Breaking Bread with Mi Raza: an interview with Rojelio Reyes Rodriguez

Mexican healers
© Rojelio Reyes Rodriguez. During his most recent visit to México, Rojelio came across these two women who were considered important figures in their towns, because both are "healers."

In the Spring of 2009, En Foco hosted a solo exhibition of Rojelio Reyes Rodriguez’s work Mi Sangre at the Pregones Theater in the Bronx (see Infusing Life Through Art: Mi Sangre, a photography exhibition by Rojelio Reyes Rodriguez).

This year, I had chance to revisit with Rojelio and ask him about progress with his work, his life and his love of Mexican culture. Following are excerpts from our interview.

LD: Miriam Romais, the Executive Director of En Foco, recently told me that you returned to México to create new work for the series, and En Foco just added you as their newest Print Collectors Program artist. Tell us a little about your trip.

RRR: Sometime in July of 2009, I had a chance to meet with Aperture’s executive director, Juan Garcia De Oteyza, to show him my Mexican body of work. He commented on how strong it was and felt that it was one of more cohesive series he’s seen in a while. Inspired by that meeting, and En Foco’s encouragement to keep working on the project, I went back to México to see if I could find a little bit more “magic” to add to the book project. I did.

That said, I have to mention that I have made many trips to México since I began this project in 2004. It has been more spiritual and educational than I ever thought it would be. Each trip has recharged my mind, my heart, and my appreciation of the sacrifices my parents and their parents have made.

I feel that I grew up a average and ignorant American kid who took his heritage for granted. Thus, as an adult, I’ve felt compelled to dig up my roots in order to begin understanding the magic underlying my cherished childhood memories.

Thus, with each trip, I have educated myself about my Mexican heritage just a little more. Because as a parent and a professional photographer, I feel that it is my responsibility to go beyond capturing what was and is important to me, and what cumulatively makes me “who I am.” Because, now, I have the responsibility to my children, a responsibility to educate them as I educate myself about  “where I came from,” and thus, where they came from as well.

© Rojelio Reyes Rodriguez. Rojelio states, "These images represent many of the the everyday faces I have encountered since the beginning of this personal project."

Tell us more about the “magic.” What was enchanting about your trip?

The “magic” I keep referring to is the element of “mi raza.” The smells, the laughter I share with those I meet, the acceptance, the vigor in allowing me to photograph them, so on. It’s kind of hard for me to put in words exactly, but it’s almost like you’re daring yourself to find those images that will validate the effort in getting there and starting from scratch.

Do you have any stories you can share about “mi raza,” the people, you met on your trip?

I have many. But those that really resonate with me most are the experiences I had with the children and the elders I’ve met. Such innocence, such wonder in their eyes.

I felt duty bound to show the children that there is a whole world out there waiting for them. I relayed my experience as a photographer to them, so that they understood that I was no different from them and that they to could create their own opportunities for success through commitment and persistence.

With the old folks, I marveled at their stories. Most of them were 90 to 106, so you can only imagine what they’ve been through. I was most surprised to hear that many had had not traveled beyond the borders of their towns. They often told me that they had everything they needed or wanted at home, so why bother going anywhere else? Good point, I thought.

© Rojelio Reyes Rodriguez. Rojelio shared, "A diptych like this one represents my immense respect for the young and the elderly. I have always marveled at the innocence and curiosity I see in their eyes."

What did you try to capture the most of? Were you looking for more of the same or something different this time?

What I was looking for was the elements that triggered my memories as a child: la tierra (the land), la gente (the people), and food (of course!).

Most importantly, I was looking to capture those elements that conveyed the value that Mexican culture places on la familia, the family.

It was treat to often being welcomed into people’s home to enjoy a meal with them. This is what I remember most of my childhood visits to México. Here in the States, you don’t “break bread” with your neighbor unless you’re invited or have a “reason” to come into their home. In Mexico, simply because you are part of la raza, that is often good enough.

Moreover, on each trip I pushed myself to find something vastly different from the previous trip. I simply didn’t want to repeat any experiences or visuals.

© Rojelio Reyes Rodriguez, 2010.

What have you learned about Mexican culture that you did not understand before you started taking photographs in México?

Being a son of Mexican immigrants, I was doing my thing growing up with the American standards – comic books, hanging out with friends, etc. What else was there for me to “understand”? But as with of us who grew up with family whose culture came from another country, as adults we begin to question who we are and where we came from.

I’ve been fortunate to be able to make this journey back to the land of my forefathers as a photographer, and made a conscious decision to make the time to understand those values, beliefs, struggles, as well as the strong family bonds that transcend the normal “keeping up with the Joneses” that we strive for here in the States.

