Mexico, between life and death

The duality of life and death in Mexico, of injustice and resistance, is a balance struck, many times, in the favor of death, injustice, and oblivion.

In Día de los Muertes, a ritual born out of indigenous sentires and saberes, is celebrated all over Mexico, and is especially a strong tradition in the states of Michoacán and Oaxaca. I traveled to Oaxaca de Juarez a week ago, the capital of the southern Mexican State to participate and witness the rituals and devotion to both life and death. It was during my eight hour bus ride south that, suddenly surprised at my own devotion, I realized it would be my third year in a row traveling to Oaxaca during that time of year.

It is in Oaxaca where I have learned to value the devotion and compassion people exert in their celebration of death that strengthens their connection to life. As I walked the city’s streets and the walkways of illuminated cemeteries I suddenly realized that as we celebrated the culture and ritual of death, we perhaps neglected to see how we rub shoulders with it every day: the alcoholism of our rural compxs, the poverty of vendors, the hunger of those who musicalize our ritual.  Even within our devotion of día de los muertos there exists olvidadxs, disappearances and the ignored presence of the starving, suffering and agonizing. As a tradition that is now celebrated globally, thanks to the Mexican and Mexican-American diaspora, people have become attracted and even entranced by the sublime relationship Mexicans have forged with death. Yet as tourists flock to cemeteries, their desire to celebrate their lives, to enjoy and consume a fascination with death, makes it easier to forget and better ignore the indigenous and poor vendors and workers who cater to enhance the lives of others in order for they themselves to survive.

Yet in Mexico, this unfair relationship between life and death is perpetuated and made complex through the disappearances, the absences and the repression of students, of activists, of mujeres, of the rural, the poor and those whose death is almost justifiable collateral for the lives and comforts of those who wield more power. Just three months ago, 43 students from Ayotzinapa, a teacher training college in the state of Guerrero, southwest Mexico, were ambushed and disappeared on the night of 26 September. Ayotinzapa has historically been a bastion of resistance and its students have taken up activist roles that have often challenged the Mexican state, demanding a rural and community based approach to education and social justice. Since the 26 of September, a series of mass graves have been discovered just outside Iguala, though it’s as yet unconfirmed whether they contain the bodies of the students. In light of Ayotinzapa, we celebrate death from Oaxaca to Mexico City and in East Los Angeles. In our communities, death and olvido, inform collective existence in the same measure as life and celebration. But how do we celebrate death when we are denied a collective right to life? How can our rituals become resistance, to demand the right to exist as we are, or as we hope to be?

During my time in Oaxaca I was able to visit a special exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, a poem by David Huerta dedicated to Ayotzinapa:

Ayotzinapa, David Huerta, Oaxaca.
Ayotzinapa, David Huerta, Oaxaca.

“Who reads this should also know
That despite it all
The dead are not gone
Nor have they made them disappear

That the magic of the dead
Is in the dawn and the ladle
On foot and in the cornfields
In the drawings and in the river..”

It was a beautiful exhibition and ode that inspires anyone who reads it to love and fight ardently for life, to remember why it is important, to realize that in the context of so much death, to recuperate life among the destruction and violence.

Coming back to Mexico City, I attended a vigil at el Zocalo this past Tuesday, where people gathered around candles, one for each of the 43 disappeared students of Ayotzinapa, in an act of collective remembrance and resistance. Upon taking in the beautiful scene, the candles and the small group of people, I took in the panorama of the daunting and even violent looking government palace that loomed over us. And to our right and immediate surrounding was an even larger group of federal police officers, armed with their plastic shields and uniformed and looking slightly dreary. Suddenly struck by this scene, by the contrast between hope and defiance, and violence and compliance, I become more intimately conscious that this duality exists in subtle violence all over the country. Ultimately underneath the garb of police uniform and shields, of our protest posters and t-shirts that exclaim justice for Ayotzinapa, we all face the violence of indifference and corruption.

