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Photographing Minnesota's forgotten Latino veterans

Commander John Flores
Photo by Xavier Tavera
Commander John Flores

For the last five years, Minneapolis photographer Xavier Tavera sat in living rooms and basements and on front stoops listening to local Latino military veterans talk about war.

He heard colorful tales about the girlfriends people left behind when they enlisted, and he absorbed painful stories about racism and discrimination and the struggle for recognition back home. Along the way, he took a lot of photographs.

Some of those photos are now on display at a new Minnesota Historical Society exhibit: AMVETS Post #5. The exhibit features portraits of the predominantly Mexican and Mexican-American U.S. military veterans affiliated with the AMVETS Post #5 that meets monthly in St. Paul’s West Side neighborhood. 

Unexpected connections

The 46-year-old Tavera never expected to feel a connection with people in the military. He grew up in Mexico and was always wary of the army. He considers himself a pacifist.

But about five years ago, he read a newspaper article about Mexican-American veterans in St. Paul who described feeling invisible. Even though Tavera has lived in the United States for over two decades, he says he still sometimes feels completely invisible as an immigrant, too.

“I wanted to talk to these Latino veterans to see how similar are we? How do they feel about war?” Tavera said. He discovered that most of the Post #5 veterans he photographed were anti-war, which surprised him.

Post #5 Commander John Flores enlisted in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War and spent 24 years in the military. A quote from Flores hovers over one exhibition gallery wall: “Most wars, there’s no winner. Somebody declares victory, but there’s no winner.”

Preserving stories

Before Tavera took out his camera, he first conducted lengthy interviews with each of the veterans in their homes. As he invited people to revisit their wartime memories, he discovered hidden narratives embedded in everyday artifacts — like military tattoos. U.S. Marine veteran John Obregon was on his way to Korea when he had a crucifix tattooed on his chest with a needle and shoe polish. The tattoo later got infected, and Obregon was scolded by his superiors. 

Marine veteran John Obregon
Photo by Xavier Tavera
Marine veteran John Obregon

Many of the Post #5 members are graying servicemen who fought in World War II and the Vietnam and Korean wars. Tavera felt a sense of urgency to document their stories before it was too late.

Some of the veterans Tavera photographed died before the exhibit opened. Manuel Aguirre served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. When Tavera photographed him, Aguirre was in his 80s and partially blind. Aguirre joked with Tavera that as an old man, he’d shrunk and could fit into the snug Navy slacks and service shirt he’d first worn as a teenager.

Aguirre died in 2013 at the age of 88. The Navy uniform he wore when Tavera photographed him now hangs on display at the Historical Society next to his portrait.

Navy veteran Manuel Aguirre
Photo by Xavier Tavera
Navy veteran Manuel Aguirre

Korean War U.S. Army veteran Alfred Capiz was another one of Tavera’s photo subjects. When Capiz died this past April, his granddaughter discovered Tavera’s business card among her grandfather's belongings. Tavera later sent her photos and a recording of his interview with Capiz.

According to Tavera, Capiz’s family wept as they listened to the audio interview. “It’s a wonderful thing,” said Tavera. "They are hearing how passionate he was about his life, about being Mexican-American, and about being in the armed forces.”

Tavera’s exchange with Capiz’s family crystallized his sense of purpose. “This is what the project is about. Working with an older community, people are going to pass away. I can have the opportunity to share their voice, thoughts, and stories with people who are very close to them.”

Tavera’s dream

From the beginning, Tavera also wanted to make this evolving repository of veteran stories accessible to the general public. To that end, Tavera has donated his audio interviews to the Minnesota Historical Society along with his full-sized exhibition prints.

“Minorities are underrepresented in historical societies,” says Tavera. “It’s our duty to contribute to these institutions. They are eager to receive this material.”

Tavera’s ultimate dream is to publish a book about the Post #5 veterans that weaves oral history, photography, and historical context. “I believe a book can have a longer life than an exhibit,” he says. “A book is more intimate. You can hold it in your hands.” He plans to start fundraising for his book project in 2018.

Marine veteran Rose Campo Crowe
Photo by Xavier Tavera
Marine veteran Rose Campo Crowe

AMVETS Post #5 will remain on display at the Minnesota Historical Society until April 22, 2018. But for Tavera, the project still feels unfinished. He’d like to see more women represented as well as younger veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He says he doesn’t want to leave anyone out.

Post #5 Commander John Flores says the exhibition has made a difference in terms of people feeling recognized. “A lot of minority communities are disregarded,“ he says. "It’s about time people know we’re here.”

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