In partnership with the Vincent Price Art Museum: The mission of the Vincent Price Art Museum is to serve as a unique educational resource through the exhibition, interpretation, collection, and preservation of works in all media.
"Tastemakers & Earthshakers: Notes from Los Angeles Youth Culture, 1943 – 2016" is a multimedia exhibition that traverses eight decades of style, art, and music, and presents vignettes that consider youth culture as a social class, distinct issues associated with young people, principles of social organization, and the emergence of subcultural groups. Citing the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots as a seminal moment in the history of Los Angeles, the exhibition emphasizes a recirculation of shared experiences across time, reflecting recurrent and ongoing struggles and triumphs.
Through a series of articles, Artbound is digging deeper into the figures and themes explored in "Tastemakers & Earthshakers." The show was on view from October 15, 2016 to February 25, 2017 at the Vincent Price Art Museum.
A beret-clad young woman stands with purpose as she stares into the camera. Her hands hold a poster with a strong call-to-action. Behind her, an altar is being taken down and people are lingering following a rally. Except for the hashtag on her sign, the black-and-white image, taken by photographer Rafael Cardenas, could have been taken nearly 50 years ago at the Chicano Moratorium march against the Vietnam War. The tag on her poster is linked to social media activism, a public refusal to witness more deaths caused by police brutality, but the phrase has also been used nationwide to denounce deportations. In actuality, the photo was shot in Los Angeles after a vigil for Trayvon Martin. The ceremony, which saw hundreds of youth gathering in solidarity, was replicated across the country. In 2017, Los Angeles youth are still walking out, only now they’re protesting the xenophobia and misogyny that surged during the 2016 presidential election. Then and now, for youth, there are so many reasons to say “no.”
Cardenas' evocative photograph "Not One More (Girl with Beret)," and the work of 40 plus artists is presented in the exhibition, "Tastemakers & Earthshakers: Notes from Los Angeles Youth Culture, 1943-2016" at the Vincent Price Art Museum. The show bridges Latino youth cultures in Los Angeles across space and time. Among the show's wide-ranging works are selected images that remind us of three essential things: the conditions that harmed Chicano youth (and women, queer folks, the working class, and other people of color) in the 1960s are still widespread today; youth continue to not only speak out about injustice but thrive despite it; and there is more than one way to resist structures and practices of oppression.
Master photographer Oscar Castillo captured hundreds of images of students marching and protesting. One of his most recognized shows five young people walking past a chain-link fence and basketball courts of a school. The young woman leading the group wears a fringed jacket and holds a sign that says “Chicano Power.” According to book “Chicano! A History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement,” students protested issues such as abysmal classroom conditions and low teacher expectations across the east side of Los Angeles by walking out of class beginning in March 1968. Schools from Lincoln Heights to East Los Angeles witnessed thousands taking to the streets in acts of self-determination. Students also challenged the number of Chicano soldiers in Vietnam who were dying at twice the rate of other soldiers. This period was not the first time Mexican Americans had fought against poor educational conditions, they also did so in civil rights battles against segregation for decades prior to this photo. The difference in 1970, when Castillo took the photo, was that there was someone behind the camera lens to reflect young people back to themselves. Isn’t that why so many people fight for social justice: to see themselves represented accurately in the world around them?
The week of November 14, 2016, nearly 4,000 students from about 18 schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District participated in walkouts against the president elect’s selection. As in the 1960s and ‘70s, students gathered at landmarks like Mariachi Plaza, Lincoln Park and city hall for rallies. In photos circulated across news and social media, one student was seen holding a sign that said, “I can’t make my parents proud if they’re not here.” The statement referred to deportation threats and increased xenophobic rhetoric. Instead of feeling vulnerable and silent, students walked out, because somewhere they saw other people like them affirming their rights to protest and justice. This is what images of youth resistance give: a map to follow, a picture to remind them it’s been done before — you don’t need a college degree to see yourself in another person.
What Can I Do?
