In March 2000 Franco Mondini-Ruiz became the first SA artist selected for the prestigious Whitney Biennial in NYC. Mondini-Ruiz’ arrival in New York was the culmination of five years of misadventures at his South Flores store, Infinito Botanica, home to a wild assortment of artists including Alejandro Diaz and Chuck Ramirez that were among the first gay Latino artists in SA to gain attention. Keeping the old botanica stock that had piled up for decades, Mondini-Ruiz added Spanish Colonial paintings and retablos, fur coats and vintage Chanel dresses, thrift-shop finds and art works by himself and his friends. It was an era of parties and performance art, during which the Botanica was itself a performance, or as Mondini-Ruiz says, a social sculpture. Sitting in his Westside compound last week, he described the Botanica scene that lasted from 1995 to 2000, and what has come from it.
“I got everybody together — the artists, the rich people and the poor people, the trannies and the priests, the politicians, the gays and the straights. Chuck Ramirez was there, and Alejandro Diaz and Jesse Amado’s crowd. It was my generation of artists’ interpretation of what SA could be at its best. It was a time of Mexicans finally using the term Mexican. There were dialogues going on. The main thing I was doing was seducing people in to a cultural exchange.
“It was real in some respects because it was a real botanica. I was giving legal advice that kind of meshed with the botanical advice. And I was playing a curandero, burning incense around naked men. There were so many strategies floating around, and they were all real.
“I am empowered, as well as the other gay Latinos that became the darlings of the scene for awhile, through feminist Chicanas. There was the Esperanza, more of a lesbian Chicana thing, and the Guadalupe Cultural Center. Artists like Kathy Vargas. Sandra Cisneros, the writer. Rolando Briseño was a little bit prior to us, he was a mentor. We wanted to be part of the generation before us, which was mostly male dominated and homophobic and pretty smug. They were cool, but they were not looking out for us, and they definitely were not looking out for women. But for awhile, we ran the show. We were very acculturated Mexican-Americans. And it finally got to the point that as we became successful, we were being accused of being Mexicans that made ‘white work.’
“We were attacked from both sides: White artists said we were exploiting our ethnicity and ethnic artists saying we were just pandering to white tastes, and we were coconuts doing white work. But to us it was very ethnic, enthused with a sensitivity to where we came from. Alejandro [Diaz] doing canvasses of ash, and Jesse Amado doing a crystal hanging from a plane of glass, and me doing Claes Oldenburg-esque cakes and things smushed together.
“The Anglos were getting way ahead with exoticizing our culture, but we had a deadly advantage, which was very threatening. We not only now became experts in the form of our culture, we still possessed the substance of our culture. So, no one could touch us. Yeah, you can be rich and have all the Frida Kahlo altars in the world, but I’m going to win, because I’m telling the world that my grandmother’s Sears refrigerator with an H-E-B cake on top is an altar.
“But it was sincere. And it was chic, it was exciting. It was, ‘God I want to put my culture in this context. I want to make Warhol Brillo boxes but out of piñatas.’ We were so angry, so dismissed. We were so desperate for fame and attention and affirmation, and a piece of the good life. We couldn’t get it fast enough. And we got it. It happened.”