When We Were Just Mexicans

Lately I have spent a lot of time combing through the thousands of black and white negatives I have amassed over more than 45 years of photography. Growing up I was the designated family photographer. When I was not taking family portraits or wedding photos, I would use my simple, yet functional, camera gear to document my barrio life 

These photos (Kodak Plus-X) were taken in the late 1960's. I remember being fascinated by the characters who spent time at the old market in downtown San Antonio and I headed there one Saturday morning—a young clueless kid with a camera and a couple of rolls of film. 

I lived in a very small world then, and it was a Mexican world. We were just Mexicans. That was how we referred to ourselves, Mejicanos. Over the next several decades that self descriptor would evolve. We became Mexican Americans, embracing the duality of our lives. Some of us became separatists and revolutionaries and called ourselves Chicanos. We tried to make nice as we “celebrated” 500 years of Spanish “influence” and adopted the term Hispanic. Then Latino came along and we bought into the “strength in numbers” idea. But now, at the start of 2017, I suddenly feel Mexican again.

Like a lot of us, I am retreating to my tribe these days. The tamales tasted a little more special during the holidays. I find that that the simplicity and comfort of arroz y frijoles pintos bring a calmness to my life. A shot of tequila seems so much more soothing now than it did before. Similarly, it was easy for me to lose myself in the thousands of black and white negatives full of images of Mexicans just being Mexicans—eating, celebrating, posing. It allowed me back into that world where I once felt so safe.

Retreating to the tribe seems like a appropriate response to a perceived threat. The funny thing is, I am not really Mexican. My parents, and some of my grandparents and great-grandparents, were born in Texas. But being born on this side of the river makes little difference to many. 

Looking like a Mexican is all that matters, and that became clear to me when I walked into a supermarket in an affluent Boston suburb not long ago. There was a middle-age white man standing outside asking people entering and leaving the store to sign a petition. He was just finishing up with someone as I walked up. He looked up at me then quickly averted his eyes. The same thing happened when I exited the store. I should not make assumptions, but it was hard not to. The man clearly did not want to engage with me about his petition.

Things feel different now. I think that is why it was so easy for me to spend time with all those black and white negatives. I was back with my tribe. The images took me back to a time when I was just a Mexican kid, living in a very safe Mexican world, surrounded by people just like myself. I look at those images now and marvel at how Mexican the people and the place looks. The proud brown faces, the tile roofs, arches, and the stucco walls. The photos are a reminder of how long my tribe has been here, and that no wall, or law, or petition, can erase hundreds of years of our presence.



Commerce Street, Market Square, San Antonio, 1969

Commerce Street, Market Square, San Antonio, 1969