You don’t have a story unless you can get to a story. And sometimes, the best story is right where you’re already standing — or maybe it’s in your backyard, at your local convenience store, at the party where everyone knows your name. These tales are often the most telling; when you’re close to a story, you’re more familiar with its narrative arc, you grasp the realities beneath the drama, and most importantly, you know what it takes to establish empathy.
Telling the most accessible — yet often overlooked — story is what Guadalupe Rosales and Pendarvis Harshaw have been doing for years.
Rosales is the creator and curator of the veteranas_and_rucas Instagram account, which showcases the Los Angeles based Latina youth culture of yesteryear. Her photos are submitted by people who attended these parties; the comments are from the community members who recall these gatherings. Harshaw is the person behind the OG Told Me Tumblr account, which documents the wisdom of elder Black men in Harshaw’s hometown of Oakland. He interviews these gentlemen on street corners and in cafes, asking, “If you had the ear of the youth, what guidance would you give?” He couples their answers with a portrait photo or two, and then posts to his site.
Open Space asked Rosales and Harshaw to talk about their work in illuminating these deeply local (and deeply American) stories. The two discussed how their projects overlap in theme, content, and accessibility; here is an edited excerpt of that conversation.
Guadalupe Rosales: For me it’s not just about archiving or documenting images. It’s also documentation of language and the ways we communicate. How do we talk about art, for example? Is there a right or wrong way of speaking about art and culture and all that stuff? It’s important to not forget where I came from, and to underline that people’s opinions still are valid, whether they’re educated in the art world or not. I also wanted to explore why we communicate, who we open up to; it’s something that you have to navigate when you are talking to people, especially to strangers. You have to establish a trust with the person.
Pendarvis Harshaw: One, the valuing of culture. Two, the valuing of people. That’s something that I realized in my work as well; I took it upon myself to document these OGs because I was like, man, they have knowledge and wisdom. And then lo and behold, I started seeing that, wait, there’s a larger narrative here around this whole conversation about Black Lives Matter and all of that. If the people are going to matter then their culture is going to matter, their philosophy is going to matter. Their language is going to matter. Do you think that your project lends itself to the fight for Chicanx rights?
GR: Yeah. The work that I’m doing is also a gesture of updating our history. Okay, we know about the Pachuca/o movement — well not everyone knows about it, which is something that I still talk about — but I would also like to talk about what happened in the ’90s, what’s happening now as opposed to the 1940s and 1950s. A lot of people have written about those periods already, so for me it’s honoring that we’re continuing to make history. And that allows different generations to come together and have conversations. I’ll have a teenager say to me, “Oh, I remember my mom dressing like that.” We know it through stories. And with the work that I’m doing with Instagram, everyone is having these conversations on a platform that is accessible — it’s not just a memory, it’s being documented and people are connecting or relating to the history even though they don’t know each other.
PH: That’s pretty tight, using technology to bridge generational gaps. And you’re talking about history not in a dusty textbook, but you’re talking about history like, “Nah, this happened when you were born but you might not remember it, so I’m just going to show you what life was like in 1993.”
I’m curious, do people submit pieces from jail? Do you ever have incarcerated people participating?
GR: I have had people who send me images of someone in jail — “They know about your page, they want me to see if you can put this photo up for them.” Stuff like that. But not directly from the person in prison.
PH: For sure, for sure. People talk about how cell phones aren’t allowed in jail, but cell phones are in every jail that you can name. Somebody in Santa Rita one time posted a comment under a photo, like “Hey man, I’m sitting in the cell next to that guy right now!”
GR: Oh shit. That’s amazing. Do you stay in touch with them or is that something that is hard to do, have some sort of friendship with people in prison?
PH: It’s actually hard to stay in contact with all of the subjects that I interview. Life happens, you only have so many intimate relationships that you can maintain. And then in terms of incarcerated people, the extra layer to that is the fact that they change cell phone numbers like once every three days. I just kind of wait. My number has never changed since I got a cell phone — I keep the lines open and let them contact me when they get free time.
GR: I’m assuming that you stay in touch with a lot of people you meet through your work, right? Not everyone, but you build friendships with people; that happens to me all the time. I’m sure this happens to you because you’re talking about something very intimate, and people don’t really have the opportunity to talk about those things; it would almost feel wrong not to establish a deeper connection with these people.
PH: Yeah, you’re right, you’re very right. There are a couple of people, where the first interview was only the tip of the iceberg and then I started to realize that they have a greater story to tell. This one guy, Watani Stiner, he has this crazy story — he’s from Los Angeles originally, and he was arrested in 1969 for conspiracy to kill two Black Panther party leaders. The gentlemen actually were murdered, but Watani didn’t pull the trigger, he can tell us. Watani and his twin brother got sent to San Quentin up here. Of course, they faced some threats behind bars, so they were like, “Hell no, we’re out of here.” They escape San Quentin, they go down to South America, to Suriname and Guyana, and create a family down there. And then Watani realizes that his family would have hopes at a better life if they came back to America. So Watani turned himself in and gave his children the ability to be in America. And then, after twenty years in San Quentin he was released because of overcrowding in the prison system.
GR: How old is he?
PH: He’s in his seventies. I don’t know his exact age. I met him while he was incarcerated. He was writing a piece for the San Quentin newspaper called “An ‘OG’s’ Perspective.” I stayed in contact with him; two weeks ago I went out to Alcatraz with him to do a restorative justice event. I see his story as bigger than just an OG with some wisdom. He represents restorative justice. He represents the struggle for civil rights. He represents surviving COINTELPRO and a bunch of other things.
