(I am currently co-editing an anthology on the subject of bullying.  Recurrent and recent events have inspired my own entry for the book.  The following is an excerpt.)

Imagine this world without art. I say “this” world, because given how limited we humans are, I would like to believe there are other worlds where shopping, watching television, texting, surfing the net, and recklessly going into debt do not exist.  Imagine this world without theaters; no museums, no music, no dance, no films, no photography, no poems, and whatever else we have named ART.  Personally, I consider  newspapers a form of art, and letter writing as well, two genres on the endangered list. Imagine all we have left are malls and war, homelessness, disease, hunger and despair without creative voices to respond, encourage, uplift, challenge, resist or bring the healing power of art into our lives.

Recent invitations to perform and create new work have the hairs on my neck competing with those of the porcupine.  Event planners and producers want it now, they want it cheap, and they want proof of worth in the form of expensive media kits, publications, degrees, and most importantly they want to be reassured that my work will make everyone comfortable, assuage all racist guilt with “Hispanic Heritage Month” fare, and feel entertained without being challenged.  For insulting honorariums I am interrogated and investigated for everything but head lice.  I could be making a fortune telling Juan Bobo stories, wearing a pava and teaching all things “folkloric” that do not offend.  I have often been told that in “Hispanic” events food is always the best part; now I must compete with pernil and arroz con gandules, if I want to continue to be a working artist.  

Raised by two working poor parents, both of whom defied tyrants, Franco (my father a Spanish Roma)  and Trujillo (my mother born in Puerto Rico and raised on the border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti),  taught me that integrity and the struggle for justice have a price that is worth paying.  They assured me I would never have troubled sleep, and they were right.  I’d rather clean toilets, than be anyone’s “hot blooded Latin” or “cuchi-cuchi mamacita” for diversity day.  I will have to work until the day I die, since transgressive creative production has assured me of a poor retirement plan.  The good news is, I love to work.

An artistic trajectory of over 35 years as a cultural worker and I am still relegated to the margins.  I have the good fortune of knowing and collaborating with world-class artists on a regular basis, and they are also expected to don their “ethnic” attire and speak rice and beans, chop suey and sweet potato pie.  We refuse to sell-out so we tighten our belts, continue to raise the bar and produce our own events.  

A few years ago the demise of the Hispanic Playwright’s Project at the South Coast Repertory Theater in California, left many Latino playwrights feeling betrayed and scrambling for new venues to develop and present new work.  It also propelled many to self-produce and bypass the gatekeepers.  Unfortunately, sometimes the gatekeepers look like us; the classic story of the oppressed becoming the oppressors.  When competition takes precedence over collaboration, Darwin gloats.  However, it is not always the fittest who survive, but those who fit into the dominant paradigm of feel good mediocrity.  

In Western Massachusetts we now face the cavalier disposal of New WORLD Theater at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.  For over 30 years NWT has provided venue for countless artists of color, programming and training for youth, and have gained national and international recognition for bringing the work of diverse artists to the mainstage, putting the arts in Western Massachusetts on the international map.  They were the first to organize an international theater conference in the area, Intersections, that brought artistic luminaries of the arts to Western Massachusetts and opened doors of opportunity for many of our gifted local artists.My letter of protest to the University was answered in a proscribed and perfunctory manner with something along the lines of “I have complete confidence in...decisions about their programs that are in the best interest of the campus.”  The campus?  What about the rest of the community?  The elimination of NWT does not just impact “the campus” but all of Western Massachusetts and the countless faithful audience members who for decades attended events from all over the Pioneer Valley.  At a time when the University of Massachusetts is nurturing a “creative economy” partnership with the City of Springfield, I find it difficult to understand the logic in excising the major provider of venue and voice for marginalized as well as mainstream artists of color and youth in Western Massachusetts at affordable prices that welcome diverse audiences across class, and from all walks of life.  

Community Partnership?  Am I missing something?

Since the salaries of UMass employees are available for public viewing, I did a little research and was appalled by what some of the pencil pushers earn as compared to the budget of NWT (which was supplemented by their own grant-writing efforts.)  Let’s not kid ourselves, every major institution has its share of the elite inept on the dole. I personally know a few, in various institutions, who by playing it safe and going along with the status quo, have made a nice, fluffy nest for themselves.  I’m certain that there will not be much noise coming from those who comfortably wear their golden handcuffs in regards to this travesty.

Not all bullying happens in the schoolyard.

Magdalena Gomez
www.latinapoet.net
 
 

The beautiful faces of the people in the streets, those who poured out of buses, the young who voted for the first time and all who took charge, resisted despair and made a choice, kept me awake last night with joy.  This  poem is for all of you. 


Election Day, 2008
(dedicated to Lauren Johnson who one day after being released from a NYC hospital in fragile condition waited in line to vote and to the People who joined her in taking back our country)

The noise is back.
Amen!
The ground has risen up
to meet our dancing.
Drum skins live again:
goat, sheep
together sing,
we slap the drum
awake
with new hands;
ancestors rejoice
with the living.
The Master’s house
has burned to the ground
we dip fingers
into the ashes
of histories
we must never forget.
Taste.
Remember.

The noise is back.
Amen!
No more droning cities.
No more dangerous silence.
New voices
crackle flame
into the flabby belly
of old darkness.
Life tastes good again.

This day must last.
This day must live.
It cannot live alone.
Breathe deep. Hold. Exhale.
Tomorrow we start again.
The gathering:
The tears of Jesse Jackson.
The grandmother prophet
who died knowing
without being told.
The buses that shouted
and laughed as they rolled.

Hammers glisten
with readiness
in the worker’s hands.
That first vote,
like first love.
Never forgotten.
Thank you, my country,
thank you
the young,
the old,
the sick,
with lacerated hearts
who shook the lethargy
of pain,
unwrapped the shroud
of malaise
moved through
the fever of fear,
the temptation of despair,
left the safety
of their beds,
untwisted the knots
of endless grief
to comfort a broken liberty.
The lessons of faith
and action,
that hope is never enough.
Thank you,
my country,
for not sleeping
on the day
of war.
With voice, with song,
with truth the blade
that cut the lie
you moved, at last.
The Master’s house
is being rebuilt.
The Master
drags his shame
like a torn flag,
his name erased
from the annals
of love,
ripped from the archive
of decency.
Every hand to a brick,
every voice to the mortar,
every eye
a window of vigilance.
Peace has a price
and freedom
demands
noise.
The noise is back.
Amen!

