With the 1968 Olympics in Mexico, Nike wanted to present a new running shoe, named Nike Aztec, to pay homage to the host country’s history of the Aztec Empire. However, a legal battle with Adidas forced Nike to rebrand their shoe, deciding instead to name it Cortez after the brutal Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, responsible for the fall of the Aztec empire. This shoe’s introduction to the public then aligned with the 1972 summer Olympics. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Cortez, Nike has partnered with LaPau Gallery, in Los Angeles’s Koreatown, for an exhibition.
After visiting LaPau, I realized this show was less about celebrating the product itself and more about people’s lived experience. Nike Cortez 50th Anniversary Exhibition includes multimedia works from nine Latinx artists from Northern California’s Bay Area to the US/Mexico border who specifically draw from their West Coast experiences.
For example, Jesse Maria Gomez-Villeda’s “Evolution” (2021) focuses on waist-down fashion — pinstriped suits and two-tone wingtip shoes juxtaposed with Cortez sneakers peeking through iron-creased oversized pant legs, superimposed on an image of the car club crowd. The layering of these black and white images emulates a nonlinear idea of time and further illustrates how fashion, such as zoot suits, remains as a counterculture stance that Brown communities continue to preserve.
Laying on his cobija, Manuel Rodrigues’s direct gaze subverts stereotypes. In his self-portrait “Pan Dulce” (2014), he reframes and establishes the terms of his own gender and sexuality using Brown masculine markers like the jockstrap, Cortez sneaker, and Los Angeles Raiders hat. Raul Baltazar’s painting “The Incommensurable, Erotic and Unattainable” (2017) plays with a modern Chicano payaso-stylized scene, flipping the script on popularized patriarchal Aztec portraiture. Utilizing materials like cardboard, knitted yarn, and screen printing, Gary Ganas Garay, Misty Avila Ovalles, and Manuel Lopez’s works capture the socioeconomic relationship to one’s refashioning of identity.
In a small separate gallery room, speakers play Guadalupe Rosales’s nocturnal soundscape “The town I live in” (2022). Rosales uses East Los Angeles sounds of the ice cream truck and police surveillance helicopters to mourn and memorialize victims of gun and police violence. Centered in the sonic space is rafa esparza’s sculpture “Deconstruct Cortez: Nuevo Mundo Prophecy: Homie Love” (2022) for which he takes the iconic Mexican coat of arms image and offers a new prophetic hope by disassembling and refashioning parts of the sneaker. Using chicken wire, bandanas, socks, Cortez sneakers, and a belt, esparza presents a harmonious coexistence of serpent and eagle.
Just as, 50 years ago, the Latinx community took symbols and markers that were meant to be oppressive and even derogatory (such as the term Chicano) and reinscribed their own meaning, these artists take the sneaker named after a brutal colonizer and refashion their own complicated agency, presenting a new articulation and imagination of what is possible.
Nike Cortez 50th Anniversary Exhibition continues at LaPau Gallery (3006 West 7th Street, MacArthur Park, Los Angeles) through October 29. The exhibition was curated by Paulina Lara.