Star Montana: Photographic Perspective Born of Prejudice and Death

Originally published on Fusion on August 12, 2013

A month after Star Montana began her photo project about identity and family, her stepdad was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Later, her mom, who had hepatitis C, fell sick and died within three weeks, at 49.

Montana kept taking photos: of her family caring for her stepdad, of herself crying in her bedroom after visiting her mom in the hospital, of her mother’s casket. Four months later, her stepfather also died.

“In LA, no one understood this work. It took artsy-ass people to say, there’s something here,” said Montana, who’s 25 and transferred to the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York the following year.

It’s Saturday night around 9pm, and she’s at the university photo lab. She’s worked one of her three pay-the-rent jobs all day. While she organizes her photos, the computer keeps ejecting her USB drive. It slows down an already long night, but leaves her unfazed to continue working on her photos.

The move from LA to New York, especially after her mother’s death, made Montana question her artistic voice and whether her work was really art. With very few Latinos at SVA, and few students and professors who could relate to her low-income background, the stories she wanted to show seemed out of place. Though doubt plagued her first year at SVA, she realized that there was no other way to succeed than to simply be honest about what kind of photographer she wanted to be.

So far, she’s had a couple of triumphs. A current Latin American traveling exhibition, “American Illustration-American Photography,” includes a photo of her nephew in his pjs, with a Diego Rivera reproduction in the background. “It gave it that validation,” said Montana.

“It takes a lot of strength to tell one’s personal story. She wants to own her own story,” said Joseph Rodriguez, 61, a documentary photographer who teaches at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Montana admired Rodriguez, who had taken pictures in her East LA neighborhood that she didn’t see represented anywhere else.

When they first met in New York, she brought some of her photos to show him. “Then, bam. The story about her mom. It was work not coming from the brain, but the heart,” said Rodriguez. “It took me a long time to be that personal. Not everyone can express their feelings like that. Not everyone has that gift.”

The show “Por Los Ojos De Mi Gente” (“For the Eyes of My People”), the first Latin artist show at the SVA, also featured Montana’s work.

“Has there ever been a Latin group show?” said Antonio Pulgarin, 24, its curator and Montana’s friend and classmate. “It’s important to the progression of contemporary photography. You can’t name a Latin photographer in contemporary photography because they don’t exist.”

Rodriguez agreed, “She is an extension of me. I want to see more me’s out there.”

Montana is now pursuing a new project, portraits of Mexican-Americans. She wants to defy a stereotype she encountered in New York: that Mexicans are all short, brown and, indigenous-looking. Her work offers an extended, layered answer to the question, “What does it mean to be Mexican-American?”

In the traveling exhibit, for instance, her name was followed by “Mexico” as her country of origin. When Montana asked that the credit also include the United States, she was first warned that her photo could be pulled from the show. “I don’t want a title to exclude another. But I’m Mexican-American,” she said. Her identification was amended to include both countries.

Her long hair and eyes, which she highlights with black eyeliner, are shades of brown. Her presence, including her leveled voice, exudes calm even while she’s fighting the computer. Though her biological father is from Mexico, Montana never knew him and was raised as a third-generation Mexican-American. Her great-grandmother immigrated from Durango and gave birth to her grandmother, 72, in Texas. Montana’s mother was born in Boyle Heights, a Los Angeles neighborhood, where she wasn’t allowed to speak Spanish and was urged to be “American.”

Star Montana in her Brooklyn apartment.
Star Montana in her Brooklyn apartment.

“That hyphen causes me so much pain,” said Montana. A woman she went to photograph in Jackson Heights told Montana that she wasn’t Mexican because she couldn’t speak Spanish. Montana cried but, coming to terms with her own identity, also realized it was true. She said growing up in East LA and especially living in New York made her “hyper aware of the differences and perceptions of race and class.”

Montana is at the intersection of the characteristics that have defined, or stereotyped, the Latino identity–region, language, income, immigration origin, skin color, and religion. She understands Spanish better than she speaks, she has never visited Mexico, and her closest immigrant family members are her great-grandparents. She questions if she can call herself Latina or Mexican-American, which she has realized, isn’t the only one to do so.

This drives her all the more to do these portraits. Montana said, “they are just people getting by. I’m gonna do everything I can to give justice.”

Pulgarin sits in the white SVA photo lab with Montana, preparing for the Mentor Show, a showcase of work by the school’s seniors. The deadline looms, so they’re working on a Sunday night.

“Should the one with my mom go into the show?” Pulgarin holds up a photo of a woman against a bright red background.

“Yeah, I think it should.”

“Diamond or as a grid?” said Montana, wondering on how to place her photos.