GR: So he’s putting in work in a different way. I’ve met a lot of people that have some crazy history, such as women who have survived drive-by shootings. And that’s something that people don’t really talk about, all these stories that are also really important. We know about the men but we don’t really care about the woman being shot at, and also because women don’t feel comfortable talking about this. Especially if they have families now. It feels like maybe when men are close to that it’s more normalized, in a fucked up way. But I’ve met some women who have opened up with me and I’m good friends with them now. And you know, these are stories that people haven’t talked about in over twenty years, they haven’t even shared these things with their families. That’s such a great gift for me, for people to trust me in that way. And I guess the work that I’m doing, it is not so much about feeling proud of what happened but feeling that it’s okay to talk about these things. We know that women go through these traumatic events and never really get help to heal, even therapy. Who has access to that? I didn’t know about therapy.
PH: I was about to say, given our communities and the resources — or lack of resources — it’s not even the fact that we don’t have money for therapy, but who has time? You’re working two jobs, you got kids, you got all kinds of responsibilities. That’s not something that’s done.
GR: Yeah, exactly. And in a weird way I think that our work kind of does that: Let it out, talk about it, and it’s okay… Have you ever had that experience when you meet someone and you don’t really know their story but then they start talking and you’re like, “Wow, I did not expect that from you?”
PH: There was this guy in Downtown Oakland. His name is Tracy, I remember this guy had a three-piece pink suit on. The flyest pimp-looking dude you could imagine. I go up to him and I asked — well, first of all I complimented him on his outfit. Then I asked him the same question I’ve been asking everybody: “If you had the chance to talk to young people what would you tell them?” And he opened up to me about coming up here from the South to find his father and the value of a child searching for his parent instead of the other way around. It was amazing to me because I just knew he was going to give me some slick pimp line, something from a Blaxploitation film. But no, it was nothing like that. It was very sincere. It was very clear.
GR: Very humble too.
PH: Yeah, yeah, very humble. I kind of wanted to slap my own hand for stereotyping this guy, prejudging him. How about yourself, have you had instances like that?
GR: Yeah. One woman submitted photos of herself and her sister; they’re from a party crew in LA, and then she starts sharing the story about her being at a barbeque with some gangsters and there was a drive-by shooting and her boyfriend died, at the party, she saw him get shot in the head. And she got shot, and she thought that she was going to die. She was paralyzed for a year or so. One day she showed me her scars. Again, you would never expect when you see her, she’s a mom and she’s very involved in going to school meetings, she does a lot of activism for schools; she organizes and all that stuff. It’s pretty intense, her story, seeing her boyfriend get killed in front of her. And it occurred to her that she was going to survive. This was when she was like fifteen.
It’s really sad when people send me a photo and then they go, “Oh this is my best friend, we were at a low-rider car show but she’s doing life in prison.” You know, things like that are the ones that are really like… it’s hard to hear this but it’s also, man, this has been going on for so long. It’s nothing new.
PH: That lends itself to what we were saying about therapy. People need a platform to tell their story because it’s been in their head, or they’ve been looking at this image for so long. Share it, get it out there into the world.
GR: Exactly. So maybe the generation now can learn something from it.
PH: Do you think people are more comfortable doing it digitally, submitting it without having to talk to you face to face? Or do you think people would rather do it the way that I’m doing it, talking on a microphone or even a camera?
GR: I think both can be intimidating, to be honest. Some people are camera-shy, often when they see equipment they say, “Oh, I don’t want to be on camera.” And there are also people who are like, “Keep me anonymous.” It took a while for people to feel comfortable. A lot of people didn’t want me to ask them for photo credit or any of that stuff. But now people are really like “Tag me.” “This is my mom,” or “This is me,” things like that. I think they both have their own challenges, what you do and what I do. I’m sure some people don’t feel comfortable talking to you when you show up with a camera or a microphone, right?
PH: For sure. There are plenty of Black men who are like, “What? You want to interview me? Who are you? Are you the feds?” I run into that on multiple occasions.
GR: Have you ever had any issues?
PH: I never felt like I was in jeopardy or anything like that but there were times where I’ve done a full interview and then I let them know, “Hey, I’m going to publish this on the internet” and they’re like, “No, no, no wait, no.” Or there are times where I have published something and it’s verbatim what people have told me and they’re like, “What? I didn’t want that to be out there.” But… you told me with the microphone in front of me. You know, journalistic integrity says I have to put this out into the world. I realized that it’s best to check once or twice, especially dealing with some dicey subjects, that way I don’t have that kind of backlash. Make sure people are totally clear that I’m going to put this out into the world.
GR: I think it’s different for me because people already know that their pictures are going up. I also check and see if it’s cool to quote them. People usually say yes.
PH: Does it help or hinder you that you don’t put your own image up there?
GR: When I first started the page, people wanted to hear about my life and about me, and it’s like, actually this is not about me. I wanna offer this platform for the people, you know? I mean, I posted one image of myself but I don’t know. It just feels weird. I’m also really shy.
PH: I ask because I think that’s really where our stories intertwine; I wanted to create something that is of my culture but I didn’t necessarily want it to be about me.
GR: You want the images to tell the story.
PH: Right, yeah, I wanted the images to tell the story. I wanted to do it for the people, like you said, give them a platform. And then at the same time I did realize that I got more buy-in from people, more trust, once I did start telling a little bit of my own story.