MY BLOG: A Reflective Essay
The most challenging part of my intermediate reporting class was finding a Quinceanera to document. I placed an ad in every paper:
Photographer for Quinceanera!!!!
Portraits, ceremony, reception and party —
including family portraits — my whole day is yours.
You will receive all the digital files and prints of your special day.
(Think this is too good to be true? It is.
You will need to answer all of my questions about your
“rite of passage” and create an environment suitable for
portfolio quality photographs. My grade will rest on your conscience;
I revoke all responsibilities.)
How can you say no to an offer like that?
I called a Hispanic newspaper and asked if they would translate the ad. The translator asked, “What would you do if someone called speaking Spanish?” to which I replied … “Um, no habla Espanol?”
We had a laugh. I have no idea if the ad ran.
Then I posted ads on Latino message boards, even MySpace. Yes, I stooped that low, but I was desperate.
Local Quinceanera shops are not found in phonebooks or search engines such as Google. I searched thoroughly and can tell you that fact with absolute certainty.
Most of the bridal shop names were familiar, except for one in Kearns, located on the west side of the Salt Lake valley. I called the promising dress store and a woman answered in Spanish (Score!). I asked for information or contacts, promising to be a dedicated student photographer. She gave me a number (Yes!). But it was for a wedding photographer (No!).
So I hit the streets, with my two kids in tow. Our first target was a Mexican market on the west side of Salt Lake. I spotted two innocent men peacefully eating their lunch, and marched in front of the two boxes they were sitting on. I looked down and began my interrogation without hesitation. (I sent my children to go berserk in the candy section.)
“We don’t speak English,” they pleaded, but that didn’t stop me.
I tried to recall any words from my high school Spanish class. I think I was confusing assignment with moon, and said that I was a either a student or that I was stupid. Just when I was about to switch it up and prove my gift at charades, a cashier walked in from the back. She spoke English.
I’ve never seen any face with such a dramatic transformation from terror to relief, and without any hesitation the men went back to their lunch.
I was relieved to speak in my native tongue, but she could not help me in my quest to find a Quinceanera. At this point I needed something, anything!
“Can I document your market?” I pleaded.
She said, “No.”
I wanted to be a good patron so I bought my kids candy (my daughter actually bought the candy. The store only accepted cash so I snatched a $5 bill from my not-too-happy daughter’s pocket.).
I called my older sister in Las Vegas and every other friend and family member I could think of. A member of my family had connections to the Latter Day Saint Spanish ward and promised to pull some strings.
I called Patricia Dark, co-founder of a bilingual elementary school. Her advice was to call the Catholic churches. The Bishops, Fathers, Priests, I used the titles interchangeably, were ransacked with voice messages. When a live person answered, they sweetly gave me a time to call back. I would call back on that hour, just to talk to another voicemail.
Defeated, I searched for another topic, one with plenty of sources.
The Holy Cross was my new savior. Not only did they provide legal services for immigrants, they offered ESL classes, counseling, medical services, political activists’ organizations, charities and endless volunteer opportunities.
When I started I had a list of contact phone numbers, and about 50 information papers and questions spread out covering the whole space around me on my queen size bed. Perhaps the organization was too big because half of the calls never picked up and the other half referred me to more telephone numbers. The new numbers weren’t much different than my first telephone marathon, and I felt like I was going around in circles. But the fruits of my labor did provide me with three sources, the minimum for the assignment.
I interviewed Ana Aboite, a counselor at an elementary school who also taught English to adults. She had a hard time explaining what she does. “If you have a problem I will do whatever I need to do to help.” Her main focus is to teach parents English. Her lessons are for one hour a week whenever the parent can come in, and she expects them to practice at least 2 hours a day on their own before their next lesson.
“It is the parent’s responsibility to learn English so they can communicate with their children … without it you will never fully connect.”
Aboite said the reason it was important for her to learn English was for her daughter’s sake. It hurt her deeply as the connection she had with her daughter began to weaken. Now that she knows how to speak English, she enjoys helping her daughter with homework and is happy to understand the conversations her daughter has with her friends.
I also spoke with a volunteer, Tim Jackson, who helps immigrant children transition into an English speaking school. He had a lot to say about his after school program.
Seeing the children learn, be successful and be proud of who they are, “That’s what makes my job worth it,” Jackson said.
He gave a touching example of a girl who was in fifth grade, recently moved from Mexico. She didn’t know any English. She was sad and depressed, and often would burst in to tears. “She felt so out of her skin.” The school sent her to Jackson’s Holy Cross after school program, and he was amazed as he watched her transition. Only five months later, he proudly reported, “She is now adapting and making friends at school.”
Shauna Crosby, the office supervisor of the South Main Clinic, estimates that more than 80 percent of the patients at The Holy Cross Ministries South Main Clinic are Hispanic. “I love helping a large number of people who are often refused service when they are sick,” Crosby said.
