Looking At Mexico/Mexico Looks Back By Janet Sternburg with Comments by Jose Alberto Romero Romano


Review by Brian Tanguay

Not long after receiving a copy of Looking at Mexico/Mexico Looks Back, Claudia Sheinbaum was overwhelmingly elected as Mexico’s first female president, a milestone in the nation’s history. It seemed a perfect moment to consider our much maligned southern neighbor through an artist’s lens. 

Mexico is a beautiful, diverse, complex, and vibrant country, a dizzying mixture of old and new, ancient and modern. Deep and inseparable histories bind Mexico and the United States. It’s a relationship that was thorny long before the Americans annexed millions of square miles of Mexican territory. Mexican culture is braided in U.S. culture, from food and music to architecture and agriculture, and the physical labor of Mexican hands and backs that is responsible for so much economic growth on the American side of the border.

Looking at Mexico/Mexico Looks Back is a collaboration between Janet Sternburg, a writer and photographer, and Jose Alberto Romero Romano, a physical therapist and actor. The text that accompanies the photographs is rendered in English and Spanish. 

Sternburg explains the challenge she set for this project in the Introduction: how can I make a book of photographs that isn’t only a gringa’s way of looking at Mexico? One way is to move to Mexico permanently, which Sternburg did in 2022. “I took a number of the photographs in this book,” she writes, “near to where I live, a barrio that retains its Mexican neighborliness.”

Cliched images weren’t of interest to Sternburg. Her eye was drawn to people and objects that capture poetic relationships and imply layers and metaphors. The photographs are beautiful and unusual, products of studied looking and contemplation. One is particularly haunting: it’s of a blue spiral-bound school notebook and some drawings of faces, the paper burnt at the edges. The drawings memorialize a terrible tragedy that roiled Mexico in 2014 when 43 students disappeared from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers College. The students were kidnapped in Iguala, in the state of Guerrero, and murdered, their bodies burned. An investigation revealed that state security forces were complicit in the killings. 

About this photograph the collaborators write, “The blue of the notebook: what is written in it? What is spoken? What do we hear? It is a collective voice.”

The Mexican public was outraged, and turned against president Enrique Pena Nieto in the next election. The man who succeeded Nieto was Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a perplexing, often controversial political character whose protege was Claudia Sheinbaum, the new president. 

This sumptuous book arrives at a resonant moment for Mexico. An era ends, another begins. Or as Sternburg notes: “By the time we reach the end, as now, I hope that we have turned the prism to come back to the beginning with new eyes, attuned to the multi-dimensionality of all that exists.”