony since Columbus landed there. It was initially inhabited by the Taino indigenous people, who are now primarily interracial, having been forced into & more recently chosen to be in relationships with non-Taino people. Puerto Rico, like Washington D.C., is a place where the citizens do not have representation in the U.S. federal government and therefore are denied the rights enjoyed by the mainland states, Alaska, and Hawaii. They may vote in presidential primaries but are legally forbidden to vote in the general election unless they have residency in the States.

My first inclination is that this mural documents historical events in Puerto Rico. That was the easy part. Determining the events gets tricky because like most murals this is full of detail. I am immediately reminded of some Diego Rivera murals I have seen a little before, also chronicling a historical narrative. To break this down, I will discuss the top and bottom half. 

In the top half, there are several very fantastical images. The most striking is the figure in the center. It is an androgynous being who is vast in size. The figure is surrounded by blue swirls and is themselves a greenish blue hue. Their right hand is extended and pointing. Following the line of their finger, the figure is pointing at the houses. We can see some of the people flying through the air. Directly below the figure is a site that looks to be a military base possibly. Just further to the right of El Morro, there is a cluster of orange-yellow. Zooming in, I can only assume they are islands. Even further to the left is a fish pointing up in the blue swirls.

Flanking this central figure on the left, we have El Morro, a Spanish colony-era fortress still in San Juan. It towers over the colorful homes in the city. There is also a man striking a woman in the street. She looks like she will tumble over the wall. Based on his clothing, I am assuming he’s a sailor. Behind them is a home with people on the porch and a woman at the window. She would see what the man was doing. There is no sense that the people are rushing to prevent what is happening. 

On the right side of the central figure are several images of separate places & events, possibly linked in a more significant way. There is a train yard & a fire nearby. A man leads a burro, and a figure sits on the animal shrouded in a black veil, likely to mean Death. The man is leading the animal through hills. Nestled in the center of the largest cluster of hills is a stylized red face, leering with three horns. I assume this is meant to be a representation of the Christian Devil. This also causes me to wonder if the man, the burro, and the veiled figure are some sort of reinterpretation of Mary & Joseph on their way to Bethlehem. Catholicism has a strong foothold in Puerto Rico, as in many Spanish-speaking countries, due to its violent imposition on the indigenous people by colonizers. There are figures at the base of the hills pointing at the Devil’s face. Below them are several images of death. Women grieve over graves in a cemetery. However, skeletons push the stones aside and climb out of their graves. Is this the work of the Devil or something else?

Looking at the bottom half, there is a second central figure. While the blue-green figure above is centered slightly to the left, this figure is centered slightly to the right. I assume this is meant to create a sense of balance in the center of the painting. The bottom central figure is a hoofed animal raised on its back legs. At first glance, because of aspects of the anatomy, I thought this was a horse, but a closer look leads me to believe it’s an amalgamation of things. The body is like a horse, but the face seems like a bull. It also has three horns like the Devil figure. It has an exceptionally long tail, and the base of the tail reminds me of the threads of leather on a whip. The point of the tail points all the way to the top half around the Devil’s face. This animal also sports three horns, clearly wanting us to make a connection between it and the Devil figure. The animal is rearing up, fire coming from its nostrils. It appears to be about to bring its front hooves down on the woman below, holding up an effigy of Mary, the Mother of Christ in Christian mythology. The front hooves also appear skeletal, lacking the skin we see on the rest of the creature. Another allusion to Death?

On either side of the animal are figures that appear to be in a state of mourning. However, just to the animal’s left, we see a cart where a man appears to be selling food? There is also a little boy holding up what seems to be a tray of eggs. To the far left, we see what I assume is the woman being struck in the top half. She is a chair carried by men, followed by a procession of people. The woman has a blood stain across her neck and the top of her dress. In front of the march is an old woman who has raised her arms in a cross. This gesture looks both like a way of protecting herself from harm and as a form of defiance, a refusal to fully accept the injury that is coming.

Behind the animal are white men wearing military uniforms. All but one of them face the procession carrying the woman. They have their hats off, and one man holds a hand over his heart. A woman in a red dress is also between the procession and the soldiers. I believe she is wiping her eye with a handkerchief. Behind her is an open window to a house. Inside, a figure has its back turned to us. One of the soldiers is also not facing the procession and has his back on the viewer. His hat is also on, and his right arm is extended into the sky, just below the orange splotches in the top half I have assumed are islands.

On the right side of the animal, we see more people in a state of mourning. Women wear white veils and face the left side of the painting, heads bowed. The men face us but have their heads turned to the ground. There are two women on the ground. One in a blue dress holds the other in a white dress. The woman in the white dress has dropped two things: a handkerchief and a photo of someone. There is also someone in the crowd of mourning raising a machete. Also, a figure stands out to me. Among the mourning women is an older-looking man in a red shirt. He is looking at us. Something about him, the detail of his face, leads me to believe this is an important person in the narrative of this mural. 

Whew. Let us find out what is going on here.

