A LOOK INTO THE CREATIVE PROCESS:
LATINO INTERDISCIPLINARY DANCE THEATER
Co-authored by Eluza Maria Santos and Juanita Regino Suarez
Shattering the Latina Mold/Despedaçando o Conceito de Latina/Despedazando el
Concepto de Latina: The Latina Dance Project
The Latina Dance Project (LDP) is a collective of four women dance and theater artists—co-founders Licia Perea, Eluza Santos, Juanita Suárez and Eva Tessler—who collaborate to create work that challenges and consequently reinterprets iconic impressions inherited from social and cultural sources. Through research and creative scholarship, the artists of LDP explore different elements within their cultures, making it possible to develop new perspectives and interpretations of what it means to be a Latina.
The time feels right to the two of us, co-authors of this article, to write about LDP, whose artistic voice is a claim for respect and empowerment. Empowerment is important to LDP for to aim at exploring the most genuine experience of being Latina, often breaking away from expected representations dictated by societal norms, means “shattering the Latina mold” (D. Jean-Marie, UCR, The Highlander).
The approach used here is phenomenological in that the experiences lived by all the members of LDP are considered. The overarching impulse and guiding point for this article is Juanita’s “A Migrant’s Tale,” a phenomenological account of a search for self-meaning. This tale serves as a metaphor for “making sense” of our “latinaness” and so specific views, thoughts, and propositions about LDP are presented to the reader “via” key concepts from “A Migrant’s Tale.”
“A Migrant’s Tale”
Once upon a time there was a brown girl who had a knack for slipping through a Net called Circumstance. The brown girl’s luck for slipping through swept her to exciting places she never knew about or dreamed of. As time passed, she became more and more like the new worlds she encountered, becoming “someone” of the future than of the past. The brown girl would have been happy, continuing with her adventurous journey but for one thing. She noticed how the sands of
Time, Distance, and Memory,
had begun to shift, obscuring tracks… …leading to home.
The brown girl’s assimilation and all that it required meant time away from her family, time lost to disconnection. What was happening to her values, her way of seeing life? The hearth she called home was not like the worlds she walked into. Her family could see the effects of her migration, how these effects were changing her and began to worry as she strayed further and further away. The distance between where she started and where she was heading was a measurement of all her displacements, translating her life into a cruel duality, not being of this place yet being of this place. And then there was memory, the most painful premonition of all. Lapses in her memory made it difficult for the brown girl to recall her past, her home language, and all those songs of the heart that grounded her. She felt the suffering that comes with cultural amnesia. The brown girl’s awareness of this disconnection from home planted a healthy seed of anxiety that grew and grew as she asked, “How could she find her way back? Did she want to find her way back? Who was she before she left? Where did she come from? Who did she leave behind? Where was she going?” Only lucid dreaming became her emissary, her sole connection to home as faces, places and events from the past greeted her at the threshold of a drifting consciousness. As she disappeared nightly into the velvet darkness, her dreams became a puzzle, floating in space without logic. In one dream, she was a young boy rocking before an ancient mural of Holy Men, Mexican Indians who groaned and beckoned to him (through her) for what seemed to be centuries of tormented silence. In another, she witnessed the sluggish walk of an aging curandera, a folk faith healer, as she laboriously and repeatedly tried to ascend a treeless hill, mistaking her knotted feet for the rooted plants of wisdom. In another dream she saw bronze bodies falling, plummeting to earth and flowers everywhere sprouting blossoms where blood had been spilled from the fall. What did these dreams mean? The brown girl continued dreaming, losing sleep from all these visitations until fatigue finally enveloped her in its weighted cloak. As fatigue embraced her, the harbinger of a full moon gave rise to an Omen Dream. In the Omen Dream, the curtains of memory parted, revealing a river of despair, where currents flowed with the tears of lost voices. The raging currents flooded the valleys of her heart as images from her past tumbled, churning bits and pieces of the everyday with the worlds of her own creation until the jolt of the Omen awakened her to a rite that lay there waiting. In her hand lay a beautiful brown egg that vibrated from the rising, secretive voices of women. By blessing her self with tiny signatures of the cross, a fever of hysteria ensued as these voices invaded her senses, calling out names of “lost sisters,” Las Hermanas Olvidadas! The voices of these women were revelatory and relentless. Their whispers revealed to her a lost childhood, a mysterious period in her life that lay hidden within the tiniest pockets of memory. The brown girl asked, “But how did this come to pass? Why was I not able to remember who I was?” The spirits responded. “You were not able to remember who you are because you were told to ‘speak only English.’ When that happened you began to forget everything. As you grew older, your childhood, like a dark forest, embedded roots into the cultural ground of a language lost.” The brown egg rumbled and cracked from the weighty whispers of sadness that continued to cry “Remember me, remember us!” The brown girl pondered the messages of the spirits. She asked, “If I learn how to speak Spanish again, will I remember who I am?” Women’s voices, like incantations spilling over each other, chorused “No, hija, you will not be able to remember everything for there are many within you, about you that are lost, they are lost. But many will appear slowly to you over time, over time, as if awakening from a dream, a deep sleep. You must be patient and understand, try to fathom how the many within, inside of you have almost disappeared, all but disappeared.” Then, just as suddenly as the voices came, the room fell silent.
