América Tropical: The Story of an L.A. Icon

Landmark mural by famed Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros

"América Tropical" seen from the viewing platform
"América Tropical" seen from the viewing platform | Instagram by @gincandres

Upon his expulsion from Mexico in 1932 for radical political militancy, artist David Alfaro Siqueiros came to Los Angeles for six months. During that brief time, he completed three murals, but the most significant was his second: América Tropical. The 80x18 foot mural was painted on the second-story exterior wall of the Italian Hall, located on Olvera Street in the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical District. América Tropical is the oldest existing mural in L.A. and the only mural by Siqueiros in the United States still in its original location.  

Known formally as América Tropical: Oprimida y Destrozada por los Imperialismos ("Tropical America: Oppressed and Destroyed by Imperialism"), the mural was a powerful political statement on U.S. Imperialism in Latin America. América Tropical also marked a developmental shift in the artist's career. Along with Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, Siqueiros established "Mexican Muralism." The tradition continues in Mexico today and inspired the Chicano art movement in the U.S.

Roberto Berdecio stands in front of "América Tropical"
Roberto Berdecio, a close associate of David Alfaro Siqueiros during the 1930s, stands in front of "América Tropical" shortly after completion. Mural: © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SOMAAP, Mexico City. Photo: The Getty Research Institute

The mural was Siqueiros' first outdoor work and the first time he extensively used mechanical equipment, in particular the airbrush. Beginning in mid-August, Siqueiros worked primarily at night with the assistance of 20 artists. Siqueiros painted with an airbrush after the design had been outlined on the wall with a projector. Made of cement rather than the traditional plaster, the fresco was completed the night before its dedication on Oct. 9, 1932.

América Tropical was the first large-scale mural in the United States that created a public space by being painted on an ordinary exterior wall. At its dedication, illustrator and later President of the National Society of Mural Painters, Dean Cornwell predicted "it would stimulate the execution of murals on similar blank walls." But it wasn’t until the 1960s that murals began appearing in urban neighborhoods across the country. 

América Tropical depicts a Mexican Indian crucified on a double cross capped by an American eagle. A Mayan pyramid in the background is overrun by vegetation, while an armed Peruvian peasant and a Mexican campesino (farmer) sit on a wall in the upper right corner, ready to defend themselves. Sculptures at the bottom of the mural, representing pre-Columbian architecture and ancient indigenous civilization, are destroyed.

América Tropical was rediscovered in the late '60s as the whitewash began to peel off, revealing Siqueiros’ hidden work. The mural was restored by the Getty Conservation Institute and opened to the public in October 2012, 80 years to the day of its original unveiling.

In addition to conservation of the mural, the América Tropical project includes a protective shelter, public viewing platform and an Interpretive Center. Admission is free.

América Tropical Interpretive Center
Photo courtesy of América Tropical Interpretive Center

América Tropical Interpretive Center
125 Paseo de La Plaza
Los Angeles, CA 90012
(213) 485-6855
Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 10am-3pm
Winter mural viewing hours: 10am-noon*

*During the winter months, the sun comes into contact with the mural earlier in the day. In order to preserve and protect the mural, the viewing platform will only be open for limited hours from November to March.