Sara J. Musaifer, Maria C. Schwedhelm, and Richa Nagar
In Spring 2017, the three of us became part of a semester-long journey through ‘Stories, Bodies, Movements’, a course co-facilitated by one of us (Richa) with Tarun Kumar, a visiting theater artist from Mumbai who joined us at the University of Minnesota. Two of us (Maria and Sara) enrolled in the class for credit, even as the course blurred the borders between facilitator, instructor, and student. ‘Stories, Bodies, Movements’ focused on learning through embodied doing and feeling. Specifically, it centered on grappling with the labor of building situated solidarities through radical vulnerability as a collectively-owned and collectively-honed praxis.
Taking as its inspiration the methodologies of building and sustaining long-term situated solidarities with social movements, the course used storytelling and theater as modes of embodied unlearning and relearning. It searched for an intense intimacy with sites that are claimed by academics of the global north as sites of their research or activism, but that are simultaneously othered in the classroom as remote and distant places that are far removed from the researcher, teacher, and students. In so doing, the course sought to unsettle the modes of learning that dominate the neoliberal R-1 Universities in the United States by exploring the (im)possibility of translating through the classroom: a ‘methodology’ of building and sustaining deep relationships with ongoing struggles in the global south.
Here we share with you reflections that we articulated over the years since then, in the form of a co-authored journal on what we unlearned and relearned together through processes of reading, writing, discussing, embodying, and creating a story and a play. Writing from our distinct points of entry, we share our joys of creativity, along with frustrations with its faults, gaps, and inherent incompleteness. In so doing, the emergent threads of this journal define a pedagogy that is committed to the ongoing labor of retelling stories for justice, within and beyond the epistemic and physical walls of the classrooms. Such pedagogical labor includes not only retelling and performing stories, but also conscious refusals to translate, while also recognizing the impossibility of perfect translation. In patching our fragments together and in meditating on their pedagogical implications, we weave together a tapestry of reflections about a journey where we tried to do justice to one story that became a shared artistic, intellectual and political commitment.
Introductions: Taking a leap of faith
We had just finished reading June Jordan’s autobiography “A Soldier’s Childhood” and had been talking about June Jordan’s relationship with her father, who hurt her deeply yet whom she also loved and who shaped in powerful ways the fighter she became. With that we turned to sharing our own childhood stories, stories that illuminated the human and inhuman in us or in the people we loved. Richa told a childhood story of a time when she recognized herself as an antagonist in relationship to Baba, who was part of her family but not related by blood, a person she considered as a parent yet who, she realized after his death, was not considered family by many of her relatives. That encouraged Devleena to share a similar story of Suraj Chacha, and prompted me to think about Marisol, a constant figure in my life and childhood whom I don’t have a name to refer to, other than Marisol. Previously in class I had also shared much about my grandmother, all childhood memories filled with the joy of her playful personality, but when it came to recognize our loved ones’ inhumanity, I remembered and decided to share my mother’s memories of a lonely childhood and, in particular, her grappling with knowing that my grandmother had left her for three months to travel to Europe with my grandfather when she was only two months old. Being a mother myself, I cannot imagine how anyone would choose to leave their baby behind for such a long time.
When Tarun asked me to elaborate on the story, I felt I was building a tower from scattered pieces of memory and inherited stories. His and Richa’s prompts provided me with the eyes to look for pieces I would not have otherwise reached for. One of those pieces was Carlotita. Carlotita was part of my mother’s family like Marisol was part of mine. She was an essential part of the story, the person who, by caring for my grandmother’s children, made it possible for my grandmother to leave my mother and her three other children at home during her long trip to Europe. To do this, Carlotita had to leave her own child behind in her village. I did not think or talk much about the story of Carlotita, in the same way as I am hesitant to share much about Marisol, perhaps in part because I have no name to refer to the relationships, but also partly out of being embarrassed to foreground my privileged upbringing. I felt deeply aware for the first time of how my constant labor of backgrounding my family’s privileged social status had also resulted in me forgetting Carlotita. As the prompts came to reconstruct the story, I felt ashamed to realize how little I knew about her, even though I, too, had shared many moments with her at my grandparent’s house. Carlotita feeding us, scolding us, watching telenovelas with us. She was a constant presence. Someone I barely knew anything about. Yet instead of fear of judgement, reading Viet Thanh Nguyen and June Jordan, and listening to Richa’s and Devleena’s stories, planted in me the necessity, the responsibility, to reconstruct Carlotita’s story. I was okay with being the antagonist and I felt grateful to have the class help me with the task.