Her dormant world of cold mirrors, her absent past reflected visages of what once was invisible as they stared back through the eyes of the brown girl. The brown girl, who had seen herself as “The One who wants to know,” soon became “The One who must not forget.” Specters of Loneliness passed before her, spirits not unlike her self. These spirits told, “The One who must not forget,” about their shared lineage, how they had all walked the earth many times as Women of the Sun, in search of a past forgotten. In turn, the brown girl told her story, about her travels away from home, and her consequent gray room of solitude. Her telling always ended with the same question, “Could they help her find her way back?” In response, the spirits connected her to a past as each left behind a gift, an elixir created from the potions of love, culture and experience. She was instructed: “Since you need to remember, open this, open this, open this.” The brown girl did not know what the spirit words meant. Once the last spirit left, the brown girl hurriedly opened the first of her many gifts. As each gift was unwrapped, soft, vibrant tones permeated the room. Like a breath of fresh air, the words danced with her senses, turning into personal stories that brought meaning to her life. She learned about her father, Ramiro, and their estrangement over time. The reason why she could not remember him remained within his Spanish-speaking world, a place she was orbited from to join the cosmos where only English was spoken. The brown girl discovered the name of her abuela, Petra, and how her name suited her austere disposition. The name Ramón belonged to a lost brother who died too young; he was a hero to “the people who could not speak.” A picture of the rest of her family floated before her. Younger versions of her parents smiled back at her as sister Rosalinda, and brothers Roberto and Paulo teased each other on the family couch. She saw the visage of her mother, Juaquina, and the crossing she made from Mexico to Texas and the loneliness she suffered from leaving her familia behind.
The stories were generous in their telling and never ending as one tale began another. Eventually, the weight from all the stories told created a floodgate of memories as the many that lived within her arrived at the shores of the Brown girl’s consciousness. Women spirits brought flesh and blood, color and form to her life, as a deep, dark secret was slowly unveiled. Through perceptible whisperings of culture, family and love that crossed the expanses of time, distance and memory, the brown girl, the soon-to-be Woman of the Sun, came to learn how La Chicana (the present), La Malinche (the past), y La Llorona (the one who weeps for our future) were different names for the same face, the beautiful ancestral face of the brown girl.
“A Migrant’s Tale” is an allegory based upon a woman’s search for identity. After leaving home and crossing distances, our female protagonist experiences alienation, an awareness and presence that she is “of this place, yet not of this place.” She finds herself at a crossroads for the cultural spaces she has traversed and inhabited, spanning time, distance and memory, have also created “the many within” her, those “multiplicitous voices” (Lugones, cited in Ortega, 2001) of the “world traveler” (Lugones 1989) who cannot help but draw from the many within as resources for her survival.
Although her passage through time, distance, and memory has challenged any sense of ‘rootedness’ within her, another kind of seed has been planted, the sprouting of curious disposition that readily lends itself towards personal investigation. As she continues her journey, her desire to be the “One who wants to know” grows. Questions leading to the cultivation and contradictions of an ever developing self-identity, within the context of a fluid, dynamic, ever changing world, begin to surface out of the grounding her cultural past offers.
A sense of discontinuity begins to envelope her consciousness as chaos follows suit. Social customs, languages, values and philosophies collide, creating cracks and tremors that resonate within and between worlds. Reverberations emanating from deep inside her ‘psyche of transiency’ belies the calm demeanor of her every day life; surface tensions begin to spark, they quiver as one disruption follows another. Intimate upheavals begin to take place as her migrant soul finds its’ self to be a hybrid of personalities and influences, each a contradiction and echo of ‘otherness’ within her.
