A Latin Paradox — Mexico + Afuera

Opening reception at Aperture
Opening reception at Aperture

En Foco’s recent exhibitions at the Aperture Gallery in New York City, Mexico + Afuera: Contemporary Mexican and Mexican-American Voices, and Selections from En Foco’s Permanent Collection, were presented as one of the many events occurring around the world in celebration of México’s Bicentenario de Independencia (the 200th Anniversary of its Independence). However, its relevance extends far beyond an acknowledgement of this important milestone for our neighbors south of the border.

Latinos are the fastest-growing ethnic population in the United States, increasing almost four times faster than the rest of the population, and projected to contribute to 60% of the country’s growth between 2030 and 2050. As of July 1, 2009, there were approximately 48.4 million Hispanics in the US, and statisticians predict they’ll become a majority of California’s population by 2042—by 2050 we will constitute 30% of the nation’s population. Currently, 66% of that population is of Mexican heritage.

With these staggering statistics in mind, the work presented by photographers Chuy Benitez, Dulce Pinzón and Monica Ruzansky in Mexico + Afuera cumulatively offer a powerful look into what will become one the most important cultural, consumer, political and social influences in the United States, in the 21st Century. Many of the values embraced by Mexican, Mexican-Americans, Chicanos and often Latinos alike, are exhibited through the work of these artists. In particular, we can see a strong work ethic, an appreciation of life, commitment to family and pride in one’s heritage.

© Dulce Pinzón, Spiderman
© Dulce Pinzón, Bernabe Mendez

Dulce Pinzón
Dulce Pinzón understands that although our growing numbers are significant, our influence and power are not yet proportionate to the population we represent. In turn, we still struggle, we still have to work labor-intensive jobs for little pay, we still face discrimination, we still have the highest high school dropout rate (since 1980) — 2 to 4 times higher than Whites, Blacks and Asians, and we still must learn to adapt to the majority culture in order to survive and thrive in the society we currently live in.

Dulce was born in Mexico City in 1974 and now lives and works there. Her series The Real Story of the Superheroes, published in Nueva Luz volume 12:1 (2007),  portrays primarily native Mexicans working in New York City, each of them in a working class position, each of them devotedly sending back money to their families. 

Her work is a satirical documentary “featuring ordinary men and women in their work environment donning superhero garb, thus raising questions of both our definition of heroism (in this post 9/11 world) and our ignorance of and indifference to the workforce that fuels our ever-consuming economy.” She further explains in her artist statement and by e-mail that despite the media hype about heroes like police and firemen, “It is easy to take for granted the heroes who sacrifice immeasurable life and labor in their day-to-day lives for the good of others, but do so in a somewhat less spectacular setting. As a union organizer, I realized that immigrants also played an important part in helping re-build New York and the nation, but their humility mostly made them invisible.”

Thus, one day, when I was visiting my family in México, I saw a Spiderman costume hanging in a market and the concept of this series suddenly came to me. I knew right then and there that I had to create these pictures.” Photographs in the En Foco show included a portrait of Bernabe Mendez who is from the State of Guerrero, works as a professional window cleaner, and was dressed as Spiderman.  He sends home $500 dollars a month. Another image showed Minerva Valencia who is from Puebla, who works as a nanny and was dressed as Cat Woman. She sends home $400 dollars a week. Dulce further explains:

The Mexican immigrant worker in New York is a perfect example of the hero who has gone unnoticed. It is common for a Mexican worker in New York to work extraordinary hours in extreme conditions for very low wages, which are saved at great cost and sacrifice and sent to families and communities in Mexico who rely on them to survive. Along with the depth of their sacrifice, it is the quietness (the humility) of this dependence which makes Mexican immigrant workers a subject of interest.”

Moreover, as she relayed via e-mail from Mexico City, she thought it was important to mention la lana, the money, as well as the individual’s name because, “I felt that the images could be interpreted simply as a satire, while the socio-political message might be overlooked. So, I decided to include those texts, one to give each person an identity (just like Superheroes in fiction have real names and alter-egos), as well as mentioned how much they sent back home because it was vital to put into perspective many of the issues surrounding the images—the importance of the contribution of migrant workers to their communities, the values they share, and most of all, the commitment they have to their families back home.”

