60 minutes or the time it takes to make dinner.
For artists Maria Gaspar and Xochitl Rodriguez, communities of care are critical to their work. Informed by their respective geographies in La Villita in Chicago, Illinois, and El Paso, Texas, both artists, who are mothers, are actively raising their own young children to be attuned to their surroundings by way of observation. This animated and intimate conversation between two like-minded makers delves into the challenges and gifts of motherhood, how they each understand and utilize embodiment, and the tension between art and activism.
Note: The following interview was conducted in May 2021 and has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Kate Blair and Jessica Ferrer: How do you navigate motherhood as an artist and activist? How does motherhood inform your practice and the way you move through the world?
Xochitl Rodriguez: Maria, you go first. I’ll piggyback. [laughs]
Maria Gaspar: I just wanted to back up a little and say it’s nice to connect with you, Xochitl. I enjoyed learning about your work after being contacted by folks at United States Artists. I got to watch some of the videos that you have on your website and I really enjoyed the video of watching you and your daughter out in the arroyo walking and you talking about freedom and exploration, and also about trust and giving your daughter a sense of confidence. She’s beginning to learn how to navigate the terrain of the natural world. That really resonated with me. I was like, Wow, it’s such a different perspective. In some ways it’s different and it’s similar for me. When I was looking at that footage I thought, Oh, that’s so beautiful, you know? During this pandemic time, living in the city, it’s just so dense. It’s just farther away to get to some more open land. It exists, but I’ve been appreciating the natural world even more so these days. And I was thinking, [your work] resonated with me because I want my son to have that.
His name is Mateo and he’s two and a half years old. He’s so curious about everything but it’s a curiosity about the city, you know? It’s like construction, but it’s also about looking down because he’s short —
[ID: Mateo stands behind a piece of Maria’s artwork, a partially translucent curtain with an image printed on it. His blue-sandaled feet stick out underneath.]
The testimony is in the experience and not in the sort of prescriptive rule or something like that. It’s about—what does the walk look like? What does the walk feel like? What are we hearing? What are we not hearing? All of that.
Xochitl: It’s a different spot to see the world from.
Maria: Right! The perspective that he has is much lower to the ground than ours.
Xochitl: Everything feels bigger.
Maria: Yeah, and that curiosity of what’s down there, but also, what’s up there? So I thought what a beautiful way to think about the kids’ connection, but through different kinds of terrains, but still kind of in sharing those similarities around looking and appreciation and touch, too. Especially in a moment where we can’t touch, or it’s dangerous to touch. How do you still nourish or nurture that sense of closeness for young children, especially during this pandemic time? Now how does that relate to the question? [laughs] I was just thinking about that a little bit.
Xochitl: It’s funny, I don’t know how much context I have to give you for the place that is my home, but El Paso is rough. We’re a beautiful community. As a people we are not rough, you know. What the world has done to us is rough every day, and so much of this crap is really hard to teach children about. It’s especially hard because we’ve lost so much access across the border. And we can still see what’s happening over there, we know, but when she was very little — she’s now seven — when she was your son’s age, until she was about four or five, we were still crossing for some heavy work: drought work, immigration work, whatever else. A lot of the work that I’ve made in these last three or four years has been a response to not knowing how to explain her world to her. Not knowing how to explain the things we see every day to her. And so it’s beautiful that you brought up your son.
I remember taking my nephew, who lives in Philadelphia with my brother, and taking him to the arroyo. He’d never been with me. We get there and he looks at me and says, “Tia, where are those pipes down there?” And he’s digging in the dirt of the arroyo because he’s so used to seeing holes in the ground in Philadelphia because they’re fixing pipes. I said, “Oh, baby boy, there are no pipes down here.” And it became this entire conversation he’d never had about living out of an urban space like that.
I love that you’ve caught that in the film that you’re talking about, which is actually the precursor for Grown Without Water, my most recent project, which was a response to the film you saw. That film was a very curated version of our life; I left out nearly everything. It was intended for a campaign about the wild so it was very crafted, whereas Grown Without Water was more “I’d like to set the record straight now.” I definitely have found, not only peace for myself and healing in exploring these spaces with her, but I’ve found ways to explain things like the border wall. To explain her power to her. To explain what she can lay claim to. Where her feet are, even. Talking about this big planet we live on and the spot we live in, which in El Paso we call the center of the real world. I love that you brought that up and that you caught it, of course, because you’re a mother, but also thinking of Mateo, I could hear his voice in my nephew Knox’s, saying “Where are the pipes down there?”
