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Portraits of a Culture

A multimedia project coordinated by actor Edward James Olmos captures the essence of Latinos in the U.S.

April 14, 1999|JOSE CARDENAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The hands of small girls at St. Michael's School on Chicago's South Side are held together in morning prayers.

Bernadine Mendoza sews a new American flag at her job in Houston.

A weather-beaten Luis Estrada carries a batch of tulips, the yield of a soggy field in Woodburn, Ore.

And in Los Angeles, Jennifer Bracamontes--a Garfield High School student bound for Harvard--holds a rose in one hand and a high school diploma in the other.

These are the portraits of Latinos featured in "Americanos: Latino Life in the United States," published earlier this month by Little, Brown & Co.

The book--part of a multimedia project coordinated by actor Edward James Olmos--is a collection of photographs, essays and poems that touch on themes such as family, religion and work to illustrate Latino values and their historical background.

The project was unveiled at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., last week, and includes a traveling art exhibit that will tour the country over the next five years, an HBO documentary this fall and a compact disc with recordings by 16 Latino artists such as Tito Puente, Los Lobos and Ozomatli.

"It's been a constant desire by artistry in our country: how to create positive [Latino] role models in movies and in writing," said Olmos, who is on a monthlong book tour.

"The primary message is . . . that Latinos are a source of strength to this country. We do everything from picking crops to being astronauts and teachers," said Dr. Lea Ybarra, executive director of the Institute for the Academic Advancement of Youth at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and co-editor of the book.

*

The project was conceived three years ago when photographer Manuel Monterrey suggested to Olmos Productions a collection of portraits of Latinos around the country. Olmos approached Time Warner--parent company of HBO, Atlantic Records and Little Brown--for assistance.

Thirty photographers snapped the portraits at churches, homes, the workplace and at celebrations. The authors say the final product shows people who are physically and culturally diverse, but also with common bonds.

In Van Nuys, for instance, there are the Prystupas--Alberto and Marcela with their children Guadalupe, 2, and Andre, 7 months--a family with blond hair and light skin.

Lisa Demetriou, a police officer, is photographed at the Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York City sharing a warm moment with her son.

Carolina Santos and Carlota Rivera, two young girls at Lincoln Marti School in Miami, playfully display their Spanish- and Venezuelan-style dresses.

*

The essays and poems written mostly by Latino writers explore the roots of Latino culture, ever-evolving since the Spanish conquest of the Americas.

Ybarra writes about family, which she says is the center of Latino life.

"Despite our diversity, we are nonetheless bound together by a common search for a better life for ourselves and our children," she writes. "Thus, our destiny has brought us to this country, whether it was generations ago or merely this morning."

Dr. Virgilio Elizondo, a religious scholar from San Antonio, explores religion.

"In our mestizo Christianity--a profound and beautiful blend of Native American religions with Iberian Catholicism--we do not just know about God but, rather, we know God personally," he says.

Poet Maya Angelou writes about her influences:

"Spanish, the language in general and the Latino culture in particular, has influenced my own approach to art--the writings of Paz, Marquez, Neruda, Marti, Machado de Asis, Allende y otros--and others."

In the documentary, perhaps most intriguing is the interview with Glicet Gallegos Garvey, an Immigration and Naturalization Service agent who helps apprehend illegal immigrants at the border near El Centro, Calif.

Garvey, a naturalized American citizen born in Mexico, says she understands that immigrants are simply looking for a better life, but she also understands her duty as an American.

"They're not bad people," she says. "But this is my country, and I will do whatever they ask of me to protect it."

The cameras also traveled to Espan~ola, a town about 40 miles north of Santa Fe, N.M., where a man named Dennis celebrated the 400th anniversary of the settlement of the New World by the Spanish conquistador Juan de Onate by riding through town on horseback dressed as the legendary conqueror.

And there's Jennifer Bracamontes, the only Garfield student in her class headed for Harvard. The teenager coaches basketball in her spare time and believes "you can do anything in this country."

The Americanos art exhibit opened at the Smithsonian on March 27 and will be on display there until June 6. Then it will travel to the Museum of the City of New York and the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis.

The exhibit has tentative dates through August 2002 in St. Petersburg, Fla., Memphis, Tenn, Chicago, San Antonio, Houston and Fresno, said Caroline Carpenter, a Smithsonian spokeswoman. But it may not get any closer to Los Angeles than Fresno, she said, unless requested.

* On Monday, Olmos will sign books at UCLA's Book Zone in Ackerman Union at 3:30 p.m. and at Ventura Books, 522 E. Main St., Ventura, at 7 p.m.

* Times staff writer Jose Cardenas can be reached by e-mail at Jose.Cardenas@latimes.com.

Festival of Books

* Edward James Olmos will participate in the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books

on April 24-25 at UCLA.

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