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.

Museo Nacional de Antropología

Museo Nacional de Antropología

A man stood next to me in a Korean owned deli in Palisades Park, NJ.  His boots were fake, not real lizard but still in the style of  botas de vaquero none the less.  The boots you can buy in any norteno town where the men have paid thousands to sneak across the border to work as low paid laborers in the US.  His trim mustache and dark skin, tucked-in shirt and ironed blue jeans might have made him a short Lotharo back in Piedras Negras but here, he was just a a guy who worked as a baker in a Korean pastry shop.  Maybe he cut grass, painted, lifted, delivered, hauled, got spit on, harassed, not paid, paid lowly, hid, ducked, drank, shivered, and maybe he did none of the above.  But he was here, not in his country, and trying to work.

The Spanish I heard in Times Square coming from Minny Mouse wasn’t the native tongue of the native Puerto Ricans or Dominicanos.  It was la lengua of the Mexican.  Maybe the Chapinas or the Peruvian.  But it was the accent of the new comers.  They  dressed as Elmo, Spiderman, and Minnie to pose for a dollar or two with the kids of those who stayed in $300 a night hotels in the City.  They crossed borders to stand next to white kids so that their parents could snap pictures of them in the blinking lights.

One guy gets hot and lets slip his facade.  The mask slips revealing a face more fitting inside the Museo Nacional de Antropología than on the streets of Times Square.  Cada de indio as my mother would say of the neighbors.  The face of an indigenista, a face from Southern Mexcio, of Guatemala, of the south.

So Spiderman crossed 9th ave near Port Authority.  Wherever he went, he seemed tired.  Worn from dancing for the Spanish and Italian tourists.  Of hearing the accents of his conquerors and taking the money of his master.  He probably walked to his next job.  His delivery job where he would make a dollar or two running msg-filled Chinese food up six floors up to an uppity Iowan who now calls Manhattan home.  The Iowan feels its his new right to belittle the delivery guy who was five minutes late because he couldn’t walk fast enough.  The rain was too hard, the snow was too cold.

Santiago once pointed out the only people out on the streets during a blizzard were the mojados who were delivering food.

I learned on this trip New York works because of it’s illegal infestation.  An infestation that makes the City move.


The humble beginnings…

The humble beginnings...

While editing and doing some archiving, I found a disc of old images from my time working for the community newspaper in San Antonio.  How humbling to see how I started off and what images I shot as a student and budding photographer.

I shot the Mexican dancers at a community event on the West Side of town.  I remember being in love with this shot because of her loving reaction to her partner.  She’s so happy.  I photographed this event for the San Antonio Express News community newspaper, The Sun.  Each district of town had their own edition so there was always something different to shoot.

So many times, I’ve seen how digital has changed the field of photography.  Even more importantly, how cheap credit has allowed many people to purchase pro equipment and how digital has allowed the average flickr type to create amazing bodies of work.  Now students and prosumers can compete with full-time professionals.  I know I’ve talked about the old Nikon gear and manual focus lenses but I can’t stress how it was such a different time.  There was no Photoshop, no Lightroom, no computers!  Darkroom, stop bath, fixer.  A steel can and reels.  A red light bulb.  It was so long ago and technologically speaking, it was truly the dark ages of modern photography.

What may have taken several hours to create can now be produced in seconds.  I remember shooting an event like football or a late night press conference.  I’d have to  leave half way through to get back to a darkroom, develop film, print from the negative and make a 10 pm deadline.  Now I’m shooting boxing matches and transmitting images in between rounds.  I’m talking seconds to get an image from a digital camera into a laptop, process the raw file, caption it, and ftp’ed to a client.  Seconds!  And technology will eventually allow streaming images to be sent directly to an editor thousands of miles away as the photos are being shot.  I mean they do that now with TV live feed so surely they will find away to get images on line immediately.

A mime play shot for the San Antonio Express News community newspaper, The Sun.  I was probably paid $25 per assignment back in 1997.

Whats more interesting is seeing how my professional career in Hawaii has evolved.  How my views have changed…from portraits to street work.  How I’ve visually grown.  I constantly read art books.  Study old paintings.  Visually stimulate my senses so I can “see” when I put the camera to my eye.  And its working.  My timing is different, my angles are changing.  My views are evolving. I try to look at images as paintings.  I try to think of how a painter or sculptor would see a face or scene.  My actions seems so far away from what I used to shoot.

