Interview By

Richard Baron

November 2005



Tony Gleaton was born in Detroit in 1948 and moved to L.A. when he was 10. “I never saw any of my friends again,” he recalls. “There was a break, a disconnect, that prepared me to be able to just leave and go off whenever I wanted, which I’ve been doing for long as I can remember.”


After serving with the Marines in Vietnam, he went to UCLA and “schlepped around there for three or four years, kind of got interested in art.” After UCLA he went to New York and did fashion photography, but left after three years and hitchhiked throughout the West. He started doing photos of cowboys in northeastern Nevada, then black and Native American cowboys in eastern and central Texas. That work led to a project he called “Cowboys: Reconstructing an American Myth.”


From there, Gleaton went to Mexico and began spending time in the Copper Canyon area, living with the Tarahumara Indians. “The government gave me the use of a huge kiva house that forded the river. There’s a reason people have small houses in the mountains, because when it gets cold you can only heat so much with a wood stove, and this place was huge. But I put a darkroom in there. I don’t know how many times I would travel back and forth on Louie’s El Paso-Los Angeles Limousine Express dragging photographic equipment, chemistry, packs of paper—I had everything up there.”




Gleaton began researching the area and discovered that about 500 African slaves had worked the mines of Hidalgo de Parral in the 1600s. Their offspring were still in most of the northern mining centers in Mexico. That led to an investigation of the African diaspora throughout Mexico, and Central and South America, a subject upon which he frequently lectures.


Recently Gleaton taught at Texas Tech, where he was also the artist in residence.


“I’ve been crossing the Mexican border on and off for the last 20 years,” he says. “I’ve crossed at every major crossing point, starting west to east—Tijuana, Tecate, Mexicali, Yuma, Nogales, Santa Ana, Columbus, Juárez, Ojinaga, Laredo, Del Rio, Brownsville.


“The border’s funny—it acts as a funnel, a sieve, where people are in transit, but it’s not enough of Mexico, and it’s too much of here.


“The border’s never a place that I wanted to hang out at. I was living up in the mountains with the Indians, and El Paso was a place that I had to negotiate, a place I had to go through.


“In the rest of Texas, people look at El Paso like it’s southern New Mexico. The two places have like the same heritage, but New Mexico has an indigenous symbol for their state, it’s ‘The Land of Enchantment.’


“Can you imagine someone calling Texas ‘The Land of Enchantment’? It’s more like, ‘Don’t Mess with Texas.’


“Texas’ ideology is summed up in the right to capture water—if you can pull it out of the land, it’s yours. It’s the right-to-carry state.”





 

Texas Observer

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