Tiempos Desmadrosos: Dancing Latinidad to the beat of Grief (FLACC 2019)

Time is always breaking, but sometimes we can feel it, the rip and tear, profoundly. Time is always breaking, and we are always grieving it. Time is always. And when we do feel it, take the time to grieve it, care for the endless weight, wait and texture of time, its rupture in space, its work on the world, on our bodies, we have to unlearn how to survive it. 

On Saturday, November 16th, I attended the 2019 Festival of Latin American Contemporary Choreographers (FLACC), at Mission Dance Theater in San Francisco and in each of the performances I felt a narrative about how, to some degree, Latinidad has a queer relationship to grief and time. Latinidad, a movement that survives in spite of painful colonial histories of Indigenous genocide and Black enslavement, of US imperialism and anti-Black and Brown racialized violence, of familial separation and deportation, is intimate with grief. What does it mean to grieve in Latinidad? How does the grieving of time–time lost, stolen, exchanged, shared, given, loved–shape and break the lifeworld we come to call Latinidad? These questions are dance lessons FLACC performers negotiated, while also reminding me of the multifarious ways in which Latinidad cannot be reduced to a singular feeling we call grief. Latinidad refuses that reducibility in its commitment to the practice of making dance in the world. Latinidad, in other words, might emerge out of pain, a historical wound, but it is also born out of practices of survival, of dances that, particularly, marginalized queer people within the Latinx community continue to create as they leave their mark, their grief and joy, on time. On Latinidad. 

Queer Colombian American artist Miguel Gutierrez’s work, “Unsustainable Solutions: Duet with my Dead Dad,” examined the entangled relationship between grief and joy, the affective queer mark that I describe, by conjuring the memory of his father who recently passed in March of 2019. Although Miguel’s performance was the third of the night, how I remember that night of FLACC performances and the contributions they were making to Latinx thought is framed around Miguel because I continue to feel so deeply marked by the Latinx world he opened up from the dance floor.

Early on in the performance, Miguel projects video footage of his family on panels in the background. Audience members are transported to the space of an intimate living room. It is a Latinx space. I know it. But how do I know it before I’ve been able to fully capture and see people who might resemble my own family? How do I come to know this living room, the tan couch over there, the maple kitchen table on the other side, a tiled countertop where a mother wraps up leftover meals. For those of us who grew up in households where three conversations could happen all at once, where we could not only code switch but could also move from talking to our sisters, our brothers, our mothers, our fathers, without losing trace of each conversation, for those of us who learned how to care for each conversation by seamlessly joining the rhythms of our familia, we know this living room is anchored in Latinidad. I learned from my mother and my father, my tias and tios, how to give into the humm I hear in Miguel Gutierrez’s familia. Although it is specific to the world of his past, it also invites the audience to step into his dance floor and to bring those who taught us how to move in this space. 

After situating us, and as the video continues, Miguel dances with us in the present, deliberately and carefully. Looking down at his feet meanwhile his arms float and feel the air available at his fingertips, I wonder if he is thinking about how much space he takes up on the dance floor. I wonder if he is finding out how much room is available for him, for his dead father. I realize that Miguel is really assessing how and where his father can be located in this place as we watch his ghostly presence on the panels behind Migel’s moving body. Where is the body of a father in a film who teases his wife as he helps her take off her shoes? Where is the body of a father who, in that moment of teasing, makes his wife smile? Where is the body of a father who, in that moment, gifts his children with a memory of making a mother smile as Miguel records it all on video? Where is the body of a father Miguel wants to dance with? Where is the body of a father Miguel wants us to meet?

Miguel Gutierrez. “Unsustainable Solutions: Duet with My Dead Father.” FLACC 2019. Image courtesy of Yvonne Portra.

The answer is in a different set of video footage Miguel dances to and it is Miguel’s father who answers all of these unsustainable difficult questions with “unsustainable solutions.” Before his father begins talking in the video, Miguel sits onto a desk placed on the dance floor and opens his laptop, puts on glasses, gazes at the screen, and views the film the audience is also looking at behind him. He recites everything his father states and for every gesture his father makes, Miguel follows. Although this is a dance performance, Miguel makes me think about how much of our parents’ daily movements we inherit just by watching them move throughout our own lives, how even when a life closes, a thousand gestures live on. How when a person dies, a thousand timelines still proliferate. How perhaps, the dead remain in a constant social dance with the living. How dancing with the dead makes time travel possible.

