Becoming Mexican is a personal photography project created by Carly Diaz, a Portland-based photographer and creative director, that aims to explore Mexican heritage and cultural identity. By seeking out people, food, products, places, and stories with a connection to Mexico, she aims to forge a relationship with the country of her paternal ancestors. In addition, Becoming Mexican provides a platform to counter the current political framing of immigrants and to showcase the incredible work of Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, and the creative force they add to the world. We caught up with Carly to discuss the project, as well as a series of seven photo essays launched over seven days at the end of April that cover her trips to Mexico in recent years. 

This interview was conducted by Passion Passport editorial manager Joseph Ozment.

You’ve lived and worked all over the world. When was the first time you had the chance to visit Mexico? Was it for personal or work reasons? 

My first visit to Mexico was in 2013 for the wedding of two friends from Amsterdam. I had moved back to Portland earlier that year after living in the Netherlands for 7 years. I’d traveled over much of the world, but had never been to Mexico before then.

shadow of palm tree reflected on building exterior
Shadows in Mexico City.

As someone who frequently travels to Mexico for work and commercial projects, what does the personal journey look like when you’re there? Is it hard to establish boundaries between work and getting in touch with your identity? 

I feel so fortunate to have had several work projects in Mexico over the past years. It has allowed me to spend even more time in the country, see parts that I might not have traveled to, and experience things that I might not have done as a tourist. When I’m on a production, my photography work is my sole focus. Everything else fades to the background when I step on set. 

Production days are long, but there is always time to appreciate the people, food, and atmosphere, even in the smallest ways. Whenever I go somewhere new, I like to head out on a run after I drop off my bags to get a quick sense of the place and layout. And I almost always wake up early to walk around, grab coffee, or visit a panadería — I have such a weakness for pastries. In the end, I think it’s about exposure. The more time I spend in Mexico, the more I learn about it and the more I feel connected to the land and its people. I also try and add on a few days for myself whenever possible.

street art of virgin mary
Street art in Sayulita, Nayarit.

Your website is full of profiles on other Mexicans and Mexican-Americans you’ve met and worked with — was it their stories that inspired you to turn your focus inward? Did the isolation of our recent lockdown have anything to do with it? 

My experience growing up was pretty disconnected from Mexican culture. Since I started the project in October 2018, I’ve had the opportunity to speak with Mexicans and Mexican-Americans who’ve had very different levels of exposure to the country and culture. The inspiration came after seeing the way Mexico and Mexicans were being characterized in political rhetoric. I wanted to show another side to the country, its people and descendants. 

I hope that sharing their stories and experiences helps others to understand the complexities of and variation in the immigrant experience, whether first, second, or third generation. It has also helped me to understand how I can intentionally create a stronger connection with Mexico, even though I wasn’t raised that way. 

Last year, I had the opportunity to showcase Becoming Mexican in a photo exhibition shown in Portland and Austin. It was exciting to share the project in a new way. Once the lockdown began, I felt even more inspired to share my love of Mexico and continue the work of reframing the perception of Mexico and Mexicans. In addition to the profiles, I wanted to share the sheer beauty and diversity of the country, and what I had discovered during my conscious attempts to know Mexico more.

kitchen staff in window
Kitchen team, Pachamama, Todos Santos.

A lot of American travelers, myself included, might have been many places further afield, but never to Mexico. This seems strange, as it’s in our proverbial neighborhood — why do you think this might be the case? 

Yes, I completely relate! Once I began traveling frequently, I was drawn to more distant places. I think my initial lack of interest in exploring Mexico might be related to the travel stories at the time, which had to do more with “safe” all-inclusive resorts. That wasn’t how I wanted to travel. Also, I think there was an assumed familiarity that I had towards Mexico. Because it is our neighbor and Mexican culture has a degree of presence in American life. So places like Rome or Seoul, two other places I’ve lived, just seemed more exciting in a way. 

