Bodies of Corn, Maguey and Water: Performing Latin American Environmentalisms

Ana Martínez*

Abstract

In this article, I invite readers to think of Latin American environmentalisms in performance as source of decolonial knowledge and environmental values, and not just as victims of colonization, capitalistic exploitation and environmental degradation. I analyze three site-specific performances that engage with indigenous epistemologies that have survived since the conquest of the Americas. Done in collaboration with the Otomí performers Xita Corpus of Temascalcingo, Mexico, Danzantes del alba (Dawn Dancers) (2020), by the Mexican experimental theatre company Teatro Línea de Sombra, reinvents the Otomí procession linked to corn sowing, in which Temascalcingo’s inhabitants transform into the mythical xita (elderly) by wearing giant masks of maguey and costumes of fabric scraps and recycled materials. Procesión para unir a un hombre de maíz (Procession to Unite a Man of Corn) (2008–18) by Mexican artist Alfadir Luna, is a collaboration with the merchants of the different markets of La Merced in Mexico City. During the procession, the animistic figure of a man made out of corn is put together while it passes through the markets, suggesting the pre-Hispanic creation myth in which humanity is born out of corn. In her performance One Body of Water (2015), Los Angeles-based Colombian artist Carolina Caycedo foregrounds indigenous cosmogonies where all bodies of water are connected and investigates the effects that dams have on natural and social landscapes. It combines the stories of three rivers in the Americas: the Magdalena (Colombia), Yaqui (Mexico) and Elwha (Washington, U.S.). These performances provide us with ideas on how to heal humanity’s relationship with the land through community-oriented values, recycling practice, and affective animisms. As Danzantes, Man of Corn and One Body of Water attest, some Latin American communities have never privileged the colonial separation between human and nature.

Keywords: buen vivir, recycle, animisms, decolonial, indigenous, corn, Latin American, Latinx

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought our environmental crisis into sharp relief. It has reminded us that we depend on each other and that if we are going to survive we have to rethink how we live. “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next” (Roy). Early in the pandemic, Arundhati Roy’s article “The Pandemic Is a Portal” went “viral” as it offered some sense of grounding and an opportunity to rethink “the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves” (47). Many of us read in anguish about the worldwide class disparities that COVID had brought into the foreground. Roy pointedly stated that “nothing could be worse than a return to normality” (47).

Similarly, during a recent interview I conducted with Alicia Laguna and Jorge A. Vargas, cofounders and directors of the Mexican experimental theatre company Teatro Línea de Sombra (TLS), we talked about how the COVID crisis has been a catalyst for a new philosophic and aesthetic approach to theatre making (Martínez, “Teatro Línea de Sombra” 169–78). We discussed that it would be disastrous for theatre artists to go back to the so-called “normal,” or to the individualistic ideology that exploits the environment. Laguna and Vargas reflected on how the pandemic is an opportunity to see ourselves not as exceptional beings but, instead, as interrelated with our ecosystems. Laguna argued that the best that could happen to us is to establish a dialogue with everything that surrounds us. Vargas noted how our anthropocentricism is so entrenched that not even during this pandemic are we able to see beyond ourselves. This interview became a reflection on how theatre needs to address the developmentalist ideology of progress and the ecological destruction that humans have generated through unhinged capitalism, colonialism and globalization. Vargas stated a simple but, nonetheless, gargantuan task: “Tenemos que reinventar la cosa,” which loosely translates as “we have to reinvent the thing” (Martínez 178).[1]

Both Roy’s article and TLS’s interview, were a stark reminder that individualism is a delusion. If we are going to envision a post-COVID future, we need to respond in bold ways instead of reverting to a comfortable and conservative normalcy. I decided to refocus my scholarship to our era’s most pressing issue: our current climate crisis. How and where to begin? By looking at my hometown, Mexico, and fields of study—Mexican, Latin American and Latinx performance—through an ecological lens. I started to explore in depth how some communities have never privileged the colonial separation between the human and non-human and how this way of being in the world has been transmitted through performative practices.