She also contends that the money generated by these individuals and the group of working immigrants they represent in the United States create a great dependence between our two countries. It is this interdependence which stirs so much controversy and debate when it comes to the issue of immigration and the legislation regulating the ebb and flow of people (and labor) across the border. In particular, sanctions such as Arizona’s immigration law, SB1070, stir worries of continued discrimination of Mexicans and minorities in this country. The NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) believes that in particular it “invites racial profiling against people of color by law enforcement in violation of the equal protection guarantee,” leading to discrimination of people, migrant laborers and citizens alike, based merely on the color of their skin.

© Chuy Benitez, Virgen de la Baking Pan
© Chuy Benitez, Virgen de la Baking Pan

Chuy Benitez
Nonetheless, representatives of Generation Y like Chuy Benitez believe times are changing. A national survey of 18- to 25-year-olds conducted by The Pew Research Center in 2007 found that more than two-thirds (67%) believe immigrants strengthen American society, and a quarter favor increasing legal immigration. Also, a survey of political values and attitudes released last year, further testifies that, as Scott Keeter of the Center puts it, “This is a more tolerant generation than its predecessors.”

Chuy, who was born in 1983 on the East Side of El Paso, Texas, which has the highest percentage of Latinos for any major city in the US (76%)—adamantly agrees. As he recently relayed over the phone, “I think we are moving toward a better understanding in the United States, where one culture will not dominate over the other. I’d like to believe that eventually we will live in a society where multiple perspectives are accepted. In turn, no one will have to lose their identity, anymore. Nothing has to be given up. That goes for Anglos as well.” Chuy considers himself a Chicano documentary photographer, working in Houston – the city with the third-largest Hispanic and third-largest Mexican population in the U.S.  Thus, he lives and works in an environment that offers a myriad of moments that reaffirm his beliefs.

Benitez, published in Nueva Luz volume 13#1 (2008), is known for his large panoramas of Mexican-American life, that document his own and the community’s experience of what it means to be Mexican-American. Moreover, through his work he is attempting to exhibit the Rasquachismo – the acculturation of Mexicans in the US and what social tactics they use to fit in.

Mexico + Afuera presented four pieces of his work, including Family Chrome Shop, La Virgen de la Baking Pan, Lowrider Trikes and Piano Lesson at MECA. All of them provide insight into typical scenes of Mexican-American life in Texas.  However, the first two offer a particularly poignant portrait of the value that we place on our commitment to la familia.

Family Chrome Shop presents a seamless stitch of a family in a home that also serves as auto body shop. It is easy to imagine a typical family scene here— moving from left to right, you have the patriarch of the family playing with his nieta, his granddaughter, who is showing him her Barbie doll; in the middle you have her two older brothers, the younger one sitting deferentially with his back against the wall, while the older sibling holds back the family Rottweiler; their father is working hard, rolling in a tire from the garage, while their tio, his brother, is polishing a chrome fender; and in the left corner, the mother of the children is shuffling paperwork at the office desk. In sum, you have three generations integrated into one household, one family business.

In La Virgen de la Baking Pan, we see a manifestation of many Mexicans’ deeply religious beliefs and superstitions. Once again, it is a multigenerational panorama—in the left corner there is a father figure wearing a gold, Virgen medallion, and a promotional Margarita t-shirt. At best, he seems stoically bemused by all the fuss his mother and sister are making over a makeshift shrine with a baking pan in the middle, one that has a burn at the bottom that faintly, rather roughly, resembles the outline of La Virgen de Guadalupe, the matron saint and symbol of Mexican Catholics everywhere. Legend has it that the image appeared miraculously on the cloak of Juan Diego, an indigenous peasant who was traversing the hills of Tepeyac near Mexico City in 1531. Ever since then, anytime it appears anywhere, devout people flock to pay their respect.  In between the father and the grandmother are the children who look on, barely understanding the significance of what really is—or isn’t—there.

Benitez’s work is specifically designed to simultaneously capture many “decisive moments” of Mexican-American life. In Chuy’s own words, “I digitally stitch my images, so that instead of capturing a decisive moment, I’ve created a decisive minute (of decisive moments).” More importantly, it is with his detailed photographs that he captures the essence of the community—birthday parties, a protest, a Day of the Dead procession, mariachis playing in the local super market—many scenes that depict the value we place on living life to its fullest through our commitment to our family and friends, as well as our constant appreciation of life.

Alas, for many of us, especially those of an older generation, we have found and still find that the world is not as tolerant as we would like it to be. Not everyone celebrates life like we, Mexicans and Latinos alike, do. In turn, our emphasis on the extended family, on the pride we place in our heritage, and our value on taking it easy, often at a pace that non-Latinos find it hard to tolerate, can and often does, lead to cognitive and emotional dissonance based on clashes with the majority culture.

