Navigating between conflicting or distinctive identities is a challenge that many face as worldwide migration continues to increase. Meet Vanessa Chavez. Born in the USA to parents of the Mexican and Costa Rican diasporas, this freelance photographer is no stranger to the process of negotiating relationships between multiple cultures. While tangible attributes of one’s culture can be replicated in museums or art galleries, it’s the intangible attributes that have kept her coming back to Mexico, continuously seeking to connect the dots between her sense of self and the rich cultural history that precedes her.
My name is Vanessa Chavez and I currently work as a freelance photographer. I live in Dallas, Texas, but my mind is always somewhere else. I absolutely love to travel because it challenges me, both personally and as a photographer. When I travel I’m always looking for a connection – a connection to another culture, another place, or another time. This is why I try to put myself in situations where that connection is more likely to happen. And over the years I’ve found that this connection is not always in the places one might expect.
How does photography influence the way you travel and see the world around you?
Photography has opened up my eyes in so many ways. It sounds cliché, but it’s true: it has challenged me to find beauty in some of the most unsuspecting places. I’m also a planner by nature, and photography has pushed me to be more spontaneous and open. You have to be willing to go anywhere and do anything for the shot, planned or not.
How would you describe the local culture and life in Mexico?
Mexicans are extremely friendly, extremely proud of their heritage, and love to have fun. Local life is a balance of work and play. They work hard, but also know when it’s time to relax and enjoy everything around them. Socializing and spending time with family is very important. Religious values also play a strong role in local culture and traditions.
What are some of the similarities or differences between American culture and the way of life in Mexico?
I believe the biggest difference between the two cultures is one that permeates everything else about day to day life in Mexico: the importance of family. It’s not to say that Americans value their families, but we tend to be more concerned with individual growth and advancement in the States. In Mexico, everything your family is or does reflects onto you and vice versa. Mexican family hierarchy is very much respected and families are usually very close, which means that your family will also play a big part in your life decisions.
What role have your frequent travels to Mexico played in helping you better identify with the culture? What do you love most about your Mexican heritage?
I think traveling to Mexico truly allows me to immerse myself in the culture, unlike when I’m in the U.S. When I’m there, I see how different I am compared to the locals, but I also see how alike we are. It gives me a view into another way of life and reminds me of where my family and ancestors came from. I love how friendly everyone is and how connected everything feels.
What are 3 of your favorite places to explore throughout Mexico?
The Yucatan is incredible; the beaches and ruins are nothing short of stunning and I feel a special connection to nature there. My second favorite place is Guanajuato; it is one of the most beautiful cities in Mexico and has a vibrant culture and history. My third favorite would have to be Queretaro, because the historical city center and colonial architecture have been well preserved, even though the city has grown tremendously in recent years due to industrial development.
What would surprise most people about Mexico? What would you like people to know about Mexico that the media rarely shows?
I think a lot of people would be surprised to see how well developed Mexico is. The current image portrayed in the media is of a country lacking in modern infrastructure and that is unsafe and overrun by drug cartels. Although crime and poverty do exist (as in most countries), it is only a small piece of the puzzle that is Mexico. Mexico is a beautiful place that is punctuated by very diverse topography and an incredible array of ancient ruins. It has a rich history, beautiful traditions, and fascinating people. I did my first solo trip this year to Mexico and felt completely safe the entire time, even though I was alone.
Of all of the images captured during your travels to Mexico, which would you say is your favorite? Why?
The last time I was in Mexico I went by myself. I was a bit nervous because I was alone, but also excited to see how different this kind of travel would be. It really forced me to open up to all types of experiences. When I visited the cenotes near Tulum, the only friend I had was the taxi driver who had driven me around all day. We talked while he drove and he even sang to pass the time. At the end of the day we found ourselves at Cenote Nicte-Ha and I was able to convince him to jump in with me! A big group had just left and we had the entire place to ourselves. He swam just outside the frame when I took this photo (see image below). The whole experience was incredible and I feel as though I made a new friend.
What recommendations can you share for future travelers interested in visiting Mexico?
Activities to do and cities/places to explore – Visit the Yucatan and stay in the north and south of Cancun. Isla Holbox is a tiny island in the north of Cancun where you can swim with whale sharks, and Tulum to the south is perfect for exploring ruins, traversing the ecological park Sian Ka’an, and visiting all the incredible cenotes!
Neighborhoods, beaches, galleries, and museums to explore – If you’re in the center of Mexico, don’t miss Queretaro, Guanajuato, and the surrounding small towns. Visit the theater in Guanajuato and do the “Estudiantina” tour at night. It’s a local student group from the university that puts together a night tour of the city, complete with Shakespeare-era costumes and singing! If you visit a small town like Salvatierra around Christmas, you’ll find people going door to door singing for “posadas”.
Best foods to try and great local cafes/restaurants – Definitely have street tacos, but also don’t miss out on mole, chilaquiles, posole, and barbacoa. If you’re in Tulum, visit Tacos La Chiapaneca.
Best markets and neighborhoods for local shopping – In any city center, ask around for the local market and someone will point you in the right direction. Don’t forget to haggle!
What would you say has been the most gratifying thing about having Mexican heritage and going back every year?
It’s wonderful to feel like I’m a part of something bigger than myself. I love being able to connect old stories from my family to real-life places and people.
Do you have any advice for individuals who would like to learn more about their heritage?
Pack your bags, book a flight, and go! A great way to learn more about your heritage is to physically put yourself in a situation where you’ll be likely to make a meaningful connection. Even if you don’t know the language, or feel out of your comfort zone, challenge yourself to experience it. Growing up mostly in the U.S., there were many aspects of my personality I could attribute to American culture, but also many traits I couldn’t attribute to anything, until I visited Mexico and connected the dots! It was extremely gratifying.
What are 2 places in Mexico you’ve always wanted to explore, but haven’t yet had the opportunity/time?
The next two places on my list are: Oaxaca, which is known for beautiful unadulterated beaches, ruins, and amazing food; and San Miguel de Allende, a stunning little town in the center of the country known for its colorful buildings and quaint cobblestone streets
What’s next for you? Any final words of advice?
I would love to continue exploring Mexico because there’s so much I still haven’t seen. After that, I would love to move on to the rest of the world! If I can offer any advice, it’s this: don’t let fear get in the way of the things you want. If you want to travel, find a way to make it happen and don’t be afraid. I used to be afraid of the unknown and of not being in control, but travel has challenged me to open up and accept the things I cannot control. Go into any travel situation without fear and with an open mind, and you’ll be bound to make many meaningful connections and memories.
Images Courtesy of Vanessa Chavez
DID THIS STORY INSPIRE YOU?
If you enjoyed this piece and would like more content like this, please consider a donation to Spirited Pursuit to support our community and keep our platform ad-free.