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Professor's Art Draws Heated Response : Nicaragua War Images Called 'Disgusting,' Thought-Provoking

January 15, 1987|DENISE HAMILTON | Times Staff Writer

No one ever said Carlos Ugalde's pictures were pretty or his politics uncontroversial.

When the Glendale Community College professor exhibited his photos of Central American war victims at Los Angeles City Hall in October, an incensed Councilman Ernani Bernardi called the photos "disgusting" and lobbied unsuccessfully to shut the exhibit down.

Then, after Ugalde appeared on Glendale Mayor Larry Zarian's radio talk show last month to debate United States intervention in Latin America, a sputtering Zarian called his ideas "the most vicious anti-American propaganda that I've heard."

Ugalde, a self-taught photographer who teaches Latin American history and Chicano Studies, is unruffled by the strong reactions that his photographs and views evoke.

"It's a typical response by North Americans who can't accept any critical analysis of U.S. foreign policy," said Ugalde, a tall, black-bearded man.

The Glendale professor was born 42 years ago in the central Mexican state of San Luis Potosi and moved to San Diego at age 6. He lives in Alhambra and is fluent in Spanish and English. His voice is soft and musical, and he punctuates his conversations with bits of Spanish.

Since 1973, Ugalde has traveled throughout Mexico and Central America snapping political murals and scenes of revolution, torture and street life.

This week an exhibit of 93 Ugalde photos, including several that roused Bernardi's ire last year, went on exhibition at the Los Angeles Photography Center at 412 Park View St. South near MacArthur Park.

The center is run by the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department, whose director, Glenna Avila, said that, although "there are some very strong images," she does not believe "they should be censored just because they're difficult to look at."

Avila said the photography building, situated within the city's largest Central American community, is "really interested in showing what is actually going on" in Latin America. The show, which kicked off this weekend with a multicultural festival that drew 400 people and featured food, music and Central American handicrafts, has drawn only positive response, she said.

Alternately haunting and brutal, Ugalde's shots run the gamut from wizened Indian women in a Guatemalan marketplace to the silhouette of an armed Sandinista soldier in Nicaragua at twilight.

Some show the juxtaposition of politics and religion in Latin American life. For example, one photo captures a whitewashed room whose walls are bare except for two paintings: Jesus Christ and Che Guevara, the Argentine-born revolutionary who was killed in 1967.

Some are very grisly: A woman wrapped in a body bag who lies in an open coffin, mothers crying over dead children, a schoolchild's primitive drawing of U. S. helicopters dropping bombs on a farm village.

Captions Draw Attention

What draws the most controversy, however, are the captions that Ugalde writes to accompany his photos. The dead woman in the coffin is listed as a torture victim of the Nicaraguan contras , the anti-Sandinista forces now receiving U. S. aid. The caption for a funereal scene reads "Mother mourns for son killed by contras, Reagan's army." President Reagan has strongly supported the contras as a way of unseating the Sandinistas.

Are Ugalde's photos an unfair depiction? No, he said.

"As a human being, I have a responsibility to document the reality down there, to show the results of U. S. foreign policy," Ugalde said.

For him, that includes attributing the atrocities and death depicted in his photos to "Reagan's Contras."

'I Know Who Killed Them'

"They wanted me to title the photos 'victims of war.' But I was the only one who was there when those people were killed. I know who killed them. I have an obligation as a human being to tell what I know," Ugalde said.

The Glendale professor acknowledges that he is somewhat obsessed with Central American politics. He said it encompasses every facet of his life.

"I would have no qualms about exchanging my camera for a weapon to defend the sovereignity of Nicaragua," Ugalde said.

After the Dec. 20 radio show, Mayor Zarian called Ugalde's beliefs "a little too wild." He also criticized the Glendale professor for his seemingly blind acceptance of the Nicaraguan government and for his refusal to acknowledge what he said were atrocities committed by the Sandinistas.

However, Ugalde's stirred "a very lively debate," said Zarian, who plans to ask the professor back later this month.

In the academic world, Ugalde's political fervor has won him respect as well as revilement.

Drake Hawkins, chairman of Glendale College's social sciences department, said that Ugalde is a controversial figure on campus and that some students and faculty members have accused him of being "un-American."

However, "We believe very deeply in the exchange of ideas and that students should hear controversial views," Hawkins said.

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