Oh, joyful, noise,
we have found you
our aching love,
our beautiful, ferocious hunger,
satisfied by fire.
No more flabby belly of darkness.
We make ourselves strong for you.
We will never let you go.
We will hold you close.
Yes, we can.

The noise is back.
Amen!

Magdalena Gómez
Copyright, 2008



 
 

Election Day, 2008
(dedicated to Lauren Johnson who one day after being released from a NYC hospital in fragile condition waited in line to vote and to the People who joined her in taking back our country)

The noise is back.
Amen!
The ground has risen up
to meet our dancing.
Drum skins live again:
goat, sheep
together sing,
we slap the drum
awake
with new hands;
ancestors rejoice
with the living.
The Master’s house
has burned to the ground
we dip fingers
into the ashes
of histories
we must never forget.
Taste.
Remember.

The noise is back.
Amen!
No more droning cities.
No more dangerous silence.
New voices
crackle flame
into the flabby belly
of old darkness.
Life tastes good again.

This day must last.
This day must live.
It cannot live alone.
Breathe deep. Hold. Exhale.
Tomorrow we start again.
The gathering:
The tears of Jesse Jackson.
The grandmother prophet
who died knowing
without being told.
The buses that shouted
and laughed as they rolled.

Hammers glisten
with readiness
in the worker’s hands.
That first vote,
like first love.
Never forgotten.
Thank you, my country,
thank you
the young,
the old,
the sick,
with lacerated hearts
who shook the lethargy
of pain,
unwrapped the shroud
of malaise
moved through
the fever of fear,
the temptation of despair,
left the safety
of their beds,
untwisted the knots
of endless grief
to comfort a broken liberty.
The lessons of faith
and action,
that hope is never enough.
Thank you,
my country,
for not sleeping
on the day
of war.
With voice, with song,
with truth the blade
that cut the lie
you moved, at last.
The Master’s house
is being rebuilt.
The Master
drags his shame
like a torn flag,
his name erased
from the annals
of love,
ripped from the archive
of decency.
Every hand to a brick,
every voice to the mortar,
every eye
a window of vigilance.
Peace has a price
and freedom
demands
noise.
The noise is back.
Amen!

Oh, joyful, noise,
we have found you
our aching love,
our beautiful, ferocious hunger,
satisfied by fire.
No more flabby belly of darkness.
We make ourselves strong for you.
We will never let you go.
We will hold you close.
Yes, we can.

The noise is back.
Amen!

Magdalena Gómez
Copyright, 2008




The Broken Electoral Process

  Last night I dreamt of a giant fisherman looming over a lake.  Holding his fishing rod with both hands he stood motionless, while a man in a suit controlled the fish with a Gameboy.  The fisherman had to do nothing but wait for the fish to be lured onto the hook. I woke up catching my breath, mouth sore, body flailing.

  Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke tells us that if we don’t follow the Bush bailout plan, the country will enter a recession.  Has this thug been in a coma?  The USA is already in a depression and the food pantries are empty.  There will be no bread for the breadline, only syringes of false hope shooting us up as we sleep. A bailout will secure golden parachutes for the rich stitched by the already broken fingers of workers, as we The People huddle in the toilet bowl of the Oval Office complacently waiting for our reward.  Some of us moan and wait for our heavenly reward as we permit the devil to run free.  The hoof print digs into every family facing foreclosure, into every person denied health care for lack of money, into every school drop-out who can no longer breathe the foul air of education by rote, into every poor person, undocumented person and the babies in jail for smoking a joint or stealing a steak.  Katrina victims had to bail out their own way to safety, let these wealthy assassins of economic justice grab a bucket and do the same.  The rich have their Jesus, their savior, and we The People are left with Barabbas.  We have been bribed once again to set him free, as Roman soldiers bribed the masses to make sure the loud mouth Jewish revolutionary who unmasked the unjust was silenced. Judas swings in the wind in the decency of remorse.  Jesus, a Jewish political prisoner of war, left to rot in midday sun, is now used as a human shield against the very people and values he died for – the just, the forgotten, the oppressed, regardless of their social standing.  I am a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu, a Pagan.  A spiritual freak detached from all flags reaching for God in the invisible prayer that is lived, not spoken.  Where is the one who dares to speak the truth even if it means political suicide?  Where is Judas full of remorse and shame, giving up the safety of darkness and hanging in the midday sun beside his comrade, in effigy to the truth of events?

 

McCain is dotty-he did a 360 at the convention to find Palin who was standing next to him.  Palin parades her pregnant, unmarried daughter like a trophy in the “Pro-life” olympics, and Obama’s speeches are making me yawn.  Cheered on by his wife, Michelle, the only one I trust to have some spine in this whole mess, Senator Obama occasionally glistens with rehearsed truth, tempering his authentic and passionate voice to be the “safe” Black man who gets along just fine with white folks. I will vote for Senator Obama, knowing there is a fire within, as he bides time and circumstance.  However, that monotone apologia of a video that opened his convention acceptance speech must have been shot and edited by his enemies, not his supporters. Lackluster, unimaginative and playing to the lowest common denominator of the dominant culture of white-ness.  My only hope is that he didn’t see it or approve it.  I want to believe.

 

I still do believe in the electoral process.  My candidate is YOU. You who are weary and yearning to be free, you who know that a corporate-run government is not a viable option if our minds, our hearts, the planet on which we are guests are to survive.  You who are not afraid to be a loud mouth or unpopular, you who are not afraid to grab a wooden spoon and metal pot and invade the streets with loud, articulate, imaginative resistance.  You who will not pander, you who will not join the legion of power hungry sycophants feverishly campaigning, voting, only to then turn over power to the Gameboy fisherman.  I believe in you who will lay awake, awaiting his return defile your dreams and drown his tyranny as the Taíno cacique, Agüeybana the II drowned Diego Salcedo in the Guaorabo river.

 

“Only in this way do men become men:

fighting day and night to be men.”

-Otto Rene Castillo

 

Regardless of who becomes President of the United Corporate States of America, either the fisherman will manipulate the fish do his bidding, or the fish will outsmart him and he will be left standing, limp rod in hand.  Regardless of who takes office, you are the invisible candidate I am counting on to take back our country.