The story of retelling dis/appearing tales began for me when I was introduced to Carlotita, Olga’s devoted companion and her maid. For me, Carlotita was a gate through which the threads of my story became entangled with Maria’s. Two points in time and space that were connected through two bodies embodying a story that was both mine and hers, but not quite. I think it was during our encounter with Viet Thanh Nguyen’s text that we began the strenuous labor of patching together the fragments of stories gifted to us by Gabi, Maria’s mother.
As we wrapped up our class that night, I remember Maria, Richa and Tarun telling us about the long hours they spent together the weekend before, trying to scaffold bits and pieces of memories brought to life from times long gone. They later told us of Carlotita, a character that appeared serendipitously in this process, a presence resurrected from the invisibilized margins of the nonliving, a thread that stitched together stories that made little sense without her. I was drawn to Carlotita, to the politics of servitude she embodied and troubled, allowing me to grapple with its complexities through her and with her. An agitating sense of responsibility towards Carlotita grew within me. She paved a path for me to tell a story where I was able to reflect on the intertwining of humanity and inhumanity that continues to shape my ways of being and knowing. Yet, with all of this in mind, I remember thinking to myself, how could I embody the story of Carlotita in a just manner, when our two bodies dwelled in worlds separated by seemingly impenetrable walls bordering an ever-growing gulf? How could I even try to do her justice when I cannot imagine what justice to her story could possibly mean? I turned to Richa with all of these frustrations and she suggested watching an old documentary exploring the lived experiences of domestic workers in South Africa: “Maids and Madams.” I was not sure how this was going to help me work through some of these frustrations, but I decided to give it a shot and sat down to watch the film that night.
As the director of the documentary guided our senses to follow the maids going about their daily chores in their respective workplaces, I felt a sense of familiarity, unease, and perhaps shame, as memories of my maternal aunt came to me, a person who was central to my life growing up, who had been visiting me occasionally in my sleeping and waking hours in the previous months. My maternal aunt, Aunt Yolanda — or Tita Yoli as we called her — spent many years in our home, looking after our house affairs- cleaning, cooking, and raising my five siblings and I. I remember Tita Yoli as a petite woman, with a beautiful innocent smile that could light up a dark room. Time and labor left different marks on Tita Yoli’s body, so much that I sometimes forgot that she and my mother were sisters. She is kind hearted, at times gullible, a tendency that often upset my parents and, admittedly, myself too. Tita Yoli has three children and a husband whom she supported with the humble salary my parents gave her at the end of every month in exchange for her labor. Much like the maids in South Africa, and Carlotita in Mexico, my tita desperately needed a job to support her family in their little village in Bicol, a fourteen hour bus-ride just south of Manila. Similar to the madams in South Africa, and Olga in Mexico, my mother needed support raising her children in Bahrain, support that would then allow her to have an “office” job and make financial independence possible. To have an office job meant that my mother was able to support herself, her children, my aunt and her family, as well as my uncle and his family, who were taking care of my ailing grandmother, Lola, left behind in their village. I suppose the arrangement seemed reasonable enough, and both my mother and Tita Yoli agreed to its terms.
When I came to class the following week, I sat in through Richa’s stories of Baba and Devleena’s stories of Suraj Chacha. Their stories resonated with me strongly, yet I felt anxious to offer my story of Tita Yoli, with whom I shared not only my childhood memories, my moments of joy and wounds of pain, but also a person with whom I shared my biological roots, my DNA. She was family, not metaphorically speaking. My fears were not merely because of other people’s judgement in the classroom, but it was also because of my own. I think this is why I am grateful to Carlotita. Through her, I was able to reflect on a history that I did not have the courage nor the language to face.
