Category Archives: Mexico

My Oaxaca — A Return

If there ever was going to be a return to what we once knew as normal for me it was going to come in a trip to Oaxaca, where I am now.

In ten days here, in the city where a passionate photographer revived me with her insistence on doing the work and her remarkable belief in the talent I’d allowed to lie fallow for decades, I’ve found pretty much what I thought I would find – endurance and loss, celebration and sorrow, an obdurate adherence to traditions that reward self-interest and tolerate impunity, and a double-fisted defiance of the norms by the rising generation.

I was so worried about Covid before I came that at one point I canceled my flight. The fretting was not without merit because Mexico still lags in vaccinations and the government is notoriously mendacious when it comes to public reporting. What I see is a mix of sensible safety measures (everyone wears a mask everywhere except in restaurants) and illogical practices that do nothing to slow viral spread (stepping on rubber mats of bleach to enter any business). At every entrance someone squirts antiseptic gel onto your hands. By day’s end, my hands are gooey with it.

What concerned me most was getting around. When it is too far to walk, I am a public transportation guy – cabs, buses, even the five-people-to-a-Nissan collectivos, all of which I saw as Covid factories. A week-and-a-half in, I’ve set aside caution for convenience, at times questioning my own judgment (especially one evening while my complaining legs held me upright for thirty minutes on a vomit-inducing bus ride so full that my nauseous stomach was pressed against a grandmother’s ample indigenous behind the whole time.

Half of the people I’ve met aren’t vaccinated, some for lack of opportunity (the government controls the vaccination schedule; the dates are few, the lines hours long) and others for lack of understanding (rumors of chips and side effects, and belief in divine intervention). Many of the vaccinated lack a second dose (see government above). Everyone knows people who have died (one woman’s doctor, a gynecologist, just died a few days ago). And many have been sick and survived, a few with lingering conditions such as chest pain or persistent shortness of breath.

There are tourists, quite a few. The grey-haired Americans fill their usual haunts, cafes that serve smoothies and muffins; the tall, blonder and younger Europeans hang out in the mescal bars. Of which there is more, expresso machines or mescalerias, it is hard to say, but there are more than enough of both to absorb the influx of dollars and euros the businesses in the central historic district hope arrives this peak season, which begins with Muertos at the end of this month and continues through New Year’s.

Beyond the cobble-stoned downtown streets, in the sprawling chaos of Oaxaca’s urbanized municipios like Xoxocotlán and San Antonio de la Cal, everyday life remains a scramble for survival. A mother who lives with her three sons (twins and a teenager) on a dirt road only a block off the main highway that goes to the airport and two blocks from a Walmart, tells me she is lucky because her house is secure. There is no water, but there is a tall metal gate that keeps out the lost boys who roam the colonia at night. A mile way, a 17-year-old boy, a first-year architecture student at the local university, cares for his four younger siblings. Their mother has been gone for six months, working in other cities because she couldn’t make a living in Oaxaca. This family, too, lives on a dirt road in a muddle of rooms built from tin. The floors, though, are cement, and swept clean of dust.

The pandemic didn’t diminish the inequality that lives behind the brightly painted facades of the tourist zone. I suspect it got worse here, just as it did he United States.

Some reunions for me have been very emotional. After spending a wonderful Sunday with a family whose mother was on the edge of Covid hospitalization, but is now recovered enough to cook and feed me two sumptuous meals in five hours, I cried as I left them. Don’t do that again, I said between hugs. Don’t. I have come to love some of the people I’ve been photographing for years more than my own family, which is dispersed. Here, there is the intimacy that eludes me at home. Even as I type these words my eyes fill.

I first came to Oaxaca for love, that of my wife. Then I came for curiosity, and later the photography. Now I come for these families. Even though they break my heart over and over, they fill it so abundantly that the inevitable ache that comes as I see the vise of poverty squeezing them into smaller and smaller lives is tolerable.

Truthfully, I also come for myself. As an adolescent a part of me ran from home in search of anything other than what I had (although hindsight later showed me the stigmatism of my perspective). That part, that yearning for life lived fully, finds a home here.

