Mexican Immigrant Plays Music for Subway Riders

Mexican immigrant accordion player "norteño" music on the R line in Manhattan. 2016 Marco Garcia
Mexican immigrant accordion player “norteño” music on the R line in Manhattan. 2016 Marco Garcia

As I made my way down towards the R train at Union Square to catch the subway, I heard the sounds of an accordion playing norteño music, or Mexican polka music, coming from deep inside the station.  The melodies quickly transported me back to my hometown of San Antonio filling me with memories of long ago.  Over the years I lived in New York, I’ve never heard Mexican music played in a subway station before so I rushed down the platform to find the musician playing these familiar sounds.

People have always entertained the crowds in the NYC subway as it doesn’t take much to set up in an open nook and play for the thousands passing through any station daily.  From  opera singers to blues guitarists, to a homeless guy banging on discarded trash bins, people have entertained in hopes of being discovered, or just to make a few bucks in tips.  In the past, many ethnic groups have also played their music as well.  And as Mexican immigrants are the fastest growing Hispanic population in the area, it doesn’t surprise me to hear norteño music now played in the stations.

The musical notes led to me to a middle-aged Hispanic male wearing a cowboy hat and blue jeans jacket.  He expertly played his Horner accordion and his melodies sang of a town far away, a family separated, a lover no longer waiting.  His fingers walked up and down the keyboard and his arms pulled and squeezed air through the bellows.  He played the song of immigrants…of people who left for something better and of sacrifice and sadness in the new land.  His tunes reminded me we are all immigrants as we have all left something behind in search of something else.  I left Texas for New York and then for Hawaii, leaving many people in the past and the memories from there.

I listened to him play for a few seconds but the train arrived suddenly.  So I quickly pulled out my camera and snapped off a few frames not realizing my outdoor setting on the camera couldn’t handle the darkness on the platform.  Just as the doors were closing, I dropped a few dollars into his tip jar and rode off towards Times Square.

The pictures ended up being “the last on the roll” as I was returning to Hawaii the next day.  As I sat on the train, I looked at the digital display on the back of my camera and lamented the wrong settings.  The image was blurry but it conveyed, like his music, the melody in the subway.  Underneath his hat, I saw a man, not unlike many of the people I grew up around in Texas.  He was a neighbor, a stranger I saw at the Lake, or the man playing in the mariachi band at Market Square.  He was familiar to me but could not find his face in Hawaii.  I can still hear his melody in my head and it tells me he was not playing his music just to make a few bucks, but to remind us of who we are.

ca 1990

ca 1990

In the early 1990’s, I took a design class with a professor whose name escapes me.  He taught 2D Design during my freshman year at UT Austin and I found myself painting, drawing, designing and generally having a wonderful time exploring mediums I had never worked with.  The class he taught focused on basic art fundamentals; the mild mannered professor knew his stuff.  He once claimed he had famed actress Farrah Fawcett in his class back in the 60s.  She was from Texas, you know.

My classmates rebelled against conformity, reality, sexuality, and just about anything to rebel against.  Some thought they’d be the next Schnabel, Basquiat, or Haring.  Mostly they just wanted to get high. I had a hard time relating as I grew up in conservative San Antonio with a Sergeant father, a Bible-beating mom, and a brother who was a cop.  I clearly had no intentions of turning out to be a sculptor, performance artists, or general anarchist.  I knew I would be a photographer but drifted in and out of majors my first few months drawing towards the art department for a few classes.

In class, no one really told us we were wrong; but kept encouraging us to create and explore what we might not know.  I quickly learned that everything in art is subjective but the fundamentals were the bedrock.  In this 2D class, the professor had us do an exercise on a white sheet of paper with ink.  As I recall, he gave us no real instructions other than to draw lines on the paper.  I took my ink pens and ruler and began to doodle.

I had no formal art education at school or in my household.  I drew and colored lots as a child but made nothing extraordinary.  We’d go to the McNay and the Whitte Museums often and I was always enamored with the old masters and the shapes of the sculptures and figures on display.  I guess I had some informal understanding but nothing that an art professor would notice.

At the end of our exercise, the prof came over and critiqued my piece.  I remember so clearly he pointing out my sense of balance, negative and positive space, and weight of design.  I just saw them as straight lines. I didn’t understand his words until later when I became a professional photographer and began my own career.

lines in the real world

I’ll often wander Waikiki in the late afternoon as the tourists begin heading back to their hotels.  As they roam around the sand seemingly astounded by the spectacular sunsets, most drop their guard and I’ll capture some interesting moments.  As I made my way around a group of people, I noticed this woman wrapped in a damp sarong standing on a pier.  I saw her in my peripheral and pushed my way towards her to capture the moment.  I wasn’t sure why I was drawn to her other than I found her attractive and secluded from the hoards of people crowding the area to watch the sunset.  I began talking out loud to myself noting the monotone colors, her curves, the horizon, and the bend of her arm as she brushed her wet hair from her shoulder.  I fired off maybe six frames before the composition was disturbed by people walking through.  It was only when I chimped the image on the back of my Leica did the professor’s words echo in my ears.  I saw the “balance, space, negative and positive, and weight of my lines.”

