Guadalupe Rosales is a visual artist whose work utilizes marginalized histories and personal experiences – memory, trauma and nostalgia. She is the archivist and moderator of Instagram accounts Map Pointz and Veteranas and Rucas, collecting and sharing photos and history of East Los Angeles youth culture. Conversation with Lupe conducted in March of 2017 by Tamara Santibañez. Rosales speaks about criminalization of youth culture, the single document that sparked her interest in archiving, and the importance of telling our own stories.
Tamara Santibañez: I’ve heard you speak on how these parties young people were attending was often an alternative to attending school, because of how school as an institution was failing these kids.
Guadalupe Rosales: Yeah, but it is also because of the fact that our culture, as marginalized people or histories, has a long history of being criminalized. What’s happening right now is people are starting to look at the larger issue – what is it? It’s not because the parents weren’t good parents. It wasn’t because the kids were lazy. It’s because we didn’t have a lot of stuff, we didn’t have outlets to express ourselves. The school system was pretty much corrupt, and it kept failing us, again and again. The youth back in the day were always trying to create unique spaces as survival mechanisms.
T: I see a criticism now with youth culture trickling up into popular media depictions that it’s glamorizing gang violence or crime, drug dealing, gang banging. I didn’t grow up with that and so I am not trying to paint a rosy picture of the experience in any way – but to me it really does seem like a natural reaction to create a type of institution for oneself, when there are not supporting institutions around you. Whether that becomes a familial structure or a street organization where there is a type of support or order – when there is no order otherwise, or the type of order that is being externally imposed is not only failing you, it’s oppressing you.
L: Right now, not just with this project but in general, the world is going through some major changes – we’re starting to realize that shit is fucked up, you know what I mean? And this is why I feel that the work that I'm doing is important, especially at this moment because people are realizing we need to change the way we have been moving in this world. We also can’t ignore the young people reaching out for support. I’m running a workshop for young artists and one kid is a photographer and he was talking about how he loves photographing his neighborhood and surroundings. For the final project in his class he had turned in photos of his cousin – he was like all tatted, gangster – and his teacher said “this is not acceptable, you cannot turn this in.” Basically saying, the way you live is not acceptable in this world.
T: I think you do a good job with your Instagram at telling a story and providing context to your images. Because of the nature of the internet, it’s so easy for images to be separated from their original framework and people will pull them away from it and say “check out this gangster, check out this banger, check out these ‘ghetto’ this or that,” when what you’re trying to show is none of those things, is not this one-dimensional representation of who we are. These are families, these are friends, these are communities, people who party together, things that they have created. How do you see the visual representation of that being a tool to shift people’s reading or understanding of the cues that they are used to seeing? Or undermining what is essentially a profiling tactic that police gang units will use where they frame young people as criminals because of what they look like.
L: You know, there are a lot of things that are happening on my end – it makes me nervous to put my own culture out there and make it accessible to the world. At the same time, I wouldn't want that to stop me from creating a platform where people represent themselves the way they want to be represented. I don’t want to feel uncomfortable if I show a woman throwing gang signs, because this is real. At the same, I’m not trying to sugar coat this culture, you know? I want to be as honest as possible and the thing that I do say is I am not trying to focus on the good or the bad, it’s just that this is what it is. It is a public page. People do learn from it, but people do also take away from looking at a photo that it might inspire them for a fashion editorial or something. Ultimately I feel like it just needs to keep going and focus on the real intention behind this.
T: And continue being insistent on keeping the look and story connected. I do see that happening a lot. It's hard not to see how popularized it’s become on runways or as a trend in general.
L: Yeah I mean, Vogue had hit me up to help them find women that looked a specific way, but the way they approached me was, “We want to meet women who provide to the community in a positive way.” I’m thinking they want women who are activists or people who are really rooted in culture here. Then they sent me a list of women that they were looking at and they were all these Instagram models. I just told them, “I’m very confused, do you want women that do a lot for the community and are really active?”
T: I’ve been seeing a lot of that type of thing. Often it will be a company hiring a white artist to represent what they think Chicanx culture looks like. Different tattooers are definitely using the imagery as well.
L: How do you feel about that?
