As a participant in a valley wide summer youth work employment program for valley teens, I frequently have traveled to South Phoenix on many occasions. For this reason South Phoenix is familiar grounds for me. Today rather than observing the community and the people of the area, I found myself observing a different group. The community was very interesting-very cultural and artistic, but today the reactions of my peers to this community is what greater grasped my attention. Some reactions, opinions, statements, questions, their demeanor, rather annoyed me. In no way were their demeanors discriminating, but mostly what was said was done out of ignorance. They were ignorant in that they could only begin to speculate about the area and the residents on preconceived notions that may have been set off by the media and myths about the surrounding area.
South Phoenix is a strong community with strong cultural traditions and heritage with associations that have been found common in many cities of the Southwest. Cities like San Diego, Los Angeles, El Paso, Albuquerque, and many others share much of the same characteristics found in Phoenix. Although they vary in geographical locations, these cities represent strong cultural communities throughout. In a review essay on the exhibit El Nuevo Mundo: The Landscape of Latino Los Angeles with photographs by Camilio Jose Vergara, much of what I found is put into context.
Vergara, in a collaboration of photos, was trying to depict how “Latino cultures manage to persist, to ward off what [He] thought would be the overwhelming influence of North American culture (Phillips, p 176). The strength of his exhibit is that it represents recent immigrants in the manner in which they represent themselves through their material culture, surface construction, and daily aesthetic practices. The flaw in his photographs is that the exhibit represents a skewed vision of Latino Los Angeles. Many critics found the exhibit to be inauthentic or blatantly wrong. Concerns largely revolved around the negative stereotypes the exhibit was perpetuating.
Some negative images included photographs of guys being arrested; a dead dog in an alley, junkyards, and multiple, poorly maintained yards with scattered car parts throughout. The exhibit was designed to depict the strength that Vergara sees in the Latino population he portrays. But for the many viewers, it ended up doing exactly the opposite. What they read from his images of bricolage constructions, hand-painted signage, religious icons, chickens in the front yard, and dogs in the alley, was not creativity, but poverty in itself (Phillips, p181).
Much of what I heard today is comparable to the controversies with regards to the photographs of Vergara. Some questions asked by students were embarrassing and their answers were equally so. As my peers are perhaps used to the existence of Home Owners Association, some remarks were centered on the ill maintained yards and homes. One assumption made about poor yards, was that the homeowner was perhaps working as a yardman or gardener himself and therefore did not wish to come home to do “work”. At one point during group discussions, South Phoenix and its community was being compared to the third world. If at all possible there is no comparison, not even on the basis of community or poverty. Other comments made were about the commonly found barred windows and doors of the homes throughout. Their remarks were greatly supporting the scheme that South Phoenix was greatly “inhabited by thieves” and “crime-committing residents”. Some of the ways in which residents were questioned was embarrassing. I witnessed a humble Black man be put onto his defense by the “attacking” questions classmates made. These questions isolated him as a person, and forced him to defend himself, his race, and his existence, resulting in a negative attitude.
There is much to be learned about communities and it's residents. What they have to offer is a grand lesson in diversity. In order to know the community-one’s heritage, culture, religion, traditions, way of life- they must be received with an open mind, free of biases and/or stereotypes.