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Chicanas Making Art, Making Story

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This blog may also be read at: "La Bloga"

Reporting from two places this week:  San Antonio, Tejas and Lincoln, Nebraska.  This past week-- in San Antonio, Tejas, I was very lucky to spend a late afternoon/early evening in Chicana writer, Dr. Norma Cantu's graduate seminar at The University of Texas, San Antonio (UTSA).  What an animated, smart, passionate group of graduate students.  Orale!  We were all quite involved with the discussion on Cherrie Moraga's new book, A Xicana Codex of Changing Consciousness.  


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A Xicana Codex of Changing Consciousness

While various ideas and perspectives were expressed, my eyes kept focusing on the swift-moving hand gestures to the right of the table (note the picture below).  Those hands are Rita Urquijo-Ruiz's hands:  knitting!

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Dr. Norma Elia Cantú (Chicana author of Canícula and countless edited 
books) leads her graduate seminar at UTSA.  Notice Rita Urquijo-Ruiz's 
quick knitting hands on the right-hand side of the table.  

Chicana academic and performance artist, Rita Urquijo-Ruiz was knitting a gorgeous brown winter scarf during the entire graduate seminar while also contributing brilliantly to the discussion.  She, like me, was a guest that night. I had brought my writing materials.  She brought her knitting loom and yarn.  I kept watching Rita's fingers move up and down the loom while students quoted, argued with, questioned Moraga's words.  Moraga writes:  "The language of the Xicana story--if it were to be real--is fragmented, it is the stutter, the garbled utterance caught in the silence between tongues, tongues literally ripped from mouths.  It resides in the taboo languages of the body:  the vulva pressed unashamedly against a bed of dirt or the body of another woman in the effort to remember what got lost somewhere.  It is a paling Oadami descendent speaking through the body of Xicana performance" (45).  

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Rita knitting (photo by Dino Foxx -- gracias Dino!)

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knitting loom

Moraga's words kept me thinking about Rita "speaking" with her hands.  Later, I learned that Rita was also "performing" her tia Rita's art form in the making of this scarf that she completed by the end of class and then gave to me (lucky me-- see picture below). 

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Rita y yo:  I am on the left wearing Rita's lovely winter scarf she began and completed in Dr. Cantú's class and she is on the right wearing a beautiful gray scarf her mother created.  

Watching Rita reminded me of another Chicana writer, Belinda Acosta--who knits to create story.  And then there is also Chicana performance artist, writer, jewelry maker and painter, Anel Flores, who believes that every art medium she uses is telling story.  These three Chicana writers-artists create art in various mediums to bring together "fragmented" language/memories (prompted by Moraga's words) in order to speak and remember art, story, who we are.

Rita Urquijo-Ruiz who, as I described, loves using the knitting loom to create lovely long, warm scarves, is an Associate Professor at Trinity University in San Antonio.  She is co-editor of Global Mexican Cultural Productions with Rosana Blanco-Cano (see book below) and her single author book, Wild Tongues:  Transnational Mexican Popular Culture, will be coming out next summer.  

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One of Rita's co-edited books, Global Mexican Cultural Productions

Growing up in Hermosillo, Mexico, Rita learned to knit when she was 12 from her tia Rita (her mother's only sister).  When Rita moved to the U.S., she soon forgot about knitting--until years later when she met up with Dino Foxx and Billy Muñoz, founders of "The Yarn Dawgz." These Chicano brothers taught Rita all about knit graffiti and yarn bombing.  "A gay man and two straight men who do knitting," Rita tells me.  She says they are passionate about bringing color and art to urban spaces.  Passionate indeed because a simple "google search" on "The Yarn Dawgz" will lead you to multiple hits on Facebook and also a website/blog that announces their next creative project:  a documentary about the yarn graffiti movement and their own work as "Fiber Artists."  

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The Yarn Dawgz:  Manuel Cros Esquivel, Dino Foxx, and Billy Muñoz

Rita is grateful that Dino Foxx and Billy Muñoz encouraged her to return to knitting.  "For me," Rita says, "There is something about knitting that is very comforting and it helps me concentrate better.  It lowers my heart rate when I'm frustrated with work, with academia.  Even if I just do it for 15 minutes, it then helps me return to my work with much more clarity.  And the fact that it's handmade--people seem to take to that over more materialistic gifts.  It's really neat to have something to relieve my stress and when all is said and done, there is a product to give as gifts.  I also connect with the maternal side of my family while it makes people smile.  It is just a gift from the universe--handmade.  And my aunt gave me this gift."  Rita has been very productive with her academic writing and she attributes her success in good part to the many scarves she's created.  "I'm on my 25th scarf and they've all been given to wonderful friends.  Each scarf is different."  