Maria: [laughs] Yeah, he might be doing that. He’s interested in the mechanics of things, but I think what’s interesting about what you’re bringing up around not knowing how to explain some things to your daughter, is that it’s seeing these other opportunities to embody, right? The testimony is in the experience and not in the sort of prescriptive rule or something like that. It’s about — what does the walk look like? What does the walk feel like? What are we hearing? What are we not hearing? All of that.
Xochitl: Yes, and listening to her. What is her truth in this moment? Because here I am with my thirty-plus years of life and everything that has given me, and I’m looking at her navigating this whole new world, in a pandemic. Verdad. The technology is mindblowing to me, the wall… There are just so many changes and I feel like it lets me contextualize how things have changed for myself and to continue seeking out questions, but it also has been such an opportunity for her to just spit out her immediate observation of the world. There’s nothing more affirming for what we need and for where we should be as humans in this world than to let a child react to something like the border wall, or an ocotillo blooming in the spring. Those two things happen side by side here. It’s very much an opportunity to reset the truth for her. Even as all this shit is unfolding, we still have an opportunity as parents, more so than ever before, to say I understand what you’re seeing, let’s look at this together, and then let’s claim the truth that we know would be fair, which is super challenging. It comes with its failings, and I fail a lot.
Maria: [laughs] Yeah, my child is younger, and pre-pandemic, he was beginning to attend projects of mine. You know how it’s like. They’re sleeping almost all day, it’s like a two-hour nap, and then it’s like, “Okay, when can I go?”
Xochitl: [laughs] Looking for these windows. You’re all falling asleep and suddenly it’s like, okay, turn it on, you got two hours.
Maria: Right, so finally we had a little bit more time to do something. I remember taking him to this spoken word event and it was around the project I’ve been doing on mass incarceration and he got to be part of that. It was just like this beautiful moment of bringing him into that space, right? And people meeting him while he’s so tiny. It was great, it was what I envisioned, and then once the pandemic hit, it was just like, “Oh, man.”
I’m really anticipating and excited for when those opportunities open up again because I think so much of this question that [Kate and Jessica] have asked us is also about collective care and knowing that this little child is not only being raised by me and his dad but also around a bigger community. And so how do we demonstrate that sense of care that extends from the biological family and into —
Xochitl: A village.
Maria: Yes, a village. Other units. I think it’s present in different ways right now but I’m just sort of anticipating the moment where we can be fully immersed in it again, you know?
[ID: Black and white film still of Xochitl and her daughter Callista looking through the border fence between the United States and Mexico. The wall continues on in the distance behind them.]
Xochitl: Yeah, I am, too. I’ll tell you, Callista was the same. I carried her; I wore her for a long time. A long time. Because that was also functionally the only way I was going to get anything done. Just like strap her on and go. But it’s so abundantly clear the way that it’s marked her and primed her to be this beautiful, beautiful sponge. And I’ve always been so intentional to hear her reflections now that she’s older and can think more for herself. Get ready for seven! [laughs] I see such a difference in her, for sure. She knows we have this village around us beyond our blood family. I’m teaching her all the time about chosen family because we are super unusual I think — her and I as a unit — and she’s learned that the chosen family is probably one of our safest spaces. So it’s so lovely to see as she gets older the things she remembers. She’ll tell me sometimes, I remember, Mom, we were walking and the river was dry and you were pointing and pointing and pointing and then that white Jeep came by and it was the migra, Mom, and I remember because you turned around and you gave them your back! She has these memories that are so incredible.
Xochitl: So, they remember. Get ready, he’s gonna remember it all.
Maria: Yeah, right, I’ve got to be careful. He’s asking a lot of why right now. Why this, why that, why. It’s amazing. I love that image that you’re bringing up. I can just imagine that in your daughter’s mind it was probably about what that meant, that gesture to turn around, to turn one’s back on a vehicle of authority, or perceived authority. We feel that. We sense that and I think that goes back to the listening piece, listening with the ears but also all parts of our body.