 
 


I am often asked to facilitate creative writing workshops and educational residencies.  Along with the invitation is the question:  “Can you teach the students to write poetry?”  Over and over again my answer is:  “Only if you and they are willing to jump blindfolded out of an airplane without a parachute.”  The response is usually an open mouth and fluttering eyelids.  Allow me to explain:  The blindfold is mutual trust in our creative relationship, the limitless potential of the imagination, and the understanding that we are learning together in the process.  Learning that endures requires an alternating current. The jumping out of the airplane is the creative risks we will take together in reciprocal experimentation and engagement.  The absence of a parachute signifies letting go of all you were ever taught about what it means to write poetry or to teach it.  If you are willing to go on an adventure with me, then yes, you can TEACH YOURSELF to write poetry.
Listening to rhyming poetry that has been forced into Western Euro-centric structures, cadences and forms; poetry that is turned out in faddish rhythmical mimicry of that which is designated as “cool” “hip” or “def” littered with shallow political or sexual references, is for me, nothing to celebrate.  A crowd-pleasing stew of vocal mimicry, passing references to electronic headlines, spiced with personal story, rehearsed attitude, body language and pseudo-revolutionary theatrics don’t impress me as poetry.  

When I witness poet after poet go after the cheap laugh or manipulated hoots, what I see is a loss of authentic voice. Poetry has become a marketing bonanza and many poets, lured by the potential of becoming “spoken word artists” and garnering a following, are approaching poetry as a marketing tool and not a means for seeking authentic voice, moving an audience to feel and think, and if we’re lucky, take action, beyond the moment.   I have sadly witnessed long established, older poets twisting their own style to meet the needs of what has become a youth driven market,  “Spoken Word” and failing miserably.  It is an embarrassment to watch an elder pander to the young, not for the sake of their audience, but for the sake of making a dollar.  It would be preferable to clean toilets with dignity than to sell the long sought after authentic voice.  How can one spend a lifetime in search of it, find it, and then sell it to the highest or any bidder. Young people know when you’re trying to buy their love and at the core, the message is:  “I don’t respect or trust you enough to value who I am.  I don’t trust myself to be good enough as who I am.” 

Speaking only for myself, since I am an expert on only one subject, my own experience, I see poetry as a tool for intimate human exchange and social engagement across class, race, ethnicity, orientation or age; poetry as a means to provoke political action, awaken the senses, startle the imagination to leap across the boundaries of a colonized mind.  Poetry at its muscular essence provides a lens with which to expose falseness in oneself and in one’s society.  When the poetry itself rings hollow, then it ridicules itself, the poet and criminally, the audience.

In order to “teach” poetry, we must first examine what poetry means in our own lives.  If poetry is simply something we suffered through in school and now as educators are forced to regurgitate as diluted poetry lessons conforming to standard testing requirements, then the act of teaching poetry will be a misery for teacher and student.  You can search online for any number of poetry templates, and your students can learn the mechanics of poetry and maybe even turn out a half way decent poem from time to time, but will the learning change them as people?  Will it open their minds and hearts to experience the poetic nature of life itself?  I feel poetry as the distillation of sensory experiences as they travel through the mind.  If the mind is closed, those experiences will shrink, flatten, shrivel; whatever they must to do to avoid opening the locked doors of the comfort zone known as pre-judgment.  They will remain in the mind-palace of mirrors seeing only themselves over and over again until they die from sheer boredom.

On a recent trip to Boston, I was deeply moved by an elderly Chinese woman who approached my on a very cold day, holding up two copper coins to indicate to me she was in need.  It would have been easier to mutter, “I’m sorry” and keep walking.  I chose to stop and be present.  I noticed the coins were not pennies, as I might have assumed without a second look.  The images on the coins had been worn down and illegible.   I saw that her other hand was tightly wrapped around U.S. coins, each one clearly defined.
Those two fists of dominant identity and erased identity created the tension required in art to awaken the mind.  The woman’s eyes were full of confusion and shame, as if to ask:  “How did my life turn out like this?”  I felt grief that I couldn’t speak her language; anger that I live on a society that not only prides itself on being monolingual but in fact, in many of its systems and institutions, enforces it.   As I dug through my bulky bag looking for my wallet, she kept repeating:  “I’m sorry.  I’m sorry.  I’m sorry.”  No matter what I said or did, I couldn’t convince her that it was she who deserved an apology, from this affluent society where hunger and homelessness have reached epidemic proportions, and our elders considered burdens not living griots of history.  Her chant of shame riddled my body and mind with bullets of conscience.  How have I, no matter how far removed, been tacitly complicit in her destitution? All I had was a ten-dollar bill.  Admittedly I hesitated, first considering my own needs.  By stopping long enough to do a mental inventory of what I had and what I truly needed, I was able to liberate myself from any fear of loss or any suspicion of her motives.   As I handed her the bill, her body awkwardly leaned into mine, surprising us both.  We fell into a hug; no longer strangers, but two women sharing an understanding, a connection that transcended the illusory boundaries that we as fearful, arrogant, covetous humans create.  That awkward but luminously authentic embrace still remains with me and will for a very long time.  I walked away knowing I would never forget her, not once concerned whether she would remember me.  That is the essence of poetry.

In facilitating creative writing workshops, I have consistently found success by making my first priority getting students to experience themselves as creative beings before the words poetry or writing are even mentioned.  I want to begin with a clean slate free of negative associations the students may have with poetry or writing.  Even in this 21st Century, I’ve witnessed writing used as a form of punishment, not too far from the horrors of writing “I will not talk in class” 500 times.  Strictly adhering to he rules of penmanship and the words “your writing is sloppy” can create a sense of shame in the student.  The fear of not “doing it right” will often abort the natural instinct to experiment creatively.

