Rowe, Aimee Carrillo, Biography
As a queer Xicana feminist scholar, writer, and person living in the world, I live in proximity to trauma. My people--all the people I come from: white and black, indigenous and mestizo--have been traumatized by imperial conquest. My Mexican Rancho ancestors took land from the indigenous people of Southern California, and Anglos, to this day, take land from us. But when you build your house on stolen land, on the bones of those you've conquered, souls become restless. And when you excavate the stories of our people, you are bound to encounter trauma. When you do the work of recovery, you have to go through trauma: you drop into the worst of the wound. Like the vulture, you pick among the rotting flesh of lives cast aside in order to set things right: to recover those stories and the real people behind them, to remind us in the present where we've been and who we come from, and to heal the wounds--not only our own, but also those of the ancestors.
The thing I'm afraid of feels like possession. Were you afraid of the Exorcist when you were a child? Something beyond yourself coming in, taking over, turning you evil? Something about the Catholic mysticism of my upbringing made that film especially frightening for me. After I watched it on our tiny black-and-white television, I remember feeling haunted by something hovering around me, something I couldn't see, but something near, something that wanted inside. When I'd take a shower or carry the garbage down the long dark driveway at night, I worried I was particularly vulnerable. I wondered if, alone and naked, something might possess me. My body would turn poisonous and I would lose control of my mind. I would do and say things harmful, terrifying. Like the girl in the film--her uncontrollable anger and violence, her greenish skin, her voice so gravelly and low it hardly seemed like her own as she stabbed herself with a crucifix shouting, "Fuck me Jesus!" I remember feeling so terrified by her profaning the sacred. I remember hearing stories like that from the Bible, too, and Jesus would exorcize people. Possession seemed quite real, possible, and frighteningly close.
I wish there were a trick, some foolproof way to protect myself from the terror I sometimes feel. And yet I find I must continue the work of excavating the layers of imperial trauma into which I was born and in which I continue to find myself, and those who came before and will come after me, all immersed.
How do you hold trauma, without letting it hold you?
The hills behind mom's house stretch out like a wide tan carpet, or like the expansive back of a great elephant. Wall to wall, its parched skin stretches out as far as you can see. Just miles of rolling brown folds, dotted with sage and buckwheat and a few markers--a big granite rock here, where the hawk sits; a dry creekbed there, where hummingbirds buzz and coyotes slink around at the edges of day and night. This is where I grew up: playing king of the hill, pretending to ride motorcycles, galloping around on a shaggy cream-colored pony, eating pomegranates and grapes that hung over neighbors' fences. Sometimes we'd find other people's cast-offs: beer bottles, an old desk, a stack of Playboy and Hustler.
I might idealize these hills. When it rains, they smell like wet sage and sweet grass. This smell cuts straight through layers of memory, bringing me home, transporting me to a time in between now and then, child and adult, human and animal, ancestor and descendant.
This summer I'm walking in the hills with this woman I met on tango. wire. My friends call her Halle Berry, owing to her smooth wet-sand skin, chiseled cheekbones, straight white teeth, and full lips. Her upright gait exudes a sense of confidence belied by her wide dark eyes, windows to a hauntingly fragile soul. Even though she's just survived cancer, her muscles ripple along her legs as she walks, her short-cropped black hair hugs her head like a snug layer of protection.
Halle is tugging her old, blind rat terrier behind and my wild three-year-old German shorthair pointer is criss-crossing the wide tan carpet, chasing long-eared jackrabbits, doves, water birds that gather, hopeful or merely out of habit, in the dry basin of the dam. The sun is getting low, turning the brown grasses and shrubs golden.
As we round a humped hilltop, a helicopter flies right over us. It approaches quickly from behind, a huge loud machine shattering the still landscape. It reminds me of the time maybe twenty years ago when I was out here riding double on my brother's minibike with my best friend, Andrea. She was holding onto my waist and we were flying over the wide tan hills--up and down, up and down. So free. Just then, a helicopter flew overhead. "You are trespassing on private property!" the helicopter announced over a twangy flat loudspeaker, like a fake God voice. "Should we turn back?" Andrea posed in my ear. "What are they gonna do, land?" I shot back, smug, over my shoulder and we cackled, hair waving behind us, at our secret power. As we crested the next hill, I suddenly pulled up short--stunned to find the helicopter had landed, its blades still swooping not far above the head of the God-voice man. Tall and lean, dressed in efficient army green, he sidled up to ask if I had a license to drive this bike. I don't remember what I said, but I do remember he gave me a $25 ticket. Andrea and I still laugh about this story, how we were so wild and thought we were so far from town as to be free from the reach of the law--beyond "God."
