Photographer Graciela Iturbide: Myth and Matriarchy in Mexico

Through the people and culture of Mexico I find myself, and at the same time I leave a sort of testament of what I’ve seen. But all this is very personal; what interests me in photography is the point of view or poesy of man, and yet I wouldn’t say my work is mainly ethnological.

By Jordan Elgrably*

Graciela Iturbide is a small woman with a dreamy disposition and soft, searching eyes that seem to reflect the photographer’s natural desire to see and record things unknown. Over the past three decades, she has become Mexico’s monumental image-maker, her black & white documentary portraits rising to the level of art, showing Mexico in all its diversity.

 Graciela Iturbide

Graciela Iturbide


A student and disciple of the Mexican master Manuel Alvarez Bravo, she came to photography after marriage at nineteen and two children. Iturbide enrolled at Mexico City’s Centro Universitario de Estudios Cinematográficos when she was twenty-six, then settled on photography upon realizing that “the kinds of movies I would’ve wanted to make wouldn’t have been possible within the confines of commercial Mexican cinema.” Her first exposition came seven years later. She remembers that when she first struck out on her own, she had the support of her family, despite being a busy mother. “I began working as a photographer when my children were already six or seven years old,” Iturbide reminisced recently. “I had the support of their father, and often my kids would accompany me on my shoots.”

Though she began taking pictures as a child, Iturbide had no idea where her persistent fascination with Mexican culture would lead her. Deeply inspired by the photography of Josef Koudelka, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Sebastião Salgado and her mentor, Manual Alvarez Bravo, Iturbide’s photographs of indigenous Mexican cultures have become de rigueur throughout Europe and the United States, and led to invitations to shoot for A Day in the Life of America in 1986, and both A Day in the Life of the Soviet Union and A Day in the Life of Spain in 1987 (published in three volumes by Collins, London). Her owning defining book, published in 1998, is Images of the Spirit, which captures the heart and soul of Mexico with photographs that transcribe a culture in transition.

Internationally recognized for her work on the Zapotec people of Juchitán, Graciela Iturbide has taken, among other awards, both the W. Eugene Smith prize for photography and a Guggenheim Fellowship, honors which enabled her to continue her study of Juchitán during a period in Mexican history when economic crisis crippled creative production and narrowed opportunity in the print media.

Julie Margaret Cameron suggested that photography could, like painting, qualify as art because it aims for the beautiful. Iturbide’s images of Juchitán, however, are not overworked; there are no technical tricks or heavy-handed aesthetic manipulation of her subjects. “My intention, certainly, is to create something which is aesthetic,” she said during a conversation we had together in Paris (where she had just won the Grand Jury Prize in the 5th annual Mois de la Photo), “but many things are implicit in the work that I do. For me photography is writing, it is history; it can be aesthetic, it can be many things though it does not have to be art.”

True, whether or not photography is art is no longer a useful question because we do live in such a self-conscious era; much of what we think we know derives from what we see on still and moving film rather than our own experience. Whereas the ancient Greeks believed that things without a name had no soul, today we consider that what hasn’t been recorded on film cannot be said to exist; in the news media there is no news without images, and artists rely as much on photographic images for their work as traditional plastic materials. “The need to bring things spatially and humanly ‘nearer’,” Walter Benjamin wrote as far back as the ‘30s, “is almost an obsession today.” In photography this would be the obsession of the “humanist school” to which Iturbide, along with Cartier-Bresson, Koudelka and Salgado, belongs. It is about seeing the decisive moment.

“Through the people and culture of Mexico I find myself,” said Iturbide, “and at the same time I leave a sort of testament of what I’ve seen. But all this is very personal; what interests me in photography is the point of view or poesy of man, and yet I wouldn’t say my work is mainly ethnological.” Thus, Iturbide considers photography as self-expression, or subjective visual writing; she perceives her pictures as a mirror of herself.

“I think you can see Graciela Iturbide in all of my photographs,” she remarked. “I feel that photography is a regard within a regard—between the gaze of the photographer and the gaze of the subject the image becomes a reflection of the person taking the picture.”

Complicity between photographer and subject, she feels, is implicit. Yet don’t photographs hide more than they reveal?

“Yes, certainly, but I think that that which is hidden in the picture is a revelation of what is hidden in the photographer.” By way of further elucidation, Iturbide recalled that, “One of the reasons I became a photographer was to get to know my country and its diverse cultures. I had a very easygoing relationship with the women of Juchitán.”

Yet there is little similarity between the person of Graciela Iturbide, a native of Mexico City of distant Spanish descent, and the intense Zapotec faces encountered in her Juchitán photographs. For Iturbide, as for us, a journey to Juchitán is a journey to another world, albeit one which the photographer has made her own. She has been returning there regularly since 1980.

