Pandemic As Portal

“What is this thing that has happened to us? It’s a virus, yes. In and of itself it holds no moral brief. But it is definitely more than a virus. Some believe it’s God’s way of bringing us to our senses. Others that it’s a Chinese conspiracy to take over the world.

Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.

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.

We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

(The passage above is by South Asian writer Arundhati Roy and is part of a longer essay that appeared in the Financial Times April 3, 2020.)

So here we are as the pandemic transitions to an endemic infection choosing to “drag the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies” through this portal of opportunity desperately clinging to the good old days pre pandemic. The examples in the US are too numerous to count. As a healthcare provider who worked in a community heavily impacted by Covid 19 I’ve been especially concerned about the mental health pandemic accompanying and following the Covid 19 pandemic as identified by the World Health Organization + World Health Organization realized early in the pandemic. Unfortunately, data are showing the population with an increase in suicides during the pandemic is teens.

Several community based arts organizations and donor organizations have made funds available to engage youth and to provide them with opportunities to address their pandemic experiences, fears and hopes. I was invited to take part in one such project organized by Amplifier.org. Student photographers were given a prompt to identify what they’re happy to reconnect with in the post pandemic period. The prompt is “Reconnecting with…” where the students fill in the black and provide an accompanying photo that a more established artist will interpret and make into a poster.

The student I was paired with is a young African-American woman who identified friends as as what she’s excited about reconnecting with. Here’s her submission with my interpretation of it…

I got those young folx being love-bombed by sunflowers and nature while enjoying the presence of one another and human touch. The rays emanating from the young man in the center evolve into portals releasing more life + love via the sunflowers.

Tacos La Pasadita

I spent part of this past week in Green River, Utah as a guest of Epicenter whose mission statement reads “Epicenter stewards creative initiatives that honor the past, strengthen the present, and build the future that we envision alongside our community”. My engagement with Epicenter involved spending time with an extended Mexican family that moved to Green River in 2011 and who run a food truck with the best Mexican food in southern Utah. The family’s journey to Green River took a circuitous route. Upon leaving Veracruz, Mexico in 1992 the family first settled in Compton, California just in time for the Rodney King riots. Carlos Cruz, the patriarch of the family, works as a long distance trucker and was familiar with Green River from his trips between Compton and Colorado. Although life in Compton was challenging the kids of Carlos and Obdulia were reluctant to move to this little town in southern Utah but having been there now for 11 years they’ve grown to like it and call it home.

I was invited to do an installation on their building where the food truck is parked. However, when I went to meet the family in early March 2022 Obdulia was visiting a sick family member in California. So I met with Obdulia’s daughter, Jessenia who shared with me family photos from 30 years back and they became the source material for the installation at their food truck stand.

Tacos La Pasadita with a little guy running to the toilet
Veronica posing by the photo of her younger self taken in Compton shortly after she became manager at a Taco Bell 15 years ago.
Like his father Jorge is a long distance trucker who works between California and Colorado. He pulled up in his 18 wheeler while I was working and he wasn’t aware of the family photos being installed. He took a moment to pose with his younger self as Jessenia and her husband looked on.

Obdulia + Jessenia. The background image is from a surprise birthday party for Obdulia when she turned 50 a couple years ago.

Veronica, Obdulia + Jessenia

Interview with Obdulia Lujan, her daughter, Jessenia Rivera and Obdulia’s sister, Veronica Lujan

So the next time you’re cruising I-70 between Moab + Richfield stop by to say hey and get some good food. And tell them I sent you!

Native Enslavement in the Southwest

On June 28, 1865, President Andrew Johnson had directed every Indian Agent in the Southwest to conduct a survey to determine persons holding Native American captives as slaves, although they were not at this time asked to free Indian slaves.  When Lafe submitted his list of Indian captives to Colorado Governor John Evan on July 17, 1865, he recorded over 160 names in Costilla and Conejos Counties.  His full transmittal letter reads as follows:

In the company of E.R. Harris, U.S. Marshal, I called upon all those persons that hold Indian captives in Costilla and Conejos Counties and interrogated the Indians themselves, and their replies to my inquiries, you will please find in the accompanying lists which embrace within my knowledge every Indian Captive in these two counties, and to the credit of the citizens here I would add, that they all manifested a prompt willingness on their part to give up said Captives, whenever called upon to do so, and in view of the facts, I would most respectfully recommend, that all the Navajo Captives here be returned to their Reservation in New Mexico.  Also the few Ute Indians residing in private families here, it is generally understood that they are there with the consent of their parents or friends, and enjoy the full privilege of returning to their people whenever they have the inclination or disposition to do so.  Very many of these Ute children are orphans, are therefore homeless and perhaps under these circumstances, their condition would not be so much benefited by your order.  Yet if your order is imperative, and you are instructing me to have them all removed, I will promptly do so.