The "Rita" scarf I'm wearing in the picture (above picture with Rita) is the one she began and finished in Norma Cantú's class!  My scarf has a literary creation story!

Anel Flores is a writer, performance artist, painter, and jewelry maker.  She is the author of Empanada:  a lesbiana story en probaditas and she has also staged and performed scenes from the book.  

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Empanada:  a lesbiana story en probaditas by Anel I. Flores

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Anel I. Flores, performing scenes from Empanada

She says, "My painting and jewelry making inform my writing because I bring the story of my grandmother and other women's stories into each art medium."  Anel's story:  Her grandmother lost almost all of her possessions in a fire.  One of the only items that survived was a small box containing her grandmother's lace.   This lace appears on the cover of her Empanada book, on her paintings, and she has created imprints of the lace on the rings, earrings, and necklaces she makes.  

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Anel's grandmother's lace

"I weave everything together."  Indeed-- Anel's work braids together all of these artistic mediums to create a pattern of stories and the struggles, the pain, the understanding and love in familia and relationships.  

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Anel's beautiful "corazon" jewelry

Belinda Acosta, author of the two quinceañera novels, Damas, Dramas, and Ana Ruiz and Sisters, Strangers, and Starting Over also knits.  She is a Chicana, born and raised (who learned to knit) on the great plains of Nebraska.  Currently, she lives in Austin, Tejas while making regular visits al norte to visit familia in Lincoln, Nebraska.  

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Chicana author, Belinda Acosta


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Belinda Acosta's two novels:  Damas, Dramas, and Ana Ruiz 
and Sisters, Strangers, and Starting Over

"It helps to encourage creativity," she says.  Belinda learned to knit, "in Home Ec (home economics) when they used to have such a class in Jr. High."  She remembers learning the various structures:  weft and warp knitting, knit and purl stitches, flat knitting vs. circular knitting.  Like Rita, after leaving the class, she stopped knitting.  It wasn't until a few years ago, after her father became ill that suddenly she had a strange feeling that her body was telling her to head for the yarn store and begin knitting.  "I was surprised that I picked it up fairly quickly.  My body knew how to do that and because of my body's reaction, I kept being surprised at how fast I picked it up-- that my body knew and hadn't forgotten."  

I asked Belinda if knitting or other art mediums also inform her writing as Rita and Anel have noted.  "Knitting is very rhythmic.  It is something similar to praying the rosary or meditating. It is an activity that settles you, calms you because you are creating rhythmic motions over and over.  Often when i'm writing or in the middle of a writing project and I get stuck, I'll either take a nap or get to my knitting.  Knitting allows you to take a break from the problem and because you're involved in this physical activity, it gives you a chance to relax your brain and then you return to the writing with much more clarity."  Here are various pictures of Belinda's knitting methods and here is a scarf she made for me.

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Belinda Acosta "in action"

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I am wearing Belinda's scarf in Nebraska (at the 
University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Ethnic Studies Program offices)

Belinda also knits because, as she says, "I can be a stress eater.  I can't eat when I'm knitting.  At the same time, I get to massage a different part of my brain where there may be a knot.  I free it.  Plus-- I like to make things for people."  

Rita, Anel, Belinda-- all making art that tells a story and that is an offering to others.  In Norma Cantú's book, Canícula, there is a section entitled, "Cowgirl."

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Canícula:  Snapshots of a Girlhood en la Frontera by Norma Elia Cantú

Cantú writes:  "My brand-new, black patent shoes, bought with the money Mami made selling dresses she sewed on Bueli's Singer, remain hidden by the long, full skirt of the red gingham dress, also one of Mami's creations" (33).  Then later in the chapter entitled "China Poblana One," there is a picture of a young girl in a China Poblana outfit.  "Mami has braided my shoulder-long hair, adding volume and length with yarn--green, white, and red-- verde blanco y colorado la bandera del soldado.  The dazzlingly white blouse embroidered with bright silk to shape flowers like the ones that grow in our yard--roses, hibiscus, geraniums, and even some that look like the tiny blossoms of the moss roses remind me of summer, although it's a warm February day" (38).  

