As a child growing up in Alhambra, Isabel Avila perceived that something was changing — and fast. “I was able to witness within a few years how people would transition into and become part of the mainstream American culture,” she says.
Those early observations of identity transformations across different ethnicities stuck with Avila, now a 33-year-old digital and film photographer. Her work, which has been exhibited across California, highlights the many subcultures in greater Los Angeles.
This interest in tracing identity inspired Avila to learn more about the Tongva people, the native people of the San Gabriel Valley, and she has since photographed one of their sacred sites in Huntington Beach. Her photos have been exhibited at the Vincent Prince Museum in Monterey Park and are currently at the Wignall Museum of Contemporary Art as part of the New World Exhibit.
“There’s always this history of atrocity and struggle. The stories are really profound, and important, and I thought about these stories that are not known about by the mainstream society of this country,” Avila says. “There wasn't enough known knowledge on the native cultures for it to be taught in school — when I was studying California history in elementary school it started at colonial times — and then realizing the truth later, was such a huge contrast. I felt it was important to put a light on some of these Native American issues.”
Avila’s fascination with art began when her father shared his interest in drawing with his children. “He would draw for us, and we would do collaborative drawings,” Avila said.
Avila took her love of art to Marguerita Elementary School. She drew portraits of Clifford the Big Red Dog for her teacher, who called Avila “her little artist.”
“I had this individualism, like ‘Don’t tell me what to draw, don’t tell me to draw with my creativity,’” Avila says.
When Alhambra High School could not to sustain her artistic energy, she transferred to the Los Angeles County School of the Arts. It was there that she began to study photography. “You don't have to just be stuck in a studio – the world is your studio, you can go out and about, the world is your palette,” Avila says. “I also like the innate quality of realism that photography has.”
Avila went on to study at Pasadena City College and the Art Center College of Design. Her work has helped her connect her own history with that of her subjects. Many of Avila’s family members grew up in Los Angeles, experiencing prejudice and repressing family history as a way to conform. “There was a little bit of that feeling of conformity, of living the American way and accepting it as the norm. I think that I felt a little like an outsider growing up,” Avila says.
Avila hopes her photography and art will help give a story to those she feels society often ignores. “I think there are image politics that exists everywhere, image politics of who is being depicted in media, whose faces are being seen, who is considered beautiful, what lifestyle is acceptable,” Avila says. “What I aim for in my most recent series is to depict people who typically are not being represented in the mainstream consciousness, and present them in their own way, how they want to be represented.”
Even though Avila no longer lives in Alhambra, she remains curious to see how it grows and changes. “It has a deep multicultural community and I think it’s going to be one of those cultural destination spots in Southern California that continues to evolve into something new,” she says. “Alhambra is still discovering itself.”*Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Avila had photographed Alhambra residents, as well as other subjects of her work. Alhambra Source regrets the errors. If you find an error in Alhambra Source, please let us know by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org. This piece was originally published 3.8.2013