JOSÉ CUELLAR, PHOTOGRAPHER & GM
there's strength in every person regardless of THEIR culture
José Cuellar has spent more than half his life living in Guadalajara, Mexico before eventually ending up in Austin, Texas. Although his connection to Mexico is strong, he doesn’t place much importance on cultural identity. His experience growing up taught him that, while people seek to understand others through markers of identity - in his case whether he had wealth or not - that it’s more about how you choose to be as a person. And, unlike ethnicity, that is malleable.
I first met José in 2016 at Contigo, an incredible restaurant in Austin, where he works as the GM. He is now married to my dear friend Sarah. In our conversation, we talk about their future kids, what a Mexican “is”, and how he rediscovered Guadalajara through photography.
Carly: Where were you born?
José: Guadalajara, I lived there until I was 20.
Carly: What is it like?
José: I don't know if I'm the right person to ask this. My reality is that Guadalajara was a difficult place to grow up in because of my mom being a single mom. In Mexico, that comes with a lot of baggage. My world was divided between the opposing influences of my parents. I experienced the city mainly from the point of view of struggle through my mom; and then, when my dad came into my life, he showed me the more posh side of the city, which I never really liked.
Carly: When did he come into your life?
José: Probably when I was 17 or 18. Pretty late. I mean, I knew of him growing up, but he was more of a shadow than a tangible father presence.
Carly: So the city was more of a struggle for you?
José: Yeah, for me it was a struggle. But that's my personal experience. If I was more objective, the city is actually kind of fun. It's a colonial city. It's where all the high-end politicians from Mexico City, presidents and governors, used to have their weekend houses.
There's a French neighborhood called LaFayette which is near the Colonial Americana, now the trendy spot, kind of like the east side here in Austin. It has a lot of historical houses, really big and beautiful with French influenced architecture, really fun to walk around in. Guadalajara is very colonial in its look and there are a lot of things to do.
GUADALAJARA IS a very conservative city financially, socially, culturally, but now, like any other cities in the world, it's expanding. It's opening up. It has a lot to offer.
I went to high school there, to an expensive private high school that my dad had sponsored. He was set on me having the best education possible. But because my mom didn't have any money, my actual circles of interaction were very different, and so I grew up with those two worlds: the influence of my dad having money and the influence of my mom not having money. When I left Guadalajara for the US, I left with a stigma. I used to look down on the city and I came to the US with all that baggage.
Carly: What brought you to Austin?
José: My dad had a friend that lived here. My dad said "I'll pay for your school and you pay for your living expenses”. I had to finish high school first, really fast because I had dropped out. I had to get my passport and my papers in order, which was very challenging.
Carly: Why did you want to come to the US to study?
José: Because my dad offered it and, at that time, the world was really small for me. I would have loved to go to Europe, but the US seemed like a good opportunity too. He offered, so I took it. Texas in particular because he had a friend here and I didn’t know much about the US and even less about studying here.
Carly: What was it like for you to come here? What did you think of Austin?
José: The whole experience for me was amazing. I was so excited. I was so happy to be out of Guadalajara. I suffered so much in Guadalajara that coming to Austin was the biggest gift. The first night I spent here, I cried in my dorm room while eating pizza, I was so happy.
Carly: What did you think of the US? It's represented so prominently across the world, but then the reality of being here can be another thing entirely.
José: My experience was that of a kid whose school was paid for, of a Mexican with white skin and educated. I didn't have to jump as many hurdles as a lot of people. It was easier for me to just directly access the things I wanted to access in the US. I had to learn English, of course, but it was a very comfortable blending process. It wasn't the struggle that people coming across the border illegally have.
The thing is, that I grew up so aware of that class difference. It's something I've always fought throughout my life. People see me and they see a fresa, a term in Mexico for a yuppie, a strawberry. But that was the influence of my dad in Guadalajara.
My reality up until I was 18 years old, was of a two-bedroom apartment with four people crammed into it, and my mom working two jobs. We weren’t dirt, dirt poor, but we did struggle with having food in the house.
My dad grew up dirt poor himself and about me he thought, “You can do more. You can do better than me. I have money. You can do better. You can do better. I don't want you to suffer. I don't want you to suffer", which is a great sentiment but that's not where real suffering comes from in my opinion.
Carly: Where did you go next?
José: After college here in Austin, I moved to New York for three years, then I went back to Guadalajara to open a business, a juice cleanse bar. That project was really interesting and fulfilling. I did the marketing and branding, my brother Juan Pablo did the formulas, and my other brother was the administrator, the money guy. But I still wasn’t happy because I was still carrying that load of stereotypes that I had about the city when I left for the first time. The city still seemed very closed to me, not very accessible. I really didn't like it at all.
