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Mar 11, 2020
About two to five times per year, my father put on his eagle feather headdress, suede loincloth, ankle bracelets of bells and feathers, then prepared to dance. Before he fastened his headdress, he carefully positioned a small medicine bag on a string hanging from his neck and double tied the moccasins he had made and beaded himself. Everything he wore he had made himself.
On the equinox and solstice and sometimes at our mountain cabin when he felt like calling in snow to ski on that week, he would dance. Two kinds of people got to see him dance, the rare times he did --- very, very close family and friends who knew him well, or complete strangers who often didn't know his name. When I was 10 -12 years old, he took me with him to visit service clubs in tiny desert towns, far flung from his busy Los Angeles life. I sat on the sidelines in my school clothes and thumped the drum in a one-two beat. He danced, pushed by the rhythm.
Joaquin Enrique Acosta, Jr., was an educated and cultured man. A graduate of Pepperdine and USC, he was one of the few Mexican-American executives of his day. Though he had been an extra, playing an Indian football player in the Burt Lancaster movie, Jim Thorpe, All American (1951), he rarely shared that he had Indian ancestry. Born in 1929, he came into his 30's during a time of seismic cultural change. Yet, even in the 1960s and 70s in Los Angeles, California, a man with dark brown skin and a Spanish name was not welcome in many of the men's clubs or executive dining rooms if he wasn't carrying a mop or a broom.
Assimilation and "the melting pot" was the culture of the day. As long as everything melted together on the white side of the skin-tone chart, social acceptance at all levels of society was ensured. For those who didn't make the color-line, being hugely talented might crack the brown ceiling. My father was both of those things - dark brown and hugely talented.
Joaquin was raised as a pianist prodigy by his gifted mother, Catalina Maria Ortiz Acosta, a concert pianist who participated in the early 20th century Indianist Movement. But he was also physically gifted and his supple hands were never safe from rough sports. An Eagle Scout, pianist and athlete, he excelled as a man of his ethnicity and situation during his era.
But sometimes his facade would crack from the effort it took to sustain his energy as the token Chicano/Mexican American in every boardroom and cocktail party. He lived secret lives. One of those secret lives included dancing to the beat of his own homemade leather and wood drum.
On the equinox and solstice and sometimes at our mountain cabin, when he felt like calling in snow to ski on that week, he would dance. Two kinds of people got to see him dance, the rare times he did --- very close family and friends who knew him well, or complete strangers who often didn't know his name. When I was 10 -12 years old, he took me with him to visit service clubs in tiny desert towns, far flung from his busy Los Angeles life. I would bang the drum and he would dance.
Many years later, when he was in the early stages of dementia, I asked him why he was so secretive about being part Indian.
"It was hard enough being a Mexican," he said, pointing his index finger towards my face, tracing my high cheekbone with a light touch that landed on the tip of my aquiline nose. "There was no way I was going to tell them I was an Indian, too."
He and my grandmother have both passed. I visit these memories beginning with old photos of my grandmother and father in their Native American clothing. The photos are a portal to the memory, then the path of the memory leads me to something I hadn't perceived. Each one of these paintings traces that journey.
NOTE: The 3 original paintings shown here are SOLD. The originals are 36" x 36" mixed acrylic paint with charcoal, graphite and pastel on birch panel with resin. Please enjoy these images as prints in my Natural World Gallery
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