Spanish-Speaking Artists in the Borderlands – ARTnews.com
Photojournalism from the US-Mexico border currently emphasizes stark, divisive images: walls, fences, surveillance devices, border patrols, “coyotes,” and crossing migrants. Yet some of the most compelling artwork dealing with this region attests to several generations’ worth of cross-border familial relationships, personal identities that carry markers of both countries, and hybrid cultures that meld influences from the United States, Mexico, and farther south in Latin America. This complex artwork shows how border residents have refused to be defined by the border and its conflict. They instead focus on a deterritorialized notion home, as well as a sense and self that transcends gender politics and nationalism.
In Louis Carlos Bernal’s 1982 photograph Dos Cholas, Tucson, ArizonaTwo women are seen at a car rally near town in tight-fitting shirts, tight jeans and elaborately done hair and makeup. We see behind them a vibrant crowd of young people with their pickups and cars, and beyond that is the outline of the mountains on the desert horizon. Like many images that Bernal took of “cholos/as” (bicultural, working-class, Spanish-speaking individuals) throughout the Southwest in this period, the photograph reinForces the marginal status of many Mexican Americans, and the idea that their social gatherings occur in peripheral urban areas.
A Chicano artist and Arizona native with deep ties to the communities he recorded, Bernal (1941–1993) often said that his works were “made for the people I have photographed,” and that he hoped his images could make “some small contribution to my people—La Raza.” He knowingly opposed racist attitudes and the isolation from mainstream society that the Chicano barrio population experienced. His practice was structured, he said, around a politics of Mexican American self-representation, an approach fostered by his participation in the Chicano movement of the 1960s. In a 1983 exhibition brochure, Bernal wrote: “Chicanismo represents a new sense of pride, a new attitude and a new awareness. The Chicano artist cannot isolate himself from his community.”
Bernal maintained a strong network of photographers throughout Mexico and the Southwestern United States for much of his 52 year life. This was followed by almost four years in a coma. His international fame meant that he kept a strong focus on his Latino/Chicano roots. He was born in Phoenix and received his MFA from Arizona State University. He also taught his entire career at Pima Community College, Tucson. Bernal was known for his passion for photographing families at their homes or at informal gatherings. He used saturated colours to emphasize the culturally unique identities and intimate personal spaces his sitters.
The 1980s cholos/as style captured in Bernal’s photographs was heir to a longer tradition, particularly that of working-class Mexican American youths in El Paso and Los Angeles who, around the time of World War II, became known as pachucos, or zoot-suiters. In The Zoot Suit for Woman (2009), cultural historian Catherine S. Ramírez argues that women zoot-suiters, or pachucas, resisted prevailing female identities, setting the stage for the transgressive fashions of later generations. Pachucas achieved this freedom through their adoption of the stylishly baggy male fashion—dress-up attire that was relatively expensive and impractical, unlike working-class clothes—as well as their brazen attitudes, their “bravado and swagger,” expressed in part through the use of group slang. Bernal’s later pachucas, with their more fitted wardrobes, were vital agents of resistance against heteronormative ideologies. Chicana muralist Judy Baca’s seminal work Las Tres Marías (1976) is a large-scale triptych that she painted herself as a woman-sized chola and tight-skirted pachuca. These images are flanked by a mirror, which allows viewers to see themselves in this spectrum.
Bernal’s pictures of cholos/as in the central Southwest were, in turn, a direct inspiration for Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide’s images taken in Los Angeles and Tijuana a few years later. Both artists were working in roughly the same place at the exact same time. John Valadez, a well-known photographer, was also a Boyle Heights resident who lived and worked in Los Angeles.
Ronny Quevedo captured the transgressive nature of cholo and pachuco in a series of works. He outlines sewing patterns for this type of clothing in gold leaf on linen. The title of one piece in the series is pachuco, pacha, p’alante (2019), draws inspiration from the artist’s mother, a seamstress in the Bronx after the family migrated there from Ecuador. The pattern of the delicately patterned cloth is a tribute to the templates that were used in making a suit. Shining gold leaf gives the ensemble its rich cultural significance. The patterns, which have inscribed measurements as well as dotted lines marking each piece, recall medieval illuminated manuscripts. However, the markings could also be read to provide a roadmap. p’alante of the title is a common activist slogan, translating as “onward.”
This association echoes Ramírez’s emphasis on the cholos/as’ and pachuco/as’ working-class origins—as though Quevedo imagined their idiosyncratic uniforms crafted from sheets of solid gold, rendering the wearers catalysts for political change. Mexican sociologist José Manuel Valenzuela Arce has argued that these youths mark the rise of a new kind of collective group identity, with a utopian sense of the future.
