In a conversation with Jimena Galán Dary, artists Rosa Chávez and Marilyn Boror share their perspectives on the importance of weaving and molding their own genealogy as Maya-Kaqchikel women living in a hostile context that perpetuates patriarchal and racist violence.
Jimena Galán Dary (JGD): Understanding your life and work as Maya-Kaqchikel artists implies recognizing that you are the result of the ceaseless reconciliations and struggles of women who have resisted throughout history. You are weavers of words and threads, who have succeeded in creating a language that gives a name to these women, one that revindicates them and represents them.
Through their visual aspect and poetic language, your works confront the patriarchal, colonial, and racist demands of Guatemalan society. They require us to open up all of our senses so that we may appreciate them and enter into dialogue with them. I would like to start this conversation by asking you—as artists and makers—why create?
Rosa Chávez (RC): Creation is a vital impulse that emerges from my role in spiritual and collective life as well as from my relationship to my ancestors.
It grows from the decision to take my life into my own hands, to go forth and create in response to life in an eternal transition.
Marilyn Boror Bor (MBB): Historically, materiality has been important to indigenous people: management of and communication with the elements—one aspect of the vital impulse that Rosa mentioned—reflects this. Working clay, the dough to make tortillas, sowing seeds; harvesting corn, threshing it, preparing it to be cooked, grinding it, making tortillas, and finally eating them. Creating allows you to blur the line between art and craft. I believe this is very important, for I watched my mother communicate in this way with the bean and the corn kernel. For me, making a tortilla is making a sculpture.
JGD: What is the most precious thing you have done with your hands?
RS: My hands have allowed me to recuperate the power of the word and the power of my voice, and this means so much as a surviving descendant of the generations that came before me. I see myself as a person, but also as a people. I do not detach myself in any way from my grandfathers and grandmothers. I have gotten this far, what should I do with this power?
My writing has allowed me to weave together a commitment with myself, with my path and my present, one that constantly honors my past along the way. My identities are also my struggles—and being a Maya woman is one of them; it constitutes one of my political, and antiracist, positions. It is from this position that I think, ever conscious of the work it implies.
Creation occurs in all spaces, even the most intimate—in my mind and heart, in my processes of healing and expression.
I explore how much colonialism has harmed my perception, my gaze, my body, and my desires. It is from here that I begin my work, writing, making, and inhabiting spaces.
MB: The most precious thing that I have done has been to paint my mother. It was very difficult. In indigenous villages, women are very important; they are the ones who teach our native language, protect our traditional clothing, and keep on weaving. Moreover, women are the ones who protect our knowledge, while our men leave for the cities where they encounter racism, which is what ultimately causes them to lose their identity. I painted the portrait from a photograph, in which the three of us appear. I removed my father so that only my mother and I remained. They are two large portraits—about my size. She was proud, and exclaimed, surprised, “That’s me, so big in the press. That’s my image and that of my daughter.” Her representation: a woman who has fought for her traditional clothing and for her language, who has fought in the face of the racism of the village men returning from the capital. My father was racist, even towards my mother.
JGD: Your interventions into public space reflect the feelings and thoughts of your communities and constitute a healing process. What kinds of collectivities have shaped you?
MB: My inheritance from my mother, my aunts, my grandmothers, and my ancestors. They struggled in many ways I don’t know about, but if it weren’t for the battles they fought, I wouldn’t be here today speaking. At conferences, when I am asked why I deserve this position, I always answer: “Many women fought for me to be here today standing before you.”
Seeing that my mother graduated from high school and that my grandmother didn’t speak Spanish was a different kind of knowledge and intelligence. It is because of them that I am able to communicate in a different way.
JGD: You have flagged the importance of reconciling your ancestors with the past, through the memory of your mothers, grandmothers, as well as your own memories, as a means of surviving systemic patriarchal violence. What is the history behind your names?
RS: I wrote a poem in which I mention that I am named after my mother and grandmothers, and what represents our family system. Everything that we have inherited as indigenous women because of the ancestral power that we possess. How badly I want to be part of that lineage! Systematic healing is cutting out everything that no longer pertains to us in order to keep going, and that is one of the most honoring things you can do for your ancestors: the power to take hold of the threads of our lives.
My mother has been one of my greatest inspirations. A fighter, creative, rebellious in her childhood and young adulthood against expectation for women, reckless. She is the one who pushed me towards creativity and freedom, and everything that comes with it: the lessons, as well as the complexities that arise for women who claim and are fully inhabiting their freedom. I owe it to my mother to live and push myself towards autonomy. I also owe it to her not to be afraid of questioning the experience of my spirituality, my desires, and sexuality. That has been wonderful. That is my mother.
MB: My mother was called Tránsito. She always had a complicated relationship to her name. At that time, you were named according to the day of the year. Her name was always a kind of trauma because it is masculine, so she called herself Carmen.
With regards to my own name—I see it as being patriarchal. My father was the one who decided to name me Marilyn because once when he was recovering from an illness, a nurse named Marilyn cared for him and saved his life. My maternal grandmother was named Juana, and my paternal grandmother Cecilia.
