The Nepantla Experiment
photos by Cynthia Baker
Human beings are so stubborn.
We keep attempting things like "building bridges" through art, as in Entre Américas: El Taller Nepantla, a collaborative project between MACLA, the "Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americano," and Villa Montalvo, "California's Historic Estate for the Arts". You can't get more disparate than these two groups-Villa Montalvo is a huge-budget institution, housed in an estate high in the Saratoga hills, and MACLA is a community organization on South First Street in downtown San José.
Five Latina artists are living and working for five weeks at the Villa's estate in Saratoga under the direction of the lead artist, lesbian Chicana writer Gloria Anzaldúa. They are exploring the neo-precolombian concept of Nepantla as developed by Gloria: "an in-between state, that uncertain terrain one crosses when moving from one place to another." The artists, some of whom are Latinas residing in the U.S., and some of whom are from Mexico, are exploring the idea of entering a place between the extremes of their cultures.
At the end of the project, on November 3, an exhibit will open at MACLA of their combined work.
The artists, while they are working as individuals, also feed off each other. They all speak fondly of the others, showing a gentle respect for their ideas. "I think Gloria is a great thinker," says one of the resident artists Liliana Wilson Grez, a Chilena now from Austin, Texas. "We've been walking in the woods every day and talking about our ideas. I've been painting a lot of images of men up until now, I think because I can be kind of distant from them. But lately, I've started painting girls." She walks up to a large painting of a girl staring straight ahead, and the girl is turning into a tree. "Do you think she looks sad?" she asks. No, she does not look sad, she looks serene and focused. "Oh, good, I didn't want her to look sad; she should be strong."
Chiapas playwright Isabel Juárez was specifically invited because she's an indigenous woman who writes in both Spanish and Tzeltal. "Usually when we invite artists from Mexico, they're top names, very mainstream, very Euro-centric," says fellow resident Santa Barraza. "We felt it was time that we not do that." Isabel's plays and poems are for and about the women in the area surrounding San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas. She has a clear sense of herself, unlike many artists who are always searching for identity. When asked if she's found it difficult being an indigenous woman playwright in Mexico, she answers, "No. Why?" Her goal for this residency: "To get published. Again."
The other Mexicana here, Cristina Luna, is a young painter from Mexico City who, unlike Isabel, had never travelled to the U.S.. "It's really interesting to me to work in California. I'm working with the materials I find here, mixing paints from the dirt and incorporating sticks and leaves into my pieces. The Chicana artists and ideas are all very new to me. They have very different ideas about art. "
The women keep telling each others' stories, and it seems there is no one author of these stories any more. Isabel Juárez told the group a story one night, which Santa Barraza later told again:
"Isabel's grandmother told her that when we she was growing up, they would go out and do the cosecha in the milpa, and plant the corn and take care of it. And there was a pig that was eating it They told the owner "Your pig is eating up the milpa and you need to take care of your pig." But he said, "If you're vigilant, you can catch him and bring him to me." They stayed up all night and caught him, but he wouldn't budge. So her grandmother took an ember from the fire and stuck it in his cola, and the pig shot off and they went and tied him by the house. But in the morning the pig was gone. They finally caught him again and this time they tied him up at the house and watched him. The pig, in the morning, had turned into a woman! And the woman was the pig owner's wife. She was a witch. And I said to Isabel, "What did you do?" And she said, "Well, we had to destroy her because she was destroying the property, and her next target was to eat her husband."
"Collaboration is a total buzzword these days," according to Jaime Alvarado, director of MACLA. "Funders want to see it, and there are large budget mainstream white organizations who want to collaborate with you all of a sudden."
The discussions for this joint project began two years ago. "We began to talk about the issues between organizations that always make the outcomes [of collaborations] so distasteful.," says Alvarado. "We needed to be very clear up front that we'd have to be willing to accept the tensions and conflicts. It's a leap of faith."
There is tension, at times, in the studios at Montalvo, with five Latinas working in the midst of all this anglo wealth. A huge charcoal drawing covers one wall in Santa Barraza's cottage. It shows a woman in front of a maguey. The woman has a face like Santa's, round breasts like suns, and above her floats the dismembered (by her own brother) body of precolumbian goddess Coyolxauqui. One chopped-off hand touching a leaf. That touch passes her life to the plant, and then to the woman with the breasts like suns. Santa sits in front of this piece talking about her Kingsville, Texas upbringing: cattle barons, carpetbaggers, the Mexican Revolution, grandmothers, the murder of a grandfather, families divided by the Mexican American war. Her ancestors: people who were seven feet tall, archers who could hit a target a mile away. The richness of terrain and blood from which she is descended.
Outside, on the lawn, there is a party for Villa Montalvo staff and volunteers. It was one of those graceful wealthy white soirées, old, assured and elegant, on their turf. Santa peers behind her screen door at them. "I wonder what they're doing", she says.
While she admits that she sometimes feels like "an elephant in the zoo" working at Montalvo, Gloria Anzaldúa sees it as more of challenge than a problem. "We have to be aware that we are occupying this special terrain. A lot of people will not want to acknowledge it or recognize it because it is not part of consentual reality. They won't want to talk about it. They will repress certain images. It's nothing new. "
Lesbianism is central to Gloria's ideas and her art. "In queers there is a kind of craving for humanity. We want to link with each other." Anzaldúa says. "There are people who are queer not sexually, but in other ways: like disabled, deaf or blind, short, maybe raped early in life and that set them apart. Whatever it is that their queerness is about, it makes them access a certain conocimiento."
"Work from cultural workers like Gloria is leading dialogue across the country," says Jaime. "Queer politics could have been a central theme of the project. But it became evident that that was not a possibility because of the discomfort that would create for Montalvo and its community. That's been looming and there's an eye kept on that."
Order Out of Chaos
Nepantla, it turns out, is the name of a town in the state of Mexico. It is where Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was born. It was also the site of a small but significant massacre by the Mexican government against a radical movement. Twenty-one years ago, in November of 1974, a Napoleón Glockner and a Nora Rivera fingered a house full of members of the National Liberation Forces (FLN) in the town of Nepantla. Five people were killed in a government raid on the house. Nearly three years later, the FLN captured and executed the traitors Napoleón and Nora. The survivors of Nepantla dispersed and regrouped in the Lacandón jungle of Chiapas, emerging years later as the Zapatista National Liberation Army.
What's really being accomplshed at El Taller Nepantla has little to do with the organizations sponsoring it. Its effects will be seen in the women's work. "We're here to make order out of this chaos, we're here to make meaning," Anzaldúa says. "This act of making meaning I call nepantla." The other changes, the "bridge building", may or may not come in our lifetimes. Still, when open studios for the artists were held, "that place was filled like it was never filled, and they were mostly Latinos," Jaime says. "You can't change the world or Montalvo, but for that moment, we did. We made Montalvo our space."
The exhibition was held at MACLA, The San José Center
for Latino Arts from November 3-December 2, 1995, with a reception and a Día
de los Muertos Ceremony on November 3, starting at 7pm,