Rethinking the Tourist Gaze

When photographer Christopher Anthony Velasco poses in front of a vacant lot’s chain link fence, and tenaciously shoots a flurry of photographs around the seemingly barren landscape of broken asphalt and weeds, you have to wonder, what is he looking at? Am I missing something? Cars honk in passing, pedestrians strain their necks to figure it out too.

You might have seen him around the neighborhood with his tawdry flowered shirt and khaki shorts, his socks and sandals, the half dozen cameras hanging heavily from his neck. Or maybe you noticed the bedazzled, over-eager, sweating face squinting in every direction beneath the straw hat. When was the last time you saw a tourist in El Monte? In fact, why would anyone choose El Monte as a site-seeing destination? What is there to see anyway?

For his photography project that will be exhibited as part of the “How’s the Water?” exhibition on July 27 in El Monte, artist Christopher Velasco, has been focusing his attention on and photographing what most of us in El Monte and South El Monte usually walk past without a second glance. For the last month, he has explored key sites and landmarks throughout El Monte and South El Monte, not as himself, a Lincoln Heights native, but as a fictitious Texan tourist named Juan Valdez.

Chris visited, both your usual plaque-and-statue monuments, meant to commemorate an official historical narrative, as well as unmarked, overgrown or blank asphalted locations validated only by obscure rumors and very oblique references. For example, on the corner of Valley and Peck, near the San Bernardino Freeway onramp, Christopher photographs the lion statue that commemorates Gay’s Lion Farm, home of the original MGM lion, which was located in El Monte in the 1940’s. At the Rio Hondo River, Christopher focuses his lens on some gnarled shrubs because it is said that Joaquin Murrieta often hid from his headhunters along this river. Also, there is some passing reference that the original San Gabriel Mission was founded and then flooded in this location in the 18th century before being transplanted to its current site. But you wouldn’t know any of this unless you caught wafts of rumors and looked very closely at what seems to be nothing but weeds or bad lawn décor. Christopher’s photographs propose that South El Monte and El Monte audience and residents look and listen very closely to the stories buried in their own community.

Christopher’s project will also propose that audiences in Mexico rethink their notions of Mexicans in the United States when it travels to La Casa del Hijo Del Ahuizote, the cultural and archival center in Mexico City where “How’s the Water?” projects will be archived. First, we have a Mexican American from some Mexican working class community in Los Angeles visiting some other Mexican working class community. Most Chilangos will not be able to differentiate Highland Park from El Monte, just like most Mexicans living in Los Angeles can’t tell you the difference between Roma and Condesa or Neza and Tepito (to name the most obvious of DF hoods). On top of that, Christopher travels to El Monte as Juan Valdez, a Mexican-American from Texas. Not sure, what the Mexican regional equivalent would be, but Mexico City residents are bound to wonder why a Texan? Don’t Mexicans from Texas know Los Angeles? Aren’t they all just Mexican-Americans?

Perhaps after some initial confusion, the wonderful photographs will, even if briefly, turn the tables on the typical north to south tourism. Instead of Mexican-Americans visiting and photographing themselves next to Mayan and Aztec ruins, large Cathedrals, con el mariachi, at a soccer game, some Saint’s fiesta, or con los primos, we have Mexico City residents joining Juan Valdez in an exploration of El Monte. The Valley Mall, with its bionico shop, bufy, ugly, and expensive dresses at the local quinceañera shop, and the “paisa” store will no doubt remind Mexicans of all the goods sold and consumed in Mexico malls, sidewalks, and stores. The subtle variations, what some folks like to call “hybridity,” can simultaneously evoke pride in “our” ability to maintain cultural ties to Mexico or distain for getting it wrong. Either way, Christopher’s photographs will join the abundant and always expanding pool of representations about Mexican in the United States. If they inform, provoke, or challenge Mexico City residents, they’ve done their job.


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