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The Creative Brief - Behind the Lens: Mateo Zapata

In honor of Latinx Heritage Month, we sat down with Mateo Zapata, a Chicago-based photographer documenting the public health crisis, the ways it’s disproportionately affecting his community, and the systemic inequality it has brought to light. We spoke about how his heritage has influenced his work, and the message he hopes young people take from his images—that when the world stopped, it was people of color who kept it turning. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

A man stands in the spray of a fire hydrant.

A living archive filled with murals and paleteros, Pilsen is home to generations of immigrants, and the current epicenter of Mexican art and culture in Chicago. In recent years the neighborhood has seen many changes, but longtime residents still consider this community to be a home away from home; a small piece of the city that offered comfort and familiarity to their immigrant family members when they first arrived in the states.

We asked Mateo to describe the neighborhood in his own words.

Art. Street vendors. People selling fresh fruit, fresh juice, homemade artifacts. You see people working. You see an intersection of essential workers and generations of immigrants living through a bi-cultural experience building community everyday.

Essential worker poses at a streetcar.

Mateo Zapata is the son of Colombian and Chilean immigrants. He arrived in Chicago in the eighties and navigated the intertwining of his Latino heritage with the American teenage experience, what he describes as a cross-cultural spectrum of his South American roots, American hip-hop, and football. He did so throughout Chicago, struggling at times to feel accepted in his own skin as a person of color. It wasn’t until he arrived in Pilsen that he finally felt at home.

I never felt I had to navigate any binaries of anything. I never felt like an outsider. I never had to explain, you know, to people that always asked, “Oh, are you mixed? Or what are you?” That wasn’t a question. I was constantly needing to navigate defining my ‘otherness’ on the North side and here it wasn’t like that. People just accepted me for who I was.

There was this huge sense of finally belonging to a community larger than my household. And I think that because of that, I felt a responsibility: to represent that community in a positive way, to try to give back to my community, to try to confront some of the issues in that community.

A street vendor stands next to his fruit stand

I just try to capture reality.”

Mateo Zapata

Eighteenth Street is the main commercial artery of Pilsen. On a summer night in the wake of police violence against George Flloyd earlier this year, it transformed into a symbol of solidarity: Brown pride for Black power.

There were thousands of people on 18th that night. I’ve never seen an action with that many people on 18th street…There’s a photograph I took from the train platform, looking straight out…And you don’t see the end of the march. It’s just a sea of people. There’s a certain beauty in having that moment occur on 18th…and the fact that it was organized by Brown women from our community.

Pilsen street filled with marching people.

For Mateo, moments that tell the story of a movement are meant to be captured in still photography. These black and white images document the truth of this era for people of color, something he finds too often unrepresented in mainstream media.

I think I just try to capture reality. Unfortunately, in Black and Brown communities, not just on the South side of Chicago, but throughout the United States, I don’t think that the realities that are lived in those communities are documented enough…

Young person carried 'Latinos for Black Lives' poster.
Young man with megaphone marches in street.

At the onset of the pandemic, a glaring gap in what Mateo saw on TV and what he witnessed outside his window inspired him to begin a new project. As countless commercials and news articles encouraged watchers and readers to adapt to work-from-home comforts, Mateo watched his community continue to commute to work.

What shook me is that honestly, the majority of my friends were all essential workers. None of them were home. I felt like there was a huge disconnect between what was happening in my community and what was being communicated to the masses about what the American experience was during the pandemic.

Pilsen woman wears surgical mask.
Pilsen essential worker carries mail.

Documenting essential workers has helped Mateo start a conversation with young people of color. He wants these images to stand out and speak truth to a news cycle that frequently paints people of color in a negative light. He wants these young people to remember this message instead: that when the world stopped, it was people of color who kept it turning.

Our community consists of hardworking families and essential workers that are literally sustaining the economy. I don’t think enough young people know that—or are aware of that. It’s important for them to know, whether it’s right now or ten years from now. Immigrants have been criminalized lately. It’s important for our youth to be proud of their identity and witness positive representations of their community. When people are talking about what happened in the year 2020, and all these events and moments in history come up, I want them to remember and to acknowledge that there were essential workers that came from Black and Brown communities. That has to be documented. Our community’s workforce is essential, but our community’s need for resources and safety needs to be essential, too. That reality has to be acknowledged.

Men sit against brick wall wearing surgical masks.

To close his conversation with us, Mateo shared a dicho from his community—a family proverb passed down for generations. It’s a saying he still finds strength in every morning, one seen in every photo he takes. Of his community. For his community: El sol sale para todos. “The sun shines for everyone.”

It’s this idea that the sun, that light, this day you’re waking up to is also yours. This is all for you. All this around you—all this light, of this nature, of this community, all this city, this world, is for you.

Two young people march in the street.
Boy looks out from roof of moving car.

Learn more about Mateo at  www.mateozapata.com (Opens in a new tab). Follow him on Instagram at:  @mateoxzapata (Opens in a new tab)