Xochitl: When I was little, it was defiance, and a lot of my parents’ generation was first or second generation, or even third. So they were protected in terms of legalization, right? I didn’t understand that until I was much older, and definitely not until I had her. Because I realized that she’s going on four generations of that privilege. I’m lucky to be able to turn my back to those fools, right? I’m lucky to be able to say to my little baby girl, this is what you do when that comes up, and if they want to say something, you’re protected.
I’m teaching her to push back because she is safe, whether or not they want to make her feel that way. She’s safe and at some point can exercise her power to push back against that. It’s almost performative, I guess? And what a powerful performance to be in, as a mother, right? To be able to say, This is the physical thing you do when this rolls by you. We have so many friends that are away from us because of the border, and I don’t think I have all of the answers, but for sure some of that teaching her to see with her ears and hear with her eyes is really important. And sometimes it works! In terms of flexing privilege for her in a way that won’t be too much for her to process? We’ll see.
Maria: Thinking about performance, motherhood…I think a lot about that when I’m thinking about artists’ work and how they reference or don’t reference parenting if they’re a parent. Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ maintenance art, for example, is a project that was really influential to me, but I love this idea of the everyday performances. Not to say it’s about a solely aesthetic act, but it’s about —
Xochitl: It’s about a reaction right? I think it’s the moments where I can feel myself existing in the moment that are important. If I didn’t have her present with me, you know, it may just go by, but in intentionally raising her right now, especially after four years of Trump in El Paso, I’m raising her to see that every moment is a chance. Most of the time I couldn’t care less about anybody else and what they think, it’s more, what do I need to show this little brain and heart in this moment and me being very careful and intentional in how I deliver that performance. And it’s never disingenuous. It’s almost like I have to become a character of myself because otherwise I may not have the guts to do some of the things I do. There is a level of fear there, for sure.
Maria: It is about a presencing, a kind of, I don’t know…There’s presence. There’s an activeness to that, but the sort of presencing, it feels like much more intentionally being present, which I think, just to that question we started off with, it seems like at least for me and from when I see your work, I can see that that resonates probably with both of us — how those values then extend into the communities we work with.
Xochitl: I think it’s beautiful that you lifted up that it’s communities of care that we’re really looking at. This recent project was driven by lots of women’s voices particularly and by stories that were collected while gathering and making meals together in my kitchen. That, too, becomes this example and I think is the truest thing we can say of the world right now, which is why I appreciate everything you’re doing. Nothing happens in silo, nothing happens alone, not even parenthood, right? It’s communities of care, for sure.
Maria: I had a question for you that’s maybe not fully formulated, but I was thinking a little bit about how — okay, I’ll use myself as an example right now. Sometimes in my artistic work, art is not always clear. Like, I’m not sure if there will be art at the end.
Xochitl: [laughs] I hope there isn’t. My hope is always like, we’ll see, maybe I’ll land some place I never knew.
Maria: Yeah. I was looking at the multiple roles that you have played and play because I know that you run a not-for-profit, and then I know you have a position in a local political office, if I’m remembering correctly?
Xochitl: I used to work for a state senator, and now I actually work for Planned Parenthood.
Maria: Oh, great, okay! So how do you think about that? I guess you sort of said it — you hoped you don’t get art at the end [laughs], but what is that relationship like for you? Sometimes for me it’s like I’ve learned to work within a sort of space of tension that I’ve embraced, you know? I know that ‘this’ is what I sort of don’t want, and I know ‘this other thing’ is what I’m going for, but I need the first to get to the second, and moving between the two is where my creative, productive, tension lies.That’s where I can flourish. I don’t know, maybe that’s limiting in some ways, but I guess I’m just curious how you navigate that? Because I know the multiple roles you hold and have held, you’re essentially producing culture in different ways.
[ID: Two women stand back-to-back. Their long hair has been braided together into a single braid with a white flower ornament.]
Xochitl: This tension point that you’re discussing, I’ve never known how to talk about it, so I really appreciate the words you assigned. I got a heart burst hearing you say it because it’s like, whoa, an answer! [laughs] That tension point I resonate with for sure. I don’t know that I know how I do it, to be honest. I’m pleased to be free of the work with the senator’s office. I think I entered that work — Braiding Borders was a very important piece in my life. That was the catapult into this legislative work and work in policy. I was just so uncomfortable. I’m a storyteller, I’m vocal, I have my own ideas of how process should work, especially in community and in building spaces, so I really felt confronted with this tension you’re talking about. It felt massive because it was, in my mind, a choice between continuing my course and doing this thing I loved and that allowed me full liberty to explore and discover and challenge and question, or, maybe making some difference directly with all of this experience I brought to the table in terms of organizing and community but sacrificing my voice because I was working for this power. That was a deep tension.
