The day the towering and talented Ralph Maradiaga went for his final jog is one that Amalia Mesa-Bains will never forget.
“Time passes fast, then all of a sudden you look up and it’s 30 years later,” she said. “It’s emotional because you remember.”
Maradiaga, a co-founder of Galería de la Raza who practiced and called for the education and preservation of Chicano art—before there was such a thing as “Chicano art”—died of an apparent heart attack outside his home on July 19, 1985. He was 50 years old.
Mesa-Bains, an artist who first met Maradiaga in 1969 amid the Chicano movement, was at the galería the day he died. So when she was asked to be the guest curator for Galería’s “Ralph Maradiaga: Sun in Scorpio, an Unerring Gift of Leadership” exhibit, which debuted Saturday, Oct. 4, she didn’t hesitate.
“You want to be sure that his legacy is accessible to a new generation. I think he’s a model,” Mesa-Bains said. “People as well as things can be your inheritance. And Ralph was our inheritance.”
The CEMA Collection at U.C. Santa Barbara inherited the majority of Ralph’s prints, pictures, posters, films and files. That’s where Mesa-Bains has ventured twice since last spring to collect items for the exhibit.
The show, which will feature about 30 pieces—including films, photos, posters and prints—until Nov. 9, appropriately coincides with the season of “Day of the Dead.” Maradiaga, who along with Mesa-Bains’ mentor, Yolanda Garfias-Woo, was an early advocate for the Mexican holiday, would be celebrating his 80th birthday on Oct. 27.
Chicanos, like Maradiaga expanded Dia de los Muertos, which was traditionally used to honor departed family members.
“Chicanos took it and used it to build a historical past by honoring individuals who might have not been your blood relative, but you thought of them as being part of your artistic genealogy,” Mesa-Bains said. “They were your ancestor in a different way. So Ralph is like that for the galería and for lots of people.”
But not everyone appreciated Maradiaga’s attempt at “cultural reclamation.”
“Like many of us, our families didn’t understand the work we were doing,” Mesa-Bains said. “When [his family] saw the reaction when Ralph died so suddenly, that following Day of the Dead–all over, people were doing alters for him– …I think finally, his family maybe realized, ‘Wow, he was important.’ And they didn’t understand exactly why.”
As one makes their way through the space that was once Studio 24, photos adorning the walls narrate Maradiaga’s life as a filmmaker and artist. His early experimental work is on full display, as are his films. The galería was founded in 1970, the same year as El Tecolote. Maradiaga designed the newspaper’s masthead logo, and the exhibit shows a film he shot about the publication.
His prints, posters and calendario sets reflect the partnerships he had with the Latino, black and Native American communities.
One calendario set tells the story of Josefa Segovia, the first Mexican woman who was hanged during the California gold rush after stabbing a man who had assaulted her.
The exhibit ends with the last print Ralph ever made, one called “Lost Childhood.” It shows toys sprawled across a lawn.
“And I always wondered what it meant,” said Mesa-Bains. “Did he not have a childhood, did he grow up too fast?”
Only Maradiaga can answer that.
The «Ralph Maradiaga: Sun in Scorpio, an Unerring Gift of Leadership» exhibit runs through Nov. 9 at Galeria de la Raza 2857 24th St.