To teach poetry, we must first learn to live outside of our fears.  We must exalt the place of the natural world not as something to be dominated, but as our wise teacher.  We must be open to embrace all of humanity and the natural world.  To do this, we must flee the couch and remote (aptly named), the malls, the screens that keep us from meeting the eyes of strangers, the obligatory meetings and holidays, the exhausting niceties of getting by and being liked.  We must simply learn to be.  This takes intention and courage.  To welcome the stranger is to welcome the best in oneself.  Of course, we must be vigilant of liars, cons and fools, but ultimately, we must be vigilant of how we are present to life itself.  To think and think again.  To walk by the harbor and see beyond the sizes of the boats. Our jealously.  To breathe in the salt of living, even when it burns.  To see and treasure what we have not lose ourselves in the desire of what we have learned to believe we must have.  Material possessions and social standing will not keep away Death.  We cannot obliterate our fear of Death by running from it.  We can embrace the eternal nature of each day lived fully present to out surroundings, our bodies, our encounters and then we will welcome Death as another opportunity to experience all of life, thankful for all we have experienced.  Without presence to life and death, there is no poetry.  We are well warned by Ezra Pound:
 
And the Days Are Not Full Enough
 
And the days are not full enough
And the nights are not full enough
And life slips by like a field mouse
            Not shaking the grass.
 
Children intuitively know how to write poetry; they create metaphor, simile and personify their trinkets and toys when toddlers.  We must guard the child’s imagination and encourage it, not with excess, but with limits.  Pace.  Allow them to learn to make a drum out of an oatmeal box or a plastic tub before buying the drum set.  Give them art supplies before you give them computers with graphics programs.  Send them outside to play and take a hammer to the television set if necessary.  Wake up and smell your body before you brew and smell the coffee.  Choose to be alive and model it.  Then offer whatever writing prompts, templates or tools you like.  The poems will write themselves.

 
 

 Voice of the Jaguar


I am a direct and assertive woman who is often told to “lighten up” or “relax” (a euphemism for “I need to control you.”)  I will not relax. I am often accused of being “too much.”  To this I respond:  “Am I too much or is it that you are not enough?”  

Why do many of our sisters still straighten their assertive hair?  How is it that “relaxers” and hot combs still insinuate themselves into our lives? Why do we take classes to play a one finger middle C on our multi-octave language?  When did fashion shows of sweat shop generated, U.S. style clothing become a “cultural” event? Our men trade their Guayaberas for corporate uniforms. We trade identity for social stature and anglo acceptance.  We beat our machetes into SUV’s.  Our actions indicate that the basic lessons of history still elude us.  We avoid confronting the Master and the Slave, the Colonizer and the Colonized that battle within us.  We must interrogate the fear of rejection that feeds our addictions and workaholism; the fear of loss that fuels our materialism; the buried grief and rage that make us laugh when it is time to weep or to roar. We have forgotten our Indigenous and African roots.   We form ethnocentric, class driven cliques that dilute the power of our unity as people of color. Words like Prieto, hincho, jabao, betun, achinao, still prevail.  These are not “terms of endearment” or “cultural”; they are internalized bigotry; a jagged stick in our own eye.    

Last year, an extensively schooled Latina, turned to me during a Bomba y Plena performance and said of the dark skinned plenera wearing a gele, (Yoruba for head wrap):  “I didn’t know Aunt Jemima was a Puerto Rican.”  I nearly lost my tostones. When I explained that a) Aunt Jemima is a racist “mammy” construct and that b)  her, she portrayed the injured party with grand telenovela body language.

If we are too busy for self-reflection and too egotistical for personal accountability, we are co-conspirators of own oppression.  When we hold those who are different from us in contempt simply for their difference, we close the door to learning from them and participate in our own cultural extinction.


My mother did not learn to read and write until she was 60 years old and she taught herself by sheer will.  She painfully sounded out each word in a large print bible.  she didn’t understand most of what she read, but she knew how each word made her feel.  she began to string words together until she could read entire sentences.  she began to understand the purpose of punctuation.  she couldn’t articulate why, she just could feel it.


As a teen and only child born into poverty, I did my best to help my mother learn to read.  I found neighborhood programs here and there, but nothing worked.  She could read and write two things:  her name and mine.   I taught her to write my name after I entered the first grade (kindergarten was optional and my parents, rightfully suspicious of the school system, kept me home as long as they could.  Yhey were right, the schools i went to were no place for a child.  We were not students, we were inmates.  but that story is for another day.

As soon  as I learned to write my name I went home to teach my mother how to do it.  I remember how painful it was for her to try and get her brain to think in this new way.  Since I had learned English by television jingle, I began to sing my name to her, breaking it up into syllables in the sincere and sing-song way only an innocent child can.  I would stretch out each syllable on a long note while guiding her trembling hand.  Eventually she got it:  Mag-da-lena.  No, excuse me, not Mag-da-lena, but Ma-de-line.  By first grade the system had already begun it’s attempt to colonize me, and my mother, with a burning desire to shed the identity that had caused her only the shame and rejection of being called a SPIC, went along with it.  I sang my new colonial name and Mami learned to write it.  two things happened that day:  I had my first experience as an arts educator teaching phonics with music and I took the first steps on the journey of  unwitting assimilation.  If only later as a teen I could have found a program for mami that would have combined literacy and art, my mother might have had a life beyond sweatshops and a loveless marriage.  She might have sung her way into a new  and literate life.   She might have had the opportunity to learn her history and help me honor my true identity and her own.  But we each struggled along on the fuel of guts and intuition.  Mami learned to read and write and over time. I fought my way through schools where I was the anomaly, the artist who insisted on performing her research, who turned study notes into poems. My multiple learning disabilities had escaped everyone...it was by singing, rhyming  dancing and  performing in front of the mirror that I was learning my school lessons and remaining on or close to the  honor rolls.  As the persevering artistic outcast, I reclaimed my name, my soul and my identity.  To this day I do not allow anyone to abbreviate my name or abbreviate who I am.   I refuse to be a victim of cultural extinction. I protect my history and culture with the ferocity and roar of a jaguar.

 
 

Surviving Hegemony

By

Magdalena Gómez

This essay is dedicated to Fred Ho, a teacher and muse in my life.

Allow me to begin, as I always do when writing an essay, that I am not an academic.  You will not find the word Ibid or a single footnote.  If you don’t understand something, I trust that you will conduct your own investigation.  If you prefer, you can think of this as an opinion column.

