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.”
“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.