Oaxaca survived. The empanadas stuffed with potatoes and chorizo still satisfy beyond description. The mescal still burns – until the second one. The dark eyes above the masks still gleam. The women are still beautiful, the men still strong. The buses still spout fumes, but – hey – we all have masks!

It is not as it was, of course. My favorite corner restaurant, where enchiladas were cheap and tortas even cheaper, is closed, a Covid victim. Yet another useless folk art store occupies the space. The bookstore is gone, as is the first mescal bar I went to long ago. A friend died, not of Covid, but dead nonetheless. Children have moved – four returned to the U.S., where they were born – and others have dropped out of school (see the heartache reference above).

That is life, though, isn’t it? We are more defined by change than consistency. Oaxaca lives on, just as I do. The same, but different.

Mexico, I Have a few Questions for You – Tengo unas preguntas para ti

México, México, lindo México, ¿por qué me castigas tanto, por qué sigues rompiéndome el corazón?

There is nothing easy in Mexico. There is nothing that once fixed or settled or mended stays that way. The country drifts toward the broken. ¿México, por qué se descompone tanto?

Tell me, mi amigo Mexico, why do you make education so hard? Why do you take the dreams of smart little girls, the one’s with the highest grades in their classes, and toss them like sacks of plastic soda bottles alongside your pot-holed roads? Why do you make teenage boys drop of out of school and work for casi nada selling trinkets on the streets or busting up rocks for their mamas’ ex-lovers? Why is it easier for a teenager to get into the United States than it is into college – or even high school?

I want to know, mi querido Mexico, why do you make poverty so agreeable? I want to know why single mothers who work so much – ten hours a day, six days a week – must tell their children que el dinero no alcanza for their school supplies as they sit in the single room that is their house and make a bowl of oatmeal that is their dinner.

I wonder, mi cielito Mexico, why there are pesos for a Mayan train and a freeway to the beach and a paved road en el medio de la nada, but there no centavos for water that runs clean from the tap, for toilets that flush, for schools whose task is to educate everyone instead of to weed out those who lack the resources to continue.

What can you say to me Mexico – more, what can you do to show the world, Mexico – that you take these questions seriously and do not use the obvious answers para chingar al pueblo every six years?

Do I sound fed up, Mexico, disheartened, saddened, angry? ¿Sueno harto, México, descorazonado, triste, enojado? Then, yes, you hear me correctly. Imagine how the world sees you, Mexico, when I, a friend – y todavia somos amigos – feel this way. What do other people think of your empty promises, your corruption and impunity, and your insane rate of violence?

Oye, Mexico, you cannot break my heart further, because the pieces are already too small. You cannot sadden me more because my soul is full of tears. You can not disappoint me again, because I no long expect anything of you.

Pero no soy de allí, Mexico, I am not from there. I am gringo, extranjero, gabacho. I am not what matters. What matters are the children and their mothers. They are your future, Mexico. Why, Mexico, do you care so little about your future?

Two Covid Stories

A pretty young woman from a small country town in southern Mexico finds her way to the United States. There amid the ocean of immigrants in Los Angeles she meets, improbably, a young man from her hometown who had arrived a couple of years earlier. He is short, but muscled, and appraises others with an unabashed directness. He is handsome, rugged looking even, a country boy working hard in the big city.  The young woman falls for him and him for her, as anyone would with her sweet, round face, bright, lively eyes the color of the night sky, and a smile that comes with its own blush.

Two decades later, the couple is home again, having returned ten years ago after deciding a poor life in Mexico is richer than a poor life in the United States. They are parents of two daughters, one born in Mexico, the older one, and the other in the U.S. The husband works with cement and brick; the wife cares for the home of a wealthy woman. They live in a small house he has been building during all the seven years I’ve known them. It sits on a dusty rise where the wind blows all day and there is a striking view of the serrated mountains that rim the valley.

A couple of weeks ago, both of them got Covid, even though they’d each had the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine. He got better in a few days, nothing more than a cough and a fever. His wife, though, who is diabetic, is still quite sick. She’s been breathing with a nebulizer for more than a week and an IV tube drips antibiotics into her. Her oxygen level dropped once to below 90, but has since risen. A doctor from a larger town visits twice a day, a sign of the seriousness of her condition. She prescribes the medicine and the older daughter takes a cab and then a bus to the city to buy it – if it can be found because at times there are shortages.

