Photography and Community: Xavier Tavera
Welcome to High Visibility, a podcast on arts, culture, and ideas in rural America and Indian country. I'm your host, Matthew Fluharty.
High Visibility is produced by Art of the Rural and Plains Art Museum, part of a long-term collaboration of exhibits, publications, and events that share the richly divergent stories and visions of folks across the continent. As we go about this work, we are grateful for the support of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.
To learn more, please visit inhighvisibility.org and consider subscribing to this podcast.
Today I have the opportunity to speak with Xavier Tavera, a photographer who builds deep, longterm relationships with communities and creates work that expresses the humanity, and the historical currents, within the complexities of contemporary Latinx culture.
After moving from Mexico City to the United States, Xavier learned what it felt like to be part of a subculture -- the immigrant community. Being subjected to alienation has transformed the focus of his photographs to share the lives of those who are marginalized. Images have offered insight into the diversity of numerous communities and given a voice to those who are often invisible.
Xavier has shown his work extensively in the Twin Cities, and nationally and internationally including Germany, Scotland, Mexico, Chile, Uruguay and China. His work is part of the collections of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Plains Art Museum, Minnesota Museum of American Art, Minnesota History Center, and the Weisman Art Museum. He is a recipient of the McKnight fellowship, Jerome Travel award, Minnesota State Arts Board grant, and a Bronica scholarship.
Along the way in this conversation, we learn more about how Xavier came to photography, and his sense of the philosophical questions within the act of taking a picture – and we get to learn more about the town of Crookston, Minnesota, with which he’s had a decades long relationship. We also discuss his evolving Latinx in the Rural Midwest project, in particular his time with charro community and migrant dairy workers across this region.
In this wide-ranging conversation, Xavier also shares the work of Grupo Soap del Corazón, a dynamic, ever-evolving Latinx art collective he co-founded with Dougie Padilla. The exhibition La Línea: 22 Years of Grupo Soap del Corazónis currently on view at the Plains Art Museum through August 13, and folks can learn more about this at plainsart.org.
Please sit back and enjoy this conversation with Xavier Tavera.
Matthew: Xavier, welcome to High Visibility.
Xavier Tavera: Thank you for having me here, Matthew.
Matthew: I’m so excited that you’re with us. I’m really grateful for this chance for us to have this conversation today. I have to say it was a real honor that we had the ability to feature your photography in last year’s High Visibility exhibition in the Plains Art Museum.
Xavier: Thank you so much. It was a very interesting surprise, me being very urban, asked to be part of a rural conversation. It was very interesting. I do have my connections, and some of my work relates to the rural, but it was a very interesting surprise, so I appreciate the invitation.
Matthew: We were so grateful as well. And one of the things I would love to just consider with you in this conversation is the nature of that surprise. There’s a lot that I’ve learned from your work and your photography, in a really wonderful, generative way, made myself, just as one audience member of your work really think through these questions of rural, and urban, and where there really are some really powerful interlaced connections, made where we wouldn’t see them on initial glance.
That’s one of the really powerful things that I really experienced with that work, especially within the context of the other work within High Visibility. It takes me back to that moment of walking that gallery for the first time and just taking all of that work in. and I have to say, having worked with the whole curatorial staff at the Plains in thinking through that show, even with that, I was really drawn into your work in particular, in a really powerful way.
And the way I try to think about it in my own thinking and writing is that those photographs felt like an anchor, but also like an invitation. Those feelings sometimes, they evade language and how we try to describe them, but as I’ve tried to think about it, as I’ve looked at so much of your work and been so moved by it, I really landed on this sense of how your work honors storytelling, and the action of making visible the lives, and the places, and the histories, really of this region and the continent as a whole.
And part of that invitation really feels to me like a communication, to me as an audience member, that this work is not done, and that as I'm standing in front of this work, that I have a role in caring for those values into my own relationships, the lives that I'm connected with. So, I really just, as we start this conversation, have really deep gratitude for your work and your practice.
