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A Skewed Image of Latino L.A.?

Critics say photo exhibit dwells only on poverty, but the artist defends the presentation as his vision of one segment, not an overview, of life.


Camilo Jose Vergara's photographs had never been picketed before. His latest exhibit, about Latinos in Los Angeles, received a positive review in Washington, D.C., and an even better one in New York City. So when a group of artists, urban planners and architects here challenged the accuracy of his presentation, he wondered why.

Maybe, critics suggest, the problem with the exhibit, "El Nuevo Mundo" or "The New World," is that the barrios of east and South-Central Los Angeles are much more complex than the exhibit's emphasis on poverty and street life.

Maybe "The Landscape of Latino Los Angeles," the subtitle of the exhibit now at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, is too broad a term to accurately describe a population that has both deep and shallow roots in the city.

Or maybe the presentation's focus on the exotic nature of the newest immigrants, which the photographer sees as examples of people thriving in their own way, is a touchy issue in a city self-conscious about race and immigration.

And maybe the barrios that Vergara began photographing in 1992 have been studied by other local artists, urban planners and sociologists who have come to different conclusions about the communities where some of them were born.

Such questions have come mainly from one group: the Latino Urban Forum, an organization of four dozen or so people who mounted an almost-immediate protest.

The museum says the response from the general public has been mostly favorable and many have written diverse observations in several guest books:

"A work from the heart. It brought me joy, sadness and all types of . . . feelings," wrote one guest.

"Your work, while interesting and 'artistic,' portrays Latinos in a one-sided manner," wrote another. "As an educator, I see my students' self-esteem leave them. . . . Your exhibit has contributed to this and the negative portrayal of Latinos."

Exploring the Landscape of L.A.

The exhibit is composed of 107 photographs of the landscape in East and South-Central L.A. inhabited by immigrants from Mexico and Central America. The images range from a dead pit bull in an alley--the victim of what the exhibit caption says are common "clandestine dogfights" in the community--to humble storefront businesses with hand-drawn signs. One photo shows swarms of pedestrians in a downtown business district dominated by immigrants that the exhibit calls, together with other parts of "El Nuevo Mundo," Little Mexico.

There are also photographs of backyards, one filled with junk, another with farm animals and another that has become a construction site. Vergara has documented homes where residents have modestly personalized original wooden bungalows, an arrest scene, a church behind security bars, homeless people who have taken over a sidewalk. The photographs also drift south to show barriers at the Mexico/U.S border.

"The exhibit was never meant to describe the entire Latino population," Vergara said, expressing admiration for new immigrants' attempts to survive and to revitalize parts of the city that might otherwise be abandoned--an upbeat theme that critics say doesn't come across in the exhibit.

"My interest has always been the poor fellow, how they make it, how they get through life without speaking the language."

Vergara, 54, was born in Chile and has been a longtime resident of New York City. Most of his work has focused on what he describes as "hellholes," desolate neighborhoods in such places as Detroit, north Philadelphia and New York City. His work has been shown widely, including at the Getty Center, the Smithsonian Institution, the New York Public Library and the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.

Just as his last book, "The New American Ghetto" (Rutgers University Press, 1995), was the result of his research on urban decay, he intends to write a book based on his research in Los Angeles.

Vergara came to Los Angeles in 1992 to photograph what he thought would be African American communities. But he said he found the areas inhabited by new immigrants who function in a technologically humble world, creating their own jobs that sometimes are as simple as selling fruit on the streets in one of the most sophisticated cities in the world.

He didn't find the mosaic of races and the melting pot often associated with Los Angeles, he says. Instead, he says he found a large Spanish-speaking population where signs of assimilation weren't evident.

'Layering of Latino Cultures'

The museum's brochure reads: " . . . color photographs showing the changing physical character and the layering of Latino cultures in Los Angeles County. His work explores how Latinos build and decorate their homes, landscape their yards and revitalize their neighborhoods to resemble the warmth and vibrancy of those in Mexico and Central America."

His critics' primary criticism is what they perceive as the exhibit's overgeneralizations.

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