Monday, May 19, 2014

Danza Azteca and Resistance? Rethinking challenges to dominance through dance.

Not too long ago, I wrote about dance as resistance and cultural exploitation in a Venceremos periodical in Salt Lake City. I wrote about the current danger of folkloric and cultural dancing as becoming entertainment and therefore assimilating into a commodity lacking context and intrinsic value. I’m writing today to reevaluate my stance—this is for me personally—and providing an alternative lens by which view to dance, resistance and appropriation.

There’s a group using Azteca dance as a form of exercise while granting what they believe to be a shared cultural experience. Activists and fellow Raza reacted in angst and frustration—do did I—at the purchase of a dearly cherished identity into fitness; why are people selling our traditions? Distorting the meaning of ancient belief into a conditioning physical program that promises you to shed 50 lbs. or less in the-faster-than-average speed of a week! Why are we giving our pearls to swine? Why? Then my question becomes, well why not...
I do not suggest that there is no risk of appropriation—particularly when the title of this article advocates for the replacement of Zumba for Danca Azteca—that might very well happen. But what I do see here is a chance to reintroduce an alternative-knowledge under an evolved framework. As we continue our entry into a new century with innovative strategies of community engagement, of adopting diverse but intersecting struggles, of activism and the neoliberal agenda that constantly molds itself to our activist response, we are left wondering whether or not our reactions are reproductive to the nature of oppression or if they are authentic methods of resistance.
I wrote the original article as a warning to dance groups that such efforts were oftentimes counter productive to what they were trying to achieve; that instead of spreading cultural wealth, they were entertainers similar to Rome and her games. I feel this was unfair of me.
The event that led to me making such accusatory statements was a cultural night in an LDS chapel sponsored by my Spanish-Speaking congregation. Families, children, and youth were dancing and I was disgusted by how they all seemed so focused on performing versus the context or narratives of such acts. Did they not know that these very dances were based in resistance? To resist, to keep and preserve identity? But I judged too harshly, because I’m sure they did know. They were aware. That night, was their moment to lay claim to a White space. Their defiance to Whiteness and class oppression, was their agency to dance how THEY wanted to dance, WHERE they wanted to dance, and whatsoever they chose to dance. That night, was their moment to shine, as a community, as one. That night they danced to pass their knowledge onto their children. They danced to say we are not foreigners for we are dancing our knowledges, our memories, right here on what “you” claim is your ground. We belong. That was their resistance, by solidifying their narrative in a space that is traditionally not theirs.
Then I think of the student groups at UVU and BYU, Cultural Envoy and Living Legends, and aren’t they just performing? Do half of them even know what they are dancing? Why they are dancing it? Is there context? Is there blood…and memory? The truth? Some might very well be lost in it; ignorant to what they are acting out and sold on the merits of their “performance” as “culturally rich.” But tell that to a young urban boy who grew up thinking that he was, as an identity, something so foreign to the conceptualization of the American body. Share that animosity to the boy who grew up with concrete and steel with nowhere to place roots because he felt he never had any.
He was just Brown. Brown as Brown can be. So where his friends. They never had a clue either. So when he saw those students dance in his chapel—which was a sold out car mall in a decaying barrio of Brooklyn, NY—he saw something that he felt was missing his whole life, he felt the hole filled. There was so much more to who he was than what the concrete and steel had hammered into him his whole life. He saw the raw appeal to ancestors; he never existed till that moment. It seemed alive to him. That moment, he planted roots, and his journey began to find out who exactly he was. Is that moment not the product of resistance? A personal revolution for a Brown body?
Umi Vaughan is a Afro Cuban artist that came to Salt Lake City recently to present on his recently published book: Rebel Dance, Renegade Stance. His work exposes how Afro Cubans use dance to maintain identity and preserve Blackness in an economy that can easily exploit their heritage for the tourist dollar--this argument is also historical in nature. He shares that there are many contradictions among these communities in terms of dance and resistance, but these are their contradictions and no one else’s. This is their struggle, something they must negotiate on their own without interruption of outside forces because that’s where true violence lies. Nevertheless, the outcome doesn’t change. Cuba is one of the few places where the Yoruba religion exists in an entirely unadulterated form. That is incredibly rare outside of Africa. They have managed to keep Africa within their island, among their people. This has been done through dance. In other words, dance is there resistance. Dance is Black.