Their story is one of women workers. There are many stories of violence. Both of my grandfathers died of cirrhosis—a cirrhosis so fatal that they sold their land and many things to pay for it. Both of my grandmothers provided for their sons and daughters. My maternal grandmother did it by selling at the central market for her entire life, traveling every day from her home in San Juan. She is a key part of my art, for it was she who used to say: “Don’t come and see me if you are going to dress like that. I don’t recognize you and I’m not going to take you with me to sell things looking like that.” I didn’t understand why she spoke to me in Kaqchikel. She insisted that I return to my Maya roots. I distanced myself—I was even ashamed to talk about her because she was my grandmother who killed chickens. When she died, I said, “I must honor her.” On the other hand, my paternal grandmother only had boys—her only daughter died at birth. My grandfather was an alcoholic and my grandmother was the one who worked, cooked, and was in charge of directing the chores of her daughters-in-laws, because that was how things were done then. The house was matriarchal.
JGD: All matriarchal memory is made up of shared experiences and knowledge. Rosa’s work Que no nos falte la medicina en la tierra (May We Not Lack Medicine on Earth) and Marilyn’s La memoria de mi cuerpo en la ciudad (The Memory of My Body in the City) reflect this. What conversations came up around these pieces?
RC: My piece was not created for an exhibition space. Rather, it grew from the need to collect and dry plants so that we can heal ourselves. I remember my grandmother’s house full of wood and plants. I explore the familiar tradition in order to establish a dialogue about their use.
The piece tells us that we can recuperate the earth’s medicine. Returning to it reminds us that it exists in our memory.
MB: The gallery MUY is made of clay. The adobe wall made me wonder “Why would I paint with oils when my skin is the color of the earth?” So I began to make portraits using clay from the Lacandon jungle to portray the women who continue to protect the land at the border between Guatemala and Mexico. These portraits were reliefs that revealed landscapes of mountains and forests when seen from the side.
JGD: Within both of your practices, you weave together words using shared testimonials. When was the first time that you called yourselves “artists”?
RC: I never thought, “I am going to be an artist”; however, I call myself a poet and an artist in certain places because it feels important to reaffirm my path, my process, and my work.
MB: I think it’s egotistical to say that “I’m an artist.” Am I? It isn’t up to me to decide that, it’s up to history, to collective memory. However, it is important to identify as something. Right now, I refer to myself an artist because there aren’t many women making art, much less indigenous women. I have to make myself seen, because if I don’t nobody else will: “Here I am. Look at me. I am Maya-Kaqchikel, I am an indigenous woman.”
JGD: Talk to me about your processes. What kind of spaces do they occur in?
RC: My poems and my books have taken place on buses, in the street, and in places where I have worked, usually outside the city. My poems are fleeting, they have lives of their own and it is very difficult to make them occur according to a schedule. Sometimes the germ or the seed is born and I write an entire poem—it’s amazing.
I have not always been able to rely on a fixed place where I can write and develop my ideas. Rather, I find spaces where I can work between survival and what it means to live. I have fought to find these places within collective space so that I can work, create, and think alongside others. I don’t only dedicate myself to art, even though it is an important part of my life to which I try to dedicate focused time. I am in another moment in my life, where I can have a little bit more space. For example, I am currently developing a narrative that requires so much time, and sometimes I just don’t have.
For me, self-education is very important, but so is education in the Maya spirituality that we receive from our grandparents: all that the fire, the hills, and the mountains teach, an incredible education that they don’t offer in universities or in the academy.
MB: For me there are two important things: the city and the village. I always use this dual parameter to distinguish between two parallel worlds that exist at the same time, but that consider themselves distinct. I like crashing them into one another and creating friction. I like going to the village and being with my family, contrasting how they view the world, how they question themselves in relation to it: watching the güisquil (chayote) grow, seeing if it did or didn’t bear fruit, watching the mountains to see if there will be rain. In the city, everything is cement and concrete; people are thinking about whether they should buy these jeans or those, or those Nikes, or who knows what. Seeing these dualities inspires me.
RC: I remember the first times I read in a square with a megaphone; I wasn’t looking to people to understand it, I wanted to display my body and my story in order to say: “I am an indigenous woman. I am going to stand here. I am going to raise my voice and I’m going to seem strange to you.” That was the motivation: positioning myself in relation to my belonging, and to the pain and trauma that has arisen from the racism I have experienced in my own life, as have many women in my village. A confrontation with racist and patriarchal denial.
Futures resonates with collectivity, resistance, autonomy, liberation of peoples and bodies, tenderness, pleasure and radical healing.
The reality that we live confronts me, but oppressions have not taken away my hope because emancipation is a powerful reality that we sow daily. The political horizon that moves and sustains me is towards the fullness of life for myself and others. I believe in the collective medicine of the dissident peoples, land, women and communities to resist, heal and transform from the roots.
MB: Such gaze don’t like my body being presented in front of them. For whites and mestizos, indigenous people are subordinates.
I am outraged that the West, the colonized minds, the educational system, the extractors can extract and claim properties about our ways of knowing, imaginations, creations, languages and production. Our bodies have always been present, we are the original peoples, the memory of grandmothers and grandfathers, and this is a symbol of resistance.
I want us to recognize that the body of the other is as contingent as our own, that we learn about the history of native people and that it be recognized from our various forms of communication. I see futures where the decolonial is history in practice and not a wish.