a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
“We are the Rebellious Dignity”, a refrain, a mantra, of the EZLN, the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, now in its 25th year, as of January 1. Chiapas. The autonomous communities, organized in Caracoles (“caracol” in Spanish means both shell and snail—what is significant is that this image carries within it a spiral that represents reflection), are still engaging in the building of a “World Where All Worlds Fit.” One needs only to go to the EZLN website, http://enlacezapatista.ezln.org.mx/ (which is translated into several languages) to read the powerful archive of their struggle, through their positions on their own situation within the Mexican nation-state, and their declarations of solidarity with struggles all over the world. Where there were no schools, some of their centers now have primary and secondary schools, such as in Oventic; they have created clinics to care for their people; they have paved roads in their communities, without the aid of the federal government. While they face constant threat from the Mexican government, they remain steadfast, and they are strengthening themselves by remembering who they are as Tseltal, Tojolabal, Tsotsil Mayan peoples. They are returning to principles that belong to them, principles that arise from their cultures. “Mandar obedeciendo,” “To Govern by Obeying,” is a way that they enact consensus amongst themselves. The image of the Caracol reminds them of the significance of reflection; at given moments a community will decide not to see visitors for a while because they need to re-group and think through together what their next steps will be. When they are ready, they open up their communities again to visitors, but only after they have had time to be quiet and thoughtful with each other. Are they perfect? No. Do they make mistakes? Yes. Have they inspired indigenous peoples in Chiapas and throughout Mexico? A resounding Yes!
I have spent more than twenty years traveling to Chiapas, going on my own, with my husband, with my students. I am deeply respectful of the autonomous communities, but I am not in their inner circle. Where I do have a place, where I am welcomed with open arms is in San Cristobal de las Casas, and many of the rural centers. I am blessed with knowing so many Mayan and Zoque intellectuals, writers (poets, fiction writers, scholars), visual artists, community leaders, and every single one of them affirms emphatically the influence the Zapatistas have had on their lives and beings. Creative expression by indigenous artists and writers is flourishing in Chiapas. All together they declare with their presence and their voice, “Somos Dignos!” “We Are Worthy.” It is not that they didn’t know this before, but the force of the EZLN served as a tremendous catalyst for a collective defense of their humanity.
I have engaged in conversations with one of my dear friends, Tseltal Mayan intellectual, José Daniel Ochoa Nájera, about how the world is changing for indigenous peoples in Chiapas. We talk about the “New Human” that is emerging, but my response has been that this “New Human Being” is, in reality, the “Old One” the Ancient One(s) come back. They have been returning, but now, it seems, it feels like, there is more power in numbers.
I wonder about this when I see Congress persons in the United States, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, using her Word as her Weapon, calling on the clarity of her informed consciousness, her awareness, to speak to injustice. I think the ancestors have been waiting for her for a long time. In Mexico, one of my beloved women friends, María Roselia Jiménez Pérez, Tojolabal Maya, was elected to Congress in July 2018. She is another fighter, formerly an elementary school teacher, but also a composer—she is single-handedly bringing back the song tradition to the Tojolabal community. The songs come to her, simply put. And they are powerfully beautiful. When I heard her sing a song for the EarthMother, at a conference in Quintana Roo, many years ago, I was struck with awe. As she sang, I closed my eyes and felt the histories of indigenous peoples in this hemisphere pass before my eyes and into my heart. She is quite humble. And she understands exactly, like Ocasio-Cortez, the force of conscious articulation of the issues facing Native peoples. She has been known to sing in Congress before she speaks, I have been delighted to learn.
Once, when my mom’s family was visiting us in California—they had come down from Nespelem, from the reservation, my mom’s brother, two of her sisters, and two of my cousins/sisters—we took them to a nice restaurant for dinner. We were sitting in the waiting area until our table was ready. I walked over to the bathroom, and on my way back, my mom’s younger sister, a spry, fun-loving elder, pulled on my shirt for me to bend down to hear her tell me, “You walk like you own the place… I like that,” she said, with a huge smile on her face, as she patted my hand. I had never thought of myself as walking that way, or in any way in particular. But when she said those words to me, I took them in, my body received them in joy, because what I heard is “You walk like you belong here.” I have since told my students, many times, in different classes, about this story, and I have told them to walk like they own the place. It is not about arrogance. In the times we are living, when students of color, first generation students, undocumented students, queer students, students of different abilities, are receiving the message, directly or by (often not-so-subtle) suggestion, that they are not good enough, that they don’t belong on the campus, that there is no way they will accomplish their goals, we must find ways of reminding them of who they are, in all their strength, beauty, and power. I tell them to walk tall, to hold their heads high, to walk with dignity, because they are worthy.
I walk this way for my parents, my dad, who was a Marine in World War II, my dad who refused to take advantage of any G.I. benefits from the United States—once, he almost told me why, he instead intimated that his experience was not a good one. My father was not a perfect man, but he was a man of honor, he was a worthy human being who (as I noted in an early poem) would share his heart “como pan, para las bocas hambrientas” [“like bread, for the hungry mouths”].
I walk this way for my mom, who was herself the epitome of rebellious dignity. She, like so many Native women, and men (but I notice it more with the women), used her facial expressions to communicate. I wrote a poem about this once, called “Tough Audience.” If a person did something offensive, or insensitive, or rude, the phrase “if looks could kill” was embodied in my mom. In fact, in those kinds of instances, she would stop talking. As she would sometimes say, later, “Words fail(ed) me!” She was a bold woman who traveled 3,000 miles from Nespelem to Galveston, Texas, to marry my father. She created her own space in a culturally Mexican community, even as she continued to walk tall as a Nez Perce woman.