The story began for me during one of the weeks when we read Naeem Inayatullah and Viet Thanh Nguyen together. Tarun and I sat in 443 Ford Hall before crossing the bridge to reach the classroom in Blegen Hall, asking how we could merge the insights from the readings with the energies and trust that were emerging in our class. We started reflecting on our own lives and tried to do the work of remembering the same person or the same event in such a way that a protagonist could also become an antagonist. Could we do the recalling and narrating in such a way that we could reflect on our own humanity and inhumanity at once?
I remembered two incidents about my relationship with Baba, a person central to my life, who by this time was already present in our class through the many sharings we had been doing. Baba was a parent, a friend, a sibling. Baba is an ancestor. Baba treated many bloody wounds for me, yet he was seen as unrelated to me by blood. He never said much about his origins, nor his caste, nor his village. Every time I broached the subject he slipped into a deep wounded silence and said a few words that never could become a story I could stitch or hold. What I know is that the instant he died, he, whom I thought of as a parent, was declared to be a servant with questionable — perhaps Dalit or Adivasi — origins by several of my upper caste relatives. I — who was by then already seen as not a “real” part of the family or the “religion” because of the choices I had made — was too far away to fight those declarations… I remembered how, as a child and young teen, I asked my Baba to do things that I thought were innocent, but that caused deep embarrassment for him. I remembered with shame the pain that I may have caused him and the hurt that he could never relay to me. In the narrations with Tarun, I presented myself first as a protagonist in relation to Baba and then as an antagonist. Tarun said this would be a good example to share with the class.
When I brought that story into our class, I remember everyone sharing similar stories — for instance, Devleena shared the story of her relationship with Suraj Chacha. Then we took the exercise to a deeper level: Maria and Lisa were in the same small group toward the back of the room and from their sharing emerged the first words about Maria’s mother, Gabi, and Lisa’s father, Mohammad. When Tarun asked Maria to start playing a moment from the fragment she had narrated about her mother being left behind as an infant, I was struck by the openness with which Maria allowed us to enter the circle of her story.
Walking the talk… together
I remember distinctly the first day of the class in January when we gathered. Even though some people were still traveling and unable to make it to the first class and most of the faces were new to me, each face in the room seemed intimate, trusting, and very open to all that was to come. Trump had just been inaugurated as the President of the USA earlier that week, and everyone seemed shaken to the core — as if looking for something to hold on to in tragic and terrible times; the class was ready to embrace each other as a source of hope at a time when progressive people in the US felt that “it has never been darker than this!” I did see a slight worry on some of the faces when I confessed, “The class is only a vision at this time based on what I have learned in spaces located very far from this room. I have never taught such a class before and I do not yet know how this will unfold. But if you are prepared to unfold with the journey, we will learn a lot regardless of how inexperienced we all are.” However, as we did some exercises, for instance when we expressed ourselves through non-verbal gestures, and tried to translate the meanings of those gestures while introducing each other in pairs, we were already beginning to learn about the challenges of the terrain where we try to “own” or hold – however problematically, awkwardly, or shamefully — the stories of an other. I could see in the class an instinctive willingness to bond and to flow with one another. My own initial pair-mates were Alaina and Maria and I remember the intensity and spontaneity with which we connected — about politics, about children, about homes, about borders that we can cross or not cross when we are “home.”
During our first meeting, Siddharth had brought a square container of food to share in class. As we gratefully consumed the contents of the box, I said to the class that his container must rotate every week now, for according to some customs, a food container can only be returned with food. Never again did we encounter the classroom space without food — someone or another was always bringing in something delicious and nourishing, without us having to ever circulate a sign-up sheet. I also remember how we talked very early on about the multiple languages that were present in our class — Arabic, Bangla, Creole, English, French, Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam, Spanish; as well as the ways in which so many of us could express ourselves in ways other than academic words — songs, dance, drawing, poetry, theatre … and how we should be prepared to connect with each other in all of these ways that are available to us, and that remind us of all the ways that we can never be when we only embrace a uni-dimensional academic mode. For some reason or another, that strong sense of how we began what we began created a hope and a very firm foundation. If we hadn’t started with so much solidity and confidence already there from the beginning, it is hard to say how the journey might have gone.
