Dear Voz readers:
I was invited on October 13, 2017 to deliver the keynote for the Midwest Chicana Arts & Activism Symposium in Topeka, Kansas—organized and hosted by Christina Valdivia-Alcalá, the Tonantzin Society and Mulvane Museum at Washburn University. Their theme was “Art and Resistance in the Age of Extremism.” I wanted to write something that would speak to the despair—the faltering faith—of many artists and activists around me, something that would remind us all why our art is necessary and how it helps to sustain our communities. I offer it here in the hopes that it serves as a reminder of why we must continue our work and how we can help strengthen our hearts, as individuals and as a community.
Para servirles, ire’ne lara silva
I woke up weeping on November 9, 2016. And though I went to work and answered the phone and wrote emails and did all the other tasks that encompass my workday, I never stopped weeping. Not that day or the next or the next.
With growing horror, I heard about the rising tide of hate crimes sweeping across our country. Over the next few months, I felt paralysis and despair warring with protest and a deep, deep seated rage.
It both comforted me and inspired awe to see people pouring into the streets and marching by the dozens, hundreds, thousands, millions. I had a small hope that fickered, that said, this could not be. Inauguration Day will not come. And then it did. I felt it like a blow to my stomach and not just mine but to our collective stomach. None of us could breathe.
In the last nine months, there has been no end to the battering: the repeated assaults on the Affordable Care Act and women’s rights, police violence, Charlottesville, the increased presence of Neo-Nazis and white supremacists, the building of the wall, anti-immigrant hostility, ICE raids, mass deportations, the attacks on DACA, the dismantling of environmental protections, the undermining of our educational system, the crisis in Puerto Rico, the ongoing violations of Indigenous rights, and the imminent threat of war. The battering is emotional, psychological, spiritual, and very, very physical with real threats to our well-being and to that of our families, loved ones, neighbors, communities, to our world itself.
It is a wonder that we can breathe at all.
The end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017 were diffcult, but on that most diffcult day in January something in me rallied. Those of you who know me, know that I live on Facebook, and that was where I posted my frst thoughts that were not full of despair: Don’t drink the poison, my people. Don’t breathe it. Don’t let in to your bodies, your minds, or your spirits. This is a long work we have coming. And we must be strong and outlast them all. Breathe the clean air and look up to the sky and hold each other up. Don’t let them drown out the songs. Let the singing unfurl, let it wave in the wind, let it cast lightning, let it loose in your blood, let the singing loose from your eyes and your hands.
Because, I thought, none of this is going to rob me of myself or make me less of who I am. None of this is going to stop me from doing my work or manifesting my vision. None of this is going to make me give up, give in, surrender. None of this is going to render me meat for despair or apathy or neglect or rage or exhaustion.
In times like these, there are certain questions that we must ask ourselves and then definitively answer or re-affirm so that we can continue our work. How do we go on? What do activism and art mean in our lives? Who are we without them? What do we owe to ourselves, our communities, our ancestors?
The first temptation is to believe that art is meaningless, that our poems and paintings and music mean nothing in the face of hate, violence, and unjust laws. To believe that time spent in creation, in contemplation, is time that could be better spent doing something—anything— else.
But to believe these things is to surrender the greatest part of what we are, to hand over our hearts—still red and beating—on a platter to those who already threaten to take so much from us—it is to hand over our hearts before they even think to come for them. I will not surrender my heart.
I will not surrender my art. My poems and my stories are what I have to give in this world. What I give I give in the hope that it will sustain and inspire the work of artists, activists, and cultural workers—as their work sustains and inspires me. As great or as humble as my offerings may be, what I know is that what is offered in love feeds us all. It is no accident that culture, art, and activism keep intersecting, time and time again, because each one feeds the other, because it keeps us connected so that even the rage and grief we feel are rage and grief rooted in love. Love for ourselves. Love for our families. Love for our communities. Love for our people. Love for our shared humanity.