Miguel’s father is a theorist of time travel. It’s clear from his words and the way he conceptualizes time with hands, giving his words shape, that he was brilliant. Is brilliant. He is teaching us about the way you can slice up seconds. He tells us about wormholes, how a wormhole is a contact zone where multiple temporalities come into contact, where two unlikely points can meet, where realities can penetrate one another. And he’s making it happen as he talks about it. “If you are standing somewhere and behind you is a photograph, two points in time are coming into contact,” he says. “And a third, if another person is in the room,” Miguel’s friend, Samuael Topiary, elaborates. The father confirms Samuael’s answer by nodding. “Is it a good thing or a bad thing?,” Samuael asks, regarding the convergence of timelines. Miguel’s father states, “It’s not about it being good or bad. It’s a feeling.” What binds each slice of time together, for him, is the affective structure, the feeling, one brings to a memory or segment of time. By mirroring his father’s movements, by bringing them to bear the grief he feels in the present, Miguel places himself in direct contact with his father and his friend in the past, with the version of himself that was once behind the camera, practicing feeling the present as it brushes up against the past. 

I cannot help but feel the dense queerness in the way time gets mapped by Miguel’s father’s words, and by the layered duet between Miguel and his father. I cannot help but think about how–for us queer Latinx folks who do not always have intimate open relationships about our queerness with our Latinx fathers–we often go back to materials from our past to recover those rare delightful moments where they might have, even briefly, affirmed it. Those lapses in time where our fathers slipped into non-normative ways of thinking certainly offer us other possibilities for dreaming what never quite was but that we are constantly using to create for ourselves an imaginary future that feels sustainable. Queer of color scholar José E. Muñoz has theorized “queerness” as that which is “filled with the intention to be lost” in the heterosexual world (72). For Muñoz, “queerness” is meant to be lost to “the straight minds’ mapping of space” and “the space of heteronormativity” because queerness is the place where we, queer people of color, dream new horizons (72). To be lost in time and space, in other words, is the work of queerness, which opens up time so that it may hold more bodies and galaxies the current timeline cannot locate or find. Miguel’s father’s words offer a counterspell to the painful heterosexual and machista timeline I am used to, one that attempts to remove queerness from the narrative of Latinidad. While I am not claiming that Miguel’s father is like my father, or that all Latinx fathers are the same, I firmly believe that many of us queer Latinxs are often left asking, in the space of this queer Latinx performance, how our fathers have theorized our difference. Although my father is still alive, and although–in my lifetime–I’ve been able to witness my father open up space for the queerness he didn’t have room for in the past, I still find myself going back to the past, to other moments in my childhood where my father failed heterosexuality. From those segments in time, where my father danced with me, allowed feminine gestures to animate his storytelling, shared with me the pains of his own father’s painful mark on his body, I am able to feel joy and dream up multiple paradises where we can heal together by revisiting moments in the past that are still useful to the current timeline we are creating together, our bodies solutions and solvents to one another’s dreams. 

Miguel uses this knowledge of queer time, invented out of the memory of his father, to grieve and remember. As he continues to repeat each segment of reel time, turning his father’s movement into choreography in real time for the audience, I begin to shift my gaze away from Miguel (in the present) and his father (in the past) because, behind both of them, I notice Miguel’s mother bring her own timeline to film. His mother picks up the kitchen as his father speaks, and she takes what I think is saran wrap out to store the day’s leftovers. I read the saran wrap as connected to Miguel’s father’s words, and as a material example of what he is describing. She pulls the thin film of plastic out…. “If you go to a point in time”…serrates the saran wrap… “and you take that time out”…lifts the crinkly sheet over containers of food… “both time zones can meet…” puts the food away into the fridge. Miguel, who is not directly visible in the film, reinserts himself into the invisible space behind the camera by dancing to his father’s words, all while embodying that saran wrap, his mother’ nurturing daily act of ensuring them all a future meal. The duet he attempts, repeating his father’s words, also becomes his mother’s choreographic act and his performance of grief illustrates a much larger collective choreography of remembering. You cannot remember a life alone. You cannot bring back the body of memories connected to a life that was never yours to begin with. The absent body of Miguel’s father, in the present, demands a collective remembering and movement that brings together multiple timelines that came into contact and loved and grieved him in sheer queer brilliance. 

