If the Trees Could Talk

05/14/2015 12:58 pm ET | Updated May 14, 2016

"Texas trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood on the root,
Brown bodies swingin' in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hangin' from the pecan trees."

--Adaptation of "Strange Fruit" (first stanza)

"Strange Fruit" is a 1937 poem set to music by teacher and songwriter Abel Meeropol, written in protest against the lynching of African Americans in the South. Two years later, its haunting melody was made famous by jazz legend Billie Holiday. In the original poem's first stanza, the Texas trees are Southern, the brown bodies are Black, and the pecan trees are poplar. This "Texafied" text accompanies an exhibition by San Antonio artist Vincent Valdez, entitled The Strangest Fruit, currently on view at Washington and Lee University's Staniar Gallery through May 29.

The Strangest Fruit is composed of nine stunning, life-sized paintings of Tejanos hanging against dramatic white canvasses. Valdez posed his friends and brother to safely simulate body contortions in hanging positions, some of which mirror vintage photos of actual lynchings. Valdez notes that the series is inspired by the lost—and often erased—history of lynched Mexicans and Mexican Americans in this country from the late 1800s into the 1930s. Not surprisingly, the actual number of lynched Mexicans is difficult to find. Conservative documentation reveals at least 547 victims of this vicious form of racialized, ritualized murder. Direct economic competition and racial prejudice, set in Wild West lawlessness, produced the convenient and volatile mix necessary to justify this dispassionate malice. This historical erasure is succinctly contextualized in a must-read New York Times article, "When Americans Lynched Mexicans," by William D. Carrigan and Clive Webb.

In Valdez's work, the lynched victims appear in quotidian dress (e.g., work clothes, basketball jersey, Stetson hat, tattoos, etc.), providing a compelling metaphor for the oppression faced by many working-class Latinos in the United States today. This collapse of the distinction between past and present is incisively fleshed out in "The Noose, the Hoodie and the State," an essay by civil rights attorney Juan Cartagena, which appears in the thoughtful bilingual exhibition catalogue produced by Washington and Lee. Cartagena begins his interrogation, "In what ways is the state operating to literally and figuratively exterminate the potential of young Latinos today?" Today, as in the past, Latinos face volatile challenges. In addition to economic competition and racial prejudice, challenges now include the blunt and nuanced impacts of the perpetual war on drugs, contemporized racial profiling, the criminalization of both Latino immigrants and Latino youth, and the United States' ranking as the world's top jailer. According to Cartagena, "Imprisonment is a social tool here and the punishment industry is an economic force (an $80-billion annual fixture) fed and nurtured by a country that governs through crime." Readers should not be shy in contacting Staniar Gallery Director Clover Archer Lyle for a copy of the catalogue. It is well worth the effort.

Over the years, I have seen multiple exhibitions depicting the lynching of African Americans. It is always a gut-wrenching experience to come to terms with the legacy of over 4,000 brutally lost Black innocents. In telling this painful story, history curators have many resources from which to draw, prominent among them "Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror," a report issued by the Equal Justice Initiative of Montgomery, Alabama. As for curators examining the legacy of Mexican lynchings, the archive is less definite, making Valdez's exhibition and catalogue all the more useful and timely.

As a viewer of art refracting history, sometimes your mind and gut lead you away from the art itself. Such is not the case with Valdez's work. He is a masterful painter, immensely thoughtful and craftsman-like. On The Strangest Fruit, Cartagena adds, "Each suspended Latino body metaphorically represents hundreds of thousands of lives lost, of the potential of Latino youth, and of lost productivity to the country. Valdez cements this imagery in the mind of the viewer...." Through his vivid paintings and artistic statement, Valdez guides us fluidly from the present to the past and back again, creating an awareness of a forgotten, violent pox on this country's history.

Abel Meeropol concludes his eerie poem:

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rains to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

In The Strangest Fruit, Vincent Valdez not only gives us dazzling art at which to marvel but provides us with a contemporary lens through which to contextualize history and, more importantly, critically examine the pressing conditions impacting our community today.

Readers will be pleased to know that Valdez's work will be included in an upcoming exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, entitled The Face of Battle: Americans at War, opening on April 7, 2017.