Last Updated on April 9, 2021
When Star Montana walked me through her exhibition Tear Drops and Three Dots at the Vincent Price Art Museum last year, I was as struck by the stories she told me about the types of photographs in the exhibition as I was by the work itself. So, when it came time to consider the presentation of her work on view in I Dream of Los Angeles, I wanted to privilege her powerful voice and narratives over any other kind of interpretation. What follows is a focus conversation between she and I about each of the portraits in the exhibition from which the text for the wall labels was excerpted. Not only do Star’s first person insights uniquely illuminate the work, but they give a special glimpse into the life and mind of an exceptional artist.
Director, The Main Museum
Star Montana: I was actually waiting for some other guys who wanted to get guided to photographed for the Mexican American project, but the cops had just raided a bunch of people’s houses the night before, that was Sunday morning, or Sunday afternoon. Nobody was on that street, they were too scared to come out of the house. I waited all day with a friend of mine. Then Mayra came walking down the street with a camera, and I didn’t know her, but she kind of knew my friend, and my friend had cigarettes, and so she was smoking with Mayra. Mayra is a storyteller and so is my friend, and not that I’m not. I don’t socialize in large groups, I pay attention to everybody else. I’m a very talkative person, but not in a group.
I was paying attention to what they were saying, and the low light was hitting her exactly like that, but the camera was across the street, so I told my friend I’ll be right back, and I ran across the street, and got my camera. I told Mayra, “Can I photograph you?” She’s like, “All right.” I photographed her, and it’s just this really weird roll. This is the first shot I got of her. Then after, she thought she had to pose, because she didn’t really understand, so I was just like, “No, it’s okay. I’m so glad I have this picture.” If you see in the roll like maybe a frame or two after, she has a huge black eye. This one’s so empowering of her, and it shows her aspirations. She was talking about dreams. There’s another portrait picture of her with a huge black eye. Not only that, she had literally just got shot the night before. She was showing us, and I was like, “Oh my god.” But for her, she’s like, “Yeah, look, I got shot in my ankle. But they didn’t really get me.” Most people, they love this portrait of Mayra, but she was really struggling at the time, and she still struggles.
Sometimes I see her when I go visit my friend, and sometimes she’s clean, and sometimes she’s not. Mayra’s very petite, she’s maybe like five feet and she’s a little fireball, and she has this really beautiful little girl named Dixie who’s so chubby, Dixie’s so beautiful, but sometimes she has her, sometimes she doesn’t. Depending on where she’s at in her life. I always wish the best for her, because she’s a very nice person. Whenever we talk she doesn’t understand why people like the picture, like for her it’s day-to-day trying to survive. I’m like, “I don’t know, maybe because you look so hopeful.” That’s what I think of when I think of the picture is the narrative of that whole day, and how she survived. I might’ve never taken that picture if it would’ve been a more expensive gun that got her, or if those girls would’ve stabbed her.
Allison Agsten: I’ve never heard the story so completely as you just told it now, and it only makes the image more resonant. Your process and the narratives are so powerful, which is why I’m floored when you just told me that you don’t think of yourself as a storyteller.
SM: It’s not that I’m not a storyteller, it’s that I really listen to what people are saying. I don’t have to speak a lot, you know what I mean, I like to listen. For them, they were talking the whole hour, but I just like to listen.
SM: This portrait came as a collaboration for me and Sarah thinking about this project. Sarah I met a few years ago through another artist friend of mine, Manuel, and we had a lot of overlaps in our narratives. Sarah’s dad passed away of hepatitis C, and my mom passed away of hepatitis C. Her dad would’ve been in his sixties, my mom would’ve been fifty-seven this year. They both were gangsters in Boyle Heights, they both overcame it and became social justice advocates, and they both got fucked over by the health care system and died due to complications. Sarah grew up in Chicago, but she always felt very connected to Boyle Heights because that’s where her dad was from. I remained in Boyle Heights, because my mom didn’t migrate. Her dad migrated. I’ve photographed Sarah a few times, and it just didn’t come out well. Like I never captured a portrait that embodied Sarah, and the narrative that I would want to portray between me and her until this moment.