T: I feel conflicted about it in many ways. At the end of the day, I don’t feel like I have the authority to tell someone they do or don’t have the right to something. But I also came to it with a lot of self-examination because I’m not from the West Coast, I’m from the South. When I got into the black and grey stuff, it was a really important way for me to connect and feel like there was a place for me. I always try to be clear about where I’m coming from with it and also try to – like what we were saying about maintaining the connection – I try to remind people where this comes from. It originated in prison and connects to the reality today. The reason that it even started is because people who are black and brown are disproportionately affected by the prison system. That’s still true today and even more true if you count immigration detention centers. So let's not have a whitewashed view of it, a bunch of white men doing these cool images, and not think about where it comes from. Let's use it as a vehicle to talk about what’s going on.
L: And have a conversation about it.
T: And try to legitimize it too. Talking about it is so complex because there are so few easily digestible cases where a person has never done anything illegal and they are wrongly jailed. But when you start to have a conversation and talk with people, the questions start to arise and paint a complex picture. You’re in jail for murder, you got locked up when you were seventeen- why did you have a gun when you were seventeen? Is it because you were from a certain neighborhood? Is it because you had to drop out of school because your family needed you to work? Is it because you didn't have these other avenues? Is it because the mental health system failed you? Or a number of systems combined all failed you?
L: Exactly, which is similar to what we were talking about earlier– it’s not the teenager’s fault that they are not going to school, we have to look at the history. Let’s trace it back, what is actually happening? Don’t blame it on the parents because maybe the parents are working 9-5 jobs. I was just going through these letters, because these are all letters from my ex-boyfriend from when I was a teenager. The first time he wrote to me he was fifteen. I remember the first time he got locked up. We were standing outside my house and a cop just pulled up and started questioning him and he pretty much profiled him. He went in in 1995- that was the first time, and then it was just in and out till 2000. I’m trying to see if I have his first letter here.
T: Wow, the handwriting is so beautiful. So, when you were young you got into the rave and house party scene?
L: Yeah so, for me it was that I was looking for something that wasn't what my surroundings were, and I didn't know what it was.
T: Did you have some sort of sense that the gang life wasn’t for you, or wasn’t a direction you wanted to go in? What made you feel like you wanted to look for something outside of that?
L: That’s a good question. Why did I not choose the gang life? I don’t know, I think maybe because the majority of the people in gangs were men that I hung out with. The house was always full of gangsters. I think by the age of 17 my mom had sort of given up on us in a way where she thought “Well, all of her friends look like this so I’m not gonna fight it.” Maybe I actually never had the opportunity to get jumped in, you know what I mean?
Also because the party scene was introduced to me by a friend that I went to school with – she was introduced to the party scene by her brother and that’s how she got in. She got in and then I remember she talked to me about it. It was that moment where you hear something for the first time and it sounds so different, you are very curious. I remember she asked me *whispers* “So do you party?” and I said, well what kind of party are you talking about? ‘Cause I was used to going kickbacks and hanging out with cholos and everything. And she was like no, it’s like backyard parties, we listen to house music. She was like all right, I’ll pick you up on Friday. I remember she picked me up, it was a van, no seats, no nothing. When I opened the door there were like twelve people inside, probably more. I remember it being this crushed velvet inside, people drinking and yelling the name of the party crew, Aztek Nation. And I just saw… “Okay. I think this is where I belong.” From there I just started hanging out with them. And I felt sort of in between worlds because I was really shy and I wasn’t a violent person, but I did see it around me. I couldn’t walk around with my cousin because he constantly got jumped in front of me and I was always there to witness that. When I was growing up I was very observant and maybe that's what actually saved my life, rather than being really loud, aggressive and violent. So that’s how I got involved in the party scene. My sister had already been in the party crew and I knew about it but when my friend asked me to be a part of it, that’s when I took it more seriously.
T: So what role did you fulfill in the crew?
L: Again, I was really shy. I think now I fill that void in a weird way. If I wasn’t doing it then, I’m doing it now, and the fact that I'm doing something now is maybe because I was so observant at the time. Maybe it paid off. Because I am now able to describe my experience and talk about what I saw.
T: Did you have an impulse at that point to save all of this stuff? I mean obviously you did, because you have all these letters and a lot of photos saved.
L: My mom actually saved those for me. I moved to New York in 1999/2000. I thought I had lost everything, and I started the Instagram because I didn’t have anything. I only had two Street Beat magazines and these pictures right here. I became really curious about my own past. I started talking about it but I also didn't know how to talk about it – like how do you describe this?
T: So how many years had gone by at that time, how old were you and how far back were you looking?
L: I would say maybe 5 years ago I began. I looked online couldn't find anything, then a friend told me to start an Instagram. At first I was like no fuck that! I don't want to do that. Then I thought about it and I was like fuck it, let me just do it now and then it blew up.
