Perry Vasquez and "Keep On Crossin'" Installation in TRANSactions, Photo: Michael Elderman.
Keep On Truckin' 'N' Crossin':
A Meditation on Cultural Miscegenation
by Philip Auslander
Photo: Perry Vasquez
Seeing the wall of Perry Vasquez’s “Keep On Crossin’” prints, part of Vasquez and Victor Payan’s Keep On Crossin’ Project, in TRANSactions: Contemporary Latin American and Latino Art at the High Museum of Art recently, I was struck by the way Vasquez brought together two of the biggest names in graphic art of the 1960s: Andy Warhol and R. Crumb. This is a provocative blend: Warhol, the graphic artist turned art world operative, and Crumb, one of the creators of the genre of underground comix, represent two very different and, in some ways, mutually antagonistic cultural contexts. Vasquez’s seemingly infinite replication of the image in different color schemes is Warholesque, but the more compelling aspect of the piece is his appropriation of the phrase “Keep On Truckin’” and the happy figure strutting his way through life from Crumb. Vasquez and Payan translate “Keep on Truckin’” into “Keep on Crossin’” and Crumb’s anonymous suited men into a generic Mexican truckin’ his way across the border. Crumb first used the expression, and those figures, in the mid-1960s; they were taken up by the hippie subculture as an expression of combined determination and insouciance. Vasquez and Payan have repurposed them to address the issues surrounding illegal immigration.
At one level, then, “Keep On Crossin’” is a pair of Chicano artists’ appropriation of an older white artist’s work, and a 21st century reworking of an image and idea associated with a mid-20th century subculture through the eyes of a currently embattled community. But as I looked at the wall of images, I thought about the dense web of cultural allusions and appropriations that lies behind it, a web that entangles, in one way or another, the East and West coasts of the United States, and cultural expression associated with African-American, Mexican-American, and white American subcultures.
Crumb did not coin the phrase “Keep on Truckin’” (indeed, a court of law eventually found that the phrase is in the public domain and that Crumb had improperly earned royalties from it, which he was compelled to pay back). It originates in a 1936 blues recording by Blind Boy Fuller and appears in a number of blues and novelty records of the era, where it is used as sexual innuendo. In the early 1970s, the San Francisco rock bands The Grateful Dead and Hot Tuna had hits built around the phrase (respectively “Truckin’” and “Keep on Truckin’” a pastiche of Fuller’s song and others related to it). These bands’ use of the phrase was undoubtedly inspired by Crumb but it also represents another means by which it found its way into the hippie lexicon.
Truckin’ was also a dance step popular in the Harlem dance halls of the 1930s and 1940s (it was a shuffle step that was incorporated into the Big Apple and served as the basis for the Suzi-Q). In 1936, Ina Ray Hutton and Her Melodears, an all-female big band, recorded a song called “Truckin’” that referred explicitly to the way the “uptown” (read: Harlem) dance had become popular “downtown” (read: among white people). Crumb, an avid collector of vintage 78 rpm discs from the 1920s and 30s--and a sometime musician whose band, R. Crumb and His Cheap Suit Serenaders, performed such music--was undoubtedly aware of these sources and the way both expression and dance had passed from black culture into cultural contexts dominated by whites. In short, the R. Crumb image is not the point of origin of the verbal and visual iconography Vasquez and Payan appropriated; Crumb’s use of it was also an act of appropriation that furthered the cultural miscegenation around Truckin’ that began in the 1930s.
Monitos from the Keep On Crossin' Project. Photo: Perry Vasquez.
Although I have been unable to determine whether the Truckin’ dance was taken up by Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles during the 1930s and 1940s, it is clear that African-American popular culture had a strong influence on the Chicano youth of the period. There was, of course, a well-established African-American community in Los Angeles that welcomed visits from East Coast jazz and dance bands. These visiting musicians inspired the development of an indigenous West Coast jazz scene but also numbered young Chicano dancers among their passionate followers. Another mark of this connection between Harlem and LA was sartorial: the zoot suit, adopted equally by Harlem hipsters and pachucos in LA.
Although the precise origins of the zoot suit are obscure, it is generally thought to have originated in African-American culture on the East Coast—it is perhaps ironic that one frequently cited source is Clark Gable’s costume in Gone With The Wind! In any case, it became an expression of subcultural status on both coasts, associated with African-American youth on the East Coast and Chicano and Fillipino youth on the West Coast. In both cases, it expressed alienation from the majority culture. According to Shane and Graham White, the authors of Stylin': African American Expressive Culture from Its Beginnings to the Zoot Suit, “Pachucos created a subculture with a mysterious argot that incorporated archaic Spanish, modern Spanish, and English slang words. They dressed in zoot suits, creating a distinct style that identified them as neither Mexican nor American, but that emphasized their social detachment and isolation.” (In one of the sadder chapters of this story, the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, violent confrontations between zoot suiters and predominantly white servicemen who questioned their patriotism in time of war, began in Los Angeles and moved eastward, thus reversing the migratory pattern of the fashion itself.)
For George Sanchez, a participant in the LA scene, the pachuco’s zoot suit was not just an expression of cultural alienation: “[The zoot suit] was [used] to really assert that, you know, we are here, and we want to make a statement about the fact that we're here. But it was also, I think, a connection with other minority and poor youth in the United States. I mean, a zoot suit was also worn by black youth, certainly worn by Malcolm X in New York. So there was a sense that the zoot suit was not just a Mexican dress, it was also a connection with other minority youth, but in Los Angeles also was representative of the Mexican American population. . . .” Along with music and dancing, the zoot suit was part of a vocabulary of social expression shared by minority communities on the East and West Coasts.
My point is that Vasquez and Payan’s appropriation from R. Crumb is not an isolated occurrence. It is, rather, the most recent link in a chain of complex interconnections among multiple social groups marked by both shared and appropriated cultural artifacts, connections that span a continent, extend over more than 70 years, and have found expression in music, dance, fashion, and the visual arts. Along this chain, meaning keeps on truckin’ and crosssin’: although verbal phrases, musical styles, items of clothing, and visual images assume different meanings and associations as they are taken up by different groups in different times and places for their own particular purposes, the new meanings add to and enrich the existing ones but never fully supplant them.
TRANSactions, organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego from its collection, will be on view at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta through May 4, 2008. It will travel to the Weatherspoon Art Museum at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, where it will be on view from June 22 through September 21, 2008.
Philip Auslander teaches Performance Studies in the School of Literature, Communication, and Culture of the Georgia Institute of Technology.