Contact Sheet: Xavier Tavera

7 February 2024
By Paul Schmelzer | Photos by Xavier Tavera

As an artist, Xavier Tavera focuses on the borders—between countries and between what’s visible and what’s not. A Carleton assistant professor of art since 2021, Tavera took his first photo in Mexico City at age 13. As word of his talents spread, he started adding commercial gigs to a portfolio largely dedicated to documenting dance and theater troupes. At 25, he took a job doing industrial photography in Houston. He’d had no reason to think about identity before then, but upon moving to the States, he noticed labels being put on him: Mexican, Hispanic, Latino.

Then, in 1996, Tavera’s company moved him north. “All of a sudden I’m in Minnesota and that got me to think about who I am here, and I turned my lens to my community.”

He enrolled at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design—and soon after, the company he worked for went bankrupt. By 1998, he’d dropped out of MCAD to work, but he kept shooting. He’d walk Minneapolis’s Lake Street and St. Paul’s West Side, chronicling the unique ways Latine culture appeared. He documented cholos, “Latin gangsters” identified by haircuts called Edgars, and, eventually, U.S. military veterans of Latin American descent, some who’d been deported after their service.

“So much of my work is about people who feel erased, like the veterans,” he says. “They feel abandoned by the military.”

Tavera—who eventually returned to MCAD to finish his BFA and earned his MFA at the University of Minnesota—continued his practice. He photographed members of the Dominican community in Manhattan’s Washington Heights and created portraits of Mexican workers living in Northfield. “It’s a quaint college town,” he says, “where Latinos are invisible. The restaurants along Division Street, if you look in the kitchen, it’s going to be Latinos.”

For his next project, he’s shooting along the U.S./Mexico border. In November he went to Eagle Pass, where Texas Governor Greg Abbott installed floating barriers to thwart migrants attempting to cross the Rio Grande. “It’s a death trap,” Tavera says. “The buoys rotate and when somebody tries to grab them they can be pulled underneath. Many people have passed.” In Yuma, Arizona, he focused on shipping containers stacked, he says as a political statement, to fill gaps in the border fence.

The symbolism is ominous. “You can ship cell phones or granite slabs or whatever in them,” he says. “But there’s also the possibility of shipping people.” Indeed: in March, two migrants were found dead on a train’s shipping container near Uvalde, and in 2022, 53 migrants died in a smuggler’s tractor-trailer container in San Antonio.

“We work hard and our labor is cheap,” he says. “I think it’s important to note that these containers can ship commodities like computers or shoes, but we should also think about how Latinos are a kind of commodity in this country, too.”

Posted In

Appears in Issues: