Mary in front of one of her photographs in her Sunnyside apartment
Festival of Mexican Artistic Expression, Tepeyac Association, Queens, NY

©Mary Teresa Giancoli

“I wanted to find out what is the root of these traditions.”

When Mary Teresa Giancoli began to immerse herself into Mexican culture in New York City it was a challenge. The patrons at the small Mexican church on 14th Street celebrating the Virgin of Guadalupe were suspicious and did not want to be photographed.“I am not fluent in Spanish and I don’t look Mexican,” says Mary, who has photographed Mexican rituals for 17 years. But having had a Mexican grandfather, whom she has never met, was “a touching point” and “a mystery” that she was determined to unravel. “I really wanted to find out where the center of Mexican life is in New York and this was part of my search.”

One thing Mary found at the little church was her husband, Cristian Peña, a Mexican and fellow photographer. (Cristian even appears in some of her early photographs.) Eventually the couple had iced tea after one of the events. “That was when the grand love was born,” Mary says giggling. Mary, Cristian and their seven-year-old daughter Leila now often travel to Mexico to visit remote villages where the couple documents festivities and everyday life.

“I wanted to find out what is the root of these traditions,” Mary says. “What is it like in Mexico, how are they celebrated there? So there is this continual dialogue about what is happening in Mexico and what is happening in the United States. There is a lot of fusion because the traditions evolve in the United States and mix with the American traditions.”

To trace Mexican customs in the U.S. back to their origins, Mary visited Mexican tortilla factories in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and tortilla makers in Cuetzalan, Mexico. Her award-winning work documents Mexican celebrations in community centers and churches in New York and in Puebla, and market scenes in Atlixco, featuring protagonists whose relatives have left to work in America.

In the podcast Mary talks about the photo of the three little girls above and the origins of the traditional China Poblana costumes they are wearing.