In thinking about where my project lies within existing bodies of scholarship, I’ve identified three areas of research that were instrumental in helping me think critically about Latina/o urban photography in Los Angeles. While my project focuses on a visual public sphere, women’s representation in discourse is still important to consider when evaluating the intervention these photographers and bloggers are making on Tumblr and Instagram. Chicana historians provide me with valuable theoretical lenses and critiques of gender relations in Mexican culture, as well as a survey of how the dominant sphere has imposed restrictive respectability standards on minority women. I’ve also identified literature that has helped me think about the intersections of cultural identity and place, with a focus on Los Angeles’s specific histories. The third body of literature that has proven instrumental in my work is feminist and queer theory, particularly the work of Gloria Anzaldua and José Esteban Muñoz.
This project has been largely inspired by the scholarship of Chicana historians, specifically those who have written about pachucas and other historical figures that disrupted notions of female respectability. In meXicana encounters: The Making of Social Identities on the Borderlands, Rosalinda Fregoso focuses on Mexicana/Chicana representation through various mediums, from film to print and news media, and how these representations inform us of the complicated ways female social identities are largely restricted by the masculinist traditional Mexican family and its attached gender roles. One chapter discusses the role of the Pachuca in transgressing gender norms through their bold traversal of the masculinized Chicano public sphere, the streets, and their radical self-fashioning and aggressive demeanor. Fregoso also brings in Nancy Fraser’s feminist analysis of the public versus the private sphere in discussing Mi Vida Loca, a film about Chicana female gangsters in Echo Park, which I find useful in thinking about how Chicanas in urban photography on Tumblr and Instagram are destabilizing the private sphere where blogging takes place in simultaneously fostering public visibility. Other similar works that explore the feminist possibilities within Pachuca culture and fashion are Elizabeth Escobedo’s From Coveralls to Zoot Suits and Catherine Ramirez’s The Woman in the Zoot Suit, which also discuss how pachucas challenged normative femininity during WWII, creating a culture of resistance against Americanization and respectability programs geared toward Mexican American women in the 1940s. These histories make us aware of how excluded Chicanas’ narratives are in dominant historiography, and how these inconsistencies persist in our contemporary moment. They teach us the importance of celebrating Chicana identities that promote independence, liberated sexualities, and cultural pride for women. More importantly, they help situate the subjects in my project within a legacy of Chicana power and subversion.
Social Histories of Multiethnic Ecologies
Urban and social histories about Los Angeles have been helpful in allowing me to think about how scholars have constructed a sense of belonging (or non-belonging) for Chicanos and other Latinos in the United States. In reading Fit to be Citizens? by Natalia Molina, we learn that early 20th century public health policies pathologized Mexican American women's bodies and rendered their bodies vehicles for Americanization efforts in the 1920s. These histories are part of a longstanding history of Mexicans and Mexican Americans belonging to Los Angeles's landscape. They also show us how these measures worked to position Mexicans as non-citizens to Los Angeles's landscape in the imagination of Anglo settlers and visitors. Architectural critic Reyner Banham, for example, pays little regard to ethnic communities in his book, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies. Rather, this influential yet narrow-sighted critic makes claims about Anglo settlers rightly taking land from Californio ranchers and glorifying consequential urbanization, while ignoring the exploitation of Mexican American laborers and performers in creating this landscape (a topic we also discussed in this course in reading Mitchell’s Lie of the Land). Novels such as Ask the Dust by John Fante can also be analyzed as primary texts that provide insight into how “ethnic” Mexican and Mexican American bodies were portrayed at the time, especially those of women, and what sense of mobility and belonging is given to their characters. Dolores Hayden’s The Power of Place reminds us of the significance in promoting public history in working-class communities of color in Los Angeles, and in thinking about how a city’s past contributes to its cultural landscape. My goal is to think about how urban photography resonates a history of Los Angeles’s cultural landscape an how it may serve as a form of public history itself. Finally, Eric Avila’s The Folklore of the Freeway brings to light the implications of urban development in Los Angeles within Latino barrios and ghettoes, as well as highlighting the contributions of Chicana artists and writers such as Judith Baca and Marisela Norte who assert their belonging through artistic expression.
Feminist and Queer Theory
My engagement with Chicana feminist theory and queer theory has also been influential in my analyses for this course. I named my digital exhibit project "The New Mestiza Lives in L.A." after Andalzúa’s concept of radical Chicanas as new mestizas who disrupt normative understandings of gender and sexuality. As a product of colonialism, Chicanas’ consciousness is interpellated by many voices, but as a subject who does not belong exclusively to one history, to one place, and to one culture, Chicanas have the potential to reject oppressive binaries on their bodies (such as the puta/virgen, or madonna/whore dichotomy). On a similar note, José Esteban Muñoz’s Disidentifications provides me with theoretical tools that help me conceptualize of Chicanas in urban photography as performers of transgressive identities, who produce visual counterpublics as a survival strategy against the majoritarian public sphere. I’m encouraged to think critically in engaging this type of social theory that discusses how minoritarian gendered or queer subjects can reinscribe meanings into signifiers of marginality.
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