I have notified all the people here, that in the future, no more Captives are to be purchased or sold as I shall immediately arrest both parties caught in the transaction.  This step, I think, will at once put an end to this most barbaric and inhuman practice, which has been in existence with the Mexicans for generations.

There are captives here who know not their own parents; nor can be speak their mother tongue, and who recognize no (sic) one but those who rescued them from the Merciless  (sic) Captors. What are we to do with these?  I would here add that I have not incorporated in the accompanying lists the large number of Captives that have legally married in the two Counties.

I shall wait for further orders from you in regard to their removal.  Please also instruct me what course I shall pursue in the premisis (sic) in regard to those who are not willing to return to their people.

A number of well-known men in the San Luis Valley were on Lafe’s list of slave owners, and Kit Carson was said to have three such captives.

Governor Evans promptly forwarded Lafe’s July 17list of captives to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington with the good suggestion (Probably influenced by Lafe’s transmittal letter) that those “slaves” who did not want to return home not be forced to leave their adopted families, and he considered the project closed.  Governor Evans, however, was not aware of one major problem with Lafe’s list – that it did not include any of the Indian children living on Lafe’s home or living with other families in the Town of Conejos.  Lafe would later submit a second list that would include himself and other Conejos residents that were slaveholders.

The Life & Times of Lafayette Head by Cynthia Becker and P. David Smith, Pages 190-191.

“List of Indian Captives acquired by purchase and now in the service of the citizen of Conejos County, C.T. (Colorado Territory), as taken and rendered by Lafayette Head, U.S. Indian Agent for the Tabeguache Utah Tribe of Indians. July 1865.”

1865 Costilla County list of enslaved Native people as documented by Lafe Head.

Millions of Indigenous people lived in North America before European colonial powers invaded. Along with an insatiable desire for free labor to cut sugarcane and to mine gold in the Caribbean and later to mine silver in New Spain (Mexico), Europeans brought a system of slavery that significantly differed from the system of enslavement practiced by Native nations which both pre and postdated African slavery. European concepts of bondage transformed the way Native nations interacted with each other, resulted in the enslavement and death of millions of Indigenous people, and sparked widespread resistance by Native nations in North and South America against colonizing powers (primarily Portugal, France, Britain, the Netherlands and Spain).

Nestled at the foot of Mount Blana, a mountain sacred to local tribes and one of four Sacred Mountains to the Diné (Navajo), Fort Garland was constructed by the U.S. Army in July 1858 to protect settlers from tribes whose land the settlers took. The fort was abandoned in 1883 after confining the tribes defending their land to reservations in Utah, Arizona and Colorado.

Wanting to engage the local community in difficult conversations about Native enslavement in the San Luis Valley Fort Garland Museum held a series of Zoom conversations encouraging participants to share family stories and photos of distant enslaved family members. One Latino participant shared how DNA testing is changing awareness of Native ancestry for many people in the valley. Inspired by an invitation from Fort Garland Museum to install work related to Native enslavement in the San Luis Valley I used this opportunity to begin learning more of this obscured history. As someone who has spent the past 34 years living and working with with the Diné on the Colorado Plateau in northern Arizona and as an African-American this history intrigues me. Many Diné friends shared stories with me over the years of family oral histories that involve distant relatives being captured in battle with other tribes and being held captive.  Learning of Native enslavement wasn’t new information for me. However, the motivations, extent and consequences of it were.

Navajo captive youth pictured behind the Conejos County list of enslaved Native people
photo by Eric Carpio

Maria Rita Gallegos near the Costilla County list

Deluvina Maxwell
The Conejos County listing of enslaved Native people on the former dwelling of enslaved people at the Lafayette Head compound in Conejos County.
The Head list in the quarters of the enslaved at the Head homesite in Conejos.

