While César Chávez was in the limelight actively protesting for Chicano civil rights in 1970′s California, Jesús Garza was right beside him, quietly documenting the commotion using black and white film.
Born in San José, Calif. to campesinos from Crystal City, Texas, Garza says he’s been taking photos ever since he bought his first film camera at a flea market at 11-years-old. For more than four decades, he has been photographing interesting characters he has encountered throughout his life, making them timeless. Currently, Garza continues to lecture and show his images at universities, libraries, museums and galleries. “The Chicano Photographer” series, which Garza took from 1970-1975, is also part of the Smithsonian Institution’s Collection. And this summer, he says the Musée D’Aquitaine in Bordeaux, France will be exhibiting five of his photos.
“I’ve always been the photographer, the person that watches…the person that observes,” says Garza. “Other people are raising their fists, reading the poem, playing the guitar, and I was the guy taking the pictures. My role was to document what was taking place.”
He says he shares a lot of the same friends of the late César Chávez. Most of them attended high school together, in San José, and still keep in touch. Many have stayed in the same neighborhood.
Garza, however, now resides in Fort Worth, Texas – where he moved from Wichita Falls in October of 2013. These days, he says he keeps busy by reading a lot.
“I like to read ‘How To’ books – tech, cameras lenses, science…and I like to read about history and cultures,” says Garza.
He’s so up-to-date with technology for a 61-year-old that he’s taught college-level courses on iPhone and iPad photography and video. He says he had fun having the students critique each others’ photos, because it’s a good way for people to see how other people see. He also has had an ongoing love affair with black and white photos.
“I wish they just had a black and white ink jet printer, that would make my life so much easier,” says Garza, in his good-natured way. “It’s more appealing to me…Black and white abstracts reality, and makes it more artistic.”
He says his favorite photo was one of his most popular – the iconic black and white shot of César Chávez.
“I shot him many times, but there was one time in this United Farm Worker conference at a football stadium, and he was sitting on the lawn and just talking to some people, so I knelt down about 10 feet away from him and he smiled,” says Garza about the photo which would later been seen at The Smithsonian, and on posters, for years to come.
He says he still has strong memories of being 5-years-old and sitting on a tree collecting fruits and green beans in fields so contaminated with pesticides, they were sticky.
“A lot of my friends have died from cancer,” says Garza. “That was the reality of the situation. The Chicanos that I met, we all could relate to the campesino – farmworker movement.”
He says at that time only 2 percent of Latinos were in college, and he was one of the lucky few.
“I studied journalism with a photo concentration at San José State University, just down the street,” says Garza about a time which was more affordable to study. “My tuition at San Jose State was $81 per semester, which ain’t bad.”
He also remembers college being a social scene. He says whenever there was an event, people came to participate – be it anti-Vietnam or the United Farm Workers movement.
“I’ve always had a whole range of jobs, and I’ve always moved places here and there,” says the photographer, who has worked in radio, television, and ad agencies. “But I’ve always had an opportunity to do photography.”
Since his time in San José, Garza has photographed his way through San Francisco – where he met his wife, Dr. Anne Marie Leimer – who is presently the chairwoman of Midwestern State University’s Harvey School of Visual Arts in Wichita Falls.
“To this day my favorite subjects are buildings and people – that doesn’t change,” says the spunky photographer who recently created a blog and photo book about his Wichita Falls experience.
He’ll even take your wedding pictures.
But this weekend, he says he’s excited about watching the premiere of the movie, “César Chávez,” in Fort Worth with his wife.
“For many of my generation, Chávez was a source of inspiration. Many in San José had an opportunity to meet the soft-spoken leader. His modest dress and easy going manner made him approachable…The family picked fruits, nuts and vegetables throughout the year. So did I,” says Garza. “This cause was not some abstract or esoteric movement to us. I feel this new film is an opportunity…to see how we fought against entrenched commercial interests, ignorance and racism. I will be at the theater [Friday], with others, to see our history revealed. I can’t wait.”