Category Archives: Mexico

My Oaxaca — Leaving Betzi

The last time I saw Betzi I expected to see her again soon. I never imagined how mistaken I could be.

The day was hot and the dust from the road was rising despite being a couple of weeks short of spring. Tensions were high between Betzi and her mom. Normal teenage stuff – school, friends, the cell phone. I was flying home the next day and had come to say goodbye. I always hated leaving because I never knew what awaited me when I returned. This day was the worst. Amid the heat, the familial stress and a growing global pandemic, I felt something slipping away – a tenuous grip on an education, on a chance for Betzi to be more. More of what exactly didn’t matter. Just more than what she was born into.

Betzi was abloom with adolescence, a wildflower of a chica, all legs, attitude and desire for independence. I wanted to fence her in, to protect her against the predatory poverty that destroys such precocious blossoms. A suffocating heaviness befell me, realization of my impotence, of my powerlessness over her fate.

When a cab to the city came for me, I hugged Betzi and told her: “Don’t worry. I’ll  be here with you. See you in July.” I didn’t know I wouldn’t be back then and I don’t know when it will be possible to do so. Whenever I return – if I do – the Betzi I said goodbye to, the girl with the best grades, the rapid wit, and the smile that touches your soul, will be gone.

My Oaxaca — The Guardian of the Past

Don’t live in the past. Everyone says that. Some things – and some people – are gone, though, and all that remains of them is the past. What are we to do with what is gone?

The dog stands vigilant in the late hour, a black shape in the darker night, watching who comes and who goes, a guardian of that moment in time.

He, un perro callejero, and I, un extranjero perdido, share a blink of an instant. He ignores the camera, trusts me to betray him well in his duties. During the brevity of the open shutter, the dog makes a promise: Keep this image, hold tight this memory, and you will find what was lost.

Sagacity arrives from unexpected sources, even from the salivating maw of a street dog.

What was lost was love. What was lost was promise. What was lost was renewal and transformation.

A dog is what remains. A black shape in the darker night.

My Oaxaca — Money

“Let me tell you about the rich. They are different than you and me.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald

In your face. That’s where the money is. Parading, sashaying, and proclaiming, right there in public, showing itself off to the locals and the tourists and the poorest of Oaxaca’s poor, the indigenous refugees from impoverished mountain towns who survive by peddling trinkets to tourists.

On weekend evenings, the teenaged quinceañeras dressed like Vegas showgirls and the slick, rich novios from Mexico City or Monterrey disgorge themselves from Oaxaca’s grand Dominican temple, Santo Domingo de Guzmán, to celebrate their passage into adulthood or their society-page marriage with ostentatious displays worthy of the cheesiest of telenovelas. Tuxedos, gowns, stilettos, pomades. Fireworks. Mescal. Mariachis. Troupes of costumed folk dancers and athletic stilt walkers.

The tourists love it. They pose for selfies with the dancers, a chance to experience “real” Mexican culture. But the celebrants – young men whose arrogance signals “keep your distance” and women whose toned, enhanced bodies broadcast lives of leisure – huddle amongst themselves. They know it’s all a show – and all for show. The self-conscious smiles, the unfelt whoops of joy, the momentary mingling of the moneyed with the un-moneyed.

My Oaxaca — Personal Space

In a one-room world, where you and your mother and your sister and your brother all sleep in the same bed, where the stove and the mattress and the clothes and the toys and the food fill all but some squares on the floor, there is no place to be alone.

Solitude is elusive. Privacy is rare To find them, children hide – behind curtains, in corners, under the sheets, deep inside of themselves.

Carlos is a quiet boy. Behind his taciturn façade his mind runs at full speed. He says little but absorbs everything. Show him a machine, he knows how it works. When something is broken, hand him a tool. His intelligence is a serpent, coiled, and ready to strike. What it lacks is prey.

For a while, when the television set worked, he watched pirated American movies about superheroes and alien invaders. He memorized entire dialogs, dubbed into Spanish, and could mouth the words seconds before the characters did. When the bed was empty, he crawled into and watched, mostly hidden, from his personal space.

My Oaxaca — In the Chambers of the Queen

People were coming and going, so I waited in the corner, out of the way. A single bulb lit the room and only those who looked into the darkness could see me.

The visitors came to pay homage to the man who had positioned himself, with precision derived from practice, beneath the light, in order to witness his metamorphosis from simple florist to resplendent queen, chosen to reign over the carnaval. In that regal role, wrapped in taffeta and topped by a tiara, her true self shone.