I close by not voiding the article Veneceremos published, but by challenging it. Too often we become so immersed within our activist role that we often miss the small ways in which marginalized communities create their own alternatives to resistance. We forget that we too can become the oppressors to our communities. Cultural dance can very much reproduce and enhance the tokenization and oppression of communities of color, but it can also be a multifaceted and clandestine approach to resistance. So how is Danza Azteca resistance? I don’t know, but the response should be understood as complex and simultaneously impactful. It could very well become the next Zumba, and if so, what if a new narrative develops around fitness? Can our health not be cultural in its intuition? Can our people not become the new face to healthy bodies through a re-immersion of ancient dancing? Our Dancing!? Can this not be a new way, a more complex way to resist and learn again what was taken from us?

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

A Mormon Liberation Theology - Mis Raizes Sin Papeles (My people without papers)

My attendance at a Spanish-speaking Ward in Orem, UT coincided with the introduction of anti-immigration legislation in Arizona in the year 2010. At the same time, my involvement with the Dream Movement as an ally became a critical moment in my life as an activist and faithful member of the LDS faith. As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day-Saints, many of us viewed the potential of our own chapels as sites of local activism and resistance. Not only were these spaces filled with Latinos who often understood and empathized with the issue of justice for the undocumented community, but who could also be undocumented themselves. To say that we sought out Latinos in LDS Wards and Branches for recruitment and community support, is an understatement. We earnestly believed that our Mormon peers--whether they were of our own racial/ethnic grouping or not--would see eye-to-eye with our cause. After all, wouldn't the Savior want families to stay together and not be torn apart; and didn't we all believe in the access and support of education to all individuals residing within the walls of our nation? We believed we had a moral imperative that we could rally around. However, we were crushed when we found out that such wasn't the case.

Advocates among members of several congregations eventually joined. However, when it came to drawing that same support from the local leadership, we came up against a wall: "the house of The Lord does not host an opinion towards a political undertaking." Instead we were shunned--even from members of our own racial background. Turned down and seen as radical elements, we abandoned such efforts as the silence of what would happen to our paperless brothers and sisters went unabated in our Mormon spaces.

So we went a different direction. We looked to our cousins in the faith: the Catholic Diocese in Utah County. Instantly, we found a pipeline to working with the community. Not only had the Padre offered the chance for someone to make an announcement during Misa (Mass) but also had space made available in the lobby of the chapel where we could table and offer updates on immigration reform; alerting and recruiting, petition-signing and interacting. With our Mormon wards and branches, no such thing could be done. In some cases, many of us didn't even bother to ask--we became too afraid to do so.

Setting the tone, I would like to acknowledge the efforts of various members of our faith who pushed themselves unto the platform of immigration reform within our state and declared their faith as the holster by which they harnessed their immigrant activism. As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, we also felt that our faith added to our activism, that it provided the incentive and motivation to voice our sympathy, and simultaneously our anger, and declare that this was all very wrong. Something--someone--must act.

It wasn't just our racial or ethnic backgrounds that added to our compelling for action. It wasn't just the fact that many of us knew people or had family, or were even undocumented ourselves. It was our faith that stirred our hearts. It was our belief in the restored gospel, that a living Christ, would not condone what was occurring in political circles concerning immigration, nor would he have permitted a racist-nativism permeating among his followers.

What we could not understand, was the fact that in our own chapels, the realities of our members were being marginalized. That their voices were not given room. That their silence was normalized; and nothing was being done about it: treat the least of these my brethren…(Matthew 25)

A context is needed to understand what I have previously expressed. In the cultural affairs of the church, along with the institutional frame that has been constructed, the church does not interfere with politics, nor does it welcome a political discourse within its walls. This explains the silence of immigration in our chapels as well as in our congregations. This also explains why activism with respect to immigrant rights or the Dream movement are not welcomed either. This is so because Mormonism is not viewed as an active player in the cause of social justice, but merely as a silent partner delivering salvation as well as humanitarian supplies all over the world. The gospel is not there for social movements, it is there to provide salvation for humanity: Man shall not live by bread alone...

Yet it is in this respect, that we as a culture--as a way of thinking--institutionally as well as individually, have been misinformed. It is not the cementing of our complacency and indifference in politics where we strengthen our testimony; action is our faith, political action towards social justice, is Christlike. What we need is a redefinition, a reevaluation, of what it means to be a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, particularly as we view undocumented brothers and sisters. What we need, is a mainstream re-interpretation of the gospel to be approached as a Liberation Theology. In the context of Raza members and oppressed nationalities, a racialized and migrant Liberation Theology.