Our task is to remain human. To become neither monsters nor victims. What we owe the ancestors: to live to love to create to dream to fight to act to speak to learn to teach to grieve. As they survived to love to create to dream to fight to act to speak to learn to teach to grieve. To one day become ancestors ourselves and inspire those who will follow. What is owed to the ancestors: We remain strong. We refuse to surrender. We give them no victims. We remain human. We dedicate ourselves this day and every day to the work we have chosen, to the work which has chosen us.
And to do this—we must not drink the poison. While our culture possesses the concepts of limpias and barridas—of cleansing and detoxifying, of healing—it exacts a heavy toll on us, this cycle of wounding and healing, of poisoning and detoxifying.
We have to find another way. We must become the curators of our emotions, our minds, our spirits. And if ‘to curate’ seems a strange concept, remember that the word ‘curate’ read in Spanish is curate—‘heal yourself’…in this case, ‘heal yourself before the wound.’
It has been my thinking that as artists, we choose what influences us, what affects us. That this is how we develop our voices, our visions, our practices. An artist’s development, an artist’s inspiration is often spoken of as if the artist is a passive recipient, tossed and turned this way and that way. But I don’t think this is true. An artist is the curator of their own creativity, selecting and featuring the elements that shape them and their work.
The practice of curating is no different for activists, as they choose where to channel their energy and their passion, as they choose to become educators or organizers or protestors or social workers or legislators or even, writers. As they choose, day in and day out, to believe that change is possible, that affecting even a single human life is worth their labor. As they choose to act, remembering relentlessly, that their actions are not fueled by rage but by love.
In my life, I have been cast, again and again, into the role of caregiver—in medical crises that have gone on, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. And while you pray for the best and prepare for the worst, what you come to learn is a different kind of strength. At first, you hold all the fear and worry inside and wait to weep until no one is leaning on you and no one can see you. And then perhaps you learn to bottle it all inside until you live with a hard knot in your stomach and a hard fist around your heart. But eventually, neither the wild weeping nor the hard knot nor the hard fist are sustainable. Instead, you train yourself. Every day, you train yourself not to admit in fear and worry. You train yourself to keep your eyes open and your heart soft and your hands ready and strong.
As artists and activists, we can train ourselves to keep our eyes open and our hearts soft. To curate what we allow in, what work we choose, in what spirit we do that work. We can choose not to drink the poison.
I contacted my friend, the poet/writer/translator David Bowles, to help me with this concept I had no name for. English seemed insuffcient to the task. I couldn’t think of anything in Spanish that wasn’t about a limpia or barrida—a way of cleansing or purifying after the fact, after the harm. Nothing for how to keep the harm from being inflicted in the first place. What I wanted was something that would name the act of protecting ourselves against poison, of becoming so strong that we would not let ourselves be injured. And it came to me that I needed a name in Nahuatl.
David suggested something but said that it was perhaps a little too dark, that it was a phrase than translated literally as “dead hands, dead flesh” but meant “protected by supernatural forces.” It seemed intriguing but a bit strange. Until he told me the next part—that “dead hands, dead flesh” might more accurately mean to be protected by the “hands and bodies of my departed loved ones.”
I read those words as if lightning had flashed into my eyes, and every hair on my body stood up. Nomiccāmā Nomiccānacayo is to say, I am protected by my ancestors, by the bodies of my departed loved ones, by all of the power and life they represent. This is how I want to walk this earth. Surrounded by that love, protected by that strength, made wise by their endurance, made brave by their example. I want to cultivate in myself the wisdom to know what I should allow in–what will strengthen me, sustain me, inspire me, teach me—and what I should perceive as poison and turn away—everything that would cast me into the role of monster or victim, what would make me calloused or apathetic, despairing or weak.
I want to be a part of a strong community—artists, activists, and cultural workers—and to live in a space marked by their brilliance and their passion.
Nomiccāmā Nomiccānacayo. I am protected. Tomiccāmā Tomiccānacayo. We are protected.
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