The family above had parts of their home catch fire in San Antonio due to faulty wiring in a junction box.  The family holds the box which caused the problem. (I think thats what happend!)  The Sun Community Newspaper, 1997.

 These images seem so long ago but when I view them, I can clearly see how I naturally had a vision but it wasn’t developed.  It was raw, unexpected, and unreliable.  I was just a kid with a few cameras and pocket full of film.  Sure, I was in my 20s.  I though I knew more than I did but couldn’t prove it.  I knew I wasn’t good enough to get a staff job at the Dallas Morning News or the LA Times but I though if they gave me a chance, I could do it.  The Express News gave me that chance but it was shooting for their community newspaper. It was really bad work on my end but in many ways, I think it was some of the best stuff around.  I shot so many images of real life that it made me realize what life was about.

Lilly Tejeda is the mother of Frank Tejeda, a local politician who had high hopes but sadly died of cancer a some time after this picture was taken.   His death was a loss to the Hispanic community as he might have gone to much higher positions.  I remember going to her humble house on the South Side of San Antonio and asking her if we could take the photo of her and her son’s pictures.  How much they looked like.  Funny, this image still makes me sad.  She held a brave face but she knew her loss.

How far I’ve come from the 90s to the 2010s.  How arrogant I was to think I new so much but in reality I knew nothing.  The base was there but the experience was not.  So many kids and prosumers I’ve encountered over the years here in Hawaii and elsewhere seem to think because they have a digital camera, have a few images published here and there, they are equal or better than me or anyone who has shot for years.  Maybe they are.  If I had top digital cameras and technology back on my side in the 90’s, maybe I would have been just as good.  But what they lack is experience.  They don’t have any experience shooting high school plays, community dances, kid’s swim meets, or a local strawberry fair.  I regularly would drive an hour or so out to the the middle of nowhere to shoot a portrait of man who raised a prized steer.  All for about $25!  There is lots to really say about starting from the bottom.  It humbles you and makes you realize you don’t really know what the hell you are doing.

I shot an event for Reuters a few weeks ago and worked next to the Honolulu Star Advertiser’s senior photographer Craig Kojima.  He’s in his 50’s or so but walks around like he’s a nobody.  No attitude, no beef, no nothing.  He wears those ridiculously stupid shoes that you can put your toes in…you know the ones!  Ugh!  He’s such a great guy and he knows how to shoot. After looking at his take the next day in the paper, I realized that experience trumped anything I did that day.  He shot unbelievable images that I failed to see.  And why was that?  Experience.  I called him a few days later and told him so.  He laughed in that soft, fatherly way and denied he was any better.  Yet he clearly has 20 plus years on me.  Experience counts.  Not workshops, or degrees, or attitude.  Experience makes up for anything some stupid classroom can teach.

Would I go back and shoot the community newspapers again?  As Sarah P would say, “you betcha!”  In a Texas heart beat.  Those were the best days of my learning photography years.  From there, it just got more complicated, harder, and more depressing.  Moving to New York essentially took all the romance out of what I though photography was.  At the community newspaper, I was in a dream world.  I thought this last Sun’s assignment would get me into the doors of National Geographic.  I really did.  And who’s to say it wasn’t going to happen? A youngster can dream, no?

So when George Lee comes knocking on your door to shoot a Pulse assignment, you might want to reconsider his offer.  You just never know…

Blood, sweat, and…ring girls?

Blood, sweat, and...ring girls?

In college, I really wanted to be a sports photographer.  An 18-yrs-old with a Nikon F3HP, a 300mm F 2.8, and a quick finger.  What more did I need?  I worked at the Cactus yearbook and the Daily Texan at UT Austin in the early 90s.  Working there allowed me to shoot presidents, protests, car crashes, rock concerts…everything from Depeche Mode to Hillary Clinton.  But the best for me in those times was shooting UT sports.  Swimming, basketball, football, etc…what an amazing time.  Sadly, at that age, I wasn’t as serious as I should have been as some of my colleagues went onto bright photojournalism futures as I entered graduate school.  But while was an undergrad, I actually considered my future in photojournalism and sports and figured it was a career to nowhere.  I did see the end of the San Antonio Light and that was the paper I wanted to grow up and work for.  Shortly later, the internet took the fun out of the newspaper industry and job loss and newspaper closings became all the rage.

