The tacos sure are tasty. We know from your responses in our “Best of Utah” issue that you enjoy a trip to the curbside taco vendor. And you may even enjoy listening to the latest Latin music sensation. But perhaps you also secretly fear getting cornered by a gang in a dark alley. We are all cultural tourists in one way or another—and sometimes that means carrying a lot of baggage.
Latino culture is often seen by Americans as “other,” removed from the experience of homogenized Americana, or outside the mainstream of our culture. But a traveling exhibit of photographs from the Smithsonian Institution disproves that assumption. Americanos: Latino Life in the United States presents a multi-faceted view of the fastest growing minority group in this country. As it makes its way across the country, springtime brings it to Utah Valley State College’s Woodbury Gallery. Showing concurrently are drawings, paintings and sculpture by Luis Jimenez.
The Smithsonian show is made up of 120 photographs from 30 artists, divided into six sections: work, family, spiritual life, community, sports and arts and culture. Almost all the photographers are photojournalists, like Seattle Times lensman Antonio Perez, Genera Molina of the Los Angeles Times and freelancer Alexis Rodriguez-Duarte. You may recognize celebrities in the images here—actor Andy Garcia, singer Marc Anthony and baseball star Sammy Sosa—as well as other people who have achieved status in their industries, like fashion designer Carolina Herrera.
The wide spectrum of Latino life ranges from the pinnacle of society to more mundane but equally rich experiences. Instead of illustrating a news story of the moment, the photographs become poetic works of art telling a larger story. A woman in one photograph sells brightly colored brooms in hues as diverse as the culture. A picture of a girl pondering strategy over a chessboard also defies monochromatic stereotypes of what it means to be Latino. Politics isn’t forgotten, with a defiant portrait of Jose Montoya of Sacramento’s Rebel Chicano Art Front. The photograph Ramona Sandoval and Granddaughter Jasmine Zubia presents the smiling faces of a familial affection.
It is the most comprehensive photographic exhibition of Latino culture ever, according to Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibit service project director Jeff Thompson, and as such fits in well with the Smithsonian’s mission. “We wanted to preserve this view of a rapidly growing minority group,” Thompson says, “this look at their daily life through a sociological perspective.”
Photo editors jurying the exhibit—which has been on tour since 1999—applied the same visual eye they address to work in their publications, according to Thompson. They were careful to give a view to subcultures beyond New York and Los Angeles and also to accent the life of women and girls. A photo of a Puerto Rican policewoman and young girl in New York City captures a challenge to gender roles, as well as pride of culture and place all in one image.
Americanos isn’t just an exhibit. An accompanying book was published last year, a documentary feature was produced for HBO and curriculum study materials were made available for grade schools. Diana Hunter, exhibit coordinator for Woodbury Gallery, describes the value of hosting the show in Utah: “They have the same values all Utahns share: family, work ethic and community. Latinos have played an essential role in the history of the state, as they have the country as a whole.”
The show was also made possible by a collaboration with Academy Award-nominated actor and activist Edward James Olmos. “Much like a quilt intricately woven with many beautiful fibers, Latinos are a proud and diverse people,” Olmos explains. “This important collection of photographs reveals people who are diverse in culture, color, ideas, and dreams, who share a common desire to make life better for themselves, their families, their neighbors and their nation.”
Something to think about when you’re enjoying your next taco.