Being proud of your heritage, especially when you grew up seeing and hearing your family called “minorities” (or worse) can be complex. The term might be about population, but it’s often used to diminish and discount significance. In the case of the Latino/Latina/Latinx/Latine (or whatever identity label members of our community choose to use these days), this dismissal comes with an obvious disconnect about what we know to be true in Los Angeles: a lot of what makes our city so special – its aesthetics, its style, its food, its art – is not only inspired by Latin culture, but intertwined with the Angeleno way of life.
September 15 to October 15 is celebrated nationwide as National Hispanic Heritage Month, aimed to put a spotlight on these important influences and contributions in our country. (Labels, in general, are problematic for Latin-Americans these days, but let’s just agree that “Hispanic” is meant to reference Spanish – the language of our ancestry). We’ve come a long way since this form of nation-wide recognition started as a celebratory “week” in 1968, and more so since it became a “month” in 1989. But this kind of attention is still very necessary, especially in the wake of Trump. And sometimes the best way to truly appreciate how far we’ve come is to look back.
Street Writers – recognized as the first book to document Chicano graffiti, and the people and neighborhoods where it was born – has been long out of print, but its re-release this month provides timely and enlightening reflection. The photo tome, shot by Italian photographer Gusmano Cesaretti, presents striking black and white perspective on an art form in its infancy, a mode of expression for people that did not have many outlets due to discrimination and lack of opportunities, living in barrios and other economically-challenged environments. We know about it on a personal level, because our early childhood was spent living in the East L.A. neighborhoods it covers. Our parents – a young Latina and a Latino who met and started a family in Cypress Park – also grace its pages.
As Cesaretti says in the book’s new forward: “A Chicano kid grows up with walls of many kinds around him. When somebody is born into that situation there are several things he can do. He can ignore the wall, and sink into apathy. Or he can become violent and try and blow up the walls…” or he can “neutralize the force of the walls by decorating them with signs, symbols and art.”
Now recognized as the godfather of L.A. graffiti, Charles “Chaz” Bojórquez was just starting out when he met Cesaretti back in the early ‘70s and served as his guide for the book. Known back then for his tagging and signature skull stencil design, called “Senor Suerte,” seen around Highland Park and the L.A. river, he went on to study art formally in college and is credited with bringing the style into the fine art world.
“The book was ahead of its time, few were sold but through the next 4 decades it became a sacred and mystical book of graffiti scripture,” Bojórquez tells L.A. Weekly of Street Writers. “In all the city libraries they were stolen or pages ripped out. The book created a mysticism about Cholo graffiti from the West Coast. It supported my idea about self identity, and always encouraged me to never give up because all I had to do was open up the book and look into the faces of my friends and community.”
Bojórquez also credits the book with giving his work a literary validity and historical context, which went beyond gangsters or mindless vandalism. “We were boycotting the fields and walking out of schools, and fighting in Vietnam for our equal justice, discovering our place in society and self identity. We were about Cholo gangs and the unique style of writing, but also bikers and low riders, border issues, migration, families and mothers,” he continues. “Gusmano was the first person who saw us as individuals and saw the beauty in our culture. He was one of the very first photographers who believed we were worthwhile to photograph.”
Cesaretti concurs that he was indeed fascinated and reverently so with “East L.A., graffiti, and the community of Chicano families,” as well as “the gangs, who welcomed into their world this crazy Italian who just wanted to take their pictures. I would first take pictures of the kids, then print them and take them back to the mothers, and they’d love it. I didn’t understand everything about their culture, but I knew it was important to document their world. I dedicated the book to the ‘street locos,’ to show my appreciation to the Chicanos who allowed me to express through my photography their culture at a very particular time.”
That time has long passed, and today, the art and lifestyle Cesaretti captured is familiar to everyone. Crude graffiti and tagging on the streets aren’t really appreciated by anyone (especially neighborhood gentrifiers) these days, but murals that incorporate their stylistics are. The beauty of the neighborhood mural can keep gang activity at bay, even while it captures the main idea behind graffiti: representation.
Both street artforms have been reinterpreted and some might say, re-appropriated by a host of contemporary artists, musicians, stylists and more, used in marketing, fashion and entertainment. And there is nothing wrong with that. But as Latin people continue to struggle for equality in these arenas, it’s important to give credit where credit is due
Chris Gutierrez, who is pictured on the cover of Street Writers as a child, made it his mission to do just that. “Connecting the dots was one part of my mission statement along with accepting my spiritual role, claiming my existence and taking ownership and pride in my heritage,” the publisher of the new edition says. “I acknowledged that curating the expanded edition of this book, nurturing the relationship with my mentors, Gusmano Cesaretti and Chaz Bojórquez, was a part of my destiny along with being on the original cover with my brother Miguel Gutiérrez.”
Gutierrez hopes that by making the book available to a broader audience, he can share its insight, as well as the artistic and cultural significance of the book as a seminal artifact. “The thought of presenting it again to those who may have missed it the first time around or simply forgot about it was one thing, but to present it to future generations to come and honor it with a timeless design and archival format was the main goal,” he says. “In the end, the most important detail was keeping the integrity of this book and respecting its contents and creators.”