First, we need to know who Rafael Tufiño was. He was a Puerto Rican painter born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1922. However, when he died at age 85, he did so in Condado, Puerto Rico. Condado is one of the 40 sub-barrios of San Juan. Tufiño was known on the island as “The Painter of the People.” At age 10, he moved to Puerta de Tierra (another San Juan neighborhood) to live with his grandmother. At age 12, he began working in a sign painter’s workshop. As a young man, he participated in the compulsory military service of World War II from 1943-1946. He used the GI Bill to move to Mexico and studied painting & engraving at the San Carlos Academy. It was there he was exposed to the ideas of populism & socialism and mural paintings done by Diego Rivera. Tufiño returned to Puerto Rico in 1949 and joined the Graphic Arts Workshop of the Community Education Division which had been created to push information about public health. 

In the 1950s, an art movement in Puerto Rico called “Generación de los Cincuentas” created a new identity for the island’s people. The purpose of Mural de La Plena is to commemorate the musical style of la plena that came out of the city of Ponce around 1900, on the island’s southern half. The mural illustrates the lyrics of multiple popular la plena songs. The blue-green figure that dominates the upper half is from a song called “Temporal” about a terrible hurricane that devastated the island. Plena was a musical form used to spread the news of current events through music. In an era before the internet or widely available news, this was a democratized way for the people to take an active part in spreading information about monumental things that had happened to Puerto Rico even if they did not live in the area where it took place.

The painting actually captures 12 separate la plena songs:

  1. Cortaron a Elena – the story of a woman who is the victim of a crime of passion and is taken to the hospital.
  2. Temporal – previously mentioned, about a horrible hurricane that killed many people.
  3. El perro de San Jerónimo – the story of a Taino man who was pursued by a Spanish dog. Before the dog could strike, the man prayed to the god Yukiyú who appeared and turned the dog into stone. This is the cluster I thought was simply islands.
  4. Josefina – this appears to be about the woman in red wiping her eyes and the soldiers with their hats off. 
  5. Santa Maria – this is the song behind the strange creature. Funny enough, it is about a procession of people bringing icons of the Virgin Mary to “fight a monster,” which was a captive manatee at a small-town fair. 
  6. Tintorera del Mar – this is where the imagery of the fish and the trainyard is apparently derived from
  7. Fuego, Fuego, Fuego – this is the large fire in the top right, obviously about a fire that devastated a community.
  8. Monchin del alma – this is related to the man leading the burro. Even Ariana couldn’t really translate the title for me.
  9. Cuando las mujeres – This is connected to the women mourning at the cemetery. It is a song about the depth of love a woman has for her partner, including lighting candles at their graves in the hope their souls will stay close to them. 
  10. Tanta vanidad – this is connected to the skeletons rising out of their graves. The song is about the moral wrongness of a society that segregates the bodies of Black people in separate cemeteries, telling us that in death, we all end up in the same place, the cold ground. 
  11. Lola – related to the woman in the bottom right in the white dress, I am guessing this is a typical song about a woman who dies of grief because the man in the photo has left her or died in some fashion.
  12. El diablo colorao – I could only find some lyrics for this one, and they just appear to lament about the Devil being corrupting.

The figure that stood out on the right was, in fact, an important person. That is Manuel Jimenez, ‘El Canario’. Jimenez was a Puerto Rican musician famous for his work in la plena. In the 1930s, he expanded the sound by introducing piano, horns, bass, and other instruments for a ‘big band’ type of effect. Rafael Tufiño also puts himself in the painting, just a few people over from Jimenez.

So we know what is in the painting and what it is meant to represent on a superficial level. I think Tufiño was showing influences of populist art, using the stories told in la plena to capture the scale of Puerto Rican history. For a tiny place, there is a lot of history there, and so often, the unrelenting thump of capitalism pushes back the old in place of the new. Once they have sold you an old product or something that exists in the public domain, it loses value in the West. By making this a mural of such a breathtaking scale, Tufiño wants the viewer to be reminded of the richness of his people’s stories and culture. I also think there are allusions to the way colonialism used religion as a means to subjugate people.

From 1950 thru 1954, there were a series of revolts by the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, which sought independence from the United States. These insurrections were suppressed by the U.S. military using air and ground forces. Two Puerto Rican revolutionaries even attempted to assassinate President Truman, who was simply shifting the island into a commonwealth while still imposing the same colonial rule. In 1952, 82% of Puerto Ricans voted in favor of this change, but the Nationalists rightly saw this as political theater to create the guise that the island’s people supported the rule of the U.S. 

Today, Puerto Rico is controlled by a federal board that has weighed it down with debts that are intentionally impossible to pay back, turning the island into an eternally indentured servant to the empire. Internet figures like Logan Paul, who benefit from a special tax exemption not available to native Puerto Ricans. Any income sourced in Puerto Rico is tax-exempt for a U.S. citizen, and they get to keep future benefits like social security & medicare. This has also led to a growing number of white supremacists buying property on the island who see it as a paradise to ‘conquer’ and a place to hide money. Damage caused by hurricanes has led the already underfunded infrastructure to crumble, and it is not being repaired. Instead, private corporations are being given contracts to handle everything from the energy grid to public education. The white woman that ran the privatization of schools was actually arrested by the FBI in 2019

I see Tufiño’s mural as both a celebration of his culture and a condemnation of the horrors wrought on his people at the hands of American imperialism. The only solution for me is complete independence for Puerto Rico, the ability to create their own destiny, no longer shackled to colonialism. These people have been slaves since fucking Columbus landed there. If that means the complete and utter destruction of the American Empire, good, let it burn into ash. I wish no harm to the American people, but their institutions and systems of power should be damned to hell for eternity.

Till next time.


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