San Diego When the time came for Victor Zamudio Taylor to be born, his mother, Guadalupe, deliberately crossed the border -- into Tijuana. She and her husband, Regino, were determined that their son should be born a Mexican.
"For my parents it was very important that we be born in Tijuana," says Zamudio, now 43, "on Mexican land, on Mexican earth."
Zamudio tells his story under the leafy columned patio of the Museum Cafe, sipping cappuccino outside La Jolla's Museum of Contemporary Art. In more ways than one, this is the triumphant return of the native son. Zamudio is visiting as one of the world's experts on contemporary Latino and Chicano art. He came to help curate next year's "Ultra Baroque" show, which is expected to throw new light on Latin American, Chicano, and border art.
"San Diego-Tijuana is what I would call an index of cultural transformation and exchange," he says. "It's a region unto itself. Institutions here and in Tijuana have created a very intense and interesting artistic climate. And what is interesting is that San Diego and Tijuana institutions have a more north-south axis. The Americas. Not the standard California-New York-Paris focus."
Zamudio is one of a new breed of "freelance" curators who take their expertise on the road. He will stage Latino and Chicano art shows anywhere from Budapest to Brooklyn. Latin American art is in. Museum directors and art patrons are realizing it tells the story of our times: the collision of cultures and the confusion and enlightenment that follow.
For a long time, neither Zamudio nor the art he championed was taken seriously. His crusade for Latin American and Chicano art has been a push all the way, with help from such coaches as his parents and UCSD's radical philosopher of the '70s, Herbert Marcuse.
Zamudio now triangulates between his home in New York, where he has close associations with the Museum of Modern Art; Washington D.C., where he advises the Smithsonian on their Latino and Latin American art program; and to a new appointment as curator of Casa Lamm, a richly endowed museum in Mexico City. He has invitations to lecture everywhere from Madrid to Auckland to the Canary Islands.
The art world's attention to the problem of identity between neighboring cultures puts Zamudio in the middle and in demand. In the elitist world of art, Zamudio has made it. He says it's all due to his parents and Balboa Park.
"Education was very important in my house growing up," he says. "If it involved culture and education, there was no limit as to our activities. My parents were members of the San Diego Zoological Society and the San Diego Museum of Art, so we grew up spending weekends in kids' programs and young-adult programs in Balboa Park. Either at the Museum of Man, the Museum of Art, or the zoo. Our parents would drop us off there, and we would attend all these weekend programs. I think that's what got us all interested in the arts at an early age. My two brothers and me."
His parents' enlightened attitude wasn't because they were wealthy and well-educated. "My father was a diesel mechanic. He was a brilliant student who couldn't go on to university, and my mother was an avid reader and a lover of art and history -- and a housewife."
Zamudio's family story is at least partly a refugee's story. "This sounds like a Garcia Márquez story," he says. "My father's family were refugees from Christian wars in Mexico, in the late 1920s. The Zamudios had an ice cream shop in Colima. My paternal grandfather would bring blocks of natural ice down from [a nearby] snow-capped volcano on the backs of donkeys. He made ice cream and sherbets out of that.
"In 1927 he was forced to leave Colima. He was a Catholic. He was accused of being in favor of the church. So he took his eldest son and went to the port of Manzanillo. And the first boat leaving was bound for Ensenada. They hopped on board and wound up in Tijuana.
"My mother, Guadalupe, is from an old California family, Meléndrez, and she also has American Indian blood. Part of her heritage is Pai Pai-Ti Pai [Kumeyaay].
"My mother's father was a son of an English immigrant family to Sonora. That's where we get the 'Taylor' name. She lived on a ranch in Baja and also in Ensenada. And she would spend summers in San Diego with her godmother, in a house right across from Balboa Park on Upas Street. She'd hear lions roar at night."
When Guadalupe married Regino and came to live in San Diego, they agreed: their children must become bilingual, bicultural, at home on either side of the border.
Victor's parents held to their vows. When Victor was 13 they sent him to prep school in Sonora. "I attended junior high and high school there and then returned to San Diego and enrolled at UCSD. I studied literature and Latin American studies."
That's where his life changed. "I was quite rebellious. At that point I didn't think it was important to attend university." His parents found an unlikely ally in the battle to change his mind: radical philosopher Herbert Marcuse.
"Between him and my parents, they talked me into going to school."
Marcuse (pronounced Mar-koo-za) remains etched in UCSD lore as the German-born Marxist philosopher and advocate of change who supported "resistance, disruption, subversion of the existing order." The New York Times called him the "most important philosopher of our time," but also "angel of the apocalypse." Ronald Reagan tried to have him fired. Angela Davis became his acolyte. Victor Zamudio Taylor became his student, and later, a friend who helped him in his old age.
"He was a very important figure for me. He instilled a love for knowledge and culture that was practical and related to seeking truth and having ethical stances -- not being afraid to say that something is wrong or good. What was particularly interesting was his vision that art had a purpose in life. That art could express experiences that couldn't be expressed in other disciplines."