Reno Leplat-Torti´collection: PAÑOS - CHICANO PRISON ART

Whether intensely spiritual or brazenly secular, paño art draws on the deepest emotions of prisoners whose artistic expression is limited only by the materials at hand. The word paño (Spanish for cloth or handkerchief) has come to mean the art form itself -- a ball point pen or colored pencil drawing on a handkerchief.

Scholars have yet to determine the origin of paño art, but some believe that it emerged in the 1940s among Chicano prisoners in the southwestern United States who drew on the handkerchiefs or torn bed sheets. Today paño art is associated with Chicano inmates around the country, both male and female, who neatly fold paños into envelopes and mail them to loved ones.

Paño artists take much of their imagery and inspiration from the larger visual arts vocabulary of Chicano art conspicuous in murals, posters, low rider cars, graffiti, and tattoos. The art form evolves as prisoners talk paño techniques, share their information on materials and style, and trade patterns drawn or traced from magazines, newspapers and catalogs.

The Crazy Life / La Vida Loca:
Many paños depict "La Vida Loca," or " The Crazy Life," showing scenes of gang life, drug use and violence, as well as the harsh realities of life on the streets, poverty and prison. Symbolized by the masks of comedy and tragedy, the theme "Laugh Now, Cry Later" depicts the consequences of "La Vida Loca." Imagery reflecting prison life such as clocks, prison bars, hourglasses and watchtowers appears throughout these paños. Prisoners sometimes turn to religion as an alternative to "La Vida Loca," and some Paños contrast the two lifestyles side by side.

Faith / La Fe:
Paños often reflect the predominately Catholic faith of the artists. Traditional religious subjects include Our Lady of Guadalupe (the patron saint of Mexico) and Christ of the Crucifixion, affectionately known as "El Chuy." Crosses, rosaries, praying hands and pictures of saints are other common religious images. These paños express respect for, or belief in, the protective and redemptive power of these spiritual figures and of religion in general.

Memory / La Memoria:
Isolated from their families and communities for long periods of time, inmates craft paños as gifts to mail from prison. Sentimental images or portraits of those close to the artists help maintain bonds of family, love or friendship. Paño artists also recall their life in the barrio (neighborhood), showing landmarks or people they knew well on the outside. Paños can function much the way valentines do, using words, symbols and pictures to communicate love. Paños made for wives or girlfriends often express romantic love. Paños for children might include cartoon characters and popular culture figures. Mothers, aunts and grandmothers often received paños with images of Catholic saints, the Virgin of Guadalupe and Christ.

On the Outside:
Until recently, paño art has had a low profile outside of prison. Outside, paños lost the value they once had within the prison system, becoming souvenirs of prison life meaningful only to the ex-inmate and his or her associates, not to society at large.