California is burning again, pockmarked with infernos sparked by lightning or fallen power lines or acts of human stupidity, and fed by the hills of golden grasses and groves of oak and the wood-framed houses of humans who wanted to live in the community of nature but never sought nature’s permission, and blown across glens and canyons and dry arroyos and even six-lane slabs of freeway by winds that descend from high deserts carrying the breath of the devil.
We knew it was going to happen, as it did last year and the decade before that and the century before that. Each year now, though, seems worse. There is less winter rain to green the land, the temperatures rise sooner and higher than what was once considered normal, and the flames sprout earlier.
Fingers point everywhere.
Climate change holds back the rain, flings heat at California and parks truculent high pressure systems over the coast, hovering on meteorological maps like the massive inter-stellar ships of alien invaders.
Government shares the blame for allowing suburbs to be built on lands where wildfires burn with regularity, for permitting builders to enrich themselves and families to mortgage their futures while ignoring one of the few certainties in California: What burned once will burn again.
Then there are the utility companies – PG&E most guilty among them – that opted for shareholder return over investment in maintenance, a choice that guaranteed transformers and towers and thousands upon thousands of miles of high-voltage lines that could not withstand the fierce vagaries of Western weather. A line drops, a transformer pops, a fire starts. If I maintained my home as PG&E protected the power grid, its roof and walls would have collapsed.
Finally, there is us, we Californians, who want to live in our version of paradise, gladly shelling out $1.5 million for a three-bedroom rancher in a leafy suburb, but flinch when confronted with the reality caused by our occupation of a terrain so arid, so temperamental and so inhospitable to human life that before we paved it over, put in the plumbing and pumped Freon into our homes that the Spanish found hardly anyone to murder and enslave when they arrived. Now there are just shy of 40 million us. We’ve overrun the place. There’s not enough water to quench our thirst, not enough power to keep our lights on, not enough space for us to grow unless we further push into Mama Nature’s diminishing territory.
What’s the result? Mama’s mad, folks. It’s payback time.
The sun rose deep red today, angry, it seems, by the effort it needed to pierce the smoke in the air. In my small cabin on the hill, the windows are open so cool morning air can flush out the heat from last night. The fresh air comes with a price: the smell of smoke and flecks of gray ash.
We pack several bags, an evacuation kit – documents, passports (almost useless these days), some cameras for me, a laptop, medicine. The bags sit by the back door, an unwelcome reminder of what we’ve become: fugitives from the world we created.
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.
In order to give the knee a workout and to award myself a change of scenery, I drove to Fort Baker in Sausalito yesterday afternoon. The sun was low when I arrived but still high enough to surmount the western ridges of the coast. Its light spilled softly into the remains of a Monterey pine forest planted by the military garrison that once occupied these last slopes of land before the Golden Gate. I walked among the trees, carrying my little Leica and looking for formations of light and shadow. Now and then I knelt to take a picture and, when I did, a thick, spongy cushion of dried pine needles greeted my knees. I followed a deer path through the trees until the last of the pines yielded to a row of white, two-story buildings that were once the quarters of Army officers and today house well-heeled hotel patrons in $700-a-night suites.
The former parade ground of the garrison remains sown with grass. It is an expansive space that slopes lazily toward a cove of still water huddling in the lee of the Golden Gate Bridge, far enough away from the capricious currents and muscular tides of the strait for yachtsmen to store their vessels in a marina and for adventurous paddlers to launch themselves toward the Pacific aboard outrigged canoes that resemble bisected arachnids. For a day as nice as yesterday was, sunny and awash with a precocious onshore breeze, the great lawn was surprisingly empty. A group of masked tourists, perhaps guests in the hotel, posed with one another for selfies. A middle-aged man, rotund and bald, lay on his side, propped up on his left elbow, reading a book in the shade of a stand of short trees. A young couple, tall and strong of stride, walked with their dog. And me, an aging man, bearded and unkempt with a half-year’s hair growth splaying from the edges of his ballcap, limped toward the sea.
