The word “Chicano” has historically been a derogatory term, conjuring images of hyper-macho men prone to alcohol abuse, gang violence and aggression. These Chicanos were the kind of men you would hear about in police reports, rather than awards ceremonies. It wasn’t until young Mexican-Americans in the 1960s took on the politically-loaded term with pride and fought for social justice that Chicano started to mean something more complex, as it does for internationally-recognized artist and photographer Harry Gamboa Jr.
In Gamboa Jr.’s lexicon, Chicano covers a larger, more diverse group of people than what mass media would have you believe. His exhibit, “Chicano Male Unbonded,” which opens at The Autry Museum of the American West on September 16th, features nearly 100 portraits of Chicanos he believes represent the evolution of the term among Mexican-American men.
“The term Chicano itself was a self-identified term that required people to create cultural attributes that can be added to the definition,” explains Gamboa Jr., who identifies as Chicano and came of age during the days of the Chicano Moratorium as an active participant in some of the student walkouts and other protests. “[It was] about 1968 when the term was introduced broadly, on some level. At that point, it had a root that was very politicized and maybe had a particular trajectory but, since that time, there’s been so much that’s been added to it and contributes to it.”
“Chicano Male Unbonded” is a project that Gamboa Jr. has worked on since 1991 beginning with an initial portrait series of 25 men. That collection has grown to portraits of more than 150 men, all shot from the same angle with each subject striking a similar pose. Several photographs have already been acquired by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.
“The initial purpose of the series was ‘what would it be like to encounter these men in an exterior setting, usually an urban setting, just encounter them at night illuminated by ambient light, whatever’s available,’ which is where I place them, so on some level it’s documentary but at the same time it’s formative and the overall project itself is basically conceptual,” says Gamboa Jr.
Gamboa Jr. shoots his subjects on black-and-white to give his portraits a look similar to film noir. He also shoots from a low angle, always at night using only ambient light, from roughly knee-high height with his subjects gazing directly at the camera. His composition leads viewers to make assumptions about the subject’s identity, only to find that these imposing Chicanos are actually all artists, academics and professionals, working at the height of their respective fields. These images (and corresponding biographies) challenge the viewer’s preconceived biases and viewpoint of the subjects they see in his portraits.
“It’s just the idea of you’re standing and you’re looking at the lens,” he explains. “If you look at the history of mass media and the way Chicanos are portrayed, they were never allowed to gaze or look directly at the camera. The only time you would see that is in mug shots. If not, the photographs were always taken from above in a downcast eye as though they were in a subservient position or, in some way or another, to intimate some negative characteristics.”
Gamboa Jr’s subjects run the gamut from educators to artists to social activists to members of his own family. What unites his subjects, besides the fact that they all know him on some level, is that they are all persons who Gamboa Jr. considers to be strong in their sense of self.
“The whole series relates to men who in some way have made an impression on me,” he says. “It’s all very personal. People who have somehow influenced me through their actions, their behavior, through their work. Some of the men I’ve actually witnessed doing some kind of heroic act or some action that reasserts a particular element of Chicano culture but, in the end, I’d have to say the overriding connection with all the men is that I’ve seen them [assert] their integrity in the face of difficult circumstances and for them to emerge even stronger.”
One of Gamboa Jr.’s most well-known subjects is Rodolfo “Rudy” Acuña, founder of the Chicano Studies program at California State University Northridge and author of the previously banned book, “Occupied America: A History of Chicanos.” As an author, educator, and activist, Acuña has affected the lives of thousands of people in the nation including Gamboa Jr. who he credits with having a “very positive intervention on me.”
Acuña continues to have positive interventions on generations of students as evidenced by the handful of students featured in “Chicano Male Unbonded” who studied under Acuña at CSUN. Gamboa Jr. has also paid it forward by influencing generations of Chicano students as a professor at the California Institute of the Arts and lecturer at CSUN over many years.
Gamboa Jr. gives the example of Esteban Perez, one of his students at Cal Arts. What struck him the most was how Perez would dress in a motif that recalled the style of clothing that he and his friends wore during the 50s and 60s. He recently wrote a letter of recommendation for Perez, who he describes as an astute theorist and painter. Perez was later accepted to Yale University.
“On that level, it’s an excellent evolution of where I come from because my original involvement in Chicano culture, besides growing up Chicano, my first action was to be involved in something known as the 1968 East L.A. walkouts, which was really focused on trying to provide opportunities for people to have an education,” he explains. “At that point in time, it would’ve been beyond anyone’s wildest dreams that someone who had the charisma and the creativity like Esteban Perez could actually wind up at Yale and now it’s a reality.”
One portrait close to Gamboa Jr’s heart is the one he took of his father, Harry Gamboa. Carlos Enrique’s family, as he was known before his name was Americanized, settled in El Paso, Texas from Mexico when he was just a year old. He grew up in the same barrio where the zoot suit riots took place. It was during World War II that he changed his name legally to Harry Gamboa.
“I always insist on using that name because my father truly lived the Mexican-American experience of subjugation and yet, at the same time, he had to survive and raise a big family and he was very strong in his own way,” explains Gamboa Jr.
It’s that Mexican-American experience of overcoming insurmountable odds that he wants to capture in his portraits. He recalls a conversation he had with a friend about the pachucos and their flamboyant style of dress. The idea was to give their bodies the shape of a diamond from a distance. Gamboa Jr. wants to take it a step further and show people that Chicanos can be forged by their struggles into something greater and hopes that his portraits can capture that.
“Rather than look like a diamond, it’s possible to become a diamond,” he explains. “That’s kind of my goal. I try to train young people to become diamonds. As it turns out, diamonds are the most common element in the universe. It’s to become at one with the universe, and with that, you become aware of the power of the universe. You might as well use it while you’re in the form of a human.”
Top Image: Proofs of Fr. Richard Estrada (Priest/Activist) photos for Chicano Male Unbonded | Harry Gamboa Jr.