I Am A Camera

Searching for backyard wrestlers, cholos, a scorpion belt, and the most blessed Virgin with Xavier Tavera

Lately, Tavera has been intrigued by the things he finds on the street or in churches—icons that are often unintentionally theatrical or contradictory. Take Tavera's portrait of a church member from a south Minneapolis congregation. This bearded man in a homemade cream-colored frock has collapsed to the ground, landing on his right side in a twisted heap of anguish. He's playing a bloodied Jesus in a re-creation of the Pasión. The setting however, happens to be an asphalt parking lot, and Jesus is wearing black tennis shoes and a crown of rope.

This juxtaposition suits Tavera fine. He has been especially preoccupied recently with the transfer of religious imagery from Mexico to the States: gory images of Jesus and the hundreds of revered saints and virgins that appear on everything from car doors to soap bars. Which is how he wound up on Lake Street today in search of a tattoo of praying hands.

There's something of the flaneur in Tavera, the aimless pedestrian and urban observer, and there always has been. When Tavera was 10 years old, he snuck out of his Mexico City house during the afternoon of Mexican Independence Day. He pocketed his mom's cheap 110 film-format camera, and walked blocks away through busy city streets to an air show. That September 16th afternoon, he stood alone in the crowd, pulled out his mother's little camera, and pointed it toward the sunny sky. He snapped at least 10 pictures of planes that soared above the crowd in flock formation. Then Tavera headed home, quietly entered the house before anyone noticed he was gone, and returned his mom's camera to her dresser drawer.

Tavera wasn't an artist right away, though. He tried studying law in his native Mexico City with the hope of pursuing either civil or labor practice. He bailed, he says, when he realized that it was a path forked with corruption and payoffs, often instigated by shady police departments.

"Law as a theory is beautiful," Tavera says. "But once you get out there and work, it is horrendous."

So Tavera instead learned CAD (computer-aided design), and took a job doing drafting for a granite company, which brought him to the States a little more than a decade ago. After the company went bankrupt, he studied photography at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design for two years, opting out before he went bankrupt himself.

Though Tavera has taken probably 5,000 pictures since the air show nearly 25 years ago, he can't let go of the photos from that day, which are printed on thick, square paper that fits into his palm. The blue sky is muted—veiled as if by diesel fumes or the slushy skein that collects on Minnesota curbs in early spring. And the planes, only slightly larger than the dust specks, are so grainy and far away they could be ink smears or wriggling bass fry.

When his mother had the pictures developed a few weeks after the air show, Tavera landed in deep trouble. "This is expensive!" she scolded him. "Why are you taking pictures of mosquitoes in the sky?" He told her he liked their movement.

"They think it's funny," Tavera says of his parents' reaction to his penchant for documentary-style photography. "They have seen and smelled and tasted everything that has come their way. But I don't think they understand what I do. I can hardly understand it."

In nearly every picture Tavera has of his dentist parents, the couple is laughing. Why is their own son asking them to stand in front of a crucifix or huddle near saints or plastic virgin dolls that are more at home wiggling on top of sun-cracked dashboards? And why is he asking them to don sequined wrestling masks?

While Tavera says the camera is a passport, for him it is also a shield and a telescope. While growing up in Mexico City, he was mugged five times. Knives were used on some occasions, fists and legs on others. He lost a pair of cheap sneakers from his feet, watches, a bicycle, a bottom tooth. No one in his family had ever experienced anything like it. Tavera began to wonder if bad luck trailed him. He didn't understand how or why he was a target for violence.

"If you are scared, then don't go outside," Tavera's mother told him. "But just remember: There are earthquakes in Mexico City, and the roof could fall on your head."

So Tavera ventured outdoors again, often with his camera around his neck or in tow, confronting people before they could confront him.

Xavier Tavera lives in a south Minneapolis Craftsman house that he shares with his girlfriend and her two kids. In their two-story stucco home that doubles as a studio, Tavera pulls out boxes of the faces he's photographed over the years, each series neatly arranged like an obsessive boy's baseball-card collection. There are separate boxes devoted to distinct subcultures: church members re-enacting the Pasión, Mexican wrestlers (luchas), extreme fighters in Edina, cholos (Latino gang members), transvestites, Mowhawked Latino punks.

Tavera carries large, framed images into the living room, which is painted in a pale, marbleized yellow and has the ambience of a European café when the honeysuckle is in full bloom. Amplifying the summery spirit is the fact that there's an overprotective sparrow outside Tavera's front window violating all civic noise ordinances. In 2003, Tavera received a grant from the McKnight Foundation to work on a series of dramatic, larger-than-life portraits, which were shown at the Nash Gallery in 2004. The five-by-five-foot color inkjet images of Mexican wrestlers and fathers in costumes are equal parts kitsch and camp.

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