“I am a Chicana and I am a woman; that is not going to change. I’m comfortable saying I am a Chicana artist,” Christina Fernandez affirmed in 1996. Over the past three decades, Fernandez has used photography to investigate and assert her identity. Through serial and diverse photographic approaches, her personal, cultural, and social explorations have been grounded in the interlocking issues of labor, gender, immigration, and place.
As a lifelong Angeleno, Fernandez frames her hometown as an important backdrop and oftentimes the main focus in her photographs. Whether she is giving a voice to Latinx garment workers, shining a light on domestic labor and community in East Los Angeles, or visualizing the socioeconomic impact on the urban and natural environment in El Sereno, the proximity and imprint of Mexico’s border on the physical and social landscape of Los Angeles permeates her photographic series.
Growing up in a politically active home in Monterey Park during the 1960s and 1970s, Fernandez and her family participated in the Chicano Movement, advocating against structural racism. “My parents were Chicano activists and they raised me on the picket line, basically,” she has explained. “So instead of going to birthday parties on the weekend I was...in Delano with the United Farm Workers.” For Fernandez, these foundational experiences instilled an awareness of and sensitivity toward her own ancestry and the collective consciousness of Mexican Americans. She described an experience she had while demonstrating during the Chicano Moratorium in 1970: “We were running from the police and I wondered why. What had we done? I saw the police hitting heads with their clubs. It had a big impact on my life and I believe it politicized me.”
While studying studio art as an undergraduate at UCLA and later at CalArts, where she earned her MFA in 1996, Fernandez felt isolated, oftentimes the only Latinx student in classes being taught by white professors. “To be honest, the exposure to Chicano literature and art was non-existent in my mainstream education,” she recalled. “It was sort of up to me to get acquainted with these issues.” In response, she would use the guidelines of an assignment to conduct her own research—turning to her family and cultural history to construct alternative narratives that worked to insert the Mexican American experience where it had been left out or erased. After reading UFW literature chronicling the effects of pesticides and labor disputes on farm workers, Fernandez first made Untitled Farmworker. Originally conceived as a performance, then later recreated photographically, the work consists of a grid of 54 photographs that capture a hand in the act of planting index cards into soil. Each card contains the name of a farm worker as well as their injury, illness, or cause of death.
In 1995, Fernandez was commissioned by art historian and curator Chon Noriega to create a work for the exhibition From the West: Chicano Narrative Photography at the Mexican Museum in San Francisco. María’s Great Expedition, a sweeping yet highly personal tale of the grueling reality of migration and border crossing, consisted of six photographs, a map, and accompanying texts in Spanish and English in which Fernandez layers the opposing forces of history and memory, fact and fiction, the self and other.
In the photographs, Fernandez intervenes in the past by posing in the guise of her great-grandmother, dramatizing her displacement from Mexico to the United States. As she has explained, “I have used my own familial history or the stories of women I know or have interviewed as a vehicle to rectify, as I see it, a complete lack of stories for women like me, stories that tell of the strength and hardships of Mexicanas and Chicanas of the past and present.”
Megan Feingold, Department Coordinator, Department of Photography, 2021