This article studies methods through which Latin American cultures broaden environmentalism. Rooted in Latin American movements and indigenous struggles that challenge discourses of modernity and development, scholars are making visible how the lived experiences of Latinx and Latin American communities embrace the values of “simplicity, sustenance, dignity, and respect,” or the buen vivir (living well) (Ybarra, Writing the Goodlife 4). Grounded in the cultural traditions of the indigenous populations of the Andean-Amazonian region, the buen vivir is a discourse built around “alternative forms of development and alternatives to development” (Beling 18).

In an unprecedented biocentric and legal turn, the 2008 Ecuadorian and Bolivian constitutions and, most recently, the proposed 2022 Chilean constitution grant rivers and natural bodies environmental personhood and introduce the notion of the buen vivir, which entails “a different philosophy of life into the vision of society, one that subordinates economic objectives to ecological criteria, human dignity, and social justice” (Escobar 138). I contribute to the field of theatre ecology where Latin American and Latinx performance is largely overlooked and study the work of Mexican artist Alfadir Luna, Los Angeles-based Colombian artist Carolina Caycedo and Teatro Línea de Sombra. TLS and Luna do not consider themselves environmentalists; it is simply their cosmovision. Caycedo’s work provides a contrast in my study. She is a Latinx artist who defines herself as an environmental activist. By comparing the three, I provide a nuanced picture of Latin American performance and environmentalism. I emphasize how these artists have never adhered to modernity’s anthropocentrism or human exceptionalism. Their performative practices promote a healthier relationship between the human and non-human by engaging with indigenous notions of animism, spirituality, and nature’s autonomy.

Created in collaboration with the Otomí performers Xita Coorpo of Temascalcingo, Mexico, Danzantes del alba (Dawn Dancers) (2020–22) by TLS reinvents the Otomí procession linked to corn sowing, in which Temascalcingo’s inhabitants transform into the mythical xita (otomí and mazahua for elderly or ancestors) by wearing giant masks of maguey and costumes of fabric scraps and recycled materials. Procesión para unir a un hombre de maíz (Procession to Unite a Man of Corn) (2008–18) by Luna is a collaboration with the merchants of the different markets of La Merced in Mexico City. During the procession, the animistic figure of a man made out of corn is put together while it passes through the markets, suggesting the pre-Hispanic creation myth in which humanity is born out of corn.

In her performance One Body of Water (OBW) (2015), Caycedo foregrounds indigenous cosmogonies where all bodies of water are connected and investigates the effects that dams have on natural and social landscapes. It combines the stories of three rivers in the Americas: the Magdalena (Colombia), Yaqui (Mexico) and Elwha (Washington, U.S.). Performers embody the rivers and enact a dramatic conflict with the dams arguing that they are entities with feelings, thoughts, agency and a soul.

I analyze Danzantes, Man of Corn and OBW by highlighting the Latin American utopia and life’s philosophy of buen vivir, which encompasses culture as part of our ecosystem while, simultaneously, breaks away from the romantizacion of indigenous cultures and the anthropocentric logic of capitalism. Buen vivir can be generally defined as a “community-oriented cultural paradigm of social organization based on a way of life that maintains a relationship of respect, harmony, and balance with everything that exists, understanding that everything is interconnected, interdependent, and interrelated” (Beling 17–18). I use concepts from the buen vivir as an opportunity to articulate ecological alternatives in performance. I question the positioning of non-Western peoples as the ecological other and seek to recover their position as keepers of environmental knowledge.

Latin American environmental performative practices go back longer than contemporary European environmental thought. Western cultures in the so-called first world need to stop arguing that environmental ideas originate in the Anglo and European worlds when “they can be found in the heart of a thriving culture that has stared down assault and assimilation, and won” (Ybarra, Writing the Goodlife 10). TLS, Luna and Caycedo’s work sustains and transmits environmental ideas rooted in pre-Columbian thought, such as that everything—from mountains, rivers, rocks, plants and insects to costumes, musical instruments, buildings and works of art—is connected, empowered and vivified.

