- ¡Viva la Independencia!
For Jaime Permuth, the project of an extended journey through Mexico did not evolve from an intellectual preoccupation. It was driven by a personal need to return to that country’s everyday life and popular culture. Although he had grown up in Guatemala, Permuth had traveled far and wide through Mexico, always in a state of wonder and expectation. At the close of the twentieth century, having spent the last decade of it in New York City, he felt the urge to revisit Mexico and his memories of it. Would his adult self encounter, across time, the child he had been? What kind of dialogue would the two selves establish, and what images would result? How had Mexico changed?
Before he left New York City, Permuth decided that one of the project’s central themes would be the movement of the masses. He would explore public transportation, in particular the tight, crowded, colorful world of the peseros, vans fitted with benches for about two dozen passengers. Their name refers to the fare: one peso (roughly ten cents U.S.). These vehicles are the essential means of local public transportation. Decorated with an often bizarre mixture of religious icons and secular kitsch, they both contain and reflect the masses.
Permuth decided that his journey would end in Mexico City on 16 September 1999, in time for Independence Day festivities. It would be an ideal setting in which to probe the relationship between people and state. After further consideration, it became clear to Permuth that one could no longer understand Mexican popular culture without dwelling also on its American counterpart, the hybrid Chicano culture of the Mexican-American borderlands. Therefore he chose San Diego, California, on the Fourth of July, the American Independence Day, as his starting point. This photo-essay refers to the beginning and the end of his journey: Americans and Mexicans in joyful independence celebrations.
During his residence in the United States, Permuth has come to see it as a nation of individuals bent on the pursuit of personal freedom. The Fourth of July is not so much a celebration of national independence as of the right to do as one pleases. In San Diego, Permuth observed small groups of people enjoying sun and surf. Many more cruised the boardwalk on bikes, in-line skates, skateboards, and, occasionally, their own feet. Others gathered around barbecue pits in the park. Some got an early start in the bars. Most came out to watch the fireworks. Everybody partied afterward. Even though patriotic symbols were amply on display, the celebration fell short of a true collective dimension. [End Page 40]
In Mexico, by contrast, one immediately feels that celebrating is official business. There is a sense of pomp and form that brings to mind religious ritual. One is subjected to an impressive—and intimidating—show of force by the army. Crowds are hemmed into public spaces. Policemen-cowboys are out in great numbers to make sure that the herd is safely corralled. The powerful feeling of solidarity in the crowd is reinforced by the abundance of traditional foods hawked by vendors and by outbursts of singing and dancing. Another interesting element of the festivities is their duration. Although 16 September is the official anniversary and is celebrated nationwide, the calendar for the whole month is dotted with local events. September is saturated with nationalist sentiment.
In San Diego one is invited to share in warmly sensuous self-indulgence. People’s faces are often radiant and content, or sometimes listless from their excesses. In Mexico the people, in spite of their singing and dancing, tend to be more subdued, even melancholic, as if unsure whether the banquet table they see before them is really for them. The proceedings have an underlying gravity, as if each year the survival of the nation, and of its collective identity, depended on these celebratory rituals.
Jaime Permuth, a native of Guatemala, is a photographer in New York City. His work has been exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Museo del Barrio, and the Bronx Museum of the Arts, among other venues.