Xavier: Thank you so much, Matthew. And I think you nailed it right there in the head. I think of myself more than a photographer, as a storyteller. Maybe it comes from a deep frustration in writing, and as I do this in image making, I think, I hope that it translates as well as it should.
Matthew: It really does. It’s ironic that I come from a different frustration. As a writer, when I… something that I feel with your work really powerfully is that there is a whole swirl of cultural contexts within you as an artist and me as one audience member engaging with that work. There’s a lot happening in the universe around us when we’re in front of a photograph, and something that feels really powerful is the ability for there to be storytelling, and that really deep, radical act of honoring. And it feels like it’s coming from a place of compassion, and not from a place of just the purely conceptual or the didactic. It feels very human.
Xavier: It is very human. And I try to make it very human. Probably all of the projects that I do, it comes at first from curiosity, and then from a deep sense of trying to understand. Most of the time I’m just scratching the surface, and it is in that attempt to understand that those images lie on. And it’s that insistent pursuit of seeking the human in other people. And sometimes with people that we love and connect, and some people that we disagree with. I think it’s very important that I reach out and try to understand. And I’m talking about veterans of wars, to cholos in the street, to punk rockers in Mexico City. I cannot say truthfully that I understand completely where they’re coming from, but I can attempt. And it’s through that humanity, that seeking of humanity in the other that I can dive into these worlds, and try to comprehend.
Matthew: How does your own personal journey interconnect with- I love this consistent pursuit of seeking humanness. What were the moments in your own life that lead to you being with a camera and with these folks, in these environments? Is there a moment in your own evolution as a young artist where you felt like things clicked, or maybe the door towards the work you’re describing opened up?
Xavier: I’m a very introverted person. And the camera, since I was a kid, allowed me to enter places that I shouldn’t be, and to engage in conversations with people that I didn’t know. And I still do that. I have kept that from childhood all the way to now. And the camera is an interesting vehicle to enter other people’s lives, and ask very intimate questions. Because of the place the camera has in our society and our world, and how we use it, people respond to that. People see me or anybody else, and say ‘that person has a camera, and they are looking for something specific. And I don’t know who they are, but they're gonna approach me, and there’s gonna be an exchange of information’. And people are set with that when I have a camera out.
And I learned that when I was very young, and I would go and photograph and talk to other people, to the dismay of my father, who would question me like, ‘what are you doing? Why are you gonna photograph those people? This camera is the family camera, and you should photograph us. That’s what it’s for.’ Back then I didn’t know that it was intrusive, and it was a great way to reach out to people. So, my father is also a very introverted person, and my mother is completely the opposite, very social and talkative. Anywhere she goes, she will talk to people, and people will talk to her. So, this was something that was completely incomprehensible for my father, that I will go and talk to other people, and photograph them.
But I think, little by little, I grasped these opportunities to try and tell those stories, and try to seek - going back to the humanity, tried to seek the humanity in people.
Matthew: Xavier, just out of curiosity, as an emerging photographer in that context you described, using the family camera- I love the family camera as a way to describe that device, it humanizes it immediately. What were the places and the people that you were drawn to in that early stage?
Xavier: Well, this camera will travel with the family when we go on vacation, or on an outing, or take it to other parts of the world or the country, or we go to grandma’s, or anything like that. So, it was a special occasion to be away from the domestic, to be away from the common life, and try to take these images of us and our loved ones. But then I took it a little further, and I was photographing also other people. Maybe the campsite next to us, or maybe the people who were on the bus, or maybe the people who were going to the same tourist sites that we were going. And that is something that my mother will do naturally, and I really couldn’t. I wouldn’t go and just talk to somebody. I always kept to myself. But with this tool, that was the opportunity. And I think now it comes a little more naturally. But it’s still a challenge.
Matthew: I love this notion of the photographs coming back, and there’s a bunch of photographs, and then there's just an unknown person who was at the campsite you're at.