At the speed of a tortoise, but with the heart of a hare, I crossed the parking area next to the Discovery Museum, normally a destination of exploration and learning for children but now an empty shell wrapped in caution tape and studded with signs prohibiting access to its outdoor playgrounds, a reminder of how far from normal we are. Seeing the shuttered buildings deflated the already tremulous exhilaration I felt at striding freely, albeit tentatively, under the open sky after months of household hibernation.
With the knee’s permission, I summited a knoll that supports the hulking concrete of Battery Yates, a stout line of bunkers constructed by the U.S. Army in 1903 that was once equipped with cannons but is now a decommissioned relic. It is a favorite place of mine and over the years I have taken many pictures there, most of them terrible. Still, I like the symmetry of the emplacements and the brutishness of the concrete. I made a few frames yesterday, as I always do, one of them less terrible than the others.
By the time I returned to my car near the Coast Guard station on the edge of Horseshoe Cove, the knee was talking to me in unpleasant tones. It is such a crank. I pleaded for a few more steps and hobbled to the fishing pier that juts into San Francisco Bay across from the jetty. A half-dozen crabbers hung over the rusted railings, tossing their nets into the water and reeling them up, hoping to find a crustacean or two of legal size and species. An equal number of fishermen reclined in unfolded camp chairs with their rods propped against the railings waiting for signs of a strike by perch, jacksmelt or even a leopard shark.
The sun had dropped and, as the far end of the pier fell into shade, the wind became more intent on chilling those in its path. I first came to this place a half-century ago and stood on this very spot, having reached the end of the continent, the last terminal in a flight from all I had known – family, home, the city where I was born and where, en route to coming of age, I lost track of who I was. Unable to go farther, I stayed and here I still am, marveling at how little all of it seems to have changed, taking in the persistence of the bay and the bridge and the breezes, how they continue just as they were when I first saw them, and how their endurance masks the one thing in this scene that has changed irrevocably: me.
What always astounds me about this durable miracle of life is how easily it allows us to forget our own fragility.
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.
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, unextranjero 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.
A teenage boy should approach adulthood like a stout sapling bound to become a tree – upright, solid in the core, branches on the spread, leaves yearning for the light from above.
Some boys, though, bend as they verge on manhood, maybe for having been planted in poor soil or having lacked clear light or good air. Their gazes curve downward to dirt rather than arc upward to the sky. Their roots are weak, their branches withered, their leaves sparse. They grow alone, absent the communal instruction of a mature forest, and therefore never understand what it is to be a tree. They see themselves as lesser, a bush or, worse, a weed.
This boy sweeps an empty room, a place where his mother transplanted him. It was yet one more relocation in his life. Before he could gain footing, before he could adapt to the dark of the room and the dank of the air, she uprooted him once more.
Now he stands alone, unplanted, untended, unsure of who or what he is, looking for a place to grow.
What is a chair for? Occupied, of course, it supports us in repose. Unoccupied, it serves as a reminder, a mute prompt of home and comfort or, perhaps, of those who are not present, like the unclaimed seat at a family dinner.
A solitary chair in an otherwise empty room. Missing all the expected accompaniments. No table for a meal, no light by which to read, no other chair to provide companionship.
I sat in this chair once and photographed a mother across a plastic table. The legs of the chair were unsteady and moved in the opposite direction of my weight, that is to say when I leaned forward, the chair retreated aback.
One day, the mother decided to move on, exchanging one dark apartment for another, leaving the chair for last. As she stood on its wooden seat, balancing herself against the concrete wall, in order to retrieve something from the tin ceiling, I made pictures of her. I feared becoming witness to the chair’s collapse.
The chair endured, though, just as the mother does, sufficient to its need, but ever precarious in its use.
You know how some drunks repeat themselves. This one keeps asking, “Hey, you know what? Hey, you know what?” I am talking with his buddies at the horse races that are taking place in a plowed over corn field outside of Oaxaca. I finally give in, worn down. “No, what?” I ask. And he answers, twice, “I’ve got a big dick. A big dick.”
