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Dressing Up

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Gertrudis Chavajay Chac makes her living selling her home made tamales, which are quite different from the Mexican tamales we in Arizona are accustomed to.  For one, the wrapper is different.  In lieu of a corn husk she uses the leaf of a banana tree.  The ingredients are similar, but prepared differently.  The exact differences aren’t important, but the fact that they exist is.

Most people who visit Guatemala as tourists don’t see past the wrapper.  The colorful clothing, painstakingly hand made in a distinct design for every town, becomes a photo op.  Tourists swarm the Chichicastenango market with their powerful telephoto lenses, angling for “candid” shots of colorful locals.  I am not innocent of this.  Been there, done that, in many parts of the world.  It wasn’t until my third or fourth time here that I really noticed the objectification happening.  I was at the Chichicastenango market and decided to go around taking photos of the tourists who were taking telephoto shots of the locals without permission.  (One reason I often don’t get as many people shots as other photogs is that I try to ask permission first.)  I was taking pictures of one tourist and a man came up to me and asked, “So, you like my wife?”  My response was “Well, I figured if she could take pictures of people without permission, she wouldn’t mind someone doing it to her.”  He didn’t respond.

Doña Gertrudis assumed, when I suggested a photo with her wares, that I wanted the stereotypical photo of her with the tamales perched on her head.  I was thinking more of a shot of her with the tub in front of her displaying her product, but she had that thing on her head as fast as you could say quaint postcard.  I like the shot.

Mostly what I’m getting at here is the metamorphosis this project has gone through, from a product designed for tourists with the side effect of being a financial boon to the community, to a product which will still be sold to tourists, but which is more aimed at the children and grandchildren of the people represented, preserving and honoring who they are, in context of their culture and their lives.

When I first started two years ago, my maestra Celeste and I interviewed and photographed three people.  We asked that they wear their traditional clothing, which everyone has.  We asked that to make them visually appealing to tourists.  I’m no longer making such requests of people, so some of those represented in the book will be wearing more modern clothing, or some combination.  While this might not be “authentic” Mayan garb, I believe the people are being authentic to themselves and not just dressing up for the tourists.

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Don Clemente Juarez Perez

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