The soulful lyrics “Wonder when I’ll find / Paradise / Somewhere there’s a home/ Sweet and nice” from War’s 1972 song “The World is a Ghetto” poured from the speakers of a 1980 Monte Carlo with a single front wheel dramatically hovering above the road like a magic trick. The lowrider was one of many in an improvised parade that filled the narrow streets of Denver’s Northside in 2021. Juan Fuentes has been documenting the city’s Chicano community for years — from car culture to paleta vendors and portraits — and this scene was celebrating the opening of Seed the Memories, an exhibition of Fuentes’s photographs that overlapped and mixed with those of his frequent collaborator, artist Colby Deal of Houston. With no labels crediting which image belonged to which artist, it could only be interpreted as a love letter to their respective neighborhoods, the Northside and Third Ward.
“I wanted the people [in the show] to feel like family because my home is this community,” Fuentes told Hyperallergic. Fuentes is undocumented, born in Chihuahua, Mexico, and raised in Denver since the age of one. This year, he made new work about the family he could not visit in Mexico for his first art museum exhibition, Who tells a tale adds a tail, he allowed others to point the lens to give absence an image and longing a language.
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“I was 27 years old before I touched a professional camera,” Fuentes confessed. He started taking pictures on his iPhone, playing with filters and posting to his Instagram account. In 2017, he opened the community page @OldDenver on which he shared photographs of a city growing, flipping, and disappearing because of gentrification. He bought a Fujifilm digital camera, but without a computer, he would upload images to his phone for editing. “It was a struggle. There was no hi-res photo.” To learn about equipment, he watched YouTube videos and went to the library where he learned about photographer Juan Espinosa who documented the Chicano Movement in Denver in the 1960s and 70s. Espinosa’s black-and-white images and subject matter validated Fuentes’s choices, but Fuentes also wanted to archive unceremonious encounters in between formal celebrations and political actions. “Photos in my family were saved for important days, not the everyday,” he said.
Fuentes moved to Denver with his parents and brother in 1991 for his father’s construction job, but they never planned to stay. “My parents still own their home in Chihuahua and never sold it. Thirty-one years later and here we are,” he said. Although Fuentes grew up in a Chicano neighborhood, his family was the only undocumented one. He remembers his vigilant mother policing the boys’ comings and goings, so he smiles when sharing memories of his childhood summers at his grandmother’s place in Mexico. “It was really great to just be a kid and not overthink every movement. Even my chores were different there: I would pick tomatoes or run out for fresh tortillas for lunch.”
Each time summer ended in Chihuahua, the Fuentes family had to figure out how to come back to the US. Fuentes recalls how, before the September 11 attack and the creation Homeland Security, the border between El Paso and Juárez was safe for them due to the number of workers commuting for the day and minor scrutiny of documents. Until 2005 when, while traveling with his uncle, he was stopped at the border, removed from the car, isolated and questioned by US border patrol. But he was not intimidated. “In my head then, even now, I’m American. I’ve been in Denver my whole life,” he said. With perfect English, a school ID, and some teenage bravado, the border agents released him, but did not grant entry. Fuentes stayed in Juarez for a week with family and crossed successfully with his next try. “My mom said that was it for the [summer] trips. She was scared. My grandma knew it was the last time she would see us — she was so emotional.”
His installation “On the Dirt, Our Knees Tell Truths” (2022) in the Denver Art Museum’s group exhibition Who tells a tale adds a tail is the first time Fuentes turned his camera toward his family on both sides of the border. Photos tucked into frame corners, a swatch of lace, and a dime store calendar all recall a living room wall lovingly curated. Within the gilded central mounts are images of his grandmother’s address produced by Google Street View. To Fuentes’s own surprise, his uncle can be seen walking among the sun-bleached buildings and fences. Photographer Colby Deal traveled to Mexico to capture the Fuentes family and home for the piece, but his lens suffered a light leak, resulting in blurred streaks that make the figures and spaces hard to possess. The band of images along the bottom of the installation were taken on disposable cameras by Fuentes’s older brother who was deported in 2018. At the pinnacle of the piece is a crucifix constructed from prepaid calling cards. Part altar and part archive, “On the Dirt, Our Knees Tell Truths” complicates the very concept of arrival stories and interrogates the term Dreamer because it tells a Latin American story tangled with an American one.
When asked if he worries about his growing visibility while living undocumented, Fuentes responded, “I have to make calculated choices, but I have an opportunity to share my voice and I have a village behind me. I’ve learned that as I grow, I can anchor myself.”