As the hour grew late, the queen’s patience waned. Her throne awaited and there was work yet to be done. She shooed away the callers and sequestered herself in the care of an attendant. The door shut, the heat in the room rose, and I stayed in the darkness of her chrysalis, chosen, by the queen’s silent acquiescence, to be her royal cameraman.

My Oaxaca — Kevin and Antonina

Kevin is 15. He is as you see him because the doctor who dragged him into life twisted the baby boy’s spinal column and robbed him of the ability to walk, grow straight and talk. What remains for Kevin are emotions, which emerge as smiles for music, lively eyes for visitors and tears for his father, Hugo.

Kevin’s mother, Antonina, says he cried for three weeks when Hugo died, a victim of diabetes that first took his sight, then a leg and, finally, his life. In the weeks before his death, Hugo lied in a bed next to Kevin’s and taught his son how to mouth his name.

What remains for Antonina is a life with Kevin and pangs for what might have been – had the doctor been competent, had her husband not drank so much, had there been another child.

There is one more thing, something the whole village knows of but does not speak of readily. It  is about Hugo and his past, but he is gone and what has been said of the past will  remain there.

My Oaxaca — From the Kitchen

A whole fish – head, tail, bones and all – fried on the stovetop. A goat, butchered and sunk into an earthen oven for hours. Sides of beef and pork, killed just steps from the stove, slathered with chilies and roasted beneath avocado branches. Burgers, thinner than sliders, so light they go down like beef-flavored air. Ham-and-cheese sandwiches drenched in mayo. Refried beans rich with epazote. Carrots, peeled into transparent slices, bathed in lime juice. Chunks of jicama dusted with chili powder. Frosted slabs of tres leches cake, celebrating birthdays and graduations. Half-sized bottles of Corona. Shots of mescal. Tall plastic glasses of sugary soda, bright yellow and deep red, representing flavors not found in nature.

All the food in the Ojeda household passes from the hands of Maria and her daughters, Alberta and Guadalupe, to the mouths of family and friends – some from down the street and others, like a son long gone, from a country far to the north.

The Ojeda kitchen is long and wide and rises to the height of two men. A tall, arched window bounces daylight off its walls, which declare their cultural vibrancy in tones of unabashed pink. At night, the color fades into shadows, penetrated barely by the fluorescence of a single bulb and tinged, deliciously, with the lingering aromas of the day’s cooking.

My Oaxaca – Twenty Seconds with Mercedes

On the day I met Mercedes she told me two things: Don’t leave a bag on the floor because it will bring you a year of bad luck; and, if you hug someone for twenty seconds, your worries will disappear. So I picked up my camera bag and hugged her.

Mercedes lives deep inside of herself. Her face, wonderful to photograph because of how her skin holds the light, rarely displays emotions. She stores those in a hidden aquifer of troubling experiences, which I suspect she taps only when she is alone. When emotions surface, they do so in dribbles. A glistening in the eyes, a questioning tilt of the head, a hint of an upturned mouth.

On this day, the first time I photographed her, she sits on her bed with her daughter in their one-room apartment, looking toward a window that faces a narrow passageway. Her face is patient, cautious, even enduring. Her hands are large, with long fingers worthy of a concert pianist, something I had not noticed until now. Her daughter is bored with me and has stopped smiling for the camera, which I prefer.

My Oaxaca — Waiting for the Bull

When winter is on the wane and the thermometer teases with a taste of spring heat, the bulls come to San Juan Guelavía.

Straddling a wide arroyo in the deep of the valley, Guelavía produces two things of note: labor, which it sends north to California; and carrizo, or Spanish cane, which artists weave into baskets and bowls, whose use today is more decorative than utilitarian.

Every year, Guelavía throws a party for the carrizo. For tourists, the folk art and the food are the draw. For townspeople, though, highlight of the weekend is the jaripeo ­– bull-riding. The riders are local men (and boys), fueled by testosterone, emboldened by mescal, and hoping for a moment of glory.

In between rides, which last only seconds and usually end with the rider tossed to the dust, the crowd sits through long stretches of inaction. To fill the time, and the belly, there is beer, there are potato chips drenched in chile sauce, there are tacos and popsicles.

The people here are good at waiting. Their faces fight the setting sun. They look through me, a visitor, waiting for the bull.

My Oaxaca– The Things They Carry

The Spanish verb cargar sounds like the English word cargo, a load to carry from here to there. That’s cargar – to carry, to shoulder a responsibility, to burden.

In the center of Oaxaca, where small shops line the streets and pedestrians fill the sidewalks from curb to wall, almost everyone is cargando something – in their hands, atop their heads or over their backs.

