As an artist, and as a person, I often ask myself who am I, especially since I have many passions. Am I a photographer, a painter, a sculptor, and/or a writer, like my logo preaches? Or am I a graphic designer, playwright, teacher, theater director, lecturer, cinematographer, logo designer, website designer, interactive book developer, etc? Am I Spanish or American? Am I white or Hispanic? Am I a man or a woman trapped in a man’s body?
Even if I was to downsize my passions, to let’s say, photography. Am I a photojournalist or a fine art photographer? Am I a wedding photographer or a children photographer? Am I a street photographer or a celebrity photographer?
I know one thing for sure, I’m a son, brother, husband, father, neighbor/neighbour, earthling.
And I also know, or at least I think I know, I am love and play, at least when I’m creating, no matter the medium I pick and choose from the list above. As a photographer, I’m a photographer of love. As a teacher, I’m a teacher of learning to love what you do and doing what you love.
Love for Peru invited me, all expenses paid, to document the not-for-profit work they were doing in a community of shantytowns in the District of San Juan de Lurigancho, on the outskirts of Lima. I was to stay in a hotel with a group of American volunteers, and travel each day to Nueva Esperanza, the name of the community encompassing nine different shanty towns, or asentamientos humanos, as they call them in Peru. But I asked to stay in one of the cardboard shantyhomes instead. I wanted to experience the life of the people I was there to photograph.
When I arrived, I was blessed and welcomed by the community, and soon named vecino Isaac, which I took as a compliment, as the other volunteers were addressed as hermanos. During the seven years that Love for Peru had worked at Nueva Esperanza, none of the volunteers had ever asked to stay there. My vecinos welcomed me with open arms and were very grateful to have someone listen so intimately.
I was very present to the fact that it could have been me landing in such circumstance. I could have been born here, living the daily hardships of living in a cardboard house, not knowing what I was going to eat that night. Or of having to go to the bathroom every day in a hole in the ground, watching for the giant rat that might come out of said hole.
This was made very clear when I met Betsabé, then President of New Hope. She had grown up in a middle class family, and even had a maid, but her mother lost everything when she divorced her alcoholic husband, since divorce in Peru was a big no-no back then. Now Betsabé lives among the poorest of the poor, putting in countless hours visiting with neighbors to learn what can be done to improve their living conditions.
At first, I stayed with Marina and her beautiful family: her children Marisol and Yhon, and her granddaughter Yamilé. All four of them normally slept in two beds; Marina with her granddaughter, and Yhon with his sister. But Marisol took the night shift at work and Yhon slept with his mom and niece so that I could have one bed to myself. Never mind that theirs was a cardboard house with dirt floors; I felt right at home. Marina’s the most generous human being I’ve ever met. She fed me the largest portions of her delicious food. She gave me the only candle in the house so I could write my diary while she cooked in her coal stove in the dark, When I left her home after a few days, she cried.
Later I stayed with María, who lives in one of the new homes built by Love for Peru: four wood panels over a cement floor, covered with a thin tin roof. As in many homes here, her husband was also absent, and she took care of all the children on her own, including seven-year-old Carmen Rosa, who’s severely handicapped, needs to be spoon-fed and wears diapers. She can’t walk or talk, and never will.
With the economic crisis we think we have it difficult. But my neighbors in Lima are really living day by day. I hurt myself playing soccer with the children one evening; boy can they play! When I came home with a bloody knee, Maria sent her son Juan Carlos running to the neighborhood store. He returned with two individually wrapped diapers for Carmen Rosa (one for the night, and one for the next day) and one single Band Aid for me.Then offered me some cologne to disinfect my wound. Luckily one of the American volunteers had given me a less-painful disinfecting wipe, just in case.When I came home with a bloody knee, Maria sent her son Juan Carlos running to the neighborhood store. He returned with two individually wrapped diapers for Carmen Rosa (one for the night, and one for the next day) and one single Band Aid for me.
