At fifty-two, he is one of Mexicoâ€™s most emblematic photographers. He began at the newspaper La Jornada, and since then his workâ€”in publications and exhibitionsâ€”has circulated throughout the world. The winner of more than ten prizes, including a Mother Jones, Francisco Mata possesses a look that is at once remarkable, subtle, and revealing. These qualities are evident in MĂ©xico TenochtitlĂˇn, a marvelous essay now revisited by the writer Fabrizio MejĂa Madrid.
Text by Fabrizio MejĂa Madrid
Translated by Ted O’Callahan
Mexico TenochtitlĂˇn tells us a story through images. It begins with the arrival. Two pilots see the tips of volcanoes barely poking through the clouds. Down below is a city that once stood on a lake and now swims with people. At times the people help you float, at others they sink you. Itâ€™s a place where some dress up as Aztecs because nobody will just give a few coins to their fellow man. Itâ€™s a place where taking out the countryâ€™s flag is not a call to war, but to a party. Where the devotion to Baby Jesus runs so deep it extends to his current manifestation in the form of the soccer star KikĂn Fonseca. And where Baby Jesus is given clothing even when there isnâ€™t anything for the children to wear. Itâ€™s a place where the street children pretend to be dead while their compatriots ask for money to pay for burial, putting on a show of dying because they donâ€™t want to die. Where a teenager dressed in a ruffled white shirt is not ironic kitsch but the savings of the past three years. Continue on and we find itâ€™s a place where the homeless donâ€™t push shopping carts as in New York, but instead carry a guitar, drum, or accordion. Itâ€™s a place where the horses from the carnival are the fastest and most efficient form of transportation. Where a Virgen de la Soledad parade may be a one-man procession. Where the religious picture cards show not only the Virgin but also El Santo [an iconic professional wrestler]. Itâ€™s also a place where the fantastical night means a woman in a miniskirt may or may not be selling orgasms, in fact, she may or may not even be a woman. Itâ€™s that party where the desires ignited by alcohol, darkness, and fireworks blur together. A place where they shoot off bottle rockets so they donâ€™t start shooting. And we come to repentance, after the binge. Francisco Mata portrays a place where anyone can be Christ in the Passion Play if they have acted like Jesus for a whole year. Everything hurts in Mexico: the defeated words of the ranchera song, the tequila hitting the throat, the chile touching the tongue, and, on top of it all, there are the shocks that knock you to the ground. Itâ€™s a country of fire-eaters, circus performers. And itâ€™s Mataâ€™s camera taking pictures of children falling on broken glass. Without sacrifice no one believes the reward. One suffers like Christ every day in the Metroâ€™s tunnels. And that redeems. We are not like the cops in the Passion play who assume their role and disguise themselves as Roman centurions, and laugh at us. Very often the photos depict people carrying large bundles. Itâ€™s the sign of effort that we will never distrust. Only success is cause for suspicion.
The story moves now to the chaotic life of a resort. We are not attractive; we are overweight, our bathing suits are shorts held up with a belt, but we are having fun. At Francisco Mataâ€™s resortâ€”perhaps the most reproduced photos in the newspaper La Jornadaâ€”the appeal is the people themselves, the spectacle of them crowding into the water, where they become the main ingredient of a soup called the family vacation. Here we are with our inflatable swimming ring ready for the packed pool and what unifies this all is that the photographer is welcomed; itâ€™s as if the subjects all say we see you watching us.
Suddenly we are in La Villa de Guadalupe. Mata photographs this new passion with the framing of Danish film-maker Carl Theodor Dreyer: they are tightrope walkers on a loose rope. One carries a pole to keep balanced in the air, another holds an open umbrella in order to hold on, not in the air but on land. And those who live in this place are juggling to keep from falling, to continue being. And that is how we all are.
â€śHow are you?â€ť asks one of them.
â€śWell, Iâ€™m here,â€ť says the other, knowing that staying in this city is a sign that nothing bad has happened yet.
And this section ends with the image of a vendor selling reproductions of Michelangelo’s David whose manifestation is that of a Mexican Apollo. Our version of the classical figure, in the absence of the Renaissance, is the neighborhood hotty.
Of course, Mexico TenochtitlĂˇn ends with death. Itâ€™s the realm of the underworld that we reach by descending the stairs of the Metro. Itâ€™s the marches against AIDS where people wear skeleton masks. And itâ€™s because in Holy Death one fulfills the dream of this place: being invulnerable to limits. After all, Mexico City has always been talked about as the place that no matter what catastrophe happens, will live forever. And this book captures this unusual ambitionâ€”though it has been more than 20 years since the 1985 earthquake, we continue on togetherâ€”and in its own way makes this into an eternal place.
â€śLook!â€ť a stranger will say, 200 years from now, having spotted Mataâ€™s book in a used bookstore, â€śThese Mexicans, instead of restoring their city to see it like it was before, just photographed it at the time to save the money.â€ť