Xavier: I think you touched something very interesting, because you talk about the photos coming back .so, the process was such that we will go into this vacation, and we will take a bunch of photos, and we will come back to Mexico City, and we will deliver this little cassette of film to the grocery store. And we will wait for a week, maybe two, sometimes three weeks for them to send that film out, be developed, be processed, be proofed, and give us some 5x7 images. Time is also very interesting, and the gesture of surprise has been there all the time, and still is.
Now with digital it’s a little different, because the immediate satisfaction that we have with the digital is incredible, but back then it was a lot of exercising patients. I really disliked going to the grocery store with my mother, and now I dislike it a lot with my wife as well. And I avoid it at all times. But, I will go there and insist to go there because the images will come back. And it was this magic space where we opened that little yellow envelope, and started browsing through those images, and see ourselves in another time, maybe two weeks before, and seeing how we were dressed, how far we were from home, how relatives and loved ones have changed, and see them and have them.
There’s this crazy possession that is embedded in it. Anybody that takes photographs, we have to have this, it has to be tangible. And this fraction of a second, we can have it in a 5x7 piece of paper, and it is an excellent tool for memory. Maybe we can remember how we were dressed, or if such-and-such person was with us, and there we can see it. By seeing these images, we can remember smells, conversations, weather and whatnot.
Matthew: I’m really grateful for that story, because I don’t think in the last 20 years, as digital photography became commonplace, that I’ve even thought back to the event that getting that package of photographs was for us and our family. It was big. It was a really big deal. And as I’m sitting with that and thinking about your work, you said it yourself, there's this notion of memory. And I think about the memory, that gap of having an experience and then seeing the photograph come back to you, versus it almost being instantaneous- certainly, if you were taking an iPhone shot, it’s instantaneous.
I’m curious about memory. I'm sure we’ll be bouncing around a lot in this conversation across your work, and the locales in which you work has taken place, and those communities. I think, in one way, this does take me to the Latinx in the Rural Midwest project that you’ve been working on, in a way that was unexpected until we started talking, which was this pivot of memory. And memory, certainly, in my own experience, just as a descendant of settlers in the Midwest, takes on a whole lot of forms. It gets mixed into the Kool-aid and becomes nostalgia really quickly. There’s a really easy A to B there.
But, maybe holding that notion of memory about Latinx in the Rural Midwest, from my understanding of the project, that this is photography and engagement work that is focused mostly in Minnesota and western Minnesota. And I think from our conversations previously, as I understand, it’s work that really began to take root through really long-form, multi-year relationships you have in Crookston, Minnesota, and with a non-profit called In Progress, which is focused on opportunities for the community to practice digital art, and for that work to help reimagine public discourse, community decision making, and vital questions of agency and visibility.
I’m curious about the Latinx in the Rural Midwest project, how that evolved, even in running parallel to other work you were doing in that moment, and your own progress as a photographer and artist, and what those relationships have been like in these communities across the region.
Xavier: So, just to frame the answer, I think it’s interesting to point out that the act of photographing is- the past is embedded there. It is a media that cannot be spoken in the present. We can maybe think that we’re gonna photograph this in the future, but photography is a media that can and should be talked in the past. If I take a picture of you and me right now, it’s already past. Even if it’s a couple of seconds, it’s already gone. Thinking about a bigger frame, like my work in Crookston, it has been several years, and those kids that I was making workshops for in Crookston 15 years ago, all of a sudden those kids are parents, and now I’m teaching photography and documentation to their kids. So, there’s an immediate link there.
Nowadays it’s even more precious, because the leadership of In Progress Crookston has really solidified women leadership, and these women bring their kids, but not only bring their kids so they can learn, they are also making images and film, and are preoccupied about history, racism, and identity in a very small town in western Minnesota. Also interesting enough, the director of In Progress has an enormous archive of films and images that all of these kids have made, and it’s not hard just to go back 5, 10, 15 years ago and see what we were doing then. Conversations have shifted, people have grown, people have been displaced, people have been incarcerated, deported, and who remains is a very interesting question.
