Published on July 20th, 2013 | by Apuntes LJ


Enrique Chagoya

The Mexican-born Artist Talks About His Life and Art

About Enrique Chagoya
Photograph by Linda Cicero Enrique Chagoya is an artist and professor of Art and Art History at Stanford University. His work can be found in many public collections, including those of the Museum of Modern Art in New York; the Metropolitan Museum; the Whitney Museum of American Art; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Mr. Chagoya holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the San Francisco Art Institute and Master of Art and Master of Fine Arts degrees from the University of California at Berkeley. In 1995 he won a residency to live and work at Monet’s Giverny gardens outside of Paris, France; and in 1999 he had a residency at the Cité international des Arts in Paris. In the fall of 2007, the Des Moines Art Center in Iowa launched a 25-year survey exhibition of his work; the exhibition traveled to the Berkeley Art Museum and the Palm Springs Museum in California.
Professor Chagoya lives and works in Stanford, California.

Apuntes: You were born in Mexico and came to the US when you were about 24?

EC: Yes, that’s right.

Apuntes: Tell us about your childhood, your early experiences.

EC: Growing up in Mexico City was a mix of experiences. First of all, my family was kind of a mix itself. My dad comes from an indigenous background: his family is from Teotihuacán, where the giant pyramids are; I still have some relatives in San Juan Teotihuacán, a town not far from Mexico City; I visit them sometimes, go there on Sundays to have picnics and go to the pyramids.  My mother is more fair-skinned, more Spanish looking, although she grew up in the countryside, outside of Mexico City. My grandparents on my mother’s side sold their farm and moved to Mexico City, and that’s where my mother and father met.

I grew up with an Indian nanny. Not that my parents had much money: they were working class, and both of them worked. But middle-class people in Mexico generally have someone work in the house. My nanny took care of me and my two younger sisters. She was a Nahuatl Indian, and sometimes she talked to me in Nahuatl. And sometimes I went out with her and her boyfriend, a soldier, who was also a Nahuatl Indian; I called him her “General,” which would make him laugh. The two of them spoke in their Nahuatlan language, so although unaware of it at the time, I was being exposed to different cultural elements.

I was also exposed to the traditional Catholic culture of Mexico.  We used to go to church on Sundays, and I was sent to private Catholic schools. I used to go to Baroque churches, and was exposed to a lot of pretty interesting art inside them.

So I grew up with a mix of cultures. The comingling of cultures was common in Latin America. Mexico was but one expression of it, but similar things could be seen Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, Colombia, any place with Spanish colonial history. The Baroque churches and their vibrant art are still there in many places, even within the United States.

But it is different in the US. The multiculturalism that the US experienced in the 1980s, Latin America experienced in colonial times, when many groups mixed. Not that the mixing ended racism, because that still exists everywhere in Latin America. But at least it did do away with political systems of apartheid or segregation.

Apuntes: Later you studied economics at the UNAM [Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico].

EC: I was at the UNAM from 1971 to 1976, but I didn’t finish my degree in political economics. In 1976 I was offered a job in the countryside and took the job, rather than finishing my schooling. I was getting married to an American sociologist that I met at the university and wanted to get out of my family’s house, so I needed a job. I never did my thesis, so I didn’t get my degree; I also left unfinished a few last semester classes. But the years at the university were a great experience. There were many political refugees from Latin America, and even some from the Spanish Civil War, teaching at my school. We got exposed to a lot of critical thinking in economics and philosophy. It was quite a privilege.

Apuntes: I remember, from my own time there, that politics was very important at the UNAM. I remember being surprised that students from the School of Medicine were the most radical, something you did not see in the US.

EC: There were a lot of student demonstrations in Mexico City in 1968, and the student movement turned into a workers’ movement just before the Olympic Games in October of ‘68. On October 2nd the Tlatelolco Massacre occurred. I was 15 years old at the time, but I still remember the chant of the medical students: “Médicos como Che!  Médicos como Che!” [Doctors like Che Guevara!]. The ’68 movement left an impression on me, not just because it was all over the news, but because my mother was exposed to a shooting. Before the massacre, there were a lot of demonstrations. People were being killed randomly in the demonstrations. My mother came home one day having witnessed the police shooting some kids. I was a teenager, and seeing my mother upset and crying made me upset too.  I wanted to understand what was happening, but at 15 I could not. Three years later, in my last year of high school, I had a better understanding and decided to go with a friend to a demonstration, even though such acts were now forbidden by the government. But we felt it was our constitutional right to demonstrate, to fight for freedom of expression, the freedom to protest peacefully. And it was a peaceful demonstration initially, but there was another massacre, this time instigated by paramilitary groups called the Halcones. I almost got killed, had to run for my life, and that made a big impression on me. It motivated me to study a social science, because I wanted to understand what was going on.

