Exploring Michigan's Latina/o Heritage Along US Route 12
Built in 1926, US Route 12 stretches from the intersection of Cass Avenue and Michigan Avenue in Detroit to Highway 101 near Seattle, winding across northern Indiana, Illinois, and the Northwest. Also known as the Heritage Trail, US-12 quickly emerged as an important link between Chicago and Detroit during the end of the Prohibition Era, playing a significant role in the development of the cultural and economic development of southern Michigan.
Today US-12 is also home to an impressive collection of Latina/o art, nestled between mini golf courses and abandoned dinosaur theme parks. While numerous Mexican artists found significant critical and commercial audiences for their work in the United States during the early twentieth century, including muralists Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and Jose David Alfaro (Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals [1932-1933] can be found at the Detroit Institute of Arts), less is known about the work of vernacular artists like master cement craftsmen Dionicio Rodriguez and his apprentices Ralph Corona and George Cardoza, who created a unique body of work in both urban and rural locales throughout Michigan in the 1930s and 1940s. Their public art, built in the trabajo rusticio (rustic, or, imitation wood) tradition Rodriguez popularized in Mexico and Texas, utilized everyday materials like cement and rebar to create out-of-the-ordinary landscapes,: grottos that documented Christ's passion, bridges and pagodas that seemed to be made of fallen trees, timber, bent wood and rope. It is an aesthetic legacy of Mexican American migration to "el Norte" that remains largely unknown to most Michiganders.
Their earliest work here can be found at Saint Joseph’s Church in Irish Hills, Michigan, a Spanish Mission revival style church from 1854. Built in the trabajo rusticio tradition for which Rodriguez was known, the installation, titled The Stations of the Cross (1933) consists of approximately twenty pieces, including arches, railing, steps, crosses, steps, and fourteen Biblical scenes.
A second site in Somerset Center was built by Corona and Cardoza in 1933 and consists of seventeen bridges and two chimneys. Located at McCourtie Park, the former estate of cement and oil businessman W.H.L. McCourtie, the estate once served as an important stopping point for influential Midwesterners (including Henry Ford) making their journey between Detroit and Chicago.
Other pieces can also be found at the Hillsdale College (1933) and the Detroit Zoo (1938). Over the next year, we hope to help document and publicize these hidden gems in Michigan’s Latina/o history by developing a guided walking tour and digitizing archival material.