When she is able to reflect upon all the transitory phases of her life, she will see how she has become a blending of the foreign with the familiar. She will understand what she knows and how she makes meaning out of the present as an epistemology passed onto her through the ancestors, the “Women of the Sun.” Each woman/sister/child nurtured from the breast of a brown world followed the same trajectory as she; each learned how to fuse the known with the unknown. Weaving their intelligences and knowledge so that each could contribute to the historical tapestry of a life each lived, an amazing awareness of the collective self developed that withstood time, distance and memory. Her cultural cloak of whole cloth protects her every step.
The further the migrant travels, the more glaring the disparity between selves becomes. Or so it seems. The distinction of her divisions, which set her apart, gives her concern until she realizes she is poised on a precipice of power that offers a global view of the worlds she has traveled. The heroine of this tale can see from this perspective how she is a subject in process, an emergent self who can claim ownership to all the territories she has or will traverse. And so her past will merge with the present, while in serpentine fashion, she will be shedding skins, revealing endless interpretations of an emergent migrant self.
The “Net called Circumstance” within this tale is the door of opportunity our Migrant opens in order to leave home to enter the world of higher education, where she is whisked off to “exciting places she never knew about or dreamed of.” The creation of “A Migrant’s Tale” took into consideration the life of the artist, any Latina who actively seeks to bring “flesh and blood, color and form” into her life. And so a parallel universe can be found within the life of the Latina dance maker who leaves home to enter the academy, the world of higher education where she is introduced to and learns about the discipline of dance making. She leaves in order to discover new worlds, not only a world of different lived realities but other worlds of her own creation.
Through dance making the Latina artist draws from creative strategies allowing her access to home time and again. Her new, and granted, transient home within the academy is a place where she not only learns how to think for herself but she also comes to know about how she has carried her past world forward into the present because she can never, whether she wants to or not, shed her cultural DNA. Her migratory flight into the unknown, where new internal and external spaces appear before her, has shaped her but not in an unyielding way. The nature of her travels has required of her a resiliency, pliancy, and resourcefulness of cultural expressive forms. As the dynamic embodiment of her ancestors, a cultural reflection of a different way of knowing, the migrant of this tale is positioned, for the first time in her own family’s (cultures’) history, to shape and thus tell a different tale.
Farther and farther away from home the migrant travels, until the “sands of Time, Distance, and (cultural) Memory” begin to shift. Her “hearth” away from home can only be found within a language she rarely speaks for who is there she can speak to? And so the migrant dance maker speaks to herself through her works created. She inscribes through the tools of space, time, force, and body her own story, the narrative of a different life unlike the one she inhabits. What she brings to the creative experience are the bones of memory she has excavated from her past. Her genuine creations can only come from what she knows.
Tensions created from her separation from family, for she is the one who left, “translates her life into a cruel duality,” one in which the past and current worlds she inhabits do not in any way intersect. Days become months, and months become years. She wanders into the world of higher learning achieving two or three degrees but suffers from “cultural amnesia” in the process for her world of the past is no longer a part of the acculturated world she has acclimated to. ¿Si o no? Her loneliness becomes wearisome and so she searches for creative strategies to help her dream out loud. She changes dialect and begins to speak turning to the Language of Dance.
The concept of ‘dreaming’ within this tale refers to the creation of a vision, the fantastic generation of new ideas and possibilities, translations of life experience through abstraction, symbol, metaphor, allegory, as well as the embodiment of imagination. In other words, it is the creative process; making the act of ‘dreaming’ ephemeral in nature yet concretely present in that it is lucid. When creating this tale, the author used the concept of “lucid dreaming” as a metaphor for dance making, a creative way to invent worlds that allowed the protagonist a way to realize her “connections to home.” The created world is also an expressive mirror that shimmers with possibilities, weaving the old with the new to become something else, a “room of one’s own” (Woolf 1929).
The Latina dance maker, as our protagonist, has a profound need and the courage to engage with ambiguous realms particular to the creative process, shifting her migrations that move her from the world of lived realities to the world of metaphor where she can cross the “threshold of a drifting consciousness” to connect to symbols, and allegories that relate to lived histories. The creative process for all who create is a “puzzle, floating in space without logic,” and so the daunting task before her stands to make meaning out of movements, and silence; shapes, and space. The Latina dance maker draws from dream worlds she conjures or remembers or she listens to the voices of others who engage with similar migratory dreams, “lost sisters” like her self who are working to be heard.