In fact, many of us still don’t put our children to bed as early as we should, we emphasize having a job over getting an education, and we tend to enjoy our vices more than most—parties that last way past midnight and a habitual indulgence in rich, fatty foods like chicharones (fried pig skin), carnitas (the best grilled savory pork you’ll ever have), and churros (fried cinnamon bread sticks).

© Monica Ruzansky, Hidden Kiss.
© Monica Ruzansky, Hidden Kiss.

Monica Ruzansky

Monica Ruzansky, who like Pinzón was born in Mexico City in the late 70s, and who now lives and works in New York City, understands what I’m talking about. As relayed in a long conversation, Monica professes, “I completely agree—family is very important and meaningful to me. I found that the value is somewhat lacking in the US. Sometimes, especially in New York City, I’ve experienced that people can be very self-centered. Back in Mexico, we emphasize quality time with friends and family—a day of big family meals and long conversations—this is probably the single most important thing for us, it fulfills us like no other pastime.”

“Moreover, having been here in New York City for five years now, I’ve realized how rich Mexican life is in comparison—the values, our history, art, gastronomy—it really is unbelievably rich, and being away makes me value those things like never before.”

Ruzansky’s work in the Mexico + Afuera show, De Noche: By Night, symbolizes the life that she left, and occasionally longs for, back in Mexico. These photos represent a two-year journey she made into the streets of Mexico City at night. She explains,

The project was created while I drove around with my friends. Ultimately, I collected glimpses of stories hidden in darkness, ones only barely revealed by the headlights of my car. There is no need to see the beginning or end of each story; some are isolated fragments of people’s lives, while others are simply the …landscapes that frame these stories. I found it particularly fascinating, because the night tends to bring out all kinds of characters.”

Ruzansky’s depiction of Mexican nightlife has a particularly cinematographic flare to it. Her focus on nocturnal aesthetics reminds one of the gritty feel of films like Amores Perros by Alejandro González Iñárritu, which takes place in Mexico City; or the exquisite subtlety of Michael Ballhaus’s cinematography in the Martin Scorsese’s Good Fellas.  The series as a whole is also reminiscent of monumental photography like Lee Friedlander’s recently published America by Car.

In particular, there is one photo in Ruzansky’s collection, Hidden Kiss, that stands out because, at first glimpse, it seems to tell of a story untold. The darkness not only obscures the identity of the romantically embraced couple, but it also blurs their gender. At first glance, it seems like two men—hiding from the tyranny of a society that does not openly accept homosexuality. Upon closer inspection, one gleans that the person on the left is most likely a woman.

However, the identification of their genders is irrelevant when one considers the issues that the scene represents in obscurity—intolerance, discrimination, incrimination, prejudice, inequality. All of these are issues that Latinos, especially Mexicans, still face in the United States, despite the hopes and dreams of a new generation.

Our saving grace however, whether we are hiding in the nocturnal shadows of Mexico City or we are out in the open celebrating in the sunny streets of Houston is that, as Latinos, we share a culture that bonds us together and sustains our health and happiness, in a way that is often contrary to popular mores and belief.

The Latin Paradox
Malcom Gladwell in his best-selling book, The Outliers, begins his story of success with the tale of The Roseto Mystery. In 1882 a group of Italian immigrants from the town of Roseto, Italy migrated to the United States and settled in the hills of Pennsylvania. Over the decades that followed, a thousand more would sail across the Atlantic to join the original group of settlers until a thriving community was in place.  In the 1950s it was discovered that even though heart disease and heart attacks were epidemic in the U.S at the time, it was virtually absent amongst the people of Roseto.

In turn, medical and psychological studies ensued until it was concluded that “it wasn’t diet or exercise or genes or location” that ensured the health of these people, rather it was their way of life, their community, the extended family clans, the three-generational meals, the respect granted to elders (who were not sent away to nursing homes), the unifying and calming effect of their religious beliefs and rituals, the humility that discouraged the flaunting of wealth and success, as well as the plethora of civic organizations that thrived in Roseto. Many of these qualities were, and still are, antithetical to American life as we know it.

But this is not the case for Latinos, as well as many other immigrants from other cultures. In fact, many of the same qualities pervade our barrios and communities-at-large today. Perhaps, more importantly, these values fill our homes with the close-knit love, fun and affection that Latinos are known for.