I am just about to share this funny tale with Halle when she poses a different question: "What would you do if that helicopter started shooting at us?" Her question startles me out of my surreptitious memory with a jag. So traumatized, this one. When she was just ten years old, she'd lost her mom to cancer, then something bad had happened with her father, who was left to raise her and her brother alone. Coming from a long line of working-class warriors of the US state, she spent eight years in the army where, she said, they taught her to throw hand grenades at the dehumanized masses and chant power-march rhymes: "Your left, your left, your mother left home, so you left--you're right!" She'd chant these songs to the timing of our footsteps. She'd want me to chant along, but the songs would evoke such a mass of abandoned children-turned-soldiers, I'd mess up the lines or deliver them without sufficient fury.
So what if the helicopter started shooting us? "I guess I'd die!"
"No!" she stops and squares her body to me. "You run in a zigzag and hide behind the rock!"
She seems almost as disturbed by my answer as I am by hers.
"If haunting describes how that which appears to be not there is often a seething presence, acting on and often meddling with take-for-granted realities, the ghost is just the sign, or the empirical evidence, if you like, that tells you a haunting is taking place. The ghost is not simply a dead or a missing person, but a social figure, and investigating it can lead to that dense site where history and subjectivity make social life. The ghost or the apparition is one form by which something lost, or barely visible, or seemingly not there to our supposedly well-trained eyes, makes itself known or apparent to us, in its own way, of course. The way of the ghost is haunting, and haunting is a very particular way of knowing what has happened or is happening. Being haunted draws
us affectively, sometimes against our will and always a bit magically, into the structure of feeling of a reality we come to experience. Not as cold knowledge, but as a transformative recognition" (Gordon 8).
Before Halle there was Cici. Because she came first I had no boundaries, no protection. I felt I wanted to merge with Cici, to save her. Just to become one.
This merging went on for years. I was compelled to her by a force beyond my power, a "seething presence," a "meddling" with my own reality. She shared a name with my great-grandmother: perhaps this haunting was the calling of my ancestors or our shared history of Mexican conquest. She came from a long line of curenderas and brujas, workers with the dark arts. Whatever its source, I was pulled to her like an orbiting celestial body to the sun. I longed to enter the chaos and despair of her life.
My dance with Cici was a dance with trauma. She carried the horrors she'd survived deep inside and I longed to share her secrets. I promised to stay, that I'd hold her and her trauma no matter what she'd been through. I felt certain that once she told me, she'd be freed. I was arrogant, convinced that my powers to hold her would somehow be enough.
The telling and the holding went on so long that I began to merge with trauma: hers was mine and mine was sublimated to heal hers. I pressed myself down deep to care for her, to accommodate her unresolved anger, to catch the pieces when things broke--a water bottle here, a cell phone there. I was careful not to tell. I did what I could to put things back together again. In an effort to find her and pull her from the wreckage, I lost myself.
It went on until things became so bad that the haunting began to possess me. The haunting culminated when her father was charged with Things--things so brutal and dehumanizing that I shutter to think them. For days and weeks after I learned of these things, he would haunt me, slither up my spine and shiver me to the marrow. I thought of her being raised by him, of our intimacy sullied by him. So unsettling was this merging--mine, hers, his--that it propelled me from the wreckage. Tossed aside, I was bruised, sore, sick. But I would recover.
They're digging up the bones of my ancestors. Rich white people are digging up the bones of my ancestors. The land where we come from is now some of the most desirable in California. Back then it was Rancho land--wild sage and chapparal rolling hills tumbling into the Pacific. It was Northern Mexico, undeveloped land, so the Mexican government gave land grants to families of the region who applied. The Reyes/Marquez Rancho, the Rancho Boca de Santa Monica, was ours. There are lots of stories about the wild Rancho life of my ancestors, like Pete Badillo, who was accused of stealing horses and was hunted down and hung by the Anglos who accused him. In exchange for the unsubstantiated charge, the Anglos took Badillo's land.