Rafael Cardenas says that throughout his life, “I've always rebelled against people telling me what to do.” Cardenas' works behind the lens, documenting everyday lives and places in Los Angeles. A self-taught artist, he doesn’t consider his work to be political. But “because of where I am,” he says, “and where I'm from, people use it that way.” Cardenas is interested, however, in how he can support all kinds of social justice movements. “What can I do? What’s my part? How can I help?” Activists have been using his work for the past five years to catalyze public support for various causes from housing to anti-state violence. It turns out that all he has to do is be an artist and that’s the way he helps others. He says that when he combined his rebelliousness with education, it changed his life: “I was a street kid… and then I went to ELAC [East L.A. College]… a little bit of education went a long way.”
In another photograph by Cardenas, a woman wears a black and white bandana over her mouth and glares into the lens. The colors are saturated and rich, a clear blue sky is crisp, and the black she wears denotes power and force. In the background, a group of women talk next to a warehouse and hold up their bicycles. The woman in the foreground is Xela de la X, founder of Ovarian Psycos, a local group that inhabits urban spaces with moonlit bike rides, who “choose the bicycle not only because it allows us to exercise our bodies,” but “also because we are broke inner-city oppressed peoples and cycling is our only means of transportation.” The image of the group documents a current movement whose methods of organizing resemble community-based practices used by the Brown Berets and Black Panthers — autonomy and meeting people’s basic needs.
When asked about her first conscious act of rebellion, Xela cites her home life. “It was the moment I got tired of watching my mom getting hit. I took the phone and started hitting my father with it. I realized I didn’t have to take it anymore. I didn’t have to normalize this.”
Armed with an inner motivation and the freedom to express aggression via the local punk music scene, in 1994 Xela joined 75,000 youth across California to protest the passage of Proposition 187, which sought to ban undocumented immigrants from public education and emergency health services, and would have made teachers and health care providers into mandated reporters of suspected “aliens.” The measure was approved by nearly 60 percent of California voters. She walked out of Huntington Park High School in southeast L.A. and marched to city hall, just like youth had walked out in 1970, just like students would in 2017. Most undocumented people were already ineligible for most health and welfare benefits under federal law, but what stood out to Xela was the injustice of normalizing hate, much like what was happening in her home, she says. Xela was unwilling to accept either situation.
I Can See Why
While students protested the deaths caused by the Vietnam War and their school’s conditions in 1970, Garfield High School also had students like Tim Toyama, a now retired paralegal and former East L.A. resident who, as a member of the cheer squad, was having the best year of his life.
Featured in "Tastemakers & Earthshakers," are the aging pages of a 1970 Garfield High School yearbook where Japanese American and Mexican American students in the cheer squad are pictured together. They all wear lettermen sweaters and have broad smiles. Toyama recalls that year as “probably the best of my life.” He cites having his own car, spending money from a part-time job, and being a member of the cheer squad as reasons for his contentment. “My generation was Sansei, and we were congregated in one neighborhood. My classes did their homework. We didn’t walk out.”
Toyama was part of the “A” group, a college tracked body of students split 50 percent between Japanese Americans and Mexican Americans. He says he had always been told he’d go to college, however, in the same breath, his teachers all told his class that their East L.A. educations were sub-par compared to other schools and that they would be unprepared for the challenge of university. Other groups like “B” and “C” were recognized as average and below average students, these student classes were relegated to lower expectations and steered toward trade careers. (For the record, trade jobs are not negative in and of themselves. The prejudice and racism underlying student expectations is what is problematic).
It may seem that Toyama was not affected by the tumultuous times of his neighborhood, but when he was accidentally assigned to a class in the B track “for so-called average students,” he learned a lesson. “There was no teaching going on. I can see how, if you wanted an education, you would have been hard-pressed to get one there. Garfield was a place that was keeping young people busy until they turned 18. I can see why people would walk out.”
Sometimes doing homework is the best way to rebel against a school system that doesn’t prepare you to compete in the outside world. It can teach you to fight in your own way. Toyama resisted the onslaught of anti-Japanese American sentiment against his community by joining cheer in his school and completing his assignments. Toyama resisted by succeeding.
There are different ways to resist. An image can remind us of all the different kinds of people who refuse to normalize conditions like police brutality and violence against women. Protest photographs can cause a viewer to reflect and ask questions: What other world can we imagine? How can we reflect each other into the world? When prejudice and violence write communities out of history, youth have filled in the blanks and filled the room with their resistance and rebellion.
Top image: Oscar Castillo, "Huelguista," 1970, black and white photograph. | Courtesy of the artist