Then I moved to Berlin for about two years, but when I moved back to Guadalajara after Berlin, I was in really bad shape, defeated. I felt very defeated. I was living with my uncle, who’s actually my biggest father figure. I wasn't doing much really, but on the weekends I started going to downtown Guadalajara to take pictures. I would go Friday, Saturdays, and Sundays when people went out, and take pictures, and I will walk downtown for six, eight hours, from the morning until it got dark, with a small digital camera, a camera without much zoom so needed to take really close-up pictures of people without them knowing it, which was very exciting.
Then it's almost as if every STEREOTYPE I had of the city lifted. Then I discovered the city through what I liked doing. It was really amazing. It was really healing and I think some of the work that I've enjoyed the most, photography, has been from that period.
Carly: What was the impetus for starting to do that?
José: I don't know. I really don't know. I was in bad shape, in a really bad head space so I think I was just desperate. I just needed to do something, and that something was just walking around for hours until the city would hypnotize me, and later that nothing became something. It wasn't a project, I would just walk, take pictures, go back to my uncle's house, edit the pictures and organize it to be posted on Instagram. Then at night I would go to this bar near my uncle's house and I would just stay there for a couple of hours drinking with some friends that I made there. My life changed very subtly, but effectively.
Carly: Do you think you realized at the time that it was changing your perception of the city?
José: I didn't realize at all, no. It just slowly happened. It became really, really charming actually. It was like a gift I didn't know I was asking for.
Carly: How often do you go back to Mexico?
José: When I was in college, I used to go twice a year, during the summer and winter breaks. When I moved to New York I didn't go at all because I couldn't. Then, when I was in Berlin, I would return every three months because of visa stuff. Now I haven't been since 2015.
Carly: Do you think you're going to go again?
José: Absolutely, I want to meet my nephew and see my mom. But honestly I was really traumatized growing up in Guadalajara, so it’s hard for me to go back. I'm really not that conflicted, I’m being dramatic, but there are other places I want to go instead, like Japan, where my wife Sarah is from. The only reason I entertain going to Guadalajara is because of my family. Other than that there's no real appeal for me.
Carly: What is it like to be Mexican in Texas?
José: Again, this Mexican is different from other Mexicans. I don't know how it is to be a Mexican that needs to do the things that other Mexicans need to do. I don't know that reality. Hahaha, I actually don’t have it clear in my head. Being a Mexican in Texas is like being a Mexican in Mexico, but in Texas.
Carly: It's interesting that you say that because ... I don't know how to say this in a good way. That's the thing I struggle with in this project. So many things are not politically correct to say.
José: Just say it.
Carly: The concept of "those" kind of Mexicans has come up a lot in this project and people working to get away from being associated with the negative perception by assimilating into American society. What is your experience with that?
José: In Guadalajara, my reality was that of a light-skinned Mexican that grew up without money, but with the myth of a father that had money. I didn’t experience racism myself, but I was very aware of the class divide and of the harm it caused. My outlook on life was based on all the things I couldn't do and was never going to do. I grew up thinking that everybody was trying to take advantage of me and that everybody was looking down on me, that everything was an obstacle and there was a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure.
But, in the US, I was one of the “good” Mexicans just because I was educated and have light skin. I was a novelty for many, my accent was cute, not an inconvenience. This opened a lot of doors, but I was still a foreigner, so other doors would close and the ghost of the class divide would come back.
To this day, I still struggle with how much this “reality” really affects my life. Maybe as much as I let it affect me, I don’t know.
Mexicans that come to the US struggle with the language, the discrimination, the culture shock, their own insecurities, and with that class difference. That struggle can easily turn into fear and confusion. So people without money and opportunities come here a certain way and do certain things, and people with money and influence come and do different things. They are two different classes in Mexico, but in the US they are the same class, the foreigner. These two classes are very aggressive to each other in Mexico and generate a lot of resentment. When those two worlds come to the US, they bring with them that divide and clash again at a subtler level. But to Americans, the rich or poor Mexican is still ultimately perceived as Mexican, foreigners that you can easily look down on if they don’t prove themselves worthy of acceptance and assimilation.
It's almost like you introduce a third class in the mind of a Mexican, the class of being a foreigner. No matter how rich you are when you come here, or how much wealth you accumulate after being poor, there will always be somebody richer, a more dominant class, a whiter American. Do you feel comfortable in Portland?
Carly: Very much so. One of the reasons I wanted to start this project was because I started meeting so many Mexicans that are doing amazing things and just shifting this narrative of what the perception of a Mexican is, especially in very white Oregon. I've become proud of all the amazing things that "we're" doing, but then I start to feel like an imposter, that I'm not really Mexican and then it's weird. When I was growing up, I didn't ever think about it. I didn't think about skin color. I didn't think of myself as different. Then as I became older, it became more of a thing.
