Capturing the Colonias of Acuña, Coahuila (Mexico):  An Interview with Jessy Menchaca by Matthew Wylie

Jessy Menchaca (Del Rio, TX) began mobile photography in 2010 and has since had her work featured via The Mobile Photo Awards, various EyeEm events, Hipstography, Visure Italia, and both Street Expose books. She is a proud new mother of her daughter Chloe Londyn, who, each and every day, woke up like this.

I spoke to Jessy about her recent visit to Acuña, Coahuila and her desire to capture the family life, value system, and work ethic of those residing in the colonias of Acuña, Coahuila – Mexico.

Matthew: I can’t help but notice an eye in your photographs, at least many of them, that seems to focus on issues of class and ethnicity, particularly that of the Mexican / Latin American working class identity. Can you speak to us at all about this and what you are attempting to do, or say, when capturing these moments, let alone sharing them with us?

Jessy: When shooting in Mexico, I normally visit the not so privileged neighborhoods (known as “colonias”).  The people in these neighborhoods, on average, work 60 hours a week for a compensation of about $70 U.S. dollars.  Their ability to stay positive and happy, considering their circumstances, is a quality that evokes interest in me. These people manage their household and families on less than $100 a week, while foreign corporations pocket the profit that results from “cheap labor.”

The citizens of Acuna, Coahuila have taught me that when there’s a will, there’s a way.  While photographing, I always hope I can capture their persevering spirit.  This is something I admire in the Mexican people.

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Matthew: This makes me think of the privilege you (us) have doing what we do. I mean, from the privilege of having a piece of equipment like an iPhone, to the privilege of being able to walk around with it in broad daylight without concern, do you see your privilege as a form of responsibility to use it for reasons like this, such as sharing the stories of those who can’t? I think you’re not just seeking to capture their “persevering spirit.” You seem to have something else to say in the sharing of these photographs with the rest of us, no?

Jessy: I’m trying to share some of the circumstances that Mexican people struggle with.  Observing them from my moving vehicle, while getting captures with my iPhone, helps me to understand why, to some of them, crossing the border and migrating into the U.S. in an illegal manner would seem like an “opportunity.”  When I share the photos, I hope that those who are intolerant and quick to suggest “Mexicans should go back to Mexico” realize and understand where these people come from and why they might desire to leave.  There’s nothing attractive about living in a third world country and making $70 a week. In my opinion, if the U.S. and other foreign corporations that operate in Mexico compensated labor in a fair manner, maybe the quality of life in Mexico would increase and less Mexicans would consider taking the risks involved with migrating into the USA. Make no mistake, I’m not saying “Open the borders and let them all in!”, no, not at all.  I just would like to spread consciousness and hope for a bit of understanding towards their situation, and, living in Texas, ours.

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Matthew: In terms of the idea of photography being more than capturing “pretty images,” which is, in my opinion, far too often the case for mobile photographers, both amateur and professionals alike, I wonder if there is any one photograph (or even photographer) that for you, personally, has helped you “understand” a situation that you previously simply did not?

Jessy: The work of Louie Palu while covering the drug related crisis along the US-Mexico border was an eye opener for me. His “Mira Mexico” portfolio reveals who has been affected the most by this conflict. It’s a very explicit visual narrative of this ongoing crisis.

Matthew: Can you tell us a bit about what it is like to compose your narratives / make your captures in the colonias you mention, rather than in your own city? Did any of this make you think differently of what you are doing with your photography?

Jessy: Photographing in Mexico is more attractive to me for many reasons.  The people seem more aware of their surroundings due to their general inability to purchase technology. As such, the streets are filled with children playing with old tires, cardboard boxes, deflated soccer balls, or any other item that requires the direct use of their imagination.  Women can be seen gossiping with each other, or sweeping the sidewalks and men are usually seen working on something, whether it’s an old car, their house, or anything else that needs fixing.  Most of these scenarios simply can’t be found in U.S. cities as frequently, at least not the cities I have spent time in. For example, I’ve searched for similar scenarios in Los Angeles, California to New Orleans, Louisiana, and all over Texas, my home state.  What I have found, everywhere, is that people seem to be too busy living their lives of undeniable privilege.  Children play on electronic devices, women gossip through social media and men pay other men to fix their broken items.

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Matthew: Are you not also seeking to capture something that we, as a society in general, are losing? Might you also be seeking to “capture” this too? You seem to remind me of how photography can help us see what we may have not seen otherwise, and what you are talking about is not just a moment, but an entire set of cultural and social values and habits.

Jessy: One of the things that I fondly admire is that the people of these colonias seem to retain this unique sense of innocence, something that is not easy to find and normally lost through the materialism that pervades the U.S. They seem to find happiness easily, and not simply through obtaining material possessions. I admire how they’re not preoccupied with “Keeping up with the Martinez,’” so to speak.

The U.S. seems so often to be an “all about me” society. With the Mexican concept of family life, this type of egotism just is not as prevalent. This is something I also admire. The difference was highlighted to me some days ago by one of my very own relatives, who happens to be a second generation American citizen. While going through some of my photos, he said “It’s crazy how this woman is so young and has pretty much given up on her life because now she has to care for all of those kids!”   I looked to see which photo he was referring to and it was a photo of a young Mexican woman, ready to cross the street with her two children. He was so quick to pass judgment, never stopping to think that maybe this woman, like many Mexican women, believe in forming families, even if that need is determined by their environment. What if that was the life she chose (rather than seeking one in the U.S., legally or illegally)? What if that is what makes her happy and complete? Mexicans are exposed to the same media as we are, they have dubbed versions of our same films, same reality tv, and they at times sing along to the same lyrics people in America do. Even with all of this, they still consider forming a family, and managing with a very light income, living an “accomplished life”. #VivaLaFamilia

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Matthew: You are a mother of a newly born child (congratulations again!), and I wonder, what advice might you give to young people today who may see the camera in the mobile device primarily as a means to self-glorify, or socially interact?

Jessy: I’d tell them to live a little more and worry a whole lot less about looking attractive for strangers. Coming across shallow “selfies” on any social network really irks me. It is rather unfortunate that females need to be validated by the amount of “likes” they can obtain by showing off their physical attributes. When I come across an attention seeking post, I always wonder “who raised you?” I was taught that I don’t need for anybody to validate my existence. Only I can do that for myself.

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Matthew: Jessy, thank you for your time and for sharing your time in and impressions of the colonias with us.

If you will permit, I would like to conclude the interview with the famous Benard Pivot questionnaire that is actually a take on Marcel Proust’s (one of my favourite authors) set of questions, because that’s just how I roll. You good?

Jessy: Bring it on.

Matthew: What is your favorite word?

Jessy: “Fuck”

Matthew: What is your least favorite word?

Jessy: “Can’t”

Matthew: What turns you on?

Jessy: Self-confidence and the smell of good cologne

Matthew: What turns you off?

Jessy: Lack of self-confidence

Matthew: What sound or noise do you love?

Jessy: Chloe’s (my daughter) baby gibberish

Matthew: What sound or noise do you hate?

Jessy: Racist remarks

Matthew: What is your favourite curse word?

Jessy: “Fuck”

Matthew: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Jessy: Samba Dancer

Matthew: What profession would you not like to do?

Jessy: Anything in the medical field

Matthew: If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?

Jessy: “Hi Jessy, what a ride! Nice heels. Your Dad has been patiently waiting for you.”

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