She’s done 30 portraits, but considers nine of them “outstanding. Together metaphysically. Layered. Beautiful formally. And so much more.” They include a man who calls himself Texican, a teenage boy who calls himself a Chicano punk, and a Cholo.

Pulgarin looks at his print under day lights intended to neutralize the eye, “Way too much color…I’ll just lighten this up.”

Now Montana is working on the color profile for her prints. “It’s beautiful. We ended up finding each other. Remember, you gave me a hug,” said Montana of the time they met. She calls him her “SVA Latin soul mate.”

“She sparked my interest…to study here and to leave everything behind,” said Pulgarin, who came to New York from Bogota when he was three.

They both scoff at the idea that “there’s no racism in the art world,” said Pulgarin. “There’s issues of the ethnic world being accepted in the art world. It’s unfortunate that art isn’t as progressive as it should be.” Montana was told by her professors that her photo project wasn’t going to work.

She’s wearing the same red MoMA shirt as the day before, having worked all weekend as a gallery attendant at MoMA PS1. It’s her third job; she’s also an art installer and a photo retoucher for hire, whose workweek ranges from 15 to 40 hours, plus class and lab time.

“The third job is really just to get really good paper, just to do my art justice,” said Montana. It also pays for travel to photograph subjects and rent equipment she can’t afford to buy.

She finally left the lab at 1:30 am after working a seven-hour shift at MoMA PS1.

Monday night is no different. And she has a 2 pm flight to LA, next day, which she saved up for so she can take more photos. She’s narrowed her Mentor Show entries to four that include her grandmother with her hand outstretched holding a ceramic dove, and a woman who emphasizes her indigenous roots, standing in high grass with a graffiti brick wall behind her.

Today, she spent $200 on paper, a print box, film, and Polaroid film. A taxi is too expensive, so she lugs a black case of equipment, a suitcase, a tripod, and a backpack from school to the L train.

Finally, she arrives in Brooklyn and hauls the luggage up a narrow brown, creaky staircase to her apartment.

About midnight, she heads to a laundromat two blocks away. Returning at 2:30 am, she still has to pack her equipment, clothes, and film. Her personal camera collection includes three instant cameras, a cheap digital camera that her brother saved up to give her and two 35 mm film cameras, but she doesn’t own one of professional quality. She’s terrified to spend the money, saying that she’ll wait for one month with “nothing bad happening” before buying it.

Tired after a week of back-to-back work and school before she leaves for L.A., Montana wonders about the significance of her photography, her ability and, especially, her sense of self.

“My mommy dying was losing everything,” she said. But, “me and my mom had a game plan. Am I gonna let grief take me, or just go in there and try my hardest for this?”

Montana graduated from the School of Visual Arts in June and currently resides in Brooklyn. She plans to continue her project in order to focus on Mexican-Americans in New York City. She was selected to do one of five solo alumni shows from September 3rd to 14th at 214 East 21st New York, NY 10012. Montana’s solo exhibition is titled “I Am a Construct of Mexican-Americanism.”

Check out her website at


A History of the DREAM Movement

By Julio Salgado, from his Tumblr

Originally published in Fusion in August 2013

Congress is making headway on immigration-reform legislation that would give a path to citizenship to the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants.

One big reason immigrant rights have remained in the spotlight over the past few years is the organizing efforts of undocumented young people.

DREAMers have come out with their immigration status, sharing their stories with peers and teachers, in speeches at rallies, and through Twitter, blogs, videos and art. That’s kept immigration on the agenda during President Obama’s time in office.

Click here for a history of the movement, as well as mini-profiles of undocumented young people who have made a big impact with their activism.

Bay Ridge: Auditions for Senior Idol Showcase A Nostalgic Sensibility

Emily Peters, 79, auditions for the 6th Annual Senior Idol at Xaverian High School with a song she wrote called “Ice Cream Parlor.”
Emily Peters, 79, auditions for the 6th Annual Senior Idol at Xaverian High School with a song she wrote called “Ice Cream Parlor.”

Originally published on on September 19, 2012.

BROOKLYN, NY—Emily Peters had a bad case of nerves. After spending decades as an amateur songwriter, the 79-year-old was singing one of her tunes in front of friends and neighbors for the first time.

She chose “Ice Cream Parlor Song,” which recounts the Crown Heights neighborhood of her youth.

“A time long ago no more. When there was still an ice cream parlor there,” she sang.

The scene was at Xaverian High School, where auditions for Bay Ridge’s 6th Annual Senior Idol, were held September 8th. The talent contest, modeled on television’s “American Idol,” is hosted by Sen. Martin Golden for participants over age 50.<br>

At the audition, participants had 1 minute to introduce themselves and 2 minutes to sing –even if they were cut off before the grand finale.

