Adult men are a noticeable minority in the current exhibit at the U-M Lane Hall Gallery, Chicanas Fotos, a collection of Mexican American filmmaker Nancy De Los Santos’s personal photography from the 1970s. The subjects, mostly strangers to De Los Santos, are primarily Latino/a, and almost all women or children–from little girls peering out their windows in De Los Santos’s native Chicago to women in bell-bottoms at United Farm Workers of America marches to the 1975 International Women’s Year Conference in Mexico City. A placard notes, “the dominant narratives of the Chicano Movement tend to center on its leading male figures, Cesar Chavez, Jose Angel Gutierrez … Nancy chose more diverse subjects in her representation of political activities in the period–old women, young women, children.”
Most of the photographs are in black and white (which De Los Santos notes was not always an artistic choice so much as a financial necessity), but the few color photographs make me wish there were more. In one large portrait, De Los Santos’s grandmother sits on a stairway looking off to the side, mid-sentence. The photograph feels respectful and also familial. Her grandmother’s red-buckled shoes make the photo stand out, and the image of her knees, just barely visible between her stockings and dress, is a moment of warm relatability rather than indignity.
In the few other color photographs, red makes frequent appearances against the cement-and-brick gray of the city. A young Latina woman in burgundy pants leans casually against black-and-red graffiti; a black woman in a bright red bandana stands in the crowd at the women’s conference; and a far-away woman in a red jacket stands facing the enormous cement wall surrounding Cook County Jail in the middle of Chicago’s Little Village.
De Los Santos is primarily a filmmaker, producing and creating films such as Selena. At the time most of the photos were taken, she was a politically active college student at Northeastern Illinois University, taking photos mainly for the Chicano student newspaper she edited. Though the photographs are described in much of the exhibit’s literature as “everyday,” there is a very subversive quality to whose everyday De Los Santos chooses to portray. Though politically conscious and woman-focused photography were not new concepts in the 1970s, De Los Santos’s exploration of community and family within Chicago’s Latino neighborhoods feels extraordinarily valuable.
There are only a few photographs without people in the foreground, but they are some of the most memorable ones. In one picture, a line of hearses on the street cuts diagonally across a church. De Los Santos tells me at the gallery opening that she took the photo after an entire family in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood was killed when firefighters who didn’t speak Spanish didn’t understand the family was still in the building. It’s an especially sobering image against the surrounding pictures of joyful family occasions.
The exhibit runs through December 13 at the U-M Lane Hall Gallery.