Chicana Fotos exhibit at Wayne State University documents a piece of Latino/a history

A new photo exhibit at Wayne State University’s Walter P. Reuther Library brings to life the Latino/a social movements of the 1970s from a feminist perspective. “Chicana Fotos/Nancy De Los Santos” provides the viewer with a rarely seen female and Midwestern perspective of what Maria Cotera, associate professor of American culture and women's studies at the University of Michigan and the exhibit’s curator, describes as a male- and Southwestern-dominated history. The exhibit is co-sponsored by the WSU Center for Latino/a and Latin American Studies.

Born into a large Mexican-American family in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago, De Los Santos began taking photos as a first-generation college student at Northeastern Illinois University for Contra La Pared, the Chicano Student Union newspaper. She took on the role of photographer out of pure necessity when the previous photographer for the newspaper quit. “There was so much going on at the time that I didn’t leave my house without my camera; the mainstream was saying ‘no,’ but we [students of color] were saying ‘yes’ and I was there to document it,” she said during a talk marking the opening of the exhibit on Friday, Feb. 17.

“Chicana Fotos” is comprised of photos depicting the daily life of Latinos/as and the organizing activities of the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) and other community groups, mainly in Chicago. It is clear from the photos that De Los Santos was most interested in telling the stories of the ordinary people in the crowds. “I am with the gente (people), so I will take photos of the gente, not just of the men with the microphones,” she said.

De Los Santos also described the challenges of being a Latina woman in college and participating in activism when most Latinas from her community were expected to enter secretarial and other “women’s” trades at the time. “As a woman documenting this movement, I often had to push myself to the front of male-dominated spaces and tell myself not to care who was looking at me.” The results are some extraordinary photographs of women and children organizing and participating in the movement. 

The exhibit is a part of a larger project led by Cotera to document and collect oral histories of Chicanas in the movement years of the 1960s through the 1980s. In 2014, Cotera interviewed De Los Santos — by then a successful filmmaker living in Los Angeles — and found that she had large boxes of photos, negatives, slides and other historical materials that had never been archived. “I moved so many times and repeatedly asked myself why I was keeping these boxes, but I knew that they had value for the Chicano, Latino and labor communities, and someday someone would find them,” said De Los Santos.

After scanning and archiving nearly 2,000 pieces from De Los Santos’ collection, Cotera began curating a traveling exhibit of this photographic work in coordination with associate professors Hannah Smotrich and Katie Rubin, who were co-teaching an undergraduate course in exhibition design at the University of Michigan Stamps School of Art and Design. Cotera chose the Reuther Library for the exhibit’s debut because, as she described, “its collection is second to none with respect to labor and UFW archives.” She also worked with Meghan Courtney, archivist at Wayne

State, to match De Los Santos’ images to labor movement events documented through flyers, newspaper articles and other pieces in the Reuther Library’s archive, giving them a historical context.

When asked what advice she had for today’s college students, De Los Santos emphasized that it often just takes one person to inspire a movement. “During my time in college, Chicago was still very segregated by ethnicity — students of color were not getting the same resources and acknowledgement that other students were receiving,” she said. “We had to fight for our space, and without the support of other Chicano students and the Chicano Student Union, I would not have made it through college.”


“Chicana Fotos” is on exhibit until April 14, 2017, at the Walter P. Reuther Library, 5401 Cass Ave., Detroit, MI 48202, Monday-Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Curated by Maria Cotera with assistance from Pau Nava, “Chicana Fotos” is a collaboration among El Museo del Norte, Chicana por mi Raza Digital Archive, U-M Stamps School of Art and Design and the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University. Generous financial support provided by the University of Michigan’s Third Century Initiative, Stamps School of Art and Design and the Wayne State University Center for Latino/a and Latin American Studies.

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