Songs ranged from Fiddler on the Roof’s “If I were a Rich Man,” Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” My Fair Lady’s “I Could’ve Danced All Night,” and even an Italian aria.

Instead of one of these classics, Peters picked a tune from her personal songbook.

“[It was] now or never. After a while, I’ll just do it. See what happens,” she said.

“It is things like this bring that communities close and [help] keep their identity,” said Vinny Iannelli, 27, the music director at Xaverian High School and of Senior Idol.

Iannelli should know: His parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents are all Brooklynites with origins from Italy.

Peters also has European roots. Her father immigrated from Greece to Brooklyn in 1920s, soon after which he began working at the Grand Square Confectionary, located in Crown Heights on Bedford Avenue near Ebbets Field (the former home of the Dodgers, which was demolished in 1960).

As a young girl, Peters spent time at the movie house next to her father’s ice cream parlor, where a janitor would let her go on stage and “sing like a star.” Today, the parlor is boarded up.

“Everyone remembers the same thing: places, ice cream,” she said.

She described playing around with a Yamaha keyboard for her compositions. As for her songs, she said that the words simply come to her. “I wonder how it even happens,” she said.

Peters wrote poetry but never did music professionally. After graduating from Prospect Heights High School, she obtained a scholarship to go to college  but never attended and worked as a medical secretary. Peters’ husband died young, after which she didn’t remarry.

During the audition, there was the occasional snore since two men had fallen asleep in the audience.

“Soon only memories remain. Couldn’t I go home again?” sang Peters as her two-minutes in the spotlight ended.

Brooklyn’s 6th Annual Senior Idol will take place on October 13th at 7pm.

May Day 2011: Where have all the hand-written signs gone?

Walking down Broadway, looking for Olympic, the street is empty. The old art-deco buildings tower over us as we look for any signs of an ensuing march.

As we headed towards the intersection of Olympic and Broadway, we met with people with bright t-shirts, pens and forms for us to fill out. They were from Good Jobs LA. Marchers had shirts and carried printed signs that advertised the idea, “We Stand for Rights for All.”

On the sidewalk, there is a stack of neon-green signs stamped with “Legalize LA” in stylized font. There are three to choose from: “Legalize LA,” “Immigration Reform Now,” or a quote by JFK.

“Immigration policy should be generous; it should be fair; it should be flexible. With such a policy we can turn to the world, and to our own past, with clean hands a clear conscience.”

Street vendors are a staple of the streets of Los Angeles and May Day is a prime day for sales. A woman selling sizzling hot dogs with jalepeños and onions; a man with a cart of oranges, making and selling fresh squeezed orange juice; carts, so many carts, selling—and later giving away–American and Mexican flags.

How is la lucha personified? A monstrous statue of liberty, alien (literally!) children, and a masked bride asking America to marry her are dressed for the march.

Walking among strangers in solidarity, yet has anything progressed? Con Obama si se puede some believe, but others are disenchanted.

From Nada to Impresionada

The mural featured at the end of the movie was created especially for the film. (Photo: Odd Lot Entertainment)

Originally published in La Gente Newsmagazine for its Winter 2011 Issue.

The film “From Prada to Nada” is a rehashing of Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility.” When their Mexican father dies, sisters Nora and Mary are forced out of their Beverly Hills mansion and in with their aunt in East Los Angeles.

The marketing of the film focused on the materialism of the two girls, especially because they are forced to move to a low-income neighborhood. I feared another attempt at repackaging Latino culture in a superficial film for the masses. Surprisingly, it sweetly and comically portrays two young women learning to embrace their roots and family.

Despite having Latino servants who cook traditional Mexican food and a Mexican father with a big bigote who has mariachi for his birthday, Latino culture hasn’t actually been a part of Nora and Mary’s lives. Moving to East LA with their aunt and being befriended by a tattooed neighbor may be the archetype of Latino neighborhoods, but the portrayal of this neighborhood moves beyond the cholos and helicopters they first encounter. It becomes a hub of Mexican heritage, Spanish language, artwork, and community.

Nora transitions easily to her new home, learning Spanish, and dressing in colorful indigenous clothing. She uses her lawyer skills to take on a pro bono case defending Latino maintenance workers who were unjustly fired and eventually setting up an office to give free legal advice.

Mary takes longer to adjust, at first only identifying herself as Mexican to protect herself from cholas who call her a white girl and to impress her Mexican TA from school. In the end, she comes to accept her identity as something that is a part of her, not as something to portray.

