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.
A fellow from New York is going to interview me in a few days about my photography in Mexico. In normal times, he gives tours of galleries and museums, but in these Covid days he stays active and engaged by holding on-line conversations with photographers.
He is quite taken with some of the images and, overall, very complimentary of the work, even going as far as to compare some of the frames to those of famous photographers. His words are kind and welcome, but they also make me wonder if he really knows what he is talking about – despite his art degree and experience – because his view is so distinct from mine.
It is difficult for me, as it is for many of us, to see myself as others see me. To do so requires an honesty unclouded by ego or defensiveness or yearning, and I am not free of those impediments. Even were I capable of veracious self-reflection, accepting the image I see in the mirror would demand both bravery and humility, characteristics of which I possess only in limited supply.
I am guilty on all fronts, at once unable to gain the exterior perspective of others and short of the requisite fiber to take those views to heart, be they negative or positive. That said, I more easily embrace criticism than compliment. A slam feels more natural than a slather. Must be the Catholic upbringing, a religion built on low earthly expectations. Suffer now, dance with the angels later – if you get the invite. When I am told that my photography is mediocre or unfocused – two criticisms I’ve heard – I lean toward agreement. A self-flagellate prefers the whip to the caress. Should a friend or a reader toss a kudo or two my way, I am grateful for the praise, but I am apt to dismiss it. What do they know, after all?
It doesn’t take a session on the couch – or on a Zoom call these days – to diagnose this way of thinking as a protective mechanism. What doesn’t exist can’t be killed. A critic’s barb stings less if you expect nothing more. If you don’t value your photography, your writing, your art, then what does it matter if it is labeled mediocre or unfocused? That’s just a confirmation of what you believed, anyhow.
There is an expression in Mexico that goes like this: No hay mal que por bien no venga. There’s nothing bad from which good doesn’t come. The ol’ cloud and silver lining thing. Too often, I’m the other way around: No hay bien que por mal no venga. No translation needed, right?
So uncertain am I of the work, I cannot edit it, so I ask the fellow from New York to select the images for the slides. He pulls out a few I love – a waiter with a tray, a mother and child with a bird (wonderful, he says) – and others I have consigned to the bin marked Not Good Enough, an ample space packed to overflowing – a old man in front of a wall, a masked rider on a horse (magical, he says).
As he talks about the photographs, describing the forms and the people and the intimacy he sees, the images no longer seem to be mine. I listen to his words and allow them to penetrate my protections. For a few moments, while he talks, I see what he sees. And the realization that I made these pictures amazes me. Not because I believe they merit his encomiums, but rather that I somehow maneuvered myself into the position to make them – to be in the homes of these families, to see them laugh and cry and eat and sleep, to walk amid the chaos of the streets of Oaxaca, to attend the weddings and horse races and transvestite parades. And more and more.
Most people when they see the photographs ask me: Why are you doing this? Is it for work, a book, a show? I’ve never been able to construct a concise answer. Satisfaction. Intimacy. Completion. Something like that.
Now it occurs to me there is a better question: How am I doing this? How did an aging gringo, who years earlier abandoned what he loved for something he was good at, find his way back to that first love and then, without any apparent purpose and even less skill, manage to put himself in the middle of so many lives? How did that happen? I suppose that’s another question I’ll never be able to answer well.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 garrafónweighs 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.
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.
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.
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.