Latino photo project captures palates

David Briggs
Maricela Mora flattens corn masa for tortillas at last Sunday’s mole dinner, a fundraiser for the Latino Photography Project.

Juanita Romo, a participant in Gallery Route One’s Latino Photography Project for almost six years, has become more than just a proficient photographer: she’s developed a passion. Landscapes, sunsets, flowers, animals and “especially children” are often the focus of her viewfinder, as she noted while methodically scooping up balls of pale masa, a dough made of corn, and rolling them between her hands last Sunday evening.

She was making tortillas in the minutes before a sold-out crowd lined up inside the Dance Palace Community and Cultural Center for the night’s mole tasting, an annual fundraiser for the photography project that brought together West Marin residents to sample an array of sauces, traditionally made for special occasions, with roots in various regions of Mexico.

The tasting offered an occasion for some in the Latino community to share recipes handed down generation to generation while raising money for the photography project, which will hang its 2013 exhibition at Gallery Route One in September, with a preview show at the San Geronimo Valley Community Center in June.

Using a small wooden press her father-in-law gave  her over 20 years ago, Ms. Romo, a teacher at Papermill Creek Children’s Corner, tossed squat discs of dough onto the square board. One by one she pushed down the lever to flatten the balls into thin circles so symmetrical they could have been made with a compass and threw them onto the pancake griddle beside her. They quickly accumulated tiny brown flecks across both sides before being plucked off and thrown into a large bowl.

Photography is a growing part of Ms. Romo’s life. Not only has she become her family’s photographer, dutifully taking pictures at her grandson’s baptism last year, but she also does occasional freelance work at church ceremonies. “I charge a little bit,” she laughed.

Project coordinator Nancy Bertelsen said the medium has added a new facet to the lives of the participants and built bridges between the Anglo and Latino communities. “I know that the students feel a real difference in their lives,” she said. “When they come to town, more people say hi to them, or jokingly say, ‘Take my picture!’ They feel like they have an important role.”

Elizabeth Fenwick, a professional photographer and co-coordinator of the classes, said that the participants feel more inclined to speak up in community meetings. During a discussion of dual-immersion language instruction at West Marin School, she said, “They spoke out. They really were empowered,” whereas a few years earlier they might not have done so.

Each participant has their own digital camera, and the program also has two DSLR cameras that the group shares. Photojournalist Luz Elena Castro, who started the project, ran the classes for the first eight years; now a mixture of local photographers and project coordinators teach it. In recent years, with the help of self-described techie Ms. Fenwick, participants have learned how to use editing software, which she said is critical. “I’m only a good photographer because I do my own editing,” she said.

During Monday evening classes, the participants learn new techniques, hear from local photographers and critique each other photos.

Ms. Romo embraces her identity as a photographer. “Always I have my camera in my car, because you never know,” she said. She lives on McClure’s Ranch with her husband and explained that during the drive home from work in the evening, she is often compelled to pull off the road to snap a picture: sometimes the sunset, other times a bobcat or an owl.

The photography project kicked off 10 years ago as part of an effort to bridge the gap between West Marin’s Latino and Anglo communities. Ms. Bertelsen said during remarks at Sunday’s dinner that mole, a “magic, rich sauce,” which some say originated when Pueblan nuns in the 1600s scrounged through their cabinets to make dinner for a bishop, was an apt metaphor for Latinos’ ability to improvise and adapt. “I think they are what the United States of America needs,” she said.

The tasting, like the project, is another occasion to connect, according to Elvira de Santiago. “We’re here just to get the community together,” she said to the crowd.

Ms. de Santiago’s mole, which she prepared over two days, had close to 20 ingredients. “Everything is toasted,” she explained, including five kinds of chilies, peanuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, cloves and cinnamon. Then, along with tomatoes, tomatillos, raisins, plantains, garlic and broth, everything is ground into a paste and cooked on the stovetop for hours—with constant stirring.

Ms. Romo’s mole ranchero stood apart from the pack with its meager five ingredients: guajillo chilies, garlic, peppercorns, cornmeal and chicken broth. “My mole is very simple,” she said.

Ms. Bertelsen said that after the event, some of the cooks reported the joy of having their employers come to the event and see them in a different role, especially since food is so important and “a big issue” in West Marin.

The crowd lined up with plates of chicken awaiting a rainbow of moles. “I haven’t missed one [tasting] yet,” one woman said as she waited in line. At the picnic-tables filling the Dance Palace, ladles of different sauces ranging from a light, sunny orange drizzle to a midnight-colored paste coated chicken thighs and legs. Some people had otherwise barren plates that looked like painter’s palettes, with pools of moles to sample.

Imelda Macias, who was making more tortillas back in the kitchen, became involved with the project after she heard about it in her English language class. Ms. Macias said she loved to photograph youth and water. “I feel the same as the water,” she said: calm yet full of life and emotion.

Like Ms. Romo, photography has become for Imelda Macias both an expressive outlet and a new means of involvement with the community. Last fall, Ms. Macias, who has been part of the project for eight years, led a series of photography classes for a small group of West Marin School parents.

This is the 10-year anniversary of the project, and photography has clearly resonated with the participants. “Sometimes I don’t have my camera, but I watch the landscapes for a long time,” said Betty Macias, Imelda’s sister-in-law, who made a thick, sweet, chili-less mole on Sunday.

Maricela Mora, Juanita Romo’s sister, spoke of the joy that comes with publicly exhibiting one’s own creations. “I feel proud, because you know, in Mexico, it’s totally different,” she said. There, the idea of having her photographs hung in a gallery never crossed her mind.