Yet the symbolism of this contrast, of those who seek justice and those who are paid to suppress it, isn’t a new scene to Mexico. I’ve witnessed it even within our celebrations of death in Oaxaca, in our celebration of life in Mexico City, and in the silences and absences of the thousands who have disappeared, whose absences have gone unnoticed with the exception of their families and those who once knew them: the 43 students disappeared in Ayotzinapa, femicides in Juarez and el Estado de México, pobreza, olvido, soledad e injusticia. Yet truly transcending death and celebrating life is a matter of tipping the scales in favor of life, of every person’s right to exist. The growing solidarity with the missing students in Ayotzinapa is proof that Mexico in general is capable of shifting the imbalance between life and death. Here in Mexico, as in our greater communities, this is a possibility, only if we demand this right not only from any state, but by working continuously to ensure that we promote life in everything we do, demanding our collective right to exist, our right to life, where death is not an imposition but a natural extension of a dignified life.

fronteras: a re-encuentro with the borderlands

I find myself deeply re-reading Migrant Imaginaries, a book by Alicia Schmidt Camacho, that explores the historical and contemporary dynamics of the transborder migratory circuit that traverses the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.

I first read this book back in 2011 while a student at UC Santa Cruz, as part of my favorite undergraduate course of my Latin American and Latina/o Studies major. This book recaps various perspectives from early border scholars like Americo Paredes and late twenty century Chicana feminists like Cherie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua. It overviews what I come to interpret as the fragmented mexican imaginary: México de afuera, México de adentro, México profundo and México fragmentado – or as Americo Paredes once identified it, Greater Mexico: the borderlands.

As I re-read Imaginaries, I prepare to apply to the Fulbright program, hoping to conduct a research project about contemporary transborder solidarity in the context of increasingly violent and hostile domestic policy on both sides of the border.

And much like that time of intellectual and personal growth experienced and endured as a student, I deeply connect these parts as chapters of my perpetual awakening as a I traverse through many borders, through many worlds. Only that today I feel more well versed in the ritual of positioning my experience before theories, of the conversation and exchange of these as spiritual and intellectually healing and enriching processes.

It is incredible how while coming across this literary and theoretical treasure via an on-line search for my literature review, I remember having seen the “luminous Santa Niña de Mochis” as an image by artist Alma Lopez that graces the cover of a book already buried in my bookshelf. Years since graduating, years since first leaving to Mexico City (and the subsequent choreographies of crossborder traversing), and an entire life living within the borderlands, it is a literal and intellectual unearthing. A wiping away of collected dust of the passage of time, the dimming of college-aged epiphanies, and a re-encuentro with the remnants of the intellectual parlance among compxs. Only that now, post-everything that I’ve lived seen felt and experienced since that time of intellectual incubation, everything is suddenly more illuminated, más tangible, más fuerte.

Supongo que de eso se trata la construcción, this is construction. Como las palabras sirven para articular las experiencias que tejen las teorías, que en alguna vez pudieron articular nuestrxs silencios y ausencias, what once was inarticulate even to our own imagination. Y que con la persistencia del tiempo y del viaje podemos borrar hasta las fronteras entre teoría y practica, y fomentar y compartir los aprendizajes del proceso cíclico que se experimenta como andantes de fronteras. The erasure of the borders that sever theory from practice, and the possibilities there incubated:

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She inhabits the borderlands. She stays, awakens the dead, and tries to “make whole what has been smashed at this unnatural boundary.” Santa Niña de Mochis, habitante de nuestras fronteras, “she is the maker of worlds.”

Cursilerías bibliotecarias

The Chicanx Resource Center in East L.A. is like the Biblioteca Vasconcelos of the barrio; it’s both grand and epic and impeccably stocked with books on Mexican and Latin American History. Though it is quaint in size, I can walk and contemplate the books on all seven aisles and feel as if it is a complete and impressive collection of history, of the border, of the barrio and of the inspiration inflicted by all of these on the humyn spirit and our struggle to translate our struggles in order to transcend them. While I was walking down the aisles I was overcome by the urge to cry, to let my tears intertwine with the wonderful rivers of words and letters I saw form all around me. I was suddenly and quite fatally overcome by the realization that I, along with the thousands of authors here featured and their millions of readers, was witness to the grandeur of life and experience, and of the quest to capture life within the both hard and soft covers of books. I realize my current heartaches have been translated before and thousands of times over and that my struggle isn’t completely unique in the struggles among the children of borderlands. My solitude was not only shaken but I quickly rediscovered the beauty of writing, of the power transmitted by a collection of borderless voices, and the importance and beauty of a Chicanx Resource Center. It is a place where feelings and words converge, to wake us of our pain in solitude, our perturbing loneliness and our untranslatable experiences.

