Jesús Manuel Mena Garza
Photo: Circa 1968, San José High School, San José, California
Photographer, artist and organizer, Jesús Manuel Mena Garza's artistic vision was shaped by his boyhood in San José, California. Garza has been taking photographs since he was 11 years old. He currently teaches classes, exhibits and lectures about his photographs.
From the beginning, Garza's images have their source in his migrant farm worker heritage and his immersion in the dynamic political and artistic culture of El Movimiento, the political movement that emerged during the mid-60s seeking social justice for Chicana/os. Jesús was born in 1952 to Eusebio and Guadalupe Mena Garza in San José, California. Guadalupe grew up in Crystal City, Texas, although she was born in nearby Carrizo Springs. Eusebio hailed from Coahuila in Northern Mexico and came to Texas as a child with his parents. The Garza family settled in Crystal City where Eusebio later met and married Guadalupe.
Jesús' parents worked their entire lives as farm laborers migrating through the central and western regions of the United States during the picking season and returning each winter to Crystal City. In the mid-40s, Manuel, Eusebio's eldest brother, led the extended Garza family to San José in search of increased opportunities.
Jesús' parents and siblings worked in the fields of Santa Clara Valley while living in various migrant labor camps. Growing up in San José during the 1960s, Jesús saw his city change from an agricultural oasis south of San Francisco to the capital of Silicon Valley. During the 50s and 60s, the Garza families eight children picked fruit and vegetables at orchards and farms that later became prized locations for the computer industries chip manufacturing plants.
During this period, Jesús' parents bought a house in a racially diverse, working-class neighborhood. Guadalupe began working at local canneries, although she continued in the fields at various times of the year. Jesús worked in the fields during summers, on weekends throughout his school years and during college.
Garza notes, "My parents were very modest. I don't remember having any long conversations with either of them. My father usually sat in the corner reading the Spanish language newspaper. My mother could not read or write, but she definitely had a keen mind. She knitted, crocheted, made quilts and clothing like most mothers of the period. She enjoyed gardening and especially tending to her roses. Today I grow roses in her memory."
Based on test scores while a student at Grant Elementary, Jesús' was offered a full scholarship to attend a private boarding school. Garza's parents declined the offer stating that he should, "Stay home and be close to family." At Roosevelt Junior High Jesús again was tested. After getting a IQ score of 155, Garza was allowed to take any course he wanted in junior and senior high school. Having made his own choices since an early age (parents were oblivious), Garza decided to focus on art and photography.
Throughout Jesús' childhood, the Garza family returned to Crystal City several times to see members of the familia that had remained behind. During one trip when he was ten years old, with his mother, brother David and several members of his brother-in laws family all stuffed in the car, he saw a sign posted on a rural Texas saloon stating, "No Mexicans or Dogs Allowed." Although the adults ignored the sign and entered the saloon without incident, the experience made a deep impression on Jesús.
Later in 1969, Jesús happened to be in Crystal City during the historic high school walkout when young Chicana/os angrily protested racist policies that denied them opportunities afforded Anglo students. In this small South Texas town, he witnessed the impact of poverty, segregation and activism, an encounter that shaped his future political and community involvement.
Jesús' parents could not afford a camera or record player. At age eleven, he bought himself his first camera at la pulga, the San José Flea Market. This simple twin lens box camera captured his initial portraits of close friends and neighborhood buildings, subjects he would record throughout his career. A few years later at Roosevelt Junior High, Garza witnessed the magic of the darkroom and its photographic processes for the first time. Under the supportive tutelage of instructors Prospero Anaya and Ron Root at San José High, Garza began to craft his photographic style and technique.
Drawn to the position of outside observer, the documentation of events and people formed the primary initial focus of Jesús' photographic work. He served as photographer for both the school newspaper and yearbook and realized photojournalism as his calling. Mentors Anaya and Root closely guided him in course work every semester during high school and exposed him to the artistic environment of Bay Area galleries and museums during field trips with the Photo Club. As a result, when he graduated in 1970, Garza had a thorough understanding of photographic processes, techniques and equipment.