During my foolish attempts in the late 90’s to have plays produced by L.O.R.T. (League of Regional Theaters) theaters I have received the following message from more than one artistic director:  “I love your work.”  “You have a new, exciting, original voice”  “We would love to have your play on our main stage” BUT “it m fit into our season.”   I would hang up hopeful that there would be another season.  That season never came.   Besides telling me that my work doesn’t fit, I have also been told my work is challenging to direct. Few directors, like the brilliant Daniel Jáquez, “get” me.  But they are a small number.

My work has on occasion even provoked rage.  At a reading of one of my works the actors (all Latin@s) were clearly having a wonderful time.  When it came time for feedback, one of the actors referred to me as an “actor’s playwright.”  When I asked what she meant, she responded:  “your writing trusts our intelligence and you don’t stereotype us.” A director in the room, who had ostentatiously gotten up from his seat several times throughout the reading to adjust the air conditioner, admonished me through gritted teeth:   “You need to learn Aristotelian play structure: blah, blah, blah, your play has no arc.”  I corrected him.  “I do know the Eurocentric rules of playwriting.  I made a mental note:  (Act One, Protasis, Act Two Epitasis, Act Three, the Catastrophe:  exposition, complication, resolution and blah, blah, blah you left out Kissmyassis.) That was the slow motion mind movie that preceded my verbal response:  “I find that one arc, like one orgasm, is not enough for me.   It is my intention to take the audience on a ride. My plays are meant to be experiential, to elicit a visceral response not an intellectual one.”  The actors, who unlike this King of His Own Legend understood the historical and cultural context of the play, laughed and clapped, as this Mr. Man with more clout, access and privilege than any of us in the room, was rendered speechless and Twizzler red.  He had decided that if I didn’t play by the rules of the Great White Way (and I don’t mean just Broadway) that I was somehow deficient in craft and inept in discourse.  I offered him a Hershey Bar as a peace offering and we moved on.    The hero of my play was Puerto Rican, poor, able to communicate telepathically with humans and inanimate objects. He is the re-incarnation of one of the champions of the Puerto Rican independence movement, Don Pedro Ablizu Campos.  Mr. International King of the workshop abyss had never heard of this Harvard graduate, who spoke seven languages and considered a terrorist threat, was radiated into a horrific cancerous death by U.S. government thugs.  These are the heroes who don’t make it into to school textbooks.  You have to go out and find him on your own. 

Remember the Japanese interment camps of WWII?  Japanese American citizens were forcibly held in concentration camps on the West Coast of these United States, and we stood by with the same glazed look we have as we watch the Iraq war from the comfort of our couches.  I shiver at our ignorance of the Comfort Women of WWII, forced into horrifically violent gruesome sexual acts by the Japanese military – they were considered “war supplies.”  Many heinous acts of humankind throughout history are forgotten, or revised, especially by my own government, which considers us to be the center of the universe. Perhaps we are the centrifuges of the universe, methodically spinning and separating the whole into parts that cannot function fully without each other.  Red and Blue for starters.  Our country has Alzheimer’s.  We forget atrocities days or weeks after they happen and import ring tones we never forget.  How long ago does Katrina feel to you?   Thanks to media, film, the iconic swastika, a ridiculous mustache and monster status, Hitler, although a distant memory to many is more difficult to erase.  I hold onto to his words so I may never forget to think and think again:

“How fortunate for the rulers that the people do not think.”

This applies to the world of arts as well – how fortunate for the rulers that the people fear them.  How fortunate for them that artist will still submit themselves to roles they find distasteful just for the chance to work within the system that holds itself up as the prize we hate ourselves for not obtaining.  The gatekeepers of theater impose standards of talent and beauty that can make us hate even our teeth.  To the adage of “the show must go on” I say hell no!”  Why?  Who decided that and why have we bought into it?  Why are so many actors groveling for parts, working three jobs to pay the rent, just for the chance to walk across a stage and sneeze?  Spare me.

It’s time to subvert the dominant parasite. Yes, I am tired of the word paradigm.  Hegemonic grates my gizzard too.

My protagonist in the earlier anecdote lived in a society where to speak any language other than English had become a federal offense, so people began to develop the ability to communicate telepathically in their own languages.  It is a play about the oppressed taking back power by sheer will, intelligence, unified subversive action and the stubborn desire to be free.  In hindsight, I think it was my premise and not my play structure that greatly mortified this mono-cultural man who prides himself on championing the work of international playwrights, who tend to be well schooled and of privileged class.  I intentionally choose the word schooled and not education.  Schooling is what institutions impose upon us so we can get the front row ticket to the well paying job.  Education is the gift we give to ourselves.  There are two things an evolved educator will inspire in us:  a love or even lust for learning and the tools for interrogating and researching our subject matter until we are assured in the deepest part of our bellies, we have landed on something that feels true and authentic. 

I have had other, more informal readings of the play and audiences love it.  The play won a staged reading and $500 prize in NYC, but to date has not been produced.  My work is problematic to those who are invested in following the rules and pandering to the audience that they believe wants to be told what to feel.  The society that Eric Frohmm warns us about in his classic book, Escape from Freedom.  He writes of a society that wants to be told what to do, when and how to do it.  A society grooming itself for Fascism.  Perhaps they are right.  After all, we are a most submissive audience to the theater of war replete with a cast of corporate whores and war criminals we allow to remain as leaders.  And yet, despite this so-called “dumbing down” of the U.S. populace, I maintain faith in people’s emotional intelligence and see their hunger for more substantial art and theater.  Substantial is not to be mistaken for inaccessible.  Substance and accessibility are not mutually exclusive, unless of course, you are the type that feels you have seen something profound if it has confused you. 

If I were to name my style of playwriting, I would name it, The Theater of Viscera, because I want you to feel into in your guts, not gently weep into your hankie in the same way you would watching a sappy commercial for Hallmark cards. Would anyone out there with a little yank like to codify this term for me and give me credit for inventing the form?  It might help pay the mortgage. A few brave souls have dared to produce my work and audiences consistently respond enthusiastically.  Enthusiasm as hot or cold; the responses I am grateful to say, are never tepid.  I can truthfully say that in my over thirty-year trajectory as an artist in theater and as a performance poet, I have never had a negative interaction with my audience.  It has been a journey of pleasure.  On occasion I have enraged audience members, and was once threatened with bodily harm, but I consider that success as well. If I can provoke another to feel something authentic, to touch some deep longing or fear (since the root of violence is fear) deep in their viscera then my work is organic, alive and moving on an alternating current between my imagination and their experiences.  I’ll take a good boo-ing over polite applause any day. 