Matthew: As a photographer who thinks about their own archive, it’s interesting to think about a community’s archive. It includes you, but it also includes other folks, and other artists that In Progress has worked with. What is the place of a media archive like that in a community like Crookston? What are the possibilities for the future of that?
Xavier: That’s an interesting question, because I think they are preoccupied and worried about the present all the time. I think that archive is not going to be relevant until years later. When we can go back, when somebody has a very specific question about that community and looks for stories there. And the entire world operates like that. We take a picture on our cell phone, and it has this sense of being disposable. We can erase it if the memory is full, if the phone crashes we’ll just go and buy another one and start all over again. So, we won’t see the importance of those images until we don’t have them.
Luckily enough, Chris has this enormous archive that is available to anybody, and even the first film that I did with In Progress, which dates from the early 2000s, has to be there. What were we thinking? How were we handling that camera? What were the stories that we wanted to tell? And 20 years later, to just dig and scratch those archives to see what comes up. I can see an enormous amount of value in that archive, because as you were saying, I do have my own archive, and good or bad, I’m trying to organize that in a way that is logical for me.
So, I’m also thinking about, what is going to happen to these images? Who is gonna be interested in these images when I die, when I move on, when I go away? Some of them are historical, some of them are just stuff that I found. So, that’s a very interesting question. I think that’s a question that many of us photographers have. What are we gonna do with all these images? And there’s that nervousness when we think about all these files or negatives that we have. Where are they gonna end up? I’m not sure if my sons and daughters are gonna care for this. I’m not sure if they’re gonna be interested.
And maybe it really doesn't matter, because I’m gonna be gone, and who cares after that? If there’s gonna be a device in 5, 10, 20, 50 years, that’s gonna be able to read a jpeg or a TIFF. So, those are important questions. I’m sorry I don’t have an answer for that, but know that those questions are constantly revolving in my mind.
Matthew: I’m just grateful for how you unrolled the yarn on this, because it leads me to thinking through the power- when you were an emerging photographer, of just the taking of the picture. There are layers of sediment, or an architecture. And I would think about, even the image within the High Visibility exhibition of Eva Mendez with a portrait of her father that was taken Crookston, and there’s an encounter when a photographer is in a community- like, what the presence of that device does, it creates a whole host of complicated factors. Some of them a community would not say a positive, but others were like, it brings a reinforcement of visibility and agency.
And then there’s the moment when that work is shared after the fact with the community. But this leads me to this other potential for this. It would be beautiful in 20 years from now for someone to listen to this podcast as they are curating an exhibition in Crookston for the 40 years of this work, with yourself and other colleagues who have done work up there. The life of the photograph, it’s like a river. It just bends. It goes, then it bends, then it comes back and bends again.
Xavier: That’s something very important that you mentioned, the taking of the picture- I often talk about that moment of taking a picture, it becomes less relevant, because the experience of photographing is the one that makes me photograph. So, at the end of the day, I’m gonna show you only that fraction of a second where I press the shutter on the camera, and I was able to take a picture. But in reality, it’s gonna be impossible for me to tell you the hour and a half that I was in Eva’s home, talking about her upbringing, talking about her family, talking about her brother that is still alive and working at the University of Minnesota Crookston, and talking about farm work and so many things.
And not only that, but I’m surrounded by two or three kids from the community that also have cameras, and they’re all serving me, and I’m trying to make them participants of the conversation, and the image-taking, and this really cramped little space where we’re trying to take an image, and all that- I’m sorry, but I cannot give it to you. That’s something that I selfishly keep, and it becomes the real photographic experience for me. And that’s what I pursue, and that’s what I look for when I go and photograph.
At the end of the day, that picture is a byproduct of the whole experience, of me traveling five hours there, making an appointment, arranging everything, traveling with youth, all that stuff, and then going back to Minneapolis and processing those images, that chink of time is what I’m looking for. And then, it’s reduced to- and I can tell you exactly the time, because I was using a strobe, and it’s 1/25 of a second. That’s all I can give you.
