mexico: summer 2006

In the summer of 2006 I got a fellowship from the University of Minnesota Human Rights Center to document the stories of immigrants to Minnesota and the families and places they left behind in Mexico, looking specifically at workplace rights issues, crossing the border, divided families, and the conditions which cause this migration in the first place.

Below is an email sent to family and friends during the trip.

The photos are posted here and here.

———- Forwarded message ———-

From: quito ziegler <>

Date: Aug 1, 2006

Subject: Mexico


In Mexico City again, after a week in El Seco with Matilde and Ezequiel (my friends Mariano and Uriel’s parents, in the home they grew up in), visiting families and extended families in the surrounding areas, delivering goods from the United States.

Mexico is dirty dogs barking on rooftops. Sickly horses with scars on their backs. Niños in orange t-shirts running camoflauged past matching orange walls. Burros grazing on garbage. Double-length trucks carrying cement blocks that you get stuck behind on mountain roads for kilometers. Silhouettes of cactuses on bumpy mountaintops. Fatty chicharron in fresh corn tortillas. Green Pemex stations with no toilet seats. Curvas peligrosas. Roadside altars to the Virgin of Guadalupe and portraits of the Last Supper in every country home. Grannies without teeth. Polluted fog obscuring the top of a semi-dormant volcano. Shots of el tequila blanco with primo Gabriel above his truck repair shop. Shy sweet pampered girls studying Swiss cooking. Onions pickled with chipotle. White VW bugs with dented bumpers. Highways without names or numbers. Dried up riverbeds. Flies from the ranch trapped inside of the van. Extra blankets and lumpy pillows. Motorola telephones, flickering televisions, and extra speakers for the poor. Giant gorditas and rich, dark mole poblano. Dinero fom los Estados Unidos building better bathrooms. Wrinkled aunties and girls with long braided hair. Topes (speedbumps) and more topes. AMLO for President murals. Calderon for President murals. The girls sitting next to me in church sharing a ketchup packet for a secret snack during mass.

To me, Mexico is listening to Bob Dylan and pondering his life and the switch from brilliant protest songwriter to personal visionary. Noticing details and actually photographing them. Looking for the beauty in everyday encounters. Meeting the relatives of the relatives of my friends. Trying to pronounce impossible names and forgetting a million words as soon as I learn them. Never being truly alone or having any personal space — and struggling to get used to it. Photographing la tierra, the land, and not just la gente, the people — perhaps for the first time ever — and the empty spaces my friends in the U.S. have left in their families’ lives. Trying out a new way of seeing the world and capturing it on film. Feeling tired and disconnected and reconnected and hopeful and jaded. Recharging my batteries — literally (constantly!) and figuratively. Reflecting on the things I learned these past three years. Pondering Diane Arbus’s gigantic vision and tremendous talent for approaching and capturing lives. Thinking forward…

Saw all sorts of life this week, new things, familiar things, expected and strange. There will be photos coming as I sort through them (nearly 1000 taken this week), of people and places encountered. Angelica, who sells breakfast jello to workers in Puebla’s financial center. Christina, who lives in a small cement house on a mountainside in Veracruz. Dulce, who graduated with honors from high school in the Minneapolis suburbs but couldn’t go to college there, who just became certified as a doctor here. The house that Angela grew up in, now decrepit, but soon to be occupied by her mother Rosalia when she takes voluntary deportation in September. Sidronio, who bought the farmland he grew up in and the surrounding 500 acres, including the ancient church now in ruins, and operates a major ranch with at least 25 employees and their families, who play baseball in the fields on Sundays in full uniforms. And Mati and Ezequiel, Mariano’s parents, who went everywhere with me this week, sheltered and drove and cooked for me, introduced me to countless cousins, made sure I got on the right bus back to Mexico City…

I took it all in, tried to observe and understand the differences between there and here. It’s only upon reflection that I recognized poverty, if you want to call it that. It didn’t (still doesn’t) feel that way at the time. Because what do you do when you don’t have much? Grind the corn you grow into fresh tortillas. Pray to the Virgin and your patron saint at the altars found in every home. Adore your children. Eat meat once a week, or once a month when you can afford it. Can the fruit you can’t eat while it’s still ripe. Kiss your husband and your eldest son goodbye as they leave to cross the border. Keep the children clean, the dishes clean, the kitchen clean. Tile the bathroom with the money from the States.

But what do you do. Not sit around and feel sorry or seek pity. I refuse to glamourize the poor for the sake of pity or glorification. No smiling peasants or downtrodden laborers. Just life and the people who live it, and the ways they go about living. Mati says her house is ugly, but I prefer it to the ostentatiousness of other houses financed by American money or lucrative careers. For one thing, they have a house. And there’s hot water in the shower and a place to lock the van. I have my own room for privacy and it seems like the fruit in Mexico stays fresh a hell of a lot longer than in America. They are waiting for their visas to come through so they can leave this house and return to the majority of their children and grandchildren in Minnesota.

We live our lives in a different setting. Many of the people I met have fewer possessions and value the things they do have more. But there are no rules for human beings. We are thoughtful and vain, helpful and warm, flashy and jealous, content and dissatisfied, parents and cousins and workers and cooks. We love our families and know the way home. We all want better lives for our kids and for ourselves. We all seek comfort in our own ways. There is poverty in rural Minnesota and in the Mexican countryside. And in few places will the poor call themselves poor. Immigrants in America may be poor by American standards, but in America there is hot water in every shower and two hours of working at minimum wage equals a day’s work (for the lucky) in rural Mexico.

I am copying some of the above thoughts from my notebook. As I wrote the last couple of paragraphs, I sat in the kitchen in El Seco, watching Mati slice a mango for our dinner. Four pots were boiling and the towel-bundled tortillas Ezequiel and I picked up from the tortilleria were warming in the oven. Mati is puttering… dinner will be ready soon. We’ve got soundtrack music playing on the boombox from a movie I can’t quite place. I hear motorcycles in the street, trucks, voices, the occasional BOOM from fireworks for the feria (the festival happening in the town). We visited two brothers, a cousin, a sister in the town, but almost no one was home. It’s Sunday. Mati is making chili atole, a spicy green vegetable soup, with the corn and pumpkins and pumpkin flowers we picked at her brother Sidronio’s ranch today. It’s free, she tells me — and it’s true, all the vegetables were taken from the surrounding fields, where she was born and grew up. It makes her happy to spoil me — and y’all know me, I literally ate it all up.

I don’t know, y’all. I like being a part of my own life, and I’m excited for what comes next. The most sense I can make of all of it is to recognize it’s there, to look at it without judgement, try to experience it fully, and to photograph it as honestly and as beautifully as I can.

Look out for photos, they’re coming soon.

Much love,


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