Thursday, October 19, 2017

Where Indigenous Rites Prevail

Where Indigenous Rites Prevail

Daniel Cano                                                              



    The van moves north, along the highway R. Larrainzar. It rises gently up a green mountain, just outside San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas. Below, I see ranches and settlements in the valleys, a peaceful sight, but my mind is a torrent of questions.

    Silvia, a woman I met on a tour to Palenque told me, “I didn’t feel safe there at all. And I’m from Mexico” Her traveling companion, Esteban, a college student from Valencia, Spain said, “It is a strange town, really strange.” Their friend, Paco, a hotel manager from Granada, Spain, said, “I felt the people didn’t like us. But it is enchanting. You must go.”

    The driver pulls into a dirt parking space at the edge of town. I am the last one out. I’ve heard about children selling bracelets and trinkets harassing visitors upon entering town. The children don’t bother with this van. I chose to take a local from the mercado. I am the only mestizo on board. The rest are Mayans.

    San Juan Chamula isn’t much at first sight, mostly air, space, and a view of the mountains, dotted with homes and the blue sky beyond. I see few people on the streets. Municipal buildings surround the large, square concrete plaza. There are few trees. At the far end, vendors set up booths. At the other end, where I stand, three large crosses rise on a raised stage. Chamula is the only town in Mexico governed by indigenous Maya, mostly Tzotzil.
    I see a young woman holding a child, standing before a souvenir stand. I buy Zapatista dolls from her. I ask if I can take a picture of her. She is nervous, but she agrees. She wears a skirt made of sheep's wool.


    I hear drums and trumpets. It isn’t a song but a repetition of five or six dissonant notes, and the same drumbeat. A procession of men, more than fifty, all wearing white and black sheep’s wool tunics and cowboy hats, comes toward three crosses, the musicians among them. One man carries a cross.

    A handful of tourists stands to watch. A blonde woman takes out her camera. As she raises it, a voice from the middle of procession hollers, angrily, “No fotos!” The woman nearly drops her camera as she shoves it into her bag. Without anyone noticing, I snap a picture from my camera hanging at my side. I can’t see what I’m photographing, maybe just the ground or sky. Another tourist, a young man, slowly raises his camera. Voices from the procession threaten him if he doesn’t lower the camera. He does, quickly. A voice calls, “Touristas, cabrones.” Another voice hollers, “Matenlos todos.” Laughter erupts from the middle of the procession as the men pass.

    I read that Chamulans expelled all evangelical Christians from the city for criticizing the way Chamulans practiced Christianity.  For years, traditionalist Catholics in San Cristobal have abhorred the Chamulan rites and have tried to excommunicate them from the Church. But progressive priests, going back to Bartolome de las Casas and more recently Bishop Samuel Ruiz, saw Chamulan rites as a beautiful thing, the blend of religious and social cultures.

    Chamulans believe their religious practice is a life and death struggle, something they’ve lived with since the Spanish invasion of 1519. To escape enemy eyes and ears, the Chamulan churches serve as religious, businesses, and social centers.

    Today, politicians in Mexico City know that Chamulans influence elections throughout Chiapas. During election time, politicians utter, “So goes San Juan Chamula, so goes Chiapas.” Chamulans control much of the trucking, including exporting and importing goods, especially soft drinks, which is like gold to the Maya. Sadly, Mexico's political parties are dividing Chamulans and causing violence not seen in years.

    When the procession reaches the temple of San Juan, sacred throughout Mexico, the marchers have doubled in size, including tourist at the rear. I join them and pay twenty pesos to enter the ancient temple, a small but charming structure, white with a blue trim.


    As I walk through the doors, the thick, pungent smoke blinds me. It’s difficult breathing. The ominous melody from the trumpets, drums, and now an accordion, echo, as if we’re in a cave. As my eyes clear, I see thousands of candles lighting the interior walls. Life-size statues lean against the walls, Catholic saints, I assume, mirrors on their chests. Some say Chamulans believe the reflection wards off evil spirits.

