Authentic Views of East L.A.

Photographer Aurelio Jose Barrera provides glimpses of his neighborhood

By Abelardo de la Pe??a Jr.
Published on LatinoLA: December 23, 1999

Authentic Views of East L.A.

Under the direction of actor and activist Edward James Olmos, more than thirty award- winning photographers fanned out across the country to capture glimpses of Latino life. The result was Americanos, a coffee-table book published this year and part of the larger multi-media Americanos Project which also includes a film documentary shown on HBO, a music CD and a traveling exhibit organized by the Smithsonian Institute.

Celebrating the diversity and energy of today's Latino community, the photographs focus on individuals, families and groups from a wealth of nationalities, including Cuban, Panamanian, Puerto Rican, Mexican, and Argentinean. Taken in various locations, Americanos portrays Latino life in locations as diverse as the border regions of the Southwest to the teeming cities of New York and Miami.

To capture the look and feel of East Los Angeles ? inarguably a center of U.S. Latino life ? longtime L.A. Times photographer and photo editor Aurelio Jose Barrera was tapped, although only after a previous photographer bombed out by producing only "festival" images of Aztec dancers and Cinco de Mayo festivities. "That's something we are proud of, but to me that's not everyday East LA," says Barrera.

Called just two weeks before deadline, Barrera scoured the neighborhoods he knew best ? Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights, City Terrace ? located just east of the Los Angeles River. After submitting the proof sheets from twenty rolls of film, he was given the go-ahead to complete the project, with a welcome a one-month extension.

"The month went by really fast," remembers Barrera. "One of the things I liked was that they let me shoot in black and white. Also, it was very different to work with Latinos who took my word about what is out there, who were open-minded enough in letting me present my L.A."

As seen in both the book and in out-takes published here for the very first time, Barrera's L.A. is a world of coded ornamentation and mysterious rituals. From the backyard training ground for fighting roosters to the particular Latino ritual of customizing personal possessions, Barrera guides us to views glimpsed only through the parting of clothes hanging on the line or by climbing down to see what's under the 4th Street Bridge.

He welcomed the opportunity to have participated in Americanos. "It's a nice book, overall very well-balanced," he says. "It's a rarity for Latinos to be presented as being human, another functioning part of society. Most of the time, people have a preconceived notion, based on images shown of Latinos as being dirty or poor. Americanos?this is what we're like."

If you hear roosters in the morning, it's a sign of who has fighting cocks. The owner of the bird and his brother brought out several of the birds and worked them out. This was shot in the backyard of an apartment complex in City Terrace. (Click on images to enlarge).

Going down to Boyle Heights to photograph guys who drive 40s cars, I see Boy (Rudy Gomez) on a bike, looking for "opportunities." He's a good friend of the family, helped build our fence, retile the bathroom. He chose the locations, places he hangs out. Shortly after that, he got his third strike. They gave him eight years. But he lucked out. It could have been worse.

One of my photo students from Self-Help Graphics. One of assignments was for students to photograph each other. I was trying to teach students that no matter where you are, you can find good light if you look hard enough. I had her close her eyes because she was very nervous.

We like to customize, personalize things. You could buy the box?that's not enough. That's really telling about Latinos. The owner was very proud that someone was interested in his shoebox.

They asked me photograph low riders going down the street. You just don't see them on the streets anymore. You can't drive them because they are too valuable. I doubt if my daughter's even seen a low rider. Young Chicanos are into hot-riding lowered cars, going the opposite way of fancy low riders with the custom paint jobs. They use simple colors, flat black paint jobs, with engines that scream. Still the keeping low-rider influence, but it's the evolution.

? 1999 - Aurelio Jose Barrera.

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