Immediately out of high school, Garza worked as a photographer and cinematographer at the Chicano Film Institute (CFI) of San José. It was an excellent opportunity to document Chicana/os in Santa Clara Valley. Garza shot 16mm film of Teatro Campesino, slides for a presentation on de jure and de facto housing patterns in Santa Clara County and many other projects. He began to identify as a "Chicano Photographer." At CFI, Garza enjoyed the camaraderie of other Chicana/o activists. This collective was his first eye-opening glimpse into the complex world that was the 70s.
Garza has many stories from the 70s. For example, he used to walk around the neighborhood of SJSU with a 16mm Bolex film camera. The camera had no film, but Garza practiced zooming, panning and composing. One day, a tall San José police officer saw Garza and quickly grabbed his arm demanding, "Where did you get that camera?"
Garza noted that he was a cinematographer and that he worked just around the block. The officer responded abruptly and continued to interrogate Garza for several minutes adding that he might have to take the photographer to jail. Such is the life of a long-haired lefty. This was not the first time Garza was hassled -- nor would it be the last.
After working the summer at CFI, Garza entered San José State University in the fall of 1970. There he studied Photojournalism under Dr. Joe Swan and participated in the progressive causes of the time including anti-war demonstrations and protests that sought increased access for Chicana/os to education and media.
At SJSU Garza served as president of three campus organizations, as a member of the UFW Support Committee and as a member of the Community Alert Patrol, or CAP, where he took photographs of police in the field to monitor and document police brutality. Through his participation in these events and organizations, Jesús met Cesar Chavez, Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales, José Angel Gutiérrez and other Chicana/o leaders.
In 1973, the artist/activist expanded his creative endeavors from photography to broadcasting by producing radio programs with the Chicano/Puerto Rican Radio Collective, known simply as La Cosa Nueva. As member and later president of C/N, he developed unique bilingual radio programs for several Bay Area stations including KSJS, KPFA-B and KKUP. These Chicana/o-centric programs featured news, public affairs and music from popular groups such as Malo, Azteca, Sapo and Santana.
During the 70s, La Cosa Nueva's programs could be heard throughout the San Joaquin Valley and the Bay Area. Garza said, "The early 70s was a great time to socialize (party). I was very shy in high school, but after a couple of years in college, I was definitely into the swing of things.
We had a great time working in radio. It was not uncommon to mix drinks and party at KSJS. It is my firm belief that some people participated in the political struggles of the period because of a deep-felt commitment to the cause. Others participated because they wanted to party. Both were valid reasons."
Concurrently with his involvement in the university and broadcast communities, Garza served as Treasurer, Gallery Director and Resident Photographer at El Centro Cultural de La Gente of San José where he produced various exhibits of his work and other San José and Bay Area artists. In addition, he continued to exhibit his work in galleries throughout the Bay Area and Mexico. In 1974, he was on the selection panel for the first major Chicana/o art exhibition at the San José Museum of Art.
Later that year, he toured Mexico as resident photographer with Teatro de La Gente. On the bus and train trip were theater groups El Teatro Campesino, Teatro Quetzal and others. It was all part of the Quinto Festival de los Teatros Chicanos. Garza took it upon himself to document this historic event. This theater conference and series of performances was organized by Adrian Vargas and members of Teatro Nacional de Aztlán (TENAZ). It was the first major conference in Mexico City to bring together theater workers from the United States, Mexico and Latin America.
After seeing Jesús' work increasingly include fine art photography, close friend Antonio Perales Fierro, who had previously attended the San Francisco Art Institute, suggested that Jesús consider expanding his artistic training. After reviewing his portfolio, the prestigious Institute offered him a full tuition scholarship that he accepted in the fall of 1974. While he enjoyed the short respite from San José's more traditional contemporary art scene, criticism of his "Mexican" subject matter prompted Jesús to return to San José by mid-semester where he finished his degree at San José State by 1978.
While completing his journalism degree, Jesús worked for one year at San José's KXRX/KEZR radio and later moved to Salinas to serve as a sports anchor and reporter for KSBW Television. Six months later he took over as News Director at KOMY, a bilingual radio station in Watsonville, where he produced programs for four years. These experiences left an indelible mark, making the artist keenly aware of the power of electronic media and technology in our society.
