Spanish-Speaking Artists in the Borderlands –

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 de-territorialized concept of home, as well as a sense that transcends gender politics and nationalism.

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A mirrored armoire stands with doors ajar to reveal a sheer dress and veil suspended inside with an array of glass objects arranged below.

In Louis Carlos Bernal’s 1982 photograph Dos Cholas, Tucson, ArizonaTwo women attending a car rally outside of town are wearing short-sleeved shirts, tight jeans, and intricately done 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.”

A domestic interior with orange walls bearing religious pictures, a hanging pink lantern, and a middle-aged woman seated near a pool table.

Louis Carlos Bernal: Nanita Mendibles, Barrio Anita, 1978, chromogenic print 9×9 inches

Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, Tucson/©Lisa Bernal Brethour and Katrina Bernal

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. He maintained a constant focus on the Latino/Chicano communities where he was raised, despite his international status. 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 Woman in the Zoot Suit (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) She created a life-sized triptych where she depicts herself as a chola and a tight-skirted Pachuca. The images flank a mirror which allows viewers to imagine themselves in this range of female empowerment.

A three-panel vertical screen, showing a young woman with straight black hair, wearing an understated black sweater and pants, standing to the left of the black central panel and a young woman, smoking, with teased black hair, a red scarf, short-sleeved white blouse, and tight black skirt standing on the right.

Judith F. Baca Las Tres Marías, 1976, mirrored glass, paper, fabric, pencil, 68¼ by 50¼ by 2¼ inches.

Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum

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. The two artists covered the same area and the same subject matter at the same time. John Valadez was a noted photographer who grew up in Boyle Heights and still lives there.

Ronny Quevedo, an artist who has recently captured the transgressive consequences of cholo/pachuco, has created a series that shows how to sew clothing of this type in gold-leaf on muslin. Titled “One piece” from the series 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 intricately patterned fabric traces the template used to make a suit. The shining gold leaf adds a rich cultural meaning to the garment. It gives the ensemble’s building blocks a baroque glow. The patterns, which have inscribed measurements as well as dotted lines marking each piece, recall medieval illuminated manuscripts. The markings can also be read as a radical 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.

Photographing cholos/as is not the only thing you can do. 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. This artist helped to create new familial tropes and communities as well as collective memories.

A recurring theme in Bernal’s photographs is a female subject posing before a home altar. These tiny religious structures, as well as the know-how and skills to build them, have been imported to the US by Latin American migrants for many 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.

A home altar framed by red drapery and strewn with photos, dolls, fans, and offerings

Amalia Mesa-Bains: An Ofrenda for Dolores del Rio1984, plywood and mirrors, fabric. Framed photographs, found objects. Glitter. 96 by 72 inches by 48 inches.

©Amelia Mesa-Bains Aguilar/Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum

Amalia Mesa-Bains took the form in order to make statements regarding resistance and hybrid identities within Chicano communities during the 1980s. Her extravagant installation pieces such as the iconic An Ofrenda for Dolores del Rio (1984), combines elements from the sacred traditions and Latino popular culture. A Day of the Dead skull is framed with a picture of the eponymous actor, 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. You can see how decoration is done in every inch of space, as the small furnishings and carefully placed photographs mix with each other. A framed image depicting the Last Supper is mounted on the wall. This popular decoration can be found in many markets and shops throughout the Southwest and Latin America. These kitssch embellishments are inexpensive and very common. They identify the home as being a typical borderland home for the working class.

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 posed the homemaker before the arrangement, which highlights her role in challenging American cultural norms.

A tall, handsome, flat-stomached young man in a wife-beater T-shirt and stylishly baggy dark slack stands in front of a blank interior wall, facing the viewer with his finger half-clenched.

John M. Valadez: Clavo, from the “East Los Angeles Urban Portrait” portfolio, ca. 1978/2016, inkjet printed, 24 by 16 inches

Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC

Family altars allow everyday women to share their lives in beautiful and significant ways. These matriarchs transcend racial, ethnic, class, generational and gender lines and act as guardians and keepers of 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 reclines nude in a white room. The windows are opened to reveal a living wall with plant growth outside. 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 show how a family, community, or alternative domestic spaces could look.

A large naked woman, holding a iced drink, leans back in a chair, her feet on an ottoman, in front of an electric fan and an open window.

Laura Aguilar In Sandy’s Room, 1990, gelatin silver print, 14 3/8 by 18 1/8 inches.

©Laura Aguilar Trust/Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum

These artists view the notion of the home and the family as a way for them to challenge conventional values and practice new values. They take cues from feminist and queer criticisms to subvert patriarchal oppression of the home. 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 also challenge narrowly defined social, gender, or nationalist constructs.

This article appears under the title “At Home in the Borderland” The November 2022 print issue Art in America, pp. 38-45.

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