The daughter, who speaks English as well as her native Spanish, works as a translator of government documents, a steady, if not glamorous job. She stopped working to care for her parents, to do the cooking and cleaning and errand-running. She has been using her savings to buy her mother’s medicine, but the money ran out a couple of days ago. The government provides health care services, but does not pay for medicine. The public hospital is full and sometimes short of medicine as well. Worse, there is the suspicion, based on too many examples, that people who enter the hospital with Covid don’t come out.

With the help of some friends, the daughter finds enough money to fill the latest prescription and the doctor arrives over the weekend to say she thinks the mother is getting better. It looks like she is going to make it. In another couple of days we will know for sure, says the doctor.

The daughter’s grandmother, on her father’s side, was sick as well. But like her son, she recovered quickly. That’s the strong side of the family, the daughter says, and then adds about her village of 3,000 people:

Everyone’s sick. There are more people infected her than there are healthy people.

This is one case of Covid. One family doing what they can to keep a loved one alive. Leaving a job. Burning up the savings. More than two weeks of wondering, worrying, and hoping the pre-existing condition does not mean a death sentence. In Mexico, a nation of 100 million, more than 3.2 million people have gotten Covid; 253,000 of them have died.

***

In Cuzco, Peru, known most widely among travelers as the gateway town to Machu Picchu, a 30-year-old woman sits all day in a tiny apartment in front of a laptop giving Spanish lessons to Americans for ten dollars an hour. She shares the apartment with her niece, who is only a few years younger and works as a waitress.

They are both Venezuelan, from the city of Cabimas, the heart of the country’s petroleum industry. The Spanish teacher left the city, and her parents and siblings, about four years ago. She has a college degree in languages and literature, but couldn’t find work because of Venezuela’s ravaged economy. She is part of the great Venezuelan diaspora – nearly 5.5 million of them have fled from a country of 28 million, many of them, like the Spanish teacher, to nearby countries that don’t welcome their presence.

Both the Spanish teacher and her niece have Covid. The teacher, who I talk to weekly, started with a fever, which became a cough, which became a chest full of phlegm. For a couple of days, she could smell or taste nothing. Eight days into the disease, she is taking antibiotics, and exhausted. Yet, she spends her hours talking to Americans in Spanish because that pays for the medicine. She and her niece will recover – as will several friends of theirs who are also sick. They are young, their immunes systems are strong.

None of them were vaccinated. The wanted to be, but in Peru, unlike here in the U.S., there is not enough vaccine to go around (less than 10 percent of adults are vaccinated). And what there is comes from Russia or China and is considered suspect. Better than nothing, they say.

Peru is Covid country. The official death toll in June was more than 180,000, in a country of less than 33 million people, according to the BBC. Another report said Peru had the highest Covid death rate as a proportion of population in the world.

***

Here’s an obvious statement: Each number on a Covid chart is someone’s life. It is easy to overlook this reality amid the flood of statistics and the volume of polemics. It might be a life, like that of the Mexican father, that is little affected by the disease, or it could be a life, like that of the Mexican mother, that endures several weeks of distress and fear and results in depleted savings. It might be a college-educated Venezuelan refugee stuck in a room working throughout the disease because she must.

As we Americans argue over masks in schools and needles in arms, let’s not forget the privilege that allows us to have this debate, an entitlement so many millions of others in the world wish they had.

My Oaxaca — Damas de Honor

During the humid summers of Oaxaca, spiritual warmth and physical heat are partners in houses of prayer. On a wedding day in July, a 17th-century church seals guests in its ancient stone as the southern sun warms the nave to roasting temperatures. Fidelity is measured in sweat.

Religion is theater, and a catholic wedding in Mexico is a work of many acts: the mass, the blessings, the exchanges of everlasting devotion, the honoring of the many padrinos, the signing of official documents. There is no intermission.

