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Gilbert "Magú" Luján: An Appreciation

The pioneering Chicano artist was friend, mentor and hero to the Chicano and art communities

By Abelardo de la Peña Jr.
Published on LatinoLA: July 25, 2011


Gilbert "Magú" Luján: An Appreciation


With my laptop open and on while I watching a bloody HBO series, an email from artist, teacher and writer Harry Gamboa Jr. announced "R.I.P. - Gilbert "Magú" Luján". The few lines triggered an immense sadness.

The contents of Harry's email will clue in readers who are not familiar with Magú to his genius.

Oral history interview with Gilbert Sanchez Lujan, 1997 Nov. 7-17, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

I encourage you to spend a little time and read the interview.

Here's a self-portrait, showing Magú in all his fiery glory in his unique visual style:

El Fireboy y El Mingo 1988, Gilbert "Magu" Lujan

You can check out Magú's Magulandia website to get a sense of the magnitude of Magú as an artist, community activist, teacher, mentor and man.

His passing wasn't unexpected. Facebook posts commented on his illness, as they do now of his passing.

My own friendship with Magú was multifaceted, inspirational and meaningful, as it was with most everyone who came in contact with the man. I first met him at a Friends of the Wilmington Library event in the 1980s where he was introduced as an artist who could paint a mural for the then-under-construction new library. We sat next to each other and had a great conversation. He happened to have a t-shirt with one of his images silk-screened on it and gave it to me. Was there a more generous man?

Magú invited me to participate in a Mental Menudo he hosted at his then-home in Santa Monica. The MM's were round-table discussions on art, artists, politics, culture, chisme ... whatever came up ... frequented by artists, musicians, teachers, curators, friends and more. I became a regular and got to meet many inspiring people. Quiet at first due to my lack of real knowledge or familiarity with a lot of what the talk was about, Magú's welcoming attitude and patience ... and potent herb ... got me to join in and I became a semi-regular.

Throughout our friendship, we tried to collaborate on projects. But both of us being Libras (our birthdays were one day apart), we would get sidetracked by other matters and left things undone. But we had fun.

Like many, I'd lose track of Magú and then he'd reappear. He took off to Santa Fe, then El Paso and other far-off places (Long Beach!). We reconnected in El Sereno when my family and I first moved there from the Harbor Area. The Mental Menudo by that time dwindled down to four regulars: Oscar (sorry, forgot your last name), Linda Arreola, myself and Magú holding forth. Later he moved to his big studio on Pomona and took on the grand Metro station on Hollywood and Vine, a crowning achievement. If you haven't been, plan to spend an afternoon and get drawn into Magú's vision of Hollywood. He loved movies and would suggest films for me to see.

Magú re-established the Mental Menudo at the Mexican Cultural Institute, where I ended up as volunteer director. By then, he had the format down to a science...chairs formed in a circle; an hour to discuss a particular topic, with him as the the moderator and photographer Mario Trillo as the enforcer; and an hour of announcements, pronouncements and chisme, followed by fellowship fueled by beverages, though Magú, as we know, didn't drink.

A highlight for me was the mounting of the Mental Menudo show at the MCI called "Conversations North of Mexico: Art by the Mental Menudo Collective." It was a group effort -- the artists selected the art, installed the show, organized the reception and staffed the exhibition throughout its run.

To me, it seemed that Magú had some ambivalence about the show ... he had an aversion to organization, preferring the looseness of the discussions rather than making decisions as to what was to go up on the walls. But he clearly enjoyed himself at the reception, with his son Otoño leading Conjunto Los Pochos in a set of rousing norteños and corridos. Magú danced, yes he did, and enjoyed the company of many of his familia and friends that attended.

The MMs lasted a few more months at the MCI. The institute's fragile standing couldn't guarantee that the doors would be open. And I know Magú wanted to pull back from his more activist activities and get back to his art.

The years went by and we'd run into each other more infrequently, usually at art show openings. I was pleased to see him and his carrito at 2010's Calavera Fashion Show & Walking Altars at Tropico de Nopal. We promised to hook up, but never did.

Now, Magú has left us for the other side. The outpouring from his many friends and family has been intense. He is, and will be, missed.

I feel blessed to have been a friend, grateful that he laid down so much knowledge on me that I'm still learning from it, thankful he stirred an activist spirit in my soul and that he welcomed me to the world of Magulandia, a beautiful place to be, indeed.

Gilbert "Magú" Luján....¡Presente!

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About Abelardo de la Peña Jr.:
El Editor
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