Biography Writing Teaching Appearances  

August 2009 Archives

The Power of Art

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Tree of Life.jpg

El Rio Nazas (translation: The River of Baskets) borders the states of Durango and Coahuila in Mexico. Its name comes from the indigenous peoples, like the Hume, who would fish on the banks of the river with baskets. The mix of Indian and Spanish is quite visible in this area. The Spanish influence, however, is distinctly from Spain's southern tip: Sevilla.  Sevilla has always been heavily moorish.  The church in Lerdo, Durango gives this away.  It looks like a structure that belongs to The Alhambra with its minarets, arches, and arabic calligraphy etched on its walls. 

In my youth, I spent many hours at the river and within the church (named La Iglesia del Sagrado Corazon) investigating the beautiful tall swirls of arabic calligraphy, the gracefully curved stone arches.  Inside, the statues of saints sat or stood on little platforms cloaked in green, red, blue, or purple velvet on which were pinned hundreds of tiny milagros--an indigenous practice.  I was quite aware that this mix of cultures and spiritual beliefs (Indigenous, Spanish, Muslim) were not like my home back in the U.S. where every Catholic Church looked architecturally the same, painted in muted grays or browns.  

The Mexico in which I grew up, namely Coahuila and Durango, invited me into a world of fusion, of mestizaje--a constant combining and mixing of worlds in shape and color.  Perhaps this is why I so thoroughly enjoyed visiting the Joslyn Art Museum's exhibit on Mexican Folk Art yesterday.  

The first piece (see above) is by Juan Hernández Arzaluz.  Entitled "Miniature Tree of Life of the Sea" is indeed a "Tree of Life" but quite different from the Catholic pieces that usually have a biblical Adam & Eve or Virgin Mary and Joseph motif.  Here we have a whimsical portrait:  a female mermaid queen holding a mermaid baby (its gender ambiguous) with colorful starfish, octopus, seahorses, many fish, and two musical mermaids serenading them all. Ceramic crustaceans and tiny sea anemones border the scene.

The second (see below) is a more familiar religious scene:  the Last Supper. Esteban Basilio Nolasco (from Ocumicho, Michoacan) does something different, however.  The individuals at the table are markedly indigenous and they are eating food common to the Purépecha tribe from Ocumicho:  bananas, watermelon, pan de muertos (Day of the Dead bread), and the fish seems to be the main course.  The colorful designs are typical of Purépecha art.  

Mexico is a country whose indigenous people have endured unimaginable suffering from hundreds of years of colonization.  These pieces reveal the strength of will to resist and preserve their heritage.  

Thanks to The Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha--we get to see these on display!

Indigenous Last Supper.jpg

First Day of Class!

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There's always a kind of nervous excitement right before the beginning of a semester.  Although I've been teaching for over 25 years, I still experience an energy of anticipation.  

Teaching can be like this:  There is a picture in my head of a window opening, a group of individuals are with me and we are about to embark on the discovery of all the intricate details that lie past the open pane of glass.  In this case, we are on a journey of reading, considering, discussing over ten works of literature:  novels, memoir, plays, poetry inclusive of film too.  

Much goes into all the preparation of planning which books, which films, how to present it to this group I haven't met.  My objective is to make this course, entitled Lesbian and Gay literature, much more diverse given that sexuality and gender is such a complex matrix of difference. Most of all, I'm always on the hunt for new and well-crafted literature.  This year's find for class is Terry Galloway's memoir, Mean Little Deaf Queer. Galloway writes a "mean" memoir and exposes the pain in her life with such subtle and precise language.  Her prose is sleek, funny, and poignant.  I found this book late in the summer, so I just ordered it for the class.  We'll be reading it in November.  Right now we're starting off with Mel White's Stranger At The Gate: To Be Gay and Christian in America.  

Mean Little Deaf Queer: a Memoir

After all the planning and considering, the moment they walk in, I feel the window is open and the journey now begins.  Tonight I felt their energies and it was great.  They are coming from so many varied experiences and backgrounds--an exuberant group!  I can already tell we will be learning much from each other.  


The Cause of Our Time

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Today's New York Times Magazine is devoted to placing attention on ways to liberate women:  

". . . the brutality inflicted on so many women and girls around the globe:  sex trafficking, acid attacks, bride burnings, and mass rape" (28).  Why is it so important to place our attention on women throughout the world?  A country cannot survive let alone thrive financially, psychologically, sociologically if half its population is continually persecuted or disappearing.  Every time a woman is abused, she is less likely to realize her full potential, to live a productive and enriched life and therefore, less likely to contribute to the world around her.  