I decided to enroll in the School of Economics.  I was exposed to art since my childhood through my dad; he was a painter who never made a living as an artist. I was painting and drawing and making political cartoons for newspapers from an early age, and I never quit making art, even when I was studying economics. But I decided I would never make a living as an artist.  Not that I was going to be rich with economics, but I thought I would at least be involved in changing something in society and would probably play more of a transformative role than I would being an artist.


“Cannibal” (detail) Enrique Chagoya

Apuntes:  What motivated the move to the US?

EC: That was a few years later. In 1976 I married an American, Jeannine, got the job in the countryside, and we both moved there. I was facilitating a project from the Agrarian Reform Ministry and was in charge of a team of eight facilitators, facilitating loans from private institutions to democratically elected groups of peasants called “ejidos,” which are a type of commune, or land collective. So I was organizing ejidos based on the methodology of Paulo Freire, whose pedagogical theories were being used in Cuba and later in Nicaragua, and in Mexico City, for literacy programs.  

Before I took this job, I was working with a literacy program in a very poor area of Mexico City that housed a million and a half people who had moved to the city from the countryside and taken over land with no services, no water, no drains, no doctors, nothing. A group of Jesuits did a project through an institution called SEPAC [Servicios Educativos Populares Asociación Civil], a non-profit organization, and I joined them. I was doing the illustrations for the books they were publishing, and that’s when I met my wife (now ex-wife). She was working with a different group of Jesuits, and the groups got together.

The project in the countryside was run by former leaders of the student movement, even though it was a government-sponsored project. One of the reasons I joined is that I was familiar with the Paulo Freire methodology, from the literacy program. I felt like a fish in the water: it was a great fit and a great experience.

It got very rough in the countryside, mainly because of corruption. There was corruption within the private institutions, and then the private institutions took advantage of the peasants. They were managing the loans for them. Most of the peasants were illiterate, and that was the reason the bank managers gave for having to manage their money. There was one manager we fought against who took 20 to 30 percent of the money given to the ejidos, amounting to millions of dollars. He would buy cattle at double the market price, from friends. He would rent machinery to grow grass for the cattle, again at twice the normal prices, with no receipts. The peasants knew all of these things: peasants knew everything even if they didn’t know how to read, and they were really upset with him. So I went to denounce him to the regional bank office. I knew they were honest, because my dad used to work for the central bank as an internal security agent. They are very careful about corruption; since they print the money for the country, corruption there would be major economic trouble for the country.

So I denounced this guy, the corrupt bank manager, and he got fired within a month. Then I began to get threats. And we went to trial, but the legal authorities were friends with the former bank employee, and they sided with him and decided the peasants would still have to pay the full amount of the loans they received. The guy was not convicted or anything. And a month later he was working for Nestle. At the same time, my then-wife got very sick from parasites. All these things came together. It’s a long answer to a simple question, but life was pretty complicated in Mexico for me at that moment. My ex-wife got very sick, she almost died, had to be taken to an emergency room to get her appendix taken out. After that, she was afraid of staying in Mexico. And after the threats, my bosses in Mexico City called me back to work in the office. They even offered me a raise to work more at a management level. I said “no thanks.” I don’t like living in an office; I was happy in the countryside, and I quit.

My ex-wife and I decided to move to the United States. We lived briefly in Texas, working as volunteers for the Texas Farm Workers Union. That was a disaster, not as good as working in the countryside. I won’t go into details, because that is another long story, but from there we we moved to the Bay Area, because my ex was originally from San Rafael. And here we made our life.