In a way this takes me back to 2002: this is how the sangtins got their courage to embark on sangtin yatra. Although I did not consciously think of this in those early weeks of the class, it is probably a belief that has become engrained in me through years of working on difficult bordercrossings: if the start to grappling with collectivity is honest and brave, the collective will always emerge creative and powerful in, through, and despite all the ups and downs, as well as the inevitable faults, aches, and gaps.
Traveling with the story of Maria, Olga, Gabi, and Carlotita also tested us. At one point in the class, I felt a sense of competitiveness about whose written creative contributions or stories were going to be valued over whose when it came time to build a performance. The common sense about fairness said: no one’s story should be neglected. This principle, however, could not be applied in a way that extracted equal amounts of each person’s contributions and then artificially mixed them up through some kind of formula about equity. All of us needed a focal point, a node around which our memories, our affects, our accents, our feelings could converge. This is where Esther Ouray’s arrival during Weeks Six and Eight and Tarun’s involvement in the class starting from Week Seven gave me courage. Tarun was never once apologetic about focusing on only one story. He was clear — one story is all we can hope to do justice to. In other words, working critically through formulaic notions of diversity or inclusion or ethics could not work in this context, and rather than preaching about it through texts or lectures or arguments, we all had to feel these issues in and through our own bodies.
It was a few nights before our afternoon class meeting when I first encountered Suheir Hammad’s profound poetry: the first of her two books that were assigned for the class. I found myself reading her lines out loud. Longing to hear her words come to life through the vibrations and intonations of my own voice. Nostalgic for stories of perished Palestinians who walked this earth long before I did, and of those who walk alongside her in journeys yet to come. I felt a lump building up in my throat. My ache, fury, and frustrations were no longer mine alone; they became both Hammad’s and mine, they were ours. I struggled to formulate coherent thoughts for my reflection assignment, as I tried to unknot the intricate knots of stories told and those stories that remained untold in the blank spaces engulfed between poems and stanzas. The words she summoned evoked worlds of oppressions and resistances, sorrows and joy, and an unapologetic mess of anger and pleasure. The worlds she painted released deafening cries for justice. Once confined behind thorny barbed wires and erected apartheid walls cutting across occupied Palestine. Smothered to death in the cobbled narrow alleyways of Brooklyn, New York. Erased from memories of abandoned inner cities in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Drowned in the shallow waters caressing the edges of villages in Manama, Bahrain. Rising to the skies, leaving a trail of echoes behind. Like a spinning wheel, Hammad’s words spun threads of relationality, from distant times, spaces, and corporeal existences, such that her rage for justice was rendered legible and intelligible across unequal locations and languages. It felt all too familiar to my senses and imaginations. I jotted something down. Part of my assignment was to watch and reflect on a short recording of a solo theatrical performance narrating the story of Zionist settlers in occupied Palestine. Richa had asked Esther Ouray, the actor in the play, to visit our class to share her artistic journey of performance and help us develop some scenes from our polyvocal script. I remember watching the video and clicking the pause button at every scene of a journey that the character- Esther- makes from the “diaspora” to the “promised lands of honey and milk”. I could not find the words to describe the emotions flooding my body. Overwhelmed, I turned away from my computer and sat down by my bed to meditate before I fell asleep. The very next morning, I got myself to the Walter Library on the east bank of the University of Minnesota. I made my way to the basement, ordered some coffee, found an empty seat at the back end of the common area, and attempted once again to finish up my assignment. I wrote:
As I reflect on your performance, how do you see embodied translations engaging with critical conversations of decolonization… not as a metaphor, like Tuck and Yang (2012) tell us, but a decolonization that begins from the land? What conversations do you hope that your activism on the stage allows for, and what conversations do you anticipate it foreclosing? What of those who continue to be annihilated, displaced, and robbed so that the “diaspora” can “return”?