The bridesmaids – las damas de honor – whose duties of procession are part of the opening and closing acts, wait off-stage as the play progresses, attendant to the script, but also wilting in the heat, which intensifies as the day lengthens. Unlike the flowers on the altar, they have no water for their stems.

In front of them, a boy whose walk-on role is done, takes advantage of his parents’ absence to do what everyone else in the church wishes they could do.

My Oaxaca — The Son Who Learned His Father’s Name

A teenage boy dies in Mexico. Tragic, so young, you might say, but also so common. In a land of violence and poverty, the lives of young men meet regrettable ends with common frequency. The story of this boy, though, is special. I will tell what I know of it, but there is much more outside of my knowledge. First, his name. It remains with me. After enduring so much in such a short life, he deserves privacy, as do his parents. In this story, he is Kiki, and they are Guadalupe and Miguel.

Kiki’s troubles began even before he drew his first breath. As he crowned out of his mother’s birth canal, the attending doctor, who was unskilled, grabbed awkwardly, twisting the emerging boy’s head and damaging his spinal column. Kiki’s brain survived, but its connection to his extremities and his organs did not. Kiki saw and heard, but he could not control. His limbs contorted into a permanent S, and his hands and feet curled inward, in retreat from his body. His speech consisted of an array of sounds – sweet gurgles, anxious pleadings, rhythmic mouthing to the music he loved. Stunted in height and thinned by lack of muscle, he weighed no more than a first grader.

Atop this anatomical mess sat Kiki’s full-sized, beautiful head. His face was broad across the cheekbones, full around the mouth, punctuated by an assertive nose, and adorned with a pair of deep, dark, hypnotic, ovular eyes that spoke all the emotions that Kiki’s muted voice could not – sparkles for pleasure, tears for sadness, and long, unblinking stares that could have been inquisitiveness or maybe just incomprehension. From the neck up, he was as attractive as he was grotesque from the neck down.

Kiki lived in a rural village that was near a bigger city, but still remote enough that a visitor from a more developed world could walk the town’s only paved road, smell the fields of garlic that surround it, pass the empty church (closed by an earthquake that cracked its tower), and imagine being in another century. Only the satellite dishes jutting up from rooftops broke the reverie.

Guadalupe, Kiki’s mom, is a short, quiet, doe-eyed woman whose dominant expression is one of permanent suspension, of canceled expectation. Her face is young enough to still hint of the coquettish beauty of her youth, while portraying the weight of caring for Kiki for a decade and a half, feeding, bathing, dressing, changing the bag he needed to empty his waste. A deep, vertical furrow creases her forehead about her broad nose. Miguel, the father, missed most of Kiki’s life. He was in California, working in a restaurant, sending money home, but also indulging himself with dalliances in adultery and drinking. By the time Miguel returned to Mexico, he was rotting from the inside out; diabetes, brought on by the drinking, was dissolving one gangrenous leg and eroding his eyesight.

Kiki outlived his father, who died blind and minus half a leg at age 49, one more victim of a disease that plagues Mexico. In the weeks before his death, Miguel laid in a single, metal-framed bed next to that of his son, to whom he spoke in the rhythmic Spanish of the Mexican countryside. Miguel’s final act of life was to teach Kiki how to say his father’s name. I saw Guadalupe a few weeks after Miguel died. As she sat on her bed holding Kiki in her lap, she told me he was speaking his father’s name. I couldn’t understand it, but she and Kiki did. That was what was important.

When Miguel died, Kiki cried for three weeks. Silently. He had grown accustomed to hearing his father’s voice and feeling his presence in the room with him. He could not have known his father was dying, though I am sure he realized Miguel was his father because he was aware of who people were – his mother, of course, the grandmother who lived with him, and occasional visitors from other places. Three weeks of tears, three weeks of mourning.

The bed-bound intimacy of the dying, diabetic father and his physically crumpled son was, despite the hardship of caring for both of them, a gift of emotional honesty for Guadalupe, who for her entire period of motherhood was ensnared in a web of whispered lies and unspoken truths, the result of the duplicitous actions of her husband.