T: So you had already been working in archiving before that?
L: No, I didn't have a lot of material to start archiving. I only had this one box of photos, and everything else you see here has been donated.
T: How did you get into archiving as a practice in general?
L: When I was living in New York I kept thinking about my cousin’s death. This [death certificate] is the first document or something that I could touch that took me back to my past. When I saw this I felt like I had travelled back to 1986. This document inspired me to actually start looking at the physicality of material in the way that it could tell you a story. It could humanize a memory. This is actually what pushed me to value and to archive material. Because I knew this information, I know what I read, but I never actually had something that’s telling me this. Like, here it says how he died, multiple stab wounds, tells you the time. It’s like an autopsy.
T: Which is interesting that it can create such a visceral connection when it’s really clinical language. It’s a form with boxes checked, which seems dehumanizing, but maintains that connection still. I’ve been seeing that you’re doing workshops with young people about archiving, right? What do to the workshops involve?
L: I don’t know if it’s teaching, it’s more about talking. I’ve been talking to them about the importance of preserving and telling or sharing their own stories. Something that I say a lot is that we should be telling our own story. Let's not rely on mainstream media or outsiders when we can do it ourselves. And again, it’s also about dismantling this idea of shame that I strongly believe has been put upon us. We are taught and told that we should be ashamed of x,y, and z. I know it’s hard but it’s so important to work against that. I’m teaching them about the importance of documenting, the importance of telling their own story. I tell to them to take mental notes or write down whatever they are doing because believe it or not, they are going to forget about it. I tell them that it’s okay to be interested in people’s stories. Sometimes they think it’s dumb or whatever and I'm like well, you’re gonna regret it if you don't. I try to push them towards that. I tell them I want to see you guys giving lectures, I want to see you teaching, I want to see you telling your story. I don’t want to see this white dude telling your story.
T: You do a good job of monitoring the comments on your Instagram and keeping it positive. Do you have to delete a lot of things?
L: Not really! That’s the thing, I think people see it as a platform where history gets respected. Occasionally I’ll get someone trying to gang bang or say something racist but it’s nothing because they are just trolls and I don't get it a lot.
T: Well, what I like seeing is when people will call someone a bitch or something like that. You’ll call them out, but in a way that they’ll end up apologizing and admitting they’re wrong, saying “You’re right, I’m sorry.”
L: The whole thing is really thought out, even when I post the pictures. Even when I call them out on something, like let’s say they disrespect women, or whoever on my Instagram. I think about it as, how do I want them to feel? I want them to feel stupid and realize that what they do is not acceptable and stands out, and not in a good way. Sometimes I’ll point out that they are the only only person reacting negatively like that. I think that they do realize it after they go to the comments and see if anyone else said anything derogatory and then are like, “Oh shittt.”
T: It’s amazing how they can pretty much organically shame themselves.
L: Right? Exactly – I was gonna do this for you, but you can just shame yourself. I also take them back to my post where I say no shaming, etc and tag them and say “I think you missed this memo here”. And then people, especially men, apologize and say “I’m sorry, I won’t do this again”. It’s crazy.
T: That’s really cool, do you see that being a way to combat machismo in Chicanx and Latinx culture in general?
L: Yeah I mean, I hate it when men call women hoodrats or hoes. This page is not about putting women down. We are trying to actually change the perception of who we are representing, and by a man or a follower leaving these comments they are not working with me on this. The way I see it is we are all working on this together, collectively. There is so much to work against. We have to do this together.
T: That seems like a really productive approach, to treat people as a community and not treat them as spectators. To approach them with the attitude that you’re here, it’s your job too, as well as mine.
L: I notice that people do comment and jump in and say something to that person that has been disrespectful. They call them out and say things like that’s not acceptable here and check that person. It’s really amazing. We are all sharing this digital or virtual space together. We all want the same thing.
T: How many submissions would you say you have gotten from people?
L: Since I started? Right now I have 71 that I haven’t opened. I used to have, I don’t even know how many, but I think I lost a few. When people send me pictures of men I am not interested, and also am picky about the quality.
T: Back to the whole party crew scene, how do you see POC functioning within subculture as folks that are in many ways doubly marginalized by participating in it? Being almost sub-sub cultural as a minority in a subculture, and perhaps choosing to align with subculture because they already feel rejected from the mainstream?
L: A lot of the house music came from black men and that’s something that needs to be addressed. All the parties that I went to were majority POC – I also want to erase that idea that the only people have that raves and warehouse parties are white people.
