Updated: Nov 11, 2021
Roxanne Quezada Chartouni was born in Sonsonate, El Salvador, in 1963, the same year her parents immigrated to the United States. They first settled in San Francisco, where her father’s family had lived since the 1940s, which gave them a strong family network upon arrival. But it didn’t take long before the family was drawn to the California sun down south in Los Angeles. Roxanne started school in the Hollywood area and eventually attended Hollywood High School. Her parents made a modest living. Her mother, a seamstress, and her father, a master carpenter provided the best they could for their four children.
With a growing maternal family network in Los Angeles, Roxanne’s childhood was spent everyday among cousins, aunts and uncles—family gatherings appeared to have no end. Birthday celebrations were every month, but on one occasion, Roxanne recalls a life-changing gift from her father. “For my 14th birthday my father presented me with a 35mm Canon AE1. I documented all of our family trips to El Salvador via the Pan American Highway, which was thrilling and a bit dangerous.” It was during these formative years that Roxanne discovered her passion for capturing moments in time through her camera lens.
For over 30 years, Roxanne has been a photographer with an innate talent for capturing real, and sometimes surreal, moments of places and people—like children smiling for the camera during a civil war, or a nearly 100 year-old Mayola Baldwin on her porch next to her first washing machine ever purchased. For portraits, she favors the subtleness and impact of black-and-white film, the same medium she chose to capture Houston’s Fourth Ward in 1987.
Roxanne and Cecelia Cook Drew were art students at Los Angeles City College when they met and became lifelong friends. Cecelia and her daughter Jaz invited Roxanne on a family trip to Houston. They had planned to document the Fourth Ward in honor of Juneteenth for their first artistic collaboration. Roxanne was a student of Mr. Joe Dojcsak, a photography instructor at LACC and photojournalist during the Vietnam conflict, who supported her work and provided a Leicaflex to document the Fourth Ward, an established Freedmen's Town.
On their self-guided tour through the Fourth Ward, Roxanne grew in awe as she learned from Cecelia about its history—the place where former slaves built a town for themselves. Cecelia also pointed out that she had family who once lived there, and how the hand-crafted bricks they walked over were slowly disappearing along with its history and residents due to gentrification, absentee landlords, and mysterious fires.
They began talking with the people in the town, and approaching a few to take their photographs. Roxanne remembers nervously fumbling with the camera as she took her first pictures. “Mrs. Mayola Baldwin instantly graced the Leica camera with her beauty. Her image was the very first frame I documented in the Fourth Ward,” Chartouni says. “After the experience of meeting Mrs. Baldwin and the privilege of photographing her, I prayed not to mess up exposures, film loading, or anything else for that matter.” The high temperatures didn’t help her either. It was hot and unbearably humid even for the California native.
For a year, the photographs went unseen. It wasn’t until Ms. Glenna Avila, the curator at the Los Angeles Photography Center, gave Roxanne her first exhibit—Houston: A Look At Fourth Ward, where none other than L.A.’s Mayor Tom Bradley graced the show. Roxanne said about that night, “It was the best opening...surrounded by family and friends, it was magical.” The show ended and the photographs were stored.
Thirty years had gone by and the 35mm film was now aging, and this began to haunt Roxanne. She hadn’t forgotten the promise she made to the residents of the Fourth Ward—she would not let these images die in obscurity and lose their history. She felt compelled to tell their story again; to bring meaning back to the photographs and give the 1987 community of the Fourth Ward their place in history. She struggled with how they should be represented and who should represent them.
Curiously optimistic, Roxanne took a chance on social media and posted on Facebook and Twitter not knowing what would happen. Eventually, one image in particular caught the eye of Jose Zavala. He had just seen a picture of his deceased brother in the old Fourth Ward neighborhood where they once lived. The Houstonia magazine contacted Roxanne in 2017 and published an article on how her photographs and social media connected with a past resident. The Fourth Ward community was showing up on Facebook to help identify more people and places in the images. Roxanne’s portraits began to take on a new life, and she reveled in the direction they were taking.
She began to reach out to institutions and museums to see who was interested. The University of Houston took note in 2020 and included “A Look At Fourth Ward Houston Texas” by Roxanne Quezada Chartouni in the Houston History publication. In 2021, twelve photographs of Roxanne’s Houston’s Fourth Ward collection are at the California African American Museum (CAAM) in Los Angeles.
“Finally, the journey that started in 1987 found its rightful place at CAAM,” Chartouni says. Her connection to the collection and the residents of the Fourth Ward came from her own immigrant experience. Roxanne grew up knowing her family’s struggles and their way of looking at life through rose-colored glasses in order to survive. There was pain all around the Fourth Ward, but also life and laughter. From her lens, she identified with the residents, especially when they smiled. And that is what you see in her body of work. Her lens captures the resilient nature of humans because she, herself, is built that way.
1. Roxanne Quezada Chartouni and Cecelia Cook Drew, http://www.houstonalookat4thward.com/
2. Roxanne Quezada Chartouni, “A Look At Fourth Ward Houston, Texas” Houston History 17:2 (Spring 2020)
3. Roxanna Asgarian, “30 Years Later, Photographs of Houston’s Fourth Ward Are a Window Through Time” Houstonia (Nov. 7, 201) https://www.houstoniamag.com/arts-and-culture/2017/11/fourth-ward-houston-photographs-from-1987