OK, so this was originally written as an email to some 10 or 15 of you… but then I realized how long it was and didn¨t want to do that to you all! So here it is on the blog, I¨d love to hear your thoughts.
On the 16th, we finally drove up to Cuetzalan, a beautiful little colonial town in the mountains, where we are staying with one of L´s friends for the next few weeks… Zoatecpan, the Nahuatl indigenous community where we work, is only an hour´s bus ride from here, so we are going to commute there in order to work. The initial plan had been to stay there, but L has a draft of her thesis to turn in on the 28th of this month, and there´s no way you can get any work done there, the children will simply not leave your room until you falll asleep at night (sometimes, they will then climb further up the hill and throw stones on your tin roof to wake you up!), and they will be banging on your windows before you wake up in the morning. they are adorable, but they are also little devils when they want to be! And as one of them told us today when he got annoyed by somthing we said, “this isn´t your pueblo, it´s ours.”
At any rate, so here we are in Cuetzalan. The drive up was insane… hats off to L for getting us here safely despite dark mountain roads, thick fog, heavy rain, and bats flitting across the windshield for a stretch of our journey! As we drove up, i could feel all kinds of emotions churning inside me. Joy at being in the mountains, excitement and nervousness at soon being back in that village where i lived for 2 months, a strange pull I always feel out in the countryside– an awakening of something more basic and grounded in me that I lose in the city. L and Y were talking about various people in the context of the sort of work they do in these mountains. This project with the kids is a small part of it, a lot of their work is around issues like biodiversity and organic agriculture with the farmers of this region… right now one of the biggest issues n the region is the fight agains genetically modified corn coming in through the United States. A farmer told me his story of how he started usng that corn, and over time the fertilizers it required polluted their waterways so much as to kill some of his animals when they drank from them. He wanted to opt out after that, but he must leave his field fallow for 8 years before it will yield a regular crop without feritilizers again… we are talking about a region of subsistence agriculture, there´s no way his family will survive with even one year of leaving the field fallow. Plus, we are talking about a people that believe the corn to be sacred, man grew from corn according to their legends, so imagine what this whole GM corn owned by US corporations means to them. Not that most of this is going to be news to many of you, you all know of similar places and people, I´m sure, even if not personally. but the thing I´ve always found super inspiring about this region is the amount of amazing grassroot level work that is happening here, the ways in which the indigenous people have organized themselves to start fighting for their rights. Of course, their organizations, like all organizations, have huge problems… still, they are incredibly inspiring. Above all, their levels of commitement to their work have always given me food for thought… it´s relatively easy for us to work on these issues, even get paid to work on them, but for so many of these people, every day spent away from the fields at crucial times has very real repurcussions for them and their families… many similar activiists whom I had met in Bodoland in India were similarly inspiring for the huge odds in the face of which they do their work.
Our first night here, we were up till almost 2 AM chatting with our host in Cuetzalan, Mayolo, one of Lupita´s classmates in her Masters in Rural Development program… partly about people and projects here, and partly just chatting, about music and languages and whatever. Once again moved by all the people who are here working to protect the enviornment, working to protect the rights of the indigenous people who have been exploited for far too long… and the very real victories they have had in the last few years. It´s reassuring in the most important of ways.
But I still feel conflicted. When M asked me what I am doing right now, I was almost embarrassed to admit that I am studying poetry… no, embarrassed is not the right word. It just felt like such an out-of-context answer, if that makes sense. As much as I know that my work in poetry and peace education is really towards the same larger ideals as his work in rural development, I guess it was just a moment of realizing, yet again, how completely privileged I am even to be able to consider studying something like creative writing! For those of you who knew me back in 2007, you might remember that my summer in Zoatecpan had turned me off academia, had made me distrust the ivory towers that universities often are, made me want to work at the grassroots… it was why I didnt get into the grad school track right away. This time is different though… I´ve been through that journey once, returning to India, working in a non profit for a while, and finding my path back to my creative work through my peace education work… I don´t need to do that again, I know now that my work in art and in education is (or can be) part of the larger peace work that I want to do.
