Story II

When your people are from a particular place, you carry the memory of that place, even if you were never alive to experience all that makes it what it is. In the same way that families and cultures carry secrets until they are brought out into the open, the body remembers, people remember, places remember.

Bone Meal, photo by Henry Rael

I believe New Mexicans remember our connection to the land even if that connection was severed by broken treaties, migration, or loss. We remember our relationship with la tierra y el agua even if the relationship is one of estrangement. And we long to tell our story to and with the land even if our story is one of displacement.

There was a time when our people built their own homes and planned their own communities without the aid of professional planners, policymakers or developers. They oriented their homes for maximum light, built them out of the mud and straw available to them. Whether they were conscious of it or not, they minimized their impact on the earth. They understood that, not only their health, but their survival depended on a sustainable relationship with the land. They understood this because they knew their stories.

Bosque, photo by Henry Rael

Don’t build your house by the river because it floods every few years.

Pay the undertaker the calf you promised. If not, his wife, La Bruja, will curse your loved one to eternal unrest.

When the time comes to sit in a circle and thresh wheat, tell the children stories, so like Tom Sawyer’s friends, they won’t realize they’re working.

Connecting Community Voices

Connecting Community Voices (CCV) is the non-profit organization I co-founded in 2008 with my compañero Henry Rael. Based in Albuquerque, CCV facilitates creative community expression and uses stories as the basis for real-world applications such as architectural design and community and regional planning.

Black Gold, photo by Henry Rael

CCV was founded on the premise that we know how to take care of ourselves, we know how to live in communion with a land and with a place.

In 2008, our partner organization, Arts of Aztlán, secured funding from the Atrisco Heritage Foundation to conduct oral histories with twenty elderly heirs to the Atrisco Land Grant. Bernalillo County was exploring the possibility of developing a new sector plan for the Atrisco area. Normally, local governments rely on surveys to determine community identity and values. Though they cover subjects ranging from services to sidewalks, the surveys do little to capture the ways in which people relate to the land and the ways that land and people shape one another. Henry, who produced the video project, proposed the oral histories as a more meaningful way to gather community input. Director Esteban Rael and filmmaker Sofia Lee Moran recorded over 100 hours of interviews and created two short films which have been screened at the Annual Atrisco Diamantes Luncheon, as well as by students in the Design, Planning and Assistance Center (DPAC) Studio at the University of New Mexico.

We have worked with The Wilderness Society and Conservation Voters New Mexico to shape the way they communicate with Latino communities, conducting storytelling workshops in Deming, Questa, and in Albuquerque’s Sawmill neighborhood.

New Center, photo by Henry Rael

And this week (this very day, in fact!), we begin a storytelling workshop with attendees at Holy Family Catholic Church’s senior program, many of whom lobbied the state legislature for fourteen years to secure funding for the South Valley Multipurpose Center, a new senior facility scheduled to open this summer. Visual artist and co-facilitator Santos Contreras will develop an art piece based on participant stories, to be displayed in the new center. The stories will also shape the center’s future programming.

The Stories that Connect Us

Three times a week I work with artists and storytellers, many of whom did not know they were artists or storytellers until they held paintbrushes—some for the first time since early childhood—and rendered self-portraits in watercolors and life journeys in acrylics on canvas. Many did not know they were poets until they surprised themselves writing about the place they call home:

Photo by Michelle Otero

I am from the little girl dress I loved so much I wore it until the seams ripped.

Yo soy de entre La Noche Triste y la tierra de los sueños.

I am from los dichos de mi papa.

El Otro Lado: The Other Side, The Stories that Connect Us is a community based arts project of the Academy for the Love of Learning in Santa Fe. Artist Chrissie Orr conceived the project to explore our human connection to land, our sense of home and belonging, and our sense of boundaries and cultural divides. Participants express themselves through journaling, recorded oral narratives, photography, visual arts and writing. The stories are then placed in various community locations to be witnessed and shared by the larger community. (Look for details on exhibitions and a fall storytelling event in future blog posts.)

The work began in Santa Fe 2007 and moved to Albuquerque in the summer of 2009. We currently run workshops with high school students at the Native American Community Academy, with seniors at Barelas Senior Center, and with immigrant youth at El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos. Our youngest participant is thirteen. The oldest is ninety-four.

Suzanne Sbarge at 516 ARTS and visual artist Chrissie Orr have my eternal gratitude for bringing me into the Otro Lado familia.

Published in: on May 11, 2010 at 10:00 am  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. What a great start to my morning is this writing!

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