Book of Mormon as Liberation Theology

Liberation Theology as understood and acted on by Latin American priests and bishops, stood in the context of civil rights violations backed by U.S. interests as well as the economic devastation wreaked upon by Western exploitation. Gustavo Gutierrez, the Padre who first coined the term Liberation Theology, refers to such a movement as a "Theology which does not stop with reflecting on the world, but rather tries to be part of the process through which the world is transformed" (p. 12, Guitierrez, 1971).

As a result, thinking in the frame of Liberation Theology does not function as a distinction between political, spiritual and religious. Instead, it sees parallels and intersections, connections and relations; such elements are intertwined: “Human reason has become political reason. For the contemporary historical consciousness, things political are not only those which one attends to during the free time afforded by one’s private life...everything has a political color..." (p. 30-31, Guttierez, 1971).

Intrinsically the saviour's heart and hands were clean, such suffices for a symbolic resonance; but the saviour's hands were far from clean in the work of his salvation. They were doused in the realities of the world. In his heart, weighed the realness of suffering and poverty; and with his hands, he dug into the world's raw appeal to save mankind. He did not elevate man to his eternal realm so that they could be clothed in glory to never comprehend that opposition in all things would be one of the more critical of eternal principles. He came down, and condescended to our nature; took on our lens; felt our pain.   

So there existed no neutral condition to the Savior's willingness to care for humanity; nor is there an objective judgement from a religious institution on societal issues. Dennis Potter, an associate professor with Utah Valley University understood the Book of Mormon as a literary source of Liberation Theology. Potter's argument offers an analysis based on a socio-political reading of the Book of Mormon that suggests the Mormon canon as a warning to the rich and wealthy of their hypocritical natures. Potter also discusses some of the counters against a socio-political reading of the Book of Mormon and demonstrates that reading such a text as politically neutral is a serious error, because individual moral choices impact our societies, which in turn governs the politics of any given situation:   

“There is another objection to a socio-political reading of the Book of Mormon. One may argue that a religion, and religious organization, must be politically neutral. Religion, on this view, has only to do with personal salvation and morality. Religious organizations should encourage its members to be politically active but should not take stances on issues that don’t directly affect individual morality. However, when a political decision begins to affect an issue of “personal morality,” then the organization may take a stand. This happened in the case of the Knight Amendment in California.
The view that the political can be separated from issues of personal morality is flawed. Politics deals with the way we should organize ourselves in our community. We cannot completely separate individual action from societal implications. What we do affects our community. But then, anything that would have implications for individual morality would also have implications for social morality, and this involves political decisions about how to organize society…A church that fails to denounce slavery or the holocaust tacitly enables it. There is no space to be neutral about grave societal injustices” (Potter, Liberation Theology in the Book of Mormon)

Elder Christofferson's talk in the April 2013 Conference, titled Redemption, referenced the critical need for modern Latter Day Saints to not forget that the redemptive work we've taken on isn't merely about salvation, but one of justice and love; one that acts against the suffering of others. This path, Elder Christofferson mentions, is one of a temporal nature, it is subjective to reality and is not an objective connotation: "The Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many" (Mathew 20:28). In this example, Elder Christofferson demands that we gear our efforts to do good as an action, not as simple rhetoric:

"This kind of redemptive work means helping people with their problems. It means befriending the poor and the weak, alleviating suffering, righting wrongs, defending truth, strengthening the rising generation, and achieving security and happiness at home. Much of our redemptive work on earth is to help others grow and achieve their just hopes and aspirations" (Conference 2013, Christofferson)

Doing good, is far from a neutral stance of doing nothing. Even more potent than his reflection of the Savior's acts is his mentioning of Victor Hugo's novel Les Misérables and the fictional but powerful action of Bishop Bienvenu's charity to Jean Valjean--a criminal and protagonist. Aside from the fact that the novel takes place in France's revolutionary stage, to which Elder Christofferson said is a narrative that "has always touched and inspired" him (April Conference 2013), we learn from the Apostle's words that the savior and traditional culture of all Mormons never was founded on objective realities; that there is a moral imperative to every action we perform as Latter Day Saints.

