In “Voices from the Mixtec Highlands,” documentary photographer and photojournalist Rodrigo Jardón documents an indigenous region of Oaxaca where his Mixtec grandmother, Adelaida, was born and raised. Jardón was born and raised in Mexico City but often would spend holidays in Oaxaca with his grandmother, in an area called Nundiche that has been perpetually affected by discrimination and violence, lack of economic resources, education, health services and a constant flow of migration between the United States and Mexico.
Jardón has traveled to and documented the West Bank and the Western Sahara, as well as the United States tour of his own Mexican band, Sour Soul, in 2009. With his most recent documentary work, Jardón digs deep into his own indigenous identity from an outsider perspective. His collection of stories will be on display at Code and Canvas, 151 Potrero Avenue, this Saturday at 6:00 p.m. Photographs will also be on sale.
Mission Local: You mentioned you were in New York before you came to San Francisco for the exhibit, what were you doing there and how is it tied to this project?
Rodrigo Jardón: I went there to present this same project “Voices from the Mixtec Highlands” at Union Docs Brooklyn, the event was organized by Cowbird.com, the platform where the stories of this project are hosted at. A lot of people came, even a Mixtec member from the Mexican community in Staten Island whose name is Víctor Ramírez who later on invited me to visit his home. I wrote the piece about him titled “Victor: The prodigal son and his neighborhood.”
ML: How did this project become a possibility?
RJ: I’ve done some personal photography projects in Mexico, the U.S. and the Middle East in the past, which I have personally financed thanks to my work as a photographer at music concerts, but never had the time or money to actually develop a larger documentary project until I quit my job and got the Unheard Voices Grant from Cowbird.com. The people at Cowbird were interested in the impact of migration to the United States seen from the perspective of the human experience and helped me with the direction I should follow for this storytelling project.
ML: What was the inspiration for your project? I know you told me it was a way to dig into your personal story. Can you tell me more about that?
RJ: My grandmother Adelaida was born in the town of Nundiche in the Mixtec Highlands, an indigenous region in the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico. When she was still underage, she was sent to Mexico City to work as a seamstress and although she kept in touch with her roots, she gradually began to forget her native language, her “Mixtec voice,” which was a part of her identity and way of thinking about the world. This was an opportunity to reconnect with the indigenous roots of my own story.
ML:How much time did you spend in the Mixteca Region and how did you deal with the language barrier?
RJ: I spent about two months in the Mixtec Highlands and yes, many people, old people in the region, don’t speak Spanish but most young men do and they were my translators.
ML: Were the communities you visited difficult to access in terms of photographing the subject, making them feel comfortable with having their photo taken or being recorded?
RJ: Many of the young men in the area worked in many places throughout the United States. Some of those places where the same that I toured in 2009 when I was in a Mexican band, Sour Soul. I would usually ask them about their experience “on the other side.” With older people I would start by sharing the story of my grandmother, most people in the area can relate to a migrant experience in the family. After sharing stores of my life, I believe people were more open but it had a lot to do with my family connection to the place for people to feel comfortable with me.
ML: Do you consider your Mixtec heritage as something that is now more consciously part of you? How has it added to or modified your identity, being someone who grew up in Mexico City?
RJ: This experience has absolutely modified my identity. I believe my mother tried to protect me from the influence of machismo, alcoholism and physical violence in the story of the family when I was a kid. So I always saw the Mixtec Highlands as a playground, as a vacation place where I could be in touch with nature but never as something that was part of myself, just like in the story “Rosaura: memories of a Mixtec childhood.”
ML: What is the connection between the Mixtec Highlands and San Francisco?
RJ: These indigenous communities live in a system of perpetual discrimination, with limited access to education, services and specially justice, making them one of the main sources of immigrants to other states of Mexico and the United States, so San Francisco is one of the places where they come with the idea of have social mobility, I’m also going to present this project at the Oaxaqueño Youth Encuentro conference in Fresno next week and I’m really excited about making more connections between California and the Mixtec Highlands.
ML: How did the Mixtec Region affect your perception of indigenous communities and the way they are seen in central cities such as Mexico City or even San Francisco?
RJ: That’s a very interesting topic. Mexico maintains a rigid structure in the indigenous communities where social mobility has historically been nonexistent: First by the manors of pre-Hispanic societies, then by the colony after the Spanish conquest and nowadays by a political system that favors social relations of a power structure over the work of people. I’ve realized how very little things have changed for indigenous people in my country since hundreds of years.
ML: Can you talk a bit about the violence affecting the Mixteca region and their migration movement to the United States? Is it something that reflects in their music, food, language or daily stories?
RJ: Many of the problems are concentrated in specific areas such as in Mixtepec, a region where the money coming from the drug-lords mixes with the money of the migrants of the area, but there’s also a lot of violence in Mixtec towns that comes from politics. There’s an example of this in the story “Divided towns, divided lives”
On the changes that come with migration, it’s interesting how the landscape is being transformed with the injection of money from the United States. You can see images of this in the story “Towns of immigrants: Imports.”
ML: Do you have any tips for success for other photojournalists that live in very expensive cities such as Mexico City, San Francisco or New York?
RJ: I’d say that I have advice for documentary photographers, which is to maintain a balance between commercial work — that will pay the rent (and keep your mind from overthinking) — and, at the same time, push to get involved in topics you feel curious about, look at everything that has been done about it and think about what you can do with your own style and resources. Then, use the little money you have to develop a project and then get advice from editors and other photographers in order to continue your project or develop the next one but always polishing your vision. I’d also recommend the book “Truth Needs No Ally: Inside Photojournalism” by Howard Chapnick.