Mexican Teen Mothers Through a Different Lens

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More infants in New York City are born to Mexican women than to any other foreign-born group, according to the Department of City Planning. While Mexican immigration in the city has increased dramatically since the 90s, few in the arts have taken time to spotlight the growing population in our city. And perhaps those deserving the most credit – young mothers babysitting at home – remain largely ignored. Now, photographer Erin Patrice O’Brien is giving a few a chance to shine.
Saturday, August 16th marks the opening reception of O’Brien’s Mamás Adolescentes: NYC 2006-2007, a photo exhibition on display at the Danny Simmons’ Corridor Gallery in Brooklyn running through August 24th. The exhibit chronicles two years in the lives of Mexican-American and Mexican immigrant teenage girls living in Queens and Brooklyn, during and after their pregnancy. “I wanted to tell the story of someone whose story isn’t really being told,” says O’Brien, 35, about focusing on teen immigrant mothers. O’Brien, an editorial and advertisement photographer whose prior work has appeared in magazines like Time, Newsweek and Entertainment Weekly, hoped to undertake a different sort of assignment. “I wanted to do a documentary project because I was getting sick of shooting celebrities,” says O’Brien, who has worked with the likes of Jack Black, Dave Chappelle, and Gael Garcia Bernal.

Tired of dealing with demanding artists, O’Brien decided to turn the lens on every day people. After the birth of her own daughter Maya in 2005, she looked for women facing the awesome responsibility of motherhood at a much younger age. Her gynecologist put her in contact with Dr. Yvette Martas, former director of the Adolescent OB/GYN Clinic at Bellevue Hospital. Most of Dr. Martas’ patients were Latinas, and those willing to participate in O’Brien’s project were Mexican, ranging in age from 14 to 18. Suddenly, a celebrity photographer was in charge of shooting Yolanda, Maria, Elizabeth, Gina, and Fanny, and a project about young motherhood unfolded a new cross-cultural chapter.

For two years, O’Brien traveled throughout Brooklyn from her Fort Greene home out to East New York, Sunset Park, Bushwick and Jamaica, Queens. She wanted to capture the girls’ lives from pregnancy until after birth, even if that meant dealing with the fickleness of adolescence. “Teenagers being teenagers, half the time they either: a) forgot I was coming, or b ) would get dressed and ready once I arrived,” she says about dealing with frustrations. Adding to the complications, the girls sometimes moved or changed their phone numbers while forgetting to update O’Brien. She tracked them down over and over again, determined to continue her project because the pictures were becoming more than just images. They were now telling of an experience, one unique and universal at the same time. “It was interesting to me – you don’t really see photos or stories about these young girls. I just wanted to share their lives,” she says.
But did the girls want to share theirs? Well, not at first. A good number of the girls dropped out, and those that stayed in, Yolanda and Maria from Mexico and Elizabeth, Gina, and Fanny from New York, were hesitant. They let O’Brien into their homes based on Dr. Martas’ recommendation, but that didn’t erase their worries. “I was nervous at first, but after the third time, when she brought her daughter, I felt more comfortable,” says Elizabeth,  now 17, about the visits. O’Brien tried forging a bond by speaking the Spanish learned from her  husband Pablo (frontman of rock band Contramano) and the time she spends yearly in Buenos Aires with him and their daughter. But the common experience of being a parent spoke louder than words.

“At first they were really shy, but we had a lot in common and eventually became friends,” says O’Brien. The trusting relationship lent to honest photographs – a series offering an intimate look into the homes of young teens who aren’t caught up with the latest Hannah Montana episode. These girls devote all energy to their babies and spend endless hours inside while their significant others work upwards of 50 hours.

“I like the one of the Mexican flag with my son,” says Elizabeth of a picture with baby Justin sleeping on an oversized blanket made to look like the flag. She sounds excited about this Saturday, and is talking about some of the media buzz. She and her mother don’t fully comprehend all the attention, but it feels important. They feel important.

The images can be previewed online on O’Brien’s website, but are best viewed in person without captions, as the pictures speak for themselves. Attend the opening reception from 4-7 p.m. this Saturday, but arrive early to hear the artist panel discussion at 3 p.m., featuring Dr. Yvette Martas, among others.