Danzantes del alba: Bodies of Maguey

In Mexico, we are sarcastically proud of how we always find ways to adapt to unexpected and harsh situations. Communities rely on each other and create solutions to overcome unsurmountable problems like the expropriation of communal lands, unequal access to basic needs and environmental disasters. It is not that people in the so-called underdeveloped world want or enjoy having to be creative as a survival mode. There is no other choice. Mexicans have learnt the hard way to come up with solutions and to work with what its available. TLS’s recent piece Danzantes del alba is an example of such adaptability during the COVID crisis. The pandemic shaped its dramaturgy, format, materiality and process. In turn, it foregrounded our interrelatedness.

TLS had been developing Danzantes for Mexico’s International Cervantino Festival when the world came to a halt early in 2020. Instead of shifting to recording live theatre, Vargas and Luna responded directly to the crisis. They reevaluated their research and examined new strategies to re-enter the world. TLS’s collaborator and anthropologist Rodrigo Parrini prompted TLS to investigate the relationship between carnivals and labour and between traditional costume-making and contemporary forms of neoliberal exploitation. TLS’s creative team visited various locations that provoked performative interpretations of labour and the making of carnivalesque costumes. For example, they visited the women’s collective Centro de Servicios de Apoyo a la Mujer or CESAM (Women’s Support and Services Center), in Mexico City, and requested the seamstresses to fabricate their costumes for Danzantes, which are in themselves TLS’s reinventions of traditional xita costumes. While there, Vargas envisioned their costumes as if emerging from all the scraps of white fabric piled up in a corner. These were the leftovers from the Personal Protective Equipment that the women at CESAM were making for the city in the pandemic. Vargas describes this moment as key in his conceptualization of Danzantes. He imagined the costumes as intensely alive objects that could initiate and choreograph behavior. He recalls: “In addition to forcing us to have all the necessary care, the pandemic forced us into new reflections” (Martínez, “Teatro Línea de Sombra” 174). CESAM created twenty-five costumes for Danzantes.

Danzantes del alba, 2020. Photo: M. Soto

TLS’s approach to creating their costumes offers a communitarian and sustainable alternative for theatre making in which everyone benefits. Boaventura de Sousa Santos highlights the concept of community in the buen vivir where no one wins unless your neighbor wins. It is the exact opposite of the capitalistic conception of  “para que yo gane, el resto del mundo tiene que perder” (“in order for me to win the rest of the world has to lose”) (qtd. in Acosta 69). Vargas and Laguna traveled to the Otomí community of Magdalena Bosha in Temascalcingo and proposed the Otomí Xita Coorpo dancers to wear TLS’s costumes and to dance together in the countryside. The two-day-long Xita Corpus annual festivity that parades through the town during the celebration of Corpus Christi to invoke rain for the crops had been cancelled due to the pandemic. Xita Coorpo and TLS danced in the arid and mountainous lands of central Mexico to the marching-like rhythms of the traditional xita violin and drum. They wore TLS’s bulky, colourful and striking costumes. The costumes’ weight of around four kilograms each added an extra effort to the performers as they jumped and danced in exultation. Through their collaboration, TLS and communities were able to perform to invoke rain for their crops when the world had shut down during quarantine. Collaborators also won materially. For example, Vargas and Laguna donated a sewing machine to seamstress and Honduran immigrant Santa María Rosales so that she earns a living through sewing services. Rosales created four costumes for Danzantes.

Danzantes del alba, 2020. Photo: S. Perdomo

The collaborative dance between TLS and the Xita Coorpo became part of the opening and closing sequences of Danzantes‘s first iteration: a thirty-minute-long audiovisual that portrays arresting video sequences through migrant shelters, maquiladoras, abandoned buildings, small towns, streets, plazas, workshops, parties and a theatre. All the sequences relate to the makers, making and wearing of TLS’ costumes. Sewing and dancing are central. The audiovisual also portrays samples of the fabrication of their thirty-six costumes in various community centers around Mexico, such as CESAM, Rosales’s home in Querétaro, Club Amazonas Gay in Tenosique, Tabasco, and the Soberanes Flores Family’s Workshop in Santa Clara, Ecatepec. There are enthralling closeups of hands working the sewing machines and building the multi-layered costumes made out of hundreds of discarded bra clasps and fabric scraps.