"'Women hold up half the sky,' in the words of a Chinese saying, yet that's mostly an aspiration: in a large slice of the world, girls are uneducated and women marginalized, and it's not an accident that those same countries are disproportionately mired in poverty and riven by fundamentalism and chaos.  There's a growing recognition among everyone from the World Bank to the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff to aid organizations like CARE that focusing on women and girls is the most effective way to fight global poverty and extremism.  That's why foreign aid is increasingly directed to women.  The world is awakening to a powerful truth:  Women and girls aren't the problem; they're the solution." (28)

Various organizations are working toward assisting women and we can easily, with a click of our computer mouse, read about them and contribute to their efforts.  We don't have to drop everything and move somewhere. is an excellent organization that supports women-owned and women-run businesses.  GlobalGiving is another organization which includes "a program to prevent runaway girls from being trafficked into brothels (38)."  

Violence against women is present everywhere:  in our communities and at our borders.  In Lincoln, The Friendship Home, is a non-profit organization which assists battered women. They are a wonderful organization, helping hundreds of women and they always welcome donations. We can also read literature that will help us further understand specific areas and problems. Again in Lincoln, Nebraska, author and psychologist Mary Pipher has written two books, one regarding young girls growing up in the U.S., Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls and another focusing on Lincoln's refugee population, The Middle of Everywhere.  Chicana writer, Alicia Gaspar de Alba, in her novel, Desert Blood: The Juarez Murders, has brought attention to the over 500 brutally murdered and disappeared women in Juarez (just across the El Paso border) as has Roberto Bolaño in his novel 2666.  The situation for women in the twenty-first century, is, as this article points out, our "paramount moral challenge."  

In my previous blog entry, I wrote about my tia Chata--whose conflicting ideas about women and race actually prompted me to lead a life of inquiry.  Tia Chata was a victim of abuse, a victim of racism, and did not have the education or wherewithall to understand her own complicity in this web of power relations.  Yet she knew and told me I could do anything and that if I was educated, I would understand the things she told me she couldn't. If in this twenty-first century we can succeed in ending violence against women, succeed in educating women, maybe women will indeed, in the words of the Chinese, be able to "hold up half the sky" and we will all be liberated.  

Ruiz de Burton reminds me of my tia Chata (not her real name) who was aware of racial and gendered oppression but could not see how she contributed to this oppression.  How could tia Chata tell me that our gente deserved to be treated equally in this country while also telling me that Black people did not?  How could she tell me that I could grow up to do anything and yet say my goal was to marry and obey my husband?  How could she teach me to be proud of our Mexican indigenous heritage and then later tell me not to stay out in the sun too long because I might begin to look like an Indian? When I'd discuss this paradox with friends, I'd find out that some of their Latina/o relatives or parents would transmit similar conflicting directives.  They would all nod their heads when I'd say, "Tia Chata said she was relieved when her grandson was born 'guero' and not dark so he wouldn't look Black or Indian."  Intraracial racism and gendered oppression has continued to be both troubling and fascinating to me.  Fascinating because I seek to understand all the intricate sociological, familial, psychological, and political history that would lead Tia Chala not to question her own oppositional thinking. 

Enter a recovered and newly edited Ruiz de Burton novel in 1992 when I was just beginning graduate school. Here was a woman whose nineteenth-century writings reminded me of what tia Chata was saying in the twentieth.  After reading Ruiz de Burton's novels, The Squatter and the Don and Who Would Have Thought It? I realized that she had to be one of the focal points of my academic study.  By studying her, I began to understand how Tia Chata--and all of us--are complicit in racist and gendered narratives.

Discussing additional works of writers/theorists such as Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera; Judith Butler, Gender Trouble; Peggy McIntosh; Paula Gunn Allen; Joy Harjo; Barbara Christian, Black Feminist Criticism; Chela Sandoval The Methodology of the Oppressed; Patricia Williams, The Alchemy of Race and Rights were key to analyzing Ruiz de Burton's work.   

Today, her work is extremely important given the public conversations regarding Obama's presidency, our conflicts abroad. As for my tia Chata, I cannot change my tia--only love her. The only person I can change is myself and that will take a lifetime.  