Over time the dance emerges for “the worlds of her own creation…awaken her to a rite that lay(s) there waiting,” a ritual that asks to be performed, to be shared. When the dance maker reflects back on the journey taken, she takes notice of how gestures of the dance reflect the many and “tiniest pockets of memory,” each a signifier of something almost lost.
SHATTERING THE LATINA MOLD
The protagonist in this story, a young Latina, has changed and the “many within” her avidly contest any ‘cast’ that could potentially define and restrict her. In spite of how history inscribes her with racial, sexual, gender-based overtones, she is not a stereotypical notion, a composite of racial DNA that has been predetermined i.e. she is not scripted, nor does she fit into any of several Latina molds (virgin, matron, or whore). Gloria Anzaldúa (1987) speaks to the pressure Latinas encounter in terms of facing predetermined female roles:
For a woman of my culture there used to be only three directions she could turn: to the Church as a nun, to the streets as a prostitute, or to the home as a mother. Today some of us have a fourth choice: entering the world by way of education and career and becoming self-autonomous persons.
What does it mean when we speak to the idea of molds? Why is it important to shatter the Latina mold and challenge the abstraction of cultural/gender/racial/sexual molds in general? There are many reasons which follow: Once cast, molds concretize human identities whether they mean to be solidified or not. At best, molds are two-dimensional renderings based on assumptions of the ‘other,’ that in turn limits our expectations in terms of what a specific individual or group of people is capable of being or doing. Molds are known for commandeering humans into performing certain social behaviors that over time become accepted and hence, normative. In other words, molds program people and it is very possible that molds also silence many of us. Molds also subsume individual needs because in order to fit the mold, one must behave accordingly. This can mean not attending to individual needs or wants in order to meet the demands of fitting in, to satisfy the parameters of socially prescribed behaviors.
Since molds always already operate within a heavily riddled historical/social context, breaking the mold, which is to say to initiate personal change that challenges the historical and social way of being becomes a daunting task. Why? We not only create personal chaos by not following prescribed ways of existing aka the status quo, but we, by nature of our position, dispute the realities of others, thus provoking the ‘disappointed in us’ to ask necessary questions pertinent to how life as a living dynamic is viewed. If we question our beliefs, to shatter the mold means we swim alone against social waters or in some cases against the tide, making movements away from our tribes of origin to find more amenable streams. The momentum of human consent or lack thereof can lead us to question or affirm our subjectivity as self-knowers.
Conflict is inherent when we create molds for people; when individuals are expected to behave within certain prescribed boundaries, we, wittingly or unwittingly, create a potential for disruption, and contention. To shatter the mold requires a rewrite of your life, a new scripting that redefines and, at times, explains to others the rising, nascent self. Although molds can generate a ‘comfort zone’ for some—those who are unaware of the political ramifications of being ‘molded’ or are intimidated by the prospect of ‘breaking the mold’—it can imprison others. When confined by the molds imposed upon us, we experience frustration and anger, leading to deep questioning which can fester until internal psychological explosions made manifest create chaos within and without. Irrational or irresponsible become new monikers that identify us when we challenge the limits a mold places on us. From a social perspective, creating molds for people to fit into is lazy psychology, requiring little work in terms of the mold maker.
Historically, due to the fact that little research has been conducted on behalf of Latina culture, in terms of who we are or how we live our lives, the media has paid scant attention to the idea of what it means to be a Latina growing up in the United States. And so the models that promote the idea of being a Latina come to us through three distinct molds. As stated, we are either viewed as: 1.) a ‘Virgin,’ usually Catholic, 2.) a poorly paid, hard working mother who cooks a lot to feed her large brood, or 3.) a sexy, hot Latina, ‘chick’ who sleeps around and does drugs/alcohol. A fourth mold is developing and that is of the educated, professional. Yet, other stories follow.
“NOT BEING OF THIS PLACE, YET BEING OF THIS PLACE”
As I walk on the beach, near the water, the fullness of my being is awakened. Stepping on the wet, soft yet supportive sand, I want to walk forever—it’s a pleasurable sensation that comes from the touch of my feet on the warm and firm areia that still “gives.” This allows my small feet to open, to spread, to expand. The sun, in its brilliance and magnitude, amplifies its radiance through a reflection no mar and warms my physical being. But there’s more to the sol, areia e todas as coisas da praia. In moments like this, I can relax into “lived thoughts” (yes, lived because I can actually feel, or experience, what I’m thinking). Looking at the beautiful color of the água do mar—of the oceano—and imagining its grandeur and the mistérios do mar, the fullness that is awakened in me can take me on a journey beyond the beach where I’m walking.
