Artist Rafa Esparza makes adobe the way his father, Ramón, taught him a few years ago. It's the same technique Ramón used in forming the bricks that made his home in Durango, Mexico, before he emigrated to the United States in the 1970s: First, dirt and manure are mixed together with water, then straw is scattered over the top and stomped in by foot. Rooster Cabrera, who helps Rafa make adobe, calls the mixture "Mexican quicksand," and stomping in the straw is an easy way to have a rubber boot sucked right off, or to get stuck so badly that you fall backward into the muck. The boot prints might not last, but as the bricks dry along the banks of the Los Angeles River, across from Elysian Park and Dodger Stadium, fate can still leave its mark. Rainfall has pocked the surface of some, and the coyotes that wander along the river at night have left paw prints in others.
In March, Rafa traveled to New York City with his dad, where the pair paved the floor and lined the walls of a gallery in the Whitney Museum with more than 3,000 adobe bricks and all that's collected in them: The animal tracks, the clementine peels, the granite pebbles and flecks of terra-cotta, the history of a colonial Los Angeles built from adobe, and the story of a working-class family, a Mexican family, an American family. The piece, Figure Ground: Beyond the White Field, is Rafa's contribution to the 2017 Whitney Biennial.
The work doesn't just bring the outdoors into the museum—it also puts the museum in contact with "what is underneath," Rafa tells me on a chilly January morning as he inspects the rows of drab brown slabs, the primary medium of his installation and performance art. "You can't really escape the context of the Whitney Museum—but at the same time, all of these buildings sit on land," he says. Set against the modern glass-and-steel lines of the new museum, the bricks are a gesture toward that common grounding.
For some, the dusty, rough-hewn brick might seem exotic within the white walls of a contemporary art museum. But for immigrants like Ramón and first-generation Mexican Americans like Rafa, adobe is deeply nostalgic, and he says that a lot of viewers will feel the same way. In 2015, when Rafa was installing a show at Los Angeles' LACE gallery, Latino families stopped him on the street as he unloaded the bricks to ask what adobes were doing there, on Hollywood Boulevard. "And people that noticed them started telling me memories that they have of spending time in these homes made out of adobe as well," he says. Even Javi, the guy Rafa found on Craigslist who provides free dirt hauled away from construction sites around L.A., knew just what kind of clay composition was required for making the bricks. "He was actually very familiar with adobe-making," Rafa says. "He had done other adobe work in Mexico before coming up to the States."
Rafa's adobe-paved spaces at LACE and the Whitney aren't static installations. Rather, they serve as a backdrop for other artists, selected by Rafa, to show or perform their own work, while moving past "the history of social and racial exclusions" of a traditional museum gallery, as the Whitney wall text puts it. For the Biennial, Rafa informed the Whitney of his collaborator picks after Donald Trump's victory last November. "I guess it just sort of created a stronger sense of urgency," he says of the election. Rafa decided to feature works including Dorian Ulises López Macías' photographs of young Mexican men and an essay, by author Joe Jiménez, that draws a line of Mexican-American trauma from the torture of Montezuma by the conquistadors to the 1959 razing of homes in L.A.'s Chavez Ravine. At the installation, a recording of Jiménez reading his piece is piped through speakers hidden behind the brick walls.
But in January, only half of the adobe was finished. So Rafa, Rooster, and the rest of his crew—Maria Garcia, a movement artist, and Zena Zendejas, a performance artist and youth organizer—were spending nearly every day in an old L.A. train yard called the Bowtie making bricks. Over the wet scrape and slap of shovels hitting mud and concrete, the artists talked as they worked: about friends' performance pieces and gallery representation, about queer Chicano dance parties and experimental theater. They talked about taking a trip together to Tijuana to eat tacos and drink tequila, and about the experiences their own family members had crossing the border a generation or more ago.
It takes six or seven shovels of Mexican quicksand to fill the wooden adobe molds, which make two 12- by 16-inch bricks at a time. When the molds are lifted, and the wet, clean sides of each nascent brick are revealed, it's clear that a subtle but significant transformation has taken place: The brown slabs look like more than the sum of their parts. When I point out the shift, saying that it suddenly doesn't look like a pile of mud any longer, Zendejas replies matter-of-factly: "That's because it's not."
A version of this story originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of Pacific Standard.