La Frontera Sin Sonrisa

 I'M A PRODUCT of the border. My mother lived in Juárez, my father in El Paso. When she was a teenager, she crossed the river and worked for my dad. They moved to California. I was born in Fresno. Farm worker country. But we lived in the suburbs. When we returned to El Paso to visit relatives, we'd cross the bridge into Juárez so my parents could drink, and me and my sister could buy bulls' horns, sombreros and velvet Jesus paintings. The streets were packed. I held onto my mom's hand for fear I'd lose her grip. But I did. I spun around, there she was. Mexico staring me in the face—a stump on a skateboard, amputated, her hand held out begging for pesos. 

My sister has a photograph from one of these trips. It is of her and me, my mom and dad, taken in Tijuana in the early 60s. My sister and I are seated upon a pair of donkeys. The donkeys have been painted in black and white stripes so that they look like a couple of zebras. I'm wearing a sombrero that says LUPITA on the brim. I have a sad half-smile. My sister's expression is blurred and unreadable. My mom looks tense. My father's eyes look away, averted, not present. Years later my father told me he was mourning the death of Clark Gable that day, and we had gone to Tijuana so he could drink. In Mexico photographs are called recuerdos, memories. 


The photograph was taken by a tourist photographer who worked with a wooden box camera, a crudely made 4x5, the Virgin of Guadalupe painted on its side. He used a bottle cap for a shutter and stuck his hand inside a sock in the rear of the camera which held a developing tray, a darkroom inside the camera. He developed a paper negative, made a contact print with the sun, developing the final image back inside the camera. Afterwards he submerged the print in a bucket of slime and told us to return in 15 minutes. Despite the technology and the eerie quality to the print, the image has neither stained nor faded. It stands apart from all our other family snapshots. It tells a story.

People often ask me when I take their picture, "What do you want me to do? What should I wear?" 

"Do nothing," I say. "Just stand there." 

"But what should I do?" they ask. "What are you taking a picture of?" 

"Your soul," I say half kidding. "I'm going to take a picture of your soul.' 

In Mexico having one's picture taken is still an important event. The subject stands there, sin sonrisa, without a smile, as if saying to himself, "Look at me. This is who I am."  In the United States, El Norte, we don't even have our picture taken anymore. We are videotaped. Even our most sacred ceremonies—the wedding, the graduation, the bar mitzvah, the birthday. Still, when we do have our picture taken we have learned to wear a mask. That mask is a smile. And the smile is a lie, a convention imposed. When we smile, in fact we are saying, "Don't look at me, the real me." When we are encouraged to smile, the photographer is saying, "Cover thyself." Afraid to look inside, afraid to reveal ourselves, we don the mask.  But when we look at the pictures of our grandparents, their wedding photo for instance, they are not smiling. They are solemn. They are sincere. Their marriage has been taken seriously. The photograph is not only true; like their marriage, it endures. 

In search of subjects that reveal themselves fully to the camera and in search of myself, I returned to the border as an itinerant photographer. It is a dying art, as most of these photographers who work the streets, the festivals and churches of Latin America have replaced the Virgin of Guadalupe boxes with instant cameras and color film. 

Working in the manner of a Mexican street photographer, I set up my camera in the zocolos, the plazas, in front of churches, on the bridges, in Mexico City, in Lima, in East L.A. Using Polaroid Type 55 B/W film which produces a positive as well as a negative I'm able to give my subjects the print and take the negative home. This in itself changes the dynamic a photo documentarian uses. Instead of capturing the moment, stealing the photograph, the subjects pose themselves. The photograph is theirs. 

Growing up a Mexican in America is to grow up an immigrant in one's own land. To be amputated at the hip without the language, without the culture, without a sense of history, continuity or belonging to the rest of Latin America. Although Mexican, I walk different. I wear my jeans different. My Spanish has a Cuban, an Argentinean and sometimes even a Catalan accent. 

Nonetheless, with a black cape, a wooden tripod and a state of the art mahogany and stainless steel 4x5 field camera, I'm accepted as an ambulante, a streetwalker, as the itinerant photographers are called. I don't charge, but offer the portraits for free. Soon a crowd forms and others come up and ask to have a picture. The ones who had said no in the beginning would then ask too. 

I wasn't always successful. Three teenage girls appeared in the plaza of Piedras Negras in communion dresses, torn and soiled. I asked them to pose. They declined. I pressed further.  They said no. The coyote appeared, who was going to take them across the border. They explained. They tried crossing three nights on their own. They'd lost everything, but the clothes they were wearing. These too now were dirty. They were from Mexico City. Their families were middle class. How could they arrive in the rich United States looking this way? No. No picture. 

One afternoon, I had a man in front of the camera, Porfirio, an ice cream vendor. He stood hunched at the shoulders, staring straight into the camera, his feet planted firmly on the ground. I was all set to go, just about to snap the picture, when a ruckus broke out. Five men my age surrounded me. 

"Why are you taking pictures of poor people?" A young man in Farahs and cowboy boots attacked. "That's all you gringos think of us. That we're poor and Indian. We got rich people too. Rich people and intelligent people. How come you don't take pictures at the country club? We're not all poor," he yelled. 

Porfirio held his position waiting for me to shoot. Sensing I was about to get booted out of town, I turned and faced my accusers. "I'm Chicano. I'm Mexican. I'm Indian. I don't look at these people as poor people," I said. "I look at them as Mexicans. I just happen to be photographing this man, on this corner, on this afternoon. If you want to be next, ¡ándale pues!"

"Get out of here," the crowd yelled at my accuser. "We're having fun." 

I turned back to Porfirio. Minutes had passed. He stood hunched at the shoulders, staring straight into the camera, his feet planted firmly on the ground. He hadn't moved an inch. 

In Lima, no one said no. If anything, I had a problem keeping the frame clear. Mobs would form and step into the photograph. Starving for attention, wanting to be noticed. A policeman who helps me photograph a fortuneteller and his monkey expects his own photograph as payback. 

There's a plaza in Lima where street artists, musicians and evangelists congregate. The plaza has strange magical power. Actors appear from nowhere. Instantly crowds emerge, encircle, listen, watch. 

A man holds out the centerfolds from Playboy and Playgirl extolling the sins of homosexuality and the virtues of the vagina and matrimony. A father and daughter perform acrobatic displays, rudimentary and unremarkable. A woman sells puppies from the pockets of her house dress. A photographer uses the bronze statue, a soldier on horseback, as the background for his portrait of a policeman. 

I don my cape, kneel to the ground and focus. When I look up, a flock 200 strong has formed a circle around us. I realize it's my moment. I load the camera with Type 55 and snap the shutter. Still kneeling I pull the Polaroid and rise to my feet. I hold the instant print up high and make a slow 360-degree turn. "Aahhh," the crowd hums. 

In Matamoros, I wandered down the street and passed the door of an old photo studio. The door was open and inside stood an old wooden 8x10 camera, the owner and her son. Her father had been a photographer during the revolution. He had photographed Villa's troops as they hid in the North. He had been an itinerant photographer, as was her deceased husband, herself, her brother and now her son. I asked her if she would take my picture. 

She went to a drawer and pulled out a 35mm late model Canon SLR. 

"I want the old camera," I said. "Can we use the old camera?"

"We shoot in 35 now," she said.  "In color. Cross the border and use one of the one-hour lab. But as you wish." 

 I stood still, tried my best not to smile and hoped my double-chin would not show.

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