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  • Gabriel San Roman

Slingshot: Disney Portraits Capture Cast Members' Pandemic Plight

The Disneyland Resort called a number of cast members back to work as Buena Vista Street at California Adventure reopened on Thursday for shopping and dining. But as Disneyland and its surrounding hotels remain shuttered for the rest of the year, a majority of workers still find themselves either furloughed or laid off with no end in sight.

Blu Gutierrez, one such cast member, has been off the job since mid-March when the coronavirus pandemic closed the Disneyland Hotel down. For the past three years she's worked as a cashier and a host at the Coffee House and a lead at Steakhouse 55. Now, Gutierrez is turning to her camera to capture portraits of cast members in an effort to put a human face and more on the purgatory of the pandemic.

"The elders that I work with were just sharing stories of devastation," she says. "That's something people don't really think about so I started the idea of wanting to photograph them and share their stories."

When California's stay-at-home order first arrived, Gutierrez didn't fully know what to make of it like most of her fellow cast members. She certainly didn't think Disneyland would be shuttered for eight months and counting. With the time afforded by the initial two-week lockdown, Gutierrez thought about taking a trip to the Grand Canyon, but the closure of her children's school gave pause in terms of the gravity of the pandemic.

Disneyland later announced that it would reopen on July 17 to mark the theme park's 65th birthday, but Governor Gavin Newsom hadn't decided on any state guidelines allowing for such and appeared in no rush with a summer surge of Covid-19 cases starting to spike. Hotel reservations turned into cancellations.

Negotiations continued between Newsom and theme park officials when Disney announced 28,000 layoffs in late September for both Anaheim and Orlando workers. Gutierrez kept in touch with her colleagues in text message chat group.

"When the layoff letters came out, some started talking about being depressed," she says. "There's a commonality with all the cast members right now. It really hit home."

Gutierrez turned to her passion for photography in trying times. "I always loved having a camera as a kid," she says. After taking photography classes at Fullerton and Cypress College, Gutierrez fell in love with the darkroom, too. She spent much of her time behind the camera photographing political protests and working events on the side. Now, Gutierrez wants to focus her lens to highlight cast member plight.

For the portrait series, she started with her closet co-workers at the Disneyland Hotel. Most agreed to be photographed. The first photo shoots happened at the Esplanade with a shuttered Disneyland in the backdrop. But with security being pretty strict about people not taking their masks off at the resort, even for selfies, Gutierrez now sets up outside the resort.

The iconic cast member name tags displayed by workers still give the portraits a hint of that Disney magic. Through them, Gutierrez has introduced her audience to Chris, JJ, Marcie and Jess, so far.

A hostess at Steakhouse 55, Marcie touts the most experience, having worked at the Disneyland Hotel for 32 years. As the indoor restaurant won't likely reopen anytime soon, Marcie recently received her layoff notice. She never missed much time at work, save for a previous bout with cancer. Now idled, Marcie doesn't know what will come next in life.

The same is true for Chris, a single mother who also worked at Steakhouse 55. Both she and her mother have been laid off from the Disneyland Resort. With increased hardships and children distance learning from home, Chris is burning through her savings in trying to make ends meet.

Beyond such portraits, Gutierrez also volunteers with the Cast Member Pantry, a food drive that started in Orlando but is now in Southern California, too. The project collects donations and makes food purchases via Instacart for unemployed Disney workers. She draws attention to the effort at the end of the stories she shares.

Gutierrez wants to expand the scope of the series beyond the Disneyland Hotel with hopes that other resort workers see themselves reflected in her initial portraits. She might even make a cyanotype quilt with them one day. But for now, she's working another weekend of photo shoots while pondering what the future holds.

"I've played around with different ideas that I want to do with the portraits," she says. "I don't have a set goal for them yet other than to share the stories. It just depends with how long the closure lasts."

- Gabriel San Román

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Naranja Notes

Orange County's back in the purple tier and coronavirus cases are spiking again. Governor Gavin Newsom is meeting the latest increase in community spread with a 10 p.m. curfew for most counties in the state until late December. Of course, the move comes with predictable critics in OC. OC Sheriff Don Barnes put out a statement in response to the curfew. "At this time, due to the need to have deputies available for emergency calls for service, deputies will not be responding to requests for face-covering or social gatherings-only enforcement," he said. Ain't it great? Barnes is able to cast himself as a staunch defender of civil liberties for the anti-mask crowd. All the while, OC Weekly's website remains available for anyone wanting to research Barnes' constitution-trampling ways. And there's no shortage of recent scandals to consider, including a deputy's alleged burglary of a deceased man's home and another's alleged theft of a shoplifting suspect's debit card only to give it to her son to use!

Then there's Anaheim Independent's Matt Cunningham.

The blogger's been a chief proponent for reopening Disneyland. The new curfew prompted Cunningham to write a whiny missive that touts Florida Governor Rick DeSantis' open the gates of hell approach and the pompously-named "Great Barrington Declaration," which reads like the Libertarian herd immunity wet dream that it is.

Even if Newsom agreed to issue guidelines allowing theme parks to reopen in the moderate tier, the spread of coronavirus through November and the expected winter surge would've ensured Disneyland's closure well into 2021, anyway.

As for Cunningham? Let's remember that in pre-pandemic days, he received free concert tickets from favored Anaheim councilmembers who never had to worry about facing criticism from his blog. Maybe Matty's just tired of missing out on all the free fun!

And while we're at it, the recent name change of Cunningham's site that apes a weekly newspaper that once was long ago is even more laughable.

Documents show that his Pacific Strategies Corp. contributed $345 to the Support Our Anaheim Resort PAC on January 23, 2018. Of course, that's the same PAC that Disney dumped $1.5 million to spend on the recent Anaheim city council elections.

Anaheim Independent? Anything but!

By the Byline

I started off my quarantine reads by devouring the late Osvaldo Bayer's classic tome Rebellion in Patagonia. Several books followed as the pandemic languished on. Best among the new arrivals in nonfiction this year is Roberto Lovato's Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs and Revolution in the Americas.

The Salvadoran activist and journalist has spent much time in the writer's cocoon, perfecting his craft. The dedication shines through in Unforgetting, a book that spans San Francisco and San Salvador and generations of family memories and historical traumas in between.

For my latest contribution in the Los Angeles Review of Books, I meditate on the many meanings of Lovato's memoir, from its leitmotifs to its fragmented narrative that mirrors traumatic memory itself. And it all begins where a river of life turned into a pool of death.

Lead photo: JJ was laid off from the Disneyland Hotel after 24 years on the job / Courtesy Blu Gutierrez

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