Melissa Gamez-Herrera: Work from the Border

Melissa Gamez-Herrera is an interdisciplinary artist who works in photography, bookmaking, printmaking, and other multimedia practices. She is from San Antonio, TX and earned a BA in Art and Art History from began to pursue photography as a medium through which to speak on issues of identity, community, and justice. She does this through research of events related to violations of human rights and grapples with the way art can interpret and lead the way to collective healing. Her images often depict home and portraiture in a way that challenges the way marginalized people are often viewed through an American perspective. Melissa has participated in exhibitions at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center, Mantle Art Gallery in San Antonio, TX, Tarrant County College in Fort Worth, and the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, PA. Currently, she is attending the University of North Texas in Denton where she will earn her MFA in Photography.

RR: Hey Melissa. How are you? Tell us about yourself. 

MGH: Hi Raúl, I am doing great! I am so happy to speak with you. I just recently came back from traveling and am currently working so it’s been quite busy. 

I was born in San Antonio, TX and was raised by my two Mexican immigrant parents. I grew up on the Southside of town, mostly known as the Mexican side of town. I grew up thinking of myself as an “anchor baby”— as somebody who didn’t really belong and only gained citizenship based on a technicality. That citizenship that I have has thankfully enabled me to be able to cross the border, to and from Mexico, so I have always been used to traveling the borderlands. I grew up going to a small Mexican border town where my family is from for holidays, vacations and for the occasional visit. I am also the eldest in my family, which is a crazy experience, as many eldest children may already know! 

Like a lot of Mexican-American kids, I graduated high school with the ambition, and even the obligation, to attend college. Luckily, I was a kid who actually really liked school and was pretty good at it, so the pressure I felt from my parents to attend college didn’t exactly inhibit me. I attended Colgate University in Hamilton, NY because they would offer me nearly a full-ride scholarship, plus I really liked it. The four years that followed were extraordinarily difficult for me personally and academically because I was in an environment where the majority of my peers came from affluent families and were majority White. And, like many new college students, I wasn’t as successful in my classes as I thought I would be. It was a huge blow to my ego when I realized midway through my sophomore year that I couldn’t complete a degree in biology without having a low GPA. It made me feel like I was in the margins and that I did not belong at that school in particular. Not to mention the winters were extremely cold for a Texan like myself. This kind of isolating experience really made me develop a real appreciation for home and for what it means to belong.

This is also a challenging question for me as well because as you already may know, Raúl, it can either be difficult for artists to open up about particular details of our lives or it can be difficult to shut us up! I used to be very reserved about speaking on myself and my convictions but thanks to people like you it’s been easier and easier for me to open up about who I am as a person/artist.

RR: Could you talk a little bit about your artistic process. How do you approach photography? 

MGH: My process really depends on the kind of work I am looking to make. For instance, I am making a series of photographs about my perspective on faith, belonging and the concept of home. This kind of image making requires solitude and personal sensibility, whereas other work involving portraiture requires me to nurture a connection with the people I am photographing. Yet, even when I am in the processing stage of these portraits, I take advantage of solitude as well. When my environment is still and quiet, I feel like I can have an internal conversation with the image and have a sensibility for how it makes me feel and what is makes me notice. There are times when I sit with a portrait that I’m just not sure about because I think, “Well, this should have looked that way.” Or, “I should have shot it this way.” But, I have really tried to shift the way I judge images and instead ask myself, “What does the image tell me? What does it do?” At least, that’s what I like to think. 

Like most people, I didn’t start out with any kind of professional introduction to photography, nor did anybody in my family consider themselves to be photographers. We just took pictures of ourselves with our family. Being newcomers to the United States, I think it was important for my family to make new memories and to make new photographs. So, I took a lot of pictures throughout my adolescence and really enjoyed looking back at the ones I took as well as the collection of photographs that my mother has kept, for instance. The act of looking at photographs has always moved me and it has much to do with the content as much as the underlying meaning of a photograph. A person cared so much to point the lens at the moment happening before them so as to fix it onto a sheet of paper.