Reading this description of dress-making and hair braiding (with yarn!) reveals a narrative of immigration, of two cultures (Bueli's Singer, black patent shoes, and embroidered silk), of seeking to place on the page a remembrance of what Mami created in a land where the month of February is warm, where hibiscus, roses, geraniums grow, where individuals are discovering and reconfiguring their identities.

As for the history of knitting:  It is too long of a story so I will be brief.  Historians trace the origins of knitting to the Middle east, specifically Egypt.  The Spaniards learned the art from Muslim knitters.  The Spaniards then brought knitting arts to Mexico.  There are also paintings of knitters throughout history.  The fifteenth-century German gothic painter, Bertram of Minden painted the Madonna knitting (see below).  Even though Chicana artist Yolanda Lopez's "Our Lady of Guadalupe" has la Virgen at the sewing machine, not knitting-- it still reminds me of the creation and shaping (new perspectives!) of art (in this case, la virgen working on her blue estrella-laden mantle).  


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Bertram of Minden's painting of the Virgen knitting (1500s)

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"Our Lady of Guadalupe" by Yolanda Lopez

It was a pleasure talking and spending time with Norma, Anel, and Rita.  Now here in Nebraska, Belinda has given me this beautiful red scarf that she made.  

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I am wearing Belinda's scarf next to Chicana artist 
Patssi Valdez' acrylic painting entitled, "Saturday" (1997)

How lucky can I be:  two scarves, a gorgeous heart necklace, and their important words on the page.  It's important to place a focus on these writers'/academics' knitting, jewelry making, painting.  They are mostly known for their serious and poignant writing which is indeed a gift to us.  How they illustrate "story" in other mediums also gives us additional information and stimulates our own aesthetic sensibilities.  And stretching oneself creatively is indeed healthy as well.

Thank you all and happy knitting/art making.  Vamos a tejer!  Let's go unknot our brains!

Ruiz de Burton Penguin Book Tour

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What a warm and loving homecoming at Loyola Marymount University this past week (Thursday, October 1).  Thanks to Professor Karen Mary Davalos who organized this talk with LMU's William H. Hannon Library which is their brand new library on the bluff overlooking the ocean.  LMU librarians ROCK!
Years ago (circa 1970s) I stood there on the bluff (no buildings then!) after classes, looking out at the city, the ocean---  
I loved meeting and talking to so many Chicanas and Chicanos who reminded me of myself.  They asked me really important questions about how they should structure their time at Loyola, what would I think about this or that path in life--how to live?  I wanted to sit with them for much longer, to get to know them, to learn from them too.  How is it now as a student at Loyola?  The opportunities for them are endless.  
At my lecture I also had "six degrees of separation" moments meaning that the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) is everywhere!  Mary Ellen Cassman and her husband showed up at my talk and were quite enthusiastic about Ruiz de Burton.  It turns out that they are the parents of Professor Kenneth Cassman, past Chair and Professor of Agronomy and Agriculture at UNL. Then, Professor Robin Miskolcze, from Loyola's English Dept., talked to me at length about teaching nineteenth-century women writers. And who knew?  Robin received her PhD at University of Nebraska-Lincoln!  Lovely connections.  
What I love most (as I've said before) about these talks is meeting the people and hearing their stories--especially the students.  I find them passionate, committed to the word, in search of literary truths, humorous, generous, kind.
So thank you to all at LMU.  I am proud to say I am an LMU alumna!  
And thanks for the gifts too!  The lovely LMU wool scarf and cap will certainly keep me warm as we near the winter in The Great Plains!  