I don’t remember a specific time when I began consciously wishing to go places beyond my native city of Vitória, on the coast of Brazil. I only know I always wanted to live fully, to expand my life experiences. When I left my country to pursue graduate studies in the United States in 1980, I knew I was ready—estava pronta—and I went mar adentro. For the last twenty-seven years, I have lived in Brazil and the United States, and visited several other countries and cultures.
These migrations came to mind when I saw a broken seashell, uma concha quebrada, at the beach; I thought that was a good metaphor for my “self.” I believed I was neglected, not noticed, not valued, and misunderstood both in America and in Brazil probably because I did not “belong” in either place. I viewed myself as diferente in the country of my residency and in the nation where I was born. There was a split, or maybe many splits, in my life journey and I lacked wholeness because I lived in two different countries. Today, I see myself as multi-layered, but as a whole being—eu sou uma mulher completa e íntegra in my journey in this world.
The integrity of my being is clearer to me now. My roots are strongly connected to my native country while the layers of my varied experiences, especially the ones lived in America, are supported by these deep roots. The longer I live, the stronger and deeper these roots are growing. Today, I go to Brazil more often than before—I feel the need to be “culturally recharged”. In addition, I was in search of a dance família, and that I certainly found in the Latina Dance Project, which provides me with the most fulfilling venue for my creative voice.
“LEAVING HER FAMILIA BEHIND”
To wake up in a strange land. All familiar smells and sounds are missing. Dawn looks different. My consciousness talks to me in a clear and loud voice and says: “eres extranjera”. It is exciting and I love it. I love to be a foreigner. When I was growing up in Mexico City I always wanted to live somewhere else. Not because I did not love my city. I did. I was born to be a traveler. Other members of my family have emigrated: “mi tia” and “mi abuelita” lived in Los Angeles. My favorite cousin also lives in the US. They, like me, had the “wandering star” printed on their foreheads and their hearts.
I am an escape artist. When I was a child and my home life was unbearable, I just had to switch on my “wandering star” and I’d escape and visit strange new lands in mythical times. I could look out the pantry window and find myself in Medieval Europe!
My father had many books and I loved to read (which was another exit). Among those he had a collection of art books. I am intensely visual and those paintings provided me with materials to build the landscapes I was transported too.
In my early 20’s, with my 4-year-old son and my boyfriend in tow, I finally left my country and came to the US. Later I lived in Brazil for 6 years and currently I live in Tucson, Arizona. I have lived fully and recklessly like the “happy go lucky” person I have always been. Two husbands and two daughters later and sporting the many emotional scars I’ve acquired in a life of adventure, I have “settled” for the moment near the Mexican border. I look back to Mexico but I don’t feel the desire to physically go back. My mother’s curse- “es tu tierra y vas a volver”- has come true in a strange new way. I have only been back to my country once in 25 years yet I often find myself traveling there with my mind. The same way I used to travel to fantastic lands when I was a child. For me memory has become another door to trans-galactic travel.
My artistic work is suffused with remembrance. I have chosen to dig into the memories of my family and my own place in their story. I have chosen to dig into the memories of my culture and find myself in it. I have been lucky to find my fellow members of the Latina Dance Project who support me in my travels. (Personal writing, January 12th, 2009)
“SHE WAS A YOUNG BOY ROCKING”
I am from Albuquerque, New Mexico, and I am a mix of Native American (Pueblo Indian), Mexican, and Spanish (Basque). I grew up with a deep connection and love of this land. I spent summers with my abuelos (grandparents) on their ranch in the middle of nowhere. I rode horses, gathered the eggs in the morning, tended the garden and ate frijoles, chile y tortillas most days. In my early childhood, I did not dance but ran, tumbled, and swung in the trees.
My aesthetics and my life philosophy began to shape from an early age. One thing particularly stands out in my mind that was within my own family. I began to notice the difference in my family’s “value” between males and females. I came from a family of 4 sisters and I was the eldest. Every time my mother had another child there was always a high anticipation of whether it would be a boy. I remember my father always being a bit disappointed when my mother gave birth to another girl. At an early age, I began to ask myself and my parents why it was so important to have a boy. As I began my education and ventured into the world at large I saw more and more clearly how it was a “boys’/man’s world”!
