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A Group Portrait : Photographer’s Quest to Document Black Life Takes Him to Mexico

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; <i> Karen Grigsby Bates is a Los Angeles free-lance writer</i> .

It’s definitely a schizoid existence:

In the morning, photographer Tony Gleaton leaves Los Angeles, sleek with power eateries, designer clothes and Mercedes-Benzes.

Several hours later, he is in the dusty, remote little villages of the Costa Chica in southeastern Mexico, where the locals provide his meals; designer clothes are not high on anybody’s priority list and horsepower is just that.

“Sometimes it’s a wonder I don’t go crazy, jumping between . . . two places as different as they are. Sometimes when I wake up in the morning, I have to remember where I am,” says Gleaton, 43, who seems like Dorothy in reverse, running away from the Emerald City.

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But places with lifestyles like the Costa Chica’s fuel Gleaton’s search for what he calls “the other"--a people and a way of life that are, at best, on the margins of the mainstream.

This fascination has led him to the American West to photograph black cowboys and through Central and South America to capture the lives of Indian cowboys. And for the last five years it has taken him to a swath of Mexican villages three hours south of Acapulco to make portraits of black Mexicans.

“Most Angelenos--black or white--don’t think about black Mexicans, although there are many, many people in Mexico who can count an African strain in their heritage,” Gleaton says. “There has been an African presence in Mexico since Medieval times; it’s just not talked about much.”

Gleaton’s regular sojourns to Costa Chica have earned him a place in the villages. The formidable man--6 feet, 4 inches and nearly 300 pounds--usually attracts a pint-sized welcoming committee of barefoot children who dog his steps until he leaves. Villagers generously dip into their meager supplies to prepare meals for him, and a local priest puts up Gleaton, who carries “cameras and some film and not much else.”

People willingly sit for pictures, but Gleaton has given up trying to explain exactly why he wants to take them.

“If I tell them that I want to take their photographs because I’m black and I want to document them as black people, they laugh. They look at my skin and hair and eyes, and they treat me as if I’m mildly crazed,” says Gleaton, who is fair-skinned, with light brown hair and blue eyes.

“ ‘You’re not black, ' they’ll tell me. I’ve stopped trying to argue about it, because in Mexico, black is a relative term. And it’s pejorative. So if I’m identifying myself as black, and I’m paler than they are . . . well, it can be a very sensitive point. So out of deference, I leave it alone now.”

But his desire to explore every nuance of African influence on the Americas is unshakable.

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“In many ways, Mexico today is where the United States was in the ‘30s or ‘40s, as far as recognition and treatment of black people go,” he says. “If you ask these Mexicans, point-blank, if they’re black, the answer will be a vehement denial. That particular self-hatred is part of the legacy of colonialism, the alignment with Iberian or even Indian blood rather than African genes.”

Part of that reluctance, Gleaton guesses, is because “there’s not the same kind of Afrocentric consciousness we have developed here in the U.S.; they haven’t had a black power movement. They’re living now the way black sharecroppers in the South lived a few decades ago, so there is a link between us and them, even though we’re from different countries.”

The rapidly growing African-American interest in the African diaspora prompted John Outterbridge, director of the Watts Towers Art Center, to exhibit Gleaton’s photos. “Black Mexico: The African Legacy” runs through March 9.

Watts’ racial makeup is rapidly changing from predominately black to mostly Latino. “ ‘Black Mexico’ ” was a way, Outterbridge says, to highlight common bonds between the two communities.

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“Sometimes, we (black people) tend to focus on our immediate community to the exclusion of others. We wanted to show that there are black people everywhere .

“This exhibit has attracted some people who wouldn’t normally wander in here and has generated some useful discussion.”

Outterbridge notes that blacks, Mexicans and mestizos (persons of mixed blood) helped to establish the Pueblo de la Reina de los Angeles. Pictures of Pio Pico, the last governor of Alta California, show a man with distinctly African features.

“So we have both contributed to the richness of this city, this community, for centuries, before there even was an official America. And because it connects the two countries and their cultures, Tony Gleaton’s work is an important page in the journal of this city’s historical evolution.”

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The show is a series of haunting images; many seem strongly influenced by the late Manuel Alvarez Bravo, one of Mexico’s greatest photographers. And most are infused with a dream-like quality, a preternatural stillness that comes, Gleaton says, from the land itself. His spontaneous description is wistful and elegiac:

“Down there, if you want to go to market, you have to get up very early in the morning--3 or 4 o’clock--to catch the bus. At that hour, there’s this sweet wetness, and there’s thunder in the sky, and you’re riding in a truck with these people who are kind of half-awake but holding on, precariously. . . . There’s nothing you can compare it to here.”

Gleaton also reflects Mexicans’ practical philosophy that death is an inescapable part of life: Many of the 40 photographs in the exhibit center on themes of death and loss.

“In the United States,” Gleaton observes, “we reject death. In Mexico, you’re confronted with death, or the concept of it, all the time.”

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Rather than being briefly mourned and forgotten, he says, the dead in Mexico “are welcomed as an ongoing part of the family.” Many of his photographs allude to the dead, who are remembered and honored in posthumous ceremonies.

As his pictures become better known, Gleaton worries about protecting the quiet and sense of community the villages now enjoy.

“These little towns are hard to get to, hard to stay in and hard to live in,” says Gleaton, who visits a few times a year and stays for at least a month.

Chronicling the bare-bones lifestyle of Mexican villagers is quite a stretch from Gleaton’s early professional life as a fashion photographer. In New York, during the heyday of the hedonistic late-1970s, his work centered on the chic and the au courant.

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“I used to live and die between the pages of British Vogue,” he recalls, rolling his eyes in embarrassment. And although his current subjects differ vastly from the models and socialites he once photographed, the dignity and formality of his impoverished villagers is as great as that of any grande dame.

“I always wanted to do beauty pictures of black folks. Whites have always had their Reniors and their Matisses, and I got tired of going to see someone else make their culture look beautiful. What I do is make my own culture look beautiful,” Gleaton says, “and in doing that, I become more beautiful myself. To me, these are beautiful pictures of beautiful people who are black.”

Gleaton’s next quest for “the other” will probably lead him to the rural South in the next few months. And he would like to begin to record urban life.

He is, however, keenly aware that people in these places may not be as accommodating as his subjects have been to date.

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“One day I’m going to die doing this,” he predicts calmly. “Really, I’ve been too lucky for too long.”


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