It was last summer, and it was really hot in Boyle Heights. Both physically and in the streets. Gentrification was happening and yet there were a lot of murders of local brown boys. Sarah is a social justice activist just like her father, and even though she has gang-style tattoos, it’s like kind of an homage to them in a way that’s kind of like an F you to the establishment in a way. I really admire that, but then too for me, I always talk to Sarah because she romanticizes Boyle Heights, but I always tell her how it is to actually grow up there, and so I think she appreciates that in a way. It’s like I know you find it romantic, but if you were to grow up here, you might’ve really hated it the way I hated it, because you feel trapped here, and suffocated here, so it’s a kind of both ways—I get to see the romanticized part, and then she sees the really realistic part of it, and then we both really miss our parents, and we try to advocate.
This portrait was shot on Chicago Street in Boyle Heights—she’s from Chicago—and it’s actually right near the street that both our parents used to shoot heroine on, and so it’s really interesting for both of us because we found out that where my mom got clean there used to be a shooting gallery. My mom used to say, “It’s so weird that I’m getting clean next to where I shot up.” Sarah and I went searching for it once, the first time I took her portrait, she wanted to do it where her dad grew up, and I was like, “Your dad grew up right there?” We’ve always wondered if our parents intertwined. If they were both heroine addicts in Boyle Heights, then they probably got hepatitis C from right there.
We took her portrait, it was very confrontational on both ends, which is weird, because we don’t have a confrontational relationship, but then like a week later, that’s when the cops murdered that that fourteen-year-old boy, Jesse James Romero, for literally tagging on that wall behind Sarah. That street where I photographed her is called Chicago and she was like, “Oh, Chicago.” I was like, “No, fuck this street.” That street has nothing but apartments. In Boyle Heights, if there’s nothing but apartments on those streets, you’re fucked, because it’s gang ridden. That’s like the worst street, so that poor little kid, I knew it, lived in one of those shitty apartments, there’s literally no yards. He was like tagging, and then the cops murdered him. That was like a week after I did that portrait right there.
SM: It’s just really interesting seeing them all grow up, and seeing how they’re navigating the world, and how their dreams are being broken, how it is to be a generation after me in Boyle Heights, and navigating the world in terms of working or college or in terms of what happens, the American dream. I wouldn’t put my brother in this series, but it’s like a stand-in for my brother and that whole generation of kids.
Him and all these kids come over on December 25th every year, and I get to see how their lives are going. Some of them have gone to go to college, and some of them not, and he’s one of them like my brother who is not able to go to college. He was just telling me how his parents came to this country, and how they instilled about work, and about getting a house, and a wife, and how that’s not happening. How his life fell apart, how he dropped out of high school, and he was working as a dishwasher, and then he made it to a chef. Now he’s realizing why did everything fall apart, and why did he put all his dreams and aspirations on hold to work, and what’s his life going to be.
He was just being very honest and open in a way that I wish my brother could talk to me. I always hoped it would stop at my generation, that they would stop falling for what was going on in Boyle Heights, and what was going on with this bullshit American dream, and hard working. Not to not be hardworking, but I always would tell them go to school, go to ELAC [East Los Angeles College], like it’s not a dead-end thing, you can do whatever. But his dad and all these other dads are like, “No, just work hard.” It would break my heart, and so even when I was taking this portrait, I told him, “Just text me. I’m at ELAC all the time. Don’t be scared.” I still want the best for them. I still want them to succeed, I don’t want them thinking that they’re so trapped in this bullshit.
For me, to take this portrait I kept saying, “I really want you to be in this show.” I photographed him four times because I messed up twice, then the camera messed up, but he kept saying yes. I think because he wants to know he exists, you know what I mean? The fact that four times after he worked a twelve-hour shift at a sushi place being a sous chef, he kept saying, “Yeah, come by. Come by. I’ll take the portrait for you. I’ll do it.” He just wants to know people see him. Every time he’s like, “Thank you for taking my portrait.” I’m like, “No, dude, thank you for letting me take your portrait.”