Large plastic sacks stuffed with groceries for the house or fresh tortillas to sell by the kilo; backpacks bulging with schoolbooks; wooden racks of candied apples ready for sale; diaper bags, purses and newborn babies; bouquets of balloons bought for a birthday; sets of dishes wrapped in clear plastic, purchased as wedding gifts; and bulbous water jugs – garrafones — containing 20 liters (about 5 gallons) of purified water that is clean enough for drinking and heavy enough to tingle the biceps of a bodybuilder.

A full garrafón weighs 40 pounds and costs about 40 pesos, a third of the Mexico’s daily minimum wage. Forty pounds to be able to brush your teeth, make a limonada, or brew a cup of coffee.

Forty pounds. Is that too much to cargar?

My Oaxaca — Sister and Brother

Alexis, the boy with the million-peso smile, has leukemia. His sister, Emily, lying alongside him in their two-room apartment in Oaxaca, held the key to his recovery: her genetically matching bone marrow. The transplant surgery scared her, though, because she believed it would give her cancer.

A few months after I took this picture, Emily’s love for her little brother overcame her fear. She suffered through the surgery and doctors injected her bone marrow into her brother. She was 14 and Alexis was 11.

All siblings are close to a degree, but those I’ve met in Mexico who live in one room with their mothers or sleep in the same bed for years share an unspoken intimacy that is most palpable in the silences. It is beyond affection, more of a communion borne in necessity and nurtured by dependency.

Too often, its display eludes the camera, breaking before it like a soap bubble touched by a curious finger.

My Oaxaca — La Vida de la Madre

Mother’s Day – el Día de la Madre.

No one deserves a day of recognition more than single mothers who hold their families together through force of love, work and will. Doing so is never easy, and it is even more challenging in Oaxaca, where single women head up at least a quarter of all families.

Many are women abandoned by men who have gone north or moved on to another warm bed. Many are women who have left partners who drank too much or ruled the house with their fists. All of them have learned to be independent, both from necessity and desire, in a culture that in almost every circumstance values men more than women.

These mothers welcome me into their homes. They insist on feeding me; they invite me to graduations, baptisms and birthdays; and they bestow on me the gift I treasure the most: their trust.

They humble me with their work; they inspire me with their dedication to family; they make me laugh with their antics; and, when they are not looking, they sometimes bring me to tears.

My Oaxaca — El Caballo Rápido

When I met Axia, she drew horses. In the bedroom she shared with her mom and two younger siblings, she had papered one wall with sketches of horses. She’d given each a name; for example, El Caballo que Vuela – the Horse that Flies.

I made some photos of Axia while she sat and drew in the light coming through the bedroom door. She asked me for a piece of paper, so I handed her my notebook. A while later, when I was on the patio talking to her mom, Axia walked out of the bedroom and handed me this drawing – El Caballo Rápido — The Fast Horse.

A few months later, I returned to the farm town where Axia lived and brought her a large sketchpad and pens I’d bought in the U.S. She filled all the pages with drawings of horses and added many of them to the gallery on the wall.

The following year, on my next visit, I was surprised to see the wall was empty; all the horses were gone. I asked Axia’s mom what happened. She said Axia’s younger sister, angry about something, had ripped up the drawings and the sketchbook as well.

Axia, whose full name is Axianeydt Ramirez Ojeda, is older now and has moved to New York. She still draws, but mostly anime characters. She seems to be done with horses.

My Oaxaca — Azul

Azul is one of four sisters who lived in Hijos de la Luna, a children’s shelter so named because the kids’ mothers supposedly worked as prostitutes at night (under the moon – la luna). A few did, but most were just hard-working and poor. They cleaned houses, washed clothes, worked in markets, making enough to pay the rent but not enough to care for their kids.

Someone told me Azul’s mother was a prostitute, but I never met her, so I didn’t know for sure. What I knew was that Azul lived deep inside of herself. She stared at me like no else ever did or has. In the 10 or so times I photographed her, she never said more than 10 words to me. One day, when she put on a red clown’s nose, her face fell into the closest thing I’d seen to a smile on her.

After the government closed the shelter on charges of abuse, the children scattered. I heard that Azul and her sisters moved in with their mother, who afterward had a baby boy who died in infancy. Before each trip to Oaxaca, I message Azul’s older sister, asking her to ask her mother if I may visit. Sometimes I hear back, sometimes I don’t. She’s never said yes.

My Oaxaca – Agua Para Uso Humano

In the dry months, after the winter green fades and before the summer rains fall, the city thrums with the sounds of pipa trucks, ungainly vehicles whose oval tanks contain up to 10,000 liters of “water for human use.” Not for drinking, though. Not unless you enjoy a forced intestinal purge. For bathing and washing dishes and cleaning the cement patios.

