In early 2014, Janire Najera packed up her belongings, acquired an RV (that she named Orwell), and ventured out across the Southwestern United States. Starting from Santa Fe, New Mexico and ending in Los Angeles, California, Janire followed the Old Spanish Trail, a 1200-mile pack mule trail that served as the principal trade route between Spanish and American merchants. Along the way, Janire met, interviewed and photographed Spanish descendants about their identity and how traditions of those Spanish settlers can still be found today.
Sponsored in part by Spain Arts & Culture, the exhibit, aptly titled “Moving Forward, Look Back,” is on display at the Former Residence of the Ambassador Spain until June 28th. The experience is multi-sensory; accompanying the portraits of the people interviewed, guests can hear the raw interviews through Bluetooth-powered headphones.
Janire Najera discusses the process of documenting her journey, connections she made to her own identity, and generational differences she encountered.
Q: What made you want to start this journey and documenting the travels and the people?
JANIRE: I had a personal interest in asking myself questions about my identity, where I belong. I spent some time in New Mexico, and just reading the road signs that are in Spanish and meeting the people that are really proud of their Spanish heritage. Being from Spain and not knowing that there are people in the U.S. that had this connection to Spain, I think that’s what triggered the project.
“Being from Spain and not knowing that there are people in the U.S. that had this connection to Spain, I think that’s what triggered the project”
Q: What type of research did you do before you started planning your travels?
JANIRE: Luckily, because I was in New Mexico already, it was a little bit easier to just pop into the different museums in Santa Fe, and there are plenty. I also got in contact with the Old Spanish Trail Association, who are preserving the trade route. I read lots of books and learned from people as well.
Q: How difficult was it to approach people along the way? Were they pretty open to the project?
JANIRE: They were more open than I thought they would be. As soon as I opened my mouth, they knew I was from Spain, and I was really welcomed. It wasn’t really hard to engage with them, because for them, I was from Spain, so for them it was enough, so they opened their hearts and their stories to me, and they also connected me with other people who they thought were interesting to meet along the journey.
Q: Did you engage with a lot of young people along the way? A lot of those photographed are older, in their 40’s, 50’s 60’s, and so on.
JANIRE: In the book, there are more portraits with the younger generations. What I discovered was that when people reached their 50’s, they to start to ask these questions. I feel people from our generation sometimes, they don’t mind not knowing more about their ancestors. And maybe I don’t know if, when we get older, that they will have this interest. I doubt I’m going to have it myself, because I don’t think for me it’s important. I feel the younger generations, we’re worried with other things, instead of our heritage. Of course there are people who have this interest, most of the people that I met were over 40-years-old.
Q: Were the younger people more interested in what was happening currently, and not as much in their history?
JANIRE: There are people like Jessica who I met in Aztec, New Mexico. She was sad because in her home they didn’t teach her Spanish, because they thought she didn’t need the language. Even her parents and her grandparents spoke Spanish, but they didn’t pass it to her. In a way, she feels sad that wasn’t passed to her because they felt that she wasn’t going to need it, so she’s missing that link. “Why didn’t I learn this language? I could communicate with so many more people?” Right?
“They are just worried the same as myself, what you’re going to do next and where you’re going to go, instead of looking back, they are just looking forward”
In a way the might be worried about what they’re going to do. Sometimes I went to really small communities where, for people of our generation, it’s not easy to grow up and they have to leave the city. So I think they are just worried the same as myself, what you’re going to do next and where you’re going to go, instead of looking back, they are just looking forward.
Q: Did any questions of your identity get answered along the way?
JANIRE: In the Basque Country, I feel people have a different identity from others from Spain or Catalonia. So we have these pockets of different cultures across Spain. So I always had these questions on my identity and where I’m from. I was born in the Basque Country, but I studied in Madrid, the capital of Spain. By meeting people [in New Mexico] who have an idea of what it means to be Spanish, made me reflect into what it means being Spanish, myself. How these people perceive being Spanish, when they are Americans, and why people in Spain sometimes confused with their identity too. It opened more questions that were answered in a way.
“By meeting people [in New Mexico] who have an idea of what it means to be Spanish, made me reflect into what it means being Spanish, myself”
Q: What was one the most interesting parts of the month-long travel?
JANIRE: Traveling in the RV from 1984, it was something in of itself. You had to join all your belongings, and then you have a really limited space that becomes your home and your studio. The trip had commodities that we have today. I could access internet, I could drink coffee, I could cook in the RV, but I think there were hardships of being in the middle of nowhere, and not following maps sometimes, and if I’m going to get lost or where I’m going to go.
Q: If you were to do another project like this, what kinds of things would you change or do different?
JANIRE: What I would definitely change is the time. I think that I would loved to have more time, because you are traveling, and you have two or three days to meet some people and it’s stressful because you may not have the first connections, so you have to push hard to find the first person, and then hopefully that will lead you to the second or the third person. It’s just time really.
“You have two or three days to meet some people and it’s stressful because you may not have the first connections, so you have to push hard to find the first person, and then hopefully that will lead you to the second or the third person.”
I think a month was a little bit too short to travel and meet people. This is really like a year-long project where you go slow, and more people will know you are traveling and will come to you, because they have an interest. It’s an incredible task to gather all these interviews, and you can go crazy. There are so many people out there and you can’t meet everyone.
Q: Where will you be in 5 days, 5 months and 5 years?
JANIRE: In five days, I will be in Wales. In five months, I’ll hopefully be in Mexico with another art project. In five years, I don’t have a clue, and that’s the beauty of it. Whatever comes will be welcome I’m sure. I don’t have plans of where I’m going, I try to take life how it comes really.
Thanks Janire for the interview! Visit the website for her project here, and if you’re in D.C., you still have time to experience the exhibit for yourself at the Former Residence of the Ambassadors of Spain.