From both sides of my family I learned what honor is. From both sides I was raised to know what it means to live an honorable life, how to respect, how to treat people, how to mean what you say, how to be truthful, especially first to yourself, how to be a person of integrity.
In a highly racialized society like the United States, it is critical for me as an educator to let all my students know they are honorable, worthy, and that they must embody their dignity. Using indigenous sources, and my own life experience, I teach the importance of deep listening, compassion, mindfulness, solidarity. I love that Mayan and Zoque thinkers in Chiapas have combined the two verbs, “sentir” [“to feel”] and “pensar” [“to think”] into the verb “sentipensar” [“to feelthink”]. The mind does not work by itself, but is in dialogue with the heart. I have found this to be a resonant understanding among indigenous peoples. I use this concept in my classes, to encourage students to feelthink, rather than to think only with their analyzers.
This recent worst chapter in the history of this country is actually nothing new—it has always been this way, the dehumanizing bigotry and outright practice of racism by “right of conquest” that has impacted Native communities since this nation came into being is all too familiar. Some might say that what is happening now has been somehow hiding right beneath the surface and is now unmasked in full force. But it has been there, for everyone to see (if they cared to notice) all along. Just ask all the communities who have been impacted over the decades, and centuries—we remember, our memories are long and go back to the beginning. We think that what we are living now must be over the top, that there could never have been another time quite as bad. Just as the Ancient Ones are returning to help transform our world(s), the Vicious Ones are manifesting themselves, expressing the legacies that have been forcefully instilled upon them by their ancestors who wrought destruction early on in this society. It is not healthy to return hatred with hatred. Hatred destroys from within, and this is the fate of those who want to destroy. They are pitiful, they are ugly, they are hateful. These are common expressions we use in Native communities, at least in my own family. “So pitiful” is one level of offense. “So ugly” is the next level down, more serious than pitiful. “So hateful” is when someone can sink no further. There is something to be said for economy of language.
The Earth is witness, this is what Native elders say. The Creation is watching.
45 has given folks permission to express hate, to voice their own guilt-ridden horrific nightmares—they rage because the question that nags them day and night, the question that is emblazoned on their foreheads (and perhaps in their hearts) is “What will happen to us if these people come to power?” 45 knows this and manipulates at will, casting a kind of spell on the unwitting.
Coyote and Che Guevara
Coyote smiles and nods when he hears how the Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara always said we live in the belly of the beast here in the United States. Kindred spirits think alike.
So, it seems to me appropriate in this day and age that Coyote’s hanging around. I mean, I’m Nimipu, and well, when Creation began, according to my people, Coyote slayed this monster, see, this beast, and flung the body parts far and wide, bringing into being many native tribes, amongst them mine. The Nimipu were made when Coyote washed his hands, and mixed the cleansing waters with the monster’s drops of blood. To slay the monster, Itseyaya had to first figure out a way to get into the monster’s belly, and then to organize the animal people inside to be ready for the monster’s defeat. In that old time, he had five knives, and he taunted the monster until the monster swallowed him. That way he could go to work from inside with his weapons. The way I see it, Coyote today, he’s already here, inside, kind of wandering around in the belly with us human people and animal, sky, water, plant, and stone people, trying to figure a way out for us all. Meanwhile he’s just working hard on injuring the monster from within. I believe the Caribou in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge are with him. The Salmon people are with him, the Bees are with him, the Gray Wolves, Turtles, Condors, Polar Bears, and all the endangered species are with him, because it is the time for solidarity, it is the time to stand with each other, centered, grounded, strong.
The thing about Coyote is this: he is willing to give his life. Yes, Coyote is willing to sacrifice himself. His running partner is Fox, and if Coyote is slain, and there is one hair left of him, one bit of DNA, Fox can bring him back to life. After all, the odds are against Coyote, or so it seems. The world-turned-upside-down we are living in is one huge illusion, an hechicería, a spell of the worst kind, because the conjuring is intended to make us think change is impossible. But Coyote is much more astute than any hechicería thrown up to block him. He is, we must remember, the Master of conjuring. Is the enterprise dangerous? Of course. But he knows he can (be) resuscitate(d). If you ask me, I think I’ll hang with him. Like I said, he always comes back to life—always–and I sort of prefer those odds. I think of the attempts to exterminate Coyotes, and what happens, they have an internal mechanism that tells them to have more babies! I think of the attempts to erase indigenous peoples from the face of the earth, and yet here we are. Yes, I will take these odds.
And, the other life-giving, delicious aspect of Coyote is that he makes us laugh, he makes us remember to laugh, as my brother and friend George Longfish always says, “Stay in amusement,” even when things are at their toughest. Laughter is a much higher energy than desolation, grief, anger—laughter heals us. Do we need healings? Yes, yes, I say, we need healings so that we can remember who we are and what we came here to do on this earth in this life.
Inés Hernández-Ávila is Professor of Native American Studies at UC Davis, a scholar, poet, and visual artist. She is Nimipu (Nez Perce), enrolled on the Colville Reservation in Washington, and Tejana (Texas Mexican). She is one of founders of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA). She was a Co-Director of the UCD (Mellon funded) Social Justice Initiative (2013-2016). She regularly teaches Summer Abroad in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, with a focus on the Zapatistas and on contemporary Mayan writers and visual artists. In April 2017, she received the Frank Bonilla Public Intellectual Award from the Latino Studies section of the Latin American Studies Association. She works on the relationship between indigenous autonomy, creativity, and spirituality in the interests of social justice.