Monday, April 19, 2010

The Thing About Mexico

Lucha Libre, 2010

Mexico has a rich history and a highly evolved culture of art, music, literature and indigenous crafts. A border town like Nogales, however, is probably not the best place to go looking for that.

Mexico’s getting a lot of bad press these days. Drug cartels are shooting not only their enemies, but also—just to let us know they mean business—stray American diplomats and visitors. Americans are warned about random violence and kidnappings. While I was there last week, tensions were additionally heightened when the state of Arizona adopted the most onerous immigration control law of any state in the country. Oh, and there was the business of a recent unsolved murder of an American rancher living near the border, presumably by an illegal border jumper.

So it was with some trepidation that I considered walking across the border at Nogales, Arizona, to see what was on the other side. But my friend Allison said I should do it “for the adventure.” So feeling like I had the expectations of at least one other person with me, I did.

It turns out that it’s easy to walk into Mexico. You don’t have to show anything. There’s not even anyone paying attention to you as you go through the turnstile at the border. You know you’re in Mexico when you come out on the other side and are immediately bombarded with guys yelling, “Sir!” “Sir!” “Taxi!” Taxi!”

I wouldn’t have known where to tell a taxi driver to take me. Instead, I just walked out onto the street and started exploring.

Nogales, Mexico, is chaotic. It’s crowded. It’s noisy. Much of it looks like a good storm or earthquake would level it. It’s an extremely tired looking city. I didn’t see any building that looked like it might have been built since, say, 1950.

I’m used to slipping quietly into the background when I’m making pictures. But there was no chance of that happening in Nogales. I was the only gringo anywhere I went. All I had to do was walk onto a street and the hawkers for a block in either direction would start trying to intercept me and entice me into their shops.

I was offered hats, belts, crafts, boots, shirts, pants, leather jackets, Viagra and, in case I needed someone to use the latter with, senoritas with whom I could frolic in the sack. Everyone invited me to take a picture of his store, their stall, his dog or one of the aforementioned senoritas. (Let’s just say that the senoritas were tawdry enough to make my middle parts quiver at the prospect of what would certainly be long courses of post-frolic, God’ll-get-you medication.) And I didn’t need a new hat, belt or pair of boots (especially, Allison, since Mexicans seem to believe that no color is too garish when it comes to boots). Even little children playing in the schoolyard, protected from the streets by sturdy iron fences and gates padlocked with chains, stopped their games to come over to the edge and ask for dollars.

Skulls, 2010

To be honest, I was a little spooked by all the attention. Rather than take all those pictures I was offered, I just walked on. A good photographer should spend enough time in a place to create trust with the locals before taking the first picture. I didn’t have that kind of time, and was wary that just about any picture I might take could easily be interpreted as an attempt by a snarky American to show Mexico at its trashiest.

Several hours of walking around Nogales was enough for me. It was getting hot and more crowded. After having slipped into Mexico so effortlessly, getting back into the United States was a more arduous ordeal. The line to get to the border snaked around for several blocks and took almost two hours to get through. Sympathy was a big industry along the line. Every five or six feet was a beggar, here a blind man holding out a can and humming to music that no one else could hear and there a man with no legs selling trinkets and snacks. Some were just deranged, standing along the edge of the line hollering at anyone who’d listen.

Pase Ud! 2010

I didn’t take nearly as many pictures as I’d anticipated. If urban squalor is your thing, Nogales is rich with material. A better photographer would have taken every picture offered and sorted through the ethics of it later on. In the end, I’m going to place my hope on the future of these children:

Elementary School, Nogales, Sonora, Mexico - 2010


  1. Those little kids are cute. I have never been to Nogales, and a few times, when I've been close to it, I've been tempted to go exploring. I have a feeling I'd have been nervous. Love the photos you DID take here!

  2. Hello!
    I found your blog by fotolog...
    First of all sorry for my bad english, I can understand perfectly the text that you wrote, but its hard for me to express correctly in english... well I like the photos that you took in Nogales, Im from Mexico City, I have never been in Sonora, but I think its very different than the city, of course things in all the country are not good, especially for the ones who lives near "El Paso" or the U.S border, drugs cartels are killing inocent people even kids are being murdered.
    I don't wanna express bad of my country, but im not blind things are not good here.
    Unfortunately we have the worst government, they just see their benefits, they dont care about the population nor the future of the new generations, but honestly we are full of violence and crimes, that's so sad because as you say Mexico has a huge culture.
    Oh well i dont want to bother u anymore with my big comment lol.

    Greetings and nice pics :D

  3. Interesting post and I love the pictures you did take.