For the last four years I have been returning to Mexico for both work and for myself. In February 2017 I spent a month in Mexico, working in Mexico City and traveling to Oaxaca and my grandmother’s birthplace of Juchipila, in the state of Zacatecas.
After my Grandmother moved to California from Mexico in the 1940s, she worked hard to assimilate her family into an American identity, and it worked so well that I never questioned or investigated my Mexican roots. Spanish was not taught or spoken in my home, and Mexico wasn’t a place with tangible meaning. I always marked off “white” and not “Latino” or “Hispanic” on forms, because I never felt that I proved my worthiness to identify as someone with a Mexican heritage. I’m a half-Mexican, half-white, brown-skinned man named Ryan Christopher Jones, and my name provided me with the privilege of not being automatically seen as a Mexican in a place where the word “Mexican” was spoken with a snarl. For that, I reveled in my ambiguity.
“No Estuve Aquí” is not a deep dive that attempts to represent an entire culture; the scenes are quiet observations about a country I still have a theoretical relationship with. These photos ask questions about a place I’m just starting to understand, and they try to draw a line between the imagined and the real. Every time I return, the country begs me to be more than a tourist or travel photographer, though this story does not try to foolishly declare that “this is Mexico.” Instead it asks “what is Mexico and how do I fit in it?”
Mexico is still an untapped curiosity to me, though it has stirred up complex questions that touch on the bigger themes of “what is home?” and “what is foreign?” Working on issues of labor, migration and politics, these questions influence all the stories I work on in some way. These questions fuel the work I do everywhere, though when I am in Mexico I feel compelled to be a historian of sorts. I’m the first person in my immediate family to go back to Juchipila since my grandmother immigrated and the only person in my family to spend devoted time in Mexico. I feel an obligation to see the country, report back to my family and say, “this is what we’ve been missing for 70 years.”
The first version of this story published in The Washington Post in June 2017
“No estuve aquí” translates as “I was not here” which I found in a museum guestbook in Oaxaca in 2017