and yet, and yet. Going back to Zoatecpan brought back so many of those questions. Our development priorities are so messed up; as far as I know, not a single house in that village of thousands of households has a proper bathroom, many of the teenagers who have been going to school all their life cannot read, the señoras are all losing their eyesight because of the amount of smoke that fills their kitchens with the wood stoves and the number of hours they spend embroidering clothes they can sell to tourists ín Cuetzalan in order to keep their families going. And yes, I have seen worse poverty, I guess it just hits me harder here because I have lived with these families for a couple of months and care about them differently as a result. And here, at a short distance, I am sitting at a friend´s house, (very basic by some standards, but ultra-luxurious in that we have electricity, hot water, a gas stove, and a bed) typing an email to you all. I cant get away from the contradictions we live on a day to day basis. And I can´t help returning to the question of how much of a difference I could ever possibly make through my art.
Don´t get me wrong. I continue to believe in art´s power to open difficult conversations about peace and conflict, to give hope, to affirm an individual life through creating voice and spaces for dialogue, and all those things… but in this kind of context, it doesn´t feel like enough. Nothing feels like enough, of course, but it doesnt even feel like enough of an attempt. But even as I write this, I also know that I have been writing the most interesting and important poetry I have ever written since I have come to Mexico this time. I started working on my first l
ong poem a few days into being in Mexico, and I can for the first time feel the place in my work, not just content-wise but also in terms of voice and style… it does continue to feel important to me that those feelings and frustrations find a voice, and so i am continuing to write in all my free time. But I am having to redefine for myself what my priorities are… I know i do my peace work best through my creative work so i will continue to do my creative work, but i also need to figure out what my commitment to these people, places, and issues is, beyond just my creative work… what else do I have to contribute? My oral history work seems like something that will increasingly become part of my finding that balance: in so many of these areas, where people¨s cultural and political identities are constantly under threat, just recording individual histories is an incredibly important piece of political work. I have known that for a while, talked briefly about focusing more on that work at some point, and am all the more inclined and inspired to do that now. Even if not here and now, but eventually.
In fact, in the course of our conversation the other night, M mentioned two indigenous poets who live nearby, one is Nahuatl, the other is Totonaco (those are the two main indigenous groups in this region). I¨m inclined to asking him if he will introduce me to them, and then if they are open to it, to sitting down with them over a cup of coffee and asking them to tell me more about their art. I think one of the things that bothers me sometimes about so many conversations about art is that they are so elitist… ok, so the spoken word movement takes poetry beyond the academy, and thank goodness for that… but in the context of some of the groups I have worked with and wanted to work with, it¨s still a world that those kids will perhaps never enter. For one, many of them have cannot read or write, have never even formed an alphabet, have no idea what it would mean to write a poem… for another, many of them have been so scarred by the violence all around them, have so learned that silence is survival, it¨s inconceivable for them to stand up to perform their work… and as a teacher in Assam once pointed out to me, it¨s downright dangerous for some of these kids to be seen as confident or having leadership qualities (in regions of violence, they will be the first to be recruited by militants and also the first to earn the suspicion of security forces). And yet, we know poetry has been part of all major cultural traditions, also that it preceded the written word in many cases, so I guess this is partly about whether we can still tap into those oral traditions… but it¨s also, just as importantly, about opening up to different ideas about poetry¨s place in people`s lives. My guess is that poetry amongst the Nahuatls and Totonacos, at least originally, is much closer to prayer than to entertainment… the same is true of their dances and of most of their art, they are religious rituals, not to be taken lightly. I want to understand more of that worldview, understand this art I care about from a completely different lens. Let¨s see if I can make these conversations happen… heck, what I really want to do is to do some oral history work with these poets, capture some of their life stories, and then go back to NY and do it with some of my more academic poetry classmates and some spoken word artists… and hopefully at some point do some of it in India. More and more, as I become aware once again of the harsh circumstances amongst which so many people still live happy lives, I am curious to see what the role of work like ours can be… what art and poetry have meant in different people¨s lives across cultures. I think a lot of “professional artists” assume that, because writing poetry or painting or dancing or whatever changed our lives, it will change others; lives too… I want move beyond that (rather simplistic) assumption by actually listening to these stories. Because of time constraints, it might not happen during this trip, but hopefully it will begin here, and at any rate, hope it will happen soon enough.
OK, clearly, I could go on forever. But now I want to shut up and I want to hear you. Talk back to me, will you please? 🙂