América Tropical: The Story of an LA Icon

Landmark mural by famed Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros

Upon his expulsion from Mexico in 1932 for radical political militancy, artist David Alfaro Siqueiros came to Los Angeles for several months. Siqueiros was invited to teach at the Chouinard Art Institute by its founder, Nelbert Chouinard. Notable alumni of the famed art school include animator Chuck Jones, painter Ed Ruscha, costume designer Edith Head and many more.

During his brief time in LA, Siqueiros completed three murals - the first was at Chouinard: Mitin Obrero ("Workers Meeting" or "Street Meeting"). Located in Westlake, the Chouinard building (743 S. Grand View St, Los Angeles 90057) was designated a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument in May 2022.

The third mural, Portrait of Mexico Today was painted in the patio of filmmaker Dudley Murphy's home in Pacific Palisades. Today, it's on view at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.

The most significant of the three murals was 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.

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.

Property of Discover Los Angeles
Roberto Berdecio, an associate of David Alfaro Siqueiros in the 1930's, standing in front of "América Tropical" just after its completion. Mural: © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SOMAAP, Mexico City. Photo: The Getty Research Institute

América Tropical 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 90012
(213) 628-1274
Hours: Wednesday-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 through February.