Apart from photographing cholos/as Bernal meticulously documented familial and domestic spaces along the US-Mexico borderlands. He considered the small interiors of modest homes as places of resistance and transnational collectivity. The Chicano movement favored a male-headed household where a hyper-masculine figure rules over wife, children and home. Bernal, however, often depicted a mother’s role in domestic governance. This was reflective of the social realities of many blue collar families. The artist created new familial tropes, communities and shared memories.
A recurring theme in Bernal’s photographs is a female subject posing before a home altar. These tiny religious constructions and the knowhow to build them have been in the US for decades. The syncretic practice—which first flourished in the state of Jalisco, Mexico, in the 16th century, initiated there by Franciscan missionaries from Spain—combines Catholic religious iconography, folk art, popular craft, and regional customs to create a place for private worship, where owners pray for miracles and give offerings. The altars were traditionally built by the women in a household.
Amalia MesaBains used the form in the 1980s to make statements about Chicano resistance and hybrid identities. Her extravagant installation pieces such as the iconic An Ofrenda for Dolores del Rio (1984), combine elements from the sacred tradition with from Latino popular cultures: a Day of the Dead skull, framed image of the eponymous actress and etc. Aesthetically, Mesa-Bains’s altars—and home altars in general—make use of embellishments that have often been dubbed “kitsch,” meaning vernacular, vulgar, inferior, or in poor taste. But Chicano author Tomás Ybarra-Frausto has designated such work Rasquachismo, expressive of a vibrant “view from below,” a working-class aesthetic that defies elitist taste. Mesa-Bains embraced immigration directly in her piece of 2015 Emblems of the Decade, Borders. In this elaborate installation, she uses furniture and photographs to create a home. She also addresses displacement and family separation.
In Bernal’s photographs and Mesa-Bains’s sculptural installations, female protagonists regain control of their environment. Highlighting the use of ordinary, mass-produced materials and improvised domestic decor, both artists endow the familial spaces of the barrios with a sense of resilience and dignity, displaying what Mesa-Bains in her 2003 essay “Domesticana” called the ability “to hold life together with bits of string, old coffee cans, and broken mirrors in a dazzling gesture of aesthetic bravado.” The pride with which they display their handiwork identifies the inhabitants of the borderlands as cultural producers in their own right, and humanizes their experiences.
Bernal photographed one woman in the Barrio Anita of Tucson. She posed hands in front a small altar in a room stuffed with religious imagery. Family photos from many generations are displayed between the likenesses to Christ and Virgin Mary. The modest furniture is mixed with carefully placed photos, a sign of how much space is used for decoration. The wall features a frame of the Last Supper, which is a common decoration in markets and stores throughout the Southwest and Latin America. This setting is typical of a borderland working-class home with kitssch ornaments, which are cheap and extremely common.
Meanwhile, Bernal’s artistry is subtly evident. The red walls impart an artificial atmosphere to the image; the Mickey Mouse balloon, hung from a bare bulb in the center of the room like a makeshift light fixture, adds to the image’s chromatic saturation. The concentration of objects in one corner of the room emphasizes the space’s cramped nature, as well as the woman’s resourcefulness in creating a meaningful display with limited resources. Bernal poses the homemaker in front the arrangement she made, highlighting her role as an artist, cultural producer, and challenging the dominant American ideas of American identity.
Everyday women have the chance to tell their stories through family altars. These matriarchs span racial and generational boundaries and serve as the guardians and keepers cultural and familial archives. Through Bernal and Mesa-Bains’s work, we become witness to the creative force of ordinary women, the results of which are hidden from the world inside their homes, reinforcing the notion that these borderland subjects belong there and the space is unquestionably theirs.
Eschewing the decorative abundance of the home altar, Laura Aguilar (1959–2018) was an LA-based Latina photographer who asserted control over her domestic space through incisive self-portraiture. In Sandy’s Room (1990) Aguilar is seen reclining in a nude position in a stark white room with windows that open to reveal a living wall full of plant growth. Although the black-and-white scene includes only minimal objects—an electric fan, two stools, a chair—the work is consonant with the interior scenes discussed above. Aguilar, in casual repose, nude and with a cold beverage in her hand, is confident in her control of her surroundings as well as her self-image. Elsewhere in her practice, concurrent with artists such as Ricardo Valverde, Harry Gamboa Jr., and Isabel Castro, she created portraits of chosen families—those networks of social kinship that lie beyond biological relationships. These images reimagine the family and community as well as what other domestic spaces might look.
These artists see the family and home as a way to challenge the status quo and create new values and practices. They subvert patriarchal oppression’s home trope by drawing inspiration from queer and feminist critiques. Furthermore, they highlight how traditional family structures take on different meanings when families are dispersed—an experience common to borderland immigrants—and creatively reimagine transnational social spaces. They challenge narrowly defined nationalist, gender and social constructs by doing so.
This article appears under the title “At Home in the Borderland” The November 2022 print issue Art in America, pp. 38-45.