Many of my earliest memories take place in Piedras Negras, Coahuila; the frontera separating Eagle Pass, Texas from el otro lado. I was six years old the morning I witnessed the stabbing of a young man in the crowded Mercado Zaragoza. My dad yanked me by the neck as I stood mesmerized by la viejita shaving espinas from a pile of pear shaped nopalitos, her eyes fixated on everything except her navajita and the prickly pads of cactus she cupped with her palm. There was no panic in my father's tone of voice nor any attempt of flight as the man before us slumped to the cobbled and crumbled floor. The cashew shaped puddle of blood which formed along his mid-section seeped into the stone and trickled down the cracks. Not a word was stuttered as another man slowly walked toward the scene, not a horn could have shattered the shroud of silence that existed as he knelt down in genuflection to remove the knife inserted just below the rib cage. In a shuffle of footsteps with the bloodied knife already hidden beneath the sleeve, he was swallowed by a mercado already in motion as if nothing had occurred.
Of the many photography books that detail our southern neighbor, Debbie Fleming Caffery's, The Spirit & The Flesh is of the few to expose a distinct sadness that survives Mexico. While in Denver for a reading a few months ago, I mentioned to Luis Alberto Urrea how I looked forward to reading his literary contribution in Caffery's forthcoming book. I asked Urrea what he thought of her work. In a nutshell, he assured I would not be disappointed and that Caffery's Mexico was our Mexico.
Photographed during the mid-nineties, Caffery's black-and-white images of a brothel depict a Mexico often exploited, though rarely embraced. As I leafed from one plate to the next, the Mexico of my youth and those childhood recollections of putas, fire spitters and limosneros rekindled. The jacket-cover photo titled Gabriela, 1999 reveals the haunting sadness of a life born into a brothel. Whatever amount of spirit Gabriela once enjoyed, has long been devoured and disposed of by the thousands of drunken men who have come her way. The plate titled Gena, 2005 frames a portly woman resting with her backside against a darkened door frame. Like Gabriela, Gena's open mouth seems to gasp for breath and for relief from life inside the cantina.
Without question, Urrea was correct when describing Caffery's photos. In her each and every image a story has been told; they are tales of sadness that transcend the page and tug the strings of our real life experiences. You will find that these men and women survive as they have endured, both in spirit and in flesh.
The Spirit & The Flesh by Debbie Fleming Caffery, Radius Books, 2009.