Graciela Iturbide meets Fisher’s Chief Preparator Juan, nephew of Tío Roque, famously pictured in “La frontera”

“I prefer to photograph the man in a more dignified manner, independently of the injustices.” – Graciela Iturbide (Art21 2015)

Graciela Iturbide, one of Mexico’s most distinguished photographers, has spent more than four decades documenting the diverse people, cultures and traditions of her native country. Her iconic images are widely circulated, including La frontera, Tijuana, Mexico. The photo shows a man standing with his back to the camera, looking out at the arid landscape of Tijuana’s border, exposing his massive tattoo of Virgin of Guadalupe. A revered patron saint in Mexico, the Virgin of Guadalupe is considered an embodiment of grace, a symbol of pride and identity, and source of protection.

For years the identity of the man in La frontera, Tijuana, Mexico remained unknown. Ten years passed before that changed when a woman named Cynthia was browsing a bookstore. She was shocked to recognize her uncle’s distinct tattoo on the cover of Carlos Fuentes’ novel, The Crystal Frontier. She told her brother, Juan Rojas, the USC Fisher Museum’s chief preparator, that their uncle, Tío Roque, was the cover of a book. 

Eventually Juan visited Tío Roque in the town of Cerros, located in the municipality of Tijuana, and asked him about the mysterious photo. Tío Roque recounted to Juan hanging out with a group of people at the border. Juan interjected in his story to explain Tío Roque spent a couple years working as a coyote, a term most commonly used to describe “those who facilitate illegal entry into the United States” (Izcara Palacios 2015, 325). Regardless of whether a person was seeking a coyote, the Virgin of Guadalupe functioned as Tío Roque’s calling card; it was easy to spot, and people–including Graciela– were drawn to him because of it. Before leaving for their passage, many go to church to pray to the Virgin for protection; people frequently carry rosary beads and pray to the Virgin throughout the journey.

The specific details of Tío Roques encounter with Graciela remains vague, Juan described his uncle recalling a woman with a camera walked up to the group and joined their conversation. She asked Tío Roque many questions about his tattoo before asking if she could photograph it. Never had it occurred to Tío Roque that the photograph would become famous. Juan explained to him, “your image will be remembered forever.”

During a panel discussion for James hd Brown’s Life and Work in Mexico exhibition at the USC Fisher Museum of Art– on the third day of Iturbide’s week long residency at USC–Juan shared his connection to La frontera with Graciela. Moved by his anecdote, she explained how the tattoo took her by surprise and led her to take the photo. Graciela was not aware when she met and photographed Tío Roque that he was a coyote. She asked if he was still living, but sadly, Tío Roque passed away a few years ago. He is remembered not only for his many memorable tattoos, but as the uncle who always wanted to make the kids laugh. Juan laughed when he recalled Tío Roque as a man who was often shirtless and proudly showed off his tattoos, saying, “He just loved the ink.”

La frontera has endured as a significant image for nearly thirty years due to controversial debates of border patrol and immigration policies that continue in Mexican and US politics today. Iturbide’s choice to capture this photo against an empty landscape opens possibilities for opportunity in the imagination of the viewer.

Despite the negative connotation the United States typically associates with this phenomena, however, a study by David Spencer for his book, Clandestine Crossings: Migrants and Coyotes on the Texas-Mexico Border, found coyotes are sought out by migrants as a strategy of survival, rather than an illegal activity in which organized criminal gangs engage (Spencer 2009). Most coyotes charge a lofty fee for their services, and migrants recognize good and bad coyotes exist.


Image Credit:
Creator(s): Graciela Iturbide (Mexican, born 1942)
Title/Date: La frontera, Tijuana, México, 1990
Culture: Mexican
Medium: Gelatin silver print
Dimensions: Image: 31.8 × 22.5 cm (12 1/2 × 8 7/8 in.)
Sheet: 35.6 × 27.9 cm (14 × 11 in.)
Accession No. 2007.38.2
Copyright: © Graciela Iturbide
Object Credit: The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Art21. “Graciela Iturbide: Photographing Mexico | ART21 “Exclusive”. YouTube video,

02:17. Posted [Nov. 2015].

IZCARA PALACIOS, SIMÓN PEDRO. “Coyotaje and Drugs: Two Different Businesses.”

Bulletin of Latin American Research 34, no. 3 (2015): 324-339. doi:10.1111/blar.12296.

Spener, David. Clandestine Crossings: Migrants and Coyotes on the Texas-Mexico

Border. Cornell University Press, 2009.


Blog post by Madelyne Gordon, intern at the USC Fisher Museum of Art.