In México, it was nice to rediscover the familiarity of being welcomed into stranger’s homes and break bread with them. It felt good to be so readily accepted as family.

How has the experience of photographing Mexicans in Mexico built a bridge between the cultural experience of being a assimilated Mexican-American and your cultural heritage and native culture of native Mexicans today?

It was genuine. Again, I was amazed on how easily the people that I photographed let me in to their homes and familiar surroundings.

Although I may fall into the category of “an assimilated” Mexican-American involuntarily, I do recognize that there is a huge cultural gap.

When I began travelling to Mexico to take photos, at first, I did feel like a foreigner. And I anticipated that I wasn’t going to get further than a handshake. But then, after having identified myself as a fellow “Méxicano,” I found that I was actually welcomed and even looked up to, especially after they got to hear my story, where I’ve been around the world, and the numerous celebrities I have met along the way. I feel that although they may have marveled at my accomplishments, they were most impressed that I am no different than they are and I represent the potential that their kids all have within them.

In other words, it felt as if I was somehow proof that even a “Méxicano” can be as successful in life as anyone else.

© Rojelio Reyes Rodriguez, 2010.

After the conversations you’ve had with curators, dealers, and professionals in the photography industry how has your work changed since we last spoke a year ago in March 2009 at your En Foco show?

My appreciation has grown immensely. I’ve begun to get emails from aspiring photographers around the globe who tell me they are inspired by my work and are now daring themselves to take that leap of faith into being photographers themselves. It is my duty to encourage them to do so.

As for the curators and dealers, they are a different breed. It is their business to make money, of course, so I’m being careful about how I interact with them.

What is it about your work that they like most?

The dedication to create iconic and classic images about something I know – myself, my heritage, mi raza.

Why would I go to, say Germany or Russia and attempt to shoot their culture and attempt to explain what their culture is like? For me, it would be foolish. It would be wrong.

You mentioned wanting to publish a book of this work. How are those plans going?

It would be ideal to publish it in congruence with the 200th anniversary of México’s independence (2010).

While Aperture’s director expressed interest, the reality is that no one is immune to the recession and thus we’re seeking another entity to co-publish the book. This is still in the works and I’d be happy to talk to any potential sponsors out there.

Since there is a much larger market for your work in the Southwest, have you considered moving back to Texas or anywhere in that area?

Many times. But as with all things, I’ve already set up shop here and started mi familia here in The Big Apple. So, I’ll just travel there when necessary.

© Rojelio Reyes Rodriguez, "Rodolfo con gallo." Thanks to the generosity of the photographer, this print is available for purchase through En Foco's Print Collectors Program

Have your children expressed interest in your photography work? If so, how so? Has your family traveled with you to Mexico while you were shooting?

My son Diego definitely has. The other two are too busy discovering their body parts and drinking their milk.

Diego identifies with my career and because it’s photography, he sees the end product. He sometimes sits on my lap and watches me do some editing, retouching, cleaning the cameras and sometimes joins me on some of the lighter gigs. I’m very fortunate that I’m able to share this with him (as I will with my daughters, when they’re older).

I haven’t taken them to México on my trips – mainly because it’s too chaotic and on the fly. It was all guerrilla style and spontaneous. I was essentially a vagabond with a camera.

In the end, I know I’ll find myself sharing these experiences with my wife and kids and I’m looking forward to having them travel with me in the future.

Since we last spoke, it seems you’ve added a new member to your family, please tell us about your new child?

Yes, Elisa Victoria. It was a very tough pregnancy for all of us. In early September, during her 24th week, my wife broke water and was rushed to the hospital.

Elisa was born right after the Yankees won the World Series on November 4. She weighed only 3 lbs, 4 ozs. and spent about a month in the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) at the hospital. It was a very scary and emotional time for us. My wife stayed a for a couple of weeks after Elisa was born, but Elisa did not get to come home until right before Christmas.

That said, I am proud to mention that while my wife and our new daughter were in the hospital from September until mid-November, I was able to hold the fort at home with our two kids, Diego, who is four and a half, and Alma, who is 15 months old.

This included getting the kids ready for school and daycare, shooting between the hours of their schooling, picking them up, cooking and cleaning, taking them to the hospital to see their Mommy as much as possible, getting them ready for bed, working on the computer till midnight or later, and starting the routine all over again the next day, everyday.

Ultimately, although I was exhausted by the experience, I felt it was well worth the sacrifices, if only because it was for mi familia, my family.

And despite the struggle, we’re happy to announce that the scary bit is over, and our newest addition is a whopping 9 lbs and change now!

For More Information
Rojelio at En Foco
Rojelio at Canson Infinity
Rojelio’s En Foco Exhibition

Purchase Rojelio’s Rodolfo con Gallo from En Foco’s Print Collectors Program

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