SM: Felipe is the first person I ever photographed. I was with a friend of mine, and I was just taking landscapes as a palate cleanser, and it was like, “Whoa, what is she doing with the camera?” He had a beer, and he a huge paper in Spanish. He started to talk to us in Spanish, and I understand Spanish, I’m not able to converse in Spanish, so I was just nodding my head out of respect.
He never noticed that I didn’t say anything, he just let me listen to him for an hour. I wasn’t going anywhere and for me, I don’t really need to talk, but like he was just telling me and my friend who luckily speaks Spanish, so she was able to engage him more. He’s like, “I remember when this was all hills when we came here from Mexico. I came here when I was a very little boy. I’ve lived here for so many generations. People are coming and the neighborhood is changing, but I’m going to stay here because this is all I know, and this is my place.” He basically told us his whole family narrative, and he kept staring at the camera, because I kept it on the tripod, and he was eyeing it, but I was slightly shy at the time. I was doing my Mexican American project, but I hadn’t really asked strangers, I’d asked strangers online, but not like just straight out at that moment.
Then that was the end of the story. Currently, he lives with his family down the street. We were just nodding our heads. I was like, “Thank you so much for telling your story in Spanish.” My friend’s like, “Oh, you’ve had such an interesting life.” He was saying that, after Mexico, it was just Los Angeles, and how Los Angeles has changed, and you basically see the migration of people, and it’s really interesting too, because it also shows the inner racism, because I remember he was saying how more Mexicans come. My dad says the same thing, but my dad’s really dark, and my mom would always say that. My dad’s from Texas. It’s almost like if they come here they want to be the last ones to come, you know what I mean. It’s like, “Oh, and you only speak Spanish.” My mom would say that about my grandma, my dad’s mom. She was like, “She only speaks Spanish, what is she talking about?” In the same way, being slightly racist. So he picked up his paper, and his beer, because he talked for an hour when he got to the most current moment.
Then, I was like, “Can I take your photograph?” He’s like, “Yes.” That was like literally where the camera was. There was no posing, there was no nothing. Like he had waited his whole life for this moment. I did two shots of him, at two different exposures, and that was it. He said thank you and took his paper and beer and left. I got his name, his narrative of his migration to the U.S., and how East L.A. had changed—that’s what he wanted was for us to know his story and his portrait, and he went on his way.
SM: Mike was a really interesting character. My friend Holly—who is basically my connection in South Central—because I used to have family that lived there, my aunt who passed away, but Holly is basically like my family there too now, so, people kind of know me as the girl that would photograph you. Mike, I think he wants to be famous in a certain way. He has a very interesting star quality to him, you don’t have to do much to him. Like he’s just very photogenic—a very handsome man, very charismatic. He had told my friend that he wanted to get photographed, and so we went to his house to photograph him and he came with his aunties, and his mom.
They’re like, “Oh, you’re the photographer. How much do you charge for high school pictures?” They started asking me, because they have like nephews, and nieces. I was like, “I don’t do that type of stuff, like this is just for art.” Then they were talking to him, and they were teasing him, and he got like really shy. We did some warm ups of like his face, and then he had like an aggressive view, or like posture, and I was like, “Oh, no, no, no, I don’t want that. Breathe in, breathe out, and look at the camera.” I think like it came natural for him to look scary and I was like, “No, I don’t really want that. Like you seem like a handsome guy, like let’s chill.” He like kind of calmed down his posture.
AA: This is his chill version.
SM: Yeah. That is not his scary version. So it was just really interesting, because he was really able to take direction, and we were conversating, and I was doing portraits of him, and he was just asking me where I live, he was very engaging. We did maybe a thirty-minute session of him like showing me his muscles, and again like doing weights, stuff like that. This is one of the last pictures I took of him, and it’s really interesting, because people think I posed him, but no, actually I was just following him around. He was just waiting for his day kind of like Felipe, and the moment where I’m able to photograph him. I’m just lucky that I’m there for the performance.