My grandfather, Otero, wrote letters to my mom at the end of his life. Papa was the last generation to grow up on the Rancho: clamming, haying, and racing horses down the beach with his cousin Duni. Bits of his letters show how my family lost the land. He wrote that his grandfather's "first wife was Petra Tapa, heiress to what is Malibu today, her father had run up a bill at the local grocery--around $250--and Keller, the grocer took their ranch as payment." He later wrote about the development of Santa Monica and the Los Angeles pier: "After then we lost the Harbor to Huntington, who took in to San Pedro and only ran the train once a day to hold his franchise. We lost the strip we had granted them and now it is called Roger Beach and your Papa has to pay one dollar to park his car there!" It seems Anglos couldn't be wrong and Mexicans couldn't be right. Bit by bit, parcel by parcel, my family lost the 29,000-acre Rancho.
Mom saves these letters and I pour over them, transcribing them and sending them to my cousins. Papa died the night I was conceived. "His spirit went into you!" my mom used to say. I never got to hold him, but somehow he has a tremendous hold over me. "Hat in hand": this is how my mom always describes how he acted with Anglos. A vegetable man with a sixth-grade education, his parents had both passed over by the time he was six. Papa went to live with Aunt Julia and all of her children. Julia was poor. She called Papa "The Little Bird who Fell Out of the Tree." At ten Papa quit school to sell vegetables. He was the primary bread-winner in the family.
Papa's parents were the last to be buried in the family cemetery. Cousin Joe had his woodworker buddy build two strong, red wooden crosses to mark the spot where the original crosses, made of sticks, were deteriorating. The cemetery is all we have left of the Rancho. The ancestors "live" there.
One of the first Anglo developments of the Rancho began in 1926. As the story goes, the daughter of the developer pleaded with her father to build a wall around the burial grounds. Developer Dad acquiesced. Since that time, my relatives had secured rights to the small cemetery plot and an easement through generally hostile neighbors' land. "Dirty Mexicans," they called us when we came out to fix the wall or tend to the overgrown cemetery on clean-up days. "Don't track dirt over my sidewalk," they'd growl over the tall wooden fence as Uncle Eddie heaved Hefty bags stuffed with tree trimmings into the back of his white Chevy pickup. The wall would have seemed to designate the parameters of the burial grounds, but oral history, the UCLA dogs who detect bodies in the earth, and radar all pointed to a flaw in Developer Dad's early effort to "protect" the ancestral area. The walls encircled a plot smaller than the span of land where the bodies lay. Ancestral bones lay outside the walls, in the inhospitable land of an angry Anglo landowner. That's where the digging began.
Somehow, without notice, the land was sold to a yuppie lawyer couple, who managed to get the permits to develop land that had previously been deemed "undevelopable" by the city. A mansion. A Santa Monica mansion was in their grasp for a song, never mind they had to build over the bones of those who were here before. By the time my family could launch resistance, the couple had already broken ground to build the foundation of a home.
"No one's gonna want to live in that house," Reesie, a wealthy neighbor and family advocate exclaims. "The whole neighborhood will know. It's a poltergeist house!"
What does it do to a people to desecrate their remains? Do the dead continue to feel the wounds of imperialism? How does imperial trauma pass through the generations? Can our sacred rituals we perform in the present heal those traumas of the past?
Dream: I'm lying in bed with Cici and a force crosses over the bed, south to north, like a heavy wind propelling through the bedroom. Then another wind rushes through me, this time moving in the opposite direction. Waking from the dream, yet still in the dream, Cici and I turn to each other, me filled with dread. The second force that came through me was heavy like mercury, a dark shadow, a clutching claw pulling me down. I put my hands to my face, convinced I have become this evil: I plead with her to tell me if I've become this evil. I imagine my face contorted, hardened like stone into that of a pale ghostly intruder.
Lying next to her, I awaken Cici with these pleading moans. She shakes me, "Are you OK? You were talking in your sleep!" her face eager with concern. I tell her about the dream. She burns sage over me, wraps me in a blanket, holds me until the first light.
