Chicana Fotos\Nancy De Los Santos: A Photography Exhibition of Chicana Photography Documenting the 1970s | Chicana por mi Raza

Chicana Fotos\Nancy De Los Santos: A Photography Exhibition of Chicana Photography Documenting the 1970s

This Historia was compiled by graduate student, Pau Nava, using content from the photography exhibiton Chicana Fotos: Nancy De Los Santos

In 2014 the Chicana por mi Raza digital Memory Collective interviewed foundational Chicana film producer Nancy de los Santos as part of an oral history project. She had grown up in Mexican Chicago, far from the Southwest, and had participated in many key events related to the Midwestern arm of the Chicano Movement. Nancy mentioned — as it turns out quite modestly — that she might have a few photos to share with us. When Nancy arrived with three bulging boxes of photographs, some of them large format photos, many of them repeated images that had clearly been modified, cropped, and artfully reconstructed, we began to understand that her creative life as an image maker did not begin with her filmmaking.

In hundreds of stirring and aesthetically sophisticated photographs and slides taken over the course of the 1970s, De Los Santos documented the Chicano and Puerto Rican movements in Chicago, marches in Texas for farmworker rights and against police brutality, and the first ever International Women’s Conference in Mexico City (1975). Nancy’s collection also included a series of short films that she worked on before she became a well-known film and television producer. The images Nancy De Los Santos captured during this immensely productive period not only document important historical events and figures, they frame these events and figures as well as everyday life in Latina/o Chicago through a striking visual language clearly informed by her growing consciousness as a Chicana and a feminist.

The Pilsen neighborhood is home to the largest Latina/o community in the city of Chicago. In the 1960s and 1970s, Pilsen area students were forced to attend high schools that were not in the neighborhood, which meant that they had to cross gang lines to get to school. Once there, they often experienced racial tensions from other students and even from teachers and administrators. In the early 1970s, the Pilsen community demanded a high school of their own. Initially, the school system opposed building a new high school in Pilsen, but after a series of political actions including a parent-supported student boycott, the Chicago Board of Education approved the construction of Benito Juarez High School, and selected a location in September of 1973. However, a year later, Chicago Public Schools had not yet begun construction of Benito Juarez. This was largely due to the owners of the business that occupied the site, Blue Island, holding out for a bigger final payment. Area parents and students protested the delay with more boycotts and the use of "freedom schools" instead of the regular public schools. In 1975 Chicago Public Schools finally acquired the land and in 1977 it finally opened what is now one of the premiere high schools in Chicago.

Nancy’s photographs investigate several visual themes: frames, juxtaposed angles of vision, and subjects who are turned away from the camera. In this image, which is representative of her many images of children and women (sometimes even herself) framed by windows, door frames, and mirrors, Nancy captures a threshold space between the domestic interior and the urban exterior of life in the city.

This image of two men preparing for a speech captures Nancy’s aesthetic interest in mirrored images and “frames within frames.” But it also suggests a sly feminist undertone in its reference to the mirror-like quality of male leadership in the Movement Era. The dominant narratives of the Chicano Movement tend to center on its leading male figures, Cesar Chavez, Jose Angel Gutierrez (included in the photograph below), Rodolfo Corky González” and Reies Lopez Tijerina. Nancy chose more diverse subjects in her representation of political activities in the period—old women, young women, children—breaking the mirror (which always duplicates its male subject) of movement imaginaries.

Throughout the 1970s, Latina/o students from across Chicago helped to organize a number of United Farm Worker Boycott actions, including hunger strikes, picket lines, marches and mass meetings. Nancy closely documented these activities for the Northeastern Illinois University Chicano student newspaper, Contra la Pared, capturing priceless images that bring the Chicago Boycott to life. In these photographs, most of which were taken in 1975, Nancy captures the vibrancy and commitment that many Chicagoans brought to their work in support of the farmworker struggle.

Nancy documented many UFW events in Chicago as a reporter for the NEIU student newspaper “Contra la Pared,” including the historic “Unity Rally” organized by Cha Cha Jimenez and the Young Lords in October of 1974. Held at the Palacio Theater on Chicago’s Northside, the Unity Rally brought together between 1,500 and 2,000 Black, Latina/o, and White Chicagoans to form a unified front to challenge urban renewal and  support  the UFW’s grape and lettuce boycott. The Unity Rally featured speeches by notable political activists like Slim Coleman (Campaign for Community Control), 44th ward alderman Dick Simpson, Marcos Muñoz (a UFW organizer) and a performance by Chicago’s Teatro del Barrio (pictured in these photos). It ended at a nearby National supermarket where marchers demanded that grapes and lettuce be removed from the shelves.

Nancy first encountered the long-standing social service non profit, Mujeres Latinas en Accion in the early 1970s, before she had graduated from high school. She participated in youth programs with Mujeres, and continued to work with them through the 1970s. She even joined their delegation to the first International Women’s Conference in Mexico City (1975), where she met noted Chicana feminist, Gracia Molina de Pic

Throughout the 1970s, Latina/o students from across Chicago helped to organize a number of United Farm Worker Boycott actions, including hunger strikes, picket lines, marches and mass meetings. Nancy closely documented these activities for the Northeastern Illinois University Chicano student newspaper, Contra la Pared, capturing priceless images that bring the Chicago Boycott to life. Nancy continued be interested in farmworker rights after she moved to Texas to attend the Radio, Television and Film program at the University of Texas, Austin. Her photographs of the Texas Farmworker Union’s 420-mile march from San Juan to Austin document their historic struggle to gain the right to unionize.

Sources:

Full length documentary about the Young Lords in Chicago https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ueYZUQ8EW4s

Pilsen neighborhood muralism https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DmcIv52TxqU

The Pilsen area http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/765.html

The Chicano Movement https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sz5OAOTO_k4

Mujeres Latinas en Accion https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lm9WdAUpBic

International Women’s Year Conference http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/beijing/otherconferences/Mexico/Mexico%20conference%20report%20optimized.pdf