Above: Tony Gleaton’s Mexican photographs. lower R, Tony Gleaton.
Photographer Tony Gleaton just died. He was 67. He was born in 1948 in Detroit, served in Vietnam in the late 60s with the Marines, then took photography classes at UCLA. He became a successful fashion photographer, but something was missing. He was at a rodeo in Nevada where he came upon an African-American rodeo cowboy, who told him there were many people of African descent in Mexico. He left everything behind, bought a one-way ticket on a Greyhound Bus, and headed south. He lived simply and cheaply, picking up odd jobs to just keep going. He cared about photographing this little-known population.
I didn’t know Africans went to Mexico, hadn’t head about African slaves being brought there, and never detected any Cuban clavé in Mexican music, or any attributes that characterize Afro-Latin music. So seeing his catalogue came as news to me.
I had a catalogue of a traveling Smithsonian show in 1987, El Legado de Africa en Mexico (Africa’s Legacy in Mexico). I think it was lost during a move.
In a recent obit in the New York Times, Gleaton was quoted talking about his Mexican photographs of Afro-Mexicans:
“What’s important about these photographs is that they gave a face to something that nobody had really thought about before. And it’s a place to begin the discussion about what we suppose Mexico to be. We have a stereotypical view of what Mexico is, and Mexico is many things. You can have freckles and red hair and be Mexican—and you can have very black skin and be Mexican.
Tony Gleaton taught me something I was never aware of. He made a difference.