Gas-powered pumps snort like un-muffled lawn mowers and push the water through corrugated rubber hoses into the cisterns of upscale homes, hotels, and trendy new businesses like French cafés and fusion restaurants that delight those willing to pay first-world prices in a third-world city.

Those without the money to buy thousands of liters, the working class and the poor, go without water for days when the city shuts off the tap. To drink and cook and bathe, they buy a 20-liter jug, a garrafón. Others drop buckets into deep wells and draw up undrinkable water, good enough for cleaning and boiling.

This is the conundrum: There is mescal that costs $10 a shot, there are hotels that charge $250 a night, there are iced frappuccinos from Starbucks, but there is not enough “agua para uso humano” to go around.

My Oaxaca – The Woman and the Umbrella

“Come in, she said, I’ll give ya shelter from the storm.” – Bob Dylan

The umbrellas float atop the crowd, bobbing like comic word bubbles above the women – always women – who snap them open and thrust them skyward as they step from the shade of street corners, churches and buses into the glare of the Mexican sun.

Beneath the umbrella, beyond shelter from the solar storm, the canopy creates a protective sphere. Inside, the woman navigates the eddies and swirls of the sidewalks, fends off unwanted solicitations, commercial and libidinous, and broadcasts, with a portentous downward tilt of the umbrella’s pointed tip, that she is about her business and is not to be messed with.

My Oaxaca — The Dead Dog

Mexico is tough on dogs. They die from starvation on sidewalks. They die on highways, flattened by buses and left as a feast for the crows. The die from poison in farm towns because folks prefer dead dogs over dead chickens. They die from fights with other street dogs, clawed, bitten and infected.

This dog died in a children’s shelter. It ate something toxic, perhaps poison, maybe rotted meat. Death came slowly, performing its last rites before an audience of children. All afternoon they watched the dog lie on a slab of cement and gasp for the breath its flooded lungs could not produce.

When stillness finally came, the children stood over the corpse. A few touched its fur, moist with sweat from the exertion of dying; others, less adventurous, poked the body with their shoes.

My Oaxaca — The Man in the Street

When I photograph on the street, which I do often, I wonder if the images I make represent what is really there of if they result from something for which I am looking. In other words, do I find only what I seek?

In my pictures, I see tension and stress and pressure. Of all the thousands of people on the streets, am I only drawn to the tense, the stressed and the pressured? I must be fascinated by their difference from me – or perhaps their sameness.

Amid the crush of the crowds on street corners, on buses and in markets, I see so much isolation. People hold deep into themselves, hearts girded and faces hardened for another day’s battle in a life-long war. Mexico gives nothing freely and yields its comforts only to the most enduring or the most privileged.

My Oaxaca – The Procession in Teotitlán

When I began to photograph in Oaxaca, I avoided three things: Other photographers, Americans and religious ceremonies. A couple of years ago, though, after the death of my friend, Mary Ellen Mark, a few of us who were her students and friends returned to Oaxaca, to be there during the time of her annual workshops, to photograph together and to share our memories of her.

During her workshops, Mary Ellen sent students to photograph a religious procession marking the beginning of the Catholic season of Lent in Teotitlán del Valle, a foothills village on the outskirts of Oaxaca. I never went; doing so seemed invasive. This time, though, to honor Mary Ellen and to be with my friends, I rode with them to the town at dawn, when the procession began.

I took a Leica and a wide-angle lens, hoping to be unobtrusive. As the procession meandered through the village, the sun rose, scraping the cobblestones of the streets and brushing the stucco of the buildings. I stood in a shaded doorway across from a painted wall and waited for the parishioners to come to me. When they passed, I made a half-dozen frames. This is the one I kept.

My Oaxaca – The Girl in the Uniform

This might be the first decent image I ever made in Oaxaca. I had a new Nikon D200 that I’d gifted myself because I wanted to resurrect the photography career I’d abandoned years earlier. I was mediocre when I gave it up and not much better when I restarted, but the instant of making a photograph excited me as much at age 50 as did at age 25.

Mostly then I shot pretty pictures for a magazine near San Francisco. I enjoyed it, and they paid me, which I also enjoyed. Still, I wanted to do something more real, something more journalistic, and that meant I needed to move beyond “pretty.”

I began photographing people on the streets of Oaxaca, but I was too timid to make anything intimate or powerful. This girl was part of a group of students having their class photograph taken near the famous Santo Domingo church. I stood back from the group, hesitant, and made six frames, all of them average. Then this girl turned to look at me and I shot one more.

That was on New Year’s Eve, 2006. Six more years passed until I met Mary Ellen Mark in Oaxaca and she urged me to photograph with more passion. Ever since then I have.