Kiki was Miguel’s third child. His first was born in California to a woman he met there. A boy or a girl, I don’t know. The mother of the second child was a local woman from the same town as Miguel and Guadalupe. They liaised long enough for her to give birth to a boy, and then Miguel’s libidinous eye landed on Guadalupe, a curvy young woman with lush black hair, a good-looking country girl. When Miguel proposed to Guadalupe, her family balked. The whole town knew he was a philanderer. Who could say if something as fragile as a marriage vow would bind him to monogamy? He persisted, though, and what followed was marriage, pregnancy, and Kiki.

By the economic standards of the village, which border on poverty, Kiki’s family made enough money for a decent life. They had a plot of land, good for growing food. Miguel sent home dollars from California, that enabled them to open a sparsely stocked hardware store. There were even pesos to pay for physical therapy for Kiki. What fortunes they had, though, flagged after Miguel’s return. First hobbled and then blinded, he was limited to simple domestic chores, such as scraping kernels of corn off dried cobs. When money got tight, therapy for Kiki stopped.

As his eyesight retreated into narrow tunnels of vision, Miguel passed hours seated in a plastic chair in front of the hardware store, whose eastern side was shaded from the afternoon sun and faced a vacant lot about the size of a soccer field that bordered the town’s church. On the south end of this land, opposite the front door of the hardware store, Miguel sunk a large wooden pole into the ground, and to the pole he tied a horse. On sunny afternoons, a boy walked over from a nearby house, untied the horse, and rode it up and down the empty field. The boy was Miguel’s other son. Miguel didn’t speak to him, and the boy didn’t know Miguel was his father. Perhaps that has changed since Miguel’s death.

Miguel always wanted a son, says Guadalupe, and he got at least two of them, maybe three. The tragedy of Miguel’s life is that he lost them all. The first – if there is one in California – he gave up because of the realities of immigration and the penalties of his depravity. The second he traded away in exchange for marriage to Guadalupe, a barter that forced Miguel to spectate from a distance as the boy grew. The last, Kiki, watched Miguel die, unable to bid him farewell even from inches away.

A boy died in Mexico, taking with him the dreams of his father.

My Oaxaca — Intersection

Intersect. To meet and cross at a point. To overlap. To share a common space.

Life consists of intersections, of crisscrossing, of bisecting and squeezing into, onto and through the public commons, bound for or coming from our more private lives.

Street corners are theaters of intersection. There is a daily playbill of drama, comedy, and tragedy – not everyone who ventures off a crowded curb navigates intact to the opposite one. In Oaxaca, the troupe of pedestrians performs to a cacophonous score – the guttural grind of diesel, the bleating grievance of car horns, and the incessant blare of amplified advertisements for cheap eyeglasses, miracle herbs, knock-off denim and dozens of other quotidian products.

With each change of the signal light, a fresh queue of citizen actors strides onto the stage. Their props identify them – mothers laden with infants; students encumbered with bloated backpacks; invitees to weddings or graduations or birthday parties juggling floating balloons and shrink-wrapped gifts; vendors carrying candied apples, bottled water, or plastic bags stuffed with slices of fruit drenched in lime and salsa.

Three things never change: the flow of humanity; the asphalt, lampposts and buildings; and me. I wait in my space. For the intersection, for the overlap, for the crossing of our lives.

My Oaxaca — Los Muertos Nos Hablan

The dead talk to us. They tell us their stories, the tales they carry from this life to the next, the underworld, the upper-world, whichever imagined destination comforts you in the absence of those who are gone.

These are the stories we want to tell; these are the stories worth the struggle of the telling. But we must retrieve them and bring them back to this side, to the world where we, the not-yet-dead, navigate our time under a sky of dim stars, always hoping for a brighter path to where we are going, to what we will become.

In the los panteones, I walk amid the dead. I listen, I lean in, I strain to hear their voices. I have questions for them: Who were you? How did you live? Why did you die so young? What awaits me when I join you? What I hear in response are the rustle of dry leaves, the murmur of a street cat slinking amid the tombs, the pleadings of someone praying nearby.

I tell the dead: I have come for your stories. Lend them to me and I will share them with those you left behind and those who are yet to arrive. I still myself. I drop into my own silence, erasing every memory of every sound I have ever heard so I can detect the voices of the dead.