Matthew: I’m grateful for how you pause in that 1/25 and just expanded it for us, even for a couple of minutes. What comes across is that we’re not in the presence of an artist for whom this is a “project”, in scare quotes. So much photography has that really transactional element to it.
Xavier: I follow you completely. There is never this economy exchange, meaning this is what I’m going to do, it’s gonna be packaged… there’s an investment in it. So, I think it was a year and a half or two years later, to hear from the community that she passed away, I’m completely moved. And I’m thinking about the stories and images that I wasn’t able to take, and how fortunate I am that I was able to be in front of her presence, and chatting, and being comfortable, and exchanging stories and whatnot. It’s more like an investment. I’m there, and I’m with the people for the long run. As you were saying, it’s not a project, it’s something that has many arms and legs, and is expansive. It doesn’t have a limit of time or space.
Matthew: And thinking about that photograph, and also being curious about the directions which the project has taken, when I looked at that photograph, I never assumed or thought that you also were in a room with those other emerging digital artists and photographers. That memory continuing feels really powerful. I’m curious, because I know that you traveled to other communities during this work. What are some of the other communities that you've built relationships with in the last couple of years?
Xavier: The closest one that I can tell you is the Mexican Cowboy community, the charro community in Minnesota. That is also an investment, and that is also an ongoing relationships. These are Mexican immigrants that have brought their love of wrangling horses and their love of history in the [inaudible] that I have been very fortunate to spend time with them. Last summer, I spent every other weekend traveling to somewhere in Minnesota, trying to document these events that are rooted in Mexican culture. And I'm using the word ‘rooted’ on purpose, because the history of Mexicans is of rooting and uprooting since 2000 years ago, and all the way to now. They bring those festivities and those traditions, and try to execute them here, as close sas possible to the origin, and as faithfully as they can to that origin as possible.
And the interesting thing is, they invited me to a Carne Asada, to a grill, and we sit down, close to the barn where the horses are, and we had conversations about life, politics and whatnot. There is a fellow that owns a store where he sells outfits, boots, hats, and things for the horse, and I go there frequently just to chat, chose to see how it’s going, and how his business is going. I’m on a first-name basis with his kids. His kid is gonna be 10-11 years old, and he can move that rope like an expert. Everytime I go in I’m like, hey man, how’s school? How’s it going? Are you helping your dad? So, it’s this ongoing thing, it’s not this one-time visitor thing. It’s in the long run.
And actually, just yesterday, a backdrop arrived, because I wanna go there and set up a little booth where they can be photographed, and I can give those images back to them so they can have them for their own use, for their own archives.
Matthew: Is this some of the work that is taking place in the communities of Hugo and Cambridge?
Xavier: Yes. There are several ranches that do this. And also people from Illinois, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Iowa, come and gather every two weeks in a different place, and perform.
Matthew: I’m wondering, does the work you did in Pepin feel connected to this?
Xavier: Absolutely. The projects are incited in different ways, start in a different way, and this specifically started- a very good friend of mine, Douglas Padilla, has his studio right there in Pepin. One of his neighbors has a little cafe, and he has a Latino last name. Somebody pasted a sign on his door saying something like ‘Mexican go home’. And then, this fellow was born in the US, and I think he comes from Spanish and Ecuadorian families. And he was really concerned that this is a very specific racist remark. So, he brought it out in the local community, and my friend said, ‘we have to do something about this? What can we do to just converse with people, and bring some awareness, and do some art revolving around that?’
I started to ask him a lot of questions. [inaudible] the Latinx community mixes and performs right there in Pepin County. He was saying there is a Latinx community, but it is usually detached from the mainstream community. So, I started knocking on people’s doors and learning that 94% of the dairy workers in Pepin are Latino, and they come here with their families, and they are in their schools, and the majority or the dairy farmers are White. So, I started to think, what is this relationship? Is this something that is amicable, cordial? Is there some abrasion here?