I quickly shut my laptop off, wiped the burning tears that rolled down my cheeks, and tried to calm my racing heartbeats, in hopes that none of the students around me noticed my ill-concealed emotions exposed to an ever-proper and put-together academic world. I exited the library, and went about my day. I contemplated whether or not I should go to class. “If a five minute video shook my spirit from within”, I thought to myself, “how could I endure three hours of entertaining an individual whose ethics and politics threaten my sense of safety?” Going back and forth in my mind, arguing and counter-arguing, I finally decided that I was going to go class. It was not merely a question of coming to terms with my own fears, but it was the trust that my classmates, Richa, and I we were able to bestow upon each other, a trust birthed not only from shared pains of shame, sorrow, and anger, but also from the joys of hope–gleaming like sunflowers under the afternoon sun. It was this blossoming of trust and radical vulnerability that allowed me to put faith in the togetherness that we watered with our own tears. A togetherness that I counted on to protect me. While I had no interest in engaging in a debate that does not center the question of land, reparations, and the Palestinians right of return, I realized that this journey that we embarked on together was worth taking a risk for.
As it became clear that we were basing our performance on “Maria’s story,” I felt both honored and uncomfortable. Re-telling, sharing and working on “my” story with the class allowed me to revisit it from perspectives I wouldn’t have been able to on my own. I felt honored to have Richa and my classmates travel with me on that journey, a journey that allowed me to remember, foreground parts of the story I had backgrounded or completely erased. At the same time I feared that my classmates would not feel represented. Everyone in class had shared wonderful, complex stories, so many loose threads we could have picked up to weave beautiful, endless, fragmented pieces. I wondered how their journeys would be different from mine, and how my own experience would have been different had we worked on a different story.
As the weeks passed and we immersed ourselves more fully into the story, that feeling of discomfort dissipated. I believe that reading Playing with Fire and an early draft of some parts of Hungry Translations, gave me/us a clearer sense of the purpose of doing this work and helped us engage more deeply with the politics of storytelling. Everyone seemed to be taking it up, making it theirs, co-owning and co-developing through improvisation and collective revision. The story was no longer “my story,” now entangled with the threads of other stories. Below is an excerpt of what I shared with the class after reading Playing with Fire and as the performance was taking shape:
It becomes very clear through this work how knowledge is produced through intertwining stories and making connections between personal experience, local and global politics and social structures. It is also fascinating how the process of storytelling becomes a way of imagining and enacting different (collective, reflexive, democratic) possibilities.
I see how we’re making many of these connections between our stories and the concepts and ideas that we’ve been reading about in class. Our storytelling exercises have allowed me to detach myself from my own stories and reinterpret them under different lights that highlight the entanglements with class, colonialism, gender and religion. Making these connections, sharing and listening to others’ stories, and seeing how they connect and weave within these socio political dimensions feels refreshing and healing. The burden of the stories that are entangled with “Maria’s story” is no longer only mine. They live outside me as they live within me and they are infused with new meaning as they become legitimized as knowledge. I’m eager to see where this knowledge will lead us, what we’ll produce and enact together.
Postscript: Transformative Reminisces
I have told and re-told the stories in (Re)telling (Dis)appearing Tales to myself multiple times after the play, questioning why I told what I told, why I didn’t tell what I didn’t tell. What did I frontstage, what did I backstage or omit all-together? Was my telling a careful performance, an act of intentional forgetting? I grappled with these questions through the continuing journey of Stories, Bodies, Movements, as Richa, Sara and I traveled to Mexico City and visited the stages of my childhood in which the stories from (Re)telling (Dis)appearing Tales took place.
Places tell their own stories. The inner backyard of the house where I grew up, where my siblings and I biked in circles around the pear tree. A second floor overlooks the garden now and a new patio extends from the kitchen to what used to be the neighbor’s house. The wall we used to climb when we forgot our keys also grew to a high fence that separates the house from the lively street outside, where the children of the viene viene play by the cars their father helps park in double rows.
