From 1986 to 1993, I was a writer and editor at the L.A. Weekly magazine. Crack cocaine was ravaging the inner city and the war between the Crips and the Bloods in South Central L.A. was hitting its peak; the gangs became a major media topic. Writers and photographers from all over the world cruised the streets of L.A. to get the war stories. Several freelancers showed up at the Weekly with their portfolios. The images were always the same: gangsters flashing signs, showing off tattoos, posing with their handguns and assault rifles. These photographers were well versed in the parachuting brand of journalism: drop into the barrio for a day or two, snap the pictures, and get the hell out before you get yourself killed. Of course, they didn't stay around long enough to get the rest of the story: that there is often a home the kids return to every night; that for every gang kid, there are brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, parents, grandparents, godparents who won't turn their backs on children who are both perpetrators and victims of the violence.
When I arrived at the Weekly, I was promptly asked by my editor to write about gangs. I refused, arguing that the media's sensationalistic focus on barrio violence severely distorted our view of the barrio and that, in any case, there was much more to Latino life than gangs. I wrote very few articles on the topic during those years, all of them related to specific collateral issues: police abuse, black-brown relations, graffiti. Other ethnic media followed the same path. L.A.'s La Opinión, the country's biggest and oldest surviving Spanish-language daily-by most accounts, a fervent defender of Latino causes-rarely deals with gang issues. The few U.S. Latino magazines in circulation today put the likes of Daisy Fuentes and Jimmy Smits on their covers, not tatoo-scarred homeboys with Uzis-they won't even touch hemp-gangsta' rappers like Cypress Hill (the crew teatures Latino members).
It's a kind of Chicano political correctness: don't talk about the dirty laundry, lest the media powers-that-be reinforce the stereotype. I wanted to write about the whole community, I told myself and my editors. But in retrospect, I have to admit that I didn't write about the "whole" precisely because I was avoiding the gangs, an undeniable reality-and an issue where culture, economics and politics collide. In my desire to present a "positive" image, I and other Latino writers unwittingly contributed to the isolation of the barrio we were supposedly advocating for.
Joe Rodriguez ignored these pieties and faced the issue as few of us have. He spent over two years shooting practically full-time in the Marianna, Evergreen and Florencia neighborhoods, in addition to documenting a family in Watts shortly after the riots of April 1992. Since returning to New York, he has made several follow-up trips. He isn't just a simple documentarian: he is participant-observer, a friend to a great many of the people he photographed.
"The homeboys really called the shots," he says. "I only photographed what they told me I could."
Joe was familiar with street culture when he arrived in East L.A. in 1992. He grew up in Brooklyn, a participant-observer of the vibrance and violence of his own multiethnic neighborhood. He did not arrive at photography until his 30s, after surviving his own encounters with the life and death of the streets.
In his first collection, Spanish Harlem, Joe revealed an eye as unflinching as it was sympathetic to the subjects he photographed-from junkies to grandmothers. He can best be described, perhaps, as a Catholic photographer, drawn by empathy to places ruled by suffering, sin and redemption, places where the most human of impulses commingle with the most inhuman.
As he tells it, he'd had in mind a book on Los Angeles gangs ever since running across a 1950s Esquire photo-essay by Bruce Davidson with text by Norman Mailer on a youth gang in Brooklyn-shot in the very neighborhood where Joe grew up in the 60s. He found the work "warm and lyrical," in contrast to the increasing hype about the Wild One-like teenagers of the era. Noting the savage images of TV news, he set out to find the rest of the modern gang story and capture it on film.
His reception in L.A. was anything but warm. Shot by photogs and camera crews, studied by sociologists, the eternal subject of political (both conservative and liberal) grandstanding, gangmembers are not just reticent about cooperating in such projects; they are often hostile. On more than one occasion, Joe was singled out as a police informant by suspicious gangmembers. And, in contrast to the immediate intimacy he
found in Spanish Harlem, he found an East L.A. of "houses with lawns and fences" standing in between him and his subjects. But he persisted with his thematic mantra of "families, families, families," and, of course, eventually gained the trust of many homeboys and their relatives. He came to be on such intimate terms with the homeboys that they came up with a moniker for him: "Joe Kodak." He shared their happiest moments, their most boring moments, their most anguished moments. The result is a photographic journal that in the end is not about just about gangs, but also about families, about relationships; about life and death, about fatalism and the possibility of transformation.
