Cha/Cha/Cha: A Latin American Twist to 1970s New York

April 23, 2018

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Guests, participants, performers or guides, “Interpenactors,” at art happening, “Interpenning,” created by Marta Minujin, with technical assistant, Gary Glover. Included an Invisible Architecture by Juan Downey. Summergarden Program, August 11, 1972. Photographic Archive. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York. Source: https://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2016/07/27/take-a-breather-summergarden-at-moma/

 

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Leandro Katz, Laura Márquez, Beba Damianovich, friends, Amaro (Oiticica’s model), Hélio Oiticica, Jon Tob Azulay, Susana Perea and Ted Castle. Inwood Hill Park, event for the installation of Katz’ piece Columna I –Angualasto, New York, 1971. Courtesy Leandro Katz

 

In 1974, Marta Minujín, Julián Cairol, and Juan Downey created the magazine Cha/Cha/Cha to promote the work of Latin American artists living in the United States. Though it was never published or even designed, circulating only as a typewritten document around New York’s underground, Cha/Cha/Cha gained mythical status and played a key role in the history of contemporary Latin American art. Its conception demonstrates the group consciousness shared by these migrant artists and their search for strategies of cultural insertion to overcome the difficult status of being halfway between the North American art scene and their countries of origin.

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“Cha/Cha/Cha. A Magazine of Art Criticism Dedicated to the Investigation of the Latin-American Artistic Production,” undated and unpaged document, folder “Cha Cha Cha”, Marta Minujín Archives, Buenos Aires

For decades Cha/Cha/Cha existed only as a rumor, mentioned by artists in conversation.[1] However, the magazine’s press release and a few of the interviews made for it were recently recuperated during the reorganization of Marta Minujín’s archive in Buenos Aires.

In the magazine’s press release, the editors identified one of the main problems of Latin Americans in New York: that their work “remain[ed] unknown to the[ir] countries of origin.” For that reason, the magazine would have a double goal of “restor[ing] this cultural patrimony and mak[ing] it known in all Latin America and within the Latin community [‘comunidad latina’] in this country [the US].” It would also disseminate “material concerning the artistic activities taking place in Latin American countries and Europe.” While information exchange was the immediate goal, the authors were aware that their mission was even more ambitious: attempting to redefine regional culture to serve as a “critical document for the investigation of the significance of Latin American artistic production.” Thus, Cha/Cha/Cha identified how the metropolitan scenery of New York offered an alternative space for identity formation and regional political awareness to overlap. In this context, the struggle for visibility changed the traditional attachments to the nation-state, proposing instead a Pan-American consciousness. [2]

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Juan Downey, documentation of Gordon Matta Clark and Juan Downey’s Fresh Air, 1972. Courtesy Marilys Belt de Downey

As explained by Julián Cairol in his interview with Juan Downey, “the magazine attempts immediately a problem of consciousness—that eternal disintegration—because [the Latin American artist in the US] is integrated neither here nor there.” However, such indeterminacy was seen not simply as a disadvantage, but also as a possible critical condition through which to avoid “being swallowed by American life.”[3]

Cha/Cha/Cha was distributed manually among the New York arts community, and never achieved its goal of printing “100,000 copies which will be distributed in universities, museums, schools, libraries, and cultural centers.” Although the dream was to add materials by “outstanding critics, artists and intellectuals living in Latin America, the United States and Europe,” the magazine really only consisted of interviews between its founders and a few invited guests.[4]

The dialogues in Cha/Cha/Cha were not necessarily focused on the answers of the interviewees. The questions, extensive and creative, often became their own formulations. A good example of this was the March 30, 1974 interview between the editorial committee, comprising Cairol, Minujín and Claudio Badal, and Chilean artist Enrique Castro-Cid. The second question stated, “Latin American artists [position themselves] beyond the universal status conferred by their profession, and unlike other foreign artists, in an antagonistic position [that] suggests a problem of consciousness [and an] opposition to a society that for political and economic reasons is recognized all over Latin America as opposed to their interests.” While Castro Cid evaded an answer about art and politics, confessing that he only thought about “pretty basic” things, all through the interview the editorial committee insisted on asking rhetorical questions, even citing Plato, King Solomon and Saint Augustine, while the artist responded evasively or monosyllabically. At a certain point, Castro Cid even replies “you ask me for an idiosyncrasy rather than an answer.”[5]