Danzantes del alba, 2020. Photo: M. Soto

A year later, and as pandemic restrictions loosened, TLS devised the most recent iteration of Danzantes: a live performance and installation in Mexico City’s theatre Juan Ruíz de Alarcón at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (National Autonomous University of Mexico), UNAM. The audiovisual became the scenography for the live performance, including nine dancers, a narrator and thirty-six carnivalesque costumes. Vargas’s direction and Zuadd Atala’s choreography mirrors the audiovisual projected on the stage’s side walls. Actor Antígona González introduces Danzantes to the audience and invites them to form a circle on the stage around the performance. After thirty minutes of intense dancing and interaction with the costumes, the dancers take off the costumes and hook them to the stage flies to be slowly raised for couple of meters above the ground. Audiences are left to roam amongst a theatrical landscape made out of suspended bodiless costumes and their symbolic traces.  

Danzantes performs an ecological vision of interconnectedness, interdependency and vitality. In Danzantes, “todo tiene que ver con todo” (“everything has to do with everything”); an idea that is central to the buen vivir (Acosta 132). The steady use of drums and percussions produces an affective energy and mythical symbolism that recalls the use of drums in pre-Hispanic central Mexico. Drums served as instruments for communication and association with ecological renovation. Through drumming, Aztecs corresponded with distant neighbors and trained dancers to see themselves as portals of a world in motion (Cabranes-Grant 21). Drumming and dancing in Danzantes provide a portal to our interconnectedness and to the earth’s ongoing renewal.

Costumes and masks allow Otomí and TLS dancers to identify with the land while promoting a sustainable costume practice. For Temascalcingo’s annual festivity of the Xita Corpus, each community member performing a xita is in charge of creating their costume. It is a practice that has been passed through generations. Traditionally, the xita costumes are made out of ragged and muddy clothes cut into stripes sewn onto old clothes. Dancers wear an oversized mask made out of dry maguey (or wood), with carved wrinkles and decorated with muddy grey hair and beard of ixtle (plant fiber obtained from agave and yucca). The large hat is made out of sticks or cardboard. In reference to ancient Otomí and Mazahua indigenous groups in the area, the xita carry utensils on their backs like pots, comales (griddles) and huacales (crates). They also place bells and cans on their feet to resemble the noise of falling rain (Ruiz 37­–38). Similar to the xitas’ recycling convention of costume making, TLS used recycled materials for their costumes and carried on with the practice of using what is available. 

Danzantes invokes the myth of the Xita Corpus, which promotes community and collective ownership. According to the myth, the xita are the elderly from past times who have been walking for several days and arrive to Temascalcingo to rest. There, they ask for food as they had been surviving by eating wild animals and plants. Because of a drought, there is not enough food, and the town inhabitants ask the xita to invoke rain to ensure the prosperity of their harvest. They agree, and for two days performers wearing xita costumes and masks dance through Temascalcingo’s streets. The community follows the carnivalesque parade of the xita dancing and growling with a vitality that contrasts with their ancient image (Ruiz 37­–38).

The celebration is a symbolic and social ritual that brings Temascalcingo’s community together. Through this performance, the ego of individuality disappears, and the collective “we” emerges, as everyone dances for rain for the cultivation of corn. The myth of the Xita Corpus asserts that the land has a vitality that the dancers embody and remember. Both the Xita Corpus and Danzantes connect us to the land’s past and present. As Cherríe Moraga reminds us, “the land has memory,” and “we should be attentive to it in order to survive” (Ybarra, The Body Knows 282).

Señor del Maíz: Body of Corn

In Alfadir Luna’s site-specific parade Procesión para unir a un hombre de maíz, a group of merchants carry a platform with a man made out of corn seated on a chair. A woman-merchant welcomes the sculpture into Mexico City’s central market of La Merced with the following words:

Man of corn, welcome to the market. We welcome you, symbol of hope, fertility, and strength. We present to you our blessed image of the Virgin of Mercy. May your joy and your passage be for the benefit of all the markets and their union, which they really need. 