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In this picture:  Dean of LMU University Library, Kristine Brancolini,
myself, Professor Mary Karen Davalos, Chair of LMU Chicano/a Studies


Patterns in Carpets

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Today's New York Times magazine features novelist Margaret Drabble who, at 70, has just published a memoir, The Pattern in the Carpet:  A Personal History with Jigsaws.  Kudos to Drabble for taking the topic of games, researching its history, and weaving the metaphor of play through a history of her life and the lives around her.  I've been a Drabble fan since the 1970s when I read her novel, The Needle's Eye.  A friend had recommended it after our lively discussion on Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie.  Both novels focus on class and people's preoccupations with money (or the desire to eschew it) and the career choices or interpersonal decisions they choose when they place money or reputation based on wealth as the object of desire.  In the article, Drabble's family is described as "first-generation bourgeois, one foothold removed from working class."  Margaret and her sister were the first in her family to go to college.  This perspective is key to her work, key to creating such multi-dimensional characters whose desires lead to compromises that then lead to incomplete lives.  Her characters are like watercolors:  layers upon layers of washes that add up to truths about themselves, about our human condition.  

On another topic (that may or may not be connected but this is where my head is going):  This past week, Ellen Degeneres was hired on to replace Paula Abdul on "American Idol".  I have always been an Ellen Degeneres fan for her comic timing, her sharp wit.  This past summer when she sat in on one show of "So You Think You Can Dance," her comedic remarks interrupted the serious business of judging. Perhaps they asked Degeneres to judge due to critical comments about the show's homophobic bent but if this is true, the solution doesn't fit the problem.  I was not a fan of Degeneres sitting on the judge's panel.  The judges on "So You Think You Can Dance" are all veteran dancers and choreographers.  They speak the technical dance jargon; they know dance.  Ellen's comments during the episode focused on a dancer's cute face and eyes.  Some may think this is essential to a TV show in order to draw viewers.  I say keep it serious in order to educate viewers about dance and the craft of dance (and maybe this is why I am not in the TV business).  Simon Cowell (who creates and produces all these 'rags to riches" reality contests) often decides to comment on a singer's costume, body shape or hair cut instead of what is most important:  how the singer sang the song. It says looks trump talent (not that this is a new adage--it's older than Dreiser's Sister Carrie).  

A few weeks ago, my partner and I went to hear Bonnie Raitt and Taj Mahal in concert.  They were fabulous.  Looks had nothing to do with their breathtaking vocals.  And anyway, we could hardly see them--we were way in the back.  It didn't matter!  Bonnie Raitt once said in an interview that if she were to start her career now, it would never happen because the focus is all about looks.  She said the focus on craft and the time needed to hone your craft is not often valued.  Susan Boyle (from "Britain's Got Talent," another Cowell show) shattered Raitt's comment but just for a little while.  

All these shows:  "American idol," "So You Think You Can Dance," "Britain's Got Talent," etc. remind me of little Caroline Meeber at the beginning of Dreiser's Sister Carrie.  There is Caroline on the afternoon train with her faux alligator-skin satchel "full of the illusions of ignorance and youth" on her way to "fame and fortune" in Chicago.  I think of all the thousands of people who line up to audition every year for American Idol, etc. and often wonder--are they there because their desire is to be famous or rich or because they truly are passionate about the craft of dance, music, singing?  

In England, Margaret Drabble writes about people who have misdirected desires and carefully reveals what they do to achieve their desires, how it forms who they are (specifically those who have been raised as working class or "one foothold removed from working class").

During my senior year in high school, after feeling the pressure of so many people telling me what I should study in college to "get the job," "make a lot of money," "rise above my working class background," I approached a career counselor I trusted and still value his words today. He said not to even think about a job or career.  Instead he told me to take those classes that would make my heart sing.  "Follow your passion and use that passion to develop what you love to do."  I've tried to do that but as I have discovered, it's never easy.  Bonnie Raitt at times has swerved into the pop music realm (going for catchy simplistic tunes) to stay afloat or paid the big bucks to keep her hair that lovely red.  The pressures are intense:  a jigsaw of a puzzle at times.  At 70, Margaret Drabble is not flashy or pretty.  She's smart and wise.  Her novels have consistently returned to the theme of choice.  "Can we . . . unmake our beginnings, or are we always acting willy-nilly on the promptings of the past?  Are our individual stories foretold, or do we create them as we go along?" To answer these, Drabble has always chosen family to work out this puzzle but I have always broadened her theme to include social norms, societal expectations. Can we really disengage ourselves from desiring what society and family want us to desire or from what society and family deem an authentic life?  Can we truly seek out our own desires to arrive at an authentic truth?  

What do you think?  

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