Lee, Hispanics/Latinos and Contemporary Documentary Concerns

1939, Russell Lee: Mexican woman and children looking over side of truck, Neches, Texas

Article by Bruce Berman

Latino, Hispanic, Mexican-American, Spanish, all were terms used in the 1930 and 1940’s when referring to Spanish-speaking people, particularly those who lived in the former Mexican States of Neew Mexico and Texas. When Russell Lee began photographing in this community the term Hispanic or Mexican-American was most commonly used. Now,  these terms are all used, more or less interchangeably, and refer to the predominantly Spanish-speaking peoples of the border states that had been part of Mexico until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treaty_of_Guadalupe_Hidalgo) tore the states away from Mexico in 1848.

Russell Lee, as a photographer and as a person was interested in the “Hispanic,” community. In it, many historians of his work have concluded, Lee found the verve he so treasured in his “subjects,” and he found a story that he, socially concerned photographer that he was, related to and wanted to tell. The story of the “Hispanics,” of the old Mexican states was one he felt had been seriously under reported. With the encouragement, first of Roy Stryker at the FSA, and then, later, from George I. Sanchez (http://education.stateuniversity.com/pages/2384/Sanchez-George-I-1906-1972.html) at the University of Texas at Austin, Lee told this story, starting in the late 1930’s, in his photographs and writings, for the rest of  his life.

In his travels in Texas and New Mexico, Lee was aware of the history of this community and the relationship they had, historically, to the  former Spanish Crown lands. After the Mexican-American War of 1848, many of the people of the Republic of Mexico found themselves under a new government, The United States. However, in what is now known as the “Southwest,” the Spanish-speaking community managed to keep the core of their community together and the language, customs and culture of the oldest residents of these former Mexican States stayed remarkably intact and remains so to this day.

1948, Spanish American Music Group by Russell Lee/Library of Congress
2005, Cantina bass player, Juarez, by Bruce Berman

In his writings and in conversations, Lee expressed admiration for this community.

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RUSSELL LEE AND MINORITY AMERICA IN THE 1930s

Negroes waiting at streetcar terminal for cars, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma: photo by Russell Lee, July 1939, FSA
Negroes waiting at streetcar terminal for cars, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma: photo by Russell Lee, July 1939, FSA

 

Text by Bruce Berman

When Russell Lee and the other FSA photographers set off into America in the 1930s their social concern wasn’t hidden and, in fact, Roy Stryker, the Director and Editor of the of the Resettlement Administration’s (RA) Historical branch, encouraged his shooters to  find various minority groups and show their life style and their condition in our society. He wanted “full disclosure,” for the good and the bad but he he wanted these groups to be shown as part of the “American family.” Although the FSA’s mission was to show rural conditions in the environmentally and economically challenged Depression era, he was aware of what the impact of these photos would be. In effect, the FSA was part of the ongoing and increasing movement for justice and Civil Rights. How these groups were visually described and labeled, in an era before the confusion of politicaly correct labeling had become an issue, might not have been how these groups labeled themselves.

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Defining Memorial Day

RLR_LaUnionNM32 LoRes
Mr. Saenz, Korean War Veteran in La Union, New Mexico, 2010

Hero is a word easily tossed around.

Having the fortitude to go to war for one’s country is, certainly, one of the  basic pillars one can use to define courage, loyalty, sacrifice, and, perhaps, hero.

Memorial Day is only 1/365th of the days we can remember the gift that our veterans have give to us. But, if it’s only that, well, so be it.

Thank you ladies and gentlemen.

It takes courage -and faith- to risk life itself for an idea,  a commitment.

Country? G*d? A way of life?

Every one of these “guys” have told me, “You just do it. You don’t question it.”

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The Road Russell Lee Did Not Travel

Socorro New Mexico Wild Man, August 2011-photograph by Bruce Berman

Then there is another road on Russell Lee’s Road. It is the road not often described, the road that is deeply there and I suspect always was. It is the road less traveled and it is the underbelly of, not only New Mexico, but America today. Looking at the road of Lee and the other FSA photographers of the 1930s, one would imagine that the grind of the never-ending depression was something that people were waiting out, that the “hard times,” were something that  was being endured until better times arrived.

But, after awhile, hard times dig down deep into the soul of a country and leave scars and damage and incapacity.

The role of the FSA was to uplift. The images and words of the FSA were meant to show that the government had come to the rescue and that, given enough time and money, the government would fix things, was fixing things.

But, as previously stated in on this web site, for all the millions of dollars spent in the 1930s on programs to uplift the society from the Great Depression, unemployment never went down significantly.  Like now. It hovered around 20% throughout the 1930s (this statistic included those still looking for work but unable to find it. Today, those who are looking but do not find work are not included or tabulated. They don’t exist according to the Dept. of Labor).

Our times have seen boom and bust and boom again and bust again. But another form of depression has been gaining steam: the loss of mission and the loss of belief. Throughout the history of the country we have lived the conceit that we were one –The One, so to speak- and that we were special and that we were the best of nations and people.

Some of us still believe this to be the case but many don’t. Can’t.

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The America Of Now: The RLR Roadshow Revs Up

Julio, Leandra and friends, Portales, July 2010

by Bruce Berman©

El Paso —     The engine is being tuned. The lenses are being cleaned. The cob webs of the cabeza (gathered in academe) are being swept away.The Russell Lee’s Road roadshow is getting ready to roll again.

This time, the project will be following the 1949 work of Russell Lee produced for The Study Of The Spanish Speaking People Of Texas.

Nearly half the population of New Mexico is “Hispanic.”  To be exact according to the 2010 census, 46.3% claim Hispanic heritage. The definition of that word varies and in New Mexico people who speak Spanish come from diverse backgrounds, cultures and traditions.

According to the United States Census for 2010 (http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/35000.html) there were 873,171 (46.3%) Hispanics or Latino (of any race) in New Mexico. The discussion of who is “hispanic,” versus who is Mexican, in New Mexico and nationally is complicated and nuanced. In New Mexico there are 18% of the State’s population claiming Spanish heritage while 16% claim Mexican. The political and social overtones of that self-claiming defintion is a discussion that this site will explore in further detail as this summer of 2011 project progresses. Keeping in the tradition of the FSA, this site is acutely more interested in Class and Culture than it is in Race.

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Little Guns and Big Guns: The Fulcrum

Fort Sumner, Big Gun in the Head, NM, July 2010 by Bruce Berman

U.S. 60.

You go through a long long desert coming from the west and the very beginnings of another eco-system begins, finally, in Fort Sumner. You can feel a little bit of moisture in the air. There are trees. You are no longer in “The West.”

Billy the Kid

Depending on which way you’re heading, Fort Sumner is the fulcrum.

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Tito’s Home

Tito Gonzales, Sumner, NM – June 2010
©Bruce Berman

Tito Gonzales was born in Fort Sumner, NM, in 1939, across the street from the Coronado Motel, where this photograph was made. The Coronado is on U.S. 60, the road that Russell Lee traveled, back and forth, during his journey through western New Mexico and back again.

Russell Lee drove past Tito’s house several times in his travels.

by Bruce Berman

“I really like it here,” he says, “It’s comfortable and you get a lot of people passing through looking for Billy the Kid and whatnot. You’re the first one who ever asked about the whereabouts of a dead photographer!”

Mr. Gonzales has lived in the Coronado for over thirty years.

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