*

In the context of the entire night of dance performances at FLACC, Miguel’s grieving in queer Latinidad is also a part of the systemic mourning all of the Latinx performances collectively addressed. Only when the white world grieves in the US, does it grieve a single life. In the Latinx world, and for various communities of color, loss and death are attached to systemic pain and our healing can only happen by collectively recognizing our interconnected bodies. To grieve in Latinidad, in other words, is to recognize that personal and systemic grieving play to each other’s tempo. 

In the US, where Latinx families have been separated and where children are still being held hostage. In the US, where Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vazquez, a 16 year old Guatemalan migrant, died in custody of U.S. Customs and border protection, from lack of medical attention at the border. In the US, where my students tell me of the violence and assaults they’ve experienced just this year…in their California where many of them also believed they were free of racism here, where white students in their classrooms keep telling them that they are safe when I know they are not. In the US, where the timeline of the nation depends on our death. Tomorrow is not guaranteed. We are already grieving tomorrow. We are already grieving our living bodies. 

Mexican American first generation dance collective, Primera Generación tackles this shared grief. Their performance piece, Nepantle, is an example of the work Latinxs do to create communal healing among the traumas that have especially plagued us this year. During one particular installation at FLACC, Primera plays a sound loop of children crying, begging to be reunited with their parents. They conjure the various children separated from their families at the border. Projected on the back wall are news clips of the border crisis cutting in between the crying that saturates the dance floor; the scene cuts again, this time to a woman, or a grandmother, knitting, retelling a story of a family she knows has been deported. As the sound of tears get weft into her fabric making, I can hardly stay in my seat. I want to leave. Run. Lift under the grandmother’s stitched quilt, hope to find the tiny bodies behind the tears, in the threads, begging for their mamás y papás. I don’t even realize I’m holding my breath until I finally exhale when the dancers stop to hold each other as the crying shrinks into a quiet lulling silence. They do all you can do after listening to another news story about the locked up children: you hold each other. You unravel the threads of you, stitch yourself up next to someone else in pain, touch and make known that you remain when you might be gone the next day. You sway together, nestle your head onto a shoulder, you sing “Cielito Lindo” in a whisper even though you want to scream, you sweat and you cry, you almost collapse but you don’t, you push yourself as close as you can to a body like yours. You hold each other, make your body the promise that is tomorrow, and you dance. 

“Nepantle.” Primera Generación. FLACC 2019. Image Courtesy of Yvonne Portra.
“Nepantle.” Primera Generación. FLACC 2019. Image Courtesy of Yvonne Portra.

“What I’m calling Latinidad my grandparents must have called ‘tomorrow’,” says Irvin Gonzalez, member of Primera Generación dance collective. Addressing the ways in which “Latinidad” can only be a useful term if we recognize its privilege in academic spaces and if we note that in non-academic spaces, our communities are theorizing Latinidad on their own terms. The temporality of Gonzalez’ phrasing, of Latinidad being another name for “tomorrow,” points to both the hope Latinxs feel of making it to the following day while at the same time pointing to the transformative ways our grandmothers and our grandfathers, our fathers and our mothers, our tios and our tias, and especially our chosen queer familia, keep creating new alternative realities and spaces of belonging. 

Primera Generación invites us to remember that these tomorrows are available here, happening everyday and that there is joy and revolution even in the grief of the todays and the yesterdays. During their performance one of them shouts, “CAMBIO,” followed by “Una línea de tamales” and they use that phrase to take us to the kitchens we have stepped foot in. They ensemble into a line and choreographically gesture opening the pale yellow leaf, passing it over, next person filling it with smoothened masa, passing it over, next one filling it with molé or vegetables, passing it over, next one folding it and placing it into the large steaming silver pot. “CAMBIO,” they all say in unison. One of them suggests, “Una canción de Juan Gabriel.” They begin singing different songs by the adored artist. I’m suddenly in my mother’s car, in my parents’ living room, in the circle of my tias singing at a party. I am all of these places and memories at once before they shout “CAMBIO” once again. 