Initially I wanted to continue studying economics. But the schools here, even UC Berkeley, were not nearly as interesting as the School of Economics in Mexico City. There we criticized every economic theory that exists in the world, all the way from the far right to the far left. We criticized Marx for being Eurocentric, for being overly Darwinist, for saying that what happened in England would happen in the rest of the world, since England was the most developed country economically. We were critical of the socialist economies. We studied the history of bureaucracies from ancient times to socialist bureaucracies, and then we criticized the right-wing theorists:  the free trade and market-based  economic theories of Milton Friedman and the so-called Chicago Boys, where the market is king and everything should be privatized, even the government. In any case, I decided I wasn’t going to go to the school of economics just to fight with my teachers. That’s when I switched to art.

Apuntes:  But you were always interested in art: at what point did you know you wanted to be involved in art?

EC:  I realized art was my thing when I could not stop doing it. That’s something an American artist said: John Baldessari said that the only reason anyone should make art is because it is the only thing you cannot stop doing. And that happened to me: I could not stop doing it. I made art through elementary school, through high school, in college.

Apuntes:  I understand that’s what happened to Chagall, too. Even though his culture didn’t favor his art, he still couldn’t stop doing it.

EC:  Yes, you can’t stop doing it. And many artists, photographers like Sebastiao Salgado, who is one of the greatest photographers in the world, didn’t study art; Sebastiao has a Masters degree in economics. That happened to me, and unfortunately it was the beginning of the end of my marriage. My ex-wife thought it was a frivolous move to do art instead of being an activist trying to change the world. Why art? She couldn’t understand. We fought. She was having trouble being supportive, and eventually she didn’t want to support my career in the arts, would not help pay my schooling at Berkeley, and eventually we divorced. Luckily she got married again, to a political activist, and she is happy. I am happy as well. Many years later I married again, to a painter. And all my personal experiences, my marriages, surviving the student movement, going through economic changes in Mexico, my views of the world and my political ideas – I find a way to express all of that in my art.

Apuntes:  Art gets a lot of respect in Mexico. Mexicans are very proud of their artists. And I get the feeling the same is not true in the US, or am I totally mistaken?

EC:  Yes and no. The muralist movement Mexico, for instance, got completely neutralized by the government. At the beginning, the muralist movement was very political and revolutionary, but just as the Mexican Revolution got corrupted and institutionalized (how do you institutionalize freedom?), so did the muralist movement.  Muralism got pretty much neutered. It was more like political social realism for Mexico, a diversion.  I grew up with that art and didn’t like it as a student.  It was the official art that you got on the cover of your textbooks. There was a rebellion of artists against it, abstract artists in the ‘60s in particular. Today, conceptual art has blossomed in Mexico, and there is a big and productive artistic community, despite the lack of support.

In some ways it is true that there is more respect for the arts in Mexico than in the US. There is more respect for poets, for example. Poets comingle with presidents in Mexico, something rarely seen here; once in a while a poet laureate might get a medal from President Obama, but it is not the same. In Mexico, and in the rest of Latin America, these people are seen as “public” intellectuals.  People like García Márquez in Colombia, or Pablo Neruda in Chile, or even Mario Vargas Llosa in Perú. They might espouse different opinions, like Carlos Fuentes and Octavio Paz in Mexico, who represent the two ends of the political spectrum.  In Latin America, the intellectuals are playing a big role in discussions of social change, something I have not seen in this country. Even in Europe it happens, in other places that have respect for artists.


Enrique Chagoya at the opening of his solo exhibition at Kala Institute in Berkeley, CA.

Apuntes:  You were in France for a while. I get the feeling they respect their art.

EC:  I had two very different experiences in France. One was incredibly nice: living in Giverny at Monet’s Garden. People were fantastic there. I got along with all the gardeners, and we had BBQs. It was beautiful, very bohemian, and I really loved it.  A few years later I went to Paris thinking it was going to be similar, but Paris was different, not very friendly.

People in Paris would not talk to you in another language, only in French. And if you spoke broken French, they would totally ignore you. Once they detect an accent, they prefer to talk to you in your own language. It was a little annoying, I have to say. I don’t want to generalize, as not all Parisians are this nasty, and they are like that with each other as well. I asked a Parisian friend “Why don’t people smile when you go into a store. You buy something, you are totally happy that you are buying something you really like, you are smiling to the cashier, yet the cashier always looks  as if his or her mother just died.” You have a smile on your face, but you don’t get a smile back. That happened everywhere, at a café, at restaurants. The only people who smile back are the non-Parisians. My friend explained that Parisians don’t smile to people they don’t know because that’s considered flirtatious, and when you smile they think you are stupid, or weird, or a foreigner. So I asked her, don’t they have another box to check off, like you are just trying to be friendly? But apparently not.