    Behind a rope, a sign reads, in Spanish, German, and English, “No visitors beyond this point.” As I look for a place to sit, I am disoriented. Then I realize there are no benches or pews, only a thick coating of pine needles covering the church floor. I turn to a Mayan man standing behind me and ask him why? He doesn’t answer my question. Mayan women and children, talking quietly, sit on the pine needles. It’s said that women conduct much of the community's business.

    The procession and musicians move forward slowly along one wall until they have surrounded the altar. Leaders, wearing high peaked hats with flowing blue and red ribbons, stand on the altar and give directions. My eyes rise to see the crucified Christ above the altar. But there is no cross and no Christ. Instead, in a glass case, stands John the Baptist. Not sure of what I’ve seen, I close my eyes. My heart pounds. I open my eyes. Through the lingering incense, I see it is John the Baptist, no doubt. The people at his feel look like specters moving about in a trance.

    Tourists press against me, closing in. I search for a way forward, to get a better view, or, maybe, to purge the evil spirits that lurk inside me. I slide, as if floating, through a separation in the rope. I stand there, hoping nobody notices me. Near the altar, a “no trespassing” sign, larger than the first, is posted on a gate. I’m not sure how much time has passed, ten minutes, an hour? Time doesn’t matter here. It doesn't exist. I move towards the gate, careful not to raise unwanted attention.

    More women join those already sitting on the floor. At the altar, men carry trays full of glasses, each with a silvery liquid--posh, I’ve come to learn, a strong fermented drink, a root from a plant used in Mayan religious ceremonies. Drunkenness, they say, is a sign of spiritual connection with “other” world. The mirrors on the saints’ chests also help a released spirit find his way back.

    I am close to the altar. Something inside me stirs. It's hard to explain. The men pass the drinks among themselves until empty glasses fill the tray. I stoop low. The music is a meditation. A few minutes later, men appear carrying more trays with glasses, this time a dark liquid inside. A man carrying plastic bottles of Coca Cola follows him. The coca plant was once a main ingredient in Coca-Cola. The soda makes them burp, and the Chamulan Maya believe burping exhales evil spirits. I have no idea the connection between the drink and Christianity, except maybe John the Baptist lived on plant roots.

    At the foot of the altar, the musicians continue their haunting melody. No one notices me, or if they do, they say nothing. More tourists have moved forward. I keep my eyes lowered. I find a place on the pine needles and sit, the smells rising to my head. I am in a state of contemplation. Nothing appears real. A sense of freedom fills me. Later, in my journal, I will write, ""It's difficult to explain what I experienced in the church of San Juan this afternoon."

    Time passes. Even without the drink, the ritual is intoxicating. The air is thick. Reverentially, the men continue passing the drinks. Some stand with arms crossed. Some teeter. Eventually, I am overwhelmed, my senses inundated. The service continues as I exit through a side entrance.

    Outside, I breathe in the clear mountain air. I’m in a large courtyard surrounded by white walls. A Mayan, drunk, hardly able to walk, approaches me. He babbles something I can’t understand. He looks angry. His flails his arms. Another man comes, apologizes for his friend, and takes him away.

    When I return to the parking lot, the vans are gone. A man tells me the van service stops at 7:00 P.M. He points to the taxi stand where two taxis wait. It’s dusk; the sun barely lights the mountaintops.

     One of the drivers, an older man, raises his hand. Next to him is a old model Toyota. It has seen, as they say, its better days. I ask him about the vans, as if I need a second opinion. He confirms the only way back to San Cristobal is by taxi or walking. He gives me a price. I accept.

     The driver, Geronimo, is Tzotsil Maya, and as he drives, he explains everything I’m seeing, who owns the ranches and who lives in the lone settlements, the process to cure sheep’s wool and turn it into clothing, and the different languages and beliefs of the various Maya clan throughout Chiapas.

