Near the end of 2020, in a year already characterized by upheaval and frustration, Senator Mike Lee of Utah blocked legislation that would have led to the overdue creation of a Smithsonian Museum of the American Latino. His justification: “the last thing we need is to further divide an already divided nation with an array of segregated, separate-but-equal museums for hyphenated identity groups.” Not lost on him was that Latinx contributions to the American experiment have been pushed to the margins or neglected for just about the entire history of the country’s museums. For Lee and many like him — both now and in the past — only one strand of the American story is worth telling.
Celebrating the accomplishments and histories of Latinx people that have called this country “home” is the best way of challenging this distorted interpretation. Compiled by writer, curator, and activist Elizabeth Ferrer, Latinx Photography in the United States is an impressive and urgently needed survey to launch a conversation about Latinx people’s role in visually chronicling the United States.
Ferrer meticulously sketches out profiles of more than 80 photographers of multiple backgrounds, styles, and thematic interests, along with displays of their work. Over the course of the book, it becomes clear that Latinx photographers, much like the Latinx population at large, which encompasses nearly 20 percent of the United States, cannot be reduced to a simple monolith.
The first chapter covers photography dating back to the earliest days of the form in the mid-1800s, including portraiture from largely forgotten practitioners such as Fanny de Guadalupe Vallejo (1835-1905) — possibly the first Latinx photographer, according to Ferrer. Other trailblazers recorded the modernist architecture and faces in the New York City streets.
Ferrer proceeds to describe how the establishment of “ethnic press” outlets gave a platform for photographers that were excluded from legacy publications. In the process of establishing a counternarrative by and for Latinx people, El Diario La Prensa in New York, La Opinion in Los Angeles and the United Farm Worker publication La Raza, participated in the formation of political consciousness.
One fascinating profile is of Maria Varela (born 1940), a photographer for La Raza who began her career with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee capturing the Civil Rights Movement before turning her lens to the struggle for farmworkers’ rights led by Cesar Chavez. The interrelated activism for dignity and justice between Black and Brown communities becomes clear through her work and others in the era between the ’60s and ’80s covered in detail by Ferrer.
After the chapter covering the iconic and radical period, Ferrer catalogs the rest of the book with wider themes. One chapter focuses on documentary photography while another looks at how staged photos of self can reveal multiple dimensions of personal identity — a particularly loaded issue for Latinx artists. In other chapters, the grouping is based more on specific cultures, such as the LA Chicanx community or the Puerto Rican diaspora. Each ends up being a self-contained and compelling essay, though much room is left for overlap.
For example, Laura Aguilar, Luis Carle, and Martine Gutierrez are all queer photographers cataloged in distinct sections of Latinx Photography in the United States. Aguilar (1959-2018) created honest portraits accompanied with handwritten text that, according to the photographer, “provide a better understanding of what it’s like to be Latina and Lesbian by showing images which allow us the opportunity to share ourselves openly.”
Carle (born 1962) documented a wide slide of queer Latinx life, including Pride parades and the club scene, during the AIDS crisis. Gutierrez (born 1989) is a trans photographer whose series Line Up elaborately staged to frame her amid mannequins portraying stock feminine characters such as uniformed schoolgirls and luau performers. The individual artistic approaches of those profiled — beyond their wildly different personal profiles — show how people at similar intersections of identity might resist being easily grouped.
As a new generation of Latinx photographers comes of age, establishing creative lineages and role models is essential. Ferrer does an excellent job of putting these trailblazers’ names and profiles in a thoughtfully curated and lovingly crafted collection.
Latinx Photography in the United States also makes clear how many of the struggles from generations past continue to this day. A featured photograph from George Rodriguez (born 1937) shows a Los Angeles Police Department officer leading a handcuffed Chicano student protester past a taco stand. Two men stand by watching the scene with faces of resignation and their hands in their pockets. The Bronx Documentary Center runs a compelling series entitled LAPD 1994 by Joseph Rodriguez (no relation, born 1951) that is the product of months embedded in the same notorious police force on patrol in predominantly Latinx neighborhoods. The photographic documentation of the summer 2020 uprisings against police brutality and racial violence by diverse photographers, renowned and otherwise, sustains the visual narrative today.
“[Ricky] Flores has spoken of the frustration he felt witnessing the story of Puerto Ricans in this period told by others,” Ferrer writes of the activist photographer from the South Bronx born in 1961. “As a member of the community, he was trusted by his subjects, and he, in turn, provided prolific vivid documentation of a community that was uprooted time and time again but that has survived in this city.” This quote tacitly captures the importance of cultivating Latinx photography talent to allow them to frame themselves, their families, neighbors, and surroundings. Nothing is better at dispelling destructive stereotypes. Maybe then we will finally get the national museum that our predecessors deserve.
SNCC Digital profile for Maria Varela
Durón, Maximilíano. “Laura Aguilar’s Lasting Legacy: How the World Caught Up to the Pioneering Photographer”. Art News. 24 April 2020.
Miranda, Carolina A. “Photographer George Rodriguez has chronicled L.A. in all of its glamour and grit”. Los Angeles Times. 23 April 2018.