I find the most exciting moments in performance are not the standing ovations, but the room where half the audience is standing and cheering and the other half is sitting and stewing.  I trust there will be dialogue.  Whether my work is considered a common enemy or a common friend, the audience will leave with something to discuss and hopefully debate. It might even propel them to go out for coffee to trash or celebrate the work.  I find that preferable to their running home to catch reruns of American Idol. Engaged in the act of being alive, present and responsive; those are the relationships I want.   Unlike the director who scolded me, I don’t need or want to subscribe to the rules determined by those in power.  I learn their rules, but apply and invent my own.  We will find our moments of intersection, but for that to happen, we both have to be willing to listen and learn from a place of honest, human contact not power plays.  I like to approach everyone I meet with the understanding of our immediate and non-negotiable common experience:  we laugh, we cry, we shit, we die.   Where we get into trouble is that we become afraid of each other because we laugh and cry over different things.  Even shitting and dying are political; poverty and stress will harm your digestion and mortality rates do fluctuate with class.   So even at our most basic humanity where we most profoundly intersect, there will be discord if we approach each other imprisoned by the arrogance of a mono-cultural perspective.  And what about class?  I make my living as an artist, but my yearly gross income is considerably less than that of the average plumber or auto mechanic.  So am I working class? Or do I belong to an elite few who can actually subsist on their art? Where do I fit?   Ah, that question again.

When I first read the title of the course syllabus:  Artivism, Performance Praxis and the Sub Altern Avant-Garde, I have to admit that the only word that didn’t make me cringe was Praxis, from the Greek, meaning to move from theory into practice.  Artivisim.  The term, like the term “applied theater” makes me queasy.  Naming like food labels are not always based on the reality of content or quality, but on the skill and audacity of the naming agent to impose their version of the ingredients in that, which is being named. Malodextrin is one of multiple forms of naming sugar.  To not know this can be life threatening to a diabetic. The abusive use of a Thesaurus can also be hazardous to one’s health.

The idealist in me wants to believe that we name to understand, to create a platform for dialogue.   But most often it is the gatekeepers who are doing the naming.  In the old speakeasy’s of the 1920’s during the Prohibition Era, you had to know a password to gain entry.  Now you are expected to mold yourself into the definitions others have devised for you and engage in the actions that make them comfortable with who they think you are.  Turning up the heat of rejection, you are melted down to your most malleable components and poured into the molds made by those who hold the keys to the dream for your life that they have deluded you into believing in the first place.   Many name me an activist.  So much so, that for a while, I used it myself, until I searched my intention:  it was a marketing tool.  It’s what those writing the checks believed I was, so I unconsciously gave it to them.  I remembered Lolita Lebrón was still in prison and I flung the word in disgust.  I had allowed myself to be colonized and re-named.  Like Borikén becoming Puerto Rico.  To the Taínos, the island was “the land of the brave and noble Lord” an existential term seeking higher meaning.  Puerto Rico, meaning “rich port” changed the name to one celebrating colonial materialism.   I will no longer name myself an activist.  I consider it a self-congratulatory term for doing what we should all be doing:  working for the good of all, for justice, for the equitable distribution of resources, and an end to exploitation of all kinds. We become corrupt when we seize opportunity for self-gain without consideration for the impact of our actions on all sentient beings.  Why should I be given a title simply for doing what is just?   My intention is that the quality, content, and provocations of my work speak for themselves.  If my work makes you re-think a thought that has grown bitter or perverse within you, then I have done my job.  If it propels you to take action to change what is bitter or perverse and find a more life generating choice, them we are all the better for it.  I am not the activist, but the provocateur of the action.  If you need to name me, then I will say I am An Intentional Provocateur.

As for “sub-altern,” where do I begin?  Subversive?  Yes.  Submissive?  No.  Below the alternative?  Absolutely not.   To me it is like the word “minority.”  I have never been a minority if I look at life in a global context and not simply at 50 States. Where oh, where, do I fit in?  I don’t.  And I’m fine with that.  What I am not fine with is being judged as outsider because of it. Once I am called an “outsider” inside is implied.  So what is INSIDE and who gets to be there?  Whose version of INSIDE are we talking about?

In my version of the INSIDE I don’t have a specific audience.  My ideology is one of mutual liberation by interacting in one’s authentic voice.  Mutual liberation is aborted when the authentic voice is not encouraged or shut down.  For some, the authentic voice is economically censured as in the case of my plays not being produced on a so-called main stage because it doesn’t fit the season.  Others are silenced in the halls of academia.  For example, when a female student tried to give her explanation of a Neruda poem to her professor she was told, “No.  That’s not what Neruda meant.”  Her interpretation wasn’t engaged or given the slightest bit of respect.  By the time she came to me, our creative writing work had to begin with damage control.  I had to walk beside her and encourage her way back to a love of poetry and her own writing, which that event had caused her to abandon.  She had been shamed by a professor who intentionally or not, had made her feel as she put it:  “stupid.”  I return to the word intention. 

When I read or listen to words I am listening not only for their context but also for their intention.  Like the ring of truth in a hearty “fuck you” over the erectile dysfunction of “love ya’” casually capping off a phone conversation between new friends.

The term “applied” theater has joined the lexicon of grant getting jargon.  When I was engaging in what is now called applied theater as early as the mid-70’s working in prisons, cancer wards, terminal hospitals, temple basements and rented lofts, it was referred to as community theater, community service work, educational, interchangeable with Popular Theater.  It wasn’t considered or respected as art, but something in service of the “great unwashed” therapeutic, a form of social hygiene, a way to clean up “youth at risk” or “substance abusers” or “offenders” and give them just enough voice to hear themselves think.  We were called amateurs.  It was amateur theater, unworthy of remuneration, respect or inclusion into the so called arena of “American Theater,” It was quaint, given the fisheye and a notch worthier when given the title of Popular Theater and attached to the names of Brecht or Boal or invoking the Birkenstock brigade doing their public service in Latin America, while avoiding heinous violations in their own neighboring communities. I compare it to our own local valley residents traveling to Nicaragua to witness elections but oblivious to the police actions that took place in Holyoke when Police Officer John DiNapoli was murdered back on December 22, of 1999.  Doors of Puerto Rican homes were kicked in; heads were cracked open during random raids and indiscriminate arrests by the local Gestapo. Not a peep was heard in protest or concern from the elite who had traveled to Nicaragua in an effort to feel heroic, or from the media.  No outcry, no outrage, the Christmas lights of the Pyramid Mall hummed in the distance as folks carried on with their ferocious commitment to last minute holiday shopping. . Human and civil rights were wildly violated under our very noses and very few noticed or responded.    Who decides and how, what is worthy of our action?  