I started to go to these dairy farms and photographing and talking to people. And with all the findings- I photographed both White farmers and Latino dairy workers and their families, and all these findings, I wanted to share them. We made a series of exhibitions. I didn’t want this work to be in a museum or a gallery, or something institutional that can prevent the access for people there. So, we had these exhibitions in community centers, churches, and people actually came to see the work. People that were photographed came to see themselves there, represented in photographic images. So, that was very rewarding.
Matthew: Is their a way for folks to see some of these images online, or has it remained very hyper-local?
Xavier: it has remained hyper-local, but Douglas and I founded a group 22 years ago, and we have done different activities. I think some of this work is on our website. It’s called Grupo Soap del Corazón.
Matthew: This is an incredible segue into talking about the current exhibition that you have in the Plains Art Museum through August 13th. As I understand, this is an entire floor of the Plains. I don’t know if you would use the word ‘retrospective’ to characterize it. I know that your group has worked with over 90 artists over the years, connected with over 100,000 audience members from the streets of Minneapolis to prestigious galleries like the Plains, and institutions across the continent. I feel that this itself is an entire podcast.
But I’m grateful because you’ve threaded this from Pepin towards that, and for the sake of folks who are listening right now, and I would encourage people to check it out in the Plains, I’m just wondering about some of the stories and the context for that work, and if somebody was stepping into this work for the first time, how you would introduce it.
Xavier: You’re absolutely right. Because it’s 22 years of us doing different things locally, nationally and internationally. One of our shows went all the way to Chile, and we exhibited posters and prints in the [inaudible] in Chile. We sent stencils, and they played with the stencil there. It has been an interesting journey. We intended this show to be a retrospective, and it was going to be the 20 years of Grupo Soap del Corazón. But COVID came and completely changed our plans, and the museum’s plans as well. That’s why it’s 22 years, because we couldn’t do anything for the 20.
And it has a little hint of retrospective, but everytime we do a project with Latinx artists, it takes a different shape. It takes an actual shape, it takes a contemporary, current shape. There’s never the same group. The only constants are Douglas and me. And from there, we recruit Latinx artists that will be interested in participating in the crazy things that we do. For this one specifically, it’s titled La Línea, which in English means ‘The Line’, all the attributions that the line has.
It can be just a line on a paper, it can be something that divides. And in English, as well as in Spanish, ‘don’t cross the line’. ‘You have crossed the line’. And it’s often referred to in the immigrant community as the border, this invisible line that we are not allowed to cross, but we cross it anyway. There’s also connotations of the end of the line in a political context. I remember seeing the second Bush saying that you have to go to the end of the line. Where the hell is that line? There’s no freaking line. Tell me where that line is, and we’re all going to make that line.
But these different ways that the process of immigration is talked about as a limit, as something that delimits the physical and the potential that we have. We started talking to different people, some of whom we have invited numerous times over these 22 years to touch on that very specific concept of La Línea.
Matthew: It’s a very generative notion. It seems to me that within that notion there is also a notion of lineage, something that can transcend those attempts to limit people and culture, and experience.
Xavier: Absolutely. It’s generative, because La Línea is going to look very different for somebody who is already here in the US, somebody that is right there in Texas, somebody that is in Lake Street in Minneapolis, somebody that is in Chile, somebody that is in Colombia, somebody that has never attempted to cross that line. So it’s gonna be looked from a different lens, that specific notion. And that’s what we’re trying to do. Everybody, from their one physical and mental place, will look at that line and react, and make some work about the concept.
Matthew: That seems so important, since we’re all in a cultural and political moment in which the lines are being… they’re pouring them in concrete around us, in our own minds.
Xavier: And it’s so extremely divisive. For the past five years, we are trying to make more divisions and more distance between people, and that’s worrisome. It’s worrisome for the artistic community, that we are failing in pouring all this creativity to reach out to somebody that think completely different from us. And in creative ways, not trying to convince them of our ways, or trying to indoctrinate them into our political mindset, but just to converse, and to know what the other thinks about life, politics, economics, and history and whatnot.
