'Cotidiano: LATINO/US' On the Lives of Immigrants

As of July, the Latino population of the U.S. has hit 53 million. At 17 percent of the country's total population, it is now the largest “minority” in the country, with one out of every six Americans of Latino origin. The Museum of Latin American Art's current photographic exhibition, “COTIDIANO: LATINO/US,” takes a peek at the “daily” lives of immigrants from Latin and South America. A heady blend of photojournalism and art, the show is curated by Claudi Carreras with humor and a social conscience.

Photographer Calé's wistful series starts things off, featuring images of immigrants standing before the sharply focused vistas of the big cities they live in. Any identifying markers of the people are hazy and out of focus, not to hide who they are, but rather to suggest the U.S. melting pot erases what makes people (and their respective cultures) special, blending (and eventually disappearing) everyone into a friendly American stew.

Karen Miranda's tender revisiting of unrecorded moments from her past reclaims some of those missing details—her family standing in the rain, the discovery of drugs hidden by a loved one, lying on the roof of her apartment in the snow—all unencumbered with the inevitable fictions that occur as we try to soften the blow of the past. In The Arrival, she sits in bed in New York after living most of her life in Ecuador. The rueful look on her face, dead rose drooping in a vase, the picture above her head of a cat with kittens hanging askew all suggest you really can't go home again. That message is reiterated in Katrina d'Autremont's series taken on a visit to her family's home in Argentina. The refrigerator glows in the dark like a beckoning light, younger relatives play video games or sleep on the couch, the Norman Rockwell-looking family surrounds the table at mealtime or talks in the kitchen, but the photographer herself is always at a distance, removed, taking the picture. Argentine Sol Aramendi's work suggests a great eye for kitsch, but her pictures are less memorable. Her artist statement differentiates between images built in a studio and those “stolen/taken” in the brief moment they're available, and while I agree with her separation of the two, I'd rather see the former than the latter currently displayed.

There's a delicious Taxi Driver grittiness to Peruvian photographer Gihan Tubbeh's photos of Mexicans habituated to New York environs, each so exquisite as to suggest a movie still. Tubbeh isolates individuals (alone or in couples) within their environment, the muted colors and often dim setting allowing for lots of shadows. There are stories galore in these photos, each one creating a host of questions and potential interpretations. The tales they tell—or that you tell yourself while looking at them—are as good as the images themselves. In contrast, most of Ricardo Cases' pictures of Florida Cubans feels off-kilter—palm trees look as though they're sprouting from parked cars, a man wearing a squirrel mask poses near a bright-red circuit-breaker box, a chicken literally steps off a curb to cross the road, a young man in a Superman costume (an “illegal alien” who goes on to save America) glares defiantly at the viewer. There's art aplenty here, but the blown-out light of the Florida sun and the photographer's flashgun keeps these deeply odd photos from reaching Lynchian potential.

The most overtly political is Peruvian Héctor Mata's brilliant series “L.A. Tinos,” comparing and contrasting Latino iconography with that of North America. The result is a remarkable series of humorously executed photographs that take a moment to deliver their surprises. Best of all is the irony of union-busting Apple's “Think different” ad using the image of labor leader César Chávez. Equally powerful is Dulce Pinzón's photos of Mexican workers in the U.S., dressed in superhero costumes: Batman is a taxi driver, Aquaman is a fishmonger, Ben Grimm works in demolition, Spiderman washes windows, Catwoman raises children, and Captain America is a cop. I appreciate the idea that the real heroes are people who work their asses off in crap jobs while still sending money home every month.

Stefan Ruiz's elegant portraits of telenovela actors are a fitting close to the show. Ruiz has taken pains to show both the glamour and the fakery behind this Factory of Dreams: the actors and actresses are in character on patently phony sets, ubiquitous lighting equipment above them seen in the frame, false backdrops in the windows and doorways behind them. Hung opposite Calé's faceless citizens without further comment, the television genre's brutal delineation of classes is a Marxist wet dream, with its beautiful, European-looking rich versus plainer, poorer and traditionally more “Hispanic”-looking servants. That alone is worthy of an entire museum exhibition.

Dave Barton has written for the OC Weekly for over twenty years, the last eight as their lead art critic. He has interviewed artists from punk rock photographer Edward Colver to monologist Mike Daisey, playwright Joe Penhall to culture jammer Ron English.

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