Conversation: UTSA President Romo Returns from Guatemala

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A scene from UTSA President Ricardo Romo's trip to Guatemala. Photo by Ricardo Romo.

Rivard Report: Dr. Romo, you are known for a lot of things, from leading UTSA as its longtime President on the path to Tier One status to bringing NCAA Division I football to San Antonio to being the first Texan to run the mile in less than four minutes. Photography is a passion, too. How did that happen?

UTSA President Ricardo Romo, Ph.D., and photographer. Photo by Al Rendon.

UTSA President Ricardo Romo, Ph.D. Photo by Al Rendon.

Ricardo Romo: I’ve always had an interest in photography and had a camera for about 10 years before I became really interested in it while I was in graduate school at UCLA. There is a lot of public art around Los Angeles – East L.A., in particular – including murals two or three stories high. As a historian, I kept thinking that these works of art are not going to last forever. They have a short lifespan. I felt like I needed to capture what others would not know about if I didn’t take photos of them. I felt an urgency to capture these murals in photos and I wish I had done more because, sure enough, six months later, a lot of them had disappeared. But I still have some of the photos.

RR: When did you get confident enough in your work to first exhibit it?

Romo: I got a big boost when I came to UTSA. I credit Arturo Almeida, the curator of the UTSA Art Collection, for encouraging me to be part of Fotoseptiembre USA.

I had been to Mexico and documented people and places there. But after I had the occasion to visit several times, I decided to do things a little differently. Instead of just taking a picture of a church in a town square, I started asking myself, ‘Is there anything unusual about this church or the market or things that I saw?’ I sort of trained my eye to be more artistic, to look for symmetry, unusual angles, unusual perspectives.

I brought some of those photos back, and Arturo Almeida (art specialist/curator for the UTSA Art Collection) and I started going through them. That’s how I began exhibiting. Then, the more I got involved with Fotoseptiembre USA and also started giving some of my photos to alumni, the more people became familiar with my work.

RR: You’ve had a number of exhibitions that we’ve seen in recent years, including the Easter at Brackenridge Park exhibition at the Witte. You seem most drawn to everyday life within the many dimensions of Latino culture.

Romo: Easter at Brackenridge Park was an idea from someone working at the Witte. Ironically, I had photographed Easter Sunday activities in the park the year before. She said, ‘Yeah, okay, but photograph it again.’ So I went back, and twice a day for three days, I photographed the people and everything that was going on. It was really good to go back for a second look. It was a lot of fun. And that ended up in the exhibit.

The Institute of Texan Cultures hosted my Small Towns in Texas exhibit. I still remember traveling to different communities around the state. Harriett and I traveled to about 100 different cities so we have photographs from a lot of different towns. The rule of thumb was, ‘Look for something you don’t normally see.’ If I saw something that I had not seen in San Antonio, I photographed it. I would see things and go, ‘Oh, look at that.’

I wanted both of these exhibits to capture the cultural and social way of life in San Antonio and in small communities around Texas.

RR: What took you to Guatemala? Tell us about the trip.

Romo: I’d always wanted to go to Guatemala. Harriett had been before we got married and told me I needed to see the Chichicastenango market, where the indigenous people living in rural communities and the mountains would come down to every Saturday. There’s just a lot of things going on there.

We decided we were going to do this, and so went the day before Christmas and stayed for five or six days. We were very lucky. We had some friends from the university working in Guatemala. They showed us around and gave us the name of someone to escort us to the Highlands. That’s where you see the indigenous dress, things being sold in the market you don’t normally see.

Many of the photographs in that show were from the first day or two of photographing. We had an extraordinary time there.

RR: As someone who once lived and worked in the region in the early 1980s, I know how beautiful and sinister Guatemala can be at the same time. Even now it is a country with a staggering crime rate, and tourists are often targeted in the Highlands. What was your experience in terms of safeguarding your own personal security? Any incidents?