AA: It’s interesting how these men convey power versus how the women convey power in their images, and how much the men take their own responsibility for conveying power, and how much for the women the power is a construct of your camera. Like for Mayra, she’s obviously a very powerful woman hearing your story, the woman had her leg shot the night before, and she’s got a black eye.
AA: She’s standing there looking like that, but that was also your choice to show her that way.
SM: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
AA: Whereas for both Felipe and Mike, they choose a really tough stance. Also Ruby’s boyfriend—these guys are showing a really serious stereotypically masculine posture to convey power. But women might convey it in different ways. Sonja [not included in the exhibition] can convey power by looking up even when crying. Do you see any of that in these images?
SM: Yeah. I completely believe that, I’ve tried to soften the gaze, at least recently with the men, and I think it would be most successful in Juan.
AA: Absolutely. This is a real evolution with Juan and with Raul.
RUBY & ANGEL
SM: I’ve been trying to photograph Ruby for months, if not about a year. She’s super protective, and I don’t think she understood. Again, where we come from like in Boyle Heights, usually you go to a photographer and get glamour shots, so I think it was a weird thing for me to come and photograph her. I’ve known Ruby since I was like ten years old. I knew Ruby when she was Rudy, and we were both little bad asses in middle school, always getting in trouble. We weren’t bad because we were troublemakers, I think we were bad because we were super misunderstood, and that’s what makes me really sad about Ruby is I was super picked on for being a nerd, and being “fat,” and she was picked on for being gay, because she had the effeminate voice. It was like you had to be super defensive, so then she was always in the dean’s office, I was always in the dean’s office. For standing up for ourselves. When really if it was like any other type of school than a shitty public school in Boyle Heights, something would’ve been done.
That’s how we ended up becoming friends. It’s just really sad because Ruby couldn’t continue her education, and we talked a little bit about it, because last time I saw Rudy was in ninth grade. He used to hang out in front of Roosevelt High School where we went to high school, because we couldn’t go inside of the high school, because then people could hurt him. He couldn’t explain that to his mother, so it was really sad. One of the last times we hung out—a friend of mine had a drug dealer boyfriend, and he needed to go do some like deals in Venice Beach, so I asked Rudy if he wanted to come along. We went, and we had a really great time. I saw a bunch of punks there, because I was super punk rock, and he saw a bunch of gay people there, and so we felt like we belong to something that both of us felt really disconnected from our own culture at the time. Because punk wasn’t a thing at the moment and definitely being gay in Boyle Heights was not open in 2001 or 2002, like that was not a thing. After that, apparently he went to jail a bunch of times and just horrendous things.
When I was taking his portrait, he was really proud of Angel, it follows a narrative of a lot of women I grew up with that dropped out of school and had kids young. A lot of times the women I went to school with, they necessarily never got to build self-esteem. If they “catch a really handsome man,” they’re really proud of how handsome their man is, but they don’t necessarily feel good about themselves. That was like part of the agreement was photographing her handsome man, along with her. It was an interesting agreement because I think she’s really beautiful, and her makeup, and she got really, really done for this shoot, and I was just like, oh man, like you haven’t aged much. She’s had a very, very hard life, but just the way she puts on her makeup and everything was with a lot of pride, and it just reminds me of the kind of women we grew up with. The chola aesthetic. You can definitely tell they love each other and that they support each other.
I photographed them at Ruby’s aunt’s house, and all of Ruby’s family was there, and they all identify, or at least they try to identify her as her. I don’t think they necessarily all understand it, but they’re accepting in the way they can, and that Ruby’s mom was there, and her boyfriend was there, and they all love Angel. It’s complicated, but at least they love her, and I don’t think Angel’s family necessarily understands it or accepts it. It seems that he comes from a more traditional Mexican background, whereas Ruby’s like me, where we come from gangsters and second- to fourth-generation Mexican Americans. We’re more dealing with survival than ethnicity or immigration politics in that way.