In 1980, Garza moved back to San José and renewed his photography career by opening FotoMedia in downtown San José. In addition to offering photography and producing photography workshops, he provided a range of media services including advertising, graphics and public relations. Garza produced and hosted a cable television show on San José's Channel 2b titled, Foto Review. This was a great opportunity for Garza to interview area photographers and cinematographers. During this period he also published a magazine by the same name.
Several years later Jesús moved his business and studio to a larger building in his old neighborhood on North 13th Street. There he served a diverse clientele ranging from the modest nuns at Holy Cross Catholic Church, to neighborhood families, to the strippers at Maria's Night Club. Commercial clients included Intel Corporation, Altera Corporation, Vallco Fashion Park, San José State University and various magazines and newspapers.
Resuming the exhibition of his work in 1987, Garza produced several photographic series employing both traditional and alternative processes. These projects ranged from two public slide presentations viewed both by traffic and pedestrians to silver and alternative process prints.
One of the most notable of his exhibitions was produced by the Mission Cultural Center (MCC) in San Francisco in 1992. They selected him to participate in a group show of eight photographers. Later that year, unfortunately, he closed his studio and moved to a safer neighborhood because gangs and drug dealers made parts of his old "barrio" increasingly dangerous.
In 1995 Garza traveled to Globe, Arizona, to serve as the News Director at KJAA Radio located next to the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation. He found himself immediately at odds with station management when he chose to broadcast news from all communities, not just the conservative groups supported by the station's owner. As a result, Garza returned in the fall of 1995 to San Francisco, a more progressive city.
In the Bay Area, Jesús met his future wife Ann and also became a member of the faculty for the Motion Picture and Video Department at the Academy of Art College in San Francisco. At the Academy, he taught and presented workshops on photography and film while exhibiting in San Francisco galleries including El Balazo and the Luggage Store Gallery.
During the mid-90s Garza also produced and hosted, The Barrio Experience. This Saturday afternoon radio show was broadcast by Stanford University's KZSU-FM. The program featured Latin music, bands and interviews. Garza notes, "I really enjoyed working with Stanford students. It was amazing to gain insight into their privileged world."
In 1997, Jesús created his website jmmgarza.com. On his website resided Chorizo Links -- Chicanos in CyberSpace (TM). For these pages he indexed Photography, Chicano/a and Job websites. These unique pages were some of the first on the Internet devoted to the Chicano community.
While in San Francisco, Jesús and Ann shared an avid interest in art and diverse cultures and were married in 1996. Together they embarked on a journey that would eventually take them to Texas. On May 15, 1999, Jesús moved to the Lone Star state so Ann could go to school. Garza noted, "I have now come full circle and returned to Texas, the state my parents left for a better life in California."
In 2000, Jesús and Ann bought a 1927 bungalow-style home in Lockhart. Here Jesús and Ann grew roses, just as Jesús' mother did in San José. They served as a daily reminder of her creativity. The couple share Lupe's love of flowers. Lockhart, known as the "Barbecue Capital of Texas," is 25 miles south of Austin, 15 miles east of San Marcos and 60 miles northeast of San Antonio. Jesús' waistline was proof of the great comida (food) here! Jesús and Ann enjoyed fishing and camping at Padre Island. They also enjoyed dancing to Tejano music at various church jamaicas and visiting familia in Crystal City.
For more than five years, Garza paid the mortgage by working full-time at Pedernales Electric. Lyndon B. Johnson and ranchers started the electric cooperative in 1938. In the Hill Country, ranchers once struggled to survive, now exotic game ranches are common. The folks at PEC know they are sitting on a gold mine.
Garza kept his hand (voice) in radio by working at KLBJ-AM in Austin. At this news station, he worked part-time as a news anchor and reporter. Being objective at this very-conservative station was quite a challenge but still fun. He has a deep love and appreciation for radio and television but realizes that objectivity is an archaic notion. Garza adds, "Television news is the worst. It is the domain of models who barely have a veneer of journalistic integrity. Then again, this is what corporate news is all about, programming aimed at the lowest-common denominator."
On the publishing front, Garza's photographs were published in Cesar Chavez, Amazing Americans, Wright Group/McGraw-Hill. The Fight in The Fields, Susan Ferriss, Harcourt Brace & Company. The Devil in Silicon Valley: Race and Mexicans in Northern California, Dr. Stephen Pitti, Assistant Professor of History and American Studies at Yale University. Princeton University Press. Cesar Chavez and La Causa, Dan La Botz, Visiting Assistant Professor-History, Miami University, Ohio, Pearson Longman Press. Smithsonian Q & A:Latino History & Culture: The Ultimate Question & Answer Book, Ilan Stavans, Harper Collins Publishers.
