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She photographs Latinx tribute artists through an LGBTQ lens

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Arlene Mejorado considers herself for her new photography series & # 39; Caricias & # 39; not only as an artist, but more importantly, as an employee, a curator and a friend to the people she photographs: gay men and trans women who act as Selena Quintanilla, Jenni Rivera, Juan Gabriel and others in night clubs, restaurants and backyard tent parties in all of Los Angeles.

Mejorado avoids decisive moments for empathic context, interviews, portraits and autobiography weaving in a multimedia series that bear witness to the cathartic power of these LGBTQ drag performances.

"I'm interested in background story versus being the narrator who offers the story of a photo," she said.

For strict documentaries attracted to moments of life that speak without context, works like that of Mejorado may be easy to ignore. And for the artist himself, acceptance has not always been easy. When Mejorado, 31, was in New York last summer for a Magnum Foundation grant, she took a break at the home of photographer Joseph Rodríguez. Mejorado, who is self-taught, felt overwhelmed. The 24-hour group criticisms and classes had doubted her self-doubt – questions of connectedness followed, as well as questions of skill, whether her approach was good enough.

To take Mejorado out, Rodríguez put her next to his books by great Latin American photographers: Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Graciela Iturbide. What Mejorado needed, Rodríguez said, was to accept that she saw the world as she did. She was not an outsider of photography. She had a house.

Photographer Arlene Mejorado

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

In an attempt to imagine a life in art, Mejorado had no example in her family – shoemakers who left Mexico in the 1980s. As a child in Panorama City, she sought approval from her older male cousins, whatever they did, but still never fully accepted. "You are a girl," Mejorado reminded her cousins.

In her early 20s, Mejorado, who identifies herself as a queer, almost completely abandoned art. But then she met Margaret Garcia, a portrait painter in Highland Park who opened her studio in the neighborhood on Thursday evening. Mejorado was challenged to paint quickly. The models of Garcia had families to feed, jobs. Mejorado collected what was striking and found beauty in strong characteristics.

In 2008, Garcia took Mejorado to an interview in Getty, where they met Iturbide. Meeting with Iturbide, just like seeing her books at Rodríguez, has given Mejorado a new lease of life with confidence. In 2016 she won some national recognition: a portrait of Mejorado & # 39; s was made in an image by Shepard Fairey "Defending dignity" and seen prominently at the Ladies March of 2017.

Mejorado thinks that forgetting can be an ointment for trauma. With "Caricias" she asks her employees to remember, to share stories about their past, for example to store a photo stored in a shoe box. Mejorado collages these found photos with sequins and silk backgrounds, fabrics used by the artists for their dresses and jackets. A doubling of time – a snapshot of a Christmas long ago, placed on top of the current context – becomes proof of then and now, giving performers a breath to shape their own story.

In one of Arlene Mejorado's photos for her "Caricias" project, an upcoming groom is holding Barbara Towne while acting as Paquita la del Barrio at a bachelor party in Compton. Towne is a transgender woman from Honduras who played as three different divas at the party.

In one of Arlene Mejorado's photos for her "Caricias" project, an upcoming groom is holding Barbara Towne while acting as Paquita la del Barrio at a bachelor party in Compton. Towne is a transgender woman from Honduras who played as three different divas at the party.

(Arlene Mejorado)

Towne, holding a beer given to her by a member of the public, acts as Paquita la del Barrio in an arena at a festival in San Bernardino.

Towne, holding a beer given to her by a member of the public, acts as Paquita la del Barrio in an arena at a festival in San Bernardino.

(Arlene Mejorado)

Guests at a tent party use Facebook Live to capture the performance of Barbara Towne as Jenni Rivera.

Guests at a tent party use Facebook Live to capture the performance of Barbara Towne as Jenni Rivera.

(Arlene Mejorado)

Mejorado makes candid portraits of the artists while they are on stage, and she sends quieter. They are posed, stilled and offer a new thread in the life of an artist.

The photographer is also attracted by fractions of etiquette. In her photos of quinceañeras, baptisms and first communions, a few men grope from behind or put dollar bills in the seams of costumes while family members of all ages pick up their phones.

"I don't believe in a fly on the wall," said Mejorado about her immersion in a scene. "I take up space."

And just as well. She gives artists a say in how they are shown, and they in turn give Mejorado tips on mise-en-scene and tone.

Recently the pre-colonial god Tezcatlipoca, translated as the smoking mirror of Nahuatl, has occupied me. She has thought about how we are reflections of each other, seeing ourselves, good or bad, in someone else.

"I want to create reflections, not representations," she said. "I want you to see yourself in someone, even though that person may not look like you."

For her project & # 39; Caricias & # 39; Arlene Mejorado photographed Lupita Amparo under a large portrait of herself in her apartment in East Hollywood, surrounded by clothing she had made over the years to act as various divas.

For her project & # 39; Caricias & # 39; Arlene Mejorado photographed Lupita Amparo under a large portrait of herself in her apartment in East Hollywood, surrounded by clothing she had made over the years to act as various divas.

(Arlene Mejorado for Magnum Foundation)

Espinozita Lucas

Espinozita Lucas, photographed on his bed in Van Nuys, has been performing for four years, mainly as the Mexican corridor artist Chalino Sanchez. Espinozita, who is gay, uses the money to help his mother and sister at home in Mexico.

(Arlene Mejorado for Magnum Foundation)

Yosi Love waits in an alley before it is her time to perform.

Yosi Love waits in an alley before it is her time to perform.

(Arlene Mejorado)

In "Caricias" the goal is to show the emotional work of the artists.

Many of them migrated from Central America or Mexico to escape abuse or poverty. They carry a line of pain and heartache. In the US, where some find an elected family and earn good money, abuse and alienation can still follow. While on stage, some artists can casually make jokes about rape or coyotes or racism. Then, like a spring bloom, song: "Como la Flor", "Hasta Que Te Conocí", "Paloma Negra." "Like the Flower," "Until I met you," "Black Dove."

In some photos, the crowd is transcendent – applauding, crying, as if they have seen Selena rise.

The series is keen on criticizing the families who pay for the entertainment. Mejorado is still waiting for a moment when the performer is treated as neither a curiosity nor a savior, but rather a friend or ordinary person. Will it ever happen? In some photos, men are recoiling from the actor's caress caricia).

For the artists, the stage offers a short spell in which trauma fades. In a song, it is the embodiment of joy and heartache that channels grace. "But there is still the feeling that they are an outsider," said Mejorado, "they are never at home."

Arlene Mejorado in the L.A. neighborhood where she grew up.

Arlene Mejorado in the L.A. neighborhood where she grew up.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

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