Josslyn and Barbara at Amelia's House

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Believing in the Unifying Principle of Swing

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Josslyn Luckett is following her passion!  She and her mom, Barbara (as I write this) are driving cross-country from Los Angeles to Massachusetts.  Josslyn is Cambridge bound!  She's about to begin graduate studies at the Harvard Divinity School where she will be studying jazz and its connections to various beliefs, spiritualities and cultures. 

Josslyn has already had quite an amazing career in playwriting and screenwriting.  She's performed her one-woman show, Chronicles of a Comic Mulatta:  An Oreo-Choreopoem at various theaters throughout the nation such as The New York Public Theater, The National Black Theater Festival, and The Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia.  And her screenplay Love Song was directed by Julie Dash for MTV Films (2000).  She is also a fellow Macondista, or member of Macondo, the writing group founded by novelist Sandra Cisneros. 

On Wednesday Josslyn and her mom left L.A..  Yesterday they left Denver, Colorado and arrived at our house here in Lincoln, Nebraska around 6p.m.  Dinner:  Homemade pesto (on green beans and tofu), mandan corn from our vegetable garden, salad, lovely red wine and a flurry of exuberant conversation!  As soon as we began to talk about the next journey in Josslyn's life--her studies in jazz and spirituality--she became a burst of wondrous, inspiring energy!

"I believe in the unifying principle of swing," she said, "a gathering of people across difference."

Josslyn sees these unifying principles of jazz among, for example, Native, Santeria, Muslim, Jewish, Mexican, African, Christian music.  Her ultimate goal is to create The Duke Ellington Center for the Study of Sacred Jazz. Josslyn's eyes light up when she says this.  She imagines a non-denominational building where all people (and she means ALL--spiritual eclectics, followers of liberation theology, aetheists, fundamentalists, baptists, agnostics, Buddhists, etc.) will feel welcome to gather for the music, for interfaith conversations.

 "What do you hear now as you say this, Josslyn?" 

"I hear John Coltrane singing 'Love Supreme.'"

Watching Josslyn talk about this is wonderful. She's on fire with her passion for jazz!

Jazz:  native to North America, created by slaves.  Jazz was a medium of survival and since then it has become the fabric of what we term American music expanding to international/world music.  It is transhemispheric.  During our conversation, I remembered my trip to Juchitan, Oaxaca a few years ago.  I was standing on the street corner, lured there by music!  A funeral procession was passing, led by about eight musicians playing trumpets, el guitarron, vihuelas, violins.  It was a slow and mournful melody I had not heard before.  Walking behind the musicians were family and friends. Behind them was a flatbed truck with an open coffin in the back.  More family and friends followed behind the truck.  Then I remembered a similar experience in Tangier, Africa.  I was awakened early in the morning to lively chants and drumming approaching my hotel.  I went to the window and saw a crowd coming down the cobblestone street: so many people in multicolored robes dancing in circles or following in lively step.  Six people were carrying a shrouded body on a bier (a wooden flat frame or board).  What I had seen opened up another conversation regarding funereal music and ritual. Josslyn excitedly pointed out the Mexican and Muslim rituals and especially the musical sounds that connect with New Orleans jazz funerals and the dirge.  Even the choice of musical instruments has connections.  The vihuela, a popular Mexican instrument, for example, is similar to North African instruments such as the timple. 

"Jazz is everywhere." 

This morning it was difficult to say goodbye.  We woke up to my favorite early morning thunderstorms.  But by 8a.m., we had finished breakfast, the storms had passed, and Josslyn and Barbara were packed and ready to go.  Their next stop:  friends in Chicago!  Josslyn--I wish you much success on your new journey! 

If you'd like to keep up with Josslyn's adventures in Cambridge, click on her blog at:

As for me, this is my very first blog entry and I welcome and thank you for reading.  I look forward to my connections with all of you.  I leave you with one of my favorite jazz collaborators (we played it last night!):  Joni Mitchell's 2007 album,  Shine.

Lyrics from "If" (Joni adapted this song from Rudyard Kipling's If):

If you can keep your head

While all about you

People are losing theirs . . .

If you can wait

And not get tired of waiting . . .

Don't deal in lies . . .

Don't give in to hating back . . .

If you can dream

And not make dreams your master . . .

If you can fill the journey

Of a minute

With sixty seconds worth of wonder and delight


The Earth is yours

And Everything that's in it

But more than that

I know

You'll be alright

You'll be alright

'Cause you've got the fight

You've got the insight

You've got the fight

You've got the insight