I didn’t start with a senator, I started with a state rep and then immediately moved up to the state senator’s office. He was a migrant worker and he was from the same town my dad was from in South Texas, so our values aligned. Our whole staff was queer, loud, vocal, just beautiful, the most beautiful experience. And I think I also appreciated that he was going to retire this year. With the new election his retirement would come, so I had this timeline of like, I have to get as much as I can get done, as quickly as I can get it done, and push as many boundaries in this system that I’m putting myself in, torturing myself in, and then I’m out. So to some extent I feel very lucky that I was able to structure and balance within that sort of time frame and it was super lucky that I was able to work for him. I think with anyone else, I wouldn’t have been able to continue. I mean I continued organizing through a state senator’s office, which is so exceptional. I was doing cross-border work through a state senator’s office. I think the tension for me has always been an opportunity to step back and examine how to respect what’s unfolding around me as an observer because I found everything to be more of a doorway.
You’re working with mass incarceration issues, so I would love for you to reflect on this idea of, I am observing this disaster, I am observing this inhumanity, I’m observing these other people in a system, and how do I take that and treat that with respect and reverence to translate it out for the rest of the world? I was making Grown Without Water in those two years that I was working for him, which is where I was processing how do I tell my daughter, how do I share this with my daughter, how do we learn from it together, because I was just doing so much policy work. And now with Planned Parenthood, of course, I’m taking all of it to inform and ground me. I think as artists we tend to be up here [gestures, circling her hand in the space above her head]. We do a lot of rumination, you know, above an issue —
Xochitl: — whereas this just forces me to be like [gestures again, moving her hand down to body level], no, you can’t really romanticize this. This is really how this goes. You can’t invent some narrative that might resonate with people. You’ve got to find a way to make what is actually happening resonate. So I think it’s some of that — that desire and commitment to respecting the things I’m looking at and the people who have answers. I think I want to know from your perspective because of the work you’re doing, what that looks like for you in process and practice. How do you navigate that sort of truth-seeking?
Maria: I love this hand gesture of going up and coming down, the sort of grounding and then the sort of —
Xochitl: It’s a little bit of dissociation, especially in art and activism, because we’re looking at these systems we have no power over, so it’s like let me just dissociate —
Maria: Yeah, disconnect for a moment!
Xochitl: Can I reimagine without dissociating? We don’t know yet. [laughs]
I think the tension for me has always been an opportunity to step back and examine how to respect what’s unfolding around me as an observer because I find everything to be more of a doorway.
Maria: Yeah! I’ve been thinking a lot about that since I was a teenager. I grew up in an area of Chicago called La Villita, which is predominantly a Mexican community, and I’m first generation. I grew up adjacent to Pilsen which historically has been much more socially active and had more arts and culture projects, from the Brown Berets to the founding of the first national Mexican art museum in the country. My neighborhood was a little different. It was more like people started small businesses, lots of quinceanera shops, little taquerias, and stuff like that. It has a different spirit to it. It was more business-oriented, but it also has a strong minor but memorable activist history from people who were part of the sort of Black and brown alliance in Chicago in the 1980s, so there’s a real history there.
For me personally, geography has always been such a big part of my life, and I think it probably has something to do with learning about art through murals. That’s how I learned about art. It was through public space and public narrative, meaning making. Literally, is it a bodega or is it a school that we’re making this mural on and what does that mean, you know? It was really basic but also profound, so I think that’s sort of where my brain goes naturally.
I also had a mom who was, like, a clown. She did radio and was kind of wacky! I feel like that experience put me in this funny conundrum where I think about what you’re describing as the sort of land and the sky or something, maybe, is one way to think of it. It’s always been me trying to navigate between those two spaces.
Xochitl: Between coming up and back down, up and back down…
Maria: It’s like, oh, nah, coming back down. Oh wait, no, I want to go back up.
Xochitl: And then it’s like aaaaaah!