SM: He’s my friend’s brother and his dad was third-generation Mexican American, his mother is an immigrant, and that was a complicated marriage. His father died when he was really little, and the sisters were teenagers, and it destroyed the family. The sisters are a little wild, and it always seems like he got the short end of the stick. So when I interviewed him, it was like dead air. He’s like, “No, I’m fine. Don’t remember much of my childhood. Don’t remember anything. I’m great.”
AA: He has to say it with his face.
SM: Yeah, so it’s interesting, because I thought it was going to be a dead portrait, almost was frustrated with it, I was like going to be like ugh, never mind, but then we were able to do a beautiful portrait. I was glad I wasn’t that stubborn, and be like never mind, and was able to do this portrait of him.
AA: How did La Chuca respond when you asked to take her portrait?
SM: I think at first, she was a little standoffish. Only because . . . I think she’s younger than me. I’m not entirely sure her age. We correspond a little bit through Instagram, but she deletes her Instagram and then makes it again. I found her and then lost her a few times on Instagram.
She was open as long as I would take a picture of her and her boyfriend at first. That’s usually a big part of a lot of girls that are apprehensive.
It’s happened with Ruby. They want their boyfriends included and something about their own value or worth. I find them so unique and beautiful and special. But, then they want their boyfriends included. With her, the first few shots with her boyfriend and then I said, “Thank you very much. Now, can we do a photograph just me and you.” She said yeah, and I think she started to understand it then.
My camera, because it is so old. It’s thirty, forty years old. It’s heavy, and this big monster and gives me this, I don’t know, this craftsmanship that a lot of people don’t have with newer cameras, people know I’m serious. It’s not a joke. I’m setting it up, so that I always tell them wait. She stood there by herself, and she became comfortable with herself and then we created that image in two shots.
Even with the film, it’s only ten shots. With the newer cameras, I maybe can do a hundred shots in the time it takes me to do two shots with that. Even though we were only connected for a few minutes. It started to grow with comfortableness, and then she understood that I really wanted to bring something out of her.
I took a picture of her with my cellphone. A lot of times I do that just so I can show them what the idea is.
Kind of like a quick sketch. I photographed her and her boyfriend like that. I said thank you and give me your email and I’ll send it to you. She was like, “Yeah. Sure. No problem.” It was interesting because the camera is so old and it takes so long, and I had isolated her away from all the pinups, and I had said since she’s an abnormal beauty, but I think that abnormal is the greatest thing, because I don’t know, it’s just not standard.
I always love abnormal beauty. Once she was isolated in that moment, away from everybody else, like five other photographers came and snuck up behind me with their Cannon 5Ds and they started photographing her in the same posture.
AA: What’s Barrio Boogie?
SM: Barrio Boogie was an event celebrating pachucos, it was celebrating a certain time period. So, she’s late seventies. Sandy [another subject] celebrated the forties. She was completely unique at the event. Nobody looked like La Chuca at all. Not only that, it seemed that it was her authentic self. One problematic thing is she reminds me of my family. She reminds me of exactly the women I grew up seeing: my mother, my aunts, and my cousins. With a lot of images I see now, especially on Instagram, there’s a romanticizing aspect of, not pachucos. I have nothing with that, but with gangsterism.
I don’t romanticize that. There’s nothing romantic about it. I’m living in the post-era of it. Everybody’s dead from it. When I saw her, she’s actually living it. It’s not romantic in the way that everybody else is romanticizing it at the event. I’m not for that. And I don’t put that on a pedestal. This seems like part of her authenticity as opposed to a lot of people. It’s just something convenient to them. I would never do that, because it’s such a heavy weight for those who had to bury people from it.
AA: We’ve been talking about this picture a long time, but I’ve never heard you discuss it that way.
