“How You See Me / The Space I Fill In a Room” Self Portrait Series, Birmingham, Alabama, 2017.
In making this series I think about the friction that my presence can evoke in any given space, the discomfort I can spark, my personal compensation, my insecurity, and the false perceptions projected on me that I carry on my back. Self portraiture is an opportunity for self representation and healing. What do I evoke? What can I consciously revoke? What is in my power to invoke?
I remember being a very very small child and sharing a queen size bed with my mother. I don’t remember being afraid of the dark the way I am now. I felt safe because I had not met danger. Street lights illuminated my mother at the edge of the bed. She was a working woman, a single mother, an immigrant moving to the rhythm of capitalism. I remember what exhaustion sounded like. It was her dramatic sighs in her sleep and subtle release of her voice as she exhaled. She has always been a heavy sleeper who plunges into a deep rest while I always doze off softly and slowly.
Bedtime was the my opportunity to absorb my mother’s body warmth. I would stay up thinking about how to maximize my closeness to her and make up lost time since she was gone all day. In her quietness, I converted with her spirit, or maybe I was only converting with myself. Sometimes, she would turn her body away from me and give me her back so I would climb over her and lay in front of her to face her. I didn’t want to face her back. Then, she would turn around to face the other direction and I would climb over her with my short legs and toddler-sized body to lay next to her front-forward. I would repeat this until I was comforted and could fall asleep. I do remember her asking me to stop at times because I would wake her up. My fidgeting interfered with her precious 7 hours of rest. I never wanted to feel alone. I never want to sleep alone. I think several circumstances like capitalism, young motherhood, and patriarchy created the first border of separation I experienced. Was the closeness to my mother denied to me because of capitalism? Was it because of young motherhood and how that is treated in a machista society? As I jumped over her body every night, I was in awe of her peace and moved by my need for love. I laid in silence. So much of my childhood was me observing in silence.
My Mother’s Passport is an interpretation I created portraying my mother’s border crossing from Piedras Negras to Eagle Pass, Texas. I made this piece through my own photography and artistic vision. According to her, the story goes as follows:
“They placed a baby that looked white on my lap and told me not to talk. I tried to make the baby look like it was mine and I put sunglasses on. I had to practice saying, ‘U.S. citizen.’ When we got to the border patrol an R&B song came on the radio that I liked. So, I started to sing along to it even though I didn’t know what the song was saying because I didn’t speak English. The patrol looked at me and let us go across to the U.S.”
The piece melds my mother’s oral history with my staged photography and recreates her journey by commingling the two. The process of creating this composition was a excursion into maternal introspective excavation and recovery of my family’s legacy of intergenerational struggle.
In 1984 my mother was a teenager ready to take her future into her own hands; she’d grown up in poverty with. At that point, her father had already passed away and she was becoming an adult. She didn’t get to continue school after the 6th grade and she had few options that could improve her quality of life. There was a young man that wanted to marry her, but she rejected him because he was an alcoholic. Eventually, she decided she would leave with one of her friends that was a chola and head to Los Angeles. My grandmother intervened because she didn’t trust that her friend would keep her out of trouble and knew that her method of crossing with a coyote (someone who assists travelers) was very dangerous for young women. My grandmother used her network through the church she attended and contacted a couple named Lucy and Willie who agreed to help.
This Tejano family from San Antonio went to Guadalajara, Mexico personally to pick up my mother and bring her to the U.S. They took one of their grandchildren that was white-passing with them. It was then that they strategically placed the child on my mother’s lap to help compensate for her non-whiteness. This child served as the perfect representation of what border patrol does, giving a pass based on proximity to whiteness, though she had no citizenship. This was all during the early 1980’s when the need for documentation was less strict than it is now. However, Border Patrol agents still policed skin color and ethnicity, deciding who was white enough to cross. It’s possible they assumed my mother was a U.S. citizen, but it’s certain that if she had not held the child, my mother wouldn’t have made it here.