Maria: Yeah yeah yeah! And one of the things that I realized recently, which maybe is not a genius idea, but it was a realization for me — one of the struggles that I had as a young artist, as a teenager and in my early twenties, is that I didn’t quite fit as the activist —
Xochitl: Claro. I still don’t either.
[ID: A piece of a white tee-shirt reading “Made in Chi-Town with Love” hangs on a wooden fence. A piece of paper with the name “Adam Toledo” handwritten in colored letters is attached to the t-shirt with blue painter’s tape.]
I had a similar moment just recently when I did a project, where I was like, wow, we’re not making art objects right now, which is totally fine of course, but we are on some totally different plane.
Maria: — and I didn’t quite fit as the artist. I went to private art school and they were trying to send me out like I didn’t belong there. And I think it was always this tension between art versus activism. I think having a direct message didn’t work for me. I needed some rumination, you know what I mean? I think there’s something beautiful about that. At the same time, with my very traditional private art school experience in 1998 or 2000, it was way too disconnected and totally rejected anything that was non-white. So basically where I function is sort of in that space and it’s never about fitting in, it’s always about, I don’t know what it’s about…It’s about absorbing, pushing away, these different gestures that happen in that space. And I think that’s okay. And also things change. Now I teach at a private art school.
Xochitl: [laughs] The circles are funny.
Maria: Yeah, how did I end up there? [laughs] And like you said, I am also navigating these systems of power when I work inside a place of incarceration. I think a lot about when you were describing these moments, like the braiding piece you did, I had a similar moment just recently when I did a project, where I was like, wow, we’re not making art objects right now, which is totally fine of course, but we are on some totally different plane. We are in some creative plane right now that feels otherworldly that I’m really into. There’s some funky stuff happening here. It’s so good. And I couldn’t put my finger on it but I knew that what was happening in that moment was pretty amazing. We were grappling around images, we were talking about stories, we were talking about ghosts and hauntings, and it was like this messy, wonderful place. I think that is the land in some way. It’s like redefining the land in some way.
Xochitl: Well that’s where it’s like, when we talk about creation of space and placekeeping and stewardship of space once you’ve made it, it’s beautiful to me because it is so messy. And it doesn’t get clean ever, it just becomes a different messy as you move through this process of creation. Especially right now I think. You were mentioning these are predominantly white spaces in a world built around whiteness. El Paso is 87% Latino/Latinx, something like that, and very segregated. The community is predominantly brown and if you’re not brown you tend to live in certain spots still. Even within the brown community we have our sort of fault lines like anywhere else.
What’s so interesting to me is this focus on art being beyond a product, even now beyond a process. I do feel we’re in this funky place, like you said, where we have some processes historically built in activist spaces and organizing communities, but we’ve never actually had a full blown up world with which to decide what this process of making things looks like. Because either we’ve been aspiring to a product or a moment that is defined by whether or not it is white enough, or we’ve been stuck in a process that was built through systems that were not built for us. It’s just been this constant historically.
I think about my mother who is also an artist, and my tia abuela who is my most direct link to Ciudad Juarez because she was a muralist and she had a studio down there, and my father who is a criminal defense attorney and was part of the farm worker movement because he came from Alice, Texas. I think about them and what they must have worked in, and what the world looked like as they were navigating and pushing against all of these different systems. And for them it was very clear, like the farm worker movement. They would focus and then they would organize and then they would go.
Whereas now, I think we’ve moved to this place of realizing it’s not just the fields, it’s not just migrant workers: this whole thing is working to make everything as hard as possible for us, or dangerous, or life-threatening. I’m very glad we’re in that place collectively, but also it’s a little bit terrifying. I almost feel like the terror is the artwork. The terror is the beautiful thing because everything lives in that feeling that none of us have yet decided, or know how to describe.
There’s so much beauty in that discomfort. What are we all doing right now? I’ve never seen that before. It’s beautiful because when I talk to my mom about it, she has such interesting reflections on process and practice and what she’s seeing from young people and artists (young people being anyone younger than forty-five, for her).
Maria: Mhm. There’s a piece that Guillermo Gomez Peña just did for a museum here in Chicago. It’s this performance and video project that he did recently that’s about building a future museum and one of the things I love that he says is something like, “Go take out an elder artist for lunch. Invite them to a show.” I love that. I’ve been thinking so much more about an intergenerational knowledge, the way that often the field of art or “art world” excludes older artists.