One night a few weeks after spending some time retracing Joe's footsteps in Marianna and Evergreen, I spread several of his photographs out on the living room floor of my house in Los Angeles. I suppose I was wondering about his perspective-the eye behind the camera. A strange sensation came over me as my own eye went from homeboy on the street to homeboy at home, from gang portrait to family portrait: I felt a presence behind the camera, and it wasn't just a photographer's. For the images we see in this book aren't really from Joe's point of view, in the "objective" photographic sense. One senses a subject behind the lens as well as in front of it, someone intimately related to the kids-both the hardcore and the innocent-and their families. Who is seeing all this? I asked myself. And I felt as though I was seeing the neighborhood through a mother's eyes. What Joe Rodriguez's photographs tell us is that the homeboys are our children: American children, living American lives, in an American city. The eye seeing the images, the figure at the center of barrio life, is a mother who'd gladly sacrifice herself to ensure her sons' safety.
In Joe Rodríguez's photographs, we see many family portraits. The mother doting over her gangmember sons. The gangmember cradling his newborn baby. Even in the classic formal portraits of the gangs-flashing their signs, proudly display their weapons-we have another family image, that of blood brothers.
The family portrait that stands out most in my mind-and which, because it was previously published in Life magazine, has already received considerable attention-is of Chivo's family. Daniel "Chivo" Cortéz is a 21-year-old homeboy from Evergreen; at the beginning of Joe's stay in East L.A., he was 19.
We're in the living room with Chivo, his girlfriend, and their daughter Jaqueline. Various weapons and bullets are scattered about on the carpet. Chivo leans over his daughter, placing a gun in her tiny hands. The terrifying irony in the image is that the poses of all three-mom's gushy smile, Jaqueline's bewildered wide eyes, Chivo's fatherly concentration-are straight out of a Life magazine-style series on the quintessential American nuclear family, circa 1954. Which is exactly what this picture tells us. The terror of the streets invades the most sacred of American spaces: the home. The violence of the inner city strikes into the heart of the American family.
Joe fretted over whether to publish the particular photograph; he says he even had nightmares about it. Would the image serve only to reinforce the media's demonization of the barrio? Would the viewer immediately condemn the parents, clamor for Department of Children's Services to take Jaqueline into protective custody? Would the viewer suspend judgement long enough to consider this a portrait of the typical modern American family? (Aren't all Americans, after all, either consumers or perpetrators of violence?)
Some background on the photo. It was taken about three years ago, during a time that paranoia reigned in Evergreen. About a month before the picture was taken, Chivo had been playing with his son Joshua in his car parked in front of the house. A car pulled alongside and Chivo saw a gun emerge from the passenger's window. He instinctively covered his son as the rival gangster blasted away and then sped off. Both Chivo and son were unhurt. The night before Joe took the photo, another carload of homeboys sprayed Chivo's house with bullets. Again, no one was hurt. But Chivo was certain they'd return. He called up several Evergreen homeboys. That night and the next-when Joe showed up-they were on watch till the dawn, weapons at the ready.
My immediate reaction to the photo was to want to slap Chivo, of course; tell him he'd gone mad for placing a gun in his daughter's hands. But the story does not end that night, nor, in this book, with that image. We meet Chivo again at home, sitting morosely at the kitchen table as he gets lectured by his mom, who works 12-hour shifts driving an MTA bus, to get a straight job. Next, we see him mowing the lawn, and then moments later he takes a break from the task, lost in thought as he talks to Joe about how he never came to terms with the death of his father. Later, he's tallying up money from business, then offering a homegirl a line of cocaine. Now fast-forward, to a mild-mannered Chivo dispatching drivers at the trucking company he works for today, the perfect picture of an office professional. And, finally: Chivo clowning with his son Joshua in the same living room where the first harrowing portrait was taken, this time without the weapons and bullets.
And so we come away with two images: The baby-with-gun picture next to a photo of Chivo displaying all the love in the world for his son. Two possibilties, two futures pulling at Chivo and his family in opposite directions.
This is the view of the barrio we need-human and complex, the black and white as well as the grey. Through our media we usually only receive a fragment of the neighborhood, a slice of narrative. Uzi's and gangsters flashing signs, teen girls with babies, strung-out parents. What of the mother struggling to keep her kids in school? The young man like Chivo on the razor's edge between the life of the streets and a new life of family and responsibility?
The media's sensationalism easily divides barrio and suburb into "us" and "them." We need the rest of the story to be told, as in these photographs. Then it won't be so easy to deny that the barrio kids are "our" children, too.
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