In 1984 my mother was a teenager ready to take her future into her own hands. She had 9 siblings and grew up in poverty. At that point, her father had already passed away and she was becoming an adult. She did not get to continue school after the 6th grade and she had few options that could improve her quality of life. There was a young man that wanted to marry her but she rejected him because he was an alcoholic. She decided she would leave with one of her friends that was a chola to LA. My grandmother intervened because she didn’t trust that her friend would keep her out of trouble and knew that her method of crossing with the coyote was very dangerous for young women. My grandmother reached into her network through the church she belonged to and contacted a couple named Lucy and Willie. They agreed to help.
They were a Tejano family from San Antonio. They went to Guadalajara, MX personally to pick up my mother and bring her to the U.S. They took one of their grandchildren that was white-passing with them. They strategically placed the child on her lap to help compensate for her non-whiteness, or perhaps the white child was a distraction from the brown-ness of my mother. It served as a perfect equation for border patrol to give her a “pass” though she had no citizenship. It was the early 1980’s when the need for documentation was less strict. Border Patrol agents policed skin color and ethnic features. They were deciding who was white enough to cross. Maybe they assumed she was a U.S. citizen but if she had not held the child, they would have asked for her documentation.
This post is part of my new effort to tell more of my story. I am working on piecing my memories together through a collection of family photography and written memoirs.
Growing up crossing the border between the US and Mexico is an experience that has become a vital part of my existence. There is an imagined Mexico that I have always romanticized that sometimes feels like a past life. A piece of me is living and thriving in an old Mexico that I knew so well – and at the same time – have yet to meet. Half of my extended family lives in various places throughout Mexico: La Paz, Guadalajara, Tepic, Mexicali, Tijuana, Mexico City, and parts of Durango. Every month my mother and grandmother sent a portion of their earnings to some of our relatives in Guadalajara and La Paz. I would accompany them on their runs to Western Union.
My first language was Spanish and because of the high-volume of first generation Spanish-speaking children that lived in northeast Los Angeles, kindergarten and first grade were still mostly taught in Spanish. I still remember learning English through cartoons on our television. The first phrase I ever learned was “leave me alone”. I kept repeating the sentence and asked my mother what it meant. “Significa ‘dejame en paz,’” she replied. I was so proud of myself for finally knowing an English phrase. It made me, who was enrolled in ESL until I was in the 5th grade, feel closer to being an American. I have always formed my thoughts English and Spanish. Sticking to only one language has always felt like a hard compromise that limits my ability to express myself with a more expansive vocabulary. Spanglish has always felt like the most liberating dialect for me, particularly the Spanglish that is used in southern Califas.
I never threw away clothes, toys or shoes that I outgrew. Instead, my grandmother would store these things away and my uncles would collect black trash bags of “chucherias”. These were a variety of hand-me-down necessities to deliver to relatives and friends in Mexico. I used up calling cards as a child to talk to my cousins in Guadalajara. Mexico was always on my mind. It was a land that struck a nostalgic chord in my soul.
Finding ways to eliminate the painful distance was always a challenge with few remedies. Music has always played a key role in connecting my heart to this not-so distant land. Chicano music, Spanish-language punk rock, and the banda sound of Jenni Rivera were always relatable to me. These performers helped me find ease in how they communicated artistic expression about Mexican and Mexican-American experiences.
Before the intensified drug-fueled narco violence of 2006, I would visit my family every year. Sometimes we would drive all the way to southern Mexico and have big family reunions since most of our family could not visit the US. Hearing stories of extreme violence, disappeared individuals, narco confrontations, and human trafficking became normal experiences for me. I have had multiple family members have to tread lightly because narco altercations are not always so easily avoided. As Mexican-descended people, we were always told that it was
important to blend in when we went to Mexico. We weren’t able to pass as white tourists who can find some safety in their skin color. We understood that regardless of our US passport, our lives were not held in high regard. As Mexican-Americans in Mexico we were targets because we were basically like Mexican citizens, but with a bit more money. One experience that brought this reality to life was when I once had a cousin held for ransom. The same thing also happened to a distant uncle who was held captive for money. My family has had to spend savings on troubling situations like these that other Americans may not necessarily have to face.
