Boy posing for a photo, palm trees and blue skies behind him.
Photo by Lance Gerber

Road To Coachella: What’s Behind These Billboards Lining The 10 Freeway?

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The Inglewood-born Chemehuevi photographer Cara Romero utilizes the 10 Freeway to shine a light on our nation’s disconnect with Native Americans in this year’s Desert X exhibition.

The largest group of Native Americans who live in urban areas is based right here in Los Angeles County, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Nevertheless, this community — and the urban Native American population nationwide — remains largely invisible to mainstream American society. Cara Romero, an Inglewood-born Chemehuevi photographer, says that the U.S. continues to depict Natives through the lens of a skewed history, casinos and reservations. But she’s here to buck tradition.

“But what about the people? What about how we are tied to the landscape?” she says on the phone from her tribe’s reservation near Lake Havasu. “Every other population, even subcultures, can be anything, but the concept of being Native American is very narrow.”

Desert X is a biennial, free-to-access art exhibition set in the Coachella Valley. This year they are featuring the work of 18 artists spread across approximately 50 miles. Romero is one of them, and she’s using billboards, one of the biggest physical messaging platforms available, to tell some of her people’s stories.

Five billboards featuring her evocative photographs line up along Gene Autry Trail, which connects the 10 Freeway to Palm Springs. For most Angelenos the road is just that. But for Romero, who has held elected office in her tribal council and executive leadership roles in several tribal cultural and educational institutions, that land is laden with meaning.

“I really wanted to ground people in what it feels like, what it means that you’re on Indian land in California,” Romero says. “I think that’s really abstract for people in the Los Angeles area.”

Her Desert-X billboard series “Jackrabbit, Cottontail & Spirits of the Desert” alludes to the ancestral lands of the Mojave, Cahuilla, Serrano and Chemehuevi people.

Romero’s photographic work is known for its focus on exploring the interplay between Native American communities throughout the U.S. and modern society. Much of her work features portraits of girls and women with staged, dramatic qualities meant to challenge the viewer to reexamine their existing beliefs about Native Americans, both as individuals and as part of larger communities today.

“I really wanted to ground people in what it feels like, what it means that you’re on Indian land in California. I think that’s really abstract for people in the Los Angeles area.”

Cara Romero

Romero moved to her tribe’s reservation at a very young age, but she’s proud to be born in L.A. Her father went to high school with the Beach Boys in Hawthorne, and she says she would be honored to be accepted as an “L.A. artist.”

Her images will be shown as part of the Annenberg Space for Photography’s Photoville LA, taking place April 26-28 and May 2-5. Romero’s work will also be exhibited at Indigenous Now on May 11 in Tongva Park in Santa Monica, a solo show at the San Bernardino County Museum in the fall of 2020 and at the Autry Museum of the American West in 2021.

Though Romero now calls her Desert X project the “apex moment” in her career, she rejected the initial concept proposed by the exhibition’s team. Their early idea was to include subjects from her “First American Girls” series, in which Romero captured images of women from different tribes, including th Chumash and Cochiti, as they held culturally significant objects and stood against bright, modern backgrounds. However, those girls are from tribes based outside of the Coachella Valley. To feature them would run up against the “cultural intricacies” or “inter-tribal protocols” of working on a neighboring tribes’ land, in this case, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.

Romero decided instead to make new photographs featuring two sets of Chemehuevi brothers.

She settled on fabled characters from Chemehuevi lore who were brothers — jackrabbit and cottontail. The pair, according to her tribe’s stories, were people at some distant point in time, and are now with us in animal form as they act as teachers of the traditional laws of the land and “warn us against bad behavior,” she says.

“The boys are manifestations of that concept, spirits in the landscape,” Romero says. “They’re the future, they’re from now, they’re from pre-colonial times … Ivankürur,” she says using a Chemehuevi word. “It means those that sit beside me, speaking to this indigenous worldview that we exist and our ancestors are all around us.”

The photos feature brothers in feather headdresses and traditional garb posing and interacting with the desert landscape. In the series, one boy stares out at the viewer as he poses head-on, palm trees and a clear blue sky behind him, while in another image the subject is perched on, and surrounded by, a sea of rocks in the desert. The boys also hang out atop an old and very rusted pick-up truck, and don sunglasses as they run in front of a wind farm.

Sometimes the images include cues from present times. One photograph, in particular, has an overtly political message as it features the boys standing in front of a white wall with the words “No Wall” front and center. Romero said many Native people are trying to cross into the U.S. from the southern border and that, “the people at the border belong to the land.”

“We wanted to privilege Native stories and histories that we’ve seen suppressed or disappear. It’s striking to see these young boys that are in some ways representative of [the] past, but also capture the future because they are the future.”

Amanda Hunt, Desert X co-curator

Desert X Co-Curator Amanda Hunt met Romero at a Chicago art exhibition and says she found her work there to be “totally stunning” and envisioned seeing Romero’s work on billboards in the desert.

“We wanted to privilege Native stories and histories that we’ve seen suppressed or disappear,” Hunt says. “It’s striking to see these young boys that are in some ways representative of [the] past, but also capture the future because they are the future.”

Romero was effusive in praise of Hunt and Desert X for engaging with Native communities, something she recognizes is not always easy.

“It’s kind of daunting and people just shy away from it,” Romero says. “[Hunt] really let me lead.”

Sharing ideas of time, origin and broader concepts to do with the land and its Native peoples are all part of Romero’s intention. She believes that one of the major ills facing Native Americans today is the disconnect between mainstream society and them. When passersby see her billboards, Romero hopes they will see where they are differently — not in an empty desert, but in a lively ecosystem filled with stories and legacies.

“There’s a lot of history here, there’s a lot of spirits in California. We’re still here,” Romero says, referring to her Chemehuevi tribe. “We’re always going to be here, we’re not past tense.”

VISIT

Desert X in Coachella Valley runs through April 21, 2019.

https://www.desertx.org/cararomero

Los Angeleno