    I ask Geronimo if Chamulans believe St. John the Baptist is mightier than Jesus. He hesitates, as if I’ve asked him to divulge a secret. “Some say so,” is all he answers.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Los Gatos Black on Halloween

Written by Marisa Montes
Illustrated by Yuyi Morales

  • Age Range: 4 - 8 years
  • Grade Level: Preschool - 3
  • Paperback: 32 pages
  • Publisher: Square Fish
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1250079454
  • ISBN-13: 978-1250079459

Follow los monstruos and los esqueletos to the Halloween party in this bilingual poem written by Marisa Montes, with illustrations by award-winning author and illustrator Yuyi Morales

Under October's luna, full and bright, the monsters are throwing a ball in the Haunted Hall. Las brujas come on their broomsticks. Los muertos rise from their coffins to join in the fun. Los esqueletos rattle their bones as they dance through the door. And the scariest creatures of all aren't even there yet!

This lively bilingual Halloween poem introduces young readers to a spooky array of Spanish words that will open their ojos to the chilling delights of the season.

Los Gatos Black on Halloween is a 2007 Bank Street - Best Children's Book of the Year, the winner of the 2008 Pura Belpré Medal for Illustration and a Pura Belpré Honor Book for Narrative.

Marisa Montes practiced family law and worked in legal publishing before she began writing full-time. Marissa has written several picture books, novels, and chapter books for children. She was born in Puerto Rico.

Award-winning author and illustrator Yuyi Morales is the author of Caldecott Honor and Pura Belpré (Illustrator) Medal-winning Viva Frida, Pura Belpré (Illustration) Medal and Pura Belpré (Narrative) Honor book Los Gatos Black on Halloween, stunning bilingual bedtime story Little Night/Nochecita, Rudas: Niño's Horrendous Hermanitas, and other picture books for young readers. She also illustrated Thunder Boy Jr., written by Sherman Alexie.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Through a Lens Brightly, Or Not At All. Teatro Festivals.

Michael Sedano

I chalked it up to rasquachi art enterprises and let it go. I got a copy of the publication in the mail and a private apology from the publisher who’d stolen a photograph I’d shared on social media. "I couldn't find you," he said. Now I watermark anything I post.  But it wasn’t rasquachi when a Madrileño website splashed another photograph, then groused at my fee when I invoiced them. The editor vowed never to do business with me again.

So there’s a truism in business: It’s intellectual property theft only when you get caught. Photographers', and people's rights to memories, get caught up in some institutions’ presumptions that someone in their public will make public use of images without approval nor compensation. Maybe it’s the business dictum “you don’t give away what you sell” operating in those “no photography” galleries, who have a gift shop to support. But that’s a rare attitude among first-rate places like Los Angeles’ Autry museum. That's why the prohibition on photography in one show there is so perplexing.

Most major institutions permit photography. The Louvre. The British Library. Museo del Prado. You can’t photograph Guernica in Reina Sofia. El Castillo de Chapultepec used to allow cameras, more recently I was informed a guard would take my camera if I raised it. El Museo de la Antrolopología has no qualms about lenses. In LA, LACMA, the Norton Simon, the Huntington all allow photographs, save an occasional show.
In pre-prohibition years, the foto captures the scale of Gozalez-Camarena's
magnificent evocation of 500 años cultural fusion.
There’s a special irony in prohibiting photos at a photo show, the long-sequestered negatives of La Raza newspaper. Blacking out photography is like the images came up for air, saw the light of day for a few weeks, then sank back into memory with nary an artifact to mark their place.. A third rueful irony comes in the p.r. copy for the exhibition.

archive of nearly 25,000 images created by these photographers, now housed at the Chicano Studies Research Center at UCLA, provides the foundation for an exhibition exploring photography’s role in articulating the social and political concerns of the Chicano Movement during a pivotal time in the art and history of the United States.