Growing up, Nora and Mary experienced fragments of Mexican culture because of their father, but they did not have a community in which they could see all the pieces fit together and appreciate it until they moved in with their aunt.

One delightful aspect of the film is the featured street art. There is scene in which Bruno, the tattooed neighbor, teaches kids about the art and its significance (even referring to Judy Baca, a muralist and a professor at UCLA), creating the image of a flourishing community that also has beauty.

Another great perspective presented by the film is the diversity within the Latino community: their entrepreneur father, gardeners and servants in the mansion, the undocumented workers in East Los Angeles, the cholo in the low-income neighborhood, Latinos in the university, and the Latino artists. The range of Latino cast members is greater than a similarly mass-marketed film “Beverly Hills Chihuahua”, in which they only seem to exist as gardeners or in Mexico.

The last scene includes a mural with the words “Soy Americano? Soy Mexicano? Que Soy?” These are questions many Latinos—not just of Mexican background—are likely ask themselves as they experience Latino culture in an American society. This film may have felt superficial to some, but at least I cannot deny the depth it presented with those last words. Three out of four stars.

What is Aztlan?

Originally published in La Gente Newsmagazine in the Fall 2009 issue.

To me, Aztlán means to “remember your roots;” it means to appreciate the lives of your parents and their parents, so that you can understand and appreciate what is a part of you. Aztlán is a call to remember the past.

As a child, every now and then I would realize that my family only spoke Spanish to me because they were from a different country, and that my teachers didn’t understand that language. As a college student, I realized that my life had some of the “typical” experiences that Hispanics face when they immigrate to the United States.

My mother was a housekeeper. As a young girl, this simply meant that she had a job, a place to go after she dropped me off from school. For me, there was no social significance behind it. However, it represented something bigger than just my life.

Being a housekeeper is a common way for an immigrant mother to make a living. I began to realize that there were other women who spoke Spanish that went to big houses and took care of other children, while they left their own children at home or at a daycare.

A barrier began to appear between everyone else and the people who shared my heritage, and this barrier gradually began to sharpen as I continued to observe my surroundings. Statistics about academic success, family values, place of origin, and education all became a part of this barrier.

People told me that I had to have a college dream because that is what my parents suffered for. What were my big dreams that would repay their sacrifice? Did my parents suffer? All they told was that I had to do well in school and to find something that would make happy.

I never really interpreted my life as being the “typical Latino experience.” Those questions of “what am I” only occurred in the context of the existential question of “who am I” I was satisfied with being la hija de mis padres.

Now in college, there is a push to have that appreciation for all those little things that make me Latina/Chicana/Hispanic/Mexican/Guatemalan in America. To some people I wasn’t Latina at all; I was a whitewashed first-generation young woman who didn’t appreciate her past.

These terms that are supposed to define and categorize me frustrate me. If these words only apply to those whose parents worked more than one job and live in a predominant Latino neighborhood with many obstacles to academic success, am I allowed to classify myself? I have come to ask myself this question as I surround myself with people who are passionate about these identities.

IDEAS Aid Undocumented Students

Originally published for La Gente Newsmagazine.

Improving Dreams, Equality, Access and Success (IDEAS) presented a workshop in January explaining the effects of the University of California’s 32% fee hike on undocumented students.

High school students and other campus organizations as well as students from the San Fernando Valley attended, uniting in an effort to help undocumented students pay tuition, attend college, and graduate with the possibility of continuing their education. In the United States, there are 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school every year, including the 25,000 who graduate in California.

However, only 5 to 10 percent reach higher education and even fewer graduate. Because many of undocumented students face poverty, these fee increases may continue to lower their graduation rate. Undocumented students are penned as out-of-state students, thus they have to pay a higher tuition. Fortunately, the AB 540 law in California allows students who have lived here since their youth or who have attended a California high school for at least three years to pay in-state tuition.

Testimonials by undocumented students highlighted the financial difficulties they have had to overcome to attend UCLA, and unfortunately, these do not end once accepted to the university. To pay for tuition, everyday necessities are constant challenges for these students.

One student said, “You won’t eat so you can buy a book,” while another comments that these sacrifices are “what it takes to get that money.” Hardships become heavier when fees are raised for the UC system, forcing these students to attend college part-time, and perhaps eventually dropping out altogether.

A third student describes how these difficulties affect a parent’s mentality; though at first “the person who pushed me [was the one who] saw the obstacles,” it is more and more apparent that the financial burden may be too much.

In order to address this issue of access, IDEAS is pushing for institutional aid to be made available to undocumented students. Students pay fees that comprise institutional aid, but because they are undocumented, they are shut out from receiving it. IDEAS is also fundraising to pay fee for undocumented students. You can contribute by visiting their website at