Xochitl: It can be challenging. The recent project I did was very much about this. As we make the decision or choices to come to a place of storytelling in whatever way that unfolds and manifests and is presented, I was having to go through and really look at the conditioning that exists as a brown woman, daughter to a brown woman, in a brown community, and the way that not just me, but collectively what my generation’s experience has looked like in that truth telling and storytelling and as we begin to see more spaces open for us to share. The pressure, the tension that we feel, that’s inherited, it’s so interesting to see where my mom’s limits were and are. Not that she necessarily wants to subscribe to those limits, but no sabe como romperse de todo, she doesn’t know how to tear herself away from all of it, or how to tear it away from her.
[ID: Film still of a woman underwater, with her dress billowing around her, surrounded by seaweed and bubbles.]
Maria: How does your mom feel about the work you do? Do you have conversations about your work, does she participate, or what does that look like?
Xochitl: Yeah, she’s in the film. I don’t know how she feels, to be honest. She’ll give me hints sometimes, but she’s very stoic for the most part. She’s hard — or perceived to be hard — until she’s not. She’s the most devoted, incredible, pliable. All of that. But she didn’t want to talk about the film which made me feel simultaneously like, damn, Mom, I need to know what you think to feel honest about all of this, but at the same time it was the first moment where I felt like she really trusted me enough to just say, Xochitl, I will go where you want me to go, and I will exist however you need me to exist. And not in terms of saying what I needed her to say, pero like one of the scenes, we’re having dinner at my table, my great-grandmother’s table, in the middle of the desert next to the wall. It’s me and Callista and my mom. My mom didn’t want any context. All I gave her was the poem that drives the narrative. She said I’m just gonna sit there with you and if there’s some script, let me know. And I was like, No, there’s not, we’re gonna do this thing and we’re gonna film it and whatever happens happens and that’s what’s going to be in the film. So she was game that way. I have not heard any reflection on it since I made it, I’m still out here waiting! I’ve heard literally every other person’s ideas and reflections.
Maria: That’s interesting because my mom is the same way! If I ask her to do something she’ll do it, but questions? No. She doesn’t want to know. She doesn’t need more information, she’s good. I don’t know what that’s about. Maybe it’s a cultural thing? Maybe it’s just like a whole different thing…my mom is in her eighties, you just don’t really talk about things.
Xochitl: It’s really funny, raising Callista now, it’s like oh, you really learned that from your mom, didn’t you? [laughs] At the time, we’re convinced our mom has so much resilience. But now it’s like, yeah, Mom, I really wish at the end of the day you hadn’t had to be so resilient. I’m tired of all of this, which is the narrative now for all of us, right? I’m so happy your mom’s the same way. So you’ve never had a conversation about your work with her?
Maria: I’ve had a conversation. She’s present. [laughs] She’s not engaging. I kind of stopped because I wasn’t getting anything in return, but it’s fine. I’ve accepted it. It’s just a different generation. She’s taking it in and I think at the end of the day, because my mom also taught at an elementary school for thirty years, I learned social practice from my mom.
I think her love for people kind of came through her teaching and her working at the school and helping people and always going above and beyond. I know at the end of the day we have a lot of the same values in terms of community building, but I want to talk about it and I want to talk about process, and she just doesn’t.
Jessica: Based on how this conversation is going, it feels like embodiment is super important to how you navigate, but also that you’re picking up on the way embodiment shifts depending on your age and where you are. I’m trying to figure out how to formulate this as a question, but I guess it’s about how your understanding of relationships with a space or with other people really comes from this notion of embodiment and how that being in your body changes constantly, whether you’re wearing your mom hat that day, or you’re in your professional professorship thing, or you’re at your job. I’m just curious about how that feels, if it’s named as embodiment that you’re practicing on a daily basis?
Maria: It makes me think of code-switching.
Xochitl: Yeah, me too.
Maria: I think embodiment and code-switching are related but not the same because I want to think that embodiment is more of a fuller being present, and an awareness. A kind of interior and exterior awareness. But I guess code-switching is the same? It’s both an interior and exterior awareness, but it’s also a strategy. I think a lot about code-switching as being something I learned really early on. You learn it as a tool, especially, I don’t talk about this much, but if you are the translator for your family, or fill the forms out for your parents because they are in English, or when you’re at the doctor’s office and you have to advocate for your mom. I have always felt a kind of protectiveness for my parents because they’re either going to get mistreated or disrespected, which is really not a nice thing to think about so much, but I think about the sort of code-switching that even happened in learning how to navigate these different spaces as a sort of advocate for one’s family. And then of course one’s self. And then others.