I went to a Catholic school that gave me my first experience with “theater,” as my family did not go to the theater. The masses were very theatrical with a stage (the altar), performers (priests and altar boys), costumes (vestments), lights (candles), music (hymns), scripts (sermons, gospels etc.), and momentary suspension of reality to tune into something “higher.” I loved this theatrical environment but I never could buy into the whole Catholic philosophy.
Even from an early age I knew something about it for me was wrong. I have always liked stories and now I began to really be fired up about gender issues and inequalities. Why was Eve wrong for wanting to bite from the apple of knowledge? Why was she punished for this desire? Why were there no women priests? Why did I feel like I had to make up sins when going to confession? I was able to flush out for myself one of the sources of my despair over the continuing oppression of women in the western world, the Catholic Church.
All of these early thoughts fed into who I am today as an artist. From Juanita’s research and then Eluza’s desire to put a “Latina” dance performance together, the Latina Dance Project was born. For me, this group of professional Latinas could not have come at a better time. I felt isolated and alone and was intrigued that there were other Latinas doing a similar thing as me. (Personal writing, February 3, 2009)
“IF I LEARN TO SPEAK SPANISH AGAIN, WILL I REMEMBER”
Juanita’s Paradise Lost
My first day in kindergarten ended with my teacher attaching
a note to my sweater. The note, a message from my American
teacher, stated I could no longer speak Spanish in school.
Not allowed. Since I spoke fluent Spanish, it was clear to my
family I would have to shift linguistic gears to comply with
her (the school’s) demands. This infuriated my father who refused
to speak the language of those who paid him so little. Consequently,
our relationship dissipated. He lived in a world of Spanish and I
moved into a world of English. Now I understand why on the
day of his funeral, I wanted to be at a school picnic instead of by his side.
“ALL THE STORIES TOLD CREATED A FLOODGATE OF MEMORIES?”
These phenomenological renderings just shared point to the integral relationship of experiences we all have encountered over the years. In the first story we learn about displacement and the metaphors that develop out of that experience that remind us we are not whole. We noticed the various renditions of displacement caused by cultural splits, language loss and/or assimilation, gender questionings/obstacles, and value shifts.
The second story addresses the price each of us pays when we leave familia behind and how the cost to us changed in the nature of its migration. Initially, we felt liberated and exhilarated from the anticipation of new opportunities that come from leaving home to see the world, followed closely by guilt, depression, anger, anxiety, and the awareness of disconnections from our families. Eluza recalls her feelings when she was living in Arizona,
I remember missing my family and dear friends in Brazil; not being able to visit
them for almost five years, feeling very bad about myself when I heard from my
brother that my father cried like a child every time he got a letter from me.
Although Eluza missed her family, she was unable to visit them in Brazil due to several challenges based on economics relevant to airfare cost for a student working her way through college, visa restrictions, university scheduling, etc. All of these factors made it difficult to stay connected to her family. For Juanita the story reads differently in that university life was an escape from poverty, the mundane, a single parent household with five children, and a neighborhood situated at a dead end, literally and figuratively. A Catholic high school education brought visibility and benefits, of which she took advantage.
The third story based on an inquiry of gender and its challenges was also central to our lives. Each of us bolted against the restrictions placed on us because we were born female. We found, in our own way, strategies that allowed us to circumvent the “pink” syndrome. We were athletic, verbal, and, at times, defiant. In other words, we took charge of our lives. When the living scenario did not suit us, we changed either our location and/or our disposition in order to liberate ourselves from stereotypical notions of what it means to be female and Latina.
This last story is about the borderland, fragmentation, dismemberment. It is about what happens when the family collapses because of distances created by the loss of one’s tongue, one’s language, one’s cultural voice. Dissonance shadows our journey when we lose our home language (“the cultural grounds of a language lost”).
“THE ONES WHO WANT TO KNOW, THE ONES WHO MUST NOT FORGET”
When LDP was described as “shattering the Latina mold” by D. Jean-Marie, the reviewer was referring to the concert “Embodying Borders,” which consisted of four solos created and performed by each LDP artist. These were considered strong dance pieces, with artistic voices addressing gender issues, family stories, self-affirmation, and portrayals of different female strengths. When each Latina describes herself, pervasive qualitative elements such as “unsettling” and “searching” are made manifest. Their choreographic creations draw from these elements, which can be seen as breaking the norm when it comes to addressing Latina issues through dance. Icons of lush, but silent and subdued Latinas are challenged by LDP.
