I just returned from my trip to Chiapas, Mexico. I begin this midnight blog with words of gratitude to several people: 1) My children– for understanding and staying at home while mommy travelled, always being supportive of me. 2) My father– for his generosity in helping me make this trip and 3) Caleb Duarte whose Zapantera Negra movement made this whole expedition possible.
I am listening to Manik Bankil’s “Nosotros” as I write this, to keep my memory steeped in the experience of Chiapas.
I went to Chiapas to attend the 3er Seminario Internacional de reflexion y analisis. The theme was “…Planeta tierra movimientos antisistemicos…” I was going to witness my father’s 20 minute presentation on the Black Panther Party. Whenever possible, I like to attend his presentations. He’s given many around the world. I usually follow him around the city, but I have been to England and to New York to hear him speak also. I learn more and more each time. This event felt especially important to me because my dad would present in the context of an International Indigenous People’s Conference. I had to go!
Caleb took us to meet with Dr. Raymundo a few days before the conference so that my father could organize his presentation around the specific theme. In that meeting, Dr. Raymundo suggested that I could present something along with my father. Apparently, Caleb had told him I was a poet, so he expected that I would be a part of the presentation. Although, it hadn’t crossed mine or my father’s mind previously, I was not going to ignore this invitation to be a part of something so important. Even if it was just one line, I was determined that I would say something. It’s called showing up. I was being called to show up and I agreed.
I was nervous. None of the work I had written at that time fit into the theme of antisystemic movements of the plant earth. I feel that my work is revolutionary in a personal way, but they weren’t asking me to share the beauty of vulnerableness, or the insight of children, or the impact of love– all the themes I feel I cover in Twirl. I would have to write something entirely new. I would have to write a piece tailored to this conference. I asked myself, “So, are you a writer or not?” And before I could answer, I demanded, “You are going to write this!”
Everyday I wrote something. Many things. But nothing was working. I knew from experience that as long as you keep on doing anything with the intention to succeed, you will succeed. A friend once told me that an ex-boxer told him that the magic rule to achieving anything is: “Stick with it. Don’t quit it. You are bound to get it.” That includes writing. So I kept writing, although I wasn’t satisfied. Whose perspective should I write from? What angle?
“Write from your perspective,” Mia* said.
Then it all came together. Of course. How could I forget? “I” is universal. Here is what I wrote, from my perspective:
“I speak these words in solidarity with the Zapatista community.
May they please the ancestors.
Long before Spain invaded the Americas with ship loads of enslaved Africans, before America was called America and Africa was called Africa, when a snail was just a snail and a panther was just an animal, historians write of an ancient Mayan-African relationship — one of trading ideas, cultures, goods and more. Some archaeologists go further. They write that before Mayans and Africans traded, before they were two different people, they were one.
When I heard that my father would present on our legacy of the Black Panther Party for this symposium, I felt an impulsive reaction to attend, like an ancient calling, urging me: ‘Be there! Let your presence be testimony to the ancestors that your spirit remembers a time before colonization, subjugation and plantations.’
Before Zapatistas took to the mountains in Chiapas and Panthers to the streets in the US; before we were revolutionaries fighting our own unique battles in different countries; before there was ‘you’ and ‘I’, there was ‘we.’ And we were one.”
As if being invited to speak with my father at the conference was not enough inspiration, I also visited an indigenous community. The Vicente Guerrero-Elambo Community is named for the heroism of Afro-Mexican, Vicente Guerrero.
This is what I hoped for the entire visit. And on our last day, Caleb took us to there.
This picture is of the place where they have meetings and settle disputes between community members. Right next to it is the church they built of the same size (not shown) and not far away is their pharmacy, filled with plants that have been picked, dried and placed in bags for consumption. I asked how they knew what to look for, the pharmacist said it was handed down from the ancestors and elders. Out of necessity of not receiving government aid, they returned to their ancestral knowledge of using herbs to heal themselves.
I began exploring performance poetry with jazz musician Michael James in Oakland. He read Twirl and heard music so he invited me to collaborate. He taught me to slow down, relax and tell my story. In this process, I realized that I actually heard music when I was writing some of the work in Twirl too. I had just ignored it. But working with Michael provided an opportunity for me to express it.
I heard a lot of strings. I thought maybe harp, violin, guitar. I wasn’t sure. I just knew there were strings. I wasn’t sure how they would sound either. When I got to EDELO in Chiapas, Caleb and Kylie suggested I could perform with the two gentlemen Kylie plays with: Alvan and Lalo, violinist and guitarist. Wow, I would get to try out the strings I had always imagined!
But I never imagined it quite like this.
My heart melts when I remember it all. There were only two rehearsals. About an hour each. “You Bring Out the Oakland in Me” I had rehearsed many times, although only performed twice and never to music. The untitled poem, I had barely finished writing and hadn’t even memorized it. Kylie guided us as an extended listening ear who could hear what we, as entrenched participants of the process, were over looking.
“What kind of music is this?” I asked. “I don’t know,” Alvan said. “It’s just what we came up with while we are doing it.”
Let me start from the beginning.
My father left one of my books with Caleb on his previous trip to Chiapas. When he found out I was coming with my dad on the next trip, Caleb invited me to participate in a poetry reading he was organizing. Although I was coming to Chiapas with the sole intention to support and witness my father, I had the added pleasure of being able to share some poetry. At least, that’s how it all started off sounding… simple.
Well, Caleb’s poetry reading quickly turned into a New Years party with live music, posters, flyers and a theme: “2013 Nuevo Chance: Reflexion y Celebracion de Las Luchas Dignas” (2013 Second Chance: Reflexion and Celebration of the Dignified Fight.) I was concerned because I was the only one who didn’t have a band or musical partner to perform with. I’d performed my poetry a few times and only once to live music. I only had two pieces that I felt would fit with Caleb’s theme and lineup. “You Bring Out the Oakland in Me” was in Twirl and the other piece “Untitled” I had recently written. He wanted each performer to have 15 minutes of material. I had about 5. I was definitely nervous, but again, I refused to give up on the invitation to make myself known, be present, share my gifts and grow. So I agreed to do it. I knew I would have to give 150% to make up for the lack of time. What I didn’t know was that I would grow so much in so little time and expand my capacity to give , so that 150% felt like I was floating on air.
When Mia’s done editing the film, I will post my performance from that night on youtube.
Crisitan, below center, is a drummer who joined us the night of the performance. We did one quick rehearsal with him and that was it. But the performance felt like we’d all been playing together our whole lives. Could music be the highest form of communication? A majority of my audience didn’t speak English, but they understood what we were saying and they thanked me over and over again.
I may write more on this very important creativity topic later. I’m so tired now. It’s 3:36 am.
You can see more pictures in my Chiapas, Mexico photo album on facebook.
In this picture: Protestango members, Cristian, Lalo and me.