Every important political movement has its signature publication, and the Chicano rights movement had La Raza. The bilingual publication began as a newspaper in 1967 and morphed into a magazine by the time it folded in 1977. Started in the basement of an Episcopalian church in Lincoln Heights by labor activists Eliezer Risco and Ruth Robinson, La Raza would become an influential voice and advocate for the movement, or El Movimiento.
La Raza published satire, poetry, art and political commentary, but key to its impact were the photographs— shot by a team of volunteer photographers who dutifully went out to record what was happening in El Movimiento and the lives of Chicanos. In recent years, those photographs — some 25,000 of them in prints, negatives and contact sheets — were gifted to the Chicano Studies Research Center at UCLA. With the announcement of Pacific Standard Time LA/LA, the Getty-sponsored initiative exploring art and culture in and between Los Angeles and Latin America, the time was ripe to make them public. The Center decided to partner with the Autry Museum of the American West in Griffith Park to present the exhibition La Raza (through Feb. 10, 2019), a selection of some 200 of those photographs.
As visitors enter the gallery, they will see a changing series of photographs projected onto the wall, giving a quick snapshot of exhibition. On the left will be a series of portraits — the two founders of La Raza on the upper left and then a dozen of the photographers with their cameras. One of them is Luis C. Garza, the show’s co-curator along with the Autry’s chief curator Amy Scott, and he recently previewed the exhibition during installation. Garza worked with La Raza from 1968 to 1972. “There were 48 or 49 issues over a 10-year period,” he says, pointing at the adjoining wall where actual issues of the publication would be displayed. “It was hard to find a complete set,” adds Scott, who has also joined us.
The term “la raza” literally means “race,” but is usually interpreted as “the people.” How did Garza come to join the publication? “It was karma, it was fate, it was God guiding my search for employment as a young man,” says Garza, a tall and courtly man who was a student at UCLA when he started working at La Raza. “I was introduced to Joe Razo and Raul Ruiz, who were becoming the co-editors of La Raza. I had a camera, a Pentax, with a 135mm lens and a 50mm lens. Because I was a cameraman, I became involved with La Raza, which forever changed the course of my life.”
They covered demonstrations, marches and speeches, they captured scenes of police surveillance and brutality, they portrayed communities and individuals. They were not only recording what was happening, they were part of the movement.
The photographs in the exhibition have been divided thematically into five sections and include a couple dozen by Garza. His 1972 photograph in the “Portraits of a Community” section, Homeboys, is a casual closeup of two pals hanging out at the local playground of a Boyle Heights housing project. One wears a tall and dapper fedora, while his buddy sports a flower-patterned shirt. Both look calmly into the camera, certainly at ease since they knew the man on the other end of the lens was one of their own. In a photo in “The Body” section, Garza has captured an actor in a calavera (or skull) costume, dancing with a tambourine during a performance by the Teatro Campesino on a college campus.
“This is one of my favorite sections,” says Scott, as we move to the “Portraits” section. “They’re beautiful portraits in and of themselves, but they also speak to the complex and nuanced nature of the Chicano community, one that defies stereotypes. It speaks to the way multiple generations, from elders all the way to the smallest, were really participants and had experiences of bias and discrimination firsthand.” There is an enlargement of a boy happily carrying a “Viva La Revolución” sign as he walks in a march, and another of a young girl in pigtails with a bundle of La Raza papers clutched in her arms — the headline, “La Raza Raided.”
The exhibition shows how El Movimiento was part of a larger national movement for civil rights, with images of Chicanos demonstrating for farmworkers’ rights and against the Vietnam War, and in solidarity with Native Americans and African Americans. Something earth-shattering occurred at one of those demonstrations in 1970, leading to the death of noted Chicano journalist Ruben Salazar of KMEX-TV and the LA Times. One corner is devoted to the tragedy:
It was the day of the National Chicano Moratorium March, a protest against the Vietnam War, which seemed to draft a disproportionate number of Chicano recruits. After the march La Raza photographer Raul Ruiz was resting on a curb on Whittier Boulevard, when he noticed L. A. County Sheriff’s deputies arriving. Something was up, so he raised his camera to take pictures, until the deputies asked him to leave. At one point the police fired a tear-gas canister into the crowded Silver Dollar Bar and Café where Salazar had been sitting, enjoying a beer. It killed him instantly. To this day many question whether his death was accidental or political, since he was known to be supportive of the Chicano movement. Ruiz’s photographs of the incident are included in the show.
Luis Garza went on to become a television writer, producer and director, making documentaries for several television stations, including KABC-TV Channel 7. Surveying the Autry exhibition this afternoon, he says wistfully, “This project here has brought me full circuit, I’ve returned back to my roots.”
La Raza runs through Feb. 10, 2019, at the Autry Museum of the American West, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Griffith Park. Museum and Autry store hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday (10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Oct. 7); closed Monday. Admission costs $14, $10 for students and seniors 60 and over and $6 for children 3 to 12; free for members and children under 3. Call (323) 667-2000 or visit theautry.org.