The purpose of the photographic exhibit "Visible Differences: Images of a Diverse U.S. Culture" at Centro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park is to assist in reforming our national identity.

We are not as a society Anglo-Saxon, but multiracial and multiethnic. Some of the non-Anglo-Saxon peoples represented in this exhibit are Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Hispanic, African and Italian. Nevertheless, to be an American is still understood to mean to be anglicized.

The exhibit raises a question about the validity of the melting pot notion. If it were successful, the center's press release states, "by now we would be a nation of cafe-au-lait-skinned people." Until we are, social critic Philip Wylie observed decades ago, we will be an unhappy people divided by color.

The quandary of identity is clearly stated in a group of photographs with texts by Chinese-born artist Meiboa Nee. Chinese-, Japanese- and Korean-Americans all express the problems of having a dual identity, through the strength of personality conveyed in their images and words.

Phillip Kan Gotanda, a third-generation American whose family was Japanese in origin, observes that there is a passionate interest among Americans in Japanese culture (the opening of new galleries in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is a case in point) and an equally passionate interest among Japanese in American culture, but that neither Americans nor Japanese are interested in Japanese-Americans.

Los Angeles photographer Betty Lee's photo-murals, which are as much sardonic as they are amusing, collage the faces of Asians onto images from the popular media and art history. Consider, for example, an Oriental Adam and Eve, Lois Lane, Bride of Frankenstein, Wonder Woman, Clint Eastwood or Scarlett O'Hara.

Laura Aguilar adds the complication of sexual orientation in a series of portraits of Latina lesbians. The images themselves are not of significant artistic interest, although they convey a sense of the individual personalities (no mean trick). But with their accompanying statements, they are among the most memorable works exhibited because they hold lessons for all of us.

"Lydia" has written, for example: "I have a long way to go to be who I would like to be. Lessons to learn, things to experience. I hope I will always change things that feel wrong in the world, and in myself." "Carla" writes: "I used to worry about being different. Now I realize my differences are my strengths."

Florida-based artist Tony Mendoza's "Stories," a dozen images with texts, presents biographical episodes from his life in Cuba, to exile in the United States, to experimentation with communal living, to education, to political dissension within the family, to marriage.

A few of the works hit you between the eyes: a formal ball scene from the Havana Yacht Club that is so evocative that you can hear the music and sense the movement; three smiling women wearing hats in a swimming pool who could be models for Los Angeles photo-realist painter D.J. Hall; "Miguel," the artist's brother, whose presence is nearly palpable.

Closer to home, Carrie Mae Weems makes photographs of blacks in Southeast San Diego with very down-to-earth commentaries about gambling, manhood, motherhood and conflicts with another minority group, Chicanos.

Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Jose Barrera is represented by strong and moving images of migrant workers entitled "Los Mixtecos--The Cloud People." His works are as punchy as social commentary as the works of 19th-Century French realists Gustave Courbet and Honore Daumier, and of early Van Gogh.

Roland Freeman's photographs of a South Bronx black family with a white scarecrow in their garden, of a line of saluting suited boys about to go out to sell copies of "Muhammed Speaks," and of "Boy and His Dog" are unforgettable humanistic statements. The boy's T-shirt reads "I'm Proud to Be an American," which seems to be what all the subjects in all the photographs want to be able to say.

Also included are photographs by Ernesto Bazan, Joe Bernal Ramos, Peter Man, Richard Espinoza, Robert Buitron, Miguel Gandert and Dennis Callwood.

The interest in many of the photographs is more as visual documentation than as art. Nevertheless, there is nothing in art more interesting, instructive and pleasing than looking at other people.

The lesson of the exhibit is perhaps that we will have to revisualize our history before we rewrite it.

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