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Arts Sí se puede

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Photographer Cecilia Alvarez Muñoz says new Smithsonian exhibit showcases Latino potential

"I think that anybody that was born after the camera was made is interested in photography," exclaims renowned Chicana artist Celia Alvarez Muñoz. "That we continue and pursue that interest is something else."

Muñoz has pursued her passion for photography, and the results can be seen in her latest project, the ambitious OJOS (Our Journeys/Our Stories: Portraits of Latino Achievement) exhibit, created by the Smithsonian Center for Latino Initiatives, which opens at the Institute of Texan Cultures August 11 in partnership with the Alameda.

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Celia Alvarez Muñoz' photographs of writer Sandra Cisneros and the South Texas Garza family, and Luis Mallo's portrait of television journalist John M. Quiñones, are among those included in the traveling Smithsonian exhibit OJOS: Our Journeys/Our Stories, on view at the Institute of Texan Cultures through October 16.

Raised in the borderland of El Paso, Muñoz was drawn to photography at an early age. Her extended family was comprised of bohemians and fashion-conscious gente who always kept a camera nearby. "My mother and my aunt kept beautiful albums and there were lots of stories about the people that were in the photographs," she explains. "Those albums were one of the most important elements in growing up and learning about who I was and where I came from. There was always a story with each face or each situation."

Muñoz vividly recalls the days of her youth when Life magazine brought images of the world to America, and photography studios lined a bustling El Paso Street. Photographers would often roam the street snapping pictures that families could later purchase as postcards, and it wasn't unusual to see youngsters posing for photos with burros, ponies, and in some instances authentic Native Americans. She would often peak into the studios, soaking up as much information as possible, and when her father brought home a German camera from World War II her artistic journey officially commenced. Muñoz was influenced by a variety of sources, including Juárez fotonovelas, gritty detective magazines, and the legendary Gordon Parks.

"A lot of them came out of adversity, and yet here they are, hard-working individuals contributing to their society and contributing to the American economy."

- Cecilia Alvarez Muñoz

"What I loved about Gordon Parks is that he did not limit himself to one vein or to one concept," says Muñoz. "He had the foresight and the inclination to be interested in a lot of things. He was in the ghetto at one point and then he was in the high-fashion world at another. He had different aspects of our society to which he responded and documented very well, and romanticized, too."

After raising a family of her own, Muñoz earned her M.F.A. from the University of North Texas. She has had solo exhibitions at the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, the Dallas Museum of Art, the San Antonio Museum of Art, and the Lannan Museum, among other venues.

The OJOS exhibit comprises portraits of 24 individuals and one extended family that have made significant contributions to their respective communities. For the project, Muñoz traveled from South Texas to California to New Mexico to Colorado and finally New York, snapping photos of writers Sandra Cisneros, Victor Villaseñor, and Cristina Garcia, artist Judy Baca, and activist Dolores Huerta along the way. Photographers Luis Mallo and Hector Mendez-Caratini also contributed portraits.

OJOS: Our Journeys/Our Stories

10am-6pm Tue-Sat, noon-5pm Sun
Aug 11-Oct 16
$7 adult;
$4 age 3-12, senior, military;
under 3 free

Institute of Texan Cultures
801 S. Bowie
458-2330

"It was a lot of fun," Muñoz exclaims. "It was really fast and we had to think on the spot. They're busy people so you don't have several days; you've got like an hour to shoot. Some were generous enough to give us a little more time than that but it was all done in one day."

Muñoz says the OJOS exhibit showcases the potential of the Latino community. "To see the faces and to see the settings will hopefully serve as a good motivator for our young people," she says. "A lot of them weren't born with a silver spoon in their mouth. A lot of them came out of adversity and yet here they are hard-working individuals contributing to their society and contributing to the American economy. We need to see more of the exemplary. We don't need just the mugshots from the drive-bys and the kids in trouble.

"Most people who come to America, who come to the U.S., come with some sort of aspirations and it's necessary to illustrate that it can be done. I think it's a wake-up call for our culture that 'sí se puede.'"

By M. Solis


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