Aviva, Spring 2009
Begun as a proposal for National Geographic to identify and document South Texas and Tejano culture, it's called The Tejanos Project, and it is turning into photographer Penny De Los Santos's life work.
This evolution—from the professional to the personal—is perhaps because in the process of documenting the culture, she began to document herself. Or, more accurately, the part of herself that is the shared, remarkable story—the quiet history—of so many Texans.
Over the four years that it took to shoot and develop this story, finally published in November 2006, De Los Santos came away with close to 1,000 rolls of film filled with images of life along the Texas border: girls in pink quinceañera ruffles, mustachioed men in hats drinking beer, the patrician women of Laredo's high society, a family selling the grapefruits that spill from their car's trunk.
Over the course of a thousand rolls of film, something happened to her: "My editor kept telling me, 'You're covering it, you're still covering it, stop trying to cover it. Just try to feel it,'" she says. "What I realized later...is that there's a difference between covering an event, and really going to an event and allowing what you're supposed to see be seen."
De Los Santos, the daughter of a career military man, was born in Germany, but spent the majority of her upbringing in central Texas. She says it was important to her parents that she understand what it meant to be Mexican-American along the border, and so she spent summers and holidays in Laredo with her extended family. Still, The Tejanos Project, she says, became "more about me figuring stuff out for myself, because I've always felt kind of hyphenated." Like so many Tejanos, De Los Santos's ethnicity is not immediately apparent. "Everybody I photographed said, 'You're not Latina, you're not Tejana,' and the minute I said my last name, they were like, 'OK.'"
Identity is difficult enough without the doubt of others, but eventually, and due in large part to the years spent documenting Tejanos, De Los Santos has claimed hers, and gained a tremendous amount of confidence from doing so. "This project really helped me realize that it's OK that your Spanish isn't perfect," she says. "It's OK that your accent gives you away immediately. It's OK that you don't look Latino."
When she's not working along the border, De Los Santos travels all over the world shooting food for various clients, including Saveur. On one particularly dangerous assignment in Beirut, she had a revelation after shooting a candlelit Ramadan meal prepared by Iraqi refugees. "It was one of those moments when I realized, holy shit, I really love photographing food."
Food photography subsidizes The Tejanos Project, but De Los Santos also has come to venerate the intrinsic power of food to foster cross-cultural communion. "I think amazing connections happen around food," she says. "Most of my assignments, especially in The Tejanos Project, started in someone's kitchen. It's where people are most unguarded. You can be in any other place in the world and speak a completely different language and, for a few hours, sit down at the same table and connect with someone, just on food. It's pretty awesome."
But while Texans do enthusiastically connect to Tejano food traditions, De Los Santos wishes for a more widespread acceptance of the fullness of Tejano culture. "It's the one thing we don't as a state embrace, and it breaks my heart," she says, adding that this lack of recognition and documentation is one reason she'd like to expand The Tejanos Project into a book, which she acknowledges could take 10 or 15 years to do right.
Another reason she gives for the book is that she sees things along the border changing so rapidly, and believes that the culture and region deserve a historical record. So many people, she says, "come through that region of the country. It is the Ellis Island of our times." Other than daily journalists, she doesn't know of anyone photographing the region like she is.
"I think this book is so important," she says. "I think it would be a great opportunity to look at ourselves and celebrate it and be awed or be disillusioned, or something. It needs to happen."
Looking through De Los Santos's photos, the magnitude of that something hits you. These images—of the enchanting, the heartbreaking, the iconic, the shameful—these are the missing images of Texas, the ones that complete the picture, make it whole.
Questions about my freelance services and rates? E-mail me at tiffany(at)tiffanyhamburger.com or call at (512) 524-6786
Hi. I'm Tiffany Hamburger. I'm a full-time freelance writer and editor based in Austin, Texas. I've written and edited professionally for a decade on a wide variety of subjects.
I have an English degree and Biological Anthropology minor from Duke University, and a master's in creative writing from The University of Arizona.
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In my spare time, I like to (surprise!) read and write, teach fiction, travel as much as I can, make messes in the kitchen and run with my dog, who is also my receptionist.
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