Photographer Arlene Mejorado is a passionate observer with a dignified eye.
The 29-year-old creates crafted narratives framed by her experience as a first-generation Latinx artist from the San Fernando Valley. With an artistic worldview deeply connected to her own identity, and no larger sense of commercial homogenization, Mejorado’s vantage point reflects her distinct perspective as a bilingual, native Angeleno woman of color.
“Growing up in the San Fernando Valley means you live on the periphery of the Los Angeles narrative,” Mejorado says. “L.A. is the most visible city in the world, but I grew up in the 'other' half of the city that is rarely celebrated or discussed. Unlike Hollywood, South Central, Koreatown, East Los Angeles or other neighborhoods, the Valley doesn't have a carved brand or distinguished cultural and historic reputation.”
To know the genuine Angeleno experience, it’s best to spend time with the culture on both sides of the hill or the city will escape you. The overwhelming and obsessive global spotlight on the television, film and media industry projects a shadow on the rest of Los Angeles. Mejorado comes from a more authentic community of Los Angeles. She makes meaningful images outside of the cliché and provides a discourse on all Americans.
After the Women’s March earlier this year, one of her images became iconic. Her portrait of her friend Maribel, a first-generation indigenous-rooted Xicana living in Texas, was the basis for posters, stickers and other media of the “We the People” series, a collaboration with the nonprofit Amplifier foundation, photographer Aaron Huey and artist Shepard Fairey. Although this image was used as part of the “Defend Dignity” campaign to support and promote the movement, the photo originally was taken for a series called My Mother's Passport portraying Mejorado’s mother’s border crossing from Piedras Negras, Mexico, to Eagle Pass, Texas.
“At first, Amplifier informed me that it would be part of a series where they would work in the American flag,” Mejorado says. “I voiced that I was not comfortable with that, and it would feel imposing. Maribel and I identify strongly with our indigenous roots and honor our ancestors with personal spiritual practices. The U.S. flag is a conflicting symbol for indigenous people, to say the least. Shepard was not only receptive but supportive and decided to go in a different direction.”
Fairey, a longtime Los Angeles artist and graphic designer, shared a common aesthetic and activism with Mejorado. “Aaron Huey and I talked a lot about the goals of the ‘We the People’ series, and one of them was to assert that people from all the groups represented in the series are equally American,” Fairey says. “My choice of a color palette similar to the Obama ‘Hope’ poster was intentional, and Aaron and I considered using other symbols like the American flag as a means of making the point that no one group is more American than another. Arlene did not like the idea of using an American flag because it is seen as a symbol of imperialism by a lot of immigrants. I understood that point of view, so we decided to use the Mexican eagle as a way of not only referencing where many Latino immigrants come from but also that the eagle is something we have in common along with many other things.”
Mejorado grew up during the “white flight” of the San Fernando Valley and the “browning” of neighborhoods such as Panorama City, Northridge and Reseda. “Being a Chicana ‘Valley girl’ contributed to an awkward identity crisis but it also provided an opportunity to shape myself without expectation,” she says. “I think I have learned to occupy the peripheral space very well and I find a lot of freedom and possibility there.”
Studying photography at Los Angeles Valley College, Mejorado shot street photos and documented her family trips to Mexico. She learned that the camera could be an instrument to see the world and connect, even if for just a second. “I consider myself a self-taught photographer because I don't have a degree in photography, but I am also a ‘community-taught’ photographer because I learned a lot through the generosity of friends and colleagues in the field. Community workshops and free photo lectures were integral to my learning as well,” she explains. She considers painter Margaret Garcia as her mentor, and she’s inspired by the works of Mexico City photographer Graciela Iturbide. Their works affirmed she didn’t have to fit in with the zeitgeist of the white male photographer.
Mejorado shows her artwork in zines and exhibits and is the founder and editor of Óptica, a curated, high-end photo journal featuring women of color fotógrafas. The second edition will be available in November. Deep Red Press releases her latest zine, La Pulga, on Oct. 7, based on a series she shot while living in Texas and studying Latin American Studies at University of Texas at Austin. This interaction and love for the flea markets (pulgas) follows a thread from her youth, when her mother worked one of her many hustles: a toy booth at the swap market in Van Nuys. The images invoke a place where she spent time with her hard-working mother, and the beauty and cultural wealth of San Antonio’s Spanish-speaking migrant workers and visitors. “The richness of the city is witnessed in its most marginalized and resilient communities,” Mejorado explains.
She’s currently developing a documentary series called Gran Señoras, inspired by a song by singer Jenni Rivera, the Long Beach native and American record-breaking artist, who was often ignored in U.S. mainstream culture even at the height of her career, because her audience was largely Spanish-speaking migrant women and the LGBTQ Latinx community. Rivera, who died in a 2012 plane crash, was the first Mexican-American women to sell out Staples Center; she remains a strong role model for the way she defied gender traditions. “Just as she was overlooked, her fan base is even more dismissed, but I believe they are the backbone of society,” Mejorado says. “I wanted to delve deeper into the stories and lives of women that love Jenni and related to her. Who was Jenni Rivera a mirror for? The series includes Mexican, Honduran, and Salvadoran cis and trans women that find some form of empowerment through Jenni Rivera’s music or public persona.”
In her search for Jenni in the community, Mejorado met Barbara, a trans woman who performs Jenni Rivera tribute shows. Barbara is a Honduran immigrant trans woman who came to Los Angeles as a teen. She was detained by ICE agents and granted asylum based on the case that it was dangerous to be a trans woman in Honduras. Barbara even had a friend in Honduras who was killed for being trans. Mejorado and Barbara became friends and “La Diva Barbara” evolved organically, a new series of incredible, very genuine portraits.
Today, Mejorado lives in South Los Angeles, a neighborhood with strong community and intriguing complexities. Gentrification is underway, and Mejorado is happy to be there, observing the changes and documenting the truth. “As a woman-of-color artist, I constantly revisit hard questions about the art industry and how it can contribute to gentrification. My work needs to be a tool of compassion, resistance, conscientization and solidarity-building.”