"The rope tightened around her neck, and she felt her belly drag over the sand and rocks, the wound on her breast pricked by sage-brush. She was numb below the waist, and her face ached from the beating. One of them had given her an injection, but she could still move her arms and wedge the tips of her fingers under the noose. They'd stuffed her bra into her mouth, and the hooks in it hurt her tongue. When the car stopped, her head slammed into something hard. The pain stunned her, and she was crying again, but suddenly, she felt nothing in her arms. The numbness spread quickly up her spine. Her jaw, her belly--everything felt dead." (Gaspar de Alba, 1)
I spent much of the past year holding the Juarez women in my being. It started with reading Chicana literature, like Alicia Gaspar de Alba's novel and Carla Trujillo's What Night Brings in which the eleven-year-old protagonist, Marci, prays her dad will go away and she will wake up a boy. In a climactic scene, Marci threatens her father with a knife to protect herself and her little sister, Corin:
'"Hijo, Marci, what a big little man you are now." He walked over to me and stuck his pointer finger under my chin. "Que hombre! I didn't know I had me un hombrecito. Here I was thinking you was my little girl. And goddamn if my dig didn't squirt out a boy."
I slapped his finger away.
"Oh, and a macho tambien."
"I ain't afraid of you." I held onto the knife even though I still didn't know if I could use it.
"I'll tell you one thing," he said, speaking so close I had to hold my breath. "If you ever decide to use it, you sure as hell better kill me, because if you don't--you might live to regret it." He grabbed the knife out of my hand and threw it into the wall about three feet from where Corin was standing. It scared her so bad she fell to the floor like a popped balloon. He looked at her, started laughing again, and walked out of the door. (Trujillo 108)
This scene disturbed me so deeply. I remember describing it to my best friend and crying as I delivered the line about how Corin fell to the floor like a deflated balloon. Crying again to write it here. Audiencing the work of Chicana artists, performers, and writers, I was brought deep into the wound of the violence that shapes Chicana, indigenous, and Mexicana existence. An identity so displaced as to risk annihilation. An ongoing genocide. How does the Chicana writer/critic hold this trauma without being held by it?
An answer came in Cherrfe Moraga and Celia Herrera-Rodriguez's play, La Semilla Caminante/The Travelling Seed. The play features the story of a queer Xicana, Vero, who seeks healing in a traditional Peyote Ceremony. Vero sits in ceremony with two men, drinking peyote to make themselves vomit. This will allow them to expunge imperial trauma from their bodies. But Vero's "wound" is too deep. She tries and tries to vomit, but is unable to move the bile out. It remains in her body, its hold over her unrelenting.
Distraught, she demands of the medicine: "Show me the face of my wound!" A series of scenes ensue, depicting violent sexual encounters: between girl-Vero and her father; between teenage-Vero and a "vato"; and against the women of Juarez. The sequence concludes as a middle-aged woman dressed in black dances around the fire holding the torso of a female mannequin wrapped in a Mexican blanket. She moves to Vero and holds the body before her, stroking her daughter's hair.
As she witnesses the scenes of her life, mapped onto the collective suffering of indigenous Mexican women, Vero becomes exasperated. She faces the audience--head tossed back, arms limp at her side and shouts: "Women are so much BASURA!" The stage goes black and a spotlight directs the audience's gaze to the back of the theater. There, we behold a spider woman crawling down the steps. Wearing a full skirt and sleeveless top, elbow-high black gloves painted with intricate turquoise designs, and a wide-brimmed hat adorned in feathers and an unblinking eye at its crown, the spider looks other-worldly. She raises one arm, then the other; one leg, then the other; the eye scans left and right as the spider turns her head rhythmically to match her movement. She slowly makes her way to the stage where she approaches Vero, who turns to face the spider. The spider lifts her elbow high and plunges her fingers into Vero's throat, her hands twitching as she entices Vero to vomit. After several attempts, Vero finally purges her wound.
This is how we heal. Sacred ceremony. The performance feels less like a play and more like being part of a ritualistic healing. Like Vero's, our healing is both individual and collective. But we must dig through the worst of the wound to receive it: sacred fingers down our collective throat, we purge the bile of imperial trauma.
Another layer came to me over dinner. Christina Crosby was telling me about the odd temporality of the Shakespearean play Othello. "Between Acts I and III, Othello's transformation makes no sense," she peered at me over her fork. A viewer cannot follow how Othello's good character could so quickly and thoroughly become capable of such murderous acts. "But we can believe it because his evil was always there, lurking beneath the illusion of his goodness," she underscored. The fact of his blackness, always-already poised to erupt through the veneer of his smooth, assimilated, kingly exterior.