I don’t know if I should speculate why some American travelers might not be as excited to go to Mexico as other countries, but after six trips to Mexico, I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of what the country has to offer and I can’t wait to return again. 

How did you decide to carry on this project in the form of seven photo essays? 

The photo essays showcase my recent travels, six trips with Mexico City split into two photo essays. While living in Amsterdam, I had the opportunity to work at World Press Photo, a photography organization that promotes the work of photojournalists. Through my work with them, I developed a deeper understanding of the power of photo essays to dive into a specific subject. Multiple photos showcase a subject from different angles and together the individual images form a more complete story. 

It was my hope that the photo essays would do this in a small way, sharing a sense of the individual places I profiled, but also giving an expanded view of Mexico as a whole, its beauty, complexity, and variety throughout six different states. 

cars lining street of mexican town
Atotonilco El Alto, Jalisco.

Which one is your favorite, and why? 

Wow, that’s a hard question! Each of the Mexico photo essays is so different, it’s hard to choose. I think certain ones are more photojournalistic, some are more visually appealing, and others more comprehensive. I’ve spent the most time in Mexico City and feel like I’ve had a chance to really explore the city and photograph its different neighborhoods. The photo essay from Jalisco was connected to a project with Patrón, which allowed me to dive deep into the subject of tequila. Todos Santos and Nayarit are more tropical, filled with sunshine, palm trees, and water. 

But even after living in Amsterdam for 7 years, I still had a lot to learn about Dutch culture. Culture and place isn’t stagnant, it’s constantly morphing and that’s what makes it so exciting. There will always be something more to learn about Mexico. 

What’s been the most revelatory aspect of the Becoming Mexican project for you so far? Is there anything you learned about yourself that you might not have been expecting? 

Passion Passport is all about the transformative power of travel. Extending that thought, Becoming Mexican has reminded me how much agency I have in the personal transformation process. My father didn’t speak Spanish to me growing up, we never traveled to Mexico, and I wasn’t raised with much exposure to Mexican culture and traditions. These are facts that I can’t change, but I have the ability to strengthen my connection to Mexico. We’re always becoming. Like a place, we’re constantly morphing and changing, and I love that we can consciously influence where we go next. Who we will become.

baker in mexican panaderia
Panaderia, Atotonilco El Alto.

A lot of creatives and travelers will be looking to our archives for inspiration right now, and maybe getting in touch with our heritage through cooking, home movies, or other traditions. What role do you think travel plays in self-discovery, especially at a time when we’re limited? 

We’re so lucky to have the ability to transport ourselves to another culture through food, movies, music, etc. I’ve been enjoying making food from a specific place and pairing that with music and maybe a drink that connects to the place. The other night I made Cuban black beans and rice while dancing in the kitchen to Buena Vista Social Club. It was just the escape I needed!

I think it’s a great time to explore photo archives and reflect on past travels. I love the practice of paring down a collection of photographs to 12 that capture a story of a place with a beginning, middle, and end. Often, we reminisce about our experience and what we did and in what order. But putting together a story for someone else, you can reimagine the experience from their perspective and create a sense of the place in a new way.

mural atop staircase in mexican castle
Chapultepec Castle, CDMX.
worker in mexican tortilleria
Tortilleria, Atotonilco El Alto.

What’s next for you and Becoming Mexican? 

During this time, I’ve been doing phone interviews with people that I’ll profile in the ‘Conversations’ section in the future. I usually do these interviews in person, combined with a portrait photo session, but I want to keep things moving forward. I’m hoping to continue expanding the profiles on the project website and would love the opportunity to share these in future exhibitions.

Putting together the photo essays was a fantastic way to review my travels so far and dream about where I want to go in the future: Oaxaca, Michoacán, and definitely more time exploring Guadalajara, where my great grandparents came from. Often I go where work takes me, and increasingly it has been to Mexico. I’m excited to be on the road again soon!

Explore the rest of the stunning shots from Carly’s Mexico photo essays on the Becoming Mexican website.