“WHERE BLOOD HAS BEEN SPILLED FROM THE FALL”
On February 21, 1978, employees of the Mexico City Electric Light Company dug beneath a layer of concrete in the heart of Mexico City, at the site of the great Aztec temple, el Templo Mayor. Approximately seven feet beneath the street surface they struck a hard rock that had prevented them from digging further.
After removing a layer of mud that covered it, they found that the stone had a series of reliefs on it. So they stopped work and called the Mexican archeological rescue office. Under the control of the archeologists, it took until the 27th of February to unearth an enormous monolith of 3.25 meters in diameter. The upper part of the stone was sculpted with the relief of a decapitated nude woman, with her arms and legs separated from the body. Archeologists realized that the stone represents Coyolxauhqui, the Aztec moon goddess, sister of Huitzilopotchli, who according to Mexica history had been killed and dismembered by her brother on the hill of Coatipec. And then her remains were thrown up into the sky to become the phases of the moon (Perea 2006, 23).
“STORIES BROUGHT MEANING TO HER LIFE”
Aztec legend, Coyolxauhqui, the ancient Aztec Moon Goddess, feared that something evil was growing within her pregnant mother’s womb and so attempted to kill her mother, the earth goddess Coatlicue. The fetus, Huitzilopochtli, sprang forth from the womb as a grown warrior, dismembering his sister. To appease his grieving mother, this new war god threw Coyolxauhqui’s remains into the sky, where she became the phases of the moon. This interpretation comes through a patriarchal lens, portraying Coyolxauhqui as a traitor who deserved her fate. Depending upon how one views the myth, it can be seen as a story about oppression and violence against women, or about empowerment through action (Perea 2006, 23).
“TRY TO FATHOM THE MANY WITHIN”
In the dance-theater production “Coyolxauhqui ReMembers,” LDP chose to tease these embedded political dynamics inherent to Coyolxauhqui’s story by relating the mythic narrative to modern day tales and/or issues about women. Audiences witness this through four narratives: a young Mexican maquiladora (factory) worker who is one of more than 300 Juárez women slain in the last decade, a Brazilian professional woman experiencing conflict because of her own self-empowerment, an immigrant who reassembles herself through plastic surgery and fashion as well as the politics of cultured and gendered suppression, and the dramatic portrayal of the mythic Coyolxauhqui as a young woman haunted by her dreams and visions.
The collaborative process involved in the creation of “Coyolxauhqui ReMembers” was embedded with many challenges. We faced the dynamics of negotiating the myriad voices involved. Although each of us had to deal with a new work ethic since we were used to being our own director, the question that arose was, “who will direct us?” LDP settled upon Jose Garcia Davis. He entered the picture since he had extensive experience working creatively with Licia, because he was a Latino artist who could bring many skills to the project, and who, as a Latino, more readily might understand how to work with a group of established Latina artists. We needed someone to help us determine how the project would be shaped. As project director, Garcia Davis had to channel a variety of perspectives, interpretations, aesthetics, artistic skills and temperaments. In addition, each artist had to have a sense of creative autonomy within the process in order to continue the development of the work from long distances, since we each were located in different states in the country. Each member of LDP was responsible for a specific section in terms of its conception and artistic shaping. Individual sections were inspired by and drawn from our personal experiences.
The dance opens with “New Moon Over Juarez,” which is based on the murders of the women of Juarez. Eva created a deep and intimate portrait of suffering that families experience when they lose a loved one to rape and violence. The two characters, Angela and Aurora, are sisters trying to help their families in a financial way. Angela safely crossed the border whereas Aurora did not, leaving Aurora no option but to work in Juarez, at a maquila, a factory producing computer chips. The voice of her murdered sister Aurora, which Angela hears in a dream, serves as a clarion call to action. Making Angela aware of her death and the violence taking place in Juarez, Aurora charges her sister with the responsibility of reclaiming her body parts so that she can be buried near her family and, as well, of doing something in response to the violence taking place.