“When I find myself facing the Juchitán culture which is so different from mine, obviously, I question myself: who am I? why am I a photographer? When in front of the people who are my subjects I wonder: is photography aggressive? in what way can I learn from these people?” Her pictures are a voyage of discovery both of herself and the area in Mexico most removed from Hispanic culture, a visual ethnography of one of the country’s 56 indigenous Indian populations and a society where myth and matriarchal customs continue to resist outside pressures to change

Found at the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Juchitán is a town of more than 100,000 inhabitants, off the Trans-Isthmian Highway between Coatzacoalcos and Salina Cruz, terminal cities between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. As a stronghold of Zapotec culture it has attracted such eminent visitors as Edward Weston, Tina Modotti, Cartier-Bresson and Sergei Eisenstein, who shot part of “Viva Mexico” there. While Mexico may be the only Latin American country where Indian cultures are looked upon with such zealous national pride (indeed, Mexicans of Spanish descent sometimes use Indian names rather than Spanish ones, and Moctezuma and Cuauhtémoc, the last of the Aztec emperors—not Cortés—are national heroes), the Zapotecs of Juchitán, according to Iturbide, represent “an apartheid from the rest of Mexico.”

“Juchitán women run the economy, and they know how to manage their finances. Men, whether they are farm hands or factory workers, hand their earnings over to the women so that they can distribute money in the home. If a man wants to buy cigarettes or go out and get drunk, he gets money from the woman of the household. Women decide everything in Juchitán. Even physically,” Iturbide mused with a smile, “the Juchitán men are often smaller and skinnier than their women, who are taller and wider than they are.”

¡Viva la mujer juchiteca!

The Juchiteca woman is strong. As Mexican writer Andres Henestrosa has written, “Juchitecas have no inhibition, there is nothing they can’t say nor anything they can’t do. The Juchiteca has no shame; in Zapotec there are no bad words.”

For Graciela Iturbide, these women, while perhaps not exemplars of feminism, opened a window onto just how strong the indigenous Mexican woman can be. “The Zapotec culture of Juchitán interested me a great deal, in addition to having a tradition of liberated women and, of course, I’ve always admired them. I didn’t see them as models,” she explained. “It was simply that there was complicity between the photographer and the subject. Without that complicity one isn’t interested in taking pictures; often the Juchitecas wanted me to take their pictures and they posed.”

Iturbide’s view of Juchitán as a matriarchy comes after repeated visits in which she has lived with the town’s women, documenting their dominance in the marketplace—where none but homosexual men are normally allowed—and taking part in many local celebrations. “These fiestas are frequent and fervent. The women dance and recite to each other the erotic songs and poems of Juchitán; the men drink and only observe for a wedding, for a political reunion, for a quince años—a birthday celebration.”

The traditional marriage rites continue to maintain their pre-Hispanic character, and involve nocturnal dances such as the Dance of the Tiger, the Frog, the Monkey and the Alligator. Iturbide observed two types of Zapotec betrothal, one in which the bride is requested formally and the other when she is abducted. In both cases, she pointed out, “Women drink a great deal, sing, cry, and celebrate the loss of [the bride’s] virginity, dancing with bottles of wine in their hands.” As Iturbide quotes from one marriage song, “‘Raise your skirt now/so we can see how you awakened/there will be a wedding if you are a virgin/if you aren’t, let’s go home.’”

Animals are an important part of Zapotec culture, as witnessed in many of Iturbide’s photographs. Referring to themselves as Vinigulasa—“the people of the clouds”—Zapotec legend has it that man descended from the heavens in the shape of birds of incredible beauty. Another beloved symbol and source of poetical inspiration is the iguana, a common sight in the heavily-jungled Tehuantepec isthmus. “Let’s go and sit on the terrace,” say the people of Juchitán, “and like the iguana swallow the night and eat flowers.”

There is also the ancient Zapotec custom of finding a unborn child’s nahual, or alter ego, which consists of assigning he or she with an animal representation. “When a woman is pregnant and about to give birth,” Iturbide explained, “people come to her home and draw animals in the dirt, which they continually erase. The animal drawing left in the dirt at the time of the infant’s birth will be his nahual.”

Originally documented in Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, the practice of finding the nahual persists even today, despite the disapprobation of the Catholic church. Noted Frazer in 1922, “When the child grew old enough, he procured the animal that represented him and took care of it, as it was believed that his health and existence were bound up with that of the animal’s...the weal and woe of the man depend on the fate of the nahual.” Graciela Iturbide linked the tradition of the nahual with “the Legend of the Black Dog, which must accompany one in death to the banks of the river, so that one may fair well in the other life.”

As elsewhere in Latin America, death is a highly touted event.

“In Juchitán,” she affirmed, “funeral rites are celebrated with loud, melancholy music, and traditionally the women weep and wail in the streets. Deaths are announced in the marketplace since Juchitán does not have its own newspaper, and when during a burial there has been a lot of weeping, people say it was a good death because everyone wept so. It’s a time when women faint, when people sing and cry and get drunk, all very colorful and theatrical.”

“Another lasting tradition,” Iturbide recalled, “is that of the ‘Powerful Hands’, in which the branches or roots of a tree shaped like hands are considered to have religious value; when found they are carved and placed in their altars for worship.”