If photography still plays a role in “articulating etc.” there’s a big lacuna where this historic exhibit came and went with only a few “official” frames. No one is welcome to join excited gente at the exhibition, sharing reflections on important images and memories of coming-of-age events. Maybe someone sees themselves and wants a before and after portrait.

Nope. Nel. Chale. No one can grab La Raza memories off an Autry wall.

Someone—the Autry, the curator, UCLA, La Raza photographers—doesn’t want those personal images to exist. No cameras. No photography. What you remember is all you will ever have. Eventually, the exhibit will be a smear of good feeling on memory's windshield

No photography. It’s a challenging mentality. I find it mindless. In businesses other than art museums, flexibility is the best policy. Zero tolerance answers any suggestion to alter the policy. I’ve heard the arguments from curators and random Facebook flamers. No photos protects intellectual property. Punto. An absolute.

At dinner one evening I enjoyed a table conversation with various NHCC gente including the curator of the centro’s stunning El Torreón. Frederico Vigil covered the interior of the 45 foot tall cone with a raza history epic in fresco. No photos, the museum wants to control how their images are used in public. And the minimal likelihood of copyright violation by a private user? The museum has no control over who takes a photo, there might be a pro in the tower. Any private user could splash an image on their personal website without attribution, just a cool image. To assuage hurt feelings, NHCC offers a spectacular media experience on the internet. If you don’t have a screen, you’re out of luck. No personal fotos allowed.

I was happy to see the directors relent. Of course, I can take fotos of the people taking Vigil’s tour, just no direct frames of only wall.

That’s a really excellent compromise the Autry would do well to emulate. Those snapshots add to the fun of attending art shows. Fun becomes a compelling reason to return. Jackbooted absolutism gives one pause, what else will they control? Can I trust the snack bar?

The most unfortunate harm of all in the complexities of the decision to prohibit photographs falls on individuals.

What the museum or owner fears--the photograph—is a prosthesis for memory. For gente with short or damaged memories, especially, but for anyone, a foto is an aide-memoire providing substance not otherwise obtainable. So here is an ultimate irony. One’s most personal intellectual property--knowledge and experience—suffers abuse in an effort to prevent abusing intellectual property.

Magu and Beto de la Rocha pose in front of Oscar Castillo's © foto of  them with Los 4, taken 40 years earlier. Obviously,
not prohibiting fotos allowed this now rare image to exist at all. QEPD Magu.
One internet flamer huffed that I don’t know anything about curation and intellectual property if I think the Autry’s prohibition on memory mindless. Gratuitously the flamer told me not to attend if I felt that way! What dire offense from foto denial springs. Of course I’m going to attend and not take fotos. I’m a member and entry is free. Wouldn't it be ironic if I get there and discover the rumor about no fotos is chisme?

Photographer’s note; the Autry’s dim lighting makes grabbing a foto not really worth the effort. But ni modo. No fotos. Punto.

Encuentro De Las Américas Coming to LATC

Three weeks, fourteen productions, from the Américas, in English, in Spanish. Los Angeles' most local theatre west of the river.

Click here for details and tickets.

Chicago's Latino Museum in Teatro Fest

Monday, October 16, 2017

Interview of DaMaris B. Hill

Interview of DaMaris B. Hill by Xánath Caraza

DaMaris B. Hill, Ph.D.

Xánath Caraza (XC): Who is DaMaris B. Hill?

DaMaris B. Hill (DBH): The short answer is that I’m sugar&spice, scribbler&scholar, feminist in flow & digital by design. An accurate answer is more like I’m figuring it out everyday. I know who I am. I know what is important to me, but who I am as a writer changes.  I don’t rule of the work.  The work, the subjects, the characters, they tell me who they are.  They tell me what to write, sometimes they tell what I cannot say.  They correct me when I write them wrong. I define myself as a poet and prose writer. One that knows the rules of writing, but enjoys negotiating and breaking them – primarily because I don’t know of rule or a law that was designed to aid black women in my lifetime – so the time I take to analyze, negotiate and evade constraints may stem from that civic centered embodied knowledge –

XC: As a child, who first introduced you to reading?  Who guided you through your first readings? 

