“Basically, I grew up missing Colombia, a country I did not come to know really until I was 13 years old,” says photographer Estefany Molina, whose series “Mi Medallón” was named a winner of the Latin American Fotografía 3 competition. The project examines what Molina calls “the cultural eccentricities that have characterized my Colombian identity alongside my disconnect from the culture as an American.”
“I was born in Queens, NY, but have spent my entire life on the North Fork of Long Island,” she says. “I am first-generation Colombian, my family having come over from Medellin. My mom named me Estefany because she originally really liked “Estefania,” but she wanted to Americanize it. In school I spoke fluent English, and at home fluent Spanish. Throughout my life I was told that I had an American Spanish accent, but it was later on that I learned that I had a Colombian accent. If I speak Spanish, I’m immediately recognized as Colombian.”
In America, because of her looks, Molina is usually taken for Mexican—though she also gets Egyptian, Greek and Arabic. “Oddly, I’ve been to Greece, and there, too, folks took me for Greek,” she says. “And quite literally I am the brown sheep of my family—I’m the one who stays tan past the summer.”
“What I’m try to say,” she adds, “is that I feel 100 percent Colombian and 100 percent American despite the cultural, racial, and lingual disparities.”
Molina came to know Colombia, and to assume her Colombia identity, without ever having seen the country. “I can confidently say that not one day went by that my mom did not call my grandmother in Medellin,” she says. “My mother and grandmother would each describe the smell, feel, texture, attitude, and sound of every person, object, event, or problem they had had that day. It was storytelling elevated to a whole new level because they were each viscerally experiencing what the other was describing in almost real time.”
Though Molina had gone to Colombia with her mother when she was two years old, she had no personal memories of the country, until, at age 13, she was in a serious car accident. “My grandmother naturally demanded to see me as soon as possible,” she says. She traveled there again several years later, planning to shoot a project—a look at her Colombian origins—for her junior-year critique class at the School of Visual Arts.
The images she made focused on her grandmother, the family matriarch, the streets of Medellin, and details like religious icons. “I had my camera, at the time a 35mm Minolta I got on eBay, on me at all times,” she says.
As it turned out, Molina’s SVA critique teacher wasn’t enthusiastic about the idea of the project. The images were put away, but not forgotten.
“I knew what I had was really good, but it wasn’t until three years after I made those pictures that I really started thinking about what they were,” Molina says. It was then that she began conceptualizing the work as an ongoing series about her life as a Colombian in America. “And of course, logically as you look backwards and connect the dots, my grandmother is the root of what I know to be Colombia—‘la patria, el capital del cielo,’” she says.
The title of the project references a number of ideas. “The city’s natives often refer to Medellin as ‘Medallo’— from medallón, like a medallion, or a treasure,” she says. “Also, for my 15th birthday my grandmother gave me a necklace with a gold heart. That necklace became so symbolic of my relationship with her. I wore it every day for nearly four years.”
Molina is now considering working as a real-estate photographer—a job, she says, that will fund the personal projects she wants to continue. That includes a series called “Forever Young,” which she describes as “a yearbook of sorts shot throughout 2014 into 2015 that looks at childhood peers who have returned, permanently or otherwise, to our hometown.”
As we have noted recently at Dispatches From Latin America, Molina has also launched We Are Indivisual, an online space featuring video interviews she has shot and edited, in which emerging photographers talk about their work, their processes and their experiences. The series includes interviews with other LAF-winning photographers, including Star Montana and Antonio Pulgarin, as well as Supranav Dash, whose work was included in the American Photography 30 annual.