The Return to Aztlán

This portrait links modern civil rights leaders Dolores Huerta and César Chávez to historic figures Emiliano Zapata, Miguel Hidalgo, and José María Morelos, who shared their Mexican heritage and a commitment to justice.

The Return to Aztlán (2006) by Alfredo ArreguinSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

The title refers both to the mythical homeland of the Aztec people and to the cultural realm of greater Mexico. Aztlán was said to be located in the Southwest of the United States. Along with California, this region formed the northern half of Mexico until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, ending the Mexican American War (1846–48). 

In invoking Aztlán, this painting participates in a decolonial Chicano (Mexican American) cultural and artistic tradition that re-establishes the Mexican cultural lineage of the southwest.  

Inspired by the ornate textiles, tapestries, and totemic motifs of his birthplace, Michoacán, Mexico, Arreguín overlaps shapes, lines, and colors, often forming a picture within a picture. 

Look at the patterns and colors in The Return to Aztlán. In what way(s) has the artist, Alfredo Arreguín, used style (color, pattern, lines, and forms) to connect these social justice activists across history?   

How do the colors and patterns affect your understanding of the individuals depicted?  

Miguel Hidalgo

In the struggle for justice against Mexico’s Spanish colonial authorities, Miguel Hidalgo began the movement toward independence by calling for revolt on September 16, 1810. 

José María Morelos

 In the ensuing Mexican War for Independence (1810–21), José María Morelos became the movement’s leader after the Spanish captured and executed Hidalgo. The unpopular laws and practices of the Spanish were overthrown in 1821, and as a result, Mexico gained its independence. 

Emiliano Zapata

Less than a century later, Mexico experienced a violent revolution (1910–20). Emiliano Zapata led the fight against governmental corruption, which allowed privileged plantation owners to deny workers their basic rights. After nearly a decade of fighting, reforms were made. 

Dolores Huerta and César Chávez

Dolores Huerta and César Chávez endured racism and overcame obstacles as Mexican Americans. In 1962, they helped form the forerunner of the United Farm Workers Union to combat injustice toward migrant workers in California and the Southwest.  Learn more about Huerta and Chávez

Learn more about Huerta and Chavez. What characteristics did Dolores Huerta and César Chávez have that made them so effective? What evidence can you draw from the painting to support this?   

Huerta and Chávez organized the Delano Grape Boycott, their most widespread protest, in 1965. The boycott put pressure on the California grape industry to change its unfair practices. After five years, the boycott proved successful when twenty-six grape growers signed an agreement that secured benefits and fair conditions for workers. 

Why has the artist brought these people together for this composition? What connections can we make among the subjects?  


How does the portrait show a sense of shared identity? Which global influences are reflected in this portrait? 

According to the artist, the painting “celebrates the traditions of independence and social justice that have been essential in the development of Mexican and Chicano identities.” How can we explore the ways in which these heroic subjects continue to serve as examples in the Latinx community?  

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