Thus, it is not surprising that a recent study released in the October 2010 issue of Vital and Health Statistics concluded that “Hispanics have the highest life expectancy in the U.S.” The results show that “the Hispanic population has higher life expectancy at birth and at almost every subsequent age than non-Hispanic whites and non-Hispanic black populations,” conclude the researchers.

My fiancée, who is a non-Hispanic White woman from Michigan and a doctor of internal medicine, was incredulous when she first heard me taut the results. “How is that possible? Hispanics have some of the highest rates of diabetes and obesity.” Dr. Elizabeth Arias, who led the study, was equally surprised, “The phenomenon seems paradoxical because on average the Hispanic population has lower socioeconomic status than the non-Hispanic white population.”

In fact, the medical community was so astonished by the results that they grasped at reasons to explain this milagro. Yet to many, it is no surprise at all. As insiders, we understand that we do not often define or achieve success, longevity and our purpose in life in the same way that the majority culture does. Rather life is made meaningful by how hard we work, how close our friends and family are, how often we go to see one another, how tasty Abuela’s albondigas are, or the good times we have simply charlando with our friends and family.

In sum, many Latinos live much like the paesanos of Roseto. Traditionally, we have a strong extended family structure that encourages us to stay close to the flock. When we party, celebrate, are hospitalized, or get married—practically everyone we know is involved or invited. Our family—especially the dozens of first cousins—end up being some of our best friends through life. Strangers are automatically our amigos, good friends who we do not hesitate to dole genuine affinity and affection upon. Many also tend to be deeply religious—therefore we know how to keep the faith, understand commitment and loyalty, and understand what it means to be there for each other, in both good times and bad.

For some of us though—probably those reading this article right now, those aspiring to be artists or studying to be doctors, lawyers, and successful business men and women—we find ourselves stuck in the middle. We find, that on a daily basis, the need to seek a balance between applying values which have long made America what it is today, the values of the current majority—prudence, security and long-term planning; independence, assertiveness and competitiveness; career orientation, financial success, and materialism, among others—and the values of the up-and-coming majority, the brown surge—humility, a strong work ethic, pride in one’s heritage, dependence on the extended family (the original social network), a celebration and passionate appreciation of life, a certain ease and desire to take our time while pursuing happiness through eating, loving, dancing and an affectionate and meaningful connection with others.

Ultimately, acculturation for all here in the States requires a give and take, adopting and retaining values that originate from both sides of the border. Once again, citing Gladwell’s work, he concludes “Who we are cannot be separated from where we’re from—and when we ignore that fact, planes crash…”, cultures clash, and individuals have difficulty adapting and adopting, surviving and thriving in a society that pits their maternal culture against that of the country they live in.

Like Chuy said, successful acculturation over the next fifty years for the burgeoning Latino population will likely not be a matter of shedding one culture to don another, but rather it will consist of finding a balance between the two, an adaptation of the best of both cultures based the values that each person wants to ultimately pursue.

While this doesn’t exactly mean that  Brown is the new White, Hispanics will undoubtedly wield a much stronger influence as our numbers grow exponentially, what we offer is simply a different perspective on life—one which many of us love and cherish, one which is showcased by the brilliant work exhibited in Mexico + Afuera, and one which is embraced by the inherently diverse population of Latinos in America today.

That said, Dulce believes that likely one thing will change, “A lot more vitamin T will be consumed—that is mas Tacos, Tortas, Tostadas y Tamales…” For those who understand the comfort of a warm tamale, I’m sure you’ll agree. One of my fondest memories is that of Christmas at Grandma and Papito’s house. My mother and her three sisters would labor all day making tamales from scratch—preparing the corn husks to wrap them in, cooking the meat, kneading the masa, assembling the tamales and then waiting two hours for them to steam. After hours of intensive work in the kitchen, they would bring out dozens of them to the extended dinner table and within minutes they would be eagerly consumed. Looking back, I now realize how happy I was at that moment and how easy it is to take the labor of love of our parents for granted.

Today, I buy my tamales at Trader Joe’s, they are surprisingly and pleasantly authentic tasting. However, there is always something missing—an extended family to share them with. Although they taste as good as the homemade variety, they do not make me as happy. Nonetheless, I am consoled knowing that what counts most in this reconciliation of culture is that we recognize that whether we are black, brown, yellow or white, we are all one in the same, we are all human—and we all have to eat.  As Dr. Lorenzo LaFarelle, Professor of Chicano Studies, University of Texas at El Paso, poignantly put it, Somos todos primos… we are all cousins, we are all family.

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