Faint but audible, a distant chorus, an eternal echo rewards my patience. The voices answer in unison: “Come closer, come closer and we will tell you everything.”

My Oaxaca — Shade

A hot day. A long walk on a dusty road. A sliver of shade cast by a concrete pole. A man carries a camera and a folding chair. At this moment only one of these objects is of use. He sits.

San Juan Bautista Cuicatlán. From Oaxaca to the north. Over a high ridge. Through a forest of pine, then another of tall cactus. Down from the mountain air into the oven of the valley. Across a glimmering river, around the clusters of mango groves, to the house of the couple who care for lost children.

The husband is good man. A working man. A man of faith. He is building a round church at the stub end of the valley to honor what he believes. An invitation to see the church. A walk in the heat. A footbridge suspended over a creek burbling with freshness. Into the water. Clothes and all. Salvation. Not biblical, not eternal, but soul-saving nonetheless.

The family bakes bread and sells it in town. The pesos pay for the children and the church. On the way home, we stop to collect a makeshift street stand and take home what didn’t sell that day. Two boxes of bread, a small table, a folding chair. I pick up the chair. A good choice.

  • Photo — Lori Barra

My Oaxaca — Se Busca

Gone missing is the current expression. A terrible phrase. Bland, imprecise and deceptive. It doesn’t mouth the truth: someone has disappeared, someone was kidnapped, enslaved, or is dead. They are not “gone missing.” They are on the run, they have been taken, or they have been killed.

Se busca. Wanted. Wanted to be found. The headline of a thousand posters pasted onto walls and stapled onto utility poles all over Mexico. Mostly women, mostly daughters and sisters and wives and nieces and cousins and friends. Runaways some, but more likely victims of femicides. Young men, too, are missing, often caught in the crossfire between poverty and crime. Plomo o plata, güey.

Se busca. Last seen wearing jeans, a white blouse and black boots. When she laughs dimples form in her cheeks. Her hair is tinted red.

Se busca. So many are wanted that the nation’s public TV channel shows several posters of the missing each day, some dating back a decade. Wanted for ten years or more. Loss and hope travel together through time.

Se busca Evelyn García Macías. Se buscan Montserrat, Cielo, Caterin, Isis, Eduardo, Misael, Cecilia, Ingrid, Haydee and Verónica. Ayúdanos localizarlos. Mexico, your children are missing. Help us find them.

My Oaxaca — Separation

There is an unpleasant sense of slipping away, an inevitable loosening of what I once held firmly, like a grasped hand sliding from my grip against my will.

Five months have passed in the house, nearly six since I’ve been in Oaxaca, where for the last seven years I poured out all the passion and compassion of which I’m capable (and even that was never enough). A pandemic doesn’t freeze lives, it only alters them. Life continues for the families I’ve photographed. A child returns to the United States. A mother and her children move to a new apartment. A teenage boy lives alone while his mother works. Another teenager leaves home to live with an uncle, driven out by disputes with his mother and her boyfriend. Yet another teenager, a girl, runs away from her mother. The same mother has no work and tells me she is eating air. A wedding is canceled. A quinceañera is celebrated, as are several birthdays.

I am there for none of it. I always missed a lot, but I was also present for many things, for birthdays and births and graduations, for fights with the landlady and night-time moves to new apartments, for visits to gynecologists, neurologists and optometrists, for the killing of chickens and pigs and, once, a bull, for the laughter and the tears, so much more of the former than the latter although the tears dug the biggest hole in me, and for the many goodbyes, said on dirt roads, at bus stops and in doorways, and sealed with hugs and smiles and promises to return, never thinking at the moment that any one of those farewells might be the last, but never escaping the foreboding eventuality of that coming day.

What remains are memories, feelings and photographs. The mental images and emotions are incomplete, as they are by nature. The mind and the heart are unreliable witnesses to our lives. They would never survive voir dire. The digital files portray with accuracy what the camera recorded but they seem to me, in my absence from their origin, sterile inadequacies. They testify to my presence at the time, but they do not assuage my absence at the moment.

