Mexican immigrant dedicates his life to documenting Latinos in AZ

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José Muñoz was only a teenager when he first developed a taste for photography. But it was in his early twenties that he fell in love with his skills with a camera, capturing footage of Latino soldiers overseas during the Vietnam War.

Since then, he has dedicated his life to documenting the jovial and trivial moments that have defined Latinos and their history in Arizona.

Muñoz, 69, has photographed everything from a 15-year-old celebrating his birthday in the backyard of his home to the anguished faces of immigrants to former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio , former Governor Jan Brewer and the controversial anti-immigrant SB 1070 law.

An immigrant himself, Muñoz is well known to the Latino community in the valley, having captured the faces of many generations of Latino families with his lens.

“When I first picked up a camera, I never imagined that taking pictures would be a very important part of my life, but I soon discovered that it would be,” Muñoz told The Arizona Republic.

A veteran turns to photography

Muñoz was born in the border town of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, just across from El Paso, Texas on December 26, 1952.

In 1955 he emigrated to Arizona and was raised by his grandparents in the town of Picacho after his parents died.

Muñoz started at Picacho Elementary School and Eloy Middle School, before moving with his family to Phoenix. Shortly after graduating from Alhambra High School, located near Camelback Road and 37th Avenue, he made a life-changing decision to enlist in the United States Armed Forces.

In 1973 he enlisted in the United States Navy and was deployed to Germany during the Vietnam War.

According to Muñoz, the soldiers he was stationed with would ask him to take their picture as they posed with their M-16 rifles.

Muñoz worked on wood while stationed in Germany, but his love of photography was one he had developed years before.

Phoenix-based photographer José Muñoz has captured the political and social history of Latinos in Arizona.

He took his Nikon camera with him everywhere, including overseas, and with it he captured moments in time of American soldiers from all walks of life, but especially soldiers like himself.

“There were a lot of Mexican and Latino soldiers and they all wanted to be photographed,” he said.

Four years later he moved back to Arizona and decided to take his hobby more seriously and decided to study photography at Phoenix College. In 1980 he obtained a diploma in fine art photography.

He went freelance, photographing family parties, weddings and quinceañeras in the valley.

This work has expanded into coverage of political and community events, following the work of organizations that have focused heavily on promoting civic engagement among Latino Arizonans, such as the Latino Citizens League. United Americans of Arizona and the César Chávez Foundation.

In 1995, he founded his own studio, Photography By José Muñoz, with the help of his wife. He said it was a successful business at a time when professional photography was mostly about developing film in a darkroom.

“Today’s digital cameras make your job so much easier and you get the photos instantly,” Muñoz said. “But if you ask me which is better, I’ll definitely tell you the method used before, when developing photos was an art and images came out in better quality.”

Over the years, alongside his business, Muñoz has worked as a freelance photographer for various Phoenix-area Latino outlets such as Cambio Magazine, ASU Magazine, La Voz (the Spanish-language sister publication of the Arizona Republic ), Latino Future and Prensa Hispana.

Documenting Immigrants in the Time of SB 1070

One of the most labor-abundant times for him was in 2010, when former Republican Gov. Jan Brewer signed SB 1070. The law, titled Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, made illegal presence in the country a state crime. He also made it illegal not to have immigration papers; prohibits people from knowingly hiring or transporting unauthorized immigrants; and authorized the police to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally, among other provisions.

At the time, many were hiding, recalls Muñoz. For him, however, it was a time when business was better than ever.

“It was a bittersweet time for me because I had a lot of work, but at the same time it hurt to see how immigrants were treated in Arizona…I didn’t like the way Republicans were talking about Mexicans. (Immigrants) were hiding; they were afraid to leave their homes for fear of being arrested and deported,” he said.

At that time, many immigrants celebrated major life events locked in their homes, welcoming family and friends to their backyards. They were very low-key parties, from birthdays to weddings and quinceañeras, Muñoz said.

Where today these types of celebrations are seen in public spaces – photo ops and parties taking place in major parks and recreation areas – then it was rare, he said.

“I went to their house to photograph them. They didn’t want to do big events because they were afraid that Joe Arpaio’s agents were coming. It was sad to see that,” Muñoz said.

Documenting the lives of Latinos through these difficult times has been a priority for him. Even during the pandemic when, unlike 2010, business wasn’t going so well for him due to fewer gatherings.

It is through photography that he contributes to the community, dedicating most of his life to capturing unforgettable moments for Latino families in Phoenix.

Johnny Lozoya, who has known Muñoz for more than 20 years, said Muñoz is a big-hearted person who enjoys helping the Latin American community through his photography.

“I witnessed his activism. He’s that kind of person who, apart from being a good friend, loves helping ‘la raza’ (people), the people who need it the most,” Lozoya said.

He’s seen it help dozens of times when it comes to his own career, Lozoya said. Also a photographer in the valley, Lozoya was able to contract projects and concerts because Muñoz constantly recommends him to others. “Good things have come out of this great friendship,” he said.

Contact Javier Arce, editor-in-chief of La Voz, at [email protected] or on Twitter @javierarce33.

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