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Hampton Institute - Sin Fronteras: Dispatches from Mexico City

David A. Romero

Dec 16, 2022

Nov 15-19, 2022 — A delegation of Chicano poets, artists, and intellectuals flew to Mexico City for five events over the course of four days across the city.

“Caminante, no hay puentes, se hace puentes al andar. (Voyager, there are no bridges, one builds them as one walks.)”

—Gloria E. Anzaldúa

Nov 15-19, 2022 — A delegation of Chicano poets, artists, and intellectuals flew to Mexico City for five events over the course of four days across the city.

It all began with a series of emails and social media messages flying across the Mexico–United States border.

One poet, Matt Sedillo, Literary Director of the Mexican Cultural Institute of Los Angeles, and one academic, Alfonso Vázquez, founder of the Chicanxs Sin Fronteras project in Mexico City, first made their acquaintance virtually, and eventually, made plans together to bring a delegation from the U.S. to Mexico.

“In my first conversation with Alfonso, I told him I had spoken all over the world, that I had even spoken at Cambridge. While that was a huge honor, my real dream was UNAM,” said Sedillo of those early exchanges.

A professor at FES Acatlán (UNAM), and the author of a history of Chicano cinema and media representation in Spanish, Chicano (University of Guanajuato, 2018), Vázquez knew he could make Sedillo’s dream a reality.

“There is a great reception and interest in Chicano culture in Mexico.” Said Vázquez in an interview with Nancy Cázares, of La Izquierda Diario.

Alongside his partner Abril Zaragoza, Vázquez has created Chicanxs Sin Fronteras to “disseminate and bring young people and the general public closer to Chicano culture beyond the stereotypes that have been imposed on the Mexican who lives in the United States.”

Sedillo and Vázquez developed a four-day literary and arts series of events across Mexico City – with the coordination of the Mexican Cultural Institute of Los Angeles and Chicanxs Sin Fronteras, along with the latter organization’s frequent collaborators: Tianguis Literario CDMX (a collective led by young poet Yasmín Alfaro) and Gorrión Editorial (a publishing house run by poet and professor Abraham Peralta Vélez) – collectively entitled: Desfronterizxs. Homenaje a la escritora Gloria Anzaldúa. Encuentro de poesía chicana.

Sedillo’s delegation flying in from the U.S., a mix of those born in the U.S. and in Mexico, was a “dream team” that included the Director of the Mexican Cultural Institute of Los Angeles, the muralist Jose Antonio Aguirre, poets and professors Norma Elia Cantú and Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs (both of whom knew the series’ figure of homage, Gloria E. Anzaldúa, personally), community activist and author of Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A. (Atria, 2005), Luis J. Rodriguez, the sociologist and organizer of delegations to Cuba, Jose Prado, the art curator and organizer of events at El Camino College in Los Angeles, Dulce Stein, and myself, David A. Romero, the author of My Name Is Romero (FlowerSong Press, 2020) (and writer of this article).

Norma Elia Cantú, along with the sharing of her poetry, carried the special honor of giving a multimedia presentation on Anzaldúa’s life, work, and philosophy. Cantú’s own reputation, as the recipient of over a dozen awards and the author of dozens of books, including Canícula: Snapshots of a Girlhood en la Frontera (University of New Mexico Press, 1997) preceded her in CDMX and many of the professors and students in attendance were excited to meet her in person.

The delegation from the U.S. presented from November 15-19, 2022 at locations as varied as the universities FES Acatlán (UNAM) and La Casa de la Universidad de California en México (UC system), the high school CCH Naucalpan (UNAM), the activist café La Resistencia, and arts center Gimnasio de arte y cultura in Roma (formerly the home of the Partido Popular Socialista (PPS)).

At FES Acatlán, La Casa de la Universidad de California en México and CCH Naucalpan, the delegation from the U.S. presented with introductions from Vázquez, and organizers at their respective campuses: María del Consuelo Santamaría Aguirre, Jeohvan Jedidian Silva Sánchez, Keshava R. Quintanar Cano, Eva Daniela Sandoval Espejo, and Efraín Refugio Lugo.

At La Resistencia and Gimnasio de arte y cultura, the delegation was joined by the Mexican poets, writers, and performers: Pita Ochoa, Cynthia Franco, Sara Raca, Abraham Peralta Vélez, Yasmin Alfaro, Bajo Palabra, Rubikon, Omar Jasso, Lumen Eros Vita, Imperio Soul, and DJ Paolo Guerrero, all of which were excited to share their work alongside the delegation and to represent their country.

The delegation from the U.S. was embraced in all places by their Mexican hosts, who welcomed them into their institutions, presented them with certificates of thanks, took photos with them and purchased their books, escorted them on trips throughout the city to visit historic places of interest and for many members, even welcomed them into their own homes and the homes of their extended families.

Outside of the events, the trip held special meaning for members of the delegation. For Jose Antonio Aguirre, who holds dual citizenship and makes frequent trips to his homeland, the trip to Mexico City was nevertheless an opportunity to meet up with his daughter and to reconnect with an old friend. For Luis J. Rodriguez and Dulce Stein, it was an opportunity to connect with family members they had never met. In the case of Rodriguez, those family members were the children of his aunt Chucha, the namesake of his cultural center in Sylmar, Tia Chucha's, which has served its community for over twenty years.