The following section, Eluza’s “Invocada,” is another call for action. The challenge that the main character faces is that of confronting three female friends with the culturally ingrained behaviors that keep them from standing up for themselves when it is necessary, when it means being a complainer, a reclamadora, a cabrona. In other words, being invocada. Through dialogues both physical and verbal, Eluza as the main character, stands up for the people against the face of institutional apathy and works to make her peers aware of how they have been regulated by forces cultural and social. As the section unfolds, each character migrates from being ‘one of the crowd’ to being a differentiated, empowered self.
The third section, Juanita’s “Sacrifice,” looks at how Latinas are being influenced by Western values through the venues of beauty and reconstructive surgery. The opening image reveals Marilyn Monroe, played by Juanita, personifying Miss America, swinging and singing about reconstructive surgery and all that a credit card can buy. Juanita’s Marilyn is jubilant as she recalls how she has shifted from one historical beauty to another, giving little thought to how her identity has been slipping away. Following suit, two female caricatures, played by Licia and Eva, in gaudy fashion, entice Eluza, a Latina beauty, into subjecting herself to the knife in order to enlarge her breasts and butt. Eluza’s resultant botched cosmetic surgery is focused on during a rap scenario that chides Eluza’s purchased but clumsy body. Suffering from the discomfort of leaving her beautiful true self behind, Eluza is further humiliated when the ‘other’ reconstructed selves threaten her with images of not fitting in and deportation.
The last section, Licia’s “Dismembered Moon,” directly references and interrogates the Aztec moon goddess myth of Coyolxauhqui. Operatic in style and magnitude, this section introduces the audience to the world of the moon goddess by Coatlicue, played by Juanita, the mother of Coyolxauhqui, who is played by Licia. A star, portrayed by Eluza, interacts with Coyolxauhqui and is representative of the sage voices she turns to when she begins to experience visions of horror and oppression rooted in Coatlicue’s pregnancy. These images foreshadow the birth of Huitzilopotchli, the war god, played by Eva, whose birth is a harbinger of the end of the world as they knew it. The star charges Coyolxauhqui to take action even though it goes against her natural instincts and so, after being forced to look deeply into the consequences, she attempts to kill her mother. Her action is thwarted when Huitzilopotchli escapes the womb as Coatlicue dies (later she resurrects). A battle to the death ensues. The myth culminates with the dismemberment of Coyolxauhqui by Huitzilopotchli, and her remains are cast into the night sky to become the phases of the moon. In the traditional sense, Coyolxauhqui is viewed as a traitor. Through the four sections described above, LDP sees her story and her consequent actions through a feminist lens, one in which Coyolxauhqui is viewed as a visionary who took action.
Beyond the creative direction of the project were logistical challenges, as relayed through Garcia Davis’ director’s statement included in the “Coyolxauhqui ReMembers” concert program:
I would like to write about our process. When LDP decided to create a
new piece together, Eva proposed the idea of using the myth of the Aztec Moon
Goddess as an umbrella theme. In July, 2004, the five of us met at Juanita’s home
in Brockport, NY, to live and work intensively together for a week. During that
time, we collectively conceptualized the story and emerged with a well defined
project and schedule for the next year. The significant challenge for us was that
we were spread out across the country. Licia and I live in Los Angeles, Eva lives
in Tucson, Eluza lives in Greensboro, and Juanita in Brockport. In order to come
together every two months for intensive one- and two-week rehearsal periods, in
different locations each time, we needed to coordinate schedules accommodating
all of our busy lives. In the early part of our rehearsal process, we did a lot of
dance and theater improvisation to explore effective ways for the performers to
work together, as well as to search for expressive means to tell the stories. We
decided that each choreographer would be responsible for choreographing and
developing a section, I would then shape the work overall and create the video
based upon ideas that we all contributed. No single section is the exclusive work
of any one artist, for each and all of us contributed our ideas. In effect,
Coyolxauhqui ReMembers is a collectively created multimedia production. Once
the project started to take shape, we commissioned the talents of production
artists who were spread across the country. For example, our composer,
William Campbell was from Tucson, Arizona, our costumer Ann Closs,
Farley was from Los Angeles, and lighting designer, Wouter Feldbusch
although originally from Holland was living in Nashville, Tennessee. As
can be seen, the challenges identified by the director as they applied to
members of LDP also applied to our production artists.
The myth of Coyolxauhqui, the Aztec Moon Goddess, happened a long time ago in Mexico. But this story could happen any time and in any place. It could happen today in Los Angeles, Sao Paulo, Sudan, Mogadishu, or Tehran. The story happened and it happens . . .