Vital Signs

Portraits and poems from a shifting landscape

The product of six years of reflection and documentation, Vital Signs takes us on a walk through one of California’s largest cities: San Bernardino—generally presented in the media as a center of urban blight and high crime. In this passionate collaboration, poet Juan Delgado and photographer Thomas McGovern celebrate the working-class Latino communities of the Inland Empire and the intensity of their stories. Pairing Delgado’s piercing poems with McGovern’s photos of hand-painted signs and murals, Vital Signs preserves the narrative and visual culture of the urban landscape and reveals a community rich in emotion and vernacular art.

Copublished with the Inlandia Institute

Winner, Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award

Advance Praise

“Delgado and McGovern descend into the frayed realms of San Bernardino, meditative as Zen masters—there are no forced pronounce- ments, no fancy camera angling. Everything is face to face, face to wall—awake—in this ‘pilgrimage of lip-stained Styrofoam cups’ and a ‘coyote skull whistling.’ From the painted heart, these signs are vital to our lives. A tour de force x 2.”

—Juan Felipe Herrera, California Poet Laureate


“The poetry has a photographic appeal, and the photography has a poetic appeal. The two blend together a raw portrait of San Bernardino that is both urban and rural. There is strength in people, strength in the natural world—even the weeds are squeezing through cracked pavement. Tourist Information should hand out this book and let the curious find their way around.”

—Gary Soto, author of Partly Cloudy: Poems of Love and Longing


“McGovern and Delgado deftly mine the beauty and richness of San Bernardino County. McGovern’s photos of disappearing murals are beautifully juxtaposed with Delgado’s devastating poems. Together they create a compelling portrait of this region’s citizens and the landscapes they inhabit.”

—Rebecca Trawick, director/curator, Wignall Museum of Contemporary Art


“Thomas McGovern has a sharp and tender eye for the colorful handmade advertisements for restaurants, body shops, beauty salons and other establishments in the small town centers of the Inland Empire.”

—Sandra Phillips, senior curator of photography, SFMOMA


“Juan Delgado treats us to a journey through nostalgic neighborhoods, often with sudden imagery that serves to instruct, enlighten and entertain.”

—Ernest Siva, author of Voices of the Flute and president of the Dorothy Ramon Learning Center


“A powerful synergy of images and words that comprehensively document the powerful tides of social, economic, and cultural changes occurring in the Inland Empire.”

—Daniel Foster, current board chair, Arts Connection, the Arts Council of San Bernardino County

About the Authors

Thomas McGovern is a photographer, writer, and educator, and the author of Bearing Witness (to AIDS), Amazing Grace, and Hard Boys + Bad Girls. His photographs are in the permanent collections of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; The Brooklyn Museum of Art; The Baltimore Museum of Art; The Museum of the City of New York; and the New York Historical Society, among others. His art reviews and features have appeared in Afterimage, Artweek, Art Issues, and Art Papers and in 2011 he founded the photography publication Dotphotozine. He is a professor of art at California State University, San Bernardino.
Juan Delgado has published several books of poetry, El Campo, A Rush of Hands, and Green Web, which received the Contemporary Poetry Series Award and was published by the University of Georgia Press. He holds an M.F.A. from the University of California at Irvine, where he was also a Regents Fellow. He is a professor of English and director of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at California State University, San Bernardino.