Matthew: Absolutely, because folks know when they’re being indoctrinated, or when they’re coming up against an ideology that may not be their own. There is a question about the degree to which the idea of talking about the rural is helpful for us. And I’m curious if that is a connection, what you’ve just shared, or if that feels like more of a sidebar.
Xavier: It’s important. I come from a very big city, where there is cement around, and the land seems so distant from wherever you stand in that city. And not only that, it has layers going down in the earth that are unreachable. There is the city of the Aztec Empire, and the uprootedness of that empire, and then a Spanish colonizer putting a city on top of that, and then modern Mexico putting another layer on it. So, the connection to land is so far away, seems so distant. Here, in the Midwest, I have the opportunity to reach out and have a better connection with the rural and the land.
It’s crazy. I think, 80% or something of people in the US live in cities, and the rest in the rural. And how different we are, how different we think, but how interconnected and dependent we are on each other. All our food comes from there, all our recreation comes from there, all our history comes from there as well. So, it’s interesting just to analyze these percentages, and to make something out of it.
Matthew: I think that there is something in the way in which the relationships, but also that hyper-local work that you’re a part of with many other folks, I think it takes us to that point in powerful ways. Just to be in western Wisconsin, and you’re asking questions about where the milk comes from that nourishes you, and who is helping to produce it… if we’re thinking about these conceptual, sentimental ideas of the rural, is there a way to look, and to be with these communities, where we’re not dealing in sentimentalities as much as we’re looking at the land, how it’s cultivated, who lives on, who has lived on it for millennia before we’ve been here - there’s just something that feels very physical and elemental about land as opposed to rural.
I don’t know if I have something here, Xavier. Like I’ve opened up hour three of our podcast by saying this. I would love to talk to you about this stuff in some other context, only because with my work, I feel like this is where it’s headed, to ask questions about land and cultural equity in ways where we’re experiencing something which is far from the abstraction that we’re given.
Xavier: Let me bring into the conversation two terms. One of them is gonna be arraigo, and the other one is gonna be desarraigo, meaning rooted, and uprooted. And that is something that is in the LatinX mind all the time, because there’s a history that we’ve been uprooted and replanted, and rooted again, throughout Mexican history, with the displacement of people, with the… 55% or Mexico was- I’m trying to be very careful about how I place my words here, because on paper it was sold, but essentially it was stolen.
So, we have this interesting relationship with land that hasn't gone away. There’s a very good chance that that is in our DNA, being rooted and uprooted over and over again. And with immigration, that takes place almost immediately. All the people come here - and I’m talking about myself as well - and all of a sudden, we build some roots. It’s also instantaneously how we can lose those roots and be displaced again, or move again. In all that confusion, it’s a very interesting conversation.
Thinking about a couple thousand years ago, where the original inhabitants also had a very interesting connection with land, and that was not commercial, not something that could be sold or possessed or owned. But, going back to the Latino mind or the relationship with land, when we're standing on it, when we work this land, when we have that land on our hands, we breathe that, we eat from that, we produce, it is a complicated but very interesting history that we have with the land, from afar, from up close…
You said a couple of times that you were veering away from sentimentalism or romanticism, but I think we have to revisit that also. We have to revisit that with an open mind.
Matthew: Xavier, I’m so grateful for your time, and all of the ground that wwe have walked in the last 45 minutes or so. And I’m just curious, as folks seek to learn more about your work and your collaborations - and of course, we’ll have extensive links and show notes for folks who would like to head there, or who would like to head to inhighvisibility.org as well, what’s happening in the next couple of months for you? Where are your projects headed? Is there a place where people can check out more of your work?