Still the services are for the uninsured and not provided exclusively the Hispanic population. Not sure if it fit in with this semester’s website theme, I decided to file the source away, and explore this contact at another time when I could focus exclusively on the project and create the comprehensive photo essay it deserved.
Putting all the information together, I realized I had three different stories, and the last one wasn’t specifically a service for the Hispanic Community. I struggled making a cohesive paper.
Then I got a tip from my little sister.
“There might be a Hispanic wedding reception in Rose Park.” The man she spoke with didn’t know a lot of English so she wasn’t sure on the details.
The lead took me to a small family barbeque. The couple had been married the previous Wednesday, and they were celebrating in their small backyard. I couldn’t find anyone who spoke English. Everyone was friendly to me, the foreigner, who had crashed their party, and I was grateful for that.
I asked about a Quinceanera and the man with the bright new cowboy hat said, “Corona?” “Um no thanks,” I said and apologized as I left.
I drove by one of the churches I had called on the phone, Our Lady of Guadalupe, then made a U-turn in my Thunderbird and floated my ‘80s classic’ into the parking lot. I wandered the halls a bit, thinking nothing could be more awkward than what I had just experienced, and welcomed this new feeling of…well, the feeling of being lost. It was a similar feeling, but I didn’t have to force smiles pointblank and be greeted with the same forced smiles, polite masks to cover our confusion.
I looked into random classrooms searching for someone who didn’t look too busy. I was referred to the bishop currently in confessions. He was due to come out at any time and then there would be a 5-minute window to ambush him before he conducted mass.
I headed toward the chapel (is that what it’s called?) and then I thought maybe that wasn’t the most brilliant idea. The last tip I acted on didn’t turn out as well as I had thought, and I might save that kind of humiliation when I’m not in front of a full Saturday mass congregation.
I had to get a concrete tip before I left. I could hear people speaking English, and at the risk of sounding like a parrot I asked again if anyone knew anything at all about a Quinceanera.
“No, but the lady who teaches the classes just walked by,” the Sunday school teacher calmly replied.
My demand motivated the teacher to run out of the room, take the woman by the arm and place the Quinceanera teacher two feet in front of me. “She wants to know about Quinceaneras,” said the Sunday school teacher.
“Yes, I’m a student at the University of Utah …”
She seemed to look more at ease when I provided this information. People often relax when they know that I am a student—the idealistic pupil on a search for knowledge, seeking and gathering information from the world to create words on a page, or images in a picture, that will be analyzed and graded according to their composition.
I conducted an impromptu interview, which didn’t go too bad. The Quinceanera teacher, Josie Martinez, had so much information and was willing to sit there and explain everything to me, I knew nothing it was easy not to focus on my own questions, and I felt the interview flow smoothly from the beginning to the end.
She went into the history and the rituals of the Aztecs. That was surprising to hear in a Catholic church, but the Quinceanera tradition they celebrate came from their Mexican ancestors.
The young Sunday school teacher who obediently brought me the Quinceanera teacher, Nellie Strada, gave me a lot of information on the reception as well as the ceremony. She provided imagery with the small details she contributed.
So I had the key to getting answers; stand around and look lost. Holding the shred of confidence I had gained, I drove to The Cathedral of the Madeline. (It’s the majestic cathedral at the center of town, and the only building in the city that is able to compete with the Mormon Temple for its magnificent beauty.)
I spoke with a man in a black robe who seemed to be guarding the entrance into the cathedral. I felt like a kid on my tip-toes peering in the window of a door more than three times my height. The man in black pointed out the man in charge. He was in a white robe, with purple and gold details around his neck, which much symbolize his importance. It was a busy Saturday night for mass. I’ll come back I said to the man in black “Good idea,” he said, and handed me a program with a phone number. The number looked familiar.
Outside I snapped a photo, and startled a 14-year-old girl, Vanessa Clavijo, and her brother. They were waiting for their mom who was inside attending mass. I spouted off questions and found out she was from Peru and did not plan on having a Quinceanera. Vanessa wanted to celebrate a sweet 16 with her friends. Maybe if she lived in Peru….she said, “But in America it’s more of a choice.”
My quick shot-gun questions proved to be a useful, because they left as abruptly as I had approached them, and jumped up the stairs to the cathedral in record speed. I had the one photo and names before they ran to the sanctuary of the holy church.
Back to the west side of town I drove aimlessly until I found a Floras Shop (which apparently is not a flower shop, but a bakery). I stood in line with my croissant on a green tray along with everyone else, trying futilely not to stand out. I asked the cashier if she had any Quinceanera cakes she raised one eyebrow and seemed a bit skeptical, but before I could run out of the shop humiliated (because I had to wait for my change), she pulled out a sample book filled with Quinceanera cakes and pointed to her favorites.
I started to realize why everyone was looking at me like I had escaped from an asylum. As I proudly walked out of the bakery happy to have accomplished my mission, I started to feel the same way. I did not leave with a name, an interview, nobody even spoke English, but I did leave with a photograph that was shot from my hip, and a delicious croissant.