I can recall as the violence towards women in maquilas increased I expressed concern for my cousins who worked in them. My aunt always worked the graveyard shift and I stressed the need for her safety when I was a teenager. Mexico was a land of disillusionment. The inescapable violence ultimately helped shape my psyche early on. It never allowed me to get too comfortable. Keeping my guard up has often been necessary.
In addition to this, my diasporic and multi-ethnic experience went beyond Mexico. My brothers are half Nicaraguan and my sister is half Guatemalan. I grew up in a Central American-Mexican-Chicana-US household with first and second generation Mexican-American cousins. I also have Salvadoran and Colombian cousins. That is ultimately what it means to grow up in Los Angeles to me. It’s the tugging and pulling between different cultures. Early on I felt the commonalities and comradery between different Latino groups, while I also felt the tension and conflict brought by Mexican-centrism. Some Latino groups have dominance over others in this regard. I have learned about the marginalization of Central Americans during their crossing experience through Mexico and the shame non-Mexican children can feel among primarily Mexican peers.
I also witnessed a lot of anti-blackness growing up when my mother dated a black man. Most of my friends in elementary school were black girls. By middle school, my grandmother told me to stop hanging out with my black friends and lunch hour became a space of segregation between our respective groups. My best friend was Guatemalan, but she also assimilated to Mexican culture, like most Central Americans. Because of these reflections, I have worked to be better at lending a listening ear to Latino groups that are not Mexican and I have a strong affinity to Central American communities.
Again, my upbringing was completely transnational and diasporic. My home was always a receiving ground for new migrants. Family, friends, and people we hardly knew would cross by smugglers (through many methods) and would come straight to our house. As a child, I befriended people that would move in temporarily with my family. They would sleep on our floor and cook for me, or help me get ready for school in the morning. Many of these people were kind young women are very independent and successful now. Women we helped transition and settle into the US have taught me about work ethics, independence, and feminism. It was a lesson for me to watch people arrive to our home smelling like they had not showered, wearing worn shoes, with little to no belongings; they would gather change for the bus and go out to look for work. The innovation for business and survival was unbelievable to say the least. With a few months of turn around time, most would move out and begin a life independently. I always missed them.
Since the early 1990’s my relationship to Whiteness was always one at a distance. Contrary to the current trends of gentrification, every time my mother moved us to a new neighborhood I witnessed the few white tenants left leaving as we arrived. They would move to growing white neighborhoods north of Los Angeles or to other states altogether. I never had the opportunity to build solid relationships with white children in my neighborhood. I have always felt like a transplant, but I never understood completely where I came from. Displacement is part of my identity. My mother was a refugee fleeing poverty, patriarchy, abuse, and violence; but the popular mainstream US narrative is that my mother is just an immigrant that crossed the border illegally. My experiences have made me well aware of racism within the Latino community (e.g. anti-blackness, eurocentrism) and towards Latinos (white flight, marginalization, etc). With that being said, I am still in the process of understanding that my upbringing was not “normal”.
As I became more politically aware and entered my late teens, I was introduced to the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico. There was no turning back. This was the Mexico I wanted to know and learn from. Though I was a mestiza Xicana and it was a Mayan indigenous revolutionary movement, it provided me with hope that I could escape the narco-violence ridden large cities when in Mexico. The politics of autonomy and indigenous anarchy fascinated me and channeled my passion for justice and revolutionary politics. Los Angeles already had a strong rooted history of transnational activism and transborder coalition-building. I began to organize with Chicanxs and other activists to form delegations with the Zapatista government. I am forever captivated by that period in my life where revolution was tangible and the legacy of Ricardo Flores Magon and Emiliano Zapata felt like a blueprint for real change.
Today, I dodge labels when I can. I like to identify myself with fluid descriptors like transnational, multi-ethnic, and queer. I have a complicated relationship with my Xicana identity. On one hand, I absolutely celebrate it with pride because it is my culture, my foundation, and my chosen identity. However, I also think it has not included and encompassed everything that I am made of. I am an assortment of many things with roots in the Middle East, Spain, Japan, and the native lands of Central Pacific Mexico. I disagree with some nationalistic Chicano militant ideologies such as the idea of Aztlan. I think it erases the Native American nations that have existed throughout this land and does not honor the African ancestry of Mexican people. The Chicano movement always had a strong patriarchal element that cannot be ignored. Despite this problem, the Chicano movement has still served as a harbinger of progress in our community. I am still exploring what it means to be Mexican-American and I may spend a lifetime doing this.