Xavier: I’m really craving summer right now. It has been a long winter. Summer is a time of high productivity for me, so if we talk about projects, I’m gonna continue the charros work. I am always thinking about places and spaces, and I want to visit coastal locations in Mexico where I used to go on vacation with my family. And later on I also went there with my family as a teenager, because it was a way of getting away from the family and doing that on my own. And now it has been a complicated space that a lot of politics and narcos and all that problematic is taking place. So, I wanna do some kind of reconciliation with the past, and go and travel to the places where I used to go with my family.
There is an ongoing relationship with the Minnesota Museum of American Art. At this moment the are doing an expansion, and there is a possibility of Grupo Soap del Corazón making a show there. Right now, there is a show in the windows of the Minnesota Museum of American Art. Seven Latinx artists that are analyzing the concept of ‘mestizaje’, which is a Spanish word that means ‘mixed race’, and how each one of us are coping with that, are struggling with that, are fighting with that, are making concessions, so many things around that mixed-race concept. Right now that is up in the windows of the Minnesota Museum of American Art.
I think it has a fair amount of success, not only because we are showing in a museum, but we are allowing people who have never shown in a museum to do so, to open up a conversation about what mestizaje means, and the fight that we have, the indigenous and colonial fighting inside of us constantly, and how we cope with that. We’re not trying to come up with any conventions, but to open it up for conversations. And the conversations that surround this exhibition have been so insightful. There is an enormous amount of learning that I still have to do about how we see ourselves and how I see myself.
There are two exhibitions that are gonna happen in the fall. One of them is at St. John’s, and they’re asking me to bring some of the Borderlands work. And one of them that I’m very excited about is the show at the Anderson Center in Red Wing. And this is going to be a two-person show. Douglas Padilla and I are making work about spirituality, and when spirituality goes way out of the realm of the earth, but also spirituality that is very rooted on the ground, shamanism and charlatanism.
Matthew: That’s a pretty present word nowadays.
Xavier: And everything that surrounds human nature trying to explain who we are and how we feel. Rooted in Latinx culture and in Mexican culture. So, we’re super grateful that the Anderson Center is allowing us to do this crazy experiment. Let’s see how it goes.
Matthew: That seems like a beautiful opening for all kinds of experiments. Do you anticipate that this photographic work will feel, in some respects, like a shifting of the feet, or a departure from some of the other work we’ve spoken about?
Xavier: Not necessarily, because I’ve been traveling to the border looking for shrines and looking for places of devotion, being Catholic or being detached from Catholicism. And these spaces are visually super interesting. Devotion and spirituality is also embedded in them. There is always a bridge, a link and a thread throughout all these works and conversations that I’m having through photography.
Matthew: I really can think of no better way for us to close this conversation than to dwell upon those bridges, links and threads. Xavier, I’m so grateful for your time. One question we ask folks as we’re on the way out of a conversation is, what’s moving you right now? What’s giving you energy and inspiration? This can be books, art, places, traditions, websites, anything. Are there recommendations that you would have for listeners that are coming out of your experience and inspiration?
Xavier: I think it’s a complex and very vast question. I’m gonna go back to the roots of what I do. I think an enormous source, and something that I’ve been very interested in is people, those stories that people have and we need to hear, and stories about resilience, stories about voyages, and stories about humanity that keeps on moving me. Some are made up, some are very real, some are fantastic, some are common, but I really truly believe that if we can have conversations with people- everybody has a very interesting life. I haven't met a single person that I think, ‘this is a very dull life that you have’. I haven’t found that person yet. Everybody that I talk to, with the correct questions, has a lot to say. And I think that’s one of the main sources that drive me, to try and listen to those stories and try to make other people, through images, to also listen to those stories.
Matthew: Xavier, thank you so much for your time and this conversation.
Xavier: Matthew, thank you so much for inviting me. Thank you so much for the space that you carved in High Visibility for us to chat about what we do and what we’re passionate about. I’m truly grateful.
Matthew:Deep thanks to Xavier for his time and vision in this conversation. Please find a transcript, alongside shownotes with extensive links at inhighvisibility.org or wherever you listen to podcasts.
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Thanks for listening, and take care.