There are many possible responses to that declaration, but I need one that gets me some respect without causing offense – one that I can also say in Spanish. So I answer: “I know. Your mother told me last night.” Nailed it.
When the laughter dies down, the drunk says, “You need to meet Bin Laden.” OK, I say, thinking how weird it is for an Oaxacan to have an Arab name.
Moments later, I am facing an unsmiling man with hooded eyes whose beard extends from his thick eyebrows to just north of his belly button. If, indeed, Osama Bin Laden were partial to straw cowboy hats and Western shirts unbuttoned to the beltline, then, yes, I am looking at him.
Bin Laden never smiles, but I learn that he’s from Ejutla, he raises horses and he’s at the races with his teenage son. “Take our picture,” he tells me. And I do – a Mexican nicknamed after a Saudi terrorist standing next to a kid dressed like an Abercrombie & Fitch ad. The past and the future, with me in the present.
On occasion, a yoga teacher visited the children’s shelter. She dressed all in white: loose, flowy pants, a voluminous shirt of the same material, and a turban fashioned from a woven scarf. On her hands, were more rings than fingers. She sat cross-legged at one end of a concrete patio, where she had plugged an ancient CD player into a cord that hung from a second-floor window. The tiny speaker emitted scratchy, Hindu mantras.
The children sat facing her on colored rubber mats that normally covered the floor of a plastic playhouse shaped like a log cabin. There were not enough mats for all the children, so some of them had to share and others sat on the concrete as they did their poses.
When the session ended, the children lied down for savasana, “corpse pose,” and concentrated on their breathing. Other than the one time I was in the shelter late at night, I’d never experienced such silence there. Even the streets of the surrounding neighborhood seemed to fall into momentary repose.
In a place meant to be a refuge, but which was often in chaos because there were so many children and so little supervision, tranquility was rare. But in this muted instant of inhaling and exhaling, peace came to the shelter.
After the state closed one of Oaxaca’s best-known children’s shelters and arrested the founder and her family on charges of abuse, the priest who ran the Ciudad de los Niños got scared. He feared the scandal would touch his shelter, which provided refuge, food and education to more than 50 boys whose parents couldn’t – or wouldn’t – care for them.
The priest’s fear seemed unfounded because the two places were so different. His shelter sparkled with cleanliness and smelled of bleach; the other was filthy and often reeked of urine. His children stood in orderly lines, waiting to wash or eat; at the other, disorder prevailed: preschoolers fought each other, toddlers fell from chairs, and no adult intervened or offered aid. His boys slept in individual bunks, neatly made each morning; in the closed shelter, many children shared mattresses, some set on the dirty floor.
After the scandal, the priest told me I could no longer visit. “I don’t want to complicate things,” he said. “You are a complication.”
A couple of years later, I came to know a family who lived near the shelter. When I went to see them, which was often, I would think about stopping by to see if the priest had changed his mind. I didn’t though, because I suspected he hadn’t.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
José and his family had the day off from their work at the city dump, where they picked plastic bottles and sheets of carboard out of the ripe muck to sell to recyclers. They were pepenadores. The day was waning, and it was almost time to walk the mile to the highway to catch a city-bound bus.
That’s when José asked me: Would you like to see my eagle? One thing I learned in journalism is that certain questions demand a “yes.” That was one of them.
José went inside his cinder-block house and returned carrying a dead bird mounted on a polished piece of wood. He said it was an eagle. Me, I thought it looked more like a hawk, and to this day I can’t be sure either way. Whatever the raptor was, it was stunning. He set the bird on the trunk of his car and told me how he came to have it.
The bird had fallen from the sky one afternoon, victim of a collision with a power line. It landed on the ground near José’s house, broken and dying. Jose gave the bird the gift of death; in return, the bird gave José his most treasured possession.