As the Americans were leaving me behind the first evening, they treated me as a hero for being so brave as to stay while they went back to their hotel room, with showers and clean sheets. But, I’m no hero. I only stayed there for a few days. My vecinos are the heroes.I left a piece of my heart there. It was truly an eye-opening experience. I’d wanted to document life in a shantytown for years, part out of curiosity, part to show the world what’s hidden in plain sight in many cities of the world. Once I was crazy enough to hail a taxi from the U.S.-Mexico border and tell the driver to take me to the nearest shantytown, where I proceeded to try to convince the first family I found to let me stay with them for a few days. They thought I was delusional, and I took the same taxi back to downtown Tijuana, with only a few exposed frames of black-and-white film in my camera.
I’m still moved by the generosity of my adopted community in Lima. They gave me the best of everything, and made due with less food to make sure I had plenty. I get goose bumps remembering my neighbors, displaced from the green Andean mountains by wars involving terrorist groups, drug cartels and the government.
My neighbors in Lima were a rich community in love, and in respect for their neighbors. But they were poor in possibilities, in opportunities to improve their lives and living conditions, and in their environment. I don’t miss the never-ending brown palette of dirt and pollution. During my time there, the ground was brown, the sky was brown, even the few plants that sweet vecina Basilia kept with love where covered in brown dust. The sun never shone completely through the murky skies, and the light always seemed as if filter by a sepia veil, a veil created by cars burning unrefined oil and the refuse from unregulated factories. The lack of green really got to me. When our group later landed in Cusco and Machu Picchu for a tourist visit, I felt guilty. I wanted my vecinos to be here, after all this was their green land, not mine.
A blue sky, green plants, clean rivers and oceans add real richness to our lives; they should be a human right. This wealth I’m afraid is not measured in a nation’s GDP. If I could do anything for the people in Lima, the ones who made me an honorary neighbor, I’d give them colors: blue skies, white puffy clouds and green trees; I’d give them Machu Picchu.
Thank you, my vecinos for opening your hearts and your community. It was an honor to be in your company. I will always remember you, Basilia, Marina, Betsabé, Yhon, Marisol, Milagros, Selene, Christian, Juan Carlos, Yamilé… And Maria, your wise words still resonate with me. Upon meeting your Carmen Rosa, I told you, “Seeing your daughter makes me realize how blessed I am with the health of my children.” And you responded, “So am I.”
How Love for Peru got started
Love for Peru is the brainchild of Piero and Magali Solimano, Peruvians now living in Florida. When they visited their sponsored child in Lima for the first time, they were shocked by the living conditions there, without running water, trash collection, electricity or sewers.
Their collaboration has sparked the transformation of a community of forgotten people, who were also divided in their daily survival. Thanks to their guidance and lobbying, the nine communities that form Project Hope blossomed in working in partnership with each other and with their “American brothers,” who occasionally visited to help build, on average, five homes in five days.
Love for Peru has brought over 500 volunteers to Project Hope. They have helped build hundreds of homes, five preschools, three community kitchens and two libraries. Thanks to Love for Peru, the landfill at the bottom of the hill was transformed into a soccer field.
After my visit, Love for Peru continued working on their goals, including meeting safety regulations so that the area could be zoned for living, so that the people there could receive titles to their homes, which was accomplished. Next, the community got running water and a sewage system. And the main road is now paved.
The non-profit is now no longer building homes, but continues to supply Nueva Esperanza with medical care, such as sponsoring regular doctor visits. Never let it be said that a lot cannot be generated from a little… as long as it’s done with love.
Twelve years ago, I photographed several gay families with children for El Mundo in Spain. I was told that these photos moved people to tears, and started a shift in the conversation. I like to think that the love of these families for their children triumphed over the hatred inherited by years of misunderstanding and fear.
When I was assigned by Magazine, the large Sunday supplement of El Mundo, to photograph a gathering of gay families with children in San Francisco, organized by All Our Families coalition, I didn’t know that the article accompanied by my family portraits would change the world — or at least impact public opinion in Spain.
