‘Latinidad in Focus’ weaves beauty and complexity into questions of cultural identity

By Jessica Flores

Vanessa Briones captures images that transcend time, place and notions of identity
Photo by Vanessa Briones

What does it mean to be Latinx in a country that’s separated over 2,000 Central American families at the border, where the future of DACA remains perilous, and whose sitting president has labelled Mexican immigrants as drug dealers and rapists?

The answer may be as fraught as the question itself. As CNN’s Tanzina Vega wrote in a think-piece months before Trump’s election: “Latino? Hispanic? Spanish speaker? Native born? When it comes to defining Latino identity in the United States today, the one common thread is its sheer complexity.”

The word “Latinidad” attempts to encompass the multifaceted nature of the Latin-American identity (the way Latinx incorporates all gender identities) without reducing it to any single trait. It’s a concept that three emerging Latinx photographers based in L.A. set out to explore in a series of photographs titled “Latinidad in Focus: Sin Fronteras,” now on view at the Annenberg Community Beach House in Santa Monica.

Friends since childhood, Marilyn Montufar (who identifies as Mexican-American), Enio Hernandez (who identifies as Mexican-Guatemalan-American) and Vanessa Briones (of Chilean and Salvadorian descent) each turned their cameras toward subjects and locales in Mexico, the U.S. and South America to visually interrogate the topic. Some of their photos are bright and colorful, others are darker and quieter, but each meditates on the diversity of the Latinx experience.

Montufar’s photograph of a young girl at a refugee center in Mexico City (“Girl at Refugee Center”) is the first image that viewers encounter. The subject holds a large green palm frond against her face as radiant sunlight drips down on her wavy brown hair. She looks like she’s surrounded by a beautiful tropical landscape — far away from the refugee center. It compels the viewer to forget the label “refugee” and focus on her youth, beauty and promise, but also wonder about her past — how old she is, where she comes from and what her future might hold, especially considering how hardened and unfriendly national borders have become.

“I feel very protective of her story in particular,” says Montufar, who declines to disclose the girl’s identity except to say that she traveled from Central America to Mexico City all on her own. Montufar finds it important to bond with the people she photographs, and she was drawn to this girl’s bravery and strength.

Briones’ pieces are inspired by nature and women of color. She conveys the contemporary Latinx culture and historically marginalized Afro-Latinx community as unapologetic, curious and resilient through photographs documenting friends and family in various Los Angeles neighborhoods.

From the haunting to the dreamlike — and the gritty world that exists in-between consciousness and slumber — “Latinidad in Focus” explores the environmental textures and cultural complexities of the Latinx world

In a photo titled “In Bloom,” a young woman in a field of flowers looks wistfully off into the distance as if dreaming of another world. In “Couple in Diner,” a young man in a suit and tie and his female companion dressed in a retro fur-collared coat look like a pair straight out of a Mad Men-era magazine. “I like to create a dreamlike quality and sense of nostalgia in my photographs that transport the viewer to another time period,” Briones says.

In “Soy Africano,”a young black woman with a caramel complexion stands in front of the City Park Terrace mural in East Los Angeles (painted by her uncle, Paul Botello) and stares straight into the camera. Her curly brown hair is in an updo, gold hoops hang from her ears, her mouth is ablaze with fierce red lipstick, and she sports a black T-shirt that reads “Soy Africano” (“I am African”) — a nod to her Afro-Latina identity. Even though her shirt clearly states how she identifies, the woman pictured is constantly being questioned about her race, Briones tells me. “I’ve been trying to document and bring awareness to issues — how [people] feel about their identities and their time here being in such a diverse country,” she says.

Hernandez, a native of Boyle Heights, draws inspiration from the urban and natural backdrops of Latinx communities in order to challenge stereotypes of Latinx culture. While some might see the Brazilian favelas or tropical islands he captures as remote and exotic, or the dim alleyways and lowriders he shoots as dark and dangerous, his photographs show an authentic and vibrant Latin world. It all comes together in “Still Tippin,” a nighttime photograph of an old-school lowrider with one wheel lifted exuberantly in the air.

Seeing lowrider car communities misrepresented as violent in movies and television, Hernandez set out to experience one firsthand. “When you go,” he says, “there are moms and families, and it’s just a wonderful experience. It’s also really interesting to see the beautiful quality of craftsmanship. And personally, I haven’t been to one that has had issues in terms of violence.”

As if to reinforce that idea, Montufar’s photograph of a young mother and child at a lowrider gathering in Chihuahua, Mexico, emphasizes the family-friendly nature of the Chicanx car culture tradition and how it has expanded well beyond its Southern California beginnings.

Each photographer’s lens shows there is no single way to define “Latinidad,” but that’s the beauty of it.

“Latinidad in Focus: Sin Fronteras” is on view daily through Sept. 6 in the gallery at the Annenberg Community Beach House, 415 Pacific Coast Hwy., Santa Monica. Call (310) 458-4904 or visit annenbergbeachhouse.com for gallery hours.