Now, photography has expanded so much that at one point I became apprehensive towards using it as a medium because I know the damage that photography has done through oppressive uses. Photography has been and can be used as a weapon with which to surveil and misrepresent people. An example of this is the portraiture of Native Americans by photographers like Edward S. Curtis in the early 1900s where they were often misrepresented as stoic and unchanging. We know that Native people around this time had to adapt to the conquest of their respective lands by Anglo-Americans, therefore representations of them as being purely from the past was, and still is very damaging and demeaning. But, I came to the conclusion that I could not give up on photography’s ability to do social good. There are many photographers around the world who have used the medium to represent their own communities through the perspective of dignity, creativity and compassion. This is especially an exciting time for women photographers because we have been so marginalized even within the small sphere of photographers. To sum it up, I approach photography with caution but also with hope. 

RR: Your series, Women workers on the Border, documents several women and their spaces in both intimate yet powerful ways. How did you begin this project?

MGH: It is kind of a long story. At the end of my first year of graduate school I decided I wanted to direct my attention towards the U.S.-Mexico border, and not only that, but to become involved in some sort of action work. I looked for opportunities in Texas and came across a delegation trip organized by Austin tan Cerca de la Frontera, or ATCF. They have a direct relationship with a Mexican organization called Comité Fronterizo de Obrer@s, or CFO, a worker’s rights advocacy groups which serves to educate and organize Mexican workers around their labor rights, specifically focusing on gender discrimination. I never heard of an organization that did this type of work before and because of my interest in working class issues, as well as border-related issues, I applied to be a participant on this trip. 

On my first trip from Austin, we stopped in San Antonio, TX to visit with an organization called Fuerza Unida. Its creation was a reaction to a mass layoff of employees that worked for a factory that produced Wrangler Jeans in the 90s. The majority of workers in this factory were women from poor Mexican and Mexican-American communities of San Antonio, TX. Many of these women workers protested the lack of prior notice of the layoffs and the lack of severance paid. 

Afterwards we drove to Piedras Negras, MX, right across the border from Eagle Pass, TX, to meet with the CFO. There we met with leaders and some of the workers involved with them who then shared their personal experiences working in maquiladoras (foreign-owned assemblage factories). Throughout our time in the area, we visited other current and former workers of the various maquiladoras in the state of Coahuila and listened to their experiences concerning gender discrimination and the unfair poverty wages they earn as a result. I was also the photographer for the trip, so I photographed inside each person’s home and the surrounding area. At the end of the trip, one of the women leaders mentioned to me that if I wanted to come back and photograph her in her home I would be more than welcome to. This idea made rounds in my head, so much so that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I asked CFO if they would be interested in working with me on a photographic project about the women workers and leaders involved with them and the head coordinator, Julia Quiñonez, was enthusiastic about the idea. So, we’ve been working together ever since. 

RR: Oh wow. So its as much as about Labor Rights as it is about the women you are photographing?

MGH: Yes, it is. The aspect of labor and gender rights is inherently embedded because of who these women are and where they find themselves at the present moment.

RR: What a topic to cover considering there was just an ICE raid a few weeks ago at a Mississippi processing plant where 600 labor workers were detained. That was after winning a lawsuit against the company for sexual and physical harassment.

MGH: Of course! I read about the ICE raid that happened there, but I was not aware of the lawsuit against them. The raid in particular really speaks to the absurdity of the way large industries are treated within the context of the law. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think the people hiring in this company were escorted out of the building in handcuffs alongside the undocumented workers. 

From my experience traveling to Mexico and learning about labor and gender rights abuses in the maquiladoras I can say, without any doubt in my mind, that companies and major industry are prioritized over workers. Although I don’t know every detail of the case in Mississippi, I am sure the company charged will pay a settlement or fine and then continue with business as usual. Meanwhile, the undocumented workers they hired will suffer life changing consequences just because they wanted to work to earn income for themselves and their families, I’m sure. 

RR: How do you decide what individuals to photograph? What about their living spaces? 

MGH: The process of deciding who to photograph begins with my communication with CFO. Because I am working with them to produce this project, they will essentially contact the compañeras involved with the organization, whether as outreach volunteers or active members, and see if they are interested in being interviewed and photographed. 