For me, identity must be intersectional in order for me to be interested in it and want to explore it further. I find that I am more interested in experiences that inform us about the complexity of our identities than solely focusing on one monolithic identity itself. Through my art and photography I like to explore the question of “why,” more than “who?” What are the layered experiences that lead us to be who we are? I want my art to interrupt what people expect me to be and I want my art to reveal stories about people that go beyond stereotypes and assumptions. My art incorporates visual storytelling because I believe stories are a powerful medium for transformation inside of us and our society.
Hermanita, I miss you wholeheartedly. As you reside half way around the world, you continue to be my media naranja, my partner in crime, my adventure, my life’s muse. A piece of my soul is missing without you. We would joke that we didn’t want to live in this world without each other. How real is that emotion? I would ask “Who can make me laugh as much as you do? Who would help me turn an unfortunate situation or an urgent dilemma into a mission (a problem-solving action through team work when finding ourselves in the most unusual situations)? Times were epic and historical, the stuff of rich memoir books. They were fast times, sometimes dangerous, often rowdy, always magical and unreal. You left to the UK to marry your skinhead Irishman. I am happy for you. Girl, we have been through it together and I have been attempting to recollect some of these memories.
Remember Mercy when we went to our first concert together? It was the Buzzcocks at the El Rey. We were in 6th grade. You got hit in the face and we were both covered in your nose blood. You didn’t want to stop dancing.
Remember Mercy when we would take the bus out to Southgate just to catch a punk show with no plan as to how to return back to the San Fernando Valley? Once we ended up pulling an all nighter with some ponx and cholos down the street.
Remember Mercy when we were hanging out with your cousin on Hollywood Blvd. before a show at the Knitting Factory and some kid broke a storefront window with his skateboard? We all watched him escape the security guard.
Remember Mercy when we would bus it to Headline records in Hollywood to get a hold of zines and find out about upcoming shows? The owner was so rich in punk rock knowledge.
Remember when we were on a bus in Compton after midnight and the bus driver got upset at someone for not paying and then abandoned the bus in the middle of the street and walked away? There were no ubers then and we were broke kids.
Remember Mercy when we brought Clara to Downey and she randomly passed out in front of a friend’s apartment complex? We laid her out on the lawn and tried to cover her short skirt and hole fishnets from exposing her ass? The gardener simply mowed the lawn around her unconscious body as if she was just another plant in the yard. We took group photos then fed her his mom’s sopa de pollo to bring her back to life. When she woke up she said “you guys, I saw god!”. We all tripped out.
Remember that all-nighter after a show in Boyle Heights at Manny’s house? What didn’t happen that night?
Remember the countless times we would get home too late from shows and once you told my mom we came home at 6am when really it was like 3am? At that point she didn’t know what to do with me, her problem child. We had to clean out her closet as a punishment.
Remember when that random psychobilly guy pulled a knife on you? Then Psycho’s car broke down and we were stranded at a random gas station? Luckily my homie came through and got us out of that one.
Remember Mercy when we watched bands play from a dumpster at Punk Rock Bowling in Las Vegas? That night was perfect.
Remember when we spent 24 hour with Mad Max and he took us to an oasis in the desert. I really appreciated his spirit and he taught us so much about life.
There is no one like you Mercy. You are one of a kind with a great mind. Life was a mission but we always got through it together. We perfected the artform of “busting missions” because obstacles always came our way. But we were restless, curious, excited, and vivacious. I know there will be a part two to our friendship chronicles. Seeking out life’s offerings with you has always been the fondest memories of my life.
I spent a long weekend in Morazán among compas, ex-guerilla members of the FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front) who are mostly now in their mid 40’s or older in age. The eastern part of El Salvador is where many leftist participants of the Civil War reside as it was also the birthplace of strong campesin@ movement that supplemented the revolutionary armed force to overthrow a capitalist oligarchy that to this day, reigns power in the small country. Here in Morazán many people continue to work the land growing coffee, maize, güisquil, and other crops for their families and to sell to local in small pueblos like Osicala and Perquín.