As she spoke, I felt a stillness fill my torso and my eyes widen with a sense of knowing. This haunting I feel: is this the Mexican, the indigenous within me? Hat in hand, still hoping, two generations later, to be accepted? Even though I've been so thoroughly bred and bled out of my family line, the oppressive force of my ancestors' survival nips at the heels of my earthly walk. I stand on the luxurious bridge called their back. Papa in sepia, his hair combed back, shirt neatly tucked into pleated pants, his hand grasps a tan fedora. He had made good with the vegetable business, was solidly middleclass. He loved to gamble at Santa Anita, mom says. He spoke poetry to the elephant tan hills as she joined him on his journeys, combing the Southland in search of the best vegetables. In spite of his big San Marino home and love of golf, the San Gabriel Country Club rejected his application for admission. Hat in hand, even those who "made it."
Othello, the smoothed-back veneer of the powerful other. The monster just beneath the surface, waiting to be possessed. Waiting to possess innocent whiteness.
This summer as I immersed myself in the work of Chicana feminists, I left my laptop on the train at the San Francisco airport. I realized my error just a moment too late as I watched the train pull away. "Please, let it be there next time the train comes around," a little prayer escaped my lips. "All my work," I worried. My eyes flickered over the contents of a dozen trains arriving, then departing. No laptop.
I'd been so deep into the work that it was haunting me at night, rattling me from my sleep. I had that old Exorcist feeling from my childhood. Heart racing, I feared I might become possessed. I cannot resolve what haunts me about the brown men, mestizos, who inflict violence in the home, or in a bar, or in a dry creekbed somewhere in the desert of Juarez. The violence my sister and I encountered with my Anglo father was so much more subtle--a gaze as opposed to a smack: "Look at her long beautiful neck," I recall him saying about my sister, who stood silhouetted by the sun dropping Westward into the Pacific. Something sublimated under the skin, but still creepy, violating. My cousins have the kind of easy laugh and sun- and tool-hardened hands that make me trust them. They are certainly not the monstrous men who have been haunting me. Right? How does imperial trauma travel from the sometimes subtle, always in the name of "civility," violence of the Anglo and Spanish conqueror towards the brown and conquered men? And the women. What about the women?
Leaving the airport, absent that familiar weight of my backpack, I felt a sense of relief. The weight of it had become too heavy. Now I'd have to decide if I wanted to pick it back up. Now, about six months later, I'm stepping in with one foot, protecting myself with burning candles and sage, chants and prayers.
The violence that has shaped my own experience has always been a step removed, a generation apart, something that happened to someone I loved, something around me, but not directly to me. Is this why I continue to attract trauma? Perhaps I taunt trauma, just as it taunts me. "Show me the face of my wound!" I command it to speak its name, to make itself transparent. I have romanced trauma, and it me. We have danced, tangoed, shared a bed. I have breathed its clammy breath and felt its wretched force overtake me with its undulating rhythm. We have held each other: trauma holding me, and me holding trauma. And now I want to let go.
For those of us who work with the stories of oppressed and violated women, imperial trauma is never farther than a breath away. As queer feminist of color scholars and writers, something of what we do is name and claim the violence that threatens our people, and to locate those moments of recovery from imperial trauma that these women, and that we, must continue to mobilize.
The spider comes down in times of tremendous upheaval to set the world right again. The travelling seed, the spider is a story-teller, a writer, she who weaves the world into being with her web.
Somehow the creative work of performance, of ritual, redeems it all. All the violence and trauma. The haunting or the ongoing exertion of its brute force doesn't just go away. But somehow, even within it, we find grace. In our creativity and our collectivity there is grace.
Gaspar de Alba, Alicia. Desert Blood: The Juarez Murders. Houston: Arte Publico, 2005. Print.
Gordon, Avery F. Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2008. Print.
Moraga, Cherrie, and Celia Herrera-Rodriguez. La Semilla Caminante/The Traveling Seed. Choreography by Alleluia Panis. San Francisco, 24 Apr. 2010. Performance.
Trujillo, Carla. What Night Brings. Willimantic, CT: Curbstone, 2003. Print.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Holding. Contributors: Rowe, Aimee Carrillo - Author. Journal title: Biography. Volume: 34. Issue: 3 Publication date: Summer 2011. Page number: 518+. © 2008 University of Hawaii Press. COPYRIGHT 2011 Gale Group.
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