Cesar Viveros: Inspired by ancestral traditions, cultural legacy and social action

Visitors to the Delaware Art Museum this spring are greeted by a colorful bodega in Orientation Hall. The mural, created by Philadelphia artist Cesar Viveros, celebrates Chicano culture and is inspired by our spring special exhibition, Estampas de la Raza: Contemporary Prints from the Romo Collection.

It’s almost impossible to walk or drive around the city of Philadelphia without admiring a magnificent Cesar Viveros mural. Viveros’ story of how he discovered muralism is as compelling as his art.

Cesar Viveros was born in the town of Veracruz, Mexico, and art was not part of his local high school’s curriculum. That didn’t stop his mechanical drawing teacher from encouraging his students to explore beyond that industrial side of illustration and ignite their creativity. This teacher conceived of contests to encourage the students to create and shared invaluable art supplies like canvas, acrylics, brushes and books. Viveros started making signage for shops and events to earn money. As a Mexican, he claims that murals and art are part of his unconscious, brought up in “muralist country.” People in his home country are used to living and breathing art as part of their daily lives, on the walls of their streets, in public sculptures, even on their currency. Artists like Diego Rivera and David Siqueiro have instilled muralism into Mexican culture.

Art school was not easily accessible to Viveros, financially or geographically. Seeking financial independence, Viveros pursued industrial scuba diving as his professional career instead of art. He was a Jacques Cousteau fan, always dreaming about exploring the oceans. This fantasy led him to work as a diver on an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico. There, he used any industrial paints he could get his hands on to create murals on the scuba departments walls, shops in the port area, and wherever building owners would allow him. His designs included underwater scenes of mermaids and tritons. Soon, other workers began commissioning Viveros to make drawings and paintings for themselves.

As he pursued his art, Viveros was rejected by art galleries big and small. But his luck took a turn in 1997 when Meg Salligman was painting a 10-story high mural in Philadelphia. Viveros, impressed by the work, approached her and offered to volunteer. This opened the door to new opportunities, including directing a 14-story mural in Louisiana celebrating the millennium with 50 artists from around the country.

Through his work at the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, the Philadelphia Catholic Diocese commissioned Viveros to paint a mural for Pope Francis visit in 2015 for the World Meeting of Families. The public was invited to help paint the mural through participation in a series of community paint days which broke a Guinness record for highest number of contributors to a painting. “The Sacred Now: Faith and Family in the 21st Century” mural was a learning experience and great exposure.

While he painted, Viveros worked multiple side jobs to support himself and his family. These gave him the opportunity to experience and learn from his surrounding community and their struggles, which he poured onto his art.

Cesar Viveros work was also guided by his late wife Ana. She was known as the queen of papier-mâché, and she was his inspiration and pillar for many his side projects, including various Ofrendas installations (offerings placed in a home altar during the traditional Mexican Día de los Muertos celebration) and piñatas workshops. This parallel work was focused on sharing culture and heritage. Viveros creates unique art pieces and spaces where stories come alive, like the Cesar Andreú Iglesias Community Garden, also called “el terreno,” where ancient traditions and contemporary art merge. This ongoing project started 10 years ago alongside a socialist group from Philadelphia. They cleaned up a piece of land that was being used as for garbage disposal. Their combined goal was to avoid real estate development of the space. From the beginning, Viveros offered his art as a weapon to fight against displacement, in the way Chicanos did at the southern border in the 70s. “This is a space to celebrate our Latin culture, which is so connected to the earth, and to organize and educate others about it,” says Viveros. With that goal in mind, he and his neighbors started to establish activities like food justice workshops, classes on sowing and harvesting corn and building a “barbacoa” (a hole dug in the ground covered with agave leaves). They shared sweat lodge ritual practices, Aztec Dances and ceremonies, and displayed altars for Day of the Dead celebrations, and created sculptures and mosaics. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the garden turned into a safe space for the community. Viveros found refuge and motivation in “el terreno.”

Viveros considers himself a Chicano art fan, inspired by the movement’s use of art for social action. When contacted by the Delaware Art Museum to create art inspired by the Estampas de la Raza exhibition, he saw s a window of opportunity to promote Chicano and Latino art in the area. He had the opportunity to meet and listen to members of the Hispanic American Association of Delaware and Los Abuelos, a senior group from the Latin American Community Center. “Meeting with the community of Delaware provided me with many stories that can be told through the use of ink and paper. My hope is that people can see themselves reflected in this transitional art, either displayed in a museum or attached to a wall,” shared Viveros. The mural painted by Viveros at DelArt represents a bodega or tienda de la esquina, a typical corner store which serves as a daily point of encounter in Latino neighborhoods. The bodega provides a gathering place where conversations about social and political issues can unfold. Screen prints are commonly posted in bodegas to advertise social events, political marches, and popular activities. Viveros remembers how screen printing was the most affordable way to promote these events, since the mainstream media wouldn’t provide the time or space for it. “This was before the Internet,” said Viveros, “and the only way to do outreach was to hang posters at the bodega in the barrio.”

Cesar Vivero’s goal is to take this type of art to more museums and galleries. He highlights the importance of giving recognition to Chicano and Latino artists. That is why he thinks Estampas de la Raza is an important exhibition in a greater movement. “DelArt is providing the space; now it’s time for the community of artists to take advantage of the opportunity that has been presented to them. Nobody will do the work for you, so if there’s a microphone, I will grab it; if there’s a stage, I’ll come up.”

Like all of Viveros’ work, this mural extends beyond its walls to the community around it. The screen prints on view in DelArt’s Orientation Hall are also posted on Latino businesses throughout Wilmington, bringing art into the neighborhoods that inspired it.

Veronica V. Vasko

My Life, My Voice is organized by the Delaware Art Museum, with generous support provided by Art Bridges. Screen printing by BadLandz Media House. This organization is supported, in part, by a grant from the Delaware Division of the Arts, a state agency, in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts. The Division promotes Delaware arts events on www.DelawareScene.com.

Top: Cesar Viveros in front of My Life, My Voice: Occupying Spaces mural. Photo by Shannon Woodloe.