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The movement to achieve civil rights for African-Americans is well known at this point. What fewer people probably know is that a parallel movement for civil rights for Mexican-Americans was going on at the same time. In Los Angeles, the Autry Museum of the American West has gathered together previously unseen photos from that time in a new exhibition. Just before it opened, Karen Grigsby Bates from our Code Switch team got a sneak peek.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: It's mid-morning at the Autry Museum. I'm walking through tall doors into a darkened room. Dozens and dozens of framed photos lean against the walls waiting to be hung. Pictures of boycotts, of long distance marches, of young dandies posing for the camera. There were also a couple of huge images the size of posters and bus shelters. Luis Garza co-curated the exhibit.
LUIS GARZA: You come into this space here and you see these large, huge blowups that we've done with some of these photographs.
BATES: He leads me to an image that stops me in my tracks.
GARZA: This is a photograph taken by Maria Varela.
BATES: It's a photo of a little girl, maybe 5 years old, with brown skin, her dark hair in pigtails. Her little arms clutch a bunch of newspapers, and Varela's camera has caught the child with her mouth wide open as she shouts for buyers to come. That's such a great photo.
GARZA: Isn't it?
BATES: All these are photos from La Raza, a newspaper-turned-magazine that covered the lives of California's Chicanos. That's what many political Mexican-Americans called themselves back then. Garza, who was a La Raza photographer in the '60s and '70s, says the photos in the exhibition are just a sampling of some 25,000 images from La Raza's archives.
GARZA: The vast body of this work has never been seen, has never been printed until now.
BATES: They're not all masterpieces, and he's OK with that.
GARZA: We did not edit. We brought everything in. So you go from the mundane to the magnificent.
BATES: The La Raza photographs captured a turbulent time in American history. And 50 years later, Garza says, a lot of the issues they addressed are still relevant. Back then, LA's Chicanos were largely invisible in the media.
GARZA: The coverage of what was going on within our community was nil to nonexistent at all.
BATES: So there are photos of the walkout staged by thousands of students in East LA to protest the segregated substandard education they were being given and shots of a huge Chicano anti-war demonstration.
GARZA: You'll begin to see photographs of the Vietnam War, the August 29 Moratorium march.
BATES: Of all these photos, Maria Varela's little news girl haunted me. I wanted to know more, so I called Varela at her home in New Mexico to ask if she remembered what was happening that day when the photo was taken. She said it was 1968, when a Chicano delegation had traveled to Washington, D.C., to participate in the Poor People's March.
MARIA VARELA: There's a vague recollection that this might have been the time that everybody emptied out to go up to Arlington Cemetery to honor Robert Kennedy, who had been assassinated, like, two weeks before.
BATES: Varela photographed that march and dozens more for La Raza. She says the paper and others like it kept Chicano communities across the West connected.
VARELA: This was our Facebook. This was our communication network. It was a little clunky, but people got the word out about what was going on in these individual communities.
BATES: Many of those communities have changed over time, but they're preserved in the photographs here, evidence of Chicano purpose and pride. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF GARY DELANEY'S "EVANESCENCE - JEREMY ROWLEY REMIX")
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