"America is great at trying to make other people in their own image..."
When I was young I thought indigenous people were a phenomena particular only to the United States. Public schooling reinforced all kinds of misconceptions, creating Natives as a discovered and quickly conquered race. And, that after the Mexican border, the indigenous population ended. I learned that historical figures like Christopher Columbus, Don Juan De Onate ventured into uncharted territories already inhabited, established a presence while carving an indelible place for themselves in American history. No one clued me to the fact that indigenous people were everywhere in this world and not only were they everywhere they had incredibly rich cultures, with specific world views, languages and ceremonies. No mention of the magnitude and influence these cultures had on our world, none of that existed in my education. Of course later on I learned differently. I intellectually understood indigenous people existed elsewhere, however, this information didn't resonate truly until I met and worked with the Morales family from Obergon Mexico. Working with the Morales family on Always Becoming paved the way for a new awareness that informed me of indigenous connections and relationships all over the world. This awareness continued when an opportunity took me back to Mexico recently.
Guerillmina Ortega is a Totonac-Mexican woman who lives and works in the El Tajin area near Papantla, Mexico. Where is that you ask? El Tajin is in the state of Vera Cruz, 6 hours- by car- East of Mexico City. Vera Cruz, the port, is also a popular American vacation spot on the Gulf of Mexico. Back to Ms. Ortega. Guerillmina traveled to the Smithsonian three years ago, saw both the Always Becoming sculptures and the film while visiting the New Museum of the American Indian and decided she wanted to incorporate Always Becoming in a project. Ms. Ortega works at the Centro de la Artes Indigenas institute in El Tajin. The institute serves as a gathering place for several of the indigenous communities in the El Tajin region. The institute encourages a continuation of indigenous art forms and cultural knowledge through a number of programs and community oriented projects.Ms. Ortega and NMAI worked together to create a residency for me and twenty women from the institutes's House of Clay.The residency emphasized land and family- what that meant historically as cultural people and what it means to us now. Most of the people we worked with in the House of Clay were women who came from smaller, more remote communities in the El Tajin region.Because the residency was geared toward family, my daughter Eliza joined in this incredible project bringing a different voice which she used while working with Totonac children at the institute. Eliza and the children who's ages ranged from 6 to 13 years of age, painted portraits with clays from New Mexico and the land of El Tajin. They also picked up trash from the side of the roads, shared soda pop and learned words and sentences from each of their languages. At any given time during our residency there would be five languages in this group of thirty five or so people. There was one translator, but mostly there was a lot of pointing and guessing, mostly on my part. We spent 10 hours a day in a two room building made of bamboo and branches. We ate, we washed dishes and we made things out of the different types of clays. We shared clay techniques, cultural experiences and by day two, even though language was a challenge, we knew that gossip and laughing was a universal understanding. Each day we started off with prayers that the older women of the Clay House led, everyone seeking life in our own languages, asking for a good new day.
“Um, I felt like they were family right off the bat.”
Every morning before heading out to the Centro de la Artes Indigenas Institute, we crossed El Centro - the plaza area of Papantla - to get a cup of coffee. The community is small enough that it's easy to walk the town's length and after a couple of days it's very possible to keep running into the same people. Of course El Centro is where everyone gathers to sell food, shoe shines, catch taxi and a lot more, it's the heart of the community. As Eliza and I sat in a booth at the town's only coffee shop, two elderly women turned around and waved to us. We waved back and 30 seconds later they were at our booth chatting away. It didn't seem to matter that my Spanish is at best, poor. That we looked different, that we were obviously strangers, none of that mattered to these two women or anyone else in Papantla. By the end of our visit with the ladies at the coffee shop - they had to leave for work- we were on a first name basis as they hugged us and wished us a blessed day. This kind of interaction was an on going phenomena. Affectionate and chatty.Curious and open. Kind and unbelievably giving the people in Papantla and the other communities embraced us and allowed us a place at their table.
“We've made everything un-sacred. Uh, we have made everything profane. And profane means that
it...it...it is just a tool we use that has no special meaning, when we're done with it, we throw it away, you know. Uh, the sacred, you don't do that to it. The sacred you preserve.”
The sacred is in the land. In those rich, green hillsides of Mexico that bear witness to fertility and continuity. The sacred is in the people who create lives while making vessels and homes, farms and ceremonies.They are the brothers and sister, aunts and cousins we've missed knowing because we've been taught to think they do not exist. We are like them in many ways. We are coiled from the same earth and spirit. We breath and die under the sky. In Tito Naranjo's interview, he spoke about the sacred and about seeking life.The sacred is here with us, still. It's in the small communities tucked along the hillsides of Mexico. The sacred is on the plains where Comanches gather to celebrate, in the arid landscape of the Dineh and the cold white of the Antarctic. The sacred lives in the elders who prayed for us at El Tajin. It's in the cultural knowledge we are meant to use as a foundation for our lives now. The residency in El Tajin wrapped up the filming phase for Always Becoming, now we begin the process of using all the information we've gathered over the last year to tell the story of how a community oriented project became an even larger story about culture, the land and people.
Next Month: Connecting the Dots