SM: It meant a lot to me to find her and for me to photograph her at that event. Certain people I search for. Certain ideas and certain images I search for. I definitely had wanted to photograph somebody like that for a very long time. Just the same way of Krystal [another subject]. Like, I had been searching for somebody in the Danza community. There’s certain ideas that I’ve thought about, that I’ve lived with all my life. La Chuca was one of them. There’s been other girls that I’ve asked in my community of Boyle Heights, who have instantly told me “hell no.”
SM: Some of my best friends, and they’re not even friends. They’re family in a way. Often how I talk, my vernacular, and how I dress now, they don’t understand. It’s a total rejection of conforming to anything. I grew up with a punk aesthetic, and it was a rejection of a gangster. I wanted to be super punk. I couldn’t stand being a gangster. That meant a death sentence for me in my neighborhood. I loved being punk.
Now, my thing is I’m going to dress however I want, because I don’t want to wear any uniform, whether it be a gangster uniform or punk uniform. I just want to be free and New York gave that to me. In New York, you’re just free. There’s no uniform, whereas in L.A., it’s kind of if you’re in a subculture, you have to wear the uniform all your life.
AA: I guess that happens you leave home. You can be yourself. Nobody knows you, so you don’t have to conform to the preconceived notions of family or friends.
SM: Yeah. Now, people are just like, “What are you?” I’m like, “I don’t know. It doesn’t really matter.” A lot of people don’t think I’m from L.A. They can’t necessarily identify me as something, so for me, when people reject me and this has happened in South Central and Boyle Heights—they’re like, “Where are you from?” It’s like, “I’m from here,” but because they can’t put me in a subcategory, they think I’m an outsider when really, I’m an insider, just rejecting to conform to something.
When it’s like I’m the most insider you will ever meet. I know exactly everything that you’re doing, and I just reject it entirely because I refuse to be part of that. A lot of those girls, especially those ones who are first-generation Americans going into gangsterism. That’s what I call it with my friends. They’re about that life and that way. They see me, and I’m so effeminate to them. They think I’m trying to extract something from them. Really, I’m just trying to tell them, I’m just trying to do eye-level contact. I’m trying to acknowledge that you exist because the world is saying you don’t exist. You only exist in a mugshot.
It’s hard in five minutes to be able to have a conversation with them because they think I’m an outsider. It’s so hard to tell them my whole family history. Usually, after a while, people are like, “Oh wait a minute. You’re one of us. You have family.” Like, my most gangster friends are like I said, my family basically. I don’t talk much when I’m around a lot of people and then they’ll say, “Oh no. Her family. They were the craziest people in Boyle Heights.” Then, they’re like, “Oh her?” Then there’s some form of respect, but it’s like I don’t need to tell you guys how my family is or where I come from or that I was born here.
I don’t have to prove anything. That’s what got my whole family into the mess. They always have to prove something. I refuse to do that. It’s almost stubborn in a way. That’s where it comes from with a lot of these girls. They want to prove something, and I refuse to do it. I’ll have the conversation with them if they want to. It’s complicated in that way. Where I’m a fourth generation in it. That’s where I’m rejected. They always constantly see me as an outsider, whereas I’m so much more of an insider than they could even imagine.
I might be their future grandchild.
AA: You’re so in, you’re out.
SM: I had some weird unrequited-love question with my mom’s love of her life. Since I was able to then ask him, “Why didn’t you ever get together?” Once I achieved that. I thought, if I could ask him this, I can go back and ask these girls if I can photograph them. I didn’t want to photograph anybody else.
I literally walked around in circles. I want to photograph her because I really loved her hair. I loved everything about it. The primary colors are green and red.
I photographed her up-close, and she was actually super nervous. It’s interesting with portraiture—some people photograph terrible from far away, but they photograph well up-close or mid-portrait.
I didn’t want the background. . . . These are really quick decisions, because it’s also somebody’s time and the sun’s already going down quicker than it was with La Chuca. The lighting was going to cease to exist, and there was this real saintly quality right on her face. It’s not entirely perfect, but it’s perfect enough for three saints and her face. There wasn’t much of a relationship between us, so she couldn’t look right at me. Instead, she decided to dream and look the other way beyond me.
