Alejandro Cartagena – A Small Guide to Homeownership

Review by Wayne Swanson •

With its familiar yellow-and-black color scheme and blocky cover design, A Small Guide to Homeownership appears to be just another addition to the shelves of “For-Dummies” how-to books. And with a table of contents featuring chapters that progress from “Home Sweet Home: Still the Best Investment You Will Ever Make” to “Protecting Yourself at Settlement: The House Is Yours,” it promises all you need to know to realize the American Dream of home ownership. But this book is not American, and it’s a dream of a different sort. 

Alejandro Cartagena uses the “Dummies” approach to examine the consequences of American-style suburbanization in Mexico. It’s a clever mash-up of typical upbeat guidebook text and his own images about the realities of suburbanization in Mexico.

Cartagena is a photographer and photobook maker based in Monterrey, Mexico. He has spent 13 years developing a series of projects documenting the changes that development has brought in transportation, urban planning, infrastructure development, and bureaucracy in the Monterrey metropolitan area of northern Mexico, as well as the ecological consequences of unplanned growth. 

Cartagena has previously published photobooks examining individual aspects of this urban sprawl. But A Small Guide to Homeownership is something different. It’s a paperback with the thin newsprint-style pages, layout, and typography of a typical Dummies book. Text pages have been appropriated from a variety of books about American home buying and arranged in a cohesive progression. But Cartagena coopts the message by placing photographs from his various projects over portions of the text. Often, the upbeat text clashes with images that show the implications of trying to apply American-style ideas of home ownership in Mexico.

As with the text outlining the home buying process, the images chart a progression, from scenes of natural undeveloped landscapes in the Monterrey region through the various stages of housing development, the home buying process, and the messy realities of home ownership. The images also show the impacts of growth on the resulting crowded urban landscape and the challenge of commuting to jobs in an environment where carpooling often consists of cramming together in the bed of a pickup truck.

At times, the text and images support each other, but at other times they purposely clash. Charts with “wish-list” items of home amenities are overlaid with images of row upon row of tiny, bare-bones houses. An image of a homeowner waist deep in a hole in front of his home, apparently making repairs, is paired with a page that has the heading “Meet and Greet: Introducing Yourself to Neighbors.” A section near the end titled “Bracing for the Future,” features a series of ominous nighttime images.

It’s a quietly subversive book. It doesn’t necessary take sides, but raises questions about what is gained and lost when American dreams are imposed on Mexican reality.

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An interview with Cartagena, and reviews of his photobooks Carpoolers, Rivers of Power, A Guide to Infrastructure and Corruption, and Before the War have previously been featured on PhotoBook Journal.

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Contributing Editor Wayne Swanson is a San Diego-based fine art photographer and writer.

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A Small Guide to Homeownership, Alejandro Cartagena

Photographer: Alejandro Cartagena, born Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, resides Monterrey, Mexico 

Publisher: The Velvet Cell (Berlin, Germany, copyright 2020)  

Essays: Alejandro Cartagena and Fernando Gallegos

Text: English, Spanish

Stiffcover book, perfect binding, four-color lithography, 6 x 9 inches, 360 pages

Photobook designers: Alejandro Cartagena, Eanna de Freine, Fernando Gallegos, Ricardo Nunes

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Articles & photographs published on PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s).

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