My grandparents’ house still stands the way I always knew it. The kitchen, where you would always find Carlotita telling us to stay away from her cooking, the small TV on the table constantly playing telenovelas. The big spaces and indoor patio that according to my mom only became dark when the second floor with the library cut the light from the rest of the house. The library was, and still is, full of treasures. There is the headless woman at the entrance, a mannequin wearing a black dress that somebody wore a century ago, a life-sized Virgin Mary with a bandage around her head lying on a shelf with her hands on her chest. There are countless books, photographs and artifacts collected by or given to my grandparents, each of them tells a story. There are photographs with presidents, religious leaders and famous athletes among porcelain jars, crystal sculptures and old classroom desks. As children, we would make our own stories around these artifacts, blowing dust away from old toys and books, keeping distance from the headless woman. I have also heard many stories in that library, some I remember and have made my own, others I forget and always hear for the first time.
And so it is that that day, when uncle Javier gave Richa, Sara and I a tour of the library, I, along with them, stood in awe of the treasures and stories held there. Together they were telling a story that was absent from (Re)telling (Dis)appearing Tales, a story of wealth, transnational mobility, and political power. Was this back staging forgetting or intentional erasing? How would the stories told in and by that library have changed or shaped our experiences in Stories, Bodies, Movements? Did I keep us from stepping into incommensurability, from exploring spaces that might have been uncomfortable, where there might be no reconciliation? Did my silences undermine the collective commitment to radical vulnerability, to come together despite our different histories and geographies? “I’m not here to make anyone comfortable,” writes Suheir Hammad, “ least of all myself” (p.12). Radical vulnerability pushes us to see ourselves and others, to recognize our humanity, as victims and perpetrators, oppressors and oppressed, guilty and innocent. It takes listening, empathy and letting go of judgement. It takes our stories. And yet, as I told mine, I stayed silent, comfortably curled inside the folds of the unsaid.
I didn’t say my grandfather was a well-known architect. Alaina told me she’d looked him up online. Did I tell her? Did I whisper? Did I only imply? I didn’t say he was the president of the organizational committee of the Olympic games in 1968, that he raised his voice and shook his head when he was asked about the killings of Tlatelolco. I didn’t say that he had an entry in the encyclopedia and my friends introduced me as “the granddaughter of Pedro Ramirez Vazquez.” That I would blush and look down, that it made me feel important and I didn’t know what to do with that. Perhaps that’s why I forgot. Ever since that day in recess when Igor called me out, I learned to move my grandfather’s fame to the back of the stage, hoping that somebody else (maybe Igor) would bring it up front stage and make me blush.
I didn’t want to be the smug,
boastful, presumida, ostracized.
Backstage by habit, selectively frontstage
navigate judgement through silence.
I was in high school when I took a theater class in Coyocan that challenged me out to uncomfortable places. There I met David, a guy I liked who was a student by day and taxi driver by night. When the class ended, I invited him to a gathering at my house but never followed up and didn’t see him after that. I was scared he would never see me the same way after he’d seen the walls that separated my world from his. It was a risk I didn’t take.
As I walked through the library with Sara and Richa I knew I was taking a risk I didn’t take in the class. A story they thought they knew, a story they had embodied, made theirs, was perhaps a careful curation, a sanitized version to avoid the grappling across difference that the class was meant to facilitate. Could I have been curating myself away from being the antagonist, while being deeply invested in the possibilities of shared creativity through radical vulnerability? I let go of my story, I gave it up for the group to work with it. Uncertain about why we were working with that story and not with another. Awkwardly feeling a light on the stage, I was eager for others to find a space in the story to relate and make it theirs. Perhaps I was looking to smooth the way, polish edges, avoid tensions, unfold the texture. Make it a story for/of all, no longer mine alone.