SM: We corresponded, and I told her I really wanted to photograph her. We kept missing each other. She goes to school at PCC [Pasadena City College], and she takes the bus, and there’s something about bus people that I think we’re also super humane, because we understand. I told her I took the bus too. I had wanted to have a portrait done somewhere here [downtown]. She told me she lived in Echo Park, and I live in Boyle Heights. I was like, “Oh, I kind of wanted to go to Echo Park.” My body was breaking down at that time. I said, “Do you mind if we meet halfway. I kind of want to do a portrait downtown.” She was like, “Oh yeah. I love downtown.” I said, “So do I.”
I want to get a sense of who she is in the first session, so I can photograph her right. We started to interview each other. She said, “Oh, what’s the project about?” Which is interesting, because some people just want their picture taken. I started to explain to her that it’s more to empower people, and she wants to be an art historian. She understands it, and she’s getting really into art history and terminology.
Okay, well the sun is going to set and so let’s go do it. She’s super humane, she helped me with the chair. We just started to have a conversation about gentrification. She’s like, “I’m from Echo Park.” I was like, “Well, you’re from Echo Park before the gentrification, right?” She was like, “Yeah.” I understand it right away, she’s like, “Nobody’s originally from Echo Park, but I am.” I was like, “I understand that.”
She started saying that her family is four generations into Echo Park. “Where’s your family originally from?” She said, “I’m not sure. I think Chihuahua.” They just stopped caring, so they don’t no longer know their origin story.
We started talking about the broken American dream. Her grandparents made it, and they were the American dream, but the dream became a nightmare. What happens to her generation, which is my generation? How do you dream when you’re the great-grandchildren of the dreamers or the Mexican American dreamers? What are you going to dream if you saw everything fall apart for four generations?
I really empathize with that because that’s a lot of my work and that’s a lot of my process. When I look at a lot of the Mexican American experiences, a lot of immigrants here, which I’m always for, what always hurts me, is that we don’t talk about us so many generations in. We feel like we don’t know what to say after that. We were having a really good conversation about that, because it really hurts us in that way, and we don’t know what to say. She’s much younger, and she reminds me of my brother, of Juan [another subject].
Being that young and being where, they want to be hopeful, but they almost feel hopeless.
With Georgie, her great grandparents came to America or migrated from Mexico and came to California by way of Chihuahua. They were able to become homeowners and were able to accomplish, let’s say, a hyphenated Mexican-American dream. Mexican-American dream is to be able to transcend poverty. Mexican poverty and accomplish the American dream which is to become homeowners and be middle class. In that era, if you came before the thirties, you needed to assimilate. That was the rhetoric.
So, there is a huge separation between current migration and multigenerations of Mexican Americans, where they don’t understand the reason there’s a huge distance between Mexican Americans and multigenerations that don’t speak Spanish, because they’re assimilated. That was the rhetoric that was taught to the generation in the thirties to the fifties. Assimilation, that’s how you survived. Georgie’s point was that they assimilated and so the grandparents were able to achieve and maintain the American dream, which was basically stay middle class and stay homeowners. Her grandparents were able to do it, which then made their children not maintain it, because it was achieved. After the dream is achieved, what happens? It almost becomes a nightmare. You can’t continue to dream, everybody wakes up and now it’s a nightmare. Everybody’s falling apart.
The grandparents passed away. The family’s just kind of broken. They’re homeowners, but she doesn’t really know how to dream. How do you dream when you’re multigeneration, and you’ve realized that it’s kind of false or bullshit.
SM: Everything a photographer takes is actually a self-portrait. For me, I’ve always been curious about indigenous culture and I’ve always had a big love for Aztec culture.
AA: Is this part of your heritage?