Código

After greeting the sculpture as a saintly figure who protects, unites and brings fortune to La Merced, the procession travels through its ten markets, each comprised of hundreds of stalls of different products, from fresh produce, meats and seeds to clothes, shoes, herbal medicine and items related to religion, magic and the occult. Led by Luna, merchants, families and visitors are accompanied by a band of wind instruments, ritual objects, flags representing the participant markets and a group of carnivalesque dancers known as chinelos. The chinelos date back to colonial times in central Mexico. They used to dance ridiculing Spanish colonizers during carnival and popular celebrations. The chinelos wear colorful and embroidered gowns and hats, masks with pink skin and pointed long beards. Luna facilitated the celebration taking place for ten years on the first Tuesday of the first crescent moon in October. This date is associated with a time of rebirth. Merchants embraced Luna’s man of corn and transformed him into one of their saints. The yearly procession is now part of the market’s celebratory calendar.

Alfadir Luna, El Señor del Maíz, 2012.Chromogenic print. Photo: Anayatzin Ortiz

Luna transferred the procession to the merchants after the first three years of its performance. In 2010, Luna assisted in forming a merchants’ organization in charge of the Procesión and of its man of corn. The organization looks after the sculpture throughout the year. They get together to discuss changes about the parade and to address questions and new proposals. In an horizonal exercise of power, they act by consensus. The merchants’ assembly became a non-hierarchical communitarian space, which exemplifies Luna’s conception of participation. Luna argues that Procesión is a participatory event because merchants adjust, adapt and modify his original design according to what they agree is best for their community (Luna, Personal interview). The merchants have agency and direct control over the life of the procession. For example, in 2011, they decided that instead of each market creating and adding a limb to the man of corn as the procession passes through until it is complete, the man of corn would parade as a fully integrated body-sculpture. In his original script, Luna specifies that the man of corn will be made in ten parts: feet, legs, trunk, arms, hands and head (one part per market) (Luna, “Procesión”). Merchants also agreed that the man of corn couldn’t leave La Merced because it was his home and their saint. They requested Luna to copyright the procession but not the man of corn; they think of him as a mystic, magical and spiritual entity.[2] The life imprinted on the man of corn fluctuates depending on the merchant or participants. For example, some performed specific rituals during the procession meant to provide life and energy to the man of corn by rubbing their hands, lighting candles, illuminating his pupils and offering food, and small offerings (Luna, Personal interview). Merchants transformed the man of corn into a living entity that relates to maize and thus, nourishment.

Alfadir Luna, El Señor del Maíz, 2012. Chromogenic print. Photo: Anayatzin Ortiz

Luna used corn for his sculpture as it is one of the most ancient emblems of energy, life and interdependency in the world. In the Americas, rituals have affirmed the indigenous connection between communities and corn. Many indigenous peoples, like the Otomí, Nahúatl and Maya in Mexico have a long-lasting connection to corn. For example, according to the sacred Mayan text of the Popol Vuh, animals were created first, followed by wet clay, wood and, last, human beings, who were made out of maize dough. Aztec mythology narrates that after following an ant, the god Quetzalcóatl found the place where maize grew known as Tonacatepetl (mountain of sustenance in Náhuatl). Quetzalcóatl transformed into an ant, stole a kernel and brought it back to humans to plant it. Corn and the land where it is harvested are sacred. The land is seen as the provider of life of humans and non-humans beings. The Nahua, Otomí and indigenous groups in Mexico believe that the land is part of all living entities and thus must be taken care of. As portrayed in Victor Masayesva’s documentary film about indigenous peoples connection to corn, Waaki (Sanctuary), it is also understood that humans should not waste any corn, otherwise the seeds cry. Indigenous historical and spiritual connection to corn underlines how interdependencies are a crucial component of our past and future existence, and that “recognizing these interdependencies, identifying and accepting our neighbors, this is our future” (Masayesva qtd. in Hanson par. 3). Luna’s Procesión produces such ontological relations and interdependencies, which are also part of the buen vivir.