For Sedillo, the author of Mowing Leaves of Grass (FlowerSong Press, 2019) the trip to Mexico City had a less direct, but still profound cultural and spiritual meaning, “It's every Chicano's dream to be welcomed back home—to Tenochtitlan.”

The historical significance of the Chicano delegation to Mexico City

Gloria Anzaldúa traveled to Mexico City to teach a graduate seminar “La Identidad Estadounidense” at UNAM’s main campus in 2013, and a handful of other noted writers of Mexican descent born in the U.S., including Sandra Cisneros and Roberto Tejada, have both lived in the metropolis on and off for decades and have given readings in the city, sometimes inviting their contemporaries from the U.S. to join them.

However, there is no bridge that has been regularly maintained, neither by universities nor cultural centers in Mexico City that has been built to bring in Chicano writers and poets to share their work and build a connection between the communities in earnest.

For over a century, the populations have been separated: by border, by language, by history, by culture. It may have seemed unlikely, if not impossible, for the Chicano and Chilango to come together and to build together.

In the U.S., Chicanos, whether those with longstanding ties to the borderlands, or the children of immigrants, are often treated as second-class citizens, lumped into a category known as “minority,” or more generously, as “people of color,” thereby still subject to microaggressions, labor exploitation, criminalization, and violence. Ours is a history of struggle and poverty. Of the antagonism between assimilation and resistance. Of constantly being uncertain of our futures and of who we are. Of being, "ni aqui, ni alla." We are a people often defined by what we are not.

The Mexicans of Mexico City, the Chilangos, can seem to be the opposite, as people who are certain, who are defined, who are. They are the majority population. The normal. The normative. The unquestioned. They live in their capital, a world city, cosmopolitan and international in their tastes. Everywhere, they pull from the character of their nation, producing a synthesis, one that may vary from neighborhood, but that is proud. That is Mexican. They are fluent in Spanish, because prima facie, that is their language. Everywhere in CDMX, there is a tie to both the recent and ancient past. They live in Tenochtitlan; the ruins of Templo Mayor within arm's reach and mere feet away from the Zócalo and the National Palace. Monuments to their heroes abound in bust and sculpture—and their heroes all look like them.

For a time, it could seem that we, the Chicano and the Chilango, could not be more different. What sense would the tales of uncertainty and second-class citizenship make to a Chilango? How could the Chicano, who directly, or indirectly, benefits from U.S. imperialism, respond to accusations that they are implicit in the modern-day gentrification and subjugation of their motherland?

And yet—culture connects us: music, art, film, literature. As in Japan and Thailand, Chicano culture has saturated Mexico City. The cholo is cool. Chicano is cool. Chicano es chido. But, unlike in Japan and Thailand where the connection is deeply felt, but somewhat cosmetic, the Chilangos know that, although divided, although different, the Chicano and Chilango share the same blood. We are the same people.

“The borders aren’t real. They’re not like the rivers or mountains. They weren’t made by God. They were made by man. This land is one. All of the Americas are our community.” Luis J. Rodriguez, the former poet laureate of Los Angeles, said, passionately, to the students at FES Acatlán.

During a short presentation at CCH Naucalpan, Jose Antonio Aguirre described himself, humorously, “I am from Ciudad de Mexico. I am a Chilango. But I have also lived in the United States for a long time, and am influenced by the Chicanos. So, I call myself a Chicalango.”

In one of the most powerful moments of the event series, Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, the author of Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia (Utah State University Press, 2012) , asked the over one hundred in attendance at CCH Naucalpan for a show of hands. “How many of you have family in the United States?” Almost everyone in the audience raised their hands. She added, speaking of Chicanos in Mexico, "This is our country, too."

Alfonso Vázquez, a Chilango with family in California, knows this isn't an isolated phenomenon, “Many of our families, many states of the Republic have a great tradition around to migration, they are migrant states: Michoacán, Jalisco, Guanajuato, Zacatecas, are states with a great tradition. There are also many migrants in Mexico City, it is a place from where many people leave for other states, and to the United States of course.”

Vázquez partnered with CCH Naucalpan and Gorrión Editorial to collect work from the writers of the delegation from the U.S., with translations of works in English into Spanish, and art by Jose Antonio Aguirre, into a special collection entitled, Ellos son nosotros (They are us).

The message from the Chilangos to the Chicanos could not be clearer.

A bridge that goes both ways

“We thank you. For creating a bridge into Mexico.” Matt Sedillo said, at Gimnasio de arte y cultura to close out his set, wiping sweat off his brow, addressing the crowd of Mexican organizers and artists present. “I recognize, a bridge goes both ways. It’s not just for us to come here. But for us [Chicanos], to host you [in the United States].”

The words of Anzaldúa ring, “Caminante, no hay puentes, se hace puentes al andar.”

For Sedillo, who has sailed to the island of Elba, taken trains to Paris, flown to Ravenna to receive the Dante’s Laurel, and likewise, traveled to Cuba, England, Mexico, and Canada, the task of continuing to work with Vázquez to build such a bridge between Mexico and Los Angeles, is not merely a challenge, as the Literary Director of the Mexican Cultural Institute of Los Angeles it’s in his job description, and is the greatest opportunity he can imagine.

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