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Photo artist shares stories from rafa Esparza, Latinx identity

Fabian Guerrero, self portrait

(Fabian Guerrero/For The Times).

This story is part of “Corpo RanfLA: Terra Cruiser,” a special collaboration between rafa esparza, Image magazine and Commonwealth and Council. Learn how the entire project came about here.

With this piece, “Corpo RanfLA: Terra Cruiser,” he’s transcending and growing. I admire rafa’s work ethic. This growth is something I am able to see every single day. I support him — because he’s done nothing but support me — like other members of the community. I learned that from him: My work is not only about me, it’s about other people. I’m just glad I get to be a part of this. I can just be there with him and enjoy the journey. You can also experience the magic.

Instagram was my first introduction to rafa. I was in my late 20s, around mid-2016. At the time, my identity was still being figured out. I didn’t really consider myself an artist. I was primarily taking photos. I clearly remember thinking that I wanted to have someone to talk with about my work, art in general, and the steps I should take. I messaged him to ask if he would like to meet me for coffee. He was very open to it.

We met in downtown Los Angeles, near Grand Central Market. I remember most from that conversation that when he had asked me, “What do you do with your work?” I was just like, “Well, I’m only doing what I like to do, what feels right.” He was like, “Well you’re an artist, you’re making work. Ever think about those things?” I didn’t go to school for art. Growing up in the same way as I did, there are few opportunities to express yourself or to meet people in art. Los Angeles was an amazing experience for me because it was filled with so many talented brown artists. I was already inspired by the movement — brown art, especially queer art — but I wasn’t really seeing a lot of brown queer identities through imagery at the time. So I kind of told myself, “Let me be that person to represent that.” He invited me to be a part of a group show and asked me if I would be interested. Ever since then, he’s just given me that kind of platform and experience. He just opened doors for me and really changed my life.

As I move on with my day, I remember him as someone who opened up doors for me. Since then, our relationship has been stronger and more fulfilling. I began to spend more time with him. He was inviting me places — weddings, performances — and making sure that I had community around me. And that’s when he started inviting me more into his work. He would have me be a part of it in ways — showing up to document it or including me to be creative within this process. rafa’s work is very community-oriented. He is able to do anything he wants because he has the support of his community. It is more than work or structured tasks. The best part of art — or his art — is you’re able to see there’s so much love there.

He was astonished to see that I was documenting queer and brown stories, especially in Los Angeles, in 2018. He understood why I was doing what I was doing. There was that connection. He grew up in L.A., not Texas, but there’s still this bridge that was there. When rafa was talking about lowrider culture — the scene and the history — it was very dominated by men or straight culture. You didn’t feel you would belong in these spaces. And to be honest, at the time, you couldn’t — you didn’t — belong in them. Every time we had to show up to these events we had to, like, act straight, hide our identities just so we could enjoy the moment, enjoy the car cruises, the car shows — but we weren’t accepted into these spaces. When rafa first contacted me about the project I thought about the relationship between his and mine.

He invited me over to see where he was getting ready. Mario Ayala is airbrushing his hair. Tanya Melendez is doing his nails. That’s the power I always go back to: He is very community-oriented about the work and how he brings the people to the work together. I wanted to be involved because I loved what he was accomplishing and I wanted to experience the power he brought to his work.

esparza being painted in the style of a lowrider car

2018 performance, “Corpo Ranfla,” when esparza collaborated with Mario Ayala, Tanya Melendez, Paul Marcus Rodrigez and Fabian Guerrero to paint his body in the style of a lowrider car.

(Fabian Guerrero)

esparza getting his hair done

“He is very community-oriented about the work and how he brings the people to the work together,” Fabian Guerrero says of rafa esparza.

(Fabian Guerrero)

rafa esparza posing with his body painted pink in the style of a lowrider car by a green lowrider

For “Corpo Ranfla,” Mario Ayala painted rafa esparza’s body fuchsia pink from head to toe. Mario’s inspiration was the lowrider Gypsy Rose.

(Fabian Guerrero)

We drove to Elysian Park for photos. It was clearly used for cruising. We then made our way to downtown’s Mayan Theatre. And that’s the moment where he told me, “You’re gonna get onstage, and you will be performing with me.” I wasn’t prepared. I had just my 35-millimeter digital camera. I was like, I’m just gonna go with my gut, see what happens. So I was onstage, fitting in with the energy, documenting him but also more than that — living in fantasy with him as he was moving, performing with him. I was admiring his work and taking pictures of it as he expressed so much sexuality, sensuality and intimacy.

The music is still very much in my head. This is what really struck me. The music took it back. I remember rafa appearing onstage, dressed in a car but in human form, and performing. Walking onstage. Walking very seductively. Being very sexually involved with his body. Mario was shining his body like a car. He was also performing with him. Sebastian Hernandez was also on stage, looking like a lowrider model you’ll see in magazines and at car shows. The energy was so high. I couldn’t even look at the audience because I was just too in the zone. I blacked myself out. It lasted between 20 and 25 minutes. It was a dream. I will cherish the memories of being a part.

I keep the photos in my head. It’s a project and a body of work that to this day inspires me. It’s been a while since I looked at this. Sometimes I just look back at what I’ve done. I like to reflect — it’s always good to consciously remember those moments and to think to yourself, “Why did I start? And how did I feel in this day?” Because sometimes inspiration still comes from past memories and things that we experienced. Even to this day, the way I’ve been a part of rafa’s work has really planted a big seed in me to make something out of it. And who knows what I’m gonna make out of it. I will one day have the idea, but for now, it is just something I enjoy and daydream about. Or, let it run free.

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