For bringing art into the trenches of our beleaguered communities we got minimum wage at best and a wink or pat on the head from those engaged in “real” theater, if we were noticed at all.    Those of us doing this work were for the most part as invisible as the communities in which we worked.  It was considered a theater of research not art.  But now, the relatively new term of APPLIED THEATER has emerged. With this new imprimatur, what has been happening for decades is now recognized as having artistic as well as social merit. It is no longer the domain of the idealistic arts grunts like myself.  Or the elite socks with sandals brigade impersonating the poor.   Applied Theater now belongs to the vultures that deftly swoop at the first sign of poverty pimping opportunity.   Who will get the grants and recognition?   The ones who know how to write grants, not necessarily those who know how to do the work or understand the community in which they will work.   What happens then is ill-equipped artists armed with the same good intentions that pave hell, descend with  a safari mentality, pounce upon economically oppressed communities,  ravage them with mediocrity, sleight of hand making a media splash littered with jargon on their own behalf, exiting when the money runs out as smug as when they arrived.   Those who do the daily work in the arts trenches, who do the “amateur” work, are left to pick up what is left in their wake. 

Another linguistic travesty, is that of Anna Deavere Smith credited with “inventing” Interview Theater.  That is as absurd as crediting Columbus with discovery of the Americas; or discussing Edison without Tesla.   What Ms. Devere Smith did was market a term, codify and co-opt what playwrights have always done: eavesdrop, listen to other people’s stories and then transcribe them into monologues and dialogues with a twist of poetic license.  That has always been a source of the playwright, to capitalize on human stories, images, and phrases.  The play is not pulled out of a vacuum.   Somebody gave it a name and a savvy publicist ran with it – I don’t call that art; I call in entrepreneurial genius.  And good for her.  But don’t insult my intelligence by telling me she invented it.  Not too different from spoken word, a form that goes back 5,000 years to Mesopotamia now known as Iraq in the person of priestess and poet, Enheduanna.  A repetitive, rhythmical cadence isn’t a movement-its a form or style of performance.  Again, marketing, Spoken Word.  Slam.  Catchy, but not new.  Open Mics in the 60’s had an unspoken edge of competition, we just didn’t call it slam, we called it ego.

My mother was a brilliant fashion designer in the league of a Coco Chanel. But she died having only experienced the fouled environment afforded an exploited sweatshop seamstress.  Why?  No English, no marketing, no yank.  She would spread newspapers across the kitchen table, and with the dexterity of Edward Scissorhands she would cut and pin together a pattern inspired by something she might have seen in the window of Saks Fifth Avenue or Bergdorf’s, two stores she never entered out of sheer intimidation.  Next she’d walk to the neighborhood fabric store and pick remnants out of boxes outside for 25 to 50 cents a piece.  For almost nothing she would impeccably sew a fully lined suit, finished in lace seam binding, with patterns perfectly aligned and hand stitched buttonholes that were a layered work of art.  Now, if my mother had an interpreter (other than Junior High School me), a publicist, a marketing artist, an upscale fashionista benefactor and supporter, she might have achieved haute couture immortality.  However  my mother did not have social cachet or the ability to even know where to find an entry point.  In her life, there was no one paying attention, except me, the daughter who feared her as much as she loved her.  Abusive rage had replaced imagination in her dead end life. 

We must first pay attention to our own lives and thinking, and then to those around us, or we might miss the treasures in our own lives for lack of a word.  So, we return to our Viscera, also known as our intuition, our guts, our damn common sense.  I suggest we reinvent the lexicon of art and speak for ourselves, create our own theaters, publish our own books, record our own music, and remain vigilant that upon achieving success, we do not get suckered into the trap of believing ours is the only way.  Arrogance and narcissism, even in the guise of false humility or self-consciousness (which is still about ME) are toxic not only for the recipient, but for the carrier.  Together, they kill more brain cells than whiskey, just at a slower rate.

As Brooklyn born guru, Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati says:  “If anyone tells you their way is the only way, run the other way.”

If you want to read what I would choose as my conclusion to this essay, go and read the poem:  The Did-You-Come-Yets of the Western World by Rita Ann Higgins, to be found in “Staying Alive:  Real Poems for Unreal Times.”  Edited by Neil Astley, Miramax Books (Hyperion), 2003 ISBN: 1-4013-5926-4


 
 

A Slip of the Tongue


A recurrent theme in my work are the unquestioned, so-called “cultural traditions” that can and often do, turn us into the accomplices of our own demise.  I get the hairy eyeball from my Borikua sisters and brothers (yes, I take back the letter K – does anyone know who took it from us in the first place?) when I challenge the folkloric character of Juan Bobo, the flippant use of the word “prieto” and terms of endearment that are diminutive, heterosexist, connected to body type or melanin.

Juan Bobo is an idiot who is always rescued by the grace of God or the intervention of Fate and her synergy with circumstance, reminiscent of the adage:  “God watches over drunks and fools.”  We read his stories to our children from books that often depict him as a Jíbaro or as Black.  The obvious question often eludes us:  why is Juan Bobo usually depicted as dark skinned?  If you are honest with yourself, can you tell me that you have ever imagined him as blonde and blue-eyed?  Borikuas do come in all shapes, sizes, and genetically transmitted ethnicities.  We have been deprived of stories, infused with revisionist history and afflicted by cultural amnesia so long, that we cling to the few scraps of stories, histories and songs that remain alive in the collective, popular mind. Most of these keep us in the place where the white dominant culture is most comfortable imagining us – docile, foolish, happy drunks who get feverishly political at the waving of a flag, the way Sunday Christians fulfill their weekly obligations to subvert the threat of Hell and guarantee a cushy afterlife in the mansions of a pearly gated community.

