In 2014, Stephanie Segura, a Brooklyn-based photographer, helped found an art collective of writers, musicians, and visual artists called La Chamba Press. Pulling together unique histories and points of origin— ranging from the Caribbean to Mexico— the members aim to create work that makes the experience of the Latino diaspora easier to picture.
Segura, whose zines of Mexico were featured this year at Printed Matter’s Art Book Fair in Los Angeles, looks specifically at Mexican-American diaspora. Her bleached-processed Polaroids of home, ritual, and celebration bring to light Mexican culture as viewed through the eyes of a first-generation U.S. citizen. And although the photos catalog new experiences, they are rich with nostalgia, as if Segura is creating memories of a life that could have been, a history that anticipates her own.
I met Segura at El Regalo de Juquila in Bushwick, New York, to talk about her work. Telenovelas played loudly from a television sitting atop a row of refrigerators. We ate tacos, drank aguas frescas. In her zines, I see a political argument against ingrained images of Mexico that come from its own citizens or tourists. She disagreed. Instead, she sees her vibrant photographs of Mexico as nothing more than personal mementos. “If somebody connects with them, then fine,” she told me. “In the end, they’re just for me.”
This interview has been edited and condensed from the conversation Segura and I had at Regalo de Juquila.
Let’s talk about the zines you did on Mexico, one was about Valle de Bravo, a small town near Mexico City. Tell me more about the project.
Valle de Bravo is where my grandma and my great-grandmother once lived. It’s a beautiful town that’s full of history, although I didn’t know anything about it at first. I traveled there with my grandmother after my great-great-grandmother passed away. The photos in this zine are of that trip, but they’re also photos of family I met along the way. I see the photographs in this zine as my own attempt to understand my family’s history. It was a way to reconnect with them. I went to my Tia Tera’s house, for example, and drove out to see other family members. Traveling with my grandmother was a beautiful way to experience all the stories that happened there. In one photo, for instance, I photographed a moment between my grandmother and a bank teller named Beto who hadn’t seen my grandmother since she lived there. There was shock that they still remembered each other. It was exciting to see my grandma’s life happening right in front of me. It was an internal recognition.
The Polaroids in this zine are unplanned. They capture the moment. But they also have a historical weight. It seems as though they’re solidifying your own history. What was the creative urge behind them?
As a kid, growing up in Los Angeles, I never thought about my family’s history. I knew I was Mexicana, sure. I knew I was Chicana. But it wasn’t that strong of an influence in my childhood life. I was taken in by U.S. culture. It wasn’t until I moved to New York City, where I have absolutely no family, did I feel a strong pull to know more about family. I had an urge to see more. I needed to know the history before me.
The sense of nostalgia in your photos is strong even though they’re photographs of new experiences. Storytelling is an important component to this. What the story behind this photograph?
My great-grandmother would tell me many elaborate stories. She had a great memory. She would tell me about sneaking out her window to see castillos at night. Castillos are what they called firework shows, and I didn’t know that. She would say, “Me fui a ver castillos.” And I thought, This girl would really sneak out her fucking window to go see some fucking castle? Really? But when my cousins took me there for a photo (above) I saw that it was a firework competition to see who would play music at the following Independence Day celebration. They paired fireworks to the corridos in competition. So when I went out and saw this, I imagined my great-grandmother in a different light. Oh my god, I said to myself, this is what my great-grandmother would do. She must have once been here with her homegirls or boyfriend, watching these same fireworks that I photographed.
You also photographed Mexico City for your Mexico Lindo y Querido zine.
Yes, it was made during my first time going to the city. My Tio Fede took me everywhere he wanted to show me. He’s a taxi driver and knows his particular spots. He took me to this Pulquería, and we got really drunk. It was hilarious. We walked around at day and at night, climbed the pyramids. At one point during the climb, I was like, “Where’s my Tio Fede?” And there he was at the top of the pyramid already. I live in New York City, I told myself, and I can’t keep up with him? How come I can’t climb this thing? And there he was at the top acting all cute.
What did your uncle think about you photographing Mexico City for this project?
I think he was just surprised to see me. There I was at the airport, this crazy girl with bleached-blonde hair whom he hadn’t seen since I was a baby. Where am I going to take her, he probably thought. What am I doing with this chick? She’s my niece and I have to show her around? So we went to touristy spots, as I said the pyramids, spent time on the road there. He would listen to El Tri and 70s rock. He thought it was important that I see these places. But we also drank. Once he found out I drank, he took me to eat chicharrones at a bar, and we watched these ladies who looked like they came from a quinceañera, wearing these bedazzled dresses, googling Youtube music videos and playing rancheras. It was such a moment.
You said earlier that you were taken in by U.S. culture. Did you ever feel like an outsider while shooting these photographs in Mexico?
In a way, but I was trying to absorb it at the same time. Mexico is where my family started. Mexico is where I could have grown up. I didn’t want to see Mexico as something outside me because I wanted to take in so much of my culture. Going back was a way of figuring myself out, filling out a void in my identity. I wanted to go to Mexico and feel that everything there is a large part of me. I realized Mexico was something I had to take in because it’s who I am in my blood. Going to see Mariachis, eating the food, and taking these pictures is like finding a home.
I love that these photographs contest a set idea of what Mexico should look like. Why do you think these photos should be shared?
I think it’s important to share the culture of Mexico itself. There are a lot of people who emigrate from there and never go back. And there are many Chicanas like me who don’t visit. If I hadn’t gone there, I wouldn’t have gained this different perspective. To realize that this is Mexico, this is D.F. It’s a romantic view of the culture found by walking around the city at night and at day. It’s to acknowledge what exists.