Priscilla Solis Ybarra: Good afternoon. I don’t have any slides. I’m coming to you from the text-based literary world to talk to you about literature. I’ve really enjoyed everything today. Thank you to Damian and Paula for the invitation. Tina for all the help with the coordination. I’m so happy to be here. I’ve been learning so much already.
What I want to take a closer look at here in our discussion…this is a panel that proposes to talk about liberatory, joyful aesthetics. And if you’ve taken the time to read the Green New Deal, it doesn’t really take a lot of care to appeal to us in an aesthetic way, right. It’s a bureaucratic document. But we’re challenged here to talk about cultural politics and the Green New Deal, or what Damian said this morning, how does that politics feel and entice? So that’s what I want to address here through my field of expertise, which is Mexican American, Chicana feminist, Latinx literatures, narratives, imaginaries.
So, two things that we can consider in this question is how to tell a good or appealing story, right. How to recruit people into agreeing that we should change things in a grand-scale kind of way, right, or in a big way. Maybe through small-scale things but we’re looking to change things in a big way, right. So how do we tell an appealing story in order to recruit people to join us in that?
And then, how do we tell a story that will create what we call “a better future,” or a future that is different from our present. Okay, so I’m just kind of reiterating some of the goals that we’ve set for ourselves here.
But there’s two aspects of this inquiry that I want to address a little further and push back on a little bit. And they’re aspects of this vision that I’ve learned about through thinking about Latinx and indigenous imaginaries.
Okay. So when we propose to tell an appealing story, what do we attempt to appeal to? To what kind of structure of feeling or affect are we hoping to appeal, what kind of affect do we hope to create? So I’ll say more about this when I give you—I’m going to talk to about three specific examples from Mexican American and Chicana feminist imaginaries, narratives. But you know, these values of simplicity and reciprocity, and not necessarily comfort, as we heard about this morning, right, are the things that these narratives invite us to dwell in their space of simplicity and reciprocity and not necessarily comfort. So, these are works that ask a us to spend time in that space so that we can become accustomed to those values that are alternative to the racial capitalism that has created the world that we are accustomed to inhabiting. So that’s one inquiry.
And then, when we propose to tell a story that will create a better future, to which temporality do we refer? That’s my second question. So this question is designed to challenge the idea that we have all been on the same journey through time. I want to bring attention to the fact that the timeline of the modern Western values that shape the preponderance of our discussions about environment and climate change are not common to everyone. Other temporalities exist. Specifically, the temporality experienced by indigenous peoples and people of color. The literary critic Mark Rifkin in his book Beyond Settler Time: Temporal Sovereignty and Indigenous Self-Determination from 2017, with that book he intervenes with the dominance of settler time and he suggests that we
need to address the role of time (as narrative, as experience, as immanent materiality of continuity and change) in struggles over Indigenous landedness governance, and everyday sociality.
I also follow the lead of philosopher Kyle Powys White in his essay “Indigenous Science” and then he has “fiction” in parentheses—Indigenous Science (Fiction) for the Anthropocene: Ancestral Dystopias and Fantasies of Climate Change Crises. And this is an essay from 2018 that he published in the Journal Environment and Planning. And he argues that we exist today in the fantasy future of a settler colonial past. But for indigenous peoples, the past 500 years has been a dystopia. There is no pending crisis for indigenous peoples, for peoples of color. We’ve been dwelling in the dystopia already for a very long time. So at least those two different temporalities exist, so when we’re talking about a future that we’re creating in distinction to our present, who’s present are we talking about, who’s future are we talking about.
So I want to show you the way that Latinx imaginary helps us to appeal to particular affects in our attempt to tell compelling stories. And how the Latinx imaginary helps challenge settler colonial time, and amplifies other temporalities for indigenous peoples and peoples of color, right, how we have experienced time.
So the first example that I want to talk to you about is from Fabiola Cabeza de Baca. She was an extension agent for the state of New Mexico in the 1930s and 40s. She went to New Mexico…I think it was New Mexico State University when she was a young woman. So, you think about a young Mexican American woman in New Mexico getting a college degree, working for for the state as an extension agent, her job was to go into these little villages in New Mexico and talk to the women about their homes, about their kitchens, and teach them how to keep a better home, right, with the modern lessons that she learned.
How do you think that that might have gone for her? With las señoras in their kitchens, this young woman from the city telling them what to do. Well, I don’t know what happened in those kitchens and she doesn’t tell us that. But the texts that she produces, she wrote a memoir about growing up on the Llano Estacado in eastern New Mexico, and she published two cookbooks. But those cookbooks tell me that she learned a lot from being in those kitchens with those señoras and that she asked them questions rather than telling them what to do giving them lessons.
So her cookbook that was published in 1949, the same year that Aldo Leopold published A Sand County Almanac—I like to put those temporalities next to each other to show that Mexican Americans were making contributions to the way we think about the human relationship to the environment at the same time that the bible of the contemporary US conservation movement was being published. In The Good Life she writes a little bit about her family’s experience growing up on the Llano Estacado. And she inhabits these values of and she a paints a picture of these values of simplicity, enduring difficulties.
And a quote from that, which is where I got the the title for my first book which is just called Writing the Goodlife, which is a history of 150 years of Mexican American writing about the environment. She says,
Life as I grew up and as I knew it as a home economist was rich but simple. People drew sustenance from the soil and from the spirit. Life was good but not always easy. And that’s a really important quote to me because she emphasizes simplicity, reciprocity, but not ease. And it really resonates with the movements in Latin America, South America, indigenous communities, of buen vivir you know, good living, good life, and the good way, sumak kawsay in Quechua.