Towards the end of my stay in Paris I was totally fed up with Parisians. I had had some bad experiences at the Bibliothèque nationale de France because I wanted to see some pre-Columbian books, Mayan books, one of the best collections of Mayan books in the world. I explained to them that I was writing an essay on the destruction of the pre-Columbian books in Mexico, and I had letters from Stanford. Their response was that I should have sent the letters months before. I had to talk to everyone, from the lowest-ranking bureaucrat all the way to the director of the Bibliothèque’s buildings and institutions, and explain the same thing to every single one of them. But they were telling me that a Mexican had stolen pre-Columbian Mayan scripts from the Bibliothèque nationale, so they had to be careful.  I told them those books and pre-Columbian manuscripts were stolen from Mexico in the first place and should not be in the Bibliothèque nationale. I guess they didn’t like that.

Paris was, how can I put it, surprisingly grumpy, or distant, and I wished it hadn’t been that way because I just reacted in self-defense. I made a book in French, The Adventures of the Motherless Cannibals, about French art and French items in the Bibliothèque nationale. I appropriated the images from there. I had them fighting with Mexican heroes. There is an image of Adelita [Mexican iconic woman soldier] knocking down a French soldier at some point. So it was the first time I did something that was not US/Mexico but rather more international. In that sense, it was a good experience for me because I reacted with my art.

Apuntes: Tell us about your art. If I were an alien from another planet trying to understand what you do, how would you explain it?

EC: What I do is try to understand the human species, my fellow humans across borders. I still don’t understand them. I have more questions than answers in my art, and I don’t think I can explain it to any alien visitor because humanity is just so complex and difficult to generalize about. I am trying to put a mirror to ourselves with my art, through history, through cultures, and using different languages sometimes, and showing that people are the same species even though we have different religions, languages, social classes, genders, issues. We have different customs across countries, but we are still the same species. I wish people were a little more involved in going beyond war, beyond the violence that we usually bring against ourselves. In other words, I am trying to understand why people are their own worst enemies. We could be our own best friends just as well.


“The Pastoral of Arcadian State”. Enrique Chagoya.

Apuntes: You are an art historian, and you have written that history is told by those who win wars. Even art history? Or does art history reflect the new realities?

EC: I think what we hear mostly about is western art history. Even in my department at Stanford, there is no Latin American Art History. There was an African Art History that lasted only a few years. There is mostly Western and some Asian studies. The bulk of art history is American and European history, Renaissance, modernism, postmodernism, middle ages. Most of what is written about contemporary art comes from a few western countries and the US.

I was reading some statistics published by a German art institution, about which artists are written the most about in the world. They claim that the artists most written about in critical essays, in magazines and books, are from Germany, England, and the US, followed by artists from a few other countries like France, China, and Brazil. And really far down the list are artists from countries like Spain, Mexico, and Argentina. I discovered that these statistics match the art market. The art market is pretty much dominated by the same countries: the US, England, and Germany, followed perhaps by Switzerland, with Basel. But the US has the most art fairs. Same thing with the Biennials: the most important ones are in Europe and the US. The rest of the biennials are spread like wildflowers throughout the world. There is the Istanbul biennial, the South Africa biennial, there are even biennials in Sydney, Australia, and in Brazil. But none of those biennials gets close to the attention that the American and European biennials get. So it’s very interesting how art critics match the art market in today’s contemporary art history. The winners of wars still write art history. The current and former empires who ruled the world rule the art world; it’s something we have to deal with. And by the way,  I was not the one who wrote that history is written by those who win wars. I don’t even remember where that originated; people say it, and it is still very true.

Apuntes: You have an exhibition coming up?

EC: Yes, I have three exhibitions coming up very soon. One is here in the Bay Area, at the University of the Pacific in Stockton; that one opens in September. Then, in October, I open a solo exhibition in the Basque Country, in the Artium Centro Museo Vasco de Arte Contemporáneo in Victoria, the capital of the Basque country, close to Bilbao and San Sebastián. And then after that, I have a solo show in New York; all these paintings you see here in the studio need to be done by the middle of August.

To view samples of Enrique Chagoya’s art, go to the “Links” section of his website at


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