SM: The thing is I’m not sure. If you look at me, I’m super brown, and I have indigenous eyes. My biological father, I don’t know him. His name is Antonio Montana. Montana means mountain in Spanish, which is super hippie. He came from Mexico. He knocked up my mom, and he was a drug dealer. My mom didn’t want him as a part of my life, and that was it. I have no idea what that part is, but I have a feeling that he was more indigenous, because of my eyes and my skin.
On my mom’s side, that’s also the self-hatred with Indios. My mom was not woke that way. She was a beautiful person, but she was not woke. That we’re just Spaniard and French Mexicans. There’s no indigenous blood at all.
My grandma’s super light. With my dad, I think that’s where I yearn for it. I was always connected to Pocahontas, and I would get so mad when my mom would bring me home another fucking Barbie. So mad. She finally gave up and gave me a Pocahontas.
I have a big affirmation for the indigenous community and what they represent in Boyle Heights, East L.A., South Central. They give people a chance to connect to their culture and to the roots and that. It’s keeping the heritage alive of indigenous culture, which I feel very connected to spiritually. I had been wanting to photograph someone from that community. My friend Manuel knows I’m working on a portrait project, and he said “Oh, I have been talking to one of my students. Her name is Krystal. She was an at-risk youth and Danza changed her life. She really wants to be photographed by you.” So then I said, “Okay. Ask her if she wants to do it but because she’s fifteen or sixteen, she has to get consent from her parents because I’m not going to do it at all unless her parents are okay with it. He said, “Okay.” Then I got sick on Friday, and she texts me. She said, “I’ll ask my mom and dad. I was like, “Hey, but I’m sick.” So we were texting and with all my strength, I went on Sunday. I wasn’t sure if she was going to come in her ceremonial clothes. We were at Mariachi Plaza, they have a swap meet, a little flea market every Sunday. I was waiting with my brother, because he’s my assistant a lot of times. We were making jokes and just waiting.
She said, “Should I bring my street clothes or my ceremonial clothes?” I said, “Honestly, Krystal. Dress comfortable. Your face, if you’re uncomfortable, then the portrait is going to look terrible. Wear whatever you want.” Then I heard the little bells and the little shells and then I was like, “Oh.”
She came and her dad was like the big ex-gangster. Big dude. All tatted down and maybe 250 pounds, but super sweet. He was just right there the whole time, just waiting. He said, “Take as long as you want. I want to do this for her.” She had all of her little friends from school right there. They were probably Snapchatting the whole thing.
AA: A moment with the photographer.
SM: Yeah, it was super beautiful. She said that she had always wanted this. Her moment to shine and that she never thought she’d do good in school. She always hung out with gangsters. It reminded me a lot of me and my friends when we were fifteen and sixteen, how we all thought we would die by then.
Then, when you get that moment that there is more life than death. For me, it was photography. For her, it was this heritage and this culture and it was Danza, and it was this school and it was this different way of being. For me, it was so important to photograph her and photograph her in strength and resilience and show her with pride. I want her to be in the exhibition because she’s only sixteen. She has her whole life ahead of her to show her that you’re making the right choice. It’s the most important decision.
AA: I didn’t know about this school, until you told me about it. Then, I looked it up. I was really excited, moved, and impressed by Semillas. What do you think it has done for her?
SM: The way she was talking to me about it, was that she was saying the way she felt in middle school was that nobody cared about her. When one of her friends at school, one of her classmates, Ricki got shot, I believe, or stabbed. One or the other unfortunately. She said that when he got shot or stabbed, they were all praying to the creator. Not to God, but to who their creator was. She felt like that when that used to happen in middle school, when somebody died, it was just another day.
When Ricki got whatever assaulted, I guess, that at the school, they got united and they kept doing ceremonies for him and that he got better and that she felt connected to the school and she didn’t lose hope for Ricki. I guess before the school, when all of her friends would pass away, she kept losing hope, but now she’s not losing hope when things like that happen. I think that’s really important for someone her age, to not lose hope even though things happen.
Unfortunately, where she lives, and just the whole community, there’s still going to be deaths, but it’s not losing hope.