The story began for me at Richa’s house, as I told it to Richa and Tarun for the first time, filling gaps based on their questions like pieces of puzzles I didn’t realize were missing. I felt for the first time deeply aware of my constant labor of backgrounding my privileged upbringing. Richa and Tarun helped me to begin painting the in between spaces from where Carlotita seemed to have been erased. Viet Thanh Nguyen, June Jordan and the intimate stories that my classmates had offered in the spirit of radical vulnerability had tended the ground for my telling of Carlotita’s story. Their offerings gave me permission to share mine, gave me permission to be vulnerable. As I wrote a few months after the end of the class, “I was OK being the antagonist and I felt grateful for having the class help me with the task.” But pointing attention to one absence in our stories does not immediately shine a light on other gaps a story leaves behind. Re/telling Dis/appearing tales started with many burdens that remain unsaid. Just (re)membering and (re)telling requires a collective labor of (re)constituting and (re)constructing. It is necessarily messy and imperfect, ripe with contradictions we live by. I am forever grateful for the journey started with Stories, Bodies, Movements, for my co-travelers who constantly push me to rewrite this story, grow with it and (re)create myself in relation to others and the world within it and beyond. This is not an ending.
Places tell their own stories Lush trees Childhood dreams Lilac clouds Cotton candy Buried ube ice-cream Seeping through layers of magical rainbow Shimmery sparkly Unicorn treats Coconut, sweet beans Kamote and jello Oh hello! Hop right in Take a seat Enjoy the show Watch us dance in trance What stories should I reveal From behind this veil Here and now Satisfy bottomless greed Then and there Follow trail of tears Forgotten roots Follow mapping hands Emerald routes Forgotten streams Childhood dreams Tips jar at the end of the hall Mix, mama! Mix!
Richa and I arrived at Aeropuerto Internacional Benito Juárez on a flawless spring afternoon, along with an excited group of Midwestern academics- faculty and graduate students. We all quickly collected our luggage and contemplated the best way to get to the five-star hotel conference venue that brought us all to Mexico City that week. Richa and I were torn since we opted for an Airbnb apartment for the duration of our stay. Eventually, we decided to stick with the group given that the apartment was within a walking distance from the hotel. Of the five of us, one faculty claimed to have been to Mexico on several occasions for research purposes and offered to order an Uber ride on our behalf. Soon after, a dark sedan pulled over in the parking lot where we were waiting. In what sounded like Spanglish, the faculty confirmed that the driver was ours before we hopped into the car.
The sun hung high in the clear blue skies. Snuggled in the middle car seat between two rolled down windows and three warm bodies, my mind began to drift in the caressing of the hot breeze blowing in and massaging the car ever so gently, back and forth through the stop and go city traffic, the chatters and honks slowly transforming into a synchronized lullaby, easing me into a much-needed siesta. Fifteen minutes later, the car came to a full stop in front of a grand hotel entrance. A bellhop opened the door to my right and out we hopped, one after another, like a stack of matryoshka dolls. Before we parted ways, the faculty in charge huddled us up to pay back what we -students and faculty- owed to the last penny, in the name of equality. “Strange Americans,” I thought to myself. Once our debt was paid off, Richa and I said our see-you-laters and tried to figure out our next move in these new terrains.
Neither of us had been to Mexico before, nor did we speak Spanish or Spanglish or any other variation of the language. Yet, as words weaved their way between charming street sellers- ambulantes- and fast paced tourists, my ears slowly began decoding the signal off the waves, digging through the noise, and amplifying familiar vibrations that sounded very much like the Tagalog I learnt from my mother growing up. While I never went to school in the Philippines, nor did I ever receive any formal Filipino linguistic training, I learned Tagalog as a child singing Filipino lullabies and rhymes along with my mother while she made lunch in the kitchen, or snuggling with her on our couch to watch Filipino teleseryes, or listening in on her conversations with Filipino family and friends, or responding to her marching orders to do chores around the house or babysit my siblings like the good Anák and Áte I was supposed to be. The sounds that I have come to recognize here in Mexico City traced back to three hundred and fifty years of direct colonial Hispanicization of Tagalog, before Colonial Spain decided to sell the Philippines archipelago- then part of its Colonial East Indies Territory- to the United States for a sum of $20 million in 1898, following the Philippine revolution.