Romo: We know there are parts of Guatemala that you would not want to travel to and be around. And when you take photographs, you need to be cautious and respectful. I was discreet. I shot with a telescopic lens or took “hip shots,” shooting from my waist. I didn’t get in anybody’s face. In the six days I was there only one person asked “Did you take my picture?” after hearing the shutter click. I said, “You’re the only one who caught me so far,” and paid her for allowing me to take her photo.

A scene from UTSA President Ricardo Romo's trip to Guatemala. Photo by Ricardo Romo.

A scene from UTSA President Ricardo Romo’s trip to Guatemala. Photo by Ricardo Romo.

I think Central America, especially Guatemala, Honduras, and Belize, are areas where it helps to have some connections. Before you go, you want to study. You want to research where you might stay and what you might do. And those connections can help you.

RR: Despite all the violence and repression against Guatemala’s indigenous peoples at the hands of the military regimes, the indigenous population has displayed extraordinary resilience. What did you see or experience there that gave you any special insights or appreciation of the indigenous culture?

Romo: My first visit to Guatemala was more than five years ago for a water project. Some UTSA faculty and graduate students were working in the Highlands there. One of the key local people on the project was also trying to build schools. He was not indigenous. He had a coffee plantation. His family had been massacred by the guerrillas in the ‘70s. He was determined to change Guatemala – the lack of work, the lack of opportunities, the lack of justice. Harriett met him when we went back on our trip last December. His wife had become the Attorney General of the country. There are a lot of strong feelings there – lots of native people living in fear of what could happen to them. But they are still working to see justice prevail for the people of Guatemala.

RR: Did you find that you were able to communicate by speaking Spanish with people whose primary language is Nahuatl?

Romo: Harriett and I didn’t have any trouble communicating with the people we met. Most of the people were bilingual; most spoke Spanish and Mayan.People were friendly, especially in the markets.

RR: Would you recommend to friends from Texas who do not speak Spanish to travel to Guatemala, or do you consider it a destination reserved for the more adventurous?

Romo: Right now, Guatemala is for the more adventurous. It is not a place where a family can vacation easily. There’s a lot to overcome there. It is better to travel in groups or arranged travel if you are going.

RR: What about life in the capital, Guatemala City? Did you take many photographs there?

Romo: To me, the capital is not as enticing as the small communities and the Highlands. It is busy and full of cars, a practical place to do business. So my focus was on life outside the capital city.

RR: We missed the opening of your exhibition on Nov. 3. Where can we and others catch your presentation this month in San Antonio?

Romo: Not to worry. You can visit the Forest Hills Library and see it there until Monday, Dec. 15.

RR: Changing the subject to art and artists in general, you and Harriett are big-time collectors of Latino artists from all parts of the country, and you’ve led a real effort to broaden the collection at UTSA. How do you see the art scene in San Antonio compared to 15 years ago when you first returned to San Antonio to become President at UTSA?

Romo: I can’t say enough about what we’ve seen in the last 15 years – the number of artists who are active, the number of shows, the number of exhibits. Weekends in San Antonio are filled with all kinds of great offerings. There’s a lot of art, which is really encouraging.

I think the UTSA art department, the San Antonio art community and some of the local colleges have played an important role in keeping the art vibrant and robust. We have some of the best Latino artists in the country – people like Vincent Valdez and César Martínez – right here in San Antonio. I think San Antonio has done well but it can do better. I would like to see more institutional support and involvement, shows in the big museums. We try to do some of that at UTSA, but there are a lot of good artists in San Antonio whose work needs to be shown more.

RR: I know you and Harriett have made some significant gifts from your own personal collection to museums. Are you still collecting and acquiring new works?

Romo: Oh yes. We continue to be active in collecting art. (laughs) In fact, we just bought more art this month.

RR: Thank you for your time, Dr. Romo. Good luck at UTSA and with your photography.

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