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Visual, visceral accounts of the Chicano movement on display at the Autry museum

by A Martínez with John Rabe | Take Two®

Students and community members lead protest in La Marcha Por La Justicia, Belvedere Park, 1971. Courtesy of Luis C. Garza and the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center

It's one thing to read stories about the Chicano Rights movement, or maybe to hear your parents or grandparents talk about those days, 50 years ago. It's another thing entirely to see the photos of the actual people who made it happen. And that's what you can do at the Autry Museum of the American West in Griffith Park.

La Raza, one of the many exhibits in Pacific Standard Time LA/LA, highlights visual accounts of the movement as told through a local newspaper, "La Raza," that was published in Los Angeles from 1967-1977. 

The exhibit was curated by the Autry's Amy Scott and Luis Garza, who was a staff photographer for the publication. They sifted through thousands of archival images and pulled the 270 that are on display. 

A Martinez caught up with Scott, the Autry's Chief Curator. Here are some interview highlights: 

We're in the midst of a couple hundred black and white photos from the pages of "La Raza." What was the purpose of this publication?

"La Raza" really countered mainstream biases and stereotypes of Mexican Americans as being somehow outside of society and therefor not entitled to the American Dream. It was also, I think, one of the first sort of Chicano-oriented publications to really get the importance of the visual. By that I mean not just photography but arts, graphics, political cartoons, satire, montage — with all of these media together, working in the service of the Chicano perspective. 

It sounds like "La Raza" knew they had to be at least a little different than the L.A. Times, the Herald Examiner, all of the mainstream newspapers. 

One of the major concerns of the Chicano movement and one of the many issues they were seeking to redress is what they felt to be biased, misrepresentations, racist stereotypes perpetuated by the mainstream media. 

Young families join La Marcha de la Reconquista along a dusty highway through the farm land of Southern California. 1971.
Young families join La Marcha de la Reconquista along a dusty highway through the farm land of Southern California. 1971. Daniel Zapata

We're looking at a photo called "La Marcha de la Reconquista." Tell us about what this photo is representing.

This was a really interesting moment within than the Chicano movement. It's a thousand-mile march that takes place over three months and is organized by the Brown Berets, from Calexico on the border to Sacramento, the capital. People either joined in or dropped out along the way. There were buses and the community people came out to feed them.

It's just really this amazing community-oriented reconquest.

There are photos of people with injuries. Someone standing with blood on his white t-shirts, someone else with bruises on their arms, someone else with a bandage.

Stitches, bleeding, bandages, scars, broken bones even. These images are among the most interesting in the entire archive. Although they could be kind of tough to look at, one of the main issues taken up by Chicano activists was police harassment and brutality as well as what they deemed to be a biased or unfair court system in which they lacked adequate representation. These are portraits, very much in the traditional sense of the term, of somebody who is vulnerable who has been victimized but is also persistent and resilient.  

What kind of stories did Luis tell you about working there? 

Some of them were really intense. They apparently got raided — not infrequently. He also tells this one story of how they were throwing cameras and film canisters and everything out the window as police were knocking on the front door.  

The same story that was probably in all the other major publications was also in "La Raza." They both had very different perspectives.

It wasn't only about speaking to those dramatic and violent moments and clashes. It was also about portraying the community that was large, that was complex, that was dynamic and diverse — all of the moments in between the big marches and the dramatic conflicts. In that regard, it was completely unlike any other visual account that I'm aware of from the Civil Rights movement. In photography from the south east and the black Civil Rights movement that took place elsewhere, you either have dramatic and violent and often violent moments or it tends to be centered on iconic and charismatic leaders. This has those things but it has everything else in between. 

It's also by the community and therefore truly of the community, where a lot of the other Civil Rights images we now recognize as being iconic of that era were taken by people outside of those cultures. 

The photography exhibit La Raza is at the Autry Museum of the American West into February 2019.

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