Dishwasher, landscaper, roofer, pool guy: it doesn’t matter what their job or background is, much less what their face looks like. Whatever lies behind the brown skin, hardened by the sun’s rays, covered with innumerable tattoos with letters, numbers, women’s names, Prehispanic motifs, and representations of death, it’s worthless.
Discriminated against by default, persecuted throughout some states, and, along with African-Americans, are constantly targeted by police, the Chicano community strives with uncanny stubbornness and strength.
Chicanos face a world where superficial and apologetic breakdowns of their culture are not enough to hide the Mexican State’s failure to guarantee the integral development of over a hundred million people. Yet their origin story forgets to mention their historical relevance.
Instead, the narrative treats them like a mutation, as unpleasant hybrids with a will and a spirit of their own, who have paved their way by taking bits and pieces from dozen of cultures that create a wide range of identities on both sides of the Rio Grande. Yet these are classified into either Mexican or American.
Carlos Fuentes once stated that “Chicanos don’t know if they’re from here or there, yet they stand by their belief that they’re from both sides.” However, five thousand six hundred miles away from the USA-Mexico border, in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the situation could seem trivial. This opinion is shared by millions of Mexican citizens, who blame Chicanos for denying their roots, for feeling pride towards the stars and stripes, as well as for making the most out of their slice of the empty promise of the American Dream.
But what Mexicans forget or ignore is how American society also has built this same wall between themselves and Mexican-Americans. Nonetheless, this barrier carries the weight of over three centuries’ worth of exclusion and racial separation.
Cholos, lowriders, gangs, marginalized, drug addicts, and felons are the images that go through the average American’s mind when they share the neighborhood with whom, they feel, does not belong. Chicanos are not recognized as part of the ethnic and cultural wealth that created what we know as the United States, but they’re not seen as Mexicans, displaced for economic reasons, either.
This sentiment only exalts Chicano pride. How can they embrace the traditions of two cultures who systematically, both on a governmental as well as on a social scale, reject them? Who look down on their everyday stateless reality, denied by the country of their historical background and excluded from their new adopted territory?
Perhaps this is why Chicano identity answers to an origin and the current circumstance, within a context of rebellion and urgency. The way they speak, dress, think, and believe is a form of resistance. It’s a deaf scream against the inability to return to their home country and the complexities of a land where they don’t feel entirely at home.
Steven Burton’s Skin Deep is a photographic series that took over two years to make. He created this project with nine collaborators who happened to be gang members. The first images are the real pictures while the ones on the right have been digitally altered to erase their tattoos. According to Burton, “the idea was to digitally erase the tattoos, to present a before and after in order to observe their reaction. I knew the subjects would be shocked by the images, but I never realized the full extent of how these images would affect them.”
Burton’s images propose a dialogue that moves away from the usual narrative and focuses on the body, the one place where Chicanos are able to choose. Tattoos, clothing, and identifiable marks are their way of appropriating their own culture, despite being prejudiced by both nations. They are classified as marginalized and delinquents. Yet nobody chooses to look beyond the ink, the humanity within every face both these countries refuse to look at.
You can find more images of this project and others at Steven Burton’s website.
Translated by María Suárez