Text from Virginia Sanchez’s chapter in Nacion Genizaro

Thank you Drew Ludwig, Esther Belin, Ronald Rael, Estevan Rael – Galvez, Eric Carpio, Dawn DiPrince, Delia Charley, the Fort Garland Museum staff, Richard Saxton and the good people of M12 for helping to make this work possible. It takes a village to prevent truth decay.

Last page of the Native Enslavement in the Americas Timeline zine

Unsilenced is part of the Landlines Initiative organized by M12 STUDIO. Since 2018, the Landlines Initiative has connected new art installations and cultural work throughout Colorado’s rural San Luis Valley. This work is supported by awards from Colorado’s Arts and Society, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Diné Covid 19 PSA Posters (for downloading)

On April 14, 2020, a Huffington Post headline read, “Navajo Nation Reports More Coronavirus Cases per Capita Than All but 2 U.S. States: Only New York and New Jersey Have More Confirmed Infections per 100,000 people.” The last point is key, because testing on the Navajo Nation has not been as robust as for New York and New Jersey. Sadly, the rate of infection for the Navajo Nation will continue to increase, as will the mortality rate.

In light of the emergency on the Navajo Nation, several mutual-aid, grassroots organizations have formed to get supplies of food, water, personal hygiene items, and firewood to elders living remotely and to provide hand-washing stations for unsheltered relatives in Kinłani (Flagstaff, AZ). Though the reservation is rich in natural resources that have been and continue to be exploited (including coal, oil, natural gas, uranium, and water in aquifers), roughly 25 percent of the 180,000 inhabitants are without running water and another 20 percent are without electricity.

This poster is designed to inform the community of the public-health strategy to provide optimal health during this time and to support the work of Navajo Hopi Solidarity and Kinlani/Flagstaff Mutual Aid. Additionally, this Diné COVID PSA is a collaboration with Shi Buddy, who provided the poster’s text, and grass dancer Ryan Pinto, who is pictured on the poster and who collaborated on the photograph’s production. Diné COVID PSA is part of a larger collaborative project that is currently underway with poets and visual artists—to drop soon.

Shout-out to Art Journal Open for the opportunity to spread the word and to all the people providing essential work during this time. Thank you. We see you and appreciate you.

The full story and high resolution, downloadable graphics are available at:  http://artjournal.collegeart.org/?p=13396.  For those interested in supporting community based mutual aid projects during the pandemic, contact http://www.kinlanimutualaid.org and http://www.navajohopisolidarity.org.

A Luta Continua (The Struggle Continues)

My friend sent a message saying “…We have to go tonight man; the Guaraní put out a call for support.  The police will be coming at 6 a.m. to remove them from their land.  They heard the sound of chain saws cutting down trees earlier in the day and occupied the threatened land.”

A November 28, 2017 article in The Guardian noted “The Guaraní people of Jaraguá are squeezed into the smallest parcel of indigenous land in Brazil, two tiny villages, Tekoá Pyau and Tekoá Ytu, in the far north of Latin America’s largest city, São Paulo. About 700 people live in tiny dirt-floor houses on an area the size of four football fields.”  The land under seize was still being negotiated with the State; however, developers jumped the gun and began clearing the land to build apartments.

Guided by the full moon of March 9th our band of activist accomplices arrived at Jaraguá around 1:30 a.m.   There were campfires of non Guaraní supporters as we approached the main house on the land under seize.  Some people slept as others talked + played music around the fires.  The house buzzed with activity as young Guaraní warriors pulverized charcoal to mix with water to paint their bodies.

 

After some time my crew summoned me from the house saying “…Okay man.  It’s time to correct the billboard.”

The billboard read “Your Future Apartment is Here.” The midnight rebels responded with a poignant meditation for the land developers “Sell Your Memories”.

 

 

With helicopters and drones overhead and 2 battalions of armed police on the ground Guaraní warriors approached the perimeter of the property to confront agents of the settler state at dawn.  Males approached the gate first followed by females who took a position ahead of the men.

With arms interlinked, songs were sung accompanied by a slow rocking back and forth movement.  The 6 a.m. deadline came as State surveillance intensified.  Guaraní leaders were blessed with tobacco smoke and speeches were made.  Ultimately it was decided several hours later to not jeopardize the wellbeing of children and elders.  Rather than continuing to occupy the contested land members of the tribe created an encampment in front of the gate blocking developers from entering.

 

A week later the blockade remains. A luta continua (the struggle continues).

March 17, 2020 update: The Guaraní have halted their occupation as a public health measure in light of the Coronavirus threat.

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