Staff of Life

Emmanuel Martinez, 1976. Located in the Cherry Creek building of the Community College of Denver on the Auraria Campus, the mural is painted on the underside of the staircase in the building’s south wing. The central image features Malinztin (also known as La Malinche/Doña Marina) and Hernan Cortes–the progenitors of the mestizo race. At the bottom, supporting the arms of their son from whose back grows a stalk of corn (the Mesoamerican “staff of life”) which pierces the three-faced head that was the symbol of the mestizo, associated with El Movimiento. The mestizo is flanked by two additional profiles of other races, often referred to as La Raza Cosmica, a term used to describe the creation of numerous ethnic groups with the merging of Asia, Africa, and Europe in the Americas during the colonization. The stalk reaches up to the top of an altar where a contemporary Chicano man and woman stand, each grasping the stalk while also holding the books that associated them with the college students who pass by the mural each day.  Standing atop the altar on each side of the couple are two smaller groups of people–one group from Mexico, the other from the American Southwest. The American bald eagle and a Mexican eagle spread their powerful wings to each side, clasping in their claws the body of the same serpent, representing a bond between the Chicanos/Hispanos and the Mexicans. The altar below them integrates the figures of a Toltec warrior from the pre-Columbian site of Tula and a statue of Jesus Christ. Below, the skeletal remains of two warriors—one with the armor and weapons of an Aztec warrior, the other dressed and armed as a European conquistador—allude to the bloody conflicts from which the hybrid traditions of the mestizo emerges. The roots of the maize plant extend to wrap around their skeletal hands. The entire composition is a celebration of the cultural and historical roots of the college’s Chicano students, while also alluding to a shared cultural hybridity among the diverse races that make up the population of the U.S. through the presence of the additional races that make up the central, multi-headed image.