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Photographer Focuses on Central America : People at War--Not Always a Pretty Picture

January 22, 1987|DENISE HAMILTON | Times Staff Writer

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

When the Alhambra resident, a professor at Glendale Community College, 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 U. S. 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 fluent in Spanish and English who teaches Latin American history and Chicano studies, is unruffled by the strong reactions.

"It's a typical response by North Americans who can't accept any critical analysis of U.S. foreign policy," he said.

Ugalde was born 42 years ago in the central Mexican state of San Luis Potosi and moved to San Diego at age 6. He stayed there until he finished junior college in 1965, then enrolled at UCLA, where he got a bachelor's degree in history.

Ugalde traces his social awakening to his childhood, when his father, a scrap-metal yard worker and avid reader of literature and poetry, was killed in an industrial accident.

He was only 7, Ugalde said, but he never forgot the generosity of friends and neighbors, both Anglo and Latino, who rallied to the family's side with offers of help.

In college, Ugalde said, he became a radical as a result of his involvement in protests against the Vietnam War and with several inspiring English and philosophy teachers.

Ugalde said he opted for teaching as the best way to reach people. He moved to Alhambra in 1979 so he could be close to California State University, Los Angeles, where he got a master's degree in Chicano and Latin American studies.

In 1980, after several teaching stints at Cerritos City College and East Los Angeles College, Ugalde was offered a position at Glendale Community College.

Since 1967, Ugalde has traveled throughout Mexico and Central America

photographing political murals and scenes of revolution, torture and street life.

He said his early travels were motivated by desire to understand the complexities of Central America and to help him teach others about the region.

"I have attempted to capture these moments in these people's lives," he said. "It is the human condition that I reach out and give the viewer."

Ugalde said he has worked as a free-lance foreign correspondent for radio station KPFK-FM, filing reports on the war in Nicaragua. Some have questioned his objectivity, considering his strong pro-Sandinista stance, but he justifies his position, saying, "I feel it is my duty to educate the public."

Last week, an exhibit of 93 Ugalde photos, shot mostly between 1977 and 1986, went on exhibition at the Los Angeles Photography Center at 412 Park View St. South, near MacArthur Park.

No Censorship

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

Avila said the photography building, which is in the city's largest Central American community, is "really interested in showing what is actually going on" in Latin America.

The show, which runs through Feb. 1, has drawn only positive response, she said.

Alternately haunting and brutal, Ugalde's shots range 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.

Grisly Images

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

What spurs the most controversy, however, are the captions that Ugalde writes.

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 funeral 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.

Human Obligations

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

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