Douglas Revisited

Never-before-seen Bernal photos are a timely love letter to Mexican-Americans of the borderlands

Back in 1979, when Emily Velasco was a 13-year-old living in Douglas, her grown-up cousin Louis Carlos Bernal came a-calling.

Emily wasn't surprised to see him. Bernal had been born in the border town. And though he had moved away to Phoenix as a kid of 8, he regularly visited his old home place.

"He really loved us," Velasco said at the opening of Arizona Unseen, an exhibition of never-before-seen color photos by her renowned late cousin, hanging at the gallery named for him at Pima College West. "He treated us with respect. He always treated us with respect no matter how successful he became."

"And he loved my mom's tortillas," added her sister, Julie Lerch.

The two sisters, then known by the family name of Quinones, had seven siblings, and the nine kids and their parents were crowded into a tiny house. On one of his many visits in 1979, a year when Bernal documented Mexican-American life in Douglas, he made four Quinones family portraits inside their home.

In her picture, Emily, bright-eyed and eager, is sitting cross-legged atop one of the beds in the bedroom shared by the five sisters. Emily smiles through her glasses. Above her is a proud display of ribbons and certificates she's won for her scholastic achievements.

"She was really smart in school," Lerch said proudly.

The Quinones family portraits are classic Bernal. He made pictures of his subjects in places that were meaningful to them, often within their own homes, and bathed the spaces in pungent colors and incandescent light. Emily's room glows a golden yellow. White light from window pours in, filtered by a translucent curtain.

And Bernal masterfully used objects to conjure up the owner's inner life. Emily's cherished school prizes, carefully taped to the wall, speak volumes about the young girl's aspirations.

Lupe and Memo Quinones, the late parents of this big clan, are still in their prime in their Bernal portrait. They pose awkwardly in the doorway to the living room, a room that reveals a couple poised between tradition and modernity. It's kept tidy by this hardworking mother of nine, but its centerpiece is not the Mexican household shrine of old. It's a brand-new color TV that gets the place of honor. Above it on the wall is a shiny '60s-style sun clock with metallic rays rocketing out like beams of light.

Painter Jim Waid, who taught at Pima College with Bernal years ago, recalls the photographer's glee when he first started shooting the interiors of houses in Tucson's barrios and in other Latino neighborhoods, making beautiful images of home altars and family photos and other cherished objects.

"He came in so excited," Waid remembered. "He said, 'You won't believe what I'm finding in these houses. It's almost impossible to make a bad photo.'"

The new exhibition, three years in the making, is a loving look at Douglas and other southwest Mexican-American communities at a particular moment in time. Besides the trademark Bernal still lifes of home interiors, there are pictures of people, indoors and out, at play and at work. In one of my favorites, a brick two-story Douglas building that's a mini-barrio in and of itself. It's festooned with laundry hung by still another hardworking woman. And all around it, the street teems with life: kids sit on the curb; a boy balances a basketball; pickup trucks idle around the corner.

Arizona Unseen is the handiwork of Ann Simmons-Myers, head photography professor at Pima West Campus, and of Ernesto Esquer, a photographer who made the dazzling color prints.

"Lou's heart was always in Douglas," she said at the opening. "He returned to visit family and made these photos. He said they were for the people he photographed."

Simmons-Myers succeeded Bernal as head of the Pima West photography department after a catastrophic bicycle accident in 1989 left the photographer in a coma; he died four years later in 1993, at the age of 52. Researching Bernal's archives at the Center for Creative Photography, Simmons-Myers, who has created several other Bernal exhibitions, discovered color images that had never before been exhibited.

Bernal worked in old-fashioned film, and some of his negatives were starting to deteriorate, Simmons-Myers said. Fortunately, she and Esquer were able to rescue the negatives— correcting the color and fixing the light damage. They captured the images digitally and Esquer printed them out as durable archival pigment prints. The exhibition, Simmons-Myers said, is a precursor to a long-planned major exhibition to be undertaken by the Center for Creative Photography, and accompanied by a scholarly book.

Bringing the cache of photos to light is more than an important contribution to Bernal's growing reputation: its celebration of Latino life in the borderlands is a timely repudiation of the libelous hate speech hurled at Mexicans and other immigrants by the Republican presidential campaign, from Trump on down.

Some of Bernal's most powerful photos chronicle an onion workers' strike in El Mirage, northwest of Phoenix. Before sprawl laid waste to the region's agriculture, the El Mirage onion fields employed large numbers of Mexican immigrants, including children who sacrificed their schooling to put food on America's tables. (I interviewed one these children, now grown, a few years ago. At 39, after laboring in Arizona since the age of 13, she was deported.)

One of the strikers is a fierce—and heroic—woman. Bundled up in a warm coat and scarf in Bernal's admiring portrait, she stands at the edge of the fields. She stares ahead steadfastly, unafraid to fight for better wages. In her hands she grips a bold red banner emblazoned with the word HUELGA, Spanish for "strike."

More often, though, Bernal zeroed in on the quiet heroism of everyday life. He pictures a loving family posing with the kids outside their modest Douglas house; a young man beaming over the red car he bought with his hard labor. And he loves to photograph people at work.

In El Paso, he records Rosa M. Estravis presiding over her herb store, standing in between a pair of plastic human bodies, each of them anatomically correct. All around her are glass jars filled with the plants and potions of her trade.

Farther west along the border, in Naco, a smiling young woman in a protective apron poses in a shoemaker shop, surrounded by machines, tools and piles of shoes under construction. In nearby Douglas, storeowner Benny Ballesteros is immortalized in his tiny tienda, stocked with both liquor and eggs.

A luminous, delicately colored image of a garment factory captures a platoon of Douglas women bent over spindles, processing voluminous piles of cloth in many colors. Several of them turn away from their work to look up at the photographer, their faces peering at us from out of the past. One can imagine them stooped over their spools for years on end.

The picture is beautifully composed. The factory ceiling curves above the women in a classic arch, endowing them with the dignity of figures in a Renaissance painting. And a celestial light falls on their upturned faces.

Bernal gave these workers the same respect he allocated to his young cousin Emily and to his other subjects. And as he himself once wrote, his pictures convey the "spiritual and cultural values of the barrio."

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