For many years artist and board members of Gallery Route One had tried hosting various cross-cultural events, hoping to connect with the growing Latino population in West Marin. In the summer of 2003 we met a Columbian photojournalist named Luz Elena Castro who’d been leading a Spanish literature group at Point Reyes Books. We were intrigued with her proposal to teach photography as a means of increasing literacy. Ana Maria Ramirez connected us to a small group of grandparents and young mothers, students of the Marin Literacy Project, who were also interested in learning photography.
Six months later we mounted an exhibit featuring Luz Elena’s black and white images of the local Latino community, with one wall devoted to the students’ color images. The show was titled Far From Home. Father O’Neill blessed the opening and a troupe of local Aztec dancers performed. In between, we gave out Spanish/English flashcards Zea Morvitz had made with the students’ images, and we practiced vocabulary in pairs. It was the first time we drew a house packed with both Latinos and Anglos.
The exhibit opened a door between the English-speaking and Spanish-speaking parts of the community. The “Anglos” (the term used by Latinos to describe English-speakers, regardless of ethnicity) got a view into life on the ranches, mostly hidden in valleys or down long dirt roads. These were not the formal faces of workers interacting with employers or customers. The photos showed a vital people – at home, working in the barns, and in ceremony. And the Latinos saw themselves represented as both subjects and image-makers in the cultural life of the town.
We decided to feature the students’ work in the next project called, “Who Opens the Doors of the Town in the Morning?” We set out Monday mornings, a fairly shy paparazzi, to photograph as many people working on Main Street, Point Reyes as we could find over an eight month period. Some of the first students had returned to Mexico, so joining Yolanda Gutierrez and Betty Macias were Imelda Macias and Juanita Diaz. Ramon Ramirez and Serapio Diaz both came to class after working all night milking or feeding cows, and a grandmother, Kika, joined us that year, having never held a camera before.
The class made a pilgrimage to San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to see art photographs strong on narrative. Four carloads of us convened in the black marble lobby of MOMA with strollers, diaper bags, bottles, and cameras. Kika said she had not known there were places you could go to see photographs on walls. Several students have since pointed to that day as the time they realized that photography was important. Standing in one of the galleries, Ramon turned to Luz Elena and said, “Maestra, I promise you, I will make better photographs than you see in this room.”
“Bridge Builders” in fall of 2006 was an extension of “Who Opens the Doors”, meant to include images of those off Main Street whose work bridges the two cultures. The portraits in both shows suggest a period of bustling prosperity in Point Reyes Station, with a visible reminder that the prosperity depends on three waves of immigration – the ranchers, the counter-culturists of the 60’s and 70’s, and the Latino families.
At the opening of “Bridge Builders” last fall, Rae Levine of CLAM, proposed that the next show illustrate the results of a survey CLAM was doing on the housing situation in West Marin. To hear these stories of local families suggests that the status of Point Reyes Station as a “real”, working town is threatened, and that we could easily lose people who provide vital services due to housing availability and costs. It seems clear that for our current state of well-being to continue we have to find ways to meet the need for affordable housing.
It has been a great privilege to work closely with this group of artists. I think a kind of magic happens when two cultures work together on common goals. I had read in books that Latinos were more group oriented or collaborative, and it has been a gift to experience the unspoken ease with which a younger person offers an arm to an older woman, a baby is passed around and comforted, and the way work gets done in time without inducing panic.
The volunteer contribution has been inspiring. Four new photographers – Juanita Gutierrez, Maricela Mora, Juanita Romo, and Martina Roque have taken the places of IMelda, Kika, Juanita and Serapio Diaz who’ve moved away or are working. Steve Brock, who has done all our printing, has taken over teaching since Luz Elena’s returned to Columbia for five months. Rosalyn Miller has helped co-ordinate and translate, Olga Kuchment stepped in to write the housing stories, Laurie Monserrat is teaching the students web-site design, Fernando Gonzales helps with translation, and Gwen Meyer has taught computer skills. And the team of photographers was very excited when Citizen editor, Jim Kravetz, offered them the opportunity to document both town events and Latino news for the local paper.
The exhibit, “Where We Live: Housing Stories of Working Families” opened Friday, October 26, with a reception on Sunday, Oct. 28, 3-5pm. at Gallery Route One, 11101 Hwy. 1, Point Reyes Station. Hours: 11-5 daily, except Tuesday.