‘Queerly Tèhuäntin | Cuir Us’ exhibition is currently on display at Galería de la Raza on 24th Street in the Mission District, San Francisco, Saturday Aug. 12, 2017. (Photo by Ekevara Kitpowsong)

In Ester Hernández’s print “La Ofrenda,” displayed in the Galería de la Raza on 24th Street, a woman holds out a rose to a the Virgin of Guadalupe, who’s tattooed onto the back of another woman.

“This artist is offering a rose both to the Virgin of Guadalupe, but also to her lover,” exhibit co-curator Ed McCaughan said. “This was incredibly controversial when she created it in 1990. She got a lot of backlash.”

The work by Hernández is  just one of many by queer Mexican and Mexican-American artists displayed in Galería de la Raza’s new show, “Queerly Tèhuäntin/Cuir Us,” which opened Friday, Aug. 11.

Galería de la Raza’s Executive Director Ani Rivera and McCaughan, a former professor at California State University, San Francisco, and the author of Art and Social Movements: Cultural Politics in Mexico and Aztlán, began planning the gallery’s new exhibit a couple of years ago over shots of tequila. Their goal was to bring together queer-identified artists from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, and from both older and younger generations.

The pieces mix traditional and radical cultural elements to create images that are both familiar and off-putting.

In Joey Terrill’s pop-art-inspired “Still-life with Viracept,” H.I.V. pills sit on a table among everyday products, including Arm & Hammer detergent and a Warhol-styled banana. In Felix D’Eon’s digital illustrations, scenes involving male lovers reappropriate classic Mexican advertisements and imagery from the 19th century.

Gabriel García Román’s “queer icon” collage series gives queer activists saint-like attributes. Naomi Rincón Gallardo’s “The Formaldehyde Trip” video follows a representation activist, Bety Cariño, as she makes her way through the underworld.

McCaughan, a social scientist by trade, started doing research on revolutionary movements in Mexico in the 1970s. He wrote a book about the role of art in Mexican activist movements and, in the process, began learning about gay and lesbian artists in Mexico.

A few decades ago, there was no public place for some of the artists in the show – such as Mexican photographer Yolanda Andrade —  to exhibit their work, McCaughan said.  The galleries wouldn’t have them, so they ended up showing their pieces in people’s private homes.

Queer artists in Mexico still face obstacles today. When McCaughan and Rivera went to Mexico City in search of younger generations of artists, McCaughan said they quickly hit a barrier.

“We just hit wall after wall of sexism,” McCaughan said. “The young gay men saying, ‘Oh, there really aren’t any interesting lesbian artists. Lesbians don’t really know how to express their sexuality,’ which we just knew could not possibly be true.”

Even as recently as 2014, Rincón Gallardo and another woman artist received backlash when they created a revisionist history of Mexico’s gay and lesbian movement in a museum exhibit celebrating gay pride.

“They got so much flack, including outlandish threats on social media, because the guys were just so offended they had dared to not just sort of tell the same story that’s told every year about, you know, the three main men who founded the organizations,” McCaughan said.

It was by chance that McCaughan and Rivera found the artist Rurru Mipanochia at Artspace Mexico, a Mexico City gallery run by two gay men. Some of Mipanochia’s bright pen-and-marker drawings depict the Tlazolteotl, a gender-fluid Aztec deity who represents sexuality. McCaughan said they fell in love with the work and, via the gallery, got in touch with the artist.

Somewhere between 200 and 250 people showed up for the exhibit’s opening on Friday, Aug. 11. McCaughan said he was touched by responses from younger attendees.

“For a while we were calling [the exhibit] ‘Queerly Mexican,’” McCaughan said. “And, interestingly, in the conversation with the interns and staff here at Galería, … it wasn’t working for them. Mexican wasn’t enough for them to encompass who they feel that they are.” It was too nationalistic. Chicano didn’t work either — too old-school for the younger generation.

One of Galería de la Raza’s interns brought up the word “Tèhuäntin.” It’s a word in Nahuatl, an indigenous Mexican language, that means “us.” And because some Spanish speakers have adopted the word “cuir” as a Hispanicized version of “queer,” they added that in, too.

“I wasn’t totally sure how much the younger crowd was going to relate to some of the work, and particularly to some of the issues that were older,” McCaughan said.

But many approached the organizers to thank them for the exhibit, according to McCaughan, and for the history it uncovered.

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