Photos in Chicana/o History: The Story Behind the Picture
By Rodolfo F. Acuña
As of late many scholars and wannabe gossip columnists have used photographs to boost the credibility of their narratives. The problem is that photographs like oral histories are problematic, and their story is limited to the craft of the wannabe. They often lack substantiating documents to support their interpretations — which brings me to the point that I want to make.
In the preservation of memory we have a duty to be as accurate as we can and to carefully vet a photograph. This can be done in various ways such as contacting the photographer or the subjects in the photograph. This is sometimes difficult because of the age of the picture or because of our own biases. I have mislabeled photographs, which I try to correct because we have a duty to history to be truthful, and not use it to feed our phobias or build our distorted egos. The worse thing that can happen is that we hurt the narrative that we are trying to preserve.
For example, the purpose of an academic vita or resume is to document one’s professional career. It provides a timeline of our contributions to the profession and a trajectory of our research and activities. Length, quality and quantity all play a role in establishing our credentials. But just as with photographs we must look behind the resume.
Photos can be a valuable tool in filling in this timeline. For example, students often email me a photo taken from their cellphones to establish that they attended certain events. To this end, I often have students construct a storyboard of photos beginning with their infancy, and I then have them explain the story behind the photo, which they often can do only with the help of a parent, family member, or photographer.
In public history the distortions are often obvious to those who know the topic. However, when the distortions are left unchallenged over time they become fact. The casualty is the truth, and innocent people suffer.
We all have the tendency not to want to deal with gossip, so sometimes it is easier to keep quiet. For example, I recently came across a photo of a mock funeral supposedly taken in 1971 that implicated Chicana/o students at San Fernando Valley State College. I was in Mexico for the spring of 1971 so I checked with colleagues and former students who assured me that the incident had never happened then or in the fall of 1971. As it turns out it was posted by a sick person to advance her/his personal narrative. The point demonstrates why we have professional archivists that are supposed to be searching for the truth behind the picture.
The need to pursue this point was underscored in examining the photo collection by Jose Reyes Garcia, a former San Fernando Valley State College MEChista and for thirty years a high school teacher at San Fernando High School. The photos brought back memories that conflicted with the mendacity of the libelous blogger. I determined that I had to say something about the attempt to libel students who contributed a great deal to the success of the SFVSC Chicana/o Studies program.
The first photo is of Mechistas picketing a Safeway Market. The young woman in the middle is Cece Espinosa who worked hard. She was from Santa Rosa Elementary in San Fernando and Bishop Alemany High School. Cece was a model student; she died last week. She was representative of so many of the students who believed in education, and wanted to help farm workers. Often when marching in front of the local super markets, by-passers hurled scurrilous epithets but they kept marching on and off campus.
When I first viewed the second photo I knew that it was my students at what I assumed to be a MEChA meeting. I could identify it because I was in the photo which was in black and white. I was later told that it was also shot in 1971. But colleagues and former students bring up the possibility that it could have been at a student or faculty senate meeting, which at the time we routinely packed. If it had not been for the students, we would have been overwhelmed by white students and faculty that formed 98 percent of SFVSC. The San Fernando Valley at the time was the home of the Valley Girl – a snow white suburb.
The photo recalled other memories — good and bad. On the left side there is the image of Lorenzo “Toppy” Flores who was from Santa Monica. He often used to say that he was from the Westside. Toppy left an indelible mark on all of us – he remained at CSUN for 30 years. He was later a part time instructor and based on a Master of Arts degree after a six year tenure period the department submitted his name for tenure. The administration turned it down, and Toppy returned to the university and earned an MFA which is considered a terminal degree. Based on his publications and years of service, he was again advanced to candidacy and served four years of the required six for tenure. Toppy died of cancer.
The photo also brought other memories. In 1971 we had just over 300 Chicana/o students. Nevertheless, it was not unusual to have 200 plus students at MEChA meetings. There was a feeling of community; not everything was perfect, we lost many students because of a lack of high school preparation, we always felt that students had the right to succeed but they also had the right to fail. These early students were special; they were part of a first generation of college students. They were idealistic and thought about community.
My students today ask why the students then were so militant. The response is too involved to go into in depth but looking at the photo, memories are recalled. For the first ten years of the department students were a majority of every departmental committee. The personnel committee that hired, fired and promoted faculty members was composed of 4 students and 3 faculty members. This was a violation of university policies as well as the union contract. But, the consensus of the group at the time was, “those are the gringo rules not ours.” Students took student power literally, and if they would have been denied the power to participate in the governance of the department, it would have been a betrayal of what was being preached. So we manipulated the rules when possible.
To avoid administration interference, we established a department committee comprised of full professors from Chicana/o studies and the other departments and the Chicana/o committee. I was usually the chair f te former. The decisions of the real committees controlled by students were then rubber stamped by the de jure committee. I don’t recall a committee which I headed ever meeting; indeed, I pledged that if the students wanted me to resign they had the power and I would comply.
As I have said students had lots of problems, which they dealt with and they grew. They had housing a committee, and ran their own day care center. It was inspiring and one of the reasons why I like Toppy never left CSUN. Early on I had offers but during the 70s and 80s it would have felt like abandoning the family. I guess I like the students in the photos believed in Chicano Power.
Lastly, we owe a debt to students such as el maestro Jose Reyes Garcia for preserving our history, and delivering us from those who want to distort the past.