Mormon individuals frequently summon this moral effect. They do so whenever someone is need in their local wards, the institution gathers resources to help countries who've been affected by natural disasters, and has even had something to say about Gay Marriage in the United States--I prefer not to engage this topic because it adds another layer of complexity and deserves a whole dialogue unto itself.

This very issue is one where we see the dialectical hand in the politics of the institution of religion in the Latter Day Saint Church. As Mormon individuals, we are encouraged to participate in our local and national politics but to take a stand and introduce that within spiritual spaces is neither appropriate nor relevant (Cook, Oct 2013). Yet when the issue endangers personal morality, it receives a free pass within church discourses--formally and informally.

Potter notes the continuing debate of gay marriage and Mormon opinion; this reveals reveals the political nature of the church and its membership. To go on as politically neutral is an ill-conceived logic. Political and individual morality, is not a disconnected issue. Individual moral choices are influenced by religion which in turn affects communities, communities are organized by politics; therefore, individual morality founded by religious philosophies pertains to societal thought and action which is managed by politics. The two are interwoven.

Potter then introduces the dilemma of which moral side may be justified in the chapels of Mormon congregations. While this a perfectly good question and a matter that deserves attention, I admit to its complexity--Potter provides a credible argument of leaning towards the Left in these matters. Nevertheless, the question I pose asks something very specific in terms of morality. What is it about undocumented students not having an equal opportunity to education, or the separation and deportation of their families, that is not enough of a moral issue to discuss openly?

A Raza Mormon Liberation Theology, A Migrant One...

The arrival of the undocumented as a moral plight to be sympathized with by Mormon individuals and the LDS Church, is still one in progress. Church members hold conflicted views since the 12th Article of Faith proclaims: 12) We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law (Pearl of Great Price, Articles of Faith). The legality of undocumented immigrants then becomes the crux of the question. Which moral issue holds more weight?

The moral conundrum, however, is easily dismissed when we acknowledge the words spoken by Latter day apostles at the October 2013 General Conference: "Our twelfth article of faith states our belief in being subject to civil authority and 'in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.' But man’s laws cannot make moral what God has declared immoral. Commitment to our highest priority—to love and serve God—requires that we look to His law for our standard of behavior" (Oaks, Oct. 2013); "Remember: sin, even if legalized by man, is still sin in the eyes of God!" (Nelson, Oct. 2013). Deportations and separating families, though legalized by man, are still sin in the eyes of God!

Our leaders have firmly stated that the law does not live above the morals upheld by the gospel. So what's the issue? The issue of morality becomes complex when it is acknowledged that the United States had a hand in pushing millions of migrants north in seeking refuge from the turmoil occurring in their home countries; this is the unethical and tragic responsibility of millions migrating to borders through political intervention and imperialism--the CIA had its hands in hundreds of assassinations of Latin American political leaders, along with the training of death squads for the slaughter of the Latin American subaltern (Harvest of Empire, 2012). The Frontera shuts down dependent on the politics of what occurs North of the border, and South. Who moves between the two are also factors of accountability stemming from U.S. interests; so if U.S. politics and imperialism are the heirs of this movement, of migrants risking their lives to cross various national borders to escape the oppression that we as a nation have produced, do we not have a moral obligation to address the issue we are indirectly or directly generating?

Undocumented immigrants are in the United States through an ill-conceived unjustly constructed racist-nativist piece of immigration legislation that does not take into account the imperialism and oppression created by the United States. I ask again, brothers and sisters, hermanos y hermanas, there no moral cause to address the unjust nature of the deportation and separation of families? Is there no moral foundation to allow young Latino youth to become involved politically to defend their paperless brothers and sisters, their families? Is there no moral cause to permit our chapels as sites of resistance and action; as spaces of dialogue, counseling and immigration policy updates? Is there no moral cause to say something?

I argue for a space and place--the two are quite different, one being security of location and the other being the conditions that operate culturally in that location--where the issue of undocumented immigration may be tackled on by our Spanish-Speaking Mormon congregations. For bishops to provide updates on reform and to publicly advocate, on the pulpit, for our community to become engaged and do something! We begin by reframing a public discourse of Mormon and take on a liberation theological stance of the faith, a more honest, and what I feel is a more accurate tone of our spirituality. What I argue for is no different than what other religious institutions have come to advocate for and support; a voice for God's people--does it matter that it's a Brown one? An undocumented one?

