AA: How did La Chuca respond when you asked to take her portrait?
SM: I think at first, she was a little standoffish. Only because . . . I think she's younger than me. I'm not entirely sure her age. We correspond a little bit through Instagram, but she deletes her Instagram and then makes it again. I found her and then lost her a few times on Instagram.
She was open as long as I would take a picture of her and her boyfriend at first. That's usually a big part of a lot of girls that are apprehensive.
It's happened with Ruby. They want their boyfriends included and something about their own value or worth. I find them so unique and beautiful and special. But, then they want their boyfriends included. With her, the first few shots with her boyfriend and then I said, "Thank you very much. Now, can we do a photograph just me and you." She said yeah, and I think she started to understand it then.
My camera, because it is so old. It's thirty, forty years old. It's heavy, and this big monster and gives me this, I don't know, this craftsmanship that a lot of people don't have with newer cameras, people know I'm serious. It's not a joke. I'm setting it up, so that I always tell them wait. She stood there by herself, and she became comfortable with herself and then we created that image in two shots.
Even with the film, it's only ten shots. With the newer cameras, I maybe can do a hundred shots in the time it takes me to do two shots with that. Even though we were only connected for a few minutes. It started to grow with comfortableness, and then she understood that I really wanted to bring something out of her.
I took a picture of her with my cellphone. A lot of times I do that just so I can show them what the idea is.
Kind of like a quick sketch. I photographed her and her boyfriend like that. I said thank you and give me your email and I'll send it to you. She was like, "Yeah. Sure. No problem." It was interesting because the camera is so old and it takes so long, and I had isolated her away from all the pinups, and I had said since she's an abnormal beauty, but I think that abnormal is the greatest thing, because I don't know, it's just not standard.
I always love abnormal beauty. Once she was isolated in that moment, away from everybody else, like five other photographers came and snuck up behind me with their Cannon 5Ds and they started photographing her in the same posture.
AA: What's Barrio Boogie?
SM: Barrio Boogie was an event celebrating pachucos, it was celebrating a certain time period. So, she's late seventies. Sandy [another subject] celebrated the forties. She was completely unique at the event. Nobody looked like La Chuca at all. Not only that, it seemed that it was her authentic self. One problematic thing is she reminds me of my family. She reminds me of exactly the women I grew up seeing: my mother, my aunts, and my cousins. With a lot of images I see now, especially on Instagram, there's a romanticizing aspect of, not pachucos. I have nothing with that, but with gangsterism.
I don't romanticize that. There's nothing romantic about it. I'm living in the post-era of it. Everybody's dead from it. When I saw her, she's actually living it. It's not romantic in the way that everybody else is romanticizing it at the event. I'm not for that. And I don't put that on a pedestal. This seems like part of her authenticity as opposed to a lot of people. It's just something convenient to them. I would never do that, because it’s such a heavy weight for those who had to bury people from it.
AA: We've been talking about this picture a long time, but I've never heard you discuss it that way.
SM: It meant a lot to me to find her and for me to photograph her at that event. Certain people I search for. Certain ideas and certain images I search for. I definitely had wanted to photograph somebody like that for a very long time. Just the same way of Krystal [another subject]. Like, I had been searching for somebody in the Danza community. There's certain ideas that I've thought about, that I've lived with all my life. La Chuca was one of them. There's been other girls that I've asked in my community of Boyle Heights, who have instantly told me "hell no."
SM: Some of my best friends, and they're not even friends. They're family in a way. Often how I talk, my vernacular, and how I dress now, they don't understand. It's a total rejection of conforming to anything. I grew up with a punk aesthetic, and it was a rejection of a gangster. I wanted to be super punk. I couldn't stand being a gangster. That meant a death sentence for me in my neighborhood. I loved being punk.
Now, my thing is I'm going to dress however I want, because I don't want to wear any uniform, whether it be a gangster uniform or punk uniform. I just want to be free and New York gave that to me. In New York, you're just free. There's no uniform, whereas in L.A., it's kind of if you're in a subculture, you have to wear the uniform all your life.
AA: I guess that happens you leave home. You can be yourself. Nobody knows you, so you don't have to conform to the preconceived notions of family or friends.
SM: Yeah. Now, people are just like, "What are you?" I'm like, "I don't know. It doesn't really matter." A lot of people don't think I'm from L.A. They can't necessarily identify me as something, so for me, when people reject me and this has happened in South Central and Boyle Heights—they’re like, "Where are you from?" It's like, "I'm from here," but because they can't put me in a subcategory, they think I'm an outsider when really, I'm an insider, just rejecting to conform to something.
When it’s like I'm the most insider you will ever meet. I know exactly everything that you're doing, and I just reject it entirely because I refuse to be part of that. A lot of those girls, especially those ones who are first-generation Americans going into gangsterism. That's what I call it with my friends. They're about that life and that way. They see me, and I'm so effeminate to them. They think I'm trying to extract something from them. Really, I'm just trying to tell them, I'm just trying to do eye-level contact. I'm trying to acknowledge that you exist because the world is saying you don't exist. You only exist in a mugshot.
It's hard in five minutes to be able to have a conversation with them because they think I'm an outsider. It's so hard to tell them my whole family history. Usually, after a while, people are like, "Oh wait a minute. You're one of us. You have family." Like, my most gangster friends are like I said, my family basically. I don't talk much when I'm around a lot of people and then they'll say, "Oh no. Her family. They were the craziest people in Boyle Heights." Then, they're like, "Oh her?" Then there’s some form of respect, but it's like I don't need to tell you guys how my family is or where I come from or that I was born here.
I don't have to prove anything. That's what got my whole family into the mess. They always have to prove something. I refuse to do that. It's almost stubborn in a way. That's where it comes from with a lot of these girls. They want to prove something, and I refuse to do it. I'll have the conversation with them if they want to. It's complicated in that way. Where I'm a fourth generation in it. That's where I'm rejected. They always constantly see me as an outsider, whereas I'm so much more of an insider than they could even imagine.
I might be their future grandchild.
AA: You're so in, you're out.