Men were the most vocal about the very recent history of violence and daily life as combat fighters and logistical workers in the FMLN. Trauma pain and romanticism wrestled in their eyes with every account they shared with me. I found that women were usually more reserved about their experiences. In the case of Irma, stony manners in which some of the male compas spoke about the violence they witnessed triggered traumatic feelings for her to the point where she would become disturbed and excuse herself from the room. I quickly sensed that recalls of violence, which often dominate discourses of wartime, would not be a center of focus for our interview.
Irma, an ex-guerrilla from Morazán, offered intimate memories on the challenges she and her compañeras, or female comrads, endured during the first years of El Salvador’s Civil War that lasted from 1979-1992. “When I joined the struggle, I started training to be a nurse. When I finished, the time came for me to work on a wounded person, I hesitated. I didn’t like the blood and wounds. I just couldn’t get myself to do it! They (the guerrillas) told me “You are no good for this.” So they moved me to the kitchen. I would spend my time grinding maize, cooking, and washing. Then I said, “I didn’t join this struggle to work in the kitchen!” I said I wouldn’t do it anymore. Luckily I already knew how to sew so they agreed to let me be a sewer. I got a sewing machine and I would sew clothes and make backpacks for them. Everyone had to carry their own equipment so I hauled my sewing machine everywhere we went.” Eventually she took the role of community organizer in several pueblos and moved away from the combat environment.
Irma grew up as a campesina and learned an array of domestic and agricultural skills by the time she joined the armed struggle in her late teens. Irma, like many, learned quickly how to survive in the mountains and trenches of the war. “The men never wanted the women to be on the frontlines of combat. They didn’t like when women got hurt but some women really insisted and didn’t let anyone stop them. Some women I knew would be right up there with the men with their guns. Some were even better than the men.” Some women walked the frontlines but Irma also recalled that even more women partook in the logistical organizing and the “behind the scenes” jobs.
Irma discussed more intimate challenges with a slight grin of relief that it was over. “We looked for places to bathe in the rural areas. I would sneak away when I would find water to bath but we would only get a small piece of soap and when it finished we suffered.” She added, “Women and men helped each other. When we got our period, it was really hard because sometimes we would cross deep rivers and the water went up to our chest. Our clothes would get dirty and people could notice. We wouldn’t have anything to change into. The men would let us use their clean underwear or their pants. Sometimes even then men would wear our underwear when they didn’t have any. We had to switch clothes all the time! There was a lot of trust that grew between us all.” This type of personal solidarity was key to establishing what they call compañerismo, or comradism, where everyone supported each other through hardships of all kinds and create a family in the mountains bounded by a shared ideology for a better life and an effort to eliminate the powers of marginalization and oppression.
I asked her about how these young women dealt with pregnancy and how the issue was treated in a militant environment. Irma explained “It was really difficult when women got pregnant during the war. They had to leave. The guerrillas would send them to the refugee camp in Honduras until they had their baby. Sometimes they wouldn’t leave the war until they were already five months along and showing. They would have their baby in the Mesa Grande Refugee camp and leave behind to be taken care of. They would come back because the guerrillas needed them but they would be so sad because they had to leave their little baby behind. You couldn’t take your kids with you. It was too dangerous and difficult. Someone else had to take care of them for you and you had to return to El Salvador.” Irma added that no one had the right to walk away from the guerilla war and that it was difficult to express a contrary opinion because there was surveillance within the FMLN to this. This concluded to be the most serious criticism she had 30 years after her participation in the movement.
Today, she lives comfortably in her home in Morazán and though she has no children, she proudly takes on the role as the mother of many helping family and community members by offering food or housing when needed. Her mother and six of her eight siblings were killed in the Civil War. The traumas of her losses still breath like fresh wounds but I observed how her acts of compassion and bits of humor served as medicine as she continues to be visited by loved ones and international peoples that look forward to learning from the wisdom and social analysis she gained through her experience.