UT woman’s swim meet.  Possibly NCAA championship…1990-91.  Tri-X pushed like three stops to 1600 or even 3200 ISO!  Now that was some film processing.

I did recall a conversation with a staffer from the Dallas Morning News and we talked about the Pultizer Prizes won by several staff members back in those days.  The staffers exact words were “At the end of the day, you can’t hug a prize.”  I never forgot it.  I then continued to put more emphasis on life rather than career.  Whether its was the right decision to make a balance of life over letting a career take you over, I don’t know.

After grad school (international economics) went to New York to learn about commercial and editorial photography as a photo assistant…lots of good that did.  Yet I live in Honolulu and have a great shooting career and life.  Sure I think about moving back to New York but my friend Tracey Woods, a photo at a big mag asked me, “Why?”

She was right…why give up the sun, sand, and bad drivers?

But I digress…

On to the boxing.

I’ve only shot boxing once.  Its a brutal sport.  Too many punches and way too much blood.  On TV and from the stands, its ok..but up close, you get…well, you get the picture, rather you get it all over your picture and yourself.  Sweat and blood splatters all over the place.  And if you are next to the ring, you’ll surely get a shower.  The AP writer, Jaymes Song, told me he covered boxing once all the while drinking fountain cola in a cup.  Jaymes said after one particular bloody match, the inside and outside of his cup was flecked with red spots of…well…it wasn’t Coke.

Pingo got punished!

Needless to say, Jaymes didn’t finish his drink.

Boxing isn’t for the faint of heart.  Its tough to watch if you’re not into pugilism.  I could care less but seeing people get the hell beaten out of them, it can be slightly unnerving.  So last night I had to cover several boxing matches for AP and the big match was the Hawaiian Punch Brian Viloria in a title fight against Mexico’s Julio Cesar Miranda.  They went 12 rounds and Viloria was the victor.  A great fight although Miranda put up a good attack.  Viloria knocked him down a few times and I think the Mexican was shocked Vilora was such a tough guy.

Shooting boxing is tough to do. You have to anticipate each punch if you want to get peak action. If you snap when you see the punch going, you’ll never catch the actual glove connect with face.  All it takes is a little timing (and a fancy camera!) and you’ll eventually get the right moment.  The physically hard part of shooting the bloodsport is being bent over as you’re sticking yourself and camera through a few inches of ring rope.  12 rounds at 3 minutes each times 6 bouts…well…it’s a long time to be contorted over and through the ring and ropes.  My back wasn’t all that happy at the end of the night.

well…at least there are ring girls…

Its a far cry from the chicks I shot in swim suits racing at the UT swim center.  Alas, its a job…and I did have to shoot ring girls as a notation and separation to each round…really…its true.  Ask any of the guys who shoot boxing…

Anyway, I got away from the journalism life only to play one in Hawaii.  I’m glad I don’t have to shoot so much news and sport as I have much more fun now shooting travel pieces and portraits here and around.  But its nice to get a rush shooting a sporting event…all the while getting splattered with long as its not mine.

Not about photography…

Not about photography...

Every so often, I have to blog about something non photo related.

Today’s subject…futbol and the world cup!

Nationalism is good.

And its even better when you follow the World Cup!  Only a global event event like this can bring dark feelings of patriotic song, memories of past wars, and historic games in which your country revenged a past debt from decades ago.  As for the US, our collective soccer history really starts in the 1990’s when the US held the ’94 World Cup but it still gives many Americans the chance to paint the flag on the face, drink loads of beer early in the afternoon, and hoot the ol’ war chant U-S-A! U-S-A!  We really can’t lay claim to a North vs South game where slavery is on the line or even a USA vs whom every we’ve gone to war with in the past.  Imagine the game strategy against Vietnam…carpet bomb the backfield, bomb the neighbors, try to win the hearts-and-minds of the opposing fans, and then have the US soccer federation tell the team to lose the game because the rating are low on ESPN.  We have played games like US vs Iran (or as I recall the Great Satan vs the Ayatollah’s rock and rollahs) but they just don’t have that historical feeling like watching England vs Argentina where memories of the Faulkland Islands ring clear.  Yet US soccer is still fun to watch regardless of their historic shortcomings and past.  No I take that back, that Iran game at the ’98 WC was pretty heavy.  I recall all the Iranians having heavy mustaches.

