Invisible Mexicans

Portrayals of Latinos in local history are usually limited to the use of Spanish names for cities and streets (and then it's frequently wrong: Mission Viejo, for example, should be Mission Vieja, and what's up with Buena Park—why not Parque Buena? Or just Good Park?) or references to the genocidal Spaniards, like Father Junipero Serra, who settled the land.

Searching through archives in Anaheim and Santa Ana for a specifically Mexican-American presence, Yolanda Morelos Álvarez says she “wasn't able to find anything. The only mention of something remotely resembling a Latino historical presence was listed under 'Spanish'—the Spanish history we all know.”

A graphic designer for Chapman University, Álvarez hopes to add something more substantial than a talking Chihuahua to the county's Mexican-American archives with “Fire in the Morning: A Pictorial History of the Mexican-Americans of Orange County.” This is the first large-scale effort to tell the story of Mexican-American life in the county from the start of the 20th century until shortly after World War II.

“I view [documenting Latino history in Orange County] as my calling,” Alvarez said. “If I don't do it, no one else will.”

“Fire in the Morning” isn't art so much as documentary; the people who took these pictures don't frequent the Santa Ana Artists Village, though their descendants probably clean it. Álvarez culled the exhibit from the photo albums of countless Orange County Mexican-American families. That explains the show's decidedly inartistic aesthetic: This is not Jacob Riis capturing the squalor and growing pains of an immigrant community, or Dorothea Lange's Dust Bowl refugees. The photos were meant for the eyes of people who knew their subjects intimately, not for the public.

The bulk of “Fire in the Morning” is thus mundane: wedding and quinciañera portraits, pictures of families enjoying the county's beaches, even a portrait of a solitary chicken. Despite being decidedly inartistic, the pictures of couples are enthralling. Older people reflect the hardship of a life filled with tragedy. A tired man and woman stand next to endless fields (back when there were fields) after what was probably a sunrise-to-sunset day of stoop labor. A wedding portrait of a happy couple belies the difficulties they would face raising a Mexican family in Orange County.

Only as a whole does the exhibit reveal its beauty, each random picture describing a community that has never existed in the official history. Together, the photos transcend their clumsy craft by affirming, first, the mere existence and, second, the importance of the Mexican-American community in the county's history.

Sections of “Fire in the Morning” highlight pioneers who helped change Orange County from Ku Klux Klan territory to a county in which nearly half of the residents are non-Anglo. One starts with a picture of barefoot children going to school—a segregated school, we are told. That leads to photos of the Méndez family of Westminster, whose 1946 lawsuit Méndez vs. Westminster School District desegregated Orange County schools and served as precedent for the more famous Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision of 1954.

Other incidents and individuals appear—strikes, political celebrations, baseball teams, old couples—but there's nothing on the Chicano civil-rights movement of the 1960s or the more recent wars against immigrants. This is a celebration of the anonymous and the common.

All of these photos would win last place in an open-call competition. But these “bad” pictures—grainy, badly focused, poorly composed—are essential to reshaping local history.

“I hope to get this information into third- or fourth-grade Orange County elementary textbooks when the focus is on local history,” Álvarez said. “This way, 'we' can be included.”

“Fire In the Morning: A Pictorial History of the Mexican-Americans of Orange County” at Mission Viejo Library, 25209 Marguerite Pkwy., Mission Viejo, (949) 830-7100. Open Mon.-Thurs., 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sat., 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sun., noon-5 p.m. Through sept. 30. Free.

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