‘La Raza’: A powerful vision of the struggle for Chicano rights

Los Angeles CNN  — 

1967 was a turning point for the Los Angeles art scene. Ferus Gallery – the iconoclastic Hollywood space that was the first to exhibit Andy Warhol’s “Campbell’s Soup Cans” – had just closed its doors. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art initiated its short-lived Art and Technology program, which paired artists with corporations in fields like aerospace or scientific research. The nascent Southern California scene was shifting from its bohemian beginnings into a more institutional position, cementing its place in art history in the process.

On the other side of town, the less glamorous fight for civil rights was reaching its pitch. The Chicano Movement, also known simply as “El Movimiento,” was a confluence of conflicts, from farmers’ and labor rights, to youth-driven anti-discrimination efforts and anti-war protests, all under the banner of Mexican-American empowerment. The newly founded Chicano newspaper-turned-magazine La Raza served as a witness to and participant in this struggle for social justice in Los Angeles and beyond, with ground-breaking photography that married art, journalism and activism.

A little girl hands out copies of La Raza at the 1968 Poor People's Campaign for economic justice in Washington.

The photography exhibit “La Raza,” which opened earlier this month at the Autry Museum of the American West, is marks 50 years since the publication’s founding. Curators Amy Scott and Luis C. Garza, a former La Raza photographer, sifted through the publication’s previously unseen archive of over 25,000 negatives to present 200 of its most potent photographs, printed and mounted alongside reproductions of political cartoons, poetry and satire – pieces that marked La Raza as a multifaceted document of the community that created it.

Chicano activists were keenly aware of the importance of self-representation, using gestures like marches and sit-ins to gain media coverage and access, yet the tools of representation were still in the hands of a mass media that largely excluded people of color. As a result, portrayals of the movement were reduced to stereotypes of militant activists, or condescending tropes of helplessness.

The award-winning 1960 CBS documentary “Harvest of Shame,” for example, was a well-meaning call to action regarding the plight of migrant farmworkers in the United States, but its imagery was rooted in the quasi-anthropological tradition of photographers like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, who worked under the guidance of the Farm Security Administration – an arm of the state that El Movimiento felt itself pitted against. According to Scott, the La Raza archive represents “a radical turning point in history of Western photography, as it signaled a break from the camera as a tool of colonization.”

In taking the camera in their own hands, La Raza contributors turned that colonizing power on its head. From a loose network of about 20 photographers, both trained and untrained, working over the course of 10 years, there is a multitude of styles and aesthetics at work that collectively created an unprecedented visual language for activism and organizing.

Picketers and adoring crowds surround the red carpet at the 1970 Academy Awards in Los Angeles.

There are banners and raised fists, as well as calm, intimate portraits, scenes of families relaxing and celebrating, police violence, and a particularly telling photograph of a young brown woman on the sidelines of the red carpet at the 1970 Academy Awards. Next to her, a white woman points a camera at the carpet, while the brown woman looks matter-of-factly into the lens, at you, dangling a hand-painted sign that reads “WHY DO YOU TREAT US WITH BAD & DEGRADING ROLES ON THE SCREEN”.

This dizzying flip of the photographic gaze shows just how nuanced and prescient Chicano activists’ understanding of representation was. At a time when access to the tools of representation were less readily available than today, La Raza simultaneously crafted an iconography of protest while complicating the stereotypes of the Chicano movement. Today, when information is not black or white but read all over and every which way, the themes of the “La Raza” exhibition couch its sprawling histories in both the personal and political, an approach that allows the exhibition’s curators to acknowledge not only the complexity of La Raza’s archive, but the open-ended nature of the work it began.

“This is not a definitive project” Scott emphasizes. “What we wanted to do was present a thematic introduction to the archive, perhaps like an index or a table of contents.” In reality, she adds, “there is a lifetime of scholarship in there.”

“La Raza” is on at the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles until Feb. 20, 2019.