Back in Tzucacab

The PhotoVoice project is coming to a close.  I know because my mind is bursting with big ideas of what to peruse next, and I’m having to work hard to concentrate on finishing this one well.  I’ve been hanging out the last few weeks in that time between doing the bulk of the work a and finishing, just now recovering for the epic push to lay out photographs, pair them with captions in spanish and english, and send them to the printer.  Chelsea did most of this work from Merida, and the last bits traveled with us, both of us combing over last details in our uncomfortable airplane chairs, the long layover in Dallas, and the first twenty-four hours at Chelsea’s mom’s house.  In a way we re-entered our home country after chelsea uploaded each file, and got confirmation and proofs of the thirteen large banners we are printing to hang in Tzucacab next week.  

 Anyone who knows the experience of coming back and forth from home as we do so often right now - and I expect this includes just about everyone reading this - knows that it is hard to predict what it feels like to come back.  I warn students who come to Yucatan about the ‘culture shock’ of going home to a place where strangers can seem unfriendly and love ones can seem overly-distracted in comparison to a village like Tzucacab, and the well-meaning question “how was it?” can feel like an affront to the depth of your recent experience.  But in reality, I think the most salient feature of coming home, especially at the moment when you are boarding the plane, or even when walking out of the airport concourse to meet someone who loves you, is that you just don’t know what it will feel like to come back.  It’s different every time.  

This time, for me, was particularly sweet.  I immediately got to spend some time with Chelsea’s family, which is more and more becoming my own.  And even though I didn’t get to visit my parents, just being closer- or maybe it was the clearer calls- felt closer to home.  The oral portion of my exams for school turned out to be easy and fun, and I came away feeling fortunate to sit with three professors and exceptional thinkers, and talk about my own work for hours.  I got to have dinner not once but twice with a friend, with whom, when we get around to ‘talking shop’, the possibilities in the work we both do seems to grow and sharpen.  I got to be with another dear friend in the depth of making a gut-wrenching decision, the kind of time that calls strongly on the integrity of a friendship and makes the value of them clear.  I spent the last few days seeing one friend after another: a baby just a little bit bigger, a mentor just a little bit closer to leaving the bittersweet fold of academia for more of a different kind of teaching, a favorite teacher becoming a poet.  

I took a plane then a bus than a taxi to our home in Merida, and then a couple days later drove the university truck to Tzucacab.  I met up with Leo and Jimenez, the two youth researchers organizing the photography show here.  They have done a tremendous job, planning refreshments for two hundred people, contacting the press, inviting special guests, and planning a schedule of speakers.  Sitting down with them last monday, at a plastic coca-cola table that a local lunch place lets us use for such meetings, schedules and posters and invitations spread out, we were planning hard but laughing easily.  They were pointing out my oversights without too much hesitation. I suddenly had the feeling that we had made the transition from teacher/student to collaborators or colleagues.  I think that this is one of the moments any good teacher dreams of.  It can happen only if you work together long enough, if the student is exceptionally motivated and perceptive, and the teacher does his work well, and even then, it may never come.  When it happens you know it, at least, again, if you are doing your job and paying attention.  I am so proud of and grateful to Jimenez and Leo for their dedication and willingness to take risks in this project.  

I start this post off saying the project is coming to a close, but here at the end of the post I know that is not altogether true.  The production is finished (or should be; I just got the alarming news that UPS lost the photos somewhere between Oakland and Chelsea’s Dad’s house!), but that’s only the first part of the project, or maybe I should say the first part of the conversation.  It occurred to me a few weeks ago that I have no idea how people will respond to these photos here.  Chelsea pointed out that it is likely the first time photographs are shown as art in this town’s long history.  Will people take offense to seeing themselves or their neighbors printed at two by three feet? Will the representation of everyday life be boring to those who live it? Or will people immediately notice the exceptional care and love with which the photographers captured their communities, especially the work that their families do?

So far I only have a few clues to go on: when we brought some 11x14 prints to town the photographers sign, destined for some of our funders and advisory board members as thank-you gifts, the women who work as cooks at the local university research station gathered around to see them.  They were especially interested in a photograph that Leo took.  People who don’t make tortillas usually mistakenly think the photo depicts a handful of corn seeds, but these women instantly recognized it as corn cooked with limestone to the perfect point at which the seed coats can be removed and the corn can be ground into masa for tortillas. They commented that making tortillas has a lot of steps which must be learned early and carried out every day to feed your family.  It is skilled and precise, like much of women’s work, although it is often seen as drudgery or simply manual labor.  If Leo’s photo essay successfully communicates that, I will consider the show a great success.  

The way people respond will likely be almost as interesting as the products themselves.  We will document the show as best we can, with video and photos.  The photographers have a plan to invite comments and questions from the audience who comes to the show, which we will record. Reporters from the Diario de Yucatan newspaper and the Mayan-language Xepet radio station will do their own reporting, and local members of our advisory board will offer their analysis of how it went.  

And all this is the start of what we hope to be many exhibitions: we have plans for a show in the university’s gallery in the capital city Merida next month, and latter several exhibitions and talks around the city.  Caitlin Slay, a participant in last spring’s student trip to Tzucacab, is starting our research into venues for showing these works in California and possibly inviting some of the photographers to come present them (if you have a connection to a venue or funder that may be interested, please let us put you in touch with Caitlin).