It’s like the work at the jail. There’s a certain power structure that exists there, that I’m well aware of, or that’s unfolding for me as I learn more and more about it, and that each division is different. The guards are sort of the entry point of a particular division and depending on their situation, their attitude for the day or all kinds of things, I gain access or I don’t. There’s a certain kind of performativity at every point of contact, and then in my experience with this last project I did, when I get to the room with my group we know that we’re being watched but we’re also creating an alternate space. The idea is that we can sort of be in that shared space together, and try to let go or build something together in our smaller space.
I guess that embodiment in a way, it’s about these different layers. There’s the outward strategies, and then once you get through those, you go inside and you can think about embodiment and presence. But you know you have to go through these other functions first before you can get to that core. I think about it visually.
[ID: On a rooftop, Maria takes a selfie wearing a black and white checkered face mask. Behind her is the Cook County jail facility in La Villita.]
Xochitl: Me too. I think of it like rewiring. So often from communities like ours, we’re primed to learn to rewire from the start because we never know — depending on the space — what’s going to be required to be safe or to keep our families safe. It’s interesting that you brought up that you’re being watched constantly when you’re in the prison, which is just, oh man, I got emotional. We talk a lot here about the surveillance that we don’t even know exists because of migra and ICE. Callista’s being raised with helicopters flying over our house seven times a day.
The border no one talks about is the second border. We all know the wall is there. Then there’s this second border and we live between two borders, trapped in a literal halo of immigration checkpoints. And even fully documented, I cross that checkpoint with my green-eyed, light-skinned daughter and they’re asking her questions. They’re doing their best to try and trigger some response that will let them separate her from me. You feel that every time you cross. Not to mention, we’ve got to go through a corridor of cameras, and then they weigh the car, they bring the dog sniffers out. It’s this entire thing they’ve built to make you be afraid, to be aware that you don’t look “American,” and they’ll find a reason. You know you’re being watched.
Maria: In the checkpoints that you’re talking about, what are those like?
Xochitl: They’re all on highways. There are two different kinds. There are tactical checkpoints, which can pop up wherever they want, and then there’s the permanent stationary ones. Anyone from El Paso knows that even when you pull up the checkpoints on a map, they only show one. But you can’t go out a major highway, and there are six highways like that, without encountering a checkpoint.
They’re not nice to cross, but thinking of embodiment, it’s a physical code-switching in my opinion. It’s so internalized at this point you don’t even know you’re doing it, which is why earlier when I was talking about performative parenting, like using my physical communication as an example for her, I’m trying to rewire my codes. Like no, I’m not going to nod my head or go like this if migra goes by. I don’t have to acknowledge those fools at all and I’m not going to, which, you know the result of all that is yet to be seen because she’s so little, but we’ll see!
Maria: Thanks for sharing that. I think the rewiring that you’re talking about makes me think about trauma, and one of the things I recently learned is that scent can be a good strategy for rewiring because it deals with the nervous system and it’s around that sort of fight or flight response that our body has.
I think we both resonate with visual images and one of the things that this therapist had described in this story I had heard on a podcast was that the flight response is being on your toes, being ready to go, and the fight response is being grounded, full feet on ground. And I was like, wow, that makes so much sense. She talked about how all the senses give this opportunity to redirect a trigger or PTSD-type of situation, so scent, for example, can help redirect. It’s such an interesting idea and as an extension of that, artmaking is essentially a rewiring because it’s all about connecting with the senses.
Xochitl: And that’s where I love this open end, right? Because the open process allows you to rewire to whatever point the process takes you to, instead of aspiring to some correct wired system, you’re just taking everything you’re bubbling up in that process to go there.
EMDR is this rewiring therapy essentially if you have PTSD, and I’ve been in and out of EMDR for a really long time. It’s interesting because in pandemic times it couldn’t be in the clinical setting so it switched to this remote EMDR and it was insane because it could only rely on touch. Part of the practice was in recalling these traumatic moments, which is kind of what the therapy is, it forces you to go back to the place and the time and the thing and then work through it to essentially deactivate the trigger and this was the [tapping motions over the body] whole retelling of the story. You’re literally taking the different sides of the brain, and like [rewiring motion] it’s crazy — I don’t know if it works.
