Tepito “Bravo el Barrio”

 Francisco Mata

On Friday,

October 12, 2007

at 6:00 p.m. – 11:00 p.m.

La Llorona Art Gallery, Havana Gallery, the Center for Latino Research and Latin American Studies Program at DePaul University, and with the support of The Latino Cultural Center will feature the opening of the exhibition Tepito; “Bravo El Barrio” an exhibition of 70 photographs by the Mexico City based photographer Francisco Mata Rosas. The directors of El Centro de Estudios Tepiteños and the Galeria Jose Maria Velasco, Professor Alfonso Hernandez Hernandez and Alfredo Matus, will give a presentation of this exhibition at DePaul University.

Francisco Mata

They call it “el barrio bravo” which translates more or less as the “brave hood.” But it takes more than courage and a certain ferocity of spirit to survive in Tepito, this tough metropolis in downtown Mexico City, a most Darwinian precinct. Humor probably helps. A sense of camaraderie too. Above all caution. Then there’s the tremendous pride that Tepito residents feel for their neighborhood despite the stereotyping and stigmatizing that is heaped upon it. While the neighborhood just north of the capitol’s historic center lacks many things – clean streets, honest politicians, decent housing, and honest cops- it doesn’t want for a strong self-identity. “They think they’re the best of everything,” says photographer Francisco Mata Rosas, “the best dancers, the best boxers, the best movie actors, the best soccer players, the best cooks.” Tepiteños in their full, unvarnished humanity are the subject of “Tepito: Bravo El Barrio” a striking exhibition of Mata’s intimate photo portraits and impressionistic streets scenes that’s running through November 9 at La Llorona Art Gallery and Havana Gallery in Chicago.

Francisco Mata

The show consists of 70 images, the first fruits of a two year project during which Mata and his digital camera became as much a fixture of the 36 block zone as the mob of pirated DVDs, fake brand named clothing, and hawkers. To the urban anthropologists who have been studying it for decades, Tepito hardly needs an introductory photo op. A labyrinth of narrow streets crammed with “tianguis” stalls cabled together from wood, metal, and colorful plastic tarts, Tepito is Latino America’s ground zero of stolen and pirate merchandise. It’s the Mecca of making a living by any means necessary (where the FBI and the Mexican federal police “los judiciales” have no jurisdiction over the pirated merchandise).

Francisco Mata

Tepito has its own dark supernatural guardian, “La Santa Muerte” or “Saint of Death” a hooded-scythe-wielding skeleton who totes a globe in one bony hand. Though reviled by the Roman Catholic Church, La Santa Muerte is venerated by legions of cabdrivers, housewives, drug dealers, police, politicians, and prostitutes who solicit favors such as destroying their business rivals – favors that the more genteel divinities won’t countenance.

Francisco Mata

Gaining the neighborhood’s trust was a slow, delicate process says Mata who works for Mexico City’s daily newspaper. On occasion, to better blend in with Tepito’s traffic ambiance, he recruited his subjects straight off the street and posed them against a large white screen that he carried and hung between market stalls. He always tried to use the most ostentatious setup and conspicuous equipment possible. Mata did this so no one would mistake him for a police spy, and he always shot his subjects at a close range and never with a long lens from far away. He avoided the barrio’s roughest areas, where the narcotics fabricators operated. And he asked his subjects for only three bits of information: name, age, and occupation – and only when not legally compromising (one guy asked Mata if he could use an alias because the law was after him). “So we established a level of complicity,” Mata says smiling, “and all the participants later got free copies of their portraits.”

Francisco Mata

The barrio’s daily trials and obscure heroics have been heavily documented and depicted, most memorably by US sociologist Oscar Lewis in his classic 1959 book, The Children of Sanchez, which later was made into a film starring Anthony Quinn. Desesperados and hustlers have given the barrio its international low-life reputation. But that’s only half of the history of Tepito, says Alfredo Matus, the director of Jose Maria Velasco gallery. In an exhibition essay he writes that, “If you don’t know Tepito, you don’t know Mexico.” Matus believes that the area has served as a scapegoat for all of Mexico’s corruptions and inequalities. But look behind the hyperventilating “Blade runner” fantasies pathology, he says, and Tepito reveals itself as a vast multilayered communitarian space filled with ordinary people striving creatively to make a living while being harassed by police and despised by the ruling class. “Any persons or similarities to any “barrios” in Chicago are just a coincidence, although not fiction,” notes Arturo Avendaño.