Mary Beth Meehan



Since arriving in Georgia, Carlos has been doing manual labor: cutting the grass in people’s yards, painting the woodwork in people’s homes, laying pipes in the road that carry people’s water. On the day that we made his portrait, he had come home dusty, so while he dashed off to take a shower I sat with his family.

A few days earlier I’d been sitting in a back pew of a tiny chapel in Newnan, an old black church that was shared in the off hours with a Spanish-speaking congregation. At the front of the church, I noticed a row of young men and women, all dressed in identical peacock-blue shirts. The pastor introduced me to the congregants, telling them that I was a photographer ­– there to meet people, to photograph them, and to learn about Newnan’s Latino community.

Next to me in the back of the church sat a man accompanied by two small girls, their straight black hair framing identical faces, who were playing on his phone and peeking at me. When the service was over, this man gave me his card, and invited me to call him and visit his home.

On the appointed day I went to the house, in an old mill village north of town. Like the church, which had been transformed from an African-American space into one shared by the Spanish-speaking community, the neighborhood too was evolving: once the home of poor white mill workers, it was now home to many black and Latino families. Though the Hispanic population has been growing in Newnan for some 20 years, the feeling one gets is of a new community, blossoming in the spaces others have vacated.

The man who’d invited me over introduced me to his wife; they were kind to me and answered my questions with a guarded reserve, but neither wanted to be photographed. Just then, through the door, bounded their young nephew, Carlos. He was grimy from work but his face was bright and full of energy, and he was interested in being photographed. While he took a shower to get ready, I visited with his aunt and uncle.

The family came from a lush mountain village of about 500 people in Oaxaca, Mexico, with no tourism or industry to provide a person’s income. Carlos’s uncle had spent the last year in Newnan building up his landscaping business; his aunt, after being approached in a Walmart by a woman asking if she did housekeeping, began working part-time for a family in town. Carlos’s parents and siblings are still in Mexico, without plans to join him in the United States.

On this afternoon, Carlos’s aunt was making caldo de res for supper. As she stirred the beef soup, her twin daughters played on the floor with a toy kitchen set. While I waited for Carlos, the girls giggled as they drew pink hearts for me on colored paper, and urged me to nibble on a plastic ice-cream cone. I asked them the flavor – Fresa!!, they said. Strawberry.

Eventually Carlos emerged from his shower with his hair neatly combed, wearing the same peacock-blue shirt he’d worn at church on the night I’d visited. He explained that this shirt was the uniform of young people who were learning to become chaplains. On weekends they went out to help the homeless and the poor; they visited people in prison. “The Bible says to love one another, no matter what race you are,” he said.

As the autumn sun was setting, Carlos and I stepped out the back door and arranged ourselves to make his portrait amid his uncle’s landscaping equipment and the deep greens of the garden. When we were finished, we went back inside, where Carlos’s aunt gave us cups of sweet caffé con leche. His cousin came home with his books from high school, and the little girls slurped on pieces of mango their mother had given them for a snack, the sticky golden juice dripping down their hands.

The scene was so warm that I didn’t want to leave, but it was clear that the family was getting ready for supper. So I thanked Carlos and his family, told them I’d call them in a few days, and went on my way.