I Am A Camera

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

Tavera, meanwhile, is preoccupied with fingering the goods in the store: the sky-blue alligator boots, the bumblebee yellow-and-black crocodile boots, the rows of matching smooth-as-a-baby belts that go with them.

The Rincon Hispano photographer snaps pictures of the amateur model on a bearskin rug and on a bale of hay. Also looking on is Anai Arteaga, an 18-year-old who started working at the shop only two days earlier. She complains that she feels ugly compared to the girl whose pink heels are now pointed at the ceiling. On Arteaga's first day, Tavera arranged to shoot images of her wearing the purse and matching orange ostrich-skin belt. Now that the other girl is here, Arteaga is suddenly nervous.

"I feel like I sound really dumb right now," she says, laughing and pulling her shoulders to her ears.

Arteaga has two diamonds on her left-hand. One, an engagement ring, is cubic zirconia, she says. The other is a birthday ring from her fiancé, and it's a genuine full-karat. Arteaga met her fiancé when she was 13 years old. At 16, they moved in together. Arteaga finished high school early at a charter school in north Minneapolis so she could go to work. At her new job, she'll put in six days a week and at least nine hours a day.

"That's totally how Mexican families are," Arteaga says, waving a hand that's manicured with red-tipped fingernails. "You're an adult at 15. And if the family approves of your boyfriend, you start a life together." Arteaga says it will be a long engagement, though. She doesn't want to be married till she's 24.

When the photographer has finished, Tavera sets up his backdrop, a blood-red tablecloth with tassels that he found at a thrift store. He brings over one of the store's orange ostrich-skin belts. They're dotted with tiny, uniform bumps that look like chigger bites. Tavera is intrigued by the belt buckle, which features a silver-and-gold etching of Jesus.

The girl in the pink blouse wants her picture taken, too, so Tavera, who is now animated and excited about finally getting the opportunity to shoot, snaps images of both girls. He tells Arteaga not to be nervous or intimidated, that this shoot won't be like the other one she witnessed. There will be no bale of hay for her to splay across, and no snapshots for her to study. She smiles, seemingly reassured that being fluent in the physical language of Maxim isn't a requirement. Still, she tells him in Spanish that she feels awkward and ugly.

"Noooo," Tavera tells her, his voice getting higher with each "o." He cranes his neck to scan the room, then tells her quietly that she's more of a natural than the girl in pink who came in to the store and swiped her self-confidence. Arteaga nods and flips her hair. But such prep work turns out to be futile. Tavera never moves his lens to the girls' faces. His camera is only focused on their hips, cocked and wrapped with the orange ostrich belt.

As he packs up to leave nearly two hours after arriving, Tavera is still charged by the events, his long arms moving like turnstiles as quickly as he speaks.

Tavera wasn't able to find a scorpion in a belt buckle today. But by happenstance, he found a tattoo of the praying hands he'd been seeking. As Tavera loads his gear into the back of his truck, he appears resolute, as if his purpose, at least for today, has just crystallized.

"That is why I do this," Tavera says. "You never know what you will find. Every day, it is always different. And the people are not always who you thought they were."

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