Walter Luis Thompson-Hernandez spoke at the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum at Claremont McKenna College this past Wednesday, March 23. His speech, “Blaxicans of LA: Then and Now,” focused on both the history and contemporary state of (the lives of) mixed race black-Mexicans, or “blaxicans,” in Los Angeles.
Thompson-Hernandez, a multimedia journalist, social documentary maker, and current doctoral student at UCLA, made multiple appearances at the Claremont Colleges this week to discuss his work. He primarily focuses on transnationalism and afro-Latino culture, and he is in the midst of a book project entitled Afro-Latinos in Movement: Critical Approaches to Blackness and Transnationalism in the Americas.
His presentation showcased his diverse skill set, as he mixed his lecture with a diverse array of multimedia content, including archived videos and a series of portraits. The portraits, which featured blaxican people he has photographed and interviewed, were the main feature of his presentation. For almost all of the portraits, Thompson-Hernandez told a story about who was in the photograph and how their mixed-race identity played a role in their life.
One particular story that stood out was about the parents of a mixed-race woman who told Thompson-Hernandez about how their identity is often fragmented. They, and others like them, often feel that being perceived as half-mexican and half-black diminishes their understanding of themselves. In order to help their daughter truly express herself they said they “will teach her to be proud of the fact she is Mexican and proud of the fact she is black.”
Another theme in Thompson-Hernandez’s work was portraits of hands, specifically palms. He said people often ask him why he does this.
“I think about hands and what we carry.” This is poignant in thinking about people who identify as mixed-race because they may face so many questions and connotations about the different parts of who they are, he said.
Towards the end of his presentation, Thompson-Hernandez took time to broaden his focus from this specific topic to larger issues at play such as racial histories, narratives and ideologies; the power of art; and love and relationships. He also commented on how current political events in the United States continue to make it hard for minorities and stigmatize migration and the exchange of cultures.
One point he was sure to make in the Q&A session at the end was that his goal is to raise awareness about the conditions of “blaxicans” but not in a way that is complicit in the “tokenization” or “fetishization” of them as art subjects. He told the crowd he is a storyteller, not an anthropologist.
He also addressed the difficulties of being an artist as a member of a minority group. He told students in the room that he can understand why people may choose to pursue more economically stable careers, but reiterated his utmost respect for those that try to make it as artists even when it is very difficult.