And I already addressed how she also presents us with another temporality just by publishing that book at the same time that Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac was published. And I have other work in which I’m challenging the narrative of Aldo Leopold—or enhancing our story of Aldo Leopold as…the Sand County activism that he did in Wisconsin was really also a Mexican American project because he met and married his wife in Santa Fe, New Mexico. And they had five children, and that’s a Mexican American family that was restoring the shack there in Wisconsin. But we don’t really think about it as a Mexican American family, we think about it as a kind of individualist endeavor of Leopold’s but it was very much a family endeavor.
The second work that I want to talk to you about, and I know I’m getting a little close to my time but. The second work is a play—actually the next two are both plays. This is from 1992, a play by Cherríe Moraga, a long-time San Francisco-based playwright, a Chicana feminist. Her play Heroes and Saints is about farmworkers, pesticide contamination—some of you are probably familiar with it; about this very vulnerable population, and I want to talk to you in particular about two characters. There’s an environmental justice activist whose name is Amparo, and then the central character, her name is Cerezita.
And Moraga presents the audience with a really tough suspension of disbelief challenge because Cerezita is born only as a human head, to symbolize a lot of the birth defects that occur as a result of pesticide contamination in the Central Valley in California. But you’re constantly faced, you know, as an audience member, from the stage with a human that is just a human head. The affect that this play presents us with is an affect of community collaboration, it resonates with Cabeza de Baca’s Good Life values: it’s not always easy but it’s good.
And at a clean water rally, Amparo gives a speech to the community about how they need to reject consumerist, materialist, Anglo-American capitalist definitions of what is good, and remember where they came from. She argues that the community has been duped by the lure of material comforts,
homes that have become prisons, and water that pours from the sink that gots to be boiled three times before it passes your children’s lips. She makes the case that they had it better before the signing of contracts and the accumulation of goods. There’s a part of the play that shows that they’re living where they’re living where everything is contaminated because they were given these homes but clearly it was a contaminated area. When they were free to live sleeping under the stars—that was the time before, right—back home and breathing clean air. Reaching the pinnacle of her speech she asks,
Que significa que the three things in life—el aire, el agua, y la tierra—que we always had enough of, even in our pueblitos en México, ya no tenemos? Si, parece que tenemos all we need. Pero es mentira.
She asks what does it mean when the three elements of life—air, water, and earth—that they always enjoyed plenty, even in Mexico, is no longer available to them. She states that it appears that they have all they need, but then she emphatically tells them that it is all a lie. The lure of material conveniences has left them vulnerable to the values and practices that attempt to defy death, and in the meantime the farmworkers themselves have become the cannon fodder in this battle. They fall on the frontlines of this attempt to defeat death, with all others benefiting from their sacrifice.
So, that play’s an invitation to inhabit this affective community collaboration. This play also challenges temporality. Cerezita, as we come to be more familiar with her in the play, we learn that she’s a fantasy future of a settler colonial past. How is that? She’s a completely disposable body that satisfies the externalization of death and contamination from white populations onto populations of peoples of color, satisfying a fetishization of life. And I oppose this to the Mexican American celebration days of the dead, right, as an recognition of death as part of the life cycle.
I’ll move on to my last example, which is a very contemporary play. It was first staged in 2018 in Dallas where I’m from. Cara Mía Theatre is a Mexican American theater company. And three women of color collaborated to write this play. And this is my example of a future. It’s set a thousand years in the future. And it’s titled [Where] Earth Meets the Sky. And it’s written by the three women who wrote it—Edyka Chilomé, Ariana Cook,
and Vanessa Mercado-Taylor. It is set in the future after a catastrophe that renders Earth uninhabitable by humans. There are people that are called Sky People who have been orbiting the Earth for a thousand years but their life-sustaining systems, you know, the technologies that they have on the spaceships, are failing so they decide that they have to return to Earth and see if it’s inhabitable after a thousand years without them destroying it, right.
So they send an envoy down, and the play is about the encounter of the sky person with the Earth people because it turns out that some people managed to survive and have created a completely different culture. So it’s a really radical imagining. I don’t know if I would say a utopian imagining but an imagining of a different kind of culture.
So this encounter between the Earth people and the Sky People, the Earth people develop a way to live that transcends binaries and boundaries that we’re beginning to question today but we’re still generally ruled and structured by. Things like gender, the human priority over animals. The Earth people are led by elders associated with the feminine, with the motherly. Earth people are able to communicate telepathically. They meld forms with trees and communicate through roots in the soil. And this is all done on the stage, but I’m so excited for them to get a contract to make this into a TV miniseries or something; it would be really powerful visually. They communicate through roots in the soil and they meld forms with animals. They shift between genders. They live organically with no fossil fuel energies, that kind of thing.
So anyway, a radically different imaginary for the future. So this is disrupting our temporality. And obviously they also challenge settler time by imagining this radical fantasy future that really encompasses black indigenous people of color because those are the ones that were left behind. In the spaceship there’s a dichotomy between the white-hairs and the dark-hairs. So I won’t tell you what happens in the play because I want you to see if it comes your way, but also if it comes out as a movie or a miniseries.
And so I just wanted wanted to talk a little bit about you know, very briefly tell you how Latinx imaginaries can help us both appeal to these affects that we need to start thinking about, and we can inhabit that within works of literature. And we also need to disrupt the idea that we’re all on one temporal…you know, in the same lane of temporality because there’s many different ones. So if we’re going to get anywhere with this discussion we definitely need to integrate alternative temporalities. Thank you.
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