Places tell their own stories
squalls driving rain
Haunting swirling pain
Touching breaking chains
Dancing in formation
over bald eagles
songs of a violin
Down in Acapulco
we shall meet
All ashore that’s going ashore
Next stop Manila
Run, sisters! Run!
Places tell their own stories
secret gardens of elsewhere
Out of sight, out of mind
Where wicked nightmares
Sprout and bloom
Take a kneel
All we want to do is heal
Pear trees shaking
tickles of a breeze
heaven poking beanstalks
Down came tumbling an angel
Stunned chalk white
Like the moonlight
Won’t you hear my fervent prayers?
Help, Marisol! Help!
My heart was pounding, pushing against my ribs, barely contained in its cage as Maria, Richa, and I hopped out of the vien vien and assembled in front of Maria’s grandparents’ grand entrance on a quiet- perhaps too quiet- clear sunny day. No melodies in the air, or honking cars by rushing to get somewhere. I looked around but no one else was on the street. No ambulantes of tamales or elotes next to lumbering aluminum pots, nor bodies swaying to beats. There weren’t any women tending to small metal coal stoves heating tacos or quesadillas on hotplates, nor could I spot any baskets of sweet bread balancing on cargo bicycles on street corners.
Maria excitedly pressed a button on the side wall to ring a bell announcing our arrival. The cedar brown door opened, and a middle-aged gentleman – the butler, welcomed us in with a warm smile. He walked us into the big house from the side entrance, retracing Carlotita’s steps to her sun-lit green and white kitchen. I was eager to see my old friend. At the kitchen door, we were greeted by a middle-aged lady– Carlotita’s replacement, alongside our Carlotita’s spirit. The air was soaked in excitement. She and Maria were exchanging words in Spanish while Richa and I explored around. “Nothing changed in this kitchen since Carlotita left two decades ago,” Maria said. I noticed a little television box with two antennas sticking out like porcupine quills on the counter next to the entrance door, just below the windows overseeing the indoor parking space.
I imagined Carlotita shedding tears for betrayals and heartbreaks on telenovelas here, cheering joyfully for each goal scored by her favorite soccer team, or waiting anxiously to learn of the uprisings in Chiapas and Guerrero- all while stirring a hot pot of sopa on the stovetop for young Gabbi’s dinner. It made me think of all the times my Tita Yoli stirred a hot pot of my favorite soup, sinigang na manok, for our lunch- my father, my siblings, and I- while my mother worked twelve-hour shifts six days a week. It is only through my Tita Yoli that I dared to imagine Carlotita’s struggles. Yet, besides private conversations with Richa and Tarun, I never spoke of my tita with classmates in Stories, Bodies, Movements. Was it a question of building courage to overcome my own sense of shame and reveal that which I thought was wrong with my kin, or was it a question of trusting myself and an emerging collective with the sanctity of my stories? Did I not give myself permission to embrace radical vulnerability? I cannot help but wonder about all the possible paths that we could have taken had I allowed the stories told in and by our kitchens to take the lead and show us the way- no guarantees.
Places tell their own stories
Empty infinite maze
No light no air heavy space
headless breathless cold gaze
Boxes echoes dust and frames
Trophies and treaties Handshakes and award
Tonight we celebrate all that we’ve worked towards
Clinking glasses roaring masses
Ringing won’t stop in my ear
They’ve been talking about me
since nineteen fifty
pulling threads of curated stories
play at your own risk
games for the president and the priest
kings and queens
What is it about museums that makes me feel so small?
Places tell their own stories
Take me to Zocalo
Home of the sun and the moon
Twisting and turning
Explosion of colors
Locked in an embrace
Locked in a time locked in a place
Finger tips arching
heavy juicy Yafa oranges
under raging hooves
Serving in the woods
rumbling beneath ruins
tasting the year’s harvest
Won’t you rise and join us, elders?
Quick, take a selfie! Click, click!