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Photographing the Mexican American Experience

Miguel Angel Torres and his wife Evelia Segura with “El Tapatio Tacos y Tortas” in Santa Fe New Mexico
Miguel Angel Torres and his wife Evelia Segura own El Tapatio Tacos y Tortas in Santa Fe, New Mexico (all images courtesy of Imanol Miranda)

Last year, the German photographer Stefan Falke photographed the Mexican American photographer Imanol Miranda for his series La Frontera, which catalogues artists living along the US-Mexico border. In the image, 27-year-old Miranda stands before an enormous prickly pear cactus in his parents’ front yard in McAllen, Texas. He holds one of his own photographs, of a family praying in a small Catholic chapel — a glimpse of life in the Rio Grande Valley, where he lives.

As the picture reveals, Miranda is the one most often behind the camera. For the past few years, he’s been documenting the Mexican American community in the southern United States. Seen together, his photographs are a mosaic of blue collar workers, artists, musicians, war veterans, folk healers and even custom car collectors. But one of Miranda’s most recognizable subjects is the family-run restaurant or food stand, which the photographer sees as a microcosm of the Mexican American experience. He’s now raising funds on Kickstarter to show his photographs of these businesses at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center in Austin.

Carlos Santillana with Yum Yum Snack Bar in Alton Texas
Carlos Santillana owns Yum Yum Snack Bar in Alton, Texas

For Miranda, taquerias and panaderias represent the aspirations of many poor Mexican immigrants — what they do after crossing the border in pursuit of a better life. He told Hyperallergic that he hopes these images fill an absence in the media’s immigration coverage, which often reduces the story to the politicized issues of border security and citizenship status. “I want the conversation to also be about how Mexicans contribute to one of the country’s most cherished ideals: the American dream,” Miranda said.

Bianca Sandova is one of the restaurant owners who Miranda photographed; she and her husband started E&B Elotes in McAllen. As a result of the family’s hard work, what started as a simple roadside stand serving up roasted corn from a borrowed grill evolved into a registered business with two busy locations. Another is Carlos Santillana, who opened the snack bar Yum Yum after working in a bakery for a few years. “[Carlos] told me that the American dream, for him, means working hard and being consistent at it.”

Blanca Sandoval with E & B Elotes in McAllen Texas
Blanca Sandoval owns E&B Elotes in McAllen, Texas

Miranda’s own family owned a small grocery store that served tortas (sandwiches) in Acapulco, where he grew up. As an 11-year-old, he would deliver the sandwiches to customers, and he remembers getting excited when his parents made 100 pesos (roughly $7) in a day. But after years of struggling financially, they sold all they owned and moved to the US when Miranda was 13. “We all entered with visas and switched to various types for several years, always paying attention to maintaining a proper immigration status,” he said. “It took me a total of 13 years to achieve that milestone. After that happened [earlier this year], I felt like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders.”

The photographer said that financial instability is the biggest obstacle faced by the immigrants he photographs, though it’s also what drives them to the US in the first place. As he wrote on his Kickstarter page, “My parents made the decision based on the notion that we would find a better life.”

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