I am not a visual person. I often don't notice detail. I don't have a sense of space. In my fifties, for the first time I noticed that light changes subtly during the day-- and someone had to point it out to me.. A couple of years ago, I decided that it was time I developed my eye. Instead of seeing just the broad strokes of what was around me, I wanted to understand how to really discern what surrounded me. So I began to study the works of artists who inspire me and whose work evokes emotions and ideas and memories. I didn't study in an academic sense but in the sense of sitting with an image, noticing the details, the colors, the angle and the relationship of these to each other. I try to sit still and listen to the feelings and thoughts the photo evokes. When I decided to learn to see, I chose fronterizas and fronterizos-- photographers and artists-- who I knew could teach me because we share both the beauty and the difficulty of living on the border. They embrace the contradictions of living on the margins and the center at the same time.
Federico Villalba is one of my teachers and I have never told him. An art photographer/ street photographer from El Paso, he said in a 2016 article that "it is not [his] intention to photograph an image that does not genuinely exist, nor alter it into an illusion that it is not." That is one of the aspects of his work that resonates with me. Here on the border we don't have to alter reality-- it is already remarkable. People who come here either love it or hate it. People who grew up here try to leave but we usually come back. If you love the border, you can see the astonishing place that it is. If you love the border like Federico does, you find a way to document it.
Federico's photographs are evidence of his love for la frontera, the people, the buildings, the relationships, the history, and the culture. Whether it is a photo of matachines dancing in front of a mural of la Virgen de Guadalupe or a poignant image of an elderly couple sitting on a bench, his photos bear witness to this constantly changing place where the ancient and the modern live side by side. Each time I hear that he is exhibiting his work (and he has exhibited widely), I am happy because others will see his vision of the border.
It was difficult to chose the photographs for this post. There are so many. So I decided to post those that spoke to me today. Every time I look at Feredico's IG account, I see new photos that speak to me. The captions below are Federico's; I've added some comments throughout in maroon font. Please note that all photographs are ®Federico Villalba, All Rights Reserved.
Federico, thank you for your work and for being an inspiring and generous maestro.
The border is full of movimiento and life. On December 12 of each year-- the day of Our Lady of Guadalupe-- matachines, dancers devoted to her and to the Catholic Church, move in ancient patterns that remind us our culture existed for millennia before European contact. The ancient dance illuminated by neon lights- that is la frontera.
Durangito OCT2015. Save the neighborhood, save part of the history of El Paso, Texas. Photo: ®Federico Villalba, All Rights Reserved.
The couple sitting on this bench, facing their home, had lived here for many years at the time Federico took their photo. Each afternoon, they sat outside talking, often accompanied by their neighbors. During the summer of 2017, the couple were forced to move by their landlord because he intended to sell the building to the City so they could build an arena. On September 12, 2017 the City of El Paso allowed the property owner to demolish a portion of the building despite an existing court order saying no demolition could take place. A few days after the illegal demolition, she returned to the neighborhood to see her home. She said it would "always" be her home.
Procession of newsprint and wheat paste superheroes in South Central El Paso, Texas. Crazy for El Loco. Photo: ®Federico Villalba, All Rights Reserved.
What can I say: on the border, we are always on the move!
Comida Corrida $5.49 @ Sr. Benjos: Ringside to life on Alameda Ave. Photo: ®Federico Villalba, All Rights Reserved.
Alameda runs from southeast central El Paso to the Lower Valley. Once lined by álamos (cottonwood trees), the street cuts through what used to be east El Paso, a Mexican barrio that grew along the river at the turn of the 20th century.
Clay, mortar, and steel. Memories of El Paso's past fading into ruble. Photo: ®Federico Villalba, All Rights Reserved.
In 2016, this 107-year-old former flour mill was demolished to make way for a new highway. Federico's photo brings me comfort in its absence. Driving down I !0, I always felt connected to our city's history when I saw this old building, a reflection of El Paso's early urbanization..
Photo: ®Federico Villalba, All Rights Reserved.
In September 2014, 42 students from a rural teachers school in Guerrero, Mexico were kidnapped. They are still missing. El Pasoans held a vigil to call for their return. Activists and families on both sides of the border continue to demand their return.
Posada at historic Barrio Duranguito, Dec. 20, 2017. Photo: ®Federico Villalba, All Rights Reserved.
Federico has been a steady presence in Barrio Duranguito for the past year and a half as residents and supporters fight for the survival of this historic neighborhood. The posada, the re-enactment of Mary and Joseph seeking shelter, is a particularly potent symbol in the barrio since people began to be forcibly displaced from their homes last year.
You can follow Federico Villalba on Instagram here:chancla_rodriguez or on Facebook here: federico.villalba.1804.