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  • A Genealogy of Rasquache and Camp:Luis Alfaro and the Royal Chicano Air Force
  • Ella Maria Diaz (bio)

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Figure 1.

The photograph appears in Carlos Almaraz’s essay “The Artist As a Revolutionary,” Chismearte 1, no. 1 (1976), 53. Image courtesy of the Cornell University Library.

In the fall of 1976, a photograph appeared in Chismearte, a Chicano/a art magazine published for several years through the Concilio de Arte Popular. The magazine, like the council, was a forum for a regionally diverse community of artists that emerged during the 1960s and made art in service to the Chicano Movement.1 The photograph is featured in Carlos Almaraz’s essay “The Artist as a Revolutionary,” in which he [End Page 105] recalls his artistic production on behalf of the United Farm Workers union (UFW). Framed within Almaraz’s meditations on the rise of a creative class that mixed a New Left political platform with the culturally nationalist tenets of the Chicano Movement, the picture shows Air Force personnel, in military attire, organized in three rows. They stand in front of a plane with the acronym “RcAf” superimposed on its front. One can tell that the letters have been added to the picture and that mustaches have been drawn on the men. The acronym stands for the Royal Chicano Air Force, a Chicano/a art collective founded in Sacramento, California, between 1969 and 1972. Initially named the Rebel Chicano Art Front, the group changed the name when audiences confused the abbreviation with that of the Royal Canadian Air Force.2

If Chismearte readers found the photograph suspicious, then the handwritten caption assuring them of its authenticity was no less dubious. Addressed to “Carlos,” it informs viewers that the picture depicts “RCAF members while on a secreat [sic] mission.”3 The photograph’s humor lies in the sincerity of its artifice. It simultaneously calls attention to the fact that it is not really a photograph of the RCAF while nonetheless insisting on the existence—however fantastic—of a Chicano Air Force. The rudimentary flourishes added to the picture exemplify Tomás Ybarra-Frausto’s description of “rasquache” in Chicano/a art as “making do with what is at hand” in the fashioning of one’s self, one’s home, and other spaces for presentation.4 From the spliced letters and hand-drawn mustaches to its misspelled caption, the photograph’s construction enhances the illusion of historical sincerity, if not the certainty, of a Chicano Air Force. Emerging as a “visceral response to lived reality,” rasquache reflects a resilience and resourcefulness in crafting presentations of selfhood unencumbered by hegemonic notions of taste and propriety.5 But whereas the ingenuity of rasquache may derive from necessity, it reflects a “sort of good taste of bad taste,” Ybarra-Frausto writes, adding that rasquache favors “the elaborate over the simple, the flamboyant over the severe.”6 Ybarra-Frausto’s description of rasquache resonates with notions of camp in European and Anglo-American cultures as well as in queer performance traditions: as a style and manner, camp is likewise funky, improvised, and overstated and often used to produce a non-normative aesthetic sensibility with (or without) political intentions.7 [End Page 106]

Ybarra-Frausto, however, notably resists the connection between camp and rasquache in his catalog essay for Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation, 1965-1985 (CARA), the first nationally touring Chicano/a art show held at several universities and institutions in the 1990s.8 Instead, he turns to the playful and elemental impulses (the acts of fulfilling a basic need) performed in popular Mexican and Mexican American theater during the 1930s and 1940s and their continuation in performances by El Teatro Campesino in the 1960s. El Teatro Campesino drew upon the “rapid corporeal movements interlaced with slapstick actions and pratfalls” of the carpa tradition (tent shows) and the “verbal virtuosity” of Mexican film actor Mario Moreno, better known as Cantínflas.9 Seeking a genealogy of rasquache that draws from a “campesino” rather than camp tradition, Ybarra-Frausto avoids the queer association, as well as the European and Anglo-American influences it likewise connotes. Almaraz’s “funny-looking” photograph meets...


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