Maria: That’s such a perfect example of this question that USA is asking. I’m working on a new project that has changed since its inception because I can’t go back to the jail right now.
Xochitl: Is it because of COVID?
Maria: Yeah, because of COVID. Also, you know, your daughter you said is seven, Mateo can’t get vaccinated either, so we’re all just —
I’m thinking of your re-entry work, and how interesting it would be, you know? There’s an incredible space there to have these folks claim their power back. It’s such an important first step in that embodiment, of if I can’t imagine it, and if I can’t be given the space to rehearse it, how can I go out into the world and live it?
Maria: Yeah! But I’m thinking now about how this project has to change and one of the things that I took away from the previous project that I did inside the jail was that the ensemble, which is what I call the group of men who participate in the project, talks so much about wanting to be doing more performance work or embodiment work. That was really one of the takeaways, so we want to do more of that. It’s challenging to try and do that in this moment during social distancing, though some of that is changing a little bit, and even now thinking about working primarily with people who are formerly incarcerated because of the limitation right now of not being able to go in. So there’s this opportunity. And some of the ensemble members have since been out —
Xochitl: That’s so powerful.
Maria: — and one of them was like, Maria, when is this going to start? So he’s down and we’re probably going to make him a lead in the project, and I’m really excited about that and about connecting with a re-entry program now. This question around embodiment in a moment where we feel so disembodied…maybe that is just going to be the space that we work from. We get to challenge that and see where it goes.
Xochitl: I’m thinking now, more than a decade ago I guess, I was doing a lot of forum theater work in public spaces in Asia, and it was different in the sense that it was targeted at changing laws and working with young people so they could understand what impact different laws had on them and letting them sort of re-envision and reimagine what those laws could look like so they could change and morph for the 21st century. But I’m thinking of your re-entry work, and how interesting it would be, you know? There’s an incredible space there to have these folks claim their power back. It’s such an important first step in that embodiment, of if I can’t imagine it, and if I can’t be given the space to rehearse it, how can I go out into the world and live it?
Maria: Oh, absolutely.
Xochitl: That’s the bread and butter of it all.
Maria: Augusto Boal is ringing in my head. Did you do some of that [performance method] — Theatre of the Oppressed?
Maria: I love that line. It’s like, “performance is not revolution but it’s the rehearsal for revolution,” right?
Xochitl: When you said that I was like, I know she knows the jam I’m talking about!
Maria: I love that. I’m all about that. It makes so much sense and it’s beautiful to think about that history and how people have adapted it for their contexts.
[ID: Maria, a Latinx person of Mexican-American descent, sits in her Pilsen, Chicago studio. In the backdrop of the photo are her sketches and drawings for works in progress. She wears turquoise earrings and a navy blue blouse.]
She // Her // Hers
Maria Gaspar is a Chicago-born artist hailing from the neighborhood of La Villita whose practice addresses issues of spatial justice in order to amplify, mediate, or divert structures of power through individual and collective gestures. Using installation, sculpture, performance, sound, and collaborative approaches, her work negotiates visibility, belonging, and the politics of location. Gaspar responds to the psychic and physical atmosphere of place through multi-year projects that span a range of formats and scales. Working within historically marginalized sites, she contends with the harrowing repercussions of systemic erasure by generating forms of liberatory actions with others.
[ID: Xochitl, a brown person with long dark brown hair and wearing a navy blue dress, stares at the camera. Her hair is swept around her head and face by a breeze. Her forearm is wrapped in tattoos that are black lines, her shoulders exposed in a thin strapped dress. She is wearing a long necklace of silver wire shapes.]
She // Her // Hers
El Paso, TX
I am learning to learn. Here, between the United States and Mexico, my community lives under constant surveillance, together in and separated by limbo. I want to understand how paths of motherhood, advocacy, and activism can intersect to weave a narrative that is simultaneously challenging and welcoming to those beyond the border that has grown me. My work lives and breathes in the public space, investigating relationships of dominance, inheritance, separation, isolation, and loss. I do not offer anyone answers nor do I claim to have them. I open space and create moments that can bring people together to collectively question how the world moves and who gets left behind as it steps on ahead.