The love of these families, apparent in the photos and in the magnificent article by USC Religious Studies professor Juan Herrero Brasas, titled “Papa y Papi Me Miman” (Daddy and Poppy Love Me), traveled across the ocean and sparked a national debate. The photos were shown on TV numerous times, and were plastered on the walls of bookstores in Lavapies, Madrid’s gay district. I heard from my sister’s hairdresser, who was moved to tears to see these happy gay families with children recognized in the Spanish national media, inspired by the dream that one day he might be able to have that.
Same-sex weddings and adoptions weren’t legal anywhere in the U.S. at the time (2000). In fact, gay marriage was not legal anywhere in the world. Those San Francisco parents could form civil unions but couldn’t get married, and went through many legal loops in order to be able to co-adopt. They fought for their children like nobody else I knew.
A few months later, the Netherlands approved same-sex marriage. It became the first nation to do so, on April 17, 2001. Two years later, on January 30, 2003, Belgium did the same. In November, 2003, the Massachusetts high court got the ball rolling in the U.S. saying that banning same-sex marriages was unconstitutional according to state law, and gave legislators 180 days to legalize gay weddings. On February 12, 2004, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom allowed gay weddings to be performed by city clerks. The families I had photographed four years earlier could finally get married.
I convinced El Mundo’s editor to let me cover the weddings at the San Francisco City Hall. I traveled 350 miles to San Francisco and photographed nearly 50 weddings in one day, interviewing the newlyweds. I remember the words of Anne Peacock, a high school teacher who married her sweetheart: “This issue really does need to have a human face. It is easy for people to hate ‘the other’ but much more difficult, and even absurd, to hate your teacher or cousin or neighbor or daughter or nephew.”
A few days after the story came out in print in Spain, California banned same-sex marriages, and the 4,000 weddings performed between February 12 and March 11 were annulled.
Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage in the U.S. and 1,000 couples were married the first day, May 17, 2004.
While California went on to legal battles over this issue, Canada and Spain were finalizing plans to legalize same-sex marriages, which they did on June 28 and June 30, 2005, respectively. The tables had been turned. It was Spain’s turn to inspire California to achieve marriage equality.
On June 16, 2008, finally, the Supreme Court of California ruled the ban unconstitutional. But the joy lasted only until Election Day on November 5, 2008, due to the passage of Proposition 8, the so dubbed “Marriage Protection Act”. This would later also be found unconstitutional by the Ninth District Court of Appeals, but same-sex marriages are still not allowed in California, pending further appeals. (The trial has been written into a play, “8″, by Oscar-winning author Dustin Lance Black, and was performed in LA with George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Kevin Bacon.)
On November 6, 2012, voters in Maine, Maryland approved same-sex marriage by ballot measures, while voters in Minnesota rejected a ballot that would have changed their constitution to deny deny same-sex couples the right to marry. And voters in Washington approved a same-sex marriage law passed earlier this year.
President Barack Obama brought the conversation out of the closet and turned it into a national debate. Supporting same-sex marriage is finally no longer a political taboo. It’s something we can talk about. The president’s words possibly encouraged voters to support same-sex marriage in these four states. Incredibly, this is the first time that opponents of “redefining marriage” lose a statewide referendum; they had won the previous 32 times.
By now, Argentina, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Portugal, South Africa and Sweden have joined the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada and Spain in recognizing same-sex relationships. Brazil approved same-sex civil unions and Israel honors same-sex marriages performed in other countries even though they are not allowed within the country. Even Mexico City and Quintana Roo (Mexico), as well as Connecticut, DC, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, Maine, Maryland and Washington now perform gay weddings. But the people who inspired many others, those original San Francisco families in my black-and-white photographs, still cannot get married at home.
The recognition of same-sex marriages is a civil rights issue. It’s about people being treated equally. Let’s leave Satan out of this; and the fear of children becoming homosexuals just from being raised by homosexuals, as if it were some kind of disease. That is so last century!
I hear that certain “marriage defenders” fear that legalizing same-sex marriage will result in the desire to legalize polygamy or marriage between a man and dog. They say they defend tradition. But I don’t believe in defending tradition for tradition’s sake. You don’t have to go back very far in time when it was also tradition for black people to drink from “colored only” water fountains. Backtrack a few years more and it was tradition to own slaves.