The Double Conscience - m.A.A.d. video exhibit by Kahlil Joseph pushed me to step into the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (MoCa), a museum that hardly draws me due to its exclusivity of white art. I witnessed the experimental piece laced with magical realism, intimate portraiture, and structured in a non-linear collaging with split screen juxtapositions that captivated me for over 3 loops of the video from beginning to end. My eyes danced between two screens attempting to not miss a beat or a motion. I absorbed it on an emotional and spiritual level. It was a church moment.
The humanity, complexities, and diversity of the city’s Black (and some Brown) residents is captured but not “explained” to us. I believe Kahlil, like Kendrick Lamar produced an art for people of color, and particularly for Black people in Los Angeles. The stillness, grace, and tenderness of some scenes are ones to be warmed by. Captured at sunset, Joseph paints the scene with ivories and gold tones from Compton home interiors. He then moves us into the cool contrasts of palm trees and power lines against deep blue skies at magic hour. As a native to Los Angeles, I confidently say the City of Angeles is most beautiful at this time when glow and shadow merge together. The fragments move you from peace to anticipation and anxiety. Joseph gives us a production but embedded was a primary source; early 90’s raw home video of Compton gang members flailing weapons out of pride and in true L.A. talk, defending their adopted crew and intimidating anyone that has a problem with it.
Once I am fulfilled by enough absorbtion and analysis, I step out into the immense white museum that will have you feeling you are in a giant ice box. A Black security guard disrupted my silent meandering through the museum with a comment: “You look like you came for the Kendrick Lamar video”. I answered with a big smile and a question. “How did you know?” He explained his observation of my disengagement with the rest of the art in the museum. He tried to insinuate my appearance didn’t fit the bill for MoCa visitors. Was it my brown skin? Hoops? Eyebrows? It wasn’t established but there was a mutual understanding that we were both outsiders. He told me he was from South Central and emphasized on the violence of the video. He affirmed that it was everyday life and he has “seen some shit go down.” There was a tone of fatigue in his voice but it was quickly uplifted when we exchanged our favorite Kendrick songs.
Later that week I visited my homegirl Lucha in Compton. She grew up in West Compton just like Kendrick and shared some of the same high school teachers and friends. She informed me of some of the ways Mr. Lamar has given back to the community, including paying all expenses for a homie’s funeral. We bonded on our love for his music and message. When speaking about the video mAAd she said she saw an excerpt of the film and it did not sit well with her because the provocative images still contribute to certain stereotypes and violent narratives of Compton. She did not get to see the whole video since it is only available at the MOCA in downtown which does not welcome people of color in the same way as white Angelenos and tourists. I stated my observation in the space. Because of the venue, it was curated to a white audience’s gaze and that is dangerous.
Kahlil Joseph gave us some beautiful and soft moments, some frightening scenes of violence, and fragments of everyday life for black and brown residents of Compton and the greater LA area but institutions like the MOCA sit on prestige, on financial resources, and the venue to screen such art. When the art is placed in a white institution for the white gaze, there is no way to control the interpretations of that will be taken away from the art as “shock value” and sexiness is searched for and consumed by the white gaze. The Compton he presents is not the one outsiders are ready to see. Like much Black art, when presented to the white gaze, there is a sifting that takes place to cherry pick representations that fit stereotypes that they support about Black people and the profoundness and challenge is left behind.
In a recent i-D Magazine interview Kahlil expressed that “Once we start making movies in the same way that we make music, it’ll be undeniable. Once we’re able to represent ourselves—not even represent ourselves but to express ourselves—in the way that we feel and we think, then I don’t even know what to say. I don’t even know what that’s gonna look like!” m.A.A.D. is an act of self expression not confounded by the pressures of popular expressions of hip hop. He takes an artistic stance with little explanation of himself.
The album Good Kid/MAAD City has changed lives, including mine. I call it the Illmatic of the West and is nothing short of a musical gem that changed cultural history and elevated human expression. Below are two of my favorite Kahlil Joseph videos. If you are not familiar with his work, these are a great introduction:
When my friend Ernesto Yerena approached me to collaborate with him on the art piece “Nuestros Éxitos”, I knew that working with him would be a great experience because I respect his work ethic, vision, and art career. He was inspired by a portrait I published and he understood the photo was about confidence, triumph and love. We discussed the goals of families that have relocated to the US due to economic hardship and the experience of being a first or second-generation child growing up in the US. Many parents strive for a better quality life for their children and make due with what they can handle at the time but the end goal never changes. Youth are like the sunrise because they promise a new day and the orange colors are the radiation of good fortune. Our path to accomplish new things and to triumph challenges ahead are given foundation by our ancestors but also those that are still alive and still giving us life. We have sat on their shoulders.