In the summer of 1964, a few weeks before my 15th birthday, the city I grew up in, Rochester, N.Y., suffered what was then called a race riot. The violence killed four people, injured 350 and resulted in 1,000 arrests and the looting of 200 stores — all of it triggered by the police arrest of a black man and an over-use of force.
The three days or rioting, burning and arrests presaged years of summer outbreaks of violence in U.S. cities, culminating — or so it seemed at the time — in the “Long, Hot Summer” of 1967 when 159 race riots erupted in cities as geographically diverse as Buffalo, N.Y., Newark, N.J., Saginaw, Mich., and Portland, Ore.
After that summer, President Lyndon Baines Johnson created a group to study the root causes of the violence and recommend solutions. The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, better known as the Kerner Commission, produced a report in February 1968 that excoriated federal and state governments for failing black communities across the country and warned:
“Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” … “What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”
The Kerner Report also chastised the news media, “The press has too long basked in a white world looking out of it, if at all, with white men’s eyes and white perspective.” It was a condemnation that despite years of effort to diversify America’s newsrooms echoes today.
More than a half-century later, Minneapolis burns, set on fire by rage and anger over yet another police killing of a black man,
A Rutgers University study in 2019 found that, as reported in the Los Angeles Times, “About 1 in 1,000 black men and boys in America can expect to die at the hands of police, according to a new analysis of deaths involving law enforcement officers. That makes them 2.5 times more likely than white men and boys to die during an encounter with cops.”
I, as a white man, cannot say anything about what it must be like to be black in this country, much less to be black and male and therefore be an object of suspicion and fear even in the act of doing the most routine of things, such as running on the street or bird-watching in Central Park.
I have been arrested — multiple times. I am not proud of it, but it was something that happened during those years after the Long Hot Summer when political protests took, for a time, the place of race riots and when the waves of drug abuse carried some of us to places we should not have gone. Never, though, whether it was in New York or Los Angeles or Ukiah, Calif., did I feel that when the police officer put his hands on me I was in danger of losing my life. Never.
Fifty-six years ago, the 14-year-old version of myself stood on the curb outside his suburban house and watched plumes of dark smoke rise over what was known as Rochester’s ghetto. I never saw the riot, save in black-and-white reports on the evening news, but I recall the unease I felt. I sensed, hearing the sirens in the distance and seeing the tension on the face of my mother alongside me, that the world was more complex than I knew and within that intricacy were insidious, dangerous things. In that moment, the first bricks fell from the wall of innocence behind which I lived. Within a few years, nothing but rubble would remain.
The cop in Minneapolis murdered George Floyd. That’s clear. What remains muddied is why? Not just why the cop did it — which I suspect will result in a simple answer: racism and power — but why we, the society as a whole, which remains mostly white, tolerate the deaths of black men who are dying solely because they don’t look like me. Why?
To find the answer, and to begin cleansing ourselves of the racist toxicity that is poisoning us, we can look again to where the Kerner Report lay the blame for the riots of 1967:
“White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”
Said another way: When black men die, we white people are to blame.
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.
On Tres Reyes day, when Christians mark the visit of the Magi – the Three Kings – to the newly born Jesus Christ, Oaxacans gather in the zócalo to hand out toys to the city’s poor children. The toys are cheap, plastic junk that break within days. Stores donate some of the toys and then take a tax write-off. Wealthy families arrive at the plaza with their own children, who bear gifts for their poorer counterparts.
Sometimes the city gives each child a number so he or she can enter a fenced area and choose a toy. Other times, performers mount a stage to sing songs of mercy and compassion while the kids cram together, faces upward, shoving, pushing, and extending their arms … for what? A rubber ball.
A rubber ball, a knock-off Barbie doll or packages of make-up for children who don’t have books, computers, healthcare or, too often, enough to eat.
Whenever I see this image, I don’t see children reaching for a rubber ball. I see them pleading for attention. And, I think of the oft-repeated question: What would Jesus do? Give them a toy? I don’t think so.
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.
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.