In a lifetime, six months is not much (although, to do the math, it is one one-hundredth-fifty-sixth of the average lifespan of an American male), so I can’t validate this sense that Oaxaca is now caught irrevocably in an outgoing tide. If I return next summer, the children I know will be changed. The mothers I photographed will be more worn down. The city and I will need to become reacquainted, like former lovers finding the boundaries of a post-breakup relationship.

The thing that most clamors for telling is the most difficult to relate.

I feel empty. Oaxaca and the children and the mothers demanded so much of me, not in a negative way, not in asking for things or seeking my help, but in an all-engaging, three-hundred-sixty-degree emotional way. I needed to be present every moment I was with them. They opened themselves to me, and I felt obligated to return the trust. I tried to show them the best of myself and to do so I had to demand more of myself than I do at home, where the routine comforts of my American life indulge my tendency to disengage.

It is hard to say what I fear most: losing Oaxaca or losing myself. There are so many people in my life there: hard-working fathers with forearms as thick as tree trunks; mothers who work from dark to dark cleaning houses, cooking meals, and washing clothes; grandmothers who suffer the abuse of drunken grandfathers; cousins that know how to kill a pig with kindness (cradle its massive head in your arms as you slit its throat); aunts who work as seamstresses, cooks, and hair-dressers; uncles who drink, uncles who live in the United States, and uncles who care for their nephews when they run away from home; lovers who lock their women in rooms, lovers who have other families, and lovers who leave teenage girls pregnant. So much intensity and immediacy. So much relentless necessity. So much life. So much more than I ever imagined.

What all of this occupied with me is now vacant.

Oaxaca realized dreams I walked away from. The children became those I never had. The families became the one I lost. The tears and the laughter and the sorrows and the celebrations disinterred what I thought I had buried in myself forever. I have never been able to succinctly explain how I became so involved in Oaxaca nor answer adequately when people ask what I am doing there, but more than anything the photography and the families and all the engagement required to make the pictures and to be with the people gave me what I felt I’ve long been lacking: a purpose.

This is what I fear – losing that purpose. Is that such a selfish thought? I suppose it is. Shouldn’t I be thinking of the mothers and of the children? Yes, and, truthfully, I do think of them – every day. The separation mandated by the pandemic, though, has forced me to see a truth I had ignored or denied until this point: I cannot save them as I once thought I could. The persistence of the poverty, the crappy schools, the dysfunctional government, and a culture of low expectations that neither encourages nor sustains efforts to rise above one’s station of birth will smother their fragile hopes. I saw signs of the suffocation even before the time of the virus, the mothers confronting futures filled with nothing more than the economic instability that defines them now, and the children realizing that the small world in which they live values more the work than can be done today than the rewards more education can deliver tomorrow. I have no control over any of that, almost no influence over their destinies. I can provide short-term relief, but I cannot fulfill long-term promise. I can only save myself, and even that is a fifty-fifty proposition at best given my track record.

Julian Barnes, in his wonderful book, The Sense of an Ending, talks about the revelations that come to us as the years advance, once of which is awareness of the gap between what we expect at that time of life and what realities in fact arrive with it. For example:

“Later on in life, you expect a bit of rest, don’t you? You think you deserve it. I did, anyway. But then you begin to understand that the reward of merit is not life’s business.”

Echoing his words, I say: the encounter of purpose is not life’s business. Simple passage through the labyrinth of time guarantees nothing, much less satisfaction with the journey. The purpose of life is to live. Nothing more. And we cannot live the lives of others. Those who try are destined for disappointment.

Oaxaca gave me more than I ever expected, and in the thrall of that discovery I embraced the delusion of permanence. Revived by the innocence Oaxaca resurrected in me, I grasped at the notion that the families and I and our flush of shared experiences would last forever.

That is what is slipping away.

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, the realization of my powerlessness over her fate.

When a cab to the city came, I hugged Betzi and said: “Don’t worry. I’ll be here with you. See you in July.” I didn’t return then, nor for a long time. Every day while I was gone I wondered if the Betzi I said goodbye to, the girl with the best grades, the rapid wit, and the smile that touches your soul, was still there.

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?