That tequila comes from Mexico is common knowledge. But that we also have Mexico to thank for bourbon, the most American of liquors, is perhaps less well-known. Bourbon is made from corn, which has its ancient origins in southern Mexico.
A placard accompanying a recent photograph by Al Rendon of a stalk of corn spells out this hidden relationship and reads “¡Gracias, Mexico!”
Maíz is one of 17 new images featured in Edible Immigrants, an official Fotoseptiembre USA exhibition on display in Rendon’s South Alamo Street studio. Each image is of a single fruit or vegetable that has its ancient origins in, or was imported from, Mexico.
Though many people know maíz, or maize, originated in ancient Mexico, they might not make the direct connection to bourbon, Rendon said. His aim with the Immigrants project is to focus on the deeply interwoven but commonly overlooked connections between the two countries.
“We’re already a cross-cultural country in many ways,” Rendon said. “I think a lot of people that are anti-immigration don’t realize how ‘transnational’ we have become,” he continued, crediting the term to research done by Harriett Romo, director of the University of Texas at San Antonio Mexico Center.
For Edible Immigrants, Rendon worked with writer and poet Don Mathis, who researched the fruits and vegetables selected for the series and wrote brief explanations to accompany each image.
As an experienced commercial photographer, Rendon only loosely identifies his latest series as “conceptual.” The images are all motivated by the central idea of food migration, but he says he remains primarily focused on aesthetics.
For Kissing Beans, a closeup of a pair of tiny, variegated beans, Rendon used the same macro-lens techniques he employs in photographing jewelry for commercial clients. Like its companions in the series, the image is unexceptional, with few props or techniques beyond standard lighting and presentation.
These decisions are purposeful on Rendon’s part, he said, not to “discover” exotic plants and foods of Mexico, but to show that another form of “immigration” is so commonplace that we might otherwise fail to notice our food’s country of origin.
“This is all common stuff – 90 percent of it you can find in almost any H-E-B, except for a couple of items,” he said. “I wanted this stuff to be where anybody could find it.”
Though some fruits and vegetables in the series remain somewhat exotic, like the Mamey fruit, most are dietary staples throughout the country, like onions. The smaller cebollita variety he selected to photograph were grown in and imported from Mexico, found in the produce bins at the Olmos Park H-E-B grocery store.
The infusion of food from other cultures has led American cuisine from the standard “meat and potatoes” he preferred as a boy to a more evolved, flavorful state, Rendon said.
However, the point of Edible Immigrants goes beyond flavors, to touch on issues motivating current contentious political discussions, including border migration, immigration policy, and freedom of speech. Born in San Antonio, Rendon attended the now-defunct St. Mary’s Catholic elementary school, where he was forced to speak English, rather than the Spanish language of his immigrant parents.
Even the potato wears its Mexican heritage proudly in the series. The placard for Rendon’s Potato identifies the plain-looking red-skinned tuber as a member of “the world’s fourth largest food crop.”
The deep roots of humble squash are also explored. Mathis’ writing for the Squash image points out that calabacitas form one third of the all-important “Three Sisters” of Native American cuisine: squash, corn, and beans.
And while the tomato is a staple of Italian cuisine, it was only introduced to that country in the 16th century by Spaniards, who brought it from “New World” Peru, where it was called xtomatl.
What the series makes clear is that many nations have collaborated, willingly or otherwise, to create the panopoly of fruits and vegetables so widely available today in markets across the world. A tally of continents, nations, and states in the show includes Britain, Florida, Hawaii, Italy, Louisiana, Malaysia, New Zealand, South America, South Korea, and Trinidad.
“Our food is constantly evolving,” and our culture along with it, Rendon said.
One of 25 official Fotoseptiembre USA exhibitions throughout the city, Edible Immigrants opens with a public reception Sunday, Sept. 9, from 3-6 p.m. at Rendon Photography & Fine Art. The exhibition will run through Nov. 18.