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Graduating…and by Graduating, I am resisting…A radical consequence of a radical education...

I just graduated…my wife graduated as well. We both graduated. I think the whole process is problematic. I don’t like the celebratory notion of it. I like to keep it internal. I like to close off the sacredness of the experience to just a select few. Plus, I just hate big events sometimes. They are stressful, I’m impatient…and they are stressful. That’s big to me. That’s when I fail to remember that this experience is beyond my simple recognition. It affects others, deeply.
I never walked for my Bachelors. My Mamita regretted this which made me suffer for it too. What I constantly forget is that there are others who have walked much harder paths than I have, had nowhere near the privilege I’ve maintained throughout my life—born and raised in the U.S. and bilingual in both languages—and like my parents, are new to the idea of a formal Western education. Instead they sacrificed every bit of themselves to make sure I could experience these things; in many ways, they still do. In their eyes, we are the challenge to Racist Nativist discourses that condemn their children for even trying, that they are too foreign to succeed in this country. When we walk out with our cap on and gown flowing, we are proving that their sacrifice was worth it, that it meant something. Primarily, we owe it to them and their efforts for putting us here in the first place.
We also owe it to the transformation of an entire societal discourse of Brown and Black bodies; pledging that we are not the criminalized ‘other’ half of this country, instead we are the scholars of families long repressed, rising, like a fresh intellectual wave. With the walk that portrays our completion of education we produce a countering image and re-sustain that our narrative is one based in intelligence and consciousness.
There are too many activists that damn our education system—justifiably so—and withdraw from any kind of transformational activism to educational structures because such is not “revolutionary” enough, that such work is reproductive and not radical—“we need to get rid of the structure not prolong it!” But they are wrong!
They base their perspective from privilege when they have gone through that same educational pipeline to only arrive at critiquing others to abandon their efforts. They tell young Black and Brown bodies, working class youth, that they are not radical enough when we as students march strongly out of that building with a rolled up canvas in hand, the representation of our social ingenuity. They are wrong, because that paper signifies protest. That paper, for us, is radical. That paper says we will subvert oppressive strategies from the wealth forged out of our communities and cultures, and we will not just prevail but we will push ahead, with alternatives that will redefine equity and justice for our people! We will not fail.
Is this to mean that our public school systems are failing underserved groups in this nation? Of course it does. Are Brown and Black bodies targets of this marginalization? Again, yes. So why can’t we just wipe out the system and build something new? Better? Because what if it’s a simple exchange from one head to the next, characterized by the same system? Some of these oppressive tendencies are systems and genealogies woven into the fabric of our society. They compose basic elements of what Western civilization is. That doesn’t mean that change and social justice is impossible. Actually, it suggests that resistance is real; that it’s consistent, and with the evolution of capitalist oppression into neoliberal subjugation, transformative resistance adapts to the same consequences, and continues…
So when we graduate, especially as critical thinkers, especially as social justice advocates, as advocates not for anyone but as allies serving WITH those that are oppressed, we are RESISTING; resisting to change structures, to counter and create new narratives, to preserve knowledge and cultural wealth, to live…freely…
There is one memory that stands out to me in this moment. A young African-American man sat by me on the Trax line when I was heading home from school. He saw my cap and gown packet and asked if I was going to graduate. I lifted my eyes from my reading and with a warm smile said yes. He tapped my arm furiously with joy and said, “YES! Alright. That’s what our brothers gotta’ do!” He went on to share that it was my duty to graduate, that privilege will always disappear us [males of color] from the scene of success here in the states. He questioned me if I understood the concepts of Racial Battle fatigue, White Privilege and Cultural Wealth. I said I did. He smiled at me and said, “you sir, are prepared for this world. Now, make it happen.”

I’ll never forget that. I’ll never forget the words, but I’ll also never forget the energy of accomplishment in the spirit of resistance that was produced. In this one act, that compromised many years of struggle, love and learning, I had overcome. With the smiles of my family and community buoying me, with the love of my partner—who has also completed her Masters in Education—that has supported me the entire time, and the hope that my son will carry on resisting the domination of Western discourses against our communities, I go on. I resist. I let my mothers tears nourish the struggle I will always be engaged in, and with my partner and son, we walk on…I now, make it happen…  

- Tino