For the past few weeks, I’ve drank loads of coffee as the games start as early as 4 AM in HNL, and I have wrapped myself in the feel good Americanism of Team USA.  Forget about our failing financial woes, our pointless war in Afghanistan, our leaderless nation not doing enough to clean up the Gulf oil spill…ITS WORLD CUP TIME!  Its time to wave the flag!  Sing at the top of our lungs:  WE ARE PROUD TO BE AMERICANS! (where at least we know we’re free at this point from VAT taxes, a forced national health care, etc…)  We are free right NOW and we should paint our faces in red-white-and blue and sing the joys of the athletic nationalism.

I can’t say most Americans are always proud to be American.  Hell, Michelle Obama stated not too long ago…” For the first time in my adult lifetime, I’m proud of my country.”  I guess she’s not watching enough soccer.  But we should all feel proud when our national athletes take the field and do battle for our collective pride.  Billy Clinton was down at one of the USA games and when interviewed after the game, he was hoarse and teary eyed.  Bill did America proud!

Sadly, the US is out.  The mediocre Americans lost to a slightly stronger Ghana whose many players all work in the top leagues in Europe.  Only a few Americans play near the pinnacle of top flight European football but most still play for second and third tier teams or work in the MLS in the States.  By far the best and brightest (?) athletes converge at the big three sports in the US leaving soccer for moms, SUV’s and suburban white kids.  We can’t say the US is out for a lack of trying.  I mean some of the best games were played by the US. Just listen to Spanish announcer Andres Cantor call the game for the US against Algeria in the first round.  Landon Donovan scored an overtime winner that still puts chills down my spine where I see that last second golazo.  You can listen to it here in espanol from

But the US team just isn’t good enough to compete beyond the first round and knock out stages.  Criticism has come from all sides stating we have a average domestic coach, players are not good enough, etc.  I’m also reading the US soccer federation will now create better outreach programs to pull kids from the greater American gene pool.  What does that mean?  It means soccer will try to move into the ghetto and el barrio and pull kids who would normally go to football, basketball and baseball.  Good. Imagine if soccer were to steal an Eli Manning, a Kobe Bryant, or an Oscar Dela Hoya?  We’d, like most other sports, dominate.  My friend David has always said why not get a 6’6 center from a basketball team and train him just to stand in front of the opponent’s net and jump up and hit the ball with his head?  That’s more or less what Peter Crouch does for England?

And besides with all the immigration that floods legally and illegally into our country, we’re bound to have some Diego Milito from Argentina or a some other Latin, Eastern Europe or African star show up.

Alas, most of my teams are out.  From America, to the country of my heritage (Mexico) the the country of my language (England) and now the country of my wife (Japan.)  I’ve got nothing.  I could start to dwell in the roots of my background (Portugal and Spain) but now Portugal is out leaving Spain with the only thread to really cling.  I could never really pull myself to cheer for a national team that wasn’t mine or I didn’t have some connection to but at this point, the world cup is over.  I’ll still wake up and watch the Germany Argentina game or the Brazil Netherlands game but in reality, its no fun. The nationalism is gone.  No more chanting yes we can as we did and we found out we really couldn’t.

Besides, I miffed at the poor handling of major mistakes by FIFA for not allowing goal line technology to be employed.  England had a goal taken away and Argentina was clearly off sides against Mexico causing the Mexicans to return to a game where an obvious injustice had been done.  The US had a game winning goal taken away by a ref from Mali.  Did anyone ask if the ref might have anti US bias?  The US doesn’t have the best image in the third world.  And besides, might that ref have Al Qaida sympathies?

Either way, another World Cup is just about done and I’m feeling depressed and blue.  So much emotion goes into each game and it hurts to see “my” team loose.  Eh–enough of this because soon enough, English Premier League will start in August and the drama will begin all over at the club level.  All the big stars will go back to their multi-ethnic teams and makes loads of money again.  Christano Ronaldo, who did absolutely terrible in this Cup, will go back to his millions in Spain and loads of screaming fans.

One sad note, the English, who were absolutely terrible in this world cup, were missing Beckham.  What fun he would have brought to the atmosphere of a dying English side.