DBH: My parents were probably the first to introduce me to writing.  Books were everywhere in my childhood.  My parents didn’t play much music in the house.  I heard music at church or in the cars. Many people in my family, including my parents, are clergy people.  My baby food was flavored with religious metaphor.

XC: How did you first become a poet/writer? 

DBH: I became a writer, because I loved language. I think I also became a poet because it was an art form that could be jotted down on single pieces of paper and easily hidden. I didn’t tell anyone that I was a writer for a long time. My family found out when I won the Hurston/Wright Award for College Writers in 2003. That is when I finally told them. My first poems were written on church bulletins and programs – all in the margins. I also wrote them in school notebooks like most people do when they don’t have a formal journal. I never did trust diaries. I had a few, but I felt they garnered attention. Surely, someone would read a pretty ornamental diary that belongs to a curious young girl.

I think I first published my poems in a college literary journal at Morgan State University. My friend, a poet and photographer, named Anna Stone-I think she was the first to publish my work. I’m not sure what impact those publications had on me. I still get nervous when I see my work in print. I was most likely very anxious when I saw my work in print.

XC: Do you have any favorite poems by other authors?  Or stanzas?  Could you share some verses along with your reflection of what drew you toward that poem/these stanzas?

DBH: I have a few favorite poets. My love for Lucille Clifton’s work is at the top of the list. The Book of Light is the poetry book that love most. “Climbing” comes to mind as one of my favorite poems. My favorite line in the poem “her dangling braids the color of rain”. That image continues to dance in my mind.
I rise toward it, struggling,
hand over hungry hand.
I love how the image of the hair resonates with symbolism of hair in a spiritual context and a long poetic legacy.

XC: What is a day of creative writing like for you?

DBH: The best writing days begin in bed. I like it when I can write four pages on a yellow legal pad with a black extra fine point pen, before getting out. I like to sit for a minimum of four hours and write.  I never write more than two weeks in the same place; it slows my productivity. I write in several spaces.  I write at home in my study, at various coffee houses, at my office in the library at the University of Kentucky, sometimes in the car – I record my thoughts using a recorder on the phone… I try to write everyday, but I cannot write well on days I teach.  I am too distracted by time and appointments to concentrate like I like to. If I don’t write every few days, I can become a bit of a grouch.

XC: Could you describe your activities as poet?

DBH: Observing. Listening. Respecting.

XC: Could you comment on your life as a cultural activist? 

DBH: I am not good at commenting on my life as a cultural activist. I have a list of causes that are important to me. I have a list of things that I have done. Keeping these records are necessary to for my position at the University of Kentucky.  What I value is love, love as an action, love that asserted in a world that has been gorging on hate.

XC: What projects are you working on at the moment?

DBH: Currently, I am revising a manuscript for publication, A Bound Woman Is a Dangerous Thing.   The book was recently acquired and is forthcoming with Bloomsbury Publishing.  I am very excited about this book.  The poems in A Bound Woman Is a Dangerous Thing, honor African American women that have had experiences with incarceration, some of whom have organized resistance movements over the last two centuries.  The poems question what are the ripple effects and losses of the immediate inequalities and killings associated with this time in our collective history. I have really enjoyed creating remixes to some of the poems in this manuscript. A sample creative writing in digital spaces project that was born out of this manuscript can be found here, “Shut Up In My Bones”.  Others will follow.

XC: What advice do you have for other poets?

DBH: Read everything.  Know your tribe.  Apply to and attend writers retreats, like The Watering Hole or residencies like The MacDowell Colony, in order to get more specific training and advice – also to be in community with other poets/writers.  Try to get a bit of new art (of any medium and genre) in everyday.

XC: What else would you like to share?

DBH: Be kind to one another.