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Interview between Enrique Castro Cid, Marta Minujín, Claudio Badal, and Julián Cairol. Undated and unpaged document, folder "Cha Cha Cha", Marta Minujín Archives, Buenos Aires

 

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Hélio Oiticica, Parangolé Cape 30 in the New York City Subway (1972). Courtesy of César and Claudio Oiticica, Rio de Janeiro

Marilys Belt Downey, wife of the Chilean artist Juan Downey, also collaborated with the magazine. In her interview of Julián Cairol, they discussed how to cook Cuban-style rice and the use of bananas, or “male plantains” [plátano macho], which offered an excuse for debate on issues of gender (“there is no banana that can be called feminine”), cultural identity and nationalism. On this, hemispheric affiliations became a central part of argument: Cairol, who was Argentinean, confessed that “the only thing that relates me to Cuba is being from Latin America, in a way I adopt an idea of Cuba because I believe I can recognize it inside my Latin American being.” [6]

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"Marilina Downey interviews Julian Cairol." Undated and unpaged document, folder "Cha Cha Cha", Marta Minujín Archives, Buenos Aires

Minujín remembers at least twelve conversations between the magazine’s editors and friends, always organized around a particular theme such as food or philosophy. These were recorded on videotape, to be transcribed and typed later. The typed pages were handed to friends and acquaintances, but these copies were never composed in a design layout.

The name of the magazine, honoring the eponymous Cuban dance and rhythm, was chosen by its association with celebration and playfulness. Perhaps the artists dreamed their artistic production, just as Latin American as cha cha chá, could be equally successful and popular in the United States as the music.[7] Interestingly, the name of the rhythm is also debated: Enrique Jorrín, the musician that created and popularized the cha cha chá, explains it as a onomatopoeia of the rapid syncope of the rhythm, but other authors associate the term with ritualistic dances of local native cultures, for which the Indians used rattles using some seedpods called “cha cha” as percussion.[8]

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Hannah Weiner, Scott Burton, Anne Waldman, Vito Acconi, Bernadette Mayer, Eduardo Costa and John Perreault, New York City, 1969. Eduardo Costa’s Archives

In its hemispheric affirmation of identity, Cha/Cha/Cha demonstrates a change of paradigm among these migrant artists in New York. While the postwar developmentalist dream led these artists toward internationalist definitions, the realpolitik of the migrant experience, the political and economical crisis throughout the continent, and the incipient failure of the revolutionary utopias made identification as Latin American at least necessary, even if not desired. Latin Americanism thus became a framework and common stand in a New York that was not inclusive. In this way, Latino artists in the US and their Latin American counterparts from the 1960s were pioneers who opened the path for identity politics that was to gather strength the following decade with the arrival of multiculturalism. 


[1] The magazine is briefly mentioned by Minujín in Daniel Quiles, “1000 Words: Marta Minujín” in Art Forum, (48, 9-10 2010) 159.

[2] “Cha/Cha/Cha. A Magazine of Art Criticism Dedicated to the Investigation of the Latin-American Artistic Production,” undated and unpaged document, folder “Cha Cha Cha”, Marta Minujín Archives, Buenos Aires. [Original Document in English. A Spanish version of this document is also available in the archive.]

[3] “Juan Downey interroga a Julián Cairol,” undated and unpaged document, folder “Cha Cha Cha”, Marta Minujín Archives, Buenos Aires. [Translation by the autor.]

[4] “Cha/Cha/Cha. A Magazine of Art Criticism”

[5] “Entrevista a Enrique Castro Cid,” undated and unpaged document, folder “Cha Cha Cha”, Archivos Marta Minujín, Buenos Aires. [Translation by the author.]

[6] “Marilis [sic] Downey entrevista a Julián Cairol” undated and unpaged document, folder “Cha Cha Cha”, Archivos Marta Minujín, Buenos Aires. [Translation by the author.]

[7] Marta Minujín, phone interview with the artist.

[8] Enrique Jorrín. “Origen del chachachá.” Signos (3, 1971) 49. Disputing the rythm’s individual invention see Hettie Malcomson, “The 'routes' and 'roots' of "danzón": a critique of the history of a genre” in Popular Music, Vol. 30, No. 2, Special Issue on Crossing Borders: Music of Latin America (May 2011), 268. Finally, see http://www.dance-america.com/history-of-the-cha-cha-dance-81.html