Marco Garcia

Once I got home, I searched for that ink drawing that I’ve kept with me all these years.  I was astounded to see how my experienced camera eye had now been able to see, almost naturally, what I drew so long ago, but couldn’t quite comprehend.

I’ve never professed to be an artist.  I’ve often said I xerox what’s in front of me.  Nothing more…just pressing the copy button instead of the shutter button.   Yet I’m happy to hear the professor’s words echo in my head when I do push it.  Those words make me realize I might be more of an artist than I think.

Hot, sweaty and dirty

Hot, sweaty and dirty

Japan is really hot in the summer.  Unbearable.  Even the locals said the summer heat was the worst in years.  Little did I know I would encounter weather so bad.

It was really hot.  Anyway…I traveled to Japan this past August for a guidebook and photographed just about every tourist site in 13 cities across southern Japan including Tokyo.  I flew into Tokyo and traveled to Shimonoseki, Hiroshima, Kurashiki, Kobe, Osaka, Nara, Kyoto, and Nagoya.  Spend a few days in Tokyo and decided (and was pushed by an aggressive editor) to go back to Kyushu and covered Fukuoka, Kagoshima, and Kuamamoto.  I spent loads of time staring out the window of the Shinkansen bullet train watching the world blur by.

I’ve been to Japan many times in the past for both pleasure and family as well as work.  I shot my way across the Noto Peninsula for a bicycling magazine and I’ve done many a project on my own throughout Tokyo and surrounding areas.  Japan isn’t new to me but its always an adventure.  Karaoke (yes, I sang), hot baths (no…too darn hot), rotating sushi bars (pretty cool), sake (need you ask), yukatas (if I can find one that fits) and Godzilla (grrrrr!)  But this trip wasn’t just about badly howling Frank Sinatra songs and tossing empty beer cans into the street because heaven forbid the Japanese make throwing trash away easy…it was about taking pictures…and let me tell you I took some pictures.  I think I captured on an average about 2000 images a day and that equals about 50,000 images…and thats on the conservative side.

Seems all I did was have my face buried behind my camera snapping away.  And when I wasn’t taking a picture, I spent most of my Tokyo time (and for that matter in every city I traveled to) drinking Pocari Sweat, the Japanese version of Gatorade (and neither taste better than the other) while standing and sweating over a vending machine.  The heat and humidity just about killed me.  On one of my last days in Kyushu, I just about fell to heat exhaustion.  I don’t think I’ve ever been that hot.  Not even after a tough workout class with my iron-butt trainer have I had salt stains ring my shirts and socks that seemed as if they came out of a washing machine.

So I was a hot, sweaty travel photographer.  Glamorous?  Well, I got to travel to these exotic and foreign destinations visiting tourists spots and restaurants but its hard to enjoy.  You are there to capture, as best as you can, the essence and feeling of that location, the taste of this food, or the peace in that temple.  All of this has to be done on a frame or two and done within an extreme short period of time.  In most cities, I had only a day or two to cover what most tourists would cover in a week.  I mean from train station to museum to park to castle to museum to restaurant to store to museum to temple to shrine to restaurant to scenic area to historic spot to statue to ferry to train to bus to hotel and so forth all the while you’re deciphering a map written in Japanese hoping for a moment of brilliance that never comes.  From sunrise to sundown for close to a month.  You get very little sleep, rest, or time to enjoy anything.  And talk about the walking.  I walked so much I wore the rubber off my new Lacoste sneakers within the first two weeks.  And did I mention the heat?

There is also the amount of equipment I have to carry.  Multiple cameras, lenses, laptop, cords, cases, hard drives, more cords, flash cards, cases, bags, zip locks, and even more cords.  Also clothes.  Its not fun.  The fact that you are always fearing a hard drive (although I had four of them) would go down loosing thousands of images is enough to make you stay up at night.  It was no different in the old days with film but digital seems to be tougher as there is just so many more accessories to carry around.  You could still in one way or another loose your film.   In my college days, I back packed through Central America and Southeast Asia.  I carried a film camera, a few lenses, and a few rolls of film.  Once my kit (camera, film, passport, etc..) got left behind at a bus station in Saigon because a porter forgot to load it onto our bus.  It arrived the next day, no problems asked.  I sweated that one.  Now…its a different story.  Way too much on the line.  Yet, today I feel like I am just a walking byte.

You also have to do all the logistics and planning, deal with the  language barriers, read maps and outdated guidebooks, try to communicate with unfriendly locals who don’t want their picture taken.  Cloudy weather when you need sun, dirty clothes that need a wash, and raincoats that never fold small enough to carry comfortably.  Train schedules, flights, tickets, overhead baggage.  Odd sized money, coins, vending machines, strange foods… travel photography isn’t what you think it is.  Its not walking up an noon with a foreign beer hangover and going to make epic photos of a group of monks at an ancient temple.  Its waking up at 5am with a foreign beer hangover hoping some monk won’t scream bloody hell at you because you forgot to take off your shoes when you entered…or how you walked in circles trying to find some obscure cafe some writer wrote about but never went to…or trying to explain to someone who doesn’t speak English who doesn’t understand my bad Japanese or pantomime hoping they’d explain where the hell I am on a map that isn’t written in English.

Travel is tough.