José: I also never thought of myself as Mexican. I lived in Mexico, of course I'm Mexican. But what does that mean really?
Carly: With this project, I've thought a lot about the way my parents raised me and the way I want to raise my daughter. I think part of this project is really trying to reconnect with my Mexican heritage so that I can also give her a sense of connection to Mexico. If you have kids someday, have you thought about what heritage you'll give them? Would they see themselves as Mexican?
José: To be 100% honest, I think that being Mexican means nothing, at least to me. Of course, there are social mechanisms and cultural narratives that can shape a person’s worldview. But ultimately, being Mexican matters only on the surface. In the real, deep human sense, it doesn't matter where you are from because there are fucked up people in every country and very good people in every single culture.
I think the dialogue should be not about what you are, WHICH country you COME FROM, but what type of person you are.
I can tell you, my opinion, what it means on the surface to be Mexican. Mexican culture is based on improvisation. Whereas, German and Japanese cultures for example can be more methodical, mechanical and structured. In Mexico, everything is improvised. The good part of that is that you're able to think on the spot, you're very malleable and you can adapt very easily. The other part is that nobody knows what the hell is going on, nobody's really overseeing anything, nobody knows where the boss is.
Carly: A little chaotic?
José: Yes, it can be, but it can also be fun. I think of the Hindi word Jugaad, a clever solution born in adversity, that to me is Mexico. Another aspect of being Mexican is that we're very, very community and family oriented. The negative side is that everybody meddles in everybody's business. We can also be very servile. Somos la culture del mande. We are the culture of “give me orders”. It can make you very humble and make you work very hard, but it can also make you easily subject to someone else’s whims and approval.
Carly: What else do you associate with being Mexican?
José: We're a very happy people and truly welcoming. I don't think there's a negative side to that other than we can be taken advantage of easily or be subject to condescension for no good reason. We're very hardworking. It's like a friend of mine used to say "Mexico's the kryptonite of Mexicans." The further away you move from Mexico, the harder you work and the more successful you are, because we have it in us to fucking work, work, work, work, work.
On the other hand, there's a lot of corruption in Mexico because of that tendency towards improvisation. We're always looking for the loophole - how to do something under the table or quicker and with less effort. I do it myself. The good thing is that you're able to figure things out without much previous knowledge, you think outside the box, and you work hard. But this can also foster a lot of corruption. To an extent, the drug dealers taking over the country and the politicians being so corrupt in a way stems from this thinking outside the box, from class resentment, fear and vale madrismo.
All these aspects I recognize them in me. I recognize them in "my people", but all those things don't really matter. They are fabricated, self-fulfilling prophesies. They're on the surface. I play with them sometimes. I present myself as Mexican and then I remove myself from being Mexican. I’m constantly adapting to my environment and adjusting my interactions with people in this country. I think it is a fabrication, but I also worry that it can feel so real in other people that they can make my kids believe that it's important, that it’s real, that it matters.
I want to do the best I can so that my kids can see beyond this dynamic. It doesn't matter that my kids with Sarah will be half Mexican, a quarter Japanese, and a quarter white. To me, that means absolutely nothing. I would want my daughter to be aware of this this, that people might label you as this or that, but that it doesn’t need to impact her or shape who she’ll become. That she can choose the best part of the stereotype to engage and play with. “Okay, I'm part Mexican, so that means that I'm able to improvise. I'm very kind, and welcoming.” "Oh, I'm Japanese, this means that I’m very methodical and analytical. "I'm a quarter American, that means that I understand you and I understand your language, so you can't look down on me."
I want to teach my kids how to play with THEIR IDENTITY, how to use those tools AND STEREOTYPES TO THEIR FAVOR WITHOUT ASSOCIATING WITH THEM. to understand deep inside that it doesn't matter if you're Mexican, JAPANESE, or whatever. It doesn't matter at all.
I do want to teach them Spanish. I want them to learn how to dance Salsa and I want them to have a Mexican-inspired psychedelic experience. I’ll say this though, even though I believe that being Mexican means absolutely shit, the last time I was in a very deep meditation state I started kind of hallucinating that I turned into a very proud Mexican warrior that then turned into a feline and then into an eagle. At the peak of the meditation, an inner voice told me "Oh, you're Mexican. Shit, that's really fucking cool. You should be really proud." Then I started feeling "Yeah, I'm a Mexican warrior, I’m supposed to protect my tribe and the light inside me!” A meditation can be strong when you haven’t had breakfast.
Being Mexican doesn’t mean anything really. It’s only a framework of symbols and traditions that give form to a simple message: there's strength in every person regardless of their culture.
Carly: Thank you for sharing.
José: Sure, anytime.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Published on 10 February 2019.