Luna’s Procesión builds partnerships of ritual and labour. He sees the man of corn as an open symbol that allows for multiple dialogues to emerge, such as the indigenous, agrarian, social and spiritual. Procesión critiques the modern ideology of progress by using sustainable and recycling practices rooted in everyday life in the Americas. Itneutralizes the capitalistic and exploitative ideology of progress with its materiality, laboring process and mythical connections with corn. Similar to TLS, Luna’s philosophy of making art and performance is very efficient in the sense that he uses what it is available. Staying away from any grandiose artistic position, Luna half-jokes that his artistic philosophy follows the popular Mexican saying of “ni tanto que queme al santo ni tan poco que no lo alumbre” (“neither so much that the saint burns nor so little that does not even illuminate it”) (Luna, Personal interview). He implies that he simply does his work with whatever is available for him in the moment and lets participants decide on the meanings and symbolisms of Procesión. He states: “plain and simple: what there is, it is used.” He purchased a cheap mannequin from a nearby downtown store that he spotted while passing by. Each year, he collects corn from the markets of La Merced and along with other merchants glues piece by piece on the mannequin following a vertical pattern from feet to head. The man of corn is alive in the sense that each year the merchants and Luna change the man’s seeds by removing and planting them wherever they can; that is, in sidewalks, in their backyards, around the market and so on. Luna notes that those seeds germinate even if they have some residual glue on them. If some seeds are too damaged, they compost them.

Alfadir Luna, El Señor del Maíz, 2012. Chromogenic print. Photo: Anayatzin Ortiz

The yearly re-making of the man of corn is a labour-intensive operation, but merchants and Luna get into a rhythm of laboring and are proud of it. Similarly to pre-conquest indigenous societies in the Americas, work is ceremonially performed. It is not an activity to be measured in terms of productivity. In fact, the work’s ritualistic dimension cancels modern ideas of food as a product that is measured by its marketability. Procesión performs a worldview of living in harmony with nourishment and the land that produces it. Upon request by the merchants, Luna created an insignia for the man of corn that reads: “The man of corn reminds us of what must be done over and over again: the land’s value and the spritual dimension of work. La Merced is a center of spiritual and material power, and of communication” (Luna, Personal interview). Unlike our culture of unhinged consumerism that sees corn as simply as a commodity, the making of the man of corn underscores its mythical, religious, social, cultural and symbolic character within pre-Hispanic traditions.

Procesión embodies, sustains and transmits an ecological and pre-Columbian way of connecting with the land. It offers an opportunity to think about our nourishment and the land as part of human and non-humans and as integral of our ecosystems. Corn and humans learned to grow together following a ceremonial calendar and developed an interdependency. To maintain the land’s corn in good condition, we need to understand how and why it was domesticated and how our relationship to it has changed (Waaki 00:41:45–00:42:15). Procesión helps us narrate our ecological relationships between different human and non-human entities, reminds us of our interrelatedness and that we need just enough to continue to live. 

One Body of Water

Carolina Caycedo’s One Body of Water (OBW) was performed at the Bowie Project, located along the Los Angeles river, and it is part of Caycedo’s ongoing multimedia project Be Damned, which examines the impact of hydroelectric dams on the environment and on local communities. Be Damned explores water as a common good through a series of aerial and satellite images, audio-visual essays, performances and political actions. Caycedo started working in the Magdalena river, Colombia’s main river, where she grew up, and later expanded to several other bio-regions in the Americas with the understanding that all rivers are connected. Caycedo defines her artistic process as spiritual fieldwork. Be Damned and her projects entail a cultivation of ongoing and respectful relationships with riverine communities affected by the diversion of rivers through dams and the privatization of waterways. Her work foregrounds the ecological destruction that dams have generated worldwide. During her fieldwork, Caycedo learns about the indigenous world-view of attributing a soul to natural phenomena and comes to see rivers as suffering, injured bodies.

