Retreat to the Past

Lately, I have spent a lot of time combing through the thousands of black and white negatives and photographs I amassed over more than forty-five years of photography. I was the designated family photographer when I was growing up. When I was not shooting family portraits or weddings, I would use my second-hand camera gear to document the world around me in San Antonio.

San Antonio, circa 1970

San Antonio, circa 1970

I shot these photos (Kodak Plus-X) around 1970. I remember being fascinated by the characters who spent time near 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. 

Waiting, circa 1970

Waiting, circa 1970

I grew up in a self-contained Mexican world. We were Mexicans. That was how we referred to ourselves, Mejicanos. Over the next several decades that descriptor evolved. Mexican gave way to Mexican American as we embraced 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. 

Milam Park, circa 1970

Milam Park, circa 1970

Now, at the start of 2018, I suddenly feel "Mexican" again. Like a lot of us, I am retreating to my tribe these days, circling the cultural wagons to protect against perceived threats. The tamales were a little more comforting this year. I find that that the simplicity and comfort of arroz y frijoles 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 a world where I felt so safe.

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. I was reminded of that when I went shopping at a supermarket in the affluent Boston suburb of Newton last year. As I approached the store, I noticed a middle-aged white guy standing just outside the supermarket. The man was 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 and then quickly averted his eyes, pretending he did not see me. The same thing happened when I exited the store. I know that I should not make assumptions, but it was hard not to. The man clearly did not want to engage with me about his petition. Newton, like many towns and cities across the country, was in the midst of a debate about the proposed designation of itself as a sanctuary city.

Things feel different. We can all feel it. This is an era of "us" and "them" and I definitely feel like a "them," the outsider.  I think that is why it has been so easy lately to spend time immersed in those black and white negatives. 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 me. I look at those images now and marvel at how Mexican the people and the place appear. The proud brown faces, the tile roofs, arches, and the stucco walls. The images are a reminder of how long my tribe has been here. They connect me to my tribe.

My retreat, of course, is symbolic. I can't live in the past, inside of photos of a world long gone. The truth is that I chose to leave that safe, Mexican, world at age eighteen. It was a conscious decision. But I have never discounted the importance of the early, safe Mexican world. I miss much of my barrio life—my grandmother, aunts, uncles, cousins who lived within a few block of me. I miss bike trips to the molino to get masa for mom's tortillas or to the little tiendita for cigars to feed dad's occasional bad habit. At those stores, in that barrio, no one questioned if I belonged.

I can't go back to that world. It is too far away in miles and memory. Like some others, I bet that a life in the bigger world would pay off. I  chose to leave the barrio. I thought I could play in the bigger world because the bigger world was changing for the better and I thought I had a place there. Lots of people who came before me made it better. I will be honest. The bigger world stills kicks my ass on occasion. But, all in all, it worked out pretty well; good jobs, good salary, great friends. For a long time, it seemed as though my bet paid off handsomely—until recently.

These are dark days and the time I spent with the images of my youth were just what I needed. The images of the celebrations and rituals, of the creased faces of elders and of puffy-cheeked newborns, of rebellious long-haired teens and sharply dressed grown-ups, were a great source of strength. I came from those experiences. The people and the events in the photographs shaped me. My takeaway: I belong wherever I choose to belong. We all do. I will keep the negatives and photos handy. I am sure I will need them again. But there is no turning back.