We wanted to mark a moment of accomplishment after generations of struggle with the image of a young person radiating confidence, self-love, and ambition. Arriving to this point can be a result of generations of struggle. For both of us, this served as a source of inspiration for the piece. This isn’t to ignore other narratives such as the child that perhaps did not grow up in a nuclear family and was forced to become independent early in life, or the child that survived neglect and/or abuse. I personally endured some difficult obstacles on my own but I also want to pay tribute to being raised with a single mother that ultimately tried to protect me from abuse and compensate for the neglect from my father.
The portrait used is of Tanya, age 21. In the original photo she stands singular and confident. Her look is piercing and bold; her smile is subtle, almost introverted or hidden. Her high cheekbones are accentuated by the angled light overhead; creating dramatic shadow that dips from her ear to her mouth. Along with this shadow, her extra dark brown/black pupils dominate the shot. These eyes are a family signature. My Abuelito described them as ojos de balazo, or bullet eyes because of their resemblance to a dark piercing holes left by a bullet’s permeation. Softness in the image is brought by the texture and body of her hair which giving a cloud-like edge.
The idea to begin shooting portraits of my primas-hermanas began with my search for a challenge. The four little women that I spend most of my quality time with have never been the subject of my lens. Unlike my traditional street portrait with strangers, capturing their faces and environment was a new venture that flexed the trust and cariño I have established with them over the years.
Tanya is the oldest of 4 girls and she caries all the characteristics of the oldest child in a family. Her parents met in Mexico then married young and migrated to the San Fernando Valley to join the rest of my family building a life in the northern Los Angeles area. I have watched her blossom into the most confident young woman I know. Acquiring responsibility in the family is carried like a badge of honor and she has become the right hand to her parents. She has accepted the role of her sister’s keeper and a family protector. Since the age of 14 she has been the bookkeeper of all household bills and determines what flexibility is available with the monthly income. She remembers the “dog days” receiving eviction notices, being harassed by debt collectors, counting the change for the week’s groceries and then staying on a frijoles diet to make ends meet. She carries the memories of the frustrations and tense environment in the home due to financial instability. She tells me “the younger ones didn’t go through that. They don’t remember those times.”
Tanya is a millennial with everything at her fingertips and I have never heard her express limitations for herself. I don’t know if she sees them but she doesn’t believe in excuses for herself. She has a grip on her personal interests and dreams, as well as her responsibilities and commitment to her family. She is pursuing a degree in psychology at Cal Poly Pomona. Her happiness and groundedness seems to come from the work ethic and solution-based perspective instilled in her by both my Tio Hugo and my Tia Angelica. The family today lives in El Monte, CA.
My Tia Georgina, the matriarch, the spiritual guide and a Santera once sent me off with the blessings of San Cristobal. I am not catholic and I do not worship saints but her prayer was for me to be protected as I ventured away from the family. She explained that for her children, she was not able to give them everything but she reminded them that though she was not able to be involved in all aspects of their life the way the gringa moms were, she was present in the clothes they wore and food she prepared for them. This is how she was able to demonstrate her love for her children as a mother working two jobs. She assured me that I had the tools in me to endure the world and the women in our family have followed a legacy of strength and resistance.
I am proud to work with inspiring artists such as Ernesto and with this print we pay tribute to our parents and relatives that have enabled us to not only survive but flourish and prosper in our adulthood.