All I suggest is that we question ourselves, our intentions and the history of using words like “priet@”  “betún” “hinch@” “flac@” “gordit@” “negrit@”  (yes, I know the latter is sacred and ALWAYS meant lovingly, right?)  Think again.  I have one word to say:  origin.  Original intention is much more dangerous than “original sin.”  I personally think we are born in original innocence.  We are both original and innocent.  It is our lack of questioning, our desire to be accepted, to make others comfortable so they will like us that renders us unoriginal and sin-full.  Sin in Spanish means “without”.  To transmit words, stories, legends, songs, ideas through generations without considering their original source and intention is to be in “sin”, without:  without power.  Take back the power of K and ask Por K, never to be confused with pork, the other white meat that clogs up our hearts as we justify fat content that will kill us as a “cultural thing.”

New songs, new stories.  Research the old ones we have been denied.  Dig deep, make time.  Re-discover the old, create the new.  Why not Luisa La Sabia?  

“Cacique, Leader
Bohio, House
Agüeybaná, Hero
Columbus, Louse.”

Just kidding.  Or not.  More later – I want to go dig and find out what happened to K.



 
 

Voice of the Jaguar:
Magdalena Gómez


Is our nation in a drug induced coma?  Escalating bank mergers, corporate owned media, synergistic chupacabras  like Disney and McDonald’s turn our once diverse landscapes, cities and towns into one trick ponies.  How often have you gone on an interstate drive and said:  “Everyplace is starting to look the same.” Or asked yourself in your own neighborhood,  “Hey, why is Quiznos right across the street from Subway, and Walgreen’s across from CVS?” Consumer choice or survival of the fittest?  No more neighborhood drugstores where you can pick up and smell a bar of Maja soap, and the pharmacist knows you well enough to offer free medical advice Doña Fulana is equally  generous with bochinche and guarapo recipes.

Have you been to Manhattan lately?  The character of once diverse and exciting ethnic neighborhoods has been turned into a massive, homogenous souvenir shop and mall.  Banana Republic replaces bodegas.  People race about the matrix speaking into headsets about things that should be said face to face or not at all, nodding to the God of I-Pod, eyes glazing over at the sight of 50% OFF signage.   My stomach squeezed into vinegar the day I saw Disney and Starbucks had anchored themselves in Harlem. Manhattan has lost its character.

Springfield almost got the Simpsons.  I’m glad we didn’t.  Springfield still has character, and endless potential.  We don’t need the easy fix to put us on the cultural map, we need commitment from local, state and federal government; the corporations who profit from our people and our resources;  and from each other.  We need dialogue among and across ethnicities, generations and class;  accessible, inclusive gathering places without loud music, booze and distractions. We need places where we can slow down, be intentional and really see  and listen to each other.  We need to take a collective look at how we’re living or not living.  We need Liberation Zones where honest dialogue with community and corporate leaders is at the top of the agenda. Maybe then we can begin to intentionally rebuild our city enhancing what we already have,  supporting the bounty of talented people who live here. My partner and I have decided to open our home for artists and organizers.  We have begun to gather monthly to come out of isolation and the soul deadening effects of busy-ness, if only for a moment, to say “we’re not alone.”

My brother in law, Michael Lescault, died recently.  He had been a union organizer in South Africa during Apartheid.  When it came time to disconnect him from life support, his best friend and youngest brother remained in the room.  Thirty seconds after the monitor flat-lined, Michael, who was left handed, raised his left arm in a fist of power.   His best friend later remarked, “Leave it to Michael to defy even death.”  Michael reminded me that it is never too late for acts of resistance and that no act is ever too small.  It’s also never too late to unplug from the matrix and take your life back, if only for a moment.





 
 

Magdalena Gómez     
                             

Deadly Whispers

According to F.B.I. statistics, between 2003 and 2006, there was a 35% increase in hate crimes against Latinos across the United States.  Good chance the documentation errs on the low side.  In general, hate crimes are on the rise, according to recent data coming out of the Southern Poverty Law Center.


As we watch the presidential race riots, we are once again distracted from a core issue:  our silence as a nation, as The People.  Where is the noise of collective action?  Where are the voices of local leaders calling out the truth of our conditions?  And please don’t tell me about HOPE.  Hope is the new dope, as my friend Fred Ho, says and I agree.  Hope cannot replace action.  It is like the word “relax” which is usually code for “don’t make me uncomfortable with the truth.” Whoever you plan to vote for, please don’t count on your candidate to change our economically, socially and intellectually anemic landscape.  We have surrendered our passion to reality television, grieving and celebrating televised lives while suppressing the responses to our own with multiple addictions:  food, tobacco, alcohol, drugs and Lotto dreams.

When we go to movie theaters, we now sit through advertising.  We PAY for the privilege.  The audience just sits there and takes it in. Advertising is everywhere.  Soon the plasma screens with ads will be going up in restaurants and other public places.  Have you been in NYC lately?  The stairs of subway stations are being branded, products sold to your every step.  We work, we spend, we collapse in front of the TV in our branded shoes and clothing, nothing left for casual conversation with the letter carrier or worse, our loved ones.  It is only a matter of time before we are tagged like cattle with a governmental barcode and our bodies solicited by corporations as billboards.  Whose brand will you wear on your face when there is nothing left with which to feed your children?

Hillary this, Obama that.  It is impossible to run for the office of President and maintain untarnished integrity.  Candidates listen to the oncoming waves and dress accordingly, but we are the ones drowning.  Drowning in silence.  According to the Associated Press, more than 5,000 square miles of ice shelf have broken off in Antarctica over the past 50 years.  We go on about our days, oblivious and shopping with money we don’t have for toxic, polluting garbage we don’t need.  No President can replace the Voice of the People.  But The People can easily be replaced by the President, as the current regime has proven.  The People speak in whispers, as the Predators of the United States roar and devour our rights, our economy, our true safety.  Hillary cannot save us.  Obama cannot save us.  They are too busy saving themselves.  If we want change, we cannot be afraid of our rage or a collective, creative and organized response to injustice.  We need noise in the streets again – it is a matter of self-defense. 

 

Visit Magdalena Gómez at her space: www.myspace.com/magdalenagomez

  La Prensa is a proud member of the Massachusetts Latino Chamber of Commerce

 

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