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A grandfather's life in images

Portraits and archival photographs evoke a long journey.

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This is one of Guzman's favorite pictures of his grandfather. As the subject of a school technical assignment, all Garcia had to do was show up while Guzman created a portrait using colored gels. - GONZALO GUZMAN
  • Gonzalo Guzman
  • This is one of Guzman's favorite pictures of his grandfather. As the subject of a school technical assignment, all Garcia had to do was show up while Guzman created a portrait using colored gels.

My 88-year-old grandfather Jose Garcia only has two pictures from his childhood. Both are with his older cousin Carlos, whom he affectionately calls his brother. Born in Mexico in 1930, my grandfather never met his father, and, when he was still very young, his mother left him in the care of her sister. His Aunt Margarita raised him, but it was Carlos who made sure he stayed in school and out of trouble. It was also Carlos whom my grandfather followed to the United States in 1954 at the age of 24 in search of a better life.

Garcia and Carlos on the beach in Tampico, Mexico, 1942. - COURTESY JOSE GARCIA
  • Courtesy Jose Garcia
  • Garcia and Carlos on the beach in Tampico, Mexico, 1942.

My grandfather has always been a hardworking man. Shortly after immigrating to San Antonio, Texas, where he met my grandmother, Mary Zuniga, he moved to Chicago in search of better jobs. She would join him a few months later, right before he was drafted into the navy. He didn't speak English when he first started working, but he studied by watching American movies on the ship. After his tour, he continued his education while working full-time in the Fisher Body Plant for General Motors in Willow Springs to support his family. My mother is one of nine children, and all of them were put through private school to ensure them the best chance of success as adults. This meant seven-day work weeks at the factory were the norm for my grandfather. He was always working. Just work, work, work.

My grandmother was the talkative one. Now that she has passed, there is so much about my grandfather that we still don't know. "I'm a simple guy," he said, when I asked him to tell me more about his life. "Just work, that's it." Maybe he thinks his life is uninteresting. Maybe he just doesn't remember.

Garcia in the Navy in Norfolk, Virginia, 1956. - As a lower ranked sailor, Garcia would be hoisted over the side of the ship to clean off rust and debris. One day he decided to challenge his fellow shipman to see who could complete the task the fastest. Unbeknownst to them, the captain saw them as they rushed to see who would finish first. Impressed by their tenacity, he offered them the chance to train in any department they wished. - COURTESY JOSE GARCIA
  • Courtesy Jose Garcia
  • Garcia in the Navy in Norfolk, Virginia, 1956.As a lower ranked sailor, Garcia would be hoisted over the side of the ship to clean off rust and debris. One day he decided to challenge his fellow shipman to see who could complete the task the fastest. Unbeknownst to them, the captain saw them as they rushed to see who would finish first. Impressed by their tenacity, he offered them the chance to train in any department they wished.

I left my home in North Carolina in 2011 to study photography and stay in the Bridgeport house where my mother was born. It felt strange to live in a home with so much history, to hang out around the same places my mother did when she was my age, and to live with a man whom I knew very little about. I remember when I first moved in, it felt at times that we were more like roommates than family. His kids had moved out and my grandmother passed, so he had grown accustomed to living on his own. We soon began to have late-night talks over wine and weekend brunches, which we still have today. As semesters went by, I learned about the man who my grandfather is now. Still, much of his past remains a mystery.

Garcia at the dining room table doing crossword puzzles. - When Guzman pictures his grandfather at home, it's usually in this little nook in the dining room. It's where they shared meals as Guzman learned to cook and forced his grandfather into a vegan diet because Guzman was tired of eating meat. Garcia worked on his crossword puzzles while Guzman edited pictures, despite both having desks upstairs. Garcia would tell his grandson about his life, after a few glasses of wine.  This was the space they shared. - GONZALO GUZMAN
  • Gonzalo Guzman
  • Garcia at the dining room table doing crossword puzzles.When Guzman pictures his grandfather at home, it's usually in this little nook in the dining room. It's where they shared meals as Guzman learned to cook and forced his grandfather into a vegan diet because Guzman was tired of eating meat. Garcia worked on his crossword puzzles while Guzman edited pictures, despite both having desks upstairs. Garcia would tell his grandson about his life, after a few glasses of wine. This was the space they shared.

It was not until 2015 that I pointed my camera at my grandfather in an intentional way. He was always a willing subject, and his gaze seemed to pierce through each image effortlessly. Most shoots were impromptu and shot quickly on my phone before posting to Instagram with the title "Portrait of My Grandfather" and a sequence number. He now has hundreds of photographs of himself. The story of his life hidden behind each stare.

When I asked him how he felt about this project, he simply said, "It is nice . . . something to remember me by."   v

For more of Guzman's work, go to: http://www.gonzguzphoto.com

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