While Iturbide is of Spanish ancestry, she finds many facets of herself in Juchitán women, and professes, “I’m troubled by the Spanish conquest; being at once Spanish and yet removed from those roots I am critical of them. The Conquest bothers me because I feel that it destroyed much of what was a very rich culture.”

When the Conquistadores reached the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, they condemned the Zapotecs for being idol worshippers, for besides their devotion to animals they had a tradition of thirteen gods who went by both masculine and feminine names. Today, though their hermaphrodite gods have been replaced by Catholicism, Zapotec myth and legend contrast sharply with the rituals of the Catholic church, and in Juchitán this strange mixture of religious beliefs and practices, Iturbide pointed out, “has produced a syncretism which even the people themselves do not really understand.” She cites as an example the Fiesta de las Velas (candles), a thanksgiving celebration dating from pre-Hispanic times in which Juchitános go to harvest fruit trees and then bring the fruit to the church to make sacerdotal offerings. “There are even patron saints of the trees,” Iturbide shrugged, “but everything here, as elsewhere in Mexico, is fused, con-fused, as it’s very difficult to find any cultural traditions which have remained pure from outside influences.”

Writing of the Mexican peasantry, Octavio Paz would corroborate Iturbide’s findings: “They are…the authors of a strange and fascinating creation, Mexican Catholicism, that imaginative synthesis of 16th-century Christianity and the pre-Columbian ritualistic religions.”

In viewing Graciela Iturbide’s images of the Juchitános as instant history, one wants to ask: are they self-conscious? Do they venture much beyond the Isthmus of Tehuantepec?

“I found that some of these people had traveled abroad, to Europe and the United States,” Iturbide said, “but they are so proud of their culture that they travel in traditional dress, and often go bare-footed.”

While it is a microcosm of the national mestizo culture, the area of life in Juchitán which perhaps strays most from Mexican norms is sexuality, for here young men lose their virginity with older women or men, and homosexuality is quite open and even accepted with alacrity. “The Juchitános,” Iturbide related, “are a free people, and in this freedom you find a very sensual, very erotic and very political character—politicized in what concerns their sexual freedoms.”

¡Viva Juchitán libre! ¡Viva el ayuntamiento popular!

As deeply rooted in traditions of myth and matriarchy as it is, Juchitán society hasn’t been ignored by the federal government or caciques, the local political bosses. To struggle against outside interference the Zapotecs of Juchitán and elsewhere in the isthmus have formed a coalition, comprised of workers, farm hands and students, known as COCEI (Coalición Obrero, Campesina y Estudiantíl del Istmo). Juchitán women, of course, figure prominently among COCEI’s most staunch supporters and leaders, and the interests of their coalition regularly defy government policies. “They have risked their lives in the process,” noted Iturbide. “They have experienced repression and seen members of their families become desaparecidos—the so-called ‘disappeared’—an all too familiar fate of those who oppose authoritarian governments.

“Nowhere else in Mexico do you find the expression of women as open and forceful as in Juchitán, and in the Zapotec culture. Elsewhere women are more often in the home, do not make economic or political decisions, don’t get involved the way men do. Outside of Zapotec culture the Mexican woman is resigned to her lesser role.”

“Juchitán,” Graciela Iturbide said with the sparkle of a dream in her eye, “is a country of people who cannot accept submission. So, in a way the story of Juchitán is also the history of losers who refuse to be losers.”

From Juchitán to Santa Monica

Following her Juchitán series, Iturbide photographed other Mexican communities, included in her book Images of the Spirit. All the while, she remained a resident of Coyoacan, near the Mexican capital, and watched as the country reeled from the indigenous Chiapas uprising of 1994 and the subsequent political shift when in 2000, Vicente Fox’s National Action Party (PAN) triumphed over the Revolutionary Insitutional Party (PRI) after 70 years in power.

Did Iturbide feel a seismic social change resulting from the Chiapas? Does Mexico feel like a changed landscape? “The Chiapas movement is one I admire a great deal and I’m in solidarity with it,” Iturbide said. “Unfortunately, however, Mexico really hasn’t changed, and we seeing more and more political snafus.”

Iturbide has continued to see her work celebrated internationally, with major one-woman shows in San Francisco (the Museum of Modern Art’s “External Encounters, Internal Imaginings: The Photographs of Graciela Iturbide”), as well as in Arles, France; Tokyo, Japan; and Buenos Aires, Argentina—not to mention inclusion in many group shows around the world. Her latest work includes portraits of mothers, In the Mother’s Eyes (Ediciones Stemmle: 2001); nature photography of birds, published as a book, Pájaros (Twin Palms Publishers: 2002); and her work on both Mexico and India, India-Mexico (DGE Ediciones: 2002).

Graciela Iturbide’s beautiful still life photo series, on the plants in Mexico’s Jardín Botánico de Oaxaca, was on view during May 2005 at Santa Monica’s Rose Gallery, Bergamot Station.

* Original publication, El Paseante, Madrid, 1990; update, Los Angeles 2005