T: Why do you think that myth is so pervasive? Just because people credit whiteness for innovating most things?
L: Pretty much, I mean this is why we're not in television either, because it’s easier to just erase and ignore us.
T: Or it just doesn’t serve the greater purpose for people to see a multidimensional, intersectional person. Because it’s harder to erase or discount them.
L: Even Latinos and Chicanos, the younger generation, they don’t know any of this stuff. In giving these lectures they are like “what raves in east LA? I thought they were all cholos”. When you look at this photo – these are all Mexicans, and those are all ravers, they’re groovers. I’m glad my focus is not just on white people, it’s pretty much anything that is not white, because I want to highlight that. I want people to know that we were doing this too. In fact, house music was created by not white people – I hope people know that.
T: It seems like you’re getting a good response to it and a lot of visibility. Did you think that you were going to be doing this and giving lectures about it?
L: I know, yeah. I’m giving a two lectures tomorrow at UCLA, and then one at Vincent Price and then the LAABF – a conversation with Barbara Calderon. She’s writing about the work, and the LAABF hit me up and asked me to do a talk, but I said maybe it’s better to have a conversation with someone who I’m currently working with. I like that they were really open to that.
T: I find that so important and I’m seeing it more and more that people are getting into the practice of asking questions when they’re approached with opportunities. Who is the photographer? Who is making money? Who are the people you are involving, how many of them are queer/women/POC/from the community you’re depicting? All of these questions you need to be asking where half of the time the answer is “Ohh – we don’t know.” I’m trying to be better at that. Tell me all of the information right off the bat.
L: Even with myself, when I have interns working with me I make sure that my priority is women and women of color. Everyone that has helped me are women of color. Also when I’m working on projects – I’m working on a documentary and my collaborator is white, but I told him I can only work with you if our crew is either not white or queer or both, and he was really good. He hired all women of color and one queer woman.
T: It’s been cool to watch the newer generation of Chicanx and Latinx activists because they are coming up and being vocal about trans inclusivity, feminism, and not co-opting indigenous peoples’ struggles and all of these other issues. But I do see it butting up against the old guard of Chicanx activists at certain places. Or there being some points of conflict or misunderstanding, especially in the feminist and queer thing.
L: Yeah yeah yeah, the older generations don’t really use newer terms and they don’t feel comfortable with them. But also with white feminism, and feminists that aren't white – there is a conflict there because there are a lot of issues around white-ness and how some women forget to check themselves and their own privilege. There are just so many layers, you know?
T: Do you feel like that’s happening a lot with well-intentioned white women wanting you to be a part of what they’re doing, but being really misguided in their approach?
L: I feel like a lot of, I guess white people in general, but because I hang out with a lot of queer white women something that has been obvious to me is the idea of white guilt or, what do you call that?
T: Savior complex.
L: Yeah, that really, really, really bothers me because I wonder if they are aware of that. I think it's a form of colonialism – we don’t need a white man or woman to tell us what our needs are or to come save us.
T: I saw someone put it very succinctly on social media the other day like – “We don’t need you to speak for us, just pass the mic”.
L: Exactly, that’s a good one. I feel like the museums and art world is a whole other fucked up-ness. Why do people feel uncomfortable going into those spaces? Maybe it’s time to look into that. What is it that they need? What is it that they are lacking?
T: What do you suspect the answer is? Do you think it’s a dissolution of the institutions that’s needed or do you think it’s more of an integration of the existing structure? I see a lot of people calling for boycotts of certain institutions or establishing alternatives to larger museums.
L: I think that it’s just getting really messy, this is why spaces are having to close. They can’t get any funding because of protesting of art spaces like PSSST. And it’s sad because what about that kid who is kinda curious about art – is he going to feel weird and uncomfortable that he wants to make art?
T: Because it’s positioning art as counter to community.
L: I do think it is true that art does affect the neighborhood. Because when artists move to a cheap area, the galleries move to that area because they see that it is affordable and then when they do that, the prices go up. The thing is – I think that the art world has to start rethinking their mission or gallery spaces if they are interested, but in reality galleries have never been interested in providing to the community. They just want to survive and sell art. If a neighborhood like Boyle Heights wanted an art space, what would it look like and how would it happen?
T: And how do you find out what would best serve the neighborhood as a whole?
L: So we’ll see, I don’t know what’s going to happen in Boyle heights, but it’s sad that they are losing this place, because when they move – what’s going to come in? Is it going to be another gallery that’s not going to give a fuck, you know?