Something about the dancing in this installation makes even more sense to me when I think of Gabriel Mata’s performance earlier that night, “This is where/I Begin.” In that performance, Gabriel marks the dance floor with tape to recall and time travel to the neighborhoods where he fell in love, the house his family moved into after migrating, the living room where he watched cartoons and ate breakfast. Gabriel marks time and space by creating a starting point to his memory and sticking the tape there, to which he unravels the roll of tape to an end on the other side of the dance floor. But the neat line of memory, once the tape falls to the floor, betrays him. The adhesive twists and his neat line is gone. But the straight line is not the point, nor is the beginning or the end of his memory. The resistance of the tape matches his Latinx body, which refuses to adhere to a rigid line or any national border. It’s the choreographic migration and movement that happens around the tape, around the memory, around the location that is the point. When Gabriel ends the performance, he gathers all of the adhesive onto his body. The tape marks an exchange between his body and space. Thinking back, “CAMBIO,” in Primera Generación’s call and response segment does not just denote change, but also exchanges of time between the dancers themselves and the audience and the space we are all creating together. Even when time might feel like it is running out, like we will not survive it, we find a way to give, gift, time to one another, ensuring we will all make it to tomorrow again.

Gabriel Mata. “This is where/I Begin.” FLACC 2019. Image Courtesy of Yvonne Portra.

To give time, to lose time, when you know that it is already being denied, is always running out, is always breaking, is I think one of the most radical acts of love in this world. Let us return to the end of Miguel’s performance. Miguel’s father practices pliés in another segment of film, and Miguel stands up and holds a large acrylic glass in his green gloved hands. He wiggles the glass and saturates the room with small sounds. The small movements that puncture the air with sound are turned into longer waves of sound as he holds the glass up and brings it down forcefully over his knees. Up, down, up down, his father bends his knees giving the best plié he can. Up, down, up down, Miguel bows, stands erect, bows, stands erect with the glass. He repeats this motion. Like a photographer working in a darkroom, Miguel makes an attempt to bring an image of his father that will not appear. This time like a polaroid, he shakes it furiously, and out of desperation he begins, starting with the glass above his head, to bring the glass down violently until it hits his knees. I can feel how purple and raw his knees must be. He heaves, his breath now louder than the sound of the acrylic hitting the air. I want it to break. I want so badly for the breaking sound to bring him some sort of relief to the pain he is experiencing and to feel like the object he is moving will match and recognize the feeling of his body. But the glass does not give until he gives way to the weight and force of the glass. The glass breaks when, and only when, he becomes an extension of the now fragmented object. He is the sound of the breaking. He is on his knees, in complete surrender. I’m in tears. But before I can sit to bring myself back together, he turns on the lights and exposes the audience leaving us in a kind of surrender to the broken glass as well. Meanwhile he belts out “Downbound Train” by Bruce Springsteen, giving us time to gather ourselves as he does the same, bringing grief and joy, pain and healing, the pieces of glass, Latinidad, together through a sound, a voice that knows no boundaries.

Miguel Gutierrez. “Unsustainable Solutions: Duet with My Dead Father.” FLACC 2019. Image Courtesy of Yvonne Portro.
Miguel Gutierrez. “Unsustainable Solutions: Duet with my Dead Dad.” FLACC 2019. Image Courtesy of Yvonne Portro.

Weeks later, I am still left a little ungathered, still thinking about the fragments of Latinidad, the griefs given over to the space of a dance floor. The broken glass, for me, continues to express something akin to how Primera Generación has theorized Latinidad around the term “desmadre,” a broken messiness and unruly chaos. I first heard the term from Rosa Rodriguez Frazier in graduate school before the Primera Generación collective came together as a group, and I remember being fascinated by the way she was thinking about desmadre not necessarily as destructive but as generative or as regeneration. As a collective, the group has continued to theorize desmadre in its verb form and to dance Latinidad through all of its contradictory productive potential: its orphaned, unmothered, badass, healing movement that refuses any kind of (b)order. The desmadre that is Miguel’s broken glass teaches me about the power of surrendering grief over to the broken chaos of time. Once we share grief, time can open, and place us into contact with other people ready to help you give it a beat and dance with you. That is the collective work of joy I witnessed at FLACC. I continue to learn from Miguel’s father that Latinidad is really a mark of time, a contact zone where timelines meet when we make a commitment to share, give up, and give way to other bodies willing to dance to our rhythms, our tiempos desmadrosos. And this coming together, in broken time to grieve, is not good or bad. It is a feeling.

Works Cited

Muñoz, Jose E. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York University Press, 2009.

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