Visiting each woman at her home is a crucial part of this project and I try to photograph each interior space I visit depending on the amount of time I am granted by them. It kind of mirrors the structure of the delegation I participated in with ATCF in that we visited each worker in her home to listen to her testimony. I am met with incredible vulnerability when I enter a woman’s home because these people don’t really know me, although they are informed by CFO that I am trustworthy. Mexican homes are often decorated so uniquely with all these beautiful colors and images of family and religion on the walls and I am made to feel like we are almost related. Mexicans overall are some of the most hospitable and kind people you will ever meet, so to be welcomed into somebody’s home like that is a kindness they are displaying towards myself and towards the viewer. 

RR: Is this work an example of slow photojournalism? 

MGH: What an interesting term! Even though I don’t consider myself a photojournalist, I think this series can be considered an example of slow photojournalism because it is grounded in photographic documentation while also telling a story of humanity. I would replace the word “journalism” with something more grounded in research, because I don’t want to step on the toes of real journalists, and because I am gathering interviews and images to speak on the human cost of industry. More so than gathering facts and figures to present in a newspaper or journal. 

We should also account for the age in which we live where photographers cannot solely live on our practice. We’re often completing personal creative projects in between commissioned work or our normal 9-5 jobs, so this gives us the perception that the project is being completed at a “slow” pace. But, the positive thing about this way of working is that a series can be drawn out over a long period of time, giving the viewer an added sense of the passage of time.

Every time I go back to Mexico something has changed whether it’s the construction of a new maquila or the death of a compañera

RR: What do you hope people will gather from the series?

MGH: Before I interview each participant in the project, I ask each of them to fill out a release form that gives me permission to photograph them. As one woman was reading and signing her release form, she asked me, “Will you get in trouble for this?” I asked her, “In trouble for what? What do you mean?” She said, “Trouble for doing this kind of work? Will you get in trouble at your job for talking to us?” She said it with so much concern on her face. I assured her that I wasn’t worried about any of that. The reason I provide a release form with each woman is because I also want each of them to know that their image and name will be shared with an American public. Many of them are already used to doing that— having pictures taken of them and being written about in newspapers. 

The work these ordinary Mexican women are doing in service of gender and labor rights is incredibly important because not only are they working toward better working conditions for themselves and their children, but they are engaging in practices of self empowerment. There is a community aspect to CFO where the women workers have reunions and discuss empowerment for themselves as women in their homes, their personal goals, develop speaking skills, and discuss labor and gender fairness laws. 

People also need to understand that this kind of work is not safe and I am not just talking about the work I do. The ICE raid in Mississippi is an example of the State punishing workers for demanding basic human rights from their employers. Workers in the United States are going through some similar struggles like workplace discrimination and unjust terminations. This type of impunity against workers happens nearly everywhere, including in the maquiladoras. So, I sincerely hope that these images, portraits and interiors of these women’s homes, will have an effect on our perspective of people living in the Borderlands. I hope that the people who view these images will, not only see the women workers and their homes, but that they see themselves in these images.

RR: That is well said. Do you have any upcoming exhibitions with your work?

MGH: Yes! Actually you and I will be participating in an exhibition for the Art of Resilience: Latinx Public Witness in Troubled Times event at the Perkins School of Theology and Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University (SMU). The exhibition is being curated by Gerardo Robles and Sofia Bastidas, and it’s free and open to the public. It takes place September 20 to 21. The reception will take place from 5 to 5:45pm on Friday, September 20th. Panel discussions and other things will go on during the scope of the event so I highly encourage all who can to attend!

I will have some work in a show called “Pernicious Blue” at the Lillian Bradshaw Gallery, Dallas Public Library in Dallas, TX, as well! I’m showing work alongside graduate and recent graduate students from the University of North Texas. That show will be up September 6 to October 31, with a reception on October 26 from 4 to 6pm.

Finally, I’ve got a solo show coming up at 500X Gallery in Dallas that will run from November 9 to December 1 of this year. But the title and information for that is still TBD! So, please just keep an eye out for that!

RR: That’s great! Thank you Melissa.

MGH: Thank you, Raúl, for this conversation and giving me the opportunity to share this work.

In Her Own Words , Artist book