I swim amidst words that spell out meXicana encounters and bind together the profoundness of thought of chicanx poetisas like Gloria Anzaldúa. I swim among the waves of letters of borderlands and historias y nostalgias de las patrias. It has revived the feelings and saberes that my Mexico City querido is with my everywhere I travel and my pochoteca spirit has been reignited by the resilency that emanates from books and from these mahogany tables as if to remind me of the buoyancy of translated feelings. Resisting the urge to cry all over a hard copy of John Ross’s El Monstruo..¡Me siento viva!

Mexico City: Pochoteca Perspectives

I want to share a short piece I wrote up back in 2012, during my second stay in Mexico City, for the community paper Brooklyn and Boyle. I was born in Los Angeles but made my way to Mexico City through two different study abroad programs via UC Santa Cruz.

I studied in la UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) in 2011 and I also conducted a field research project on the youth student movement #YoSoy132 in 2012.

It has absolutely been a love affair in every sense of the cliché: the deep connection and transmission of new knowledges and awareness, the learning and un-learning, the joy, the thrill, and the heartbreak.

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And to the happiness and (mostly) playful ridicule of my communities, I will perpetually write, sing, and dance odes to el Dfectuoso:

Where does a child of the Boyle Heights experience – Chicana-but-not-really, more Mexican than ‘American’, better-not-call-me Pocha – daughter of Mexican migrants fit into the cultural and social scheme of things in Mexico City?

What I have learned through living a total of nine months in el Dfectuoso is that I don’t fit into any one category and etiqueta because, really, no one does, not in Mexico City or in Boyle Heights.

Growing up in a community with a large Mexican migrant population and listening to my parent’s stories of their childhood in Durango, I grew up surrounded with this sense of uprootedness, displacement and yearning. I yearned to return to Mexico. I wasn’t born within its geographical border but I had always felt Mexico’s presence ever since I could remember. Listening to Los Tigres del Norte at backyard family parties, the bi-monthly conversations with family in Durango, looking into the mirror and seeing a reflection of frizzy curly hair and dark brown skin – I knew that the realities I felt and confronted everyday were informed by this strange and mysterious entity that was simultaneously very present and far away.

When I researched study abroad programs as an undergrad at UC Santa Cruz I knew I wanted to study abroad in Latin America. As a Latin American and Latina/o studies and Politics major I wanted to learn and study completely immersed within a Spanish-speaking cultural and social space. In this search for authenticity, I decided to study in Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico (UNAM) to learn about Mexico in Mexico from Mexicans.

When I arrived to Mexico City, my senses were bombarded with noise, smell, and pollution. The sights and smells were dizzying and overpowering. In an effort to adjust myself mentally and corporally, during the first weeks I would travel in a pack of fellow exchange students attempting to normalize what surrounded me. I was warned by friends who had experienced life in El Dfectuoso to never speak English in public, especially not in open-air mercados like Tepito (to do such a thing was an invitation to be swindled by proprietors in any puesto) to always be alert when riding el Metro and to keep watch of wallets, cell phones and backpacks – the list of tips, warnings and advice was endless.

During these first months I remember yearning acceptance, to walk down the halls of UNAM’S Facultad de Filosofía y Letras and be seen as a student, a Mexican student. For the most part, because of my appearance I blended into the crowd splendidly, but as soon as I opened my mouth to order tacos, to give the taxi driver directions or to participate in a class discussion I knew que me echaba de cabeza, I would suddenly reveal my true self: a non-chilanga, an extranjera, a pocha. My strange way of speaking would solicit questions and inquiry: “¿De donde eres? ¿Del norte de México? Ah, eres de California..¡Chicana geruhl!”

I recall experiencing profound confusion and sadness. I wanted acceptance but I wanted to be who I was fully, speak Spanglish when it came naturally, to be myself while being conscious of the social borders and spaces people navigated daily. Living in Mexico for six months I learned that people navigate and struggle with social, cultural, racial and economic codes and barriers like people do in the U.S.. Racism and classism is very present in the national subconscious and is seen plastered throughout the city in advertisements, nightlife social dynamics, street side encounters, and public transportation systems.

Eventually I began to understand that Mexicans, just like anyone other community, aren’t homogenous. I came to understand more and more through daily encounters and conversations with friends and classmates that the romanticized charro and adelita do not exist, but that there are millions of unique, interesting, and complex souls that make up and inhabit the urban sprawl known as Mexico City.

It was then that I understood that when I came to live in chilangolandia, my presence added pochoteca flavor – providing my perspective into class discussions on migration and neoliberalism, sharing my experiences and struggles and slowly building those bridges between communities severed by national borders and cultural misunderstandings.