I undertook the writing of a comprehensive survey of Latinx photographers from the nineteenth century to the present day to address a single issue: by and large, Latinx photographers have been excluded from the documented history of photography in the United States. Remarkably, there has been no single book on this subject before this one, no comprehensive museum exhibition, and no institutional collection, even though Latinx people number some 52 million people–18 percent of the US population. And while we are a vast and diverse population, whether with respect to race, region, language, or cultural heritage, we share the legacy of Spanish colonialism, bicultural outlooks, histories of immigration, and experiences with social, political, and economic marginalization. This latter fact has been a motivating force for generations of photographers to work with a deep sense of social and political commitment and to direct their creative efforts toward affirming the autonomy and values of their own communities.
Latinx Photography in the United States offers an introduction to photographers active in the late nineteenth century and in the first half of the twentieth century, but my primary focus is on the 1960s onward, beginning with the civil rights era, when an early generation of Latinx photographers were approaching their work with a sense of ethnic consciousness and pride. This is when politically motivated photographers documented the labor-organizing activities of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers (UFW) in the San Joaquin Valley of California, the high school walkouts and demonstrations against the Vietnam War in East Los Angeles, and the protests and political actions against the inequities faced by citizens of Spanish Harlem and other economically marginalized neighborhoods in New York in those years.
As I studied images of social activism made across the United States I was struck by the parallels between the ways Latinx photographers on opposite sides of the continent chronicled movements that may have been aware of each other but had limited means to communicate and provide mutual support. The photographs here express the solidarity, perseverance, and resistance shared by newly politicized communities across the United States. This body of work also became a model for future generations of photographic artists. Even as the medium has evolved in later decades, as those working with photography began to manipulate or stage imagery, experiment with conceptual approaches, and eventually turn to digital tools, Latinx photographers have continued to manifest this deep sense of purpose, deploying their talents toward constructing and imagining a broader view of American identity.
Working as a studio photographer as well as for New York’s principal Spanish-language newspaper, El Diario La Prensa, Cuban American photographer Justo A. Martí (1920–1990) documented the city in an era when Puerto Ricans and other Latinx people were arriving in the city in record numbers. His rich archive includes scenes of Fidel Castro in New York, parades and beauty pageants, and this early image of protest, a demonstration against the dictator Rafael Trujillo held by Dominicans in New York.
Cris Sanchez was one of many photographers–Chicanx and others–who extensively documented the activities of the farmworkers’ labor struggles in California in the 1960s and 1970s. These photographers portrayed the daily activities of United Farm Workers leaders Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, organizing meetings, migrant workers in the field, and protests across the state. Although Sanchez was a ubiquitous chronicler of the UFW, much of his archive was lost when he died in 1993.
The social justice newspaper (and later magazine) La Raza was published in Los Angeles from 1966 to 1977. A key early outlet for the dissemination of photographs made with a consciously Chicanx perspective, it operated with a volunteer staff of young activists. This photograph is part of the publication’s extensive documentation of the East Los Angeles high school walkouts, an early mobilization of Chicanxs and a protest against the substandard public schools in their neighborhoods. La Raza’s archive of over 25,000 negatives and slides is now housed at the Chicano Studies Research Center at UCLA.
I was struck by the similar expressions of defiance in this and the final photograph, made within a year of each other in Los Angeles and New York. Hiram Maristany (b. 1945), born and raised in East Harlem, was the official photographer of the activist political party the Young Lords. He documented their demonstrations, rallies, working meetings, and the activities they carried out to improve access to education, healthcare, and better housing in their community. Here, Maristany captured the fervent expressions of young people taking part in the funeral of Julio Roldán, a member of the Young Lords who was arrested on trumped up charges and found hanging in his cell the following day. A victim of police brutality, Roldán became a martyr in the eyes of Puerto Rican nationalists.
The Chicanx photographer George Rodriguez (b. 1937) played a central role in documenting the civil rights movement in his native Los Angeles. Once a Hollywood celebrity photographer, Rodriguez eventually gravitated to the city’s east side, where he photographed the 1968 high school walkouts as well as the 1970 Chicano Moratorium. This massive demonstration against the draft and the Vietnam War ended in violence, as heavy-handed police tactics resulted in numerous injuries and arrests, as well as the killing of four persons including Rubén Salazar, a prominent journalist and columnist for the Los Angeles Times.
Elizabeth Ferrer, a writer, curator, and arts activist, is vice president of Contemporary Art at BRIC in Brooklyn. Her book Latinx Photography in the United States: A Visual History is available now.