“I am working on this project because I am a son of a teenage mother,” says photographer Christian Rodriguez. “And my sister was a 16-year-old teen mom. I want to show a solution for this issue.”
Rodriguez’s personal experience has driven him to document teen mothers all over the world—first in his native Uruguay, later in Rio de Janeiro, and, most recently, in the Mixe community of Maluco, a small village in the north of the Istmo de Tehuantepec in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Wanting to tell the story of one girl in this small indigenous community, Rodriguez had a local NGO introduce him to Gloria—a 13-year-old who had been raped by her father at age 11 and gave birth at age 12. Two of her sisters were also sexually abused by their father. Gloria lives with her mother and eight of her ten siblings in a small rural home. Her father is now in jail.
Like most young girls in her community who get pregnant, Gloria has dropped out of school and now spends her days making corn totopas with her mother and sister Guadalupe, who is also pregnant from a boyfriend.
While Rodriguez could have shot a straightforward story about one teen mother in one small community, he decided to take a different approach to help his viewers connect with Gloria’s vulnerability. He waited. He sat still. And he got to know Gloria and her family before making any photos of them.
“I wanted to be very sensitive,” says Rodriguez. “I was very worried for Gloria. It was very stressful for me. I wanted to help this family but I didn’t know how—my friends told me just to tell the story the best I can.”
After slowly building a relationship with Gloria and her family, he realized that a traditional documentary approach wouldn’t work. Gloria was too fragile. Too shy. Too psychologically compromised by the abuse. She didn’t name her son for 11 months—everyone just called him bebe, or baby.
“In the beginning, Gloria did not like the baby, didn’t want to take care of him, but in a way she was forced to,” says Rodriguez. “The baby was like remembering the rape. When I tried to work with Gloria and talk with her, she started to cry. It was very difficult because I didn’t want to cause her any more pain. So I would try to shoot a play with her—and she felt comforted by that.”
Rodriguez decided to involve Gloria in the photography—making her a willing part of the art. He said posing Gloria and her sisters in traditional Oaxacan clothes seemed comforting to her, so Rodriquez worked with her to create meaningful portraits that showed her beyond the constraints of her teen motherhood. In one portrait he modeled her after a Frida Kahlo self-portrait, depicting her in a necklace of thorns with butterflies on her head.
“I tried to shoot in a soft way, not very directly,” he says. His resulting photo essay is a mix of posed portraits and found moments showing Gloria both as a girl and as a perplexed young mother. She helps her siblings with homework; she breastfeeds her son; and she stands barefoot in the mud making totopos hour upon hour.
And while her situation is difficult, Rodriguez says it’s unfortunately all too common in Maluco. He says one of the local customs, or usos and costumbres, makes it acceptable for the parents of a pregnant teen to receive money from the father in exchange for marrying the young girl. He says this sends the signal that the pregnancy, which is often the result of rape, is tolerated.
“In this community all the men decide everything for a woman,” he says. “For example, it’s normal for boys to be able to play, to be free in the town, but the girls need to work in the house making totopos or cleaning or [homemaking]. When girls have the same opportunity as boys, I think that’s when teen pregnancy will change.”
Rodriguez says that by sharing Gloria’s story he hopes to raise awareness of teen pregnancy, sexual abuse, and the lack of opportunities for Latin American girls. He also hopes to eventually raise money for Gloria to finish school.
“I wanted to help her, to help break the cycle of violence,” he says.
As a postscript, he says that Gloria has finally given her son a name—she calls him Juan Diego.
Christian Rodriguez is a Uruguayan photographer who explores themes related to gender and identity, working with communities all over the world. Currently, he’s developing a long-term project, entitled “Teen Mom,” about teenage pregnancy in Latin America. His work has been published internationally, and he is a member of the Prime photo collective.