OBW viscerally denounces the colonial separation between human and non-human beings, rejects the notion of human control over rivers and cultivates respect between humans and bodies of water. In this performance, the river Elwha decries humans’ historical dismissiveness of the earth, waters, climate and all the non-speaking things, which have been considered nothing but cosmetic, decorative and spectacular ideas meant to serve humans. Elwha alludes to climate crisi, noting that all those voiceless entities now fiercely lunge themselves into our schemes with no warning. At the end of the performance, the river Magdalena tells the audience to see beyond their anthropocentricism: “How other kinds of beings see you matters. It is their perception—their stories, their memories, their voices—that enable your becoming as subjects. Can I invite you to consider the fact that gaze, representation, and even thought and knowledge, are not exclusively human?” (Caycedo, One Body of Water 18).

Throughout the performance, audiences are confronted by the rivers’ suffering, outrage and pain that the construction of dams inflict on them. Dams have been choking, congesting and bloating the Magdalena, Yaqui and Elwha rivers for years. Caycedo, Mireya Lucioand Karen Anzoategui embody the rivers and perform as suffering injured bodies: “Our polluted, chopped up, canalized, dammed and damned rivers. These are bodies with political agency” (Caycedo qtd. in Miranda). They explain that they are one body of water connected with other rivers and that they carry the blood of our mother earth. They are the veins of the planet. OBW is permeated with the indigenous world-view of attributing a soul to natural phenomena and performs the buen vivir by foregrounding bodies of water as entities with rights and political agency. 

Carolina Caycedo’s One Body of Water. Performance Bowtie Project, Los Angeles, 13 June 2015. Performers: Karen Anzoategui, Carolina Caycedo, Mireya Lucio. Writing Consultant/Editor: Brynn Saito. Photo: Courtesy of Clockshop

In OBW, audiences gather around a fire pit to simply listen to the three performers who invite us to change the way we think about non-human bodies. Wearing street clothes, ponchos and painted colored patters on their face, they walk, encircle the fire and embrace each other. A blessing by the Gabrielino Tongva Tribe opened the performance. The three rivers start by narrating their creational myths and stories. The Magdalena presents herself as a sacred snake with hundred tongues, who carries silt and spits dense sediment into the sea. She tells the story of how the Tairona people separated the warrior princess Mirthayu and the giant Matambo, fell into to the ground on each side of the river and transformed themselves into mountains that guard the Magdalena. Today, fisherwomen, farmers and their children summon the mountain spirits to rise as giant dams invade the valleys with “metal and cement that claw into the earth” (Caycedo, One Body of Water 8). The Yaqui river recalls how when water was scarce, the Yaqui people asked Yukuheka, the goddess of wind and water, to bring rain, but she didn’t listen until the toad Bobok enticed her to follow him. Along the journey, Bobok kept digging himself into the ground so that the goddess would keep looking for him. Still searching for the toad, Yukuheka struck the earth with rain. The holes that Bobok had dug into the ground filled up with water forming the Yaqui river who weaves together Arizona, Sonora and the Gulf of California. The Elwha follows: “like my sisters before me, I flow from the darkest parts of myself” (Caycedo, One Body of Water 10). She powers across the mountains of the Pacific Northwest towards the Strait of Juan de Fuca carrying streams of salmon, which brings her spirit to life. Elwha also houses the rock of creation, which the Klallam people bless every year during their annual ritual of fishing for salmon for their own nourishment and food sovereignty. The Klallam have relied on salmon as far back as their historical memory reaches. They produce their food through sustainable and ecologically sound methods. “We see the salmon as our relative. We are the salmon people, or the salmon nation” (Segrest qtd. in Ruland).

Carolina Caycedo’s One Body of Water. Performance Bowtie Project, Los Angeles,13 June 2015. Performers: Karen Anzoategui, Carolina Caycedo, Mireya Lucio. Writing Consultant/Editor: Brynn Saito. Photo: Courtesy of Clockshop

The performance follows by the rivers’ stories of destruction by dams and the dispossession of the riverine communities by private industries. Yaqui and Elwha urge the Magdalena to name her blockage by the Betania Dam for what it is: “Ecocide . . . ecocide . . . ecocide . . . tell them . . . ecocide” (Caycedo, One Body of Water 14). Audiences learn how humans built El Quimbo dam, the second of nineteen giant dams occupying and choking Magdalena’s body. Magdalena highlights though that campesinas y campesinos (peasants) and the fisherwomen have resisted and continue to resist with the buen vivir. They organize and practice the ethics of having enough for all the community and not just for an individual. They continue to fish through traditionally sustainable methods to feed themselves even though snappers and catfish is scarce, and they continue to grow their crops even if greedy humans have privatized the valley. They hold their ground declining to leave their homes and their ancestors. They fight legal and spiritual battles.

