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Bajo El Mismo Techo: Odette Chavez-Mayo ’18 in Mexico

A house transcends its physicality; it becomes a symbol holding memories, dreams, and expectations. There has been a lot of inconsistency and deviation from the traditional household in my life, but one constant thing has always been Mamis, my grandmother, living in the big house with the white zaguan and the yellow trees, her garden filled with flowers, chirping birds, bees, and hummingbirds. My earliest childhood memories are buried deeply and sweetly within that house, ones of visiting every summer and spending hours reenacting musicals with my cousin or simply running up and down the patio, eating dinner at the long glass table with the brown chairs, and sleeping in the small bed next to my Mamis.

So I decided that I needed to come back. I no longer wanted to work for anyone but myself; I wanted to experience what it would be like to work on a project with no other distractions, just me and my camera alone in the strange and familiar place I once called home. With that in mind, I packed up an old 70’s Manfrotto tripod, a borrowed 4×5 camera, 200 sheets of 4×5 film, 12 rolls of 35 mm film, 4 other cameras, clothes, and the hopes of a young photographer to create something meaningful.

Aside from a deep longing to return to my homeland, I also knew Mamis wasn’t doing too well. I thought that maybe staying and working with her on this project would encourage her emotional wellbeing and I wanted to take care of her the way she took care of me when I was a small child, to close the eternal cycle of life by learning from her, all while photographing and documenting our experience. Hopefully, I would be able to share with her some of the things I’d learned in my tender 20 years of life, too. But, as I’m sure all independent artists know, things don’t always go as planned and gears shift… Life changes.

My perfectly planned and idealized co-op turned into a wild rollercoaster filled with family drama, stress, and a total loss of control. I’m not quite sure where to begin to how to encapsulate the range of experiences I’ve had here. I have been living with a womyn who has lived a long and complicated life, a womyn who can’t walk because of a deep wound in her heel, a womyn who sits all day looking out a window as if she’s waiting for something, a womyn who has someone do everything for her, a womyn who will ask you the same question or make the same comment 10 times an hour, a womyn that doesn’t know how to ask for things, a womyn still filled with childlike sweetness, a womyn who is waiting to die and throw it in your face to manipulate you, a womyn who is always there waiting in the back of my mind…

The womyn I adored as a child suddenly became someone I couldn’t stand and contempt for her quickly started to build up in my heart. The camera I used became a weapon to get close to her, a way to get lost within the walls of the house that constantly seemed to be closing down on me. Every day was a battle; I felt as if I was drowning in quicksand and I had to figure out how to exist without anger or frustration, and how to hold onto the passion to take even a single picture. This was the single most important experience I faced while on co-op. There were no employers telling me what to do but my overly aggressive and demanding self was more difficult to appease than anyone else. I had to deal with my controlling and perfectionistic tendencies in order to maintain a balance in my emotional and physical well-being. Yet, despite my difficulties, as the day of my departure approaches, I feel content, tired, at peace, and full of love for what I’ve done here and the relationship I’ve built with Mamis through something that means everything to me: photography.

I used to think that this project, whatever it’s meant to be, would be the most beneficial thing that could come from me being here, that it would help me have a solid body of work that I could use later on in my career, but it’s not. The project was an excuse, a by-product of family and internal change, and it has transformed into a documentation of my existence in this house, of my grandmother’s struggle, and the manifestation of her thoughts. Ironically, I have absolutely no idea what the images look like—they’re hidden in a dark box waiting to be developed in a darkroom, and I can only hope that one or two came out well. What I’m trying to say is that this co-op experience was much more than a job or another paragraph on my resume or a collection of photos. It was absolutely life-changing and possibly one of the most difficult things I’ve had to confront in my existence.

Everyone—literally almost everyone—cannot stand to be in the same room as my grandmother; the pity and shame are too much for them to bear and they run away but, despite it all, I found a way to hold honest love for her, to help her overcome some of the obstacles in her head. In turn, she taught me the most beautiful lessons anyone could hope to learn: patience, compassion, strength, well-being through difficult situations, determination, and so so so much more. For the first two months, all I wanted to do was be anywhere else. I was desperate to leave and “work” on my project instead of identifying and killing off my demons but now, as I sit here and write this, tears fill my eyes at the thought of not being able to say good morning to my Mamis every day.

Sometimes the most meaningful lessons come disguised as pain, chaos, and something we want to run away from. The patience to remain, listen, and learn are the greatest tools in order to walk away with a sweet bit of knowledge and a heart full of love.

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Odette Chavez-Mayo is a Mexican born, photographer completing her final year at Antioch College. The Media Arts program has provided her an array of knowledge on various mediums from video to audio. Yet, she has sculpted her own path in learning old chemical processes in photography, focusing her practice on experimenting with analog large and medium format cameras.

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