Guadalupe Rosales on Preserving the Collective Memory of Chicano Youth Culture

By Jelena Martinovic on June 12, 2019

Los Angeles-based artist and archivist Guadalupe Rosales investigates collective histories within Latinx youth culture in Southern California. Since 2015, she has been building an archive of photographs and ephemera, mainly from the 1980s and 1990s, but sometimes dating back much earlier, giving a voice to communities often underrepresented in official archives and public memory.  

After living away from Los Angeles for a few years, Guadalupe began investigating her cousin’s gang-related death⎯a traumatizing event that contributed to her moving⎯as well as revisiting her experiences growing up in her native city. Along the way, she realized how important physical materials are in preserving memories and telling stories. Her Instagram project began with sharing her own personal photos from growing up in the Boyle Heights neighborhood in the 1990s, soon inviting people to submit their own histories to the feed.

The first archive Guadalupe created, Veteranas & Rucas, is focused on women raised in Southern California, acknowledging and validating their experiences amidst male-centric narratives, while the other one,  Map Pointz, is dedicated to the '90s party crews scene, which represented a nonviolent outlet and opportunity for massive cultural innovation for Chicano youth at the time. These images reflect everyday experiences of the community, from women in oversized denim cruising down the boulevards, kids hanging out at each other’s houses and parties, to photo booth images of couples and friends, all accompanied by personal and family narratives provided by the contributors. Existing as both archives of physical objects and crowdsourced digital archives, these projects reframe the history of Latinx youth culture across the region, allowing the community itself to own and tell their story. At the same time, this collective documentation highlights remembrance as a participatory and collaborative conversation.

Ahead of her show at The Kitchen that opened on May 24 and the show at Gordon Parks Foundation opening on September 6, PRØHBTD spoke with Guadalupe about her experiences of growing up in East LA, her archival work, rewriting the public history of Latinx youth culture and much more.

You have been building an archive of vernacular photographs and ephemera connected to the Latinx culture in Los Angeles for a few years now. How did this project come to be and what was your initial idea behind it?

This is a complex question because it’s not like the project has a beginning, although it does. I was living in New York for quite some time. I left Los Angeles in 2000 after years of grieving my cousin’s death and, most importantly, after seeing the pain it caused my family, especially my older sister. When I moved to New York, I knew nothing about that city. I left LA not knowing where I’d end up. I had never traveled this far and on my own. I also disconnected myself from LA, whatever that meant at the time, but still held on to memories of growing up there.

If we talk about collecting the material, that didn’t start until 2015 when I started working on Veteranas & Rucas. But prior to that, I was thinking about my culture and my identity and about being away from it. Also, I was thinking about this material being important and significant to tell a story. I was also coming from a place where I didn’t have enough material so it could work as a proof or a fact. It was a slow process.

Veteranas & Rucas started in 2015, but I started collecting and doing an investigation in around 2012. When I left LA, I didn’t bring much with me, just a stack of photos. By moving, I also lost a lot of material. In 2012, I went online and started doing research on LA culture and my upbringing and investigating my cousin’s death. A lot of things happened and reconnecting with my family was a part of that.

So, in 2012, I started calling home again, talking to my sister, talking to my parents, and asking questions. My sister and I are only one year apart and had similar experiences and spent a lot of time together. She was the person I would go to and say, “Hey, do you remember these moments?” I would get very specific, whether it was a party, hanging out or going to a place. But I also talked to her about my cousin’s death, because she was the one who was the most affected by that because she was there.

Opening these conversations was also very difficult because a part of her didn’t want to revisit that, but slowly she started to open up. These conversations with my sister made me want to do the research on my cousin and find material, whether it was an LA Times article or photographs. I was able to get his death certificate, and it was one of the first documents I really felt connected to, which prompted me to think about this archive and documents as not just pieces of paper. They were like relics that tell stories. The document of my cousin was as close as I could get to his body or his past or history. So I started to see the archive in that way and how important it is to hold on to material and tell our own story through it. That’s how I started.

With Veteranas & Rucas, I created a platform for women where they could share their stories through photographs. Also, when I was doing my LA research, I felt like not much material was out in the world that focuses on women and that I could relate to because it was all from a male perspective. They were seen as cool and tough with male experiences such as gang violence. If a woman had an experience, it was something to be ashamed of. And that was my experience. I wanted to be able to talk about it instead of faking things to share. That’s how I created this archive and what it focuses on. This page is focused on all generations that end in the late '90s and can go as far back as photography existed.

Map Pointz, your second archive, focuses on youth active in the SoCal '90s party crew and rave scene. What did these party crews represent to the youth back then? What was it like growing up as part of this scene?

That’s another thing about growing up in LA, which is known for either Hollywood or gang culture. There’s still so much that needs to be put out or talked about, and the party crews scene was one of them. When I started Veteranas & Rucas, the party crew scene was my main focus, but I also struggled with how to talk about it and how to introduce this conversation. There is the material to look back and say “this is what it is,” but I had to start this new language and show another part of history.

I started Map Pointz as a way to focus only on the party scene, which is something my siblings and I were part of. A lot of people say it was an alternative to gangs, but I’m not sure that was what was going on. I think it was more about belonging and being a part of something. These crews were organized by people I went to school with and people I hung out with in the neighborhood. That doesn’t mean we didn’t have gang culture around, so it was in the midst of that, too. Another thing about these crews is they were all organized by youth. The oldest person who could have been seen in these places would be 19 or 20.

These crews were for the freaks, not freaks and teenagers full of creativity. Everyone was contributing in some way. The scene allowed us to be ourselves, be wild and creative, for whatever that was at the time and whatever resources we had. We organized our own parties, we designed our own flyers, we were scouting for locations, we had our own DJs, we had our own photographers documenting the scene using cameras they borrowed from high school. We were just using whatever resources were available to us.

I read somewhere that it wasn’t always easy to get to these parties since they often took place in secret locations.

These weren’t really secret locations. It was just the way we were organized. We had to be careful and smart about who was being invited to these parties. These parties were under the radar. We were trying to stay away from the police or even gangs. We would organize these parties in places such as an abandoned warehouse or someone’s backyard, and we would never put that information on the flyer. So we had this tactic, whether because we wanted the party to last longer or we didn’t want the cops to show up. But they happened all over LA.

Both of your projects exist as digital archives accessible through Instagram. Why did you decide to use Instagram as your tool?

I really wanted to focus mostly on photography. A photograph is a clear statement. I was having all these conversations with women in private. On Instagram, you are able to have a conversation, which feels like texting and very personal. When I talk to the people who are sharing the photos, it unfolds in a way that feels like you’re talking to someone you know.

For that sense, I felt Instagram was really good. It’s a simple minimal app where you can scroll through and look at photos. These photographs are well-curated because not every photo gets posted. What I’m looking for is how a photograph can tell a story, not just my story or a story of a person who is sharing a photo, but also a story that other people can relate to. Whether it’s where the photo was taken, when, whether it’s a candid photo or a student photo.

People often share the background of their photographs. There are different ways people can respond to the photo or the caption. So it is not only the photographs that are doing the work, but also the comments and conversations that happen and dialogues that open up. For most of the time, these conversations are really engaging and there’s a lot of back and forth happening.

Much of your archive is crowdsourced and exists in a reciprocal relationship with the public. How did the public respond and engage with this project and how did this evolve?

There are people who send me photos and want to be anonymous, which I totally respect. But there are also people who approach it with a certain pride and want to be tagged in the photo and tag their friends or repost it feeling very excited, saying something like, “Hey, my photo was just featured here!” Also, there are people who want to share their story with me but don’t want me to post it or to share their name. I respect that as well. Often those same people would come back saying that they’re ready and joke about it saying, “I’m ready to be famous.” (Laughs.)

There are people who have been following this page since I started, and they send me messages saying that they have been following my page since there were only 800 followers, which was like in 2015. But I feel it is always evolving because there are always people who want to get involved and participate in some way.

You mentioned earlier that the selection is carefully curated. What is your curatorial approach to the material you receive?

There are a lot of aspects, including the quality of the photograph, when the photo was taken, who is sending it, etc. It is also important to post photos with the person who is sending in it, instead of it being a photograph of some random people. The reason is that those other people might not be ready or they don’t want their photo online.

I have these conversations before I post the photo. I ask who is in the photograph, who are they to them, where is it taken, whether it was a party or something like that, etc. For the most part, they have all this information. Or if they can’t remember where it was taken, they say they’ll come back to me, and they come back the next day saying they’re ready to share their story. They send me either a long email or a long DM, and we work together with that. We work to construct the post together, rather than just being me or them.

A lot of people really open up privately, and I became friends with many because of that. That’s another reason I felt I needed to move back to LA because I wanted to have these conversations in person. Most of the people submitting photos and sharing stories are all from Southern California, but it’s also important to acknowledge migration and how people constantly move. I moved to New York, and many other people moved from LA as well. So, when I travel and have a show somewhere, I always meet someone who can connect to this archive, whether they’re from LA or not.

How do you think your work contributes to writing a different public history about Latinx youth culture across the region?

When I was looking for photos or material that told my story, I researched and did everything I could to find that material, and it was pretty tough. I met with UCLA to ask if they could help me or if they had any material, similar to what I have now. This was a disappointment, and I realized institutions were behind or not interested in what I was talking about or asking for. So, I took the initiative to start a crowdsourced project because I also wanted people to express themselves and share their stories.

When I first started this, my focus was on women. I had this show in September at Vincent Price, and the first thing you saw when you walked in was a wall with a collage of women socializing all over LA. When I was putting this together, I told these women in the photos that I was having a show, and I wanted to create this wall towering over people with women who are having fun… whether they’re driving, cruising around the boulevard, hanging out at the club or in someone’s bedroom. For me, this is a form of empowerment.

As the archive and the work keep growing, I see a kind of bravery in the gesture of sharing a story because, sometimes, that takes a lot. It was hard for my sister, it was hard for my mum, and it was hard for the people I grew up with. I noticed that when someone shares a story and puts it into the world like that, it’s a big deal.

What have you learned about yourself or your culture while working on this project?

Although I am coming from a place of experience, from something which is part of my history and culture, I’m still learning a lot of stuff. I’m learning about growing up in eastern LA, politics, injustices, all that. It’s not just these beautiful photos of women looking good, but I also talk about whatever was happening at the time: Proposition 187, the LA riots, protests being organized by students, etc. And this is also something I was part of, but I still go back and look at that and study it and see how that affected me and the people I grew up with.

So, I use this platform to talk about these issues because it’s not something that is dated in the past but still continues to happen. For me, it’s important to take a look at that and see what’s going on now, if we learned anything, and how can we use these tools. I guess we are all learning through this.

Recently, you have been awarded a Fellowship by the Gordon Parks Foundation for a new photographic project. Could you tell us something about this new project?

I will be putting on a show in September, and I want to expand the archive and see how others respond or create work in response to it. I will be working with a few artists, and I will be making new work and showing works from the archive. That show is supposed to travel. It will start in New York and travel to LA. The people I am working with include Paul Sepuya, who is a photographer, and my friend who is a musician, Jazzy Romero.

Any other plans and projects you would like to share with us?

Yes, I will also have a show at The Kitchen being carried out by Whitney ISP that opens May 24. Also, in December, I will be in Guadalajara for a residency at Paos.

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