There are many notable examples of just how impactful Cholo and graffiti culture have become to pop culture. From Old English typography, black, grey “prison” tattoos, lowrider cars and religious iconography to fashion staples like nameplate necklaces and oversized hoop earrings, pendleton shirts, baggy pants and bandannas. Local Latina-owned companies such as Bella Doña and Hija de Tu Madre are celebrating it all and giving chigona pride its moment. Then there are photographers such as Estevan Oriol, who has become a household name documenting all of this subject matter through his own camera lens (check out the Netflix doc LA Originals for a primer).
Museums and galleries have come to recognize the creative significance of this culture too, so much so that a huge exhibit, 2018’s Beyond the Streets, sought to celebrate its scope and visual prominence, covering not only L.A. and its Latin neighborhood inspirations, but NYC and street art’s ties to Black and hip-hop culture.
This year, another new book, from the venerable Getty Research Institute no less, released its own visual chronicle focused specifically on Los Angeles called the L.A. Graffiti Black Book or the Getty Black Book, featuring 151 local graffiti artists’ work. Inspired by the blank sketchbooks (often called black books or piece books) that graffers carry, share and collaborate together on, as well as the 17th century European autograph books known as liber amicorum (Latin for “book of friends”), this new volume represents the collaborative nature of art in the streets. The book came out earlier this year, and it takes a more multi-cultural/multi-discipline approach, but its representation nonetheless serves as a complement to what Street Writers is trying to do. Bojórquez is not only included in both books, but lauded as the L.A. legend he is.
“Today ‘culture’ is included as a fine art commodity,” Bojórquez admits. “Gang photographs, movies, clothing and graffiti are admired, worn and bought as ‘All-American.’ In Los Angeles, we have assimilated many into one culture and that also includes our ‘Cholo’ lifestyle.”
Of course, that lifestyle does have its negatives; crime and drug use, for example. For Latin people, especially those of us who grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s and wanted to get out of “the hood,” it was not something to romanticize. It was more than a fashion choice, and to this day, a lot of us don’t think that non-Latin people fully get that. Maybe that’s not fair, but it’s one of the reasons cultural appropriation has become such a sensitive issue, and perhaps why the term “Latinx” (which is mostly concerned with gender neutrality and non-binary individuals) has been met with contention by older folk; amplified by media people trying to be inclusive, it somehow became the universal label for a community that is far too diverse and nuanced to be codified. In general, the defensiveness some of us feel about our heritage (and this applies to Black and Brown people) comes down to this: If one didn’t see the struggle of a certain lifestyle firsthand, should they get to brandish its signature aesthetics? There really is no right answer.
Of course, we should all be able to celebrate and appreciate, and even be critical of, the bad elements tied to any cultural expression. But for those who chose to document it, especially those who come from an outsider’s perspective, authenticity and avoidance of stereotypes is key to this understanding. Kristin Bedford’s Cruise Night, another photo book that came out this year, is a great example. The photographer’s interest in “social justice and how communities express their civil rights in a society that often marginalizes them,” was central in the project covering lowrider culture and her respect for her subject matter really shows.
“My path to lowriding came from an interest in how the customization of a car is about having a voice – politically, culturally and creatively,” she says. “While lowriding is a worldwide phenomenon, for Mexican Americans in Los Angeles, it has a unique significance. For over 70 years, this community has been expressing their identity through this distinct car culture. I wanted to photograph and understand how transforming a car was integral to being seen and heard.”
As Bedford acknowledges, Los Angeles has a long history of discrimination against the Mexican American community – from the Mexican Repatriation Act in the 1930s, to the Zoot Suit Riots in 1943 and in the presence of ICE on our streets and in front of our schools today. Trump’s disparagements (“rapists, drug dealers and criminals”) were never just about a gang in Mexico and his actions against immigrants and Dreamers were just the latest in a long line of discrimination against people who come from Latin-American countries.
“These events, and many more, have shaped cultural movements in Los Angeles for decades,” she muses. “In the case of lowriding, the customization of a car is connected to this long history of being marginalized and is an outlet for having a voice.”
Bedford’s book not only represents the still-thriving lowrider scene, it seeks to amplify and dispel assumptions about its enthusiasts. Car culture is California culture, but Latins feel a special connection with it. Latin enthusiasts dominate other “scenes” that love their cars, such as rockabilly and punk, two forms of music that celebrate rebellion and the romance of the past. (For more on this topic, we recommend another new book Razabilly (Transforming Sights, Sounds, and History in the Los Angeles Latina/o Rockabilly Scene.)
“Lowriding is often pigeonholed as simplistic folk art and stereotyped by the media as crude and dangerous,” Bedford shares. “I have seen a different reality – a refined and beautiful tradition of self-expression that is passed down between generations.”
Indeed, Latin traditions, rituals (and celebrations) are more important than ever as our culture and the landscapes around us change, particularly in Los Angeles. Books like those highlighted here, exploring different forms of creative expression, are important reminders of our essence, our evolution and our history.
“One of my favorite things to do is drive through those old neighborhoods, and see what is still there and what has changed,” Cesaretti says. “It’s still exciting. Things change, places change. Look at most of the San Gabriel Valley. Look at Pasadena. The people in those neighborhoods like Highland Park and Montecito Heights, they are the same people living there, but now they’re different too. Look at Chaz. He still lives in the neighborhood but he’s a successful artist. Some of those from the neighborhoods have moved to other parts of the city where they’re raising a different generation. We all change. Life changes us. And neighborhoods are a reflection of the people that live in them, and have lived in them.
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