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 moving 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 “Latin” or “Hispanic” on forms, because I never felt that I proved my worthiness to identify as someone with a Latin 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 have a theoretical relationship with. They’re asking questions about a place I’m just starting to appreciate, and they try to draw a line between the imagined and the real. Childhood, transience and tradition were the lenses through which I saw Mexico, and the country begged me to be more than a tourist or travel photographer. Mexico is still a vague, 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?” I felt 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 I felt an obligation to see the country, report back to my family and say, “This is what we’ve been missing for 70 years.”