Each print is signed by both of us and if you would like to purchase this piece or any other art prints by Ernesto Yerena, visit his website: hechoconganas.com
This series titled #DONTSHOOT by my friend and emerging Nigerian-American photographer Hakeem Adewumi, gives us a collection of bold images of young black people with their hands up. This gesture has become the symbol of a movement sparked by the killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown on August 9, 2014 by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. The series #DONTSHOOT gives us an array of students, scholars, and other civilians taking a bold stand for the camera. The black negative space leaves us with no background noise and so we zero in on individuals’ faces and the palms of their hands. A surrendering pose normally given to police becomes a demanding bodily expression for the lens. The subtle expressions within the bold portraits of each portrait of faces and hands evoke an array of emotions speaking to the climate of the moment as people continue to organize, discuss and mourn over the tragedy in Ferguson and the countless other victims of injustice by police. The hardened and contrasting aesthetic moves the mind between the CCTV camera snapshot, the mugshot, and the street portrait. Hakeem goes so far as to add the sniper target upon his subjects.
In his photography portfolio, Hakeem references the quote by artist/rapper Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) “Good art provides people with a vocabulary about things they cannot articulate.” It is appropriate for the series within the #BLACKLIVESMATTER movement and larger awakening of injustice towards blacks. This series allows for a visual conversation around the surveillance of blackness in a police state and the violence against the black body. Photography like #DONTSHOOT brings a third eye to what has been provided by commentators, photojournalists, to bring an artistic form that promotes emotion, imagination, and humanization.
For more on Hakeem Adewumi, see full Bad Girl Confidence interview with the photographer here.
I conclude with the prayer song Umi Says by Mos Def:
As a native to Los Angeles, I became accustomed to being immersed in catcalls, chifladas (in Spanish). Everyday while waiting for the bus, waiting at Ventura Blvd intersections before traffic lights granted my crossing, in my car driving on the 405 or 101 freeway, at the Vallarta’s produce section, looking for my car in a parking lot, bending over to tie my shoe at a park, getting on the red line train, getting off the train, looking up directions on my phone, fixing my hair or shirt in a storefront window reflection on Broadway, yelping a place to eat, picking gum in a North Hollywood liquor store, walking with my mother, my sister, a girlfriend, a boyfriend, or picking up bathroom products at CVS, I have endured some type of harassment that made me feel irritated, fatigued, uncomfortable and sometimes very unsafe to the point of tears. This continued to be the case in my travels to Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala.
When I went away to live in Austin, Texas, the incidents with men on the street dwindled as the anonymous and aggressive culture of catcalling was less customary. This was also the case while living in Nicaragua where a violent patriarchal nature also seemed subdued. Since my return to the City of Angels, I have been more mindful of my experience with these interactions and unlike before, I don’t shrink in their occurrence. Sometimes I push back. Sometimes I respond. This goes against everything I was advised to do growing up. I was always told that responding would only aggravate the situation and enable further interaction. An emotional response would give men what they are looking for. I use to pent up my anger, I use to freeze and avoid eye contact.
In recent interactions, I have fought back with words. I have confronted the situation. Each time, these men have been thrown off unexpectedly. I have been mocked, threatened, and sometimes apologized to. In retrospect, when I push back, I feel better. I do it for myself and for the next women or young girl they target. I never regret the action I took but I do regret doing nothing. I try to photograph or record them when possible. The camera presence in my hand disrupts the exchange between anonymous strangers. I admire Hannah Price who literally turned the catcaller into a project called City of Brotherly Love. I know that her brave action risked her life. I believe women of color are also more directly pursued with these interactions because we are seen with less respectability, influence, and agency.
Hannah Price, who identifies as an African-Mexican-American woman, noticed while living in Philadelphia that she was constantly confronted with catcalls on the street by men. Price believes the aggressive catcalls come out of the urban environment but contrary to my opinion, are not particular to a certain class or race. It happens where there are many people sharing the same public space. Being a photographer, she took on the effort of capturing these men and freezing that quick moment that normally catches so many of us off guard. “I used my life to make an art project.” and we get a glimpse of her perspective in everyday invasive interactions with men.
There are layers to her project because she is photographing men that have a level of sexism and entitlement in their conscience. They are even acting on it through harassment. But we aren’t disconnected from their humanity despite their act. The photographs press us to ask “why?”. Why does this happen? We can see the subject placed in his environment that can result in this social norm. For more on her work, check out her website: hannahprice.com