What does “defending the sanctity of marriage” mean, anyhow? I don’t understand. Shouldn’t divorce be illegal then, too? How about pre-marital sex? Shouldn’t we ban that, too?
Let’s defend the sanctity of love. If people want to get married, let them. Let love triumph over hate.
I wanted to be a photographer to make a difference. Thanks to perseverance and luck, I believe I finally did, if only with one photo essay. It was the year 2000. I got a call from USC Religious Studies professor, and writer, Juan Herrero Brasas. He was referred to me by Carlos Fresneda, bureau chief for El Mundo in Spain. Juan needed a photographer to travel with him to San Francisco to document a gathering organized by All Our Families for children of gay families to socialize and have a good time. I rented a Hasselblad, loaded it with black-and-white film, and was ready to go (not quite because I had loaded the film backwards, but a kind Samaritan-photographer showed me the correct way of loading the film, and the rest is history).
Juan spent a few minutes doing interviews before I snapped two or three pictures of the happy families. The result was published in Magazine El Mundo, with a beautiful article by Herrero Brasas with the title “Papa y Papi Me Miman” (Daddy and Poppy Love Me). I was really moved by the love present in these families, and I’m eternally grateful by the generosity of the people who allowed me to photograph them.
The article generated an uproar in all media in Spain, sparking a national debate. From what I heard, the photos were shown on TV, and plastered the walls of bookstores in Lavapies, Madrid’s equivalent of San Francisco’s Castro District. My friend’s hairdresser had it on his wall and was moved to tears by its significance. It started a conversation that a few years later resulted in the legalization of gay marriages and adoptions.
A few years later I would meet Maurizio Garofalo, editor of Diario magazine in Italy, almost by chance at VISA Pour L’Image photography festival in Perpignan, France. A war documentary had left me with a feeling of despair; it seemed as if everybody hated everybody. As I walked out of the theater, I needed to talk to anybody to remind myself that there’s love in the world. I talked to the first person I saw, and that was Maurizio. He asked to see my portfolio of gay families and fell in love with it to the point that he published every single image in a special issue, under the title “Radicci dell’Odio”, or “The Roots of Hate” (seen here). It illustrated the most comprehensive gathering of stories on gay rights ever published in an Italian journal, with stories by renowned Italian thinkers and writers. I’m happy and proud to share the love present in these images. Like my son said wisely when he was just a toddler, “Let’s love all the hate away!”
The play is over
Nowhere to hide
Now, I’m low
Before, I was high.
I did the drawing above with a piece of brown oil pastel, but unlike other oil pastels where I build layers upon layers, I traced lightly, treating the pastel as conte crayon or charcoal. I even used a similar pose and composition that in a self-portrait from two years ago (below) done in conte crayon (when I had more hair), which was shown at the Atkinson Gallery back in 2010. Unlike conte crayon, you cannot erase oil pastel, so I ended up tracing very lightly. The result has an ephemeral flair, as if I’m going to disappear, which is the way I’ve felt ever since Carmen’s death.
Back in 1990 I toured New Mexico, photographing mostly with infrared film. I also had a couple of rolls of Tri-X and I think one roll of Kodachrome. When I visited Chimayó, I happened to have Tri-X in the camera. I went behind the little church to discover three crosses resting against the wall. The crosses were empty, so I thought that Jesus and the two thieves had gone up to heaven by means of the ladder. Just as I clicked, a boy ran into the picture and stroke a perfect pose, and the sun broke through the clouds. I never took the photo I had seen, with the three empty crosses. The next frame on the roll is of the boy riding his bicycle around the church.
I went back ten years later with Carlos Fresneda to work on a travel story for Siete Leguas. The place had changed completely. News of the miraculous dirt from the little church had spread far and pilgrims were now visiting from all over the planet. A row of port-a-potties filled the enlarged parking lot. I went behind the church looking for the crosses, but nothing remained.