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‘Las Rebeldes’ make art of Detroit Chicana life-stories

Image from “Las Rebeldes” COURTESY IMAGE

Image from “Las Rebeldes” COURTESY IMAGE

By Phreddy Wischusen
The Michigan Citizen

Proverbial wisdom holds art imitates life, and life imitates art. In the new exhibit “Las Rebeldes (The Rebels),” various students, scholars, artists and activists have collaborated to make art directly from the oral histories and personal ephemera of four women who shaped the Chicana movement in Michigan.

Guided by exhibit curator and University of Michigan professor Dr. Maria Cotera, U-M students interviewed Jane Garcia, Maria Guadiana, Elena Herrada and Emily Martinez. All four women have been involved with or have led various community and activist groups and movements, including the Brown Berets, the United Farm Workers, La Sed and the Detroit Public School Board.

In addition, they serve as repositories for Latina/o cultural wisdom and history.

“We are the grassroots keepers of our flame in our communities,” says Herrada.

In addition to their oral histories, the U-M students meticulously collected the women’s documents — photos, old newspapers, manuscripts — for study and digital archive.

“After the term ended, we handed our collected materials over to Hannah Smotrich in the U-M school of Art and Design, and in the winter term, she had her Designing for Exhibitions class create (“Las Rebeldes”),” Cotera told the Michigan Citizen. “The students in her class have worked their asses off, and they are super committed, which makes me think that ‘real world’ experiences energize students in unexpected ways.”

Cotera says translating the oral histories and archives into an exhibit was a challenge, mainly because it required a different skill set — visual, collaborative — than what scholars do, that is write books and articles.

“It has been immensely rewarding though, and it has given me fresh insights into Latino history in Michigan,” she says. “The biggest discovery for me has been how little we know about the history of Latinos in Michigan, and how much work there is to do. I am excited by this (not daunted!), and I hope that this small contribution will inspire others to start doing the important scholarly research that needs to be done, especially in terms of talking to people who were active in Latino politics in the 1960s and 1970s. They have so much local knowledge that is in serious danger of being lost!”

Herrada, who has been collecting Latina/o oral histories herself since 1978, attributes the apocryphal nature of their history in southeastern Michigan to cultural traits. According to Herrada, Mexican Americans are traditionally reticent when it comes to personal narratives; quoting scholar John Phillip Santos, she says, “Forgetting is to Mexicans is what remembering is to Jews.”

Herrada believes some of this cultural reticence comes stems from the Repatriation, a forced migration of over a million Mexican and Mexican Americans (many of whom were citizens of the U.S. — born on U.S. soil — who like her father’s family had never been to Mexico) to Mexico during the early 30s. Families were broken up, homes and property lost, and many died during the Repatriation.

The Chicana/o movements in the 60s and 70s fought for justice at the time and to prevent history from repeating itself. Now much Herrada’s and Cotera’s work is engaged in keeping many generations’ stories alive and relevant.

“Las Rebeldes” will be on display at El Museo del Norte, which is currently located in the Boulevard House, a building loaned to the museum by the People’s Community Services.

“The goal of El Museo del Norte is to document the history of Latina/os in the Midwest and to build a museum and cultural center focused on community stories,” says Cotera.  Similar to another one of her projects, Chicana por Mi Raza, one of the largest digital archives of Chicana oral histories and documents in the world, Cotera hopes to develop archival literacy among community members and grow both the audience for the museum and as its collection.

The show, Herrada insists, ins’t merely aesthetically pleasing or simply educational. “It’s our personal connection to the movement,” she says.

An opening reception for “Las Rebeldes” will take place May 4 at the Boulevard House (412 W. Grand Blvd. Detroit) from 2-5 p.m. For more information, visit

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