Carolina Caycedo’s One Body of Water. Performance Bowtie Project, Los Angeles, 13 June 2015. Performers: Karen Anzoategui, Carolina Caycedo, Mireya Lucio. Writing Consultant/Editor: Brynn Saito. Photo: Courtesy of Clockshop

Caycedo’s work is an urgent and affective call to decolonize Western mentality which sees rivers as privately owned entities controlled by the global food markets. Here, I highlight Chicana feminists’ notion of transcending possession, which critiques the possession of non-human entities like land and rivers.[3] Chicana writers reject the notion of control and the objectifying tendencies of private property. Writers like Elizabeth “Betita” Martínez, Enriqueta Vasquez and Patricia Preciado Martin reject the idea of possession because it is a bearer of misery and conflict. It is a colonial and capitalistic practice that generates submissiveness and humiliation (Ybarra, Writing the Goodlife 6). Living in harmony with our ecosystems, with oneself and with society—central notions of the buen vivir—does not match with the concept of possession and ownership of land and water. We need to see ourselves as guests and dwellers, not as owners of the land. This goes to the core value of Caycedo’s work. Charles Sepulveda notes that the Acjachemen and Tongva peoples of California offer a decolonial possibility that re-centers a native view of the land through Kuuyam, the Tongva word for guests (41). Kuuyam conceptualizes humans as guests instead of settlers or owners of natural bodies. Like Caycedo’s OBW, Kuuyam disrupts the dialectic of owner and property. It is a concept that has the potential to understand non-natives as guests, not just of the tribal people but also of the land and waters themselves. We dwell in the land and navigate the waters. We do not own them, much less having any right to invade, occupy, dismember and claim possession.

A reinventar la cosa: Reinventing the Thing

Danzantes, Man of Corn and OBW contribute to the construction of environmental awareness through an emphasis of non-Western performative ecologies related to the buen vivir. TLS, Luna and Caycedo’s artistic methodologies connote community-oriented values, recycling practices and affective animisms. They invite us to decolonize our relationship with the environment by embracing pre-Columbian practices and epistemologies. The three performances also sustain indigenous epistemologies and performative rituals that have been surviving, and silenced, since the conquest of the Americas, while critiquing neoliberal extractivist practices. My goal has been to foreground their practice as a source of ecological knowledge and to expand the field of theatre and ecology to practices that have always been environmental without necessarily identifying themselves as environmentalist (TLS and Luna). Because of Latin America’s history of colonialism, exploitation and political crises, artists have always been environmental. They do not have access to large budgets or state-of-the-art facilities. They do not waste but recycle, adapt, help each other and create. I have become deeply aware of how theatre in the so-called developed world can learn from Latin American practices that engage with the buen vivir. Instead of continuously victimizing and staring down to Latin America, there is some learning and catching up to do from their theatrical practices. TLS, Luna and Caycedo provide us with an opportunity to reimagine our performative practices and to come up with ideas on how to reinvent the thing.


Endnotes

[1] Unless indicated, all translations are mine.

[2] A replica of the man of corn was created for an exhibition at Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana, California. The kernels for the sculpture were all locally sourced and not genetically modified (Maberry-Gaulke). Alfadir points at how La Merced merchants supported this remaking in California because of Santa Ana’s connection to the migrant community (Alfadir).

[3] See Ybarra’s chapter “La Santa Tierra” in Writing the Goodlife, pp. 96­–117.

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*Ana Martínez (PhD) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Texas State University. Her book Performance in the Zócalo: Constructing History, Race, and Identity in Mexico’s Central Square from the Colonial Era to the Present (U of Michigan P, 2020) was selected as one out of six finalists for the Theatre Library Association’s 2020 George Freedley Memorial Award. Her current research and publications focus on Latin American/Latinx performance, ecology and migration.

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