El Movimiento captures Chicano history and foreshadows its future

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: Oscar Castillo, Past and PresentA man in a cowboy hat sits alone on a bench beside Echo Park lake. The foreground is dark, and the man is shrouded in the shadow of a tree. He seems isolated, lonely. His face is lowered just slightly enough to suggest despair. His jacket and upturned collar are a strange juxtaposition against the sunshine of Los Angeles. Beyond the grassy verge lies infinite light – a world of burdening heat, to seek refuge from in the shade. Or perhaps a bright city, with new opportunities floating on the crest of every sparkling ripple and into the busy streets above.

Oscar Castillo’s photograph, aptly named "Solitude at Echo Park," is a familiar image. The inner-city parks of Los Angeles are still places of refuge and withdrawal for the heavy-hearted, even 30 years after Castillo captured the subtle dynamic through his lens. The man in the cowboy hat still sits by the lake, though his clothes and his name have changed.

Castillo has been documenting Chicano society since he moved to Los Angeles with his family from El Paso, Texas when he was 16 years old. It was tumultuous time. The city’s demographics were shifting rapidly, and the Chicano Civil Rights Movement was erupting in an energetic rush. Castillo witnessed the "High School Blowouts" in 1968, snapping the pictures "Down with Brutality" and "A Free School Not-A-Jail" during a student protest at Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights.

A few years later, while studying at California State University, Northridge, Castillo was inspired by the struggle of farm workers in California’s Central Valley and began following the fledgling Farm Workers Union as it started to organize. His photographs of Cesar Chavez reveal personal admiration for the Chicano Civil Rights leader. The shots are reverent; Chavez is surrounded by inspired workers and awed children, or silhouetted against the darkness as he addresses a crowd.

The collection is now being exhibited at the Latino Museum of History, Art and Culture, housed downtown on Gallery Row at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. At an opening reception, Castillo said that he hoped his work would inspire people to "look at their own community and family, and the beauty around you." Castillo added that strong, positive images of the Chicano Civil Rights Movement are necessary to help purge negative stereotypes persistent in the city, from the past to the present day.

The images are naturally iconic, evocative of the sepia-toned sentiment that accompanies historical art work. But clustered together in the basement room of the Theatre Center building, Castillo’s work risks becoming reminiscent, rather than present. The exhibit is composed of faces and scenery now long familiar, and rests heavily on the symbolism of a revolutionary era, rather than seeking to break new ground. Among the powerful depictions, the simpler images stood out. The subtlely of a mother walking with a young child beside a graffited brick wall, or two young women, one holding a baby, waiting for a bus beside an extravagant mural, seemed more resonant than the rallies, speeches and politics.

And yet, the youthful crowd at the reception proved that these iconic photographs hadn’t lost their poignancy. A group of Latino teenagers mingled around the images of the 1968 Roosevelt High School protest, perhaps recalling some recent experience fighting the LAUSD’s budget cuts. A young woman stood beside Cesar Chavez, reading the history of the United Farm Workers Union on an accompanying placard. Later, an African-American man, dressed in multi-colored, tie-dye pants and a customized leather jacket, leaned in and adjusted his glasses to get a closer look at four similarly-clad Latino men inside one of the frames. "Los Four," taken in 1974, shows artist-friends of Castillo’s smiling happily beside their bright, spray-painted mural, designed to promote graffiti as art, not vandalism.

Castillo himself manned the sidelines with a camera around his neck, the shy and natural observer he claims to have always been. Meanwhile, his shared perspective took on new resonance for the viewers wandering the room. It may have been a different year and a different fight, said Castillo, but the social atmosphere remains the same. "From Vietnam to Iraq," he said, "history repeats itself."



  1. Oscar Castillo says:


    Thank you for your insightful review.

    Oscar Castillo

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