Maria Montes Duran’s Journey Through Latino Heritage in America

As a first-generation American photographer, Montes Duran navigates her identity while reflecting on her family's immigrant experience, capturing both the struggles and joys of their culture.

Maria Montes Duran begins her exploration from the street. With the clear intent to share stories and honor her Latino heritage, she hits New York City’s throughfares where she encounters a vibrant representation of her culture: flags adorning buildings, stores and cars, music filling the air from radios and cafes, and people bustling about, chatting or talking business. “I celebrate [my culture] by looking for photos of people of being proud of their heritage. I try to celebrate the beauty of it,” she says.  

But there's another layer to the story. It also tells tales of struggles for recognition and a sense of belonging. In one of her works, for example, a collage combines photos of her family with headlines about immigration—the overarching issue that looms over immigrants like an enduring specter. “I also address the hardships of it,” she says.

Immigration is a central theme in Montes Duran’s work, as much as it is in the lives of many Latino people who emigrated to the U.S. Her parents did that 30 years ago from Mexico and Peru. They met in Brooklyn, New York, where she was born, then relocated to Florida. Left behind was the mother’s family in Peru, which often visited, and the dad’s family in Mexico, which, on the contrary, was never able to reunite with their son.

As a first-generation American, Montes Duran grapples with her own identity in a country she calls home, yet one that serves as a constant reminder that home is also elsewhere.

In her work, she draws inspiration from her own writing, the latest trends, and the news she consumes. However, a significant source of creativity is the firsthand experience of her family, of which she is a direct witness. “Inspiration comes from my parents, their stories, how they grew up, all their fears, their guilt, everything that they feel concerning immigrants,” she says.

Her parents are grateful for the many doors this new country opened for the family. However, as an “outside viewer” in their own life, Montes Duran has had a different experience and developed a unique perspective that often diverges from that of her parents. “They have so many more opportunities than they would have had back home, but I also see how much they struggle, and all the fears they have, and how isolating it is to be an immigrant,” Montes Duran says.

It's a complex mix of emotions—a bittersweet relationship with their adopted country.  “I try to address both sides, the beauty of it and the hardships of it.”

The photos in this series, titled ¿Cómo Te Sientes Ahora?, comprise a blend of images from various mini-series, which she then links based on her emotional state. This approach ensures that the project remains fluid and constantly evolving, mirroring her personal growth and the emergence of new ideas or concerns. For instance, as political dynamics surrounding immigration shift, she incorporates these developments into the series.

One of the main mini-series focuses on the recreation of a Mexican card game called Loteria, similar to Bingo. The game consists of 54 cards, each featuring a unique image alongside a corresponding number and name. Montes Duran has been reimagining the traditional images. For instance, card number 16, originally depicting La Bandera with just the Mexican flag, now includes both the Mexican and American flags, reflecting her personal connection to her Mexican heritage as well as her experience growing up in America. Card number 13, La Valiente, originally portraying a brave man, has been reimagined as a brave woman. In the Spanish language, the masculine form of a word is favored, reflecting linguistic and cultural norms.  But Montes Duran chose to recreate the feminine version by using the article ‘la' in front of the word, addressing the cultural disparity. “I love that there is a new point of view, a new deck now, and things are changing.”

Photography has served as her outlet to explore not only her own culture and its imperfections but also the challenges and experiences of being an immigrant in the US. In a world where immigrants often face negative perception and attitude, she hopes her work sheds light on the fact that “we're real people too, we have thoughts and feelings,” just like everyone else.

“We came here for so many reasons and there's just so many struggles and things that come with being a Latino person,” she says. Through her series ¿Cómo Te Sientes Ahora?, Montes Duran strives to illuminate all of these aspects, serving as a bright voice and assertive observer, advocating for the recognition and appreciation of her culture.

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All photos © Maria Montes Duran, from the series ¿Cómo Te Sientes Ahora?

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Maria Montes Duran is a Brooklyn-born and currently based photographer. Her visual style is influenced by her Hispanic-American heritage, which remains a central theme in her work. Find her work on PhMuseum.

Lucia De Stefani is a writer and editor focusing on photography, illustration, and everything teens. She lives between New York and Italy. Find her on Instagram and Twitter.