In 2003, Jesús' documentary photographs were a small part of the exhibition Chicano Now/Visions that toured the US. Garza has developed an extensive archive during his thirty years as a photographer. His collection includes Imágenes Xicano, a series of documentary photographs from the 70s that provide a unique history of the Chicana/o movement and form a primary core of his photographic production.
These photographs continue to be used in books, articles and exhibits. These images are also the foundation of the new book, Chicano Photographer. Garza also has produced a PowerPoint presentation entitled Chicano Photographer. It is available free to qualified schools and nonprofits. Please feel free to follow this link for more information.
Jesús' expansive photographic collection includes more than 1,000 Kodachrome slides and black and white negatives on the 1974 Quinto Festival de Teatro Chicano. About 300 duplicate slides are available for viewing at the San José State University Martin Luther King Jr. Library. Contact SJSU for more information. Also available for inspection at SJSU are Garza's slide presentation on the 1971 Chicano March For Education.
The original Kodachrome slides are part of Garza's personal archive. Anyone interested in viewing them can contact Jesús Garza. The images have been published in several books and dissertation projects. In the past I allowed professors to use the photos for free. Today, he charges a small fee to use his photographs in books, videos and other presentations.
The photographers archive includes thousands of images of Mexico and America. While in Texas, Jesús documented communities like Lockhart, Gruene and Crystal City. Jesús presents his photographs on his website www.jmmgarza.com. Garza enjoys giving lectures and participating in workshops and panels. He continues to exhibit his photographs across the country.
In 2005 Jesús moved to Redlands, California so Ann could start a new job, teaching at the University of Redlands. She had finally graduated from the University of Texas at Austin. Dr. Leimer now had a Ph.D. in Art History. Her specialty was Latin American Art. If you asked Ann what she really wanted to research, it would be Chicana Photographers. Since graduation she has written several articles, curated several exhibitions, participated on numerous panels and is working on two books.
As for Garza, he continued to exhibit at various galleries locally and on the East Coast. He also began to give talks and participate on art panels. Though Jesús is recognized primarily for his documentary photography, he still enjoys working in radio, television and video production. He worked closely with Daniel del Solar, a close friend, on video projects. Daniel passed away in early 2011.
In 2009 Jesús moved from his apartment in Redlands to a newly-purchased house in Riverside, California. There he taught part-time at the University of California at Riverside (Extension). While in Riverside, Garza had exhibitions in Maryland, Riverside, San Bernardino (2), Los Angeles (3) and Palm Springs.
It seems Annie and Jesús move every seven years or so. The Garza and Leimer household moved to Wichita Falls, Texas the summer of 2012. Annie is the new Director of the Art and Art History Department at Midwestern State University. In 2013 Garza purchased a home in Fort Worth, Texas. Some 100+ miles from Annie's job. Quite the commute.
Yes, Garza hasn't missed a beat. He has created several photography blogs to illuminate his Texas experience. One blog focuses on capturing decaying infrastructure, buildings and landscapes. For this project he confronts issues of isolation, abandonment and loss in the Lone Star State.
While in Texas, Garza has been asked to talk about and show his photographs. The Chicano photographer lectured and exhibited photographs in support of the Smithsonian Latino Center and the National Museum of the American Latino at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington DC. Garza has shown his photographs and lectured at the University of North Texas and San José State University in 2013.
His iconic photograph of César Estrada Chávez was exhibited at Mexico City's UNAM Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo. Out of the blue in 2014,the photographer received a call from France. They asked him to show his photographs at the beautiful Musée d'Aquitaine in Bordeaux.
Unlike many photographers who are affiliated with a museum or university, Garza never applies to be a part of an exhibition. All of Garza's shows have been by request of the gallery, organization, museum or institution. Definitely never any quid pro quo which is standard practice for many university photographers who pad their vitae.
The photographer hopes to return to Northern California, his family, friends and familiar surroundings. That will only occur when his wife Annie decides to retire. Possibly the summer of 2022. Dare to dream.
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