I knew where I was headed next, the Latino Mall. I discovered it earlier that week when I was ‘hitting the streets’ with my kids, but as I pulled in promising Mexican food, my kids made it clear we were going to IHOP. My son gets the ‘hunger rage’ bad and my daughter was already traumatized after I mugged her for a $5 bill.
Walking around the Latino Mall for something, not sure where my boundaries were anymore, I found a store with some beautiful white dresses.
“Are these Quinceanera dresses?”
The salesperson said, “No.”
They were baptism dresses.
“Oh” I slowly started backing toward the door, but stopped two feet in front of it. My eyes had never left the saleswoman. Did she know something? Why do I feel like she is hesitating with me in these few short seconds?
“But these are,” she pulled out a similar dress in a larger size.
My uneasiness shifted and I remembered to tell her I was a student from The University of Utah. My interrogation was for educational purposes only. Very smoothly and nonchalantly she started to pull out boxes of Quinceanera gifts. Satin pillows and satin bibles, the treasure box excited me more than it probably should have. She must have been interested by my reactions, and I was shown detail and gift that was explained at my lesson at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church.
Many Quinceanera items were behind the counter, and not displayed. It was like a store with a trick door. It looked like a children’s store with racks of tiny outfits on the floor and walls, but it was also a Quinceanera shop in disguise. That added to the excitement of the discovery. Her interested but nonchalant attitude blended with my fascination and intensity. The whole experience was surreal. Her mom called to her from the other room in Spanish.
When her mom, the shop owner, found out I was researching Quinceaneras, she rushed over unmistakably overjoyed. She had so many stories to tell, and show. I don’t know how long I listened. She dramatized feelings of sorrow by clutching her chest; her face looked like a tragedy mask (I don’t know how else to describe It). Her emotions came flooding out with intimate disclosures, and meaningful memories.
She danced as she talked about the reception and at the end of the performance I thanked her and we embraced. I am not a ‘huggy’ person, but I think I might have initiated the hug, I’m not sure. It just felt natural. (That might be totally unethical, unprofessional for sure. I don’t know the rules or boundaries of a true journalist yet.)
I only took a couple of shots from my hip as I wrote frantically down the details and made as much eye contact as I could, hoping I wouldn’t convey disinterest, worried that the stories might stop.
As I left the store, I looked through my digital images and found the shot, the one that included her face and the moment was captured, and it was sheer luck. I was hoping the luck would stick around long enough for me to go home and write the story.
Still even without a Quinceanera to document, I changed my story.
When I got home I agonized over how to write and what to write. It was a struggle even to put words onto the page.
My photo shots from the hip didn’t exactly create a comprehensive photo essay, so the experience would have to come alive on paper. What happened? What was my essay about?
How could I keep myself out of it, when I felt like the story was about me? How I felt when I became an investigator, braving uncomfortable situations for the sake of journalism; it was my story.
I didn’t do what I was taught in class. I didn’t have questions. I had no idea where I was going or what was going to happen once I got there. I’m not sure if my story was very good, but none of that matters.
I had a fun day, testing the limits of my social anxiety, finding places where I was sure I would not fit in. Whether or not I felt brave …
I did feel like a journalist.
(Whether it was the right way, the wrong way, or the pretend way)
This is the end of my reflection essay and blog.
This is where I tell you what I have learned, and what piece of wisdom I have received from my reporting journey. Well here it is:
I discovered that if you hang around no matter how lost, confused, or awkward you feel, moments or seconds after defeat, you might find the answer you were looking for, even if it might not be the answer you expected.
My name is Teresa Getten and I am a photo-journalist working for the Daily Utah Chronicle, documenting campus life. In 2006 I earned a degree in photography from Salt Lake Community College, and in 2009 I plan to graduate from the University of Utah with a mass communications degree with an emphasis in news-editorial.
I knew I wanted to be a photojournalist when I documented a housing project for single mothers in 2004.
As I watched their colorful lives unfold, my camera captured the children running free in their underwear among a plethora of toys scattered along the sidewalk, and the strong bonds between the mothers who were raising their little village together. I called my project “The Freedom of Poverty.”
When my photo essay was coming to a close, and I had all the shots I needed to complete my project, the story began to shift.
I sensed something beyond the colorful chalk murals on the sidewalk, the pool parties and neighborhood barbecues.
My eyes saw beyond the lens, and I used my camera to capture the stress and hardships that came with economic strain. I started to notice the frequent ramen noodle dinners, then the long weeks that passed before there was enough money to do the laundry, and every mother juggling which bill to skip that month so there was enough money to buy diapers.
My project “The Freedom of Poverty” was far from complete. Even though what I had documented was real, there was another side left unexposed, hidden and silent. I couldn’t stop … I wouldn’t rely on my own perceptions. I needed to stay. I needed to understand. I needed to see.
That was my own “decisive moment.”
“We [photojournalists] pass judgment on what we see, and this involves an enormous responsibility.”