Over the summer, I asked abuela Belem to tell me a story about my mother. Although my grandmother and mother only lived together for twelve years before my mother became a perpetual migrant, my grandmother decided that the story I needed was not a story about my mother, but a story of shape-shifting people and rituals in our community.
This is a story I won’t repeat, but what I will share is that ever since being offered this story, I have re-oriented my relationship to my entire family and to an understanding of stories as theory, transgression, and archives.
At the beginning of the performance, I projected an image of italicized white typeface against a black background that read: “what can stories do in settled territories?”
Instead of standing on the stage, I stood on the right-hand walkway of the stage, held onto the railing and read from my play-in-progress, Chambalé/Libélulas. The segment that I read on the walkway is supposed to be a voice-over in broken English that asks:
what can stories do in settled territories?
do they dress the pain of theft?
can a story heal a pueblo?
but what if that story isn’t real?
& what if the real is unimaginable?
then don’t that make the story true?
I ask these questions not for literary aesthetics, but to invite audience members into a dialogue about Indigenous peoples, our stories, and our right to both narrative opacity and critical fabulation. I come from what is now known as “Oaxaca, Mexico,” a geography with a long history of Indigenous and Black resistance against settler-colonialism. I haven’t lived in my ancestral land (Zapotec) in about twenty years, so the questions I ask are also for me: how do I imagine home post forced migration? And, does my imagination of home unsettle settlement?
After reading the voice-over, I walked to center stage and opened with a poem spoken by a medicine woman to a toddler as the toddler sleeps on top of four adobe bricks. As I read the piece, an image of freshly-cut banana leaves resting on a comal for a community tamalada was projected. This was the first image I took in Oaxaca after having crossed the border and not have had the “documents” to return home.
Although I could not see the image of corn-cobs burning and banana leaves heating up, I could still smell the smoke. There’s something about displacement and dispossession that force the nose to remember not only the smell of village smoke, but the sound of each corn cob as it slowly deteriorates in the fire. Or, maybe what I was smelling was the candle I lit outside the museum a few minutes prior since the museum didn’t approve of me lighting a candle on stage.
I needed the image of the banana leaves and corn cobs to be projected because they don’t represent a daily task, but a quotidian form of Zapotec and Miztec resistance in a village named after a Roman Catholic Priest, José María Morelos. To prepare plantain leaves is to have committed the self to an entire day of community, it is a commitment to celebrate, nourish, and be amongst one another in a geography tainted by the haunting present-past of Spanish re-education, religious conversation, and Indian wars.
The poem I read that’s supposed to be spoken by a medicine woman is a good-bye poem that the medicine woman recites to the sleeping toddler. However, the projected image fragments the goodbye, anticipating a return to home as opposed to a romanticized return to a home that didn’t change, which I insist on through the projection of a communal activity with the absence of people.
As the performance continued, I shared poems about the relationship between the medicine woman and the toddler post-migration.
The final piece, however, continues to replay in my mind: the last image projected is the image of my great-great-grandmother, which I found after visiting her daughter’s home in Oaxaca, Mexico.
The last 3-4 minutes of the performance included an altar build for my paternal grandmother and her grandmother. As I built the altar, I felt an incredible pain in my wrists and gut. I could tell my voice was shaky, but my somatic response to the last few minutes is only part of it.
For a second, I forgot that her photo was projected behind me. As a performer and an Indigenous artist, I have been asking myself: was my decision to project my great-great-grandmother ethical? I ask this question because of the locality of my performance: a museum.
As an AfroIndigenous person, I understand my body in museum spaces as always already an exhibition, and this is an uncomfortable feeling.
As I grow with my craft, I reflect on the following questions:
How much am I willing to allow non-Zapotec and non-Mixtec people witness passed down ancestral knowledge?; What are the ethics of allowing others to see my relatives in a museum space?; And, will I ever perform this piece again?