to love and mourn in the age of displacement: A Conversation with Alan Pelaez Lopez

Alan Pelaez Lopez is an AfroIndigenous poet from the coastal Zapotec community of Oaxaca, México. Their collection, to love and mourn in the age of displacement, includes “mourning (v): how the ancestors hold”:

We sat down with Alan to discuss their poetry, in light of the mourning of this past year.

Itai

All of us are in a collective mourning process. With what we’ve been through recently, how do we make space for that collective grief as an Indigenous queer community?

Alan

In Billy-Ray Belcourt’s poem “Grief after Grief after Grief after Grief” they speak about how grief is not something that we should try to run away from, but something we might want to stay in, so that it can teach us how to fathom other worlds. As Indigenous people, we’re always forced to imagine an elsewhere, outside the bounds of colonialism and our internalized colonialism.

I think particularly in queer Indigenous communities, one of the things that happens a lot is a rupture from the family unit. Colonialism targets the intimate domestic unit. Sometimes we think it targets the land. But if we can protect each other, then we can protect the land and the land can protect us. That triangulation of us taking care of each other, which takes care of the land, which allows the land to take care of us—that’s what’s missing.  For us to grieve together, we have to hold each other accountable for the internalized colonialism that keeps us from being good relatives.

Itai

In your book, you describe holding space for memories—memories handed down to us, memories we have in our blood—to access grief and get right in our relationships with our relatives. Memory in the western way of thinking is a linear thing. History happens, you learn about history, and you learn a lesson from it. But for us as Indigenous people, as I perceive it, our healing is our ancestors’ healing. It’s nonlinear. What role, for you, does memory play in our healing as a community?

Alan

In the collection I talk about how when my grandmother passes, I get informed via a WhatsApp message. I don’t have many memories of my grandmother, because I didn’t grow up with my paternal family. When I was finally able to go back and visit home after being undocumented for almost two decades, my grandmother had passed, but my great-grandmother was alive with dementia, and she remembered me. I walked in, and she immediately knew who I was, though she didn’t recognize another person who lives in her household. In the US, we understand dementia as a sickness, but my paternal family told me that in our community, dementia means memories are being disseminated across the community. Nothing is forgotten. Memories are just passed down to the youngest children. If an elder has dementia, you present newborns or toddlers to them, so the toddlers and newborns can inherit those memories.

For me, memories come as stories. And also, when someone is displaced, both physically removed and legally unable to go back, speculation becomes another sort of truth to us; another sort of memory.

Itai

In May, I lost my father. Like a lot of us, my relationship was up and down with him. An elder in the Seattle community asked me the other day, How is your grief? Where’s your heart? I said, I’ve been in ceremony, and I’m learning how to peacefully cohabitate with who he is now. There’s a matrix of healing and memory that I think our ways teach us to be connected to. How do you connect the pain and also the joy of memory?

Alan

Most of my experiences have been displacement. I’ve always had a hard time retelling my story outside the parameters of immigration, because immigration has dictated most of my life. I’ve felt like that’s my only story.

In writing about my feelings, about my grief, my love, and my romantic experiences, I allow myself to be something other than a migrant. There’s pleasure in being able to write about romance, even if the romantic encounters are brief, or if they’re sad, because it shows I’m a multi-dimensional person, outside of the narrative of being unable to legally work in the states or return to my ancestral home.

Writing allows me to honor my experiences. For me, that’s joyful. Even if it might be painful, there’s joy in that pain.

Itai

Your writing is very personal and intimate, and I also feel it tapping into our collective experience. There are pieces in the collection that transcend the different ways that we experience our communities, that tap into the root of where we as Indigenous people come from. What does the process of excavating a poem, say a found poem, feel like? How do you name that process for yourself?

Alan

The second to last poem—“chicatanas for mourning—a recipe”—is the fastest poem I’ve ever written. I was at a residency in Missoula, Montana. I felt super lonely. There were days when I was the only Black person I saw. Whenever I get sad and lonely, I go on social media and I look up either Oaxaca or one of the villages I grew up in. I remember going on Twitter and just checking up on Black villages that I know of. And on Twitter, a woman had just announced that Carmela Parral Santos had been murdered.

I had never met Carmela, but I remember crying for hours, going into the bathroom and turning on the bathtub. I just sat there crying and looking at a photograph of her. Then I tried to write to her, and I wrote this piece. And I sent this piece to Poets Reading the News. A day later, they posted it on their website. A couple days later, my friend Ashley, who had actually spent time with Carmela, texted me and said, I was holding Carmela’s hands not too long ago. We were talking about the fear of being Black and Indigenous in Oaxaca.

I had never met Carmela, but I immediately knew that her murder was catastrophic. And then to have a friend tell me, I was just with her. The realities of other people are not far removed from us. The systems that target and marginalize us as Indigenous peoples are working together. My found poems are created from news pieces that I feel are screaming to us to attend to them collectively.

I learned the word relative in American Indian spaces when I moved to California. It wasn’t a word that was in my vocabulary prior to moving to California. I think we’re not always good relatives, because we don’t know how to witness other people, because the ways we are targeted are so exponentially high that if we witness other people, then sometimes it feels like we have to pay less attention to the way oppression manifests in our body. And I feel like these found poems are an attempt for me to witness other people and try to figure out a framework of how to be a better relative.

Itai

This makes me think about ceremony, about the ways that we, as Indigenous people, recognize ceremony. How do we help others define ceremony for themselves?

Alan

Recently, I’ve been asking family members about their childhood. I think witnessing and offering care to someone’s younger self can be revolutionary. It’s a practice that invokes aspects of ceremony, because it seeks an active witness. It demands time, and quietness. It includes asking if the person wants to be held, offering water, offering a walk. Sometimes we take those things for granted, because we’re living in this hyper capitalist world where we think that in order to help somebody we have to offer labor or value. And we forget that being an ear is both labor and valuable.

It’s so weird being in the US where Indigeneity is considered a race or ethnicity. It’s neither of those. It’s an everyday lived experience. Because it’s an everyday lived experience, it requires relationality. That relationality can come in the form of being an ear.

Itai

Sacred witnessing. I’m also struck by the bravery of sharing your story and allowing people to witness it. That’s also healing—to witness someone else’s story. Which brings me to the end of the collection, after the page numbers have ended, where there’s this marvelous offering—a writing prompt with a question about wounds on one page, and celebration on the next page. What are the links between those two prompts? How do you see this process of transformation from wound to celebration working?

Alan

One of the books that has been really influential to my work is Deborah Miranda’s Bad Indians. It excavates stories from the California Mission Indian Archives housed at UC Berkeley. Miranda finds their ancestors there and writes to them.

Obviously, the missions, the American Indian boarding schools, the forced assimilation and acculturation are wounds. And Deborah Miranda, from within that archival and material wound, decides to celebrate those wounded ancestors by writing to them. It’s not a resurrection from the archive, it is an insistence that they were alive and they continue to live despite the cage, the box, of the archive.

Wounds hurt, wounds change the trajectory of life, and there is also pleasure that coexists with wounds. Like the quote-unquote riots of Black Lives Matter. Those actions are a collective wound, but a riot is also a celebration. It is public grief, but there’s also this immense love that I felt when surrounded by other Black people in grief.

Or more personally, more intimately–coming out stories can be very painful, but they are also a condition of possibility for our own celebration. After I came out, my mom didn’t talk to me for four years. We were living together in a two-and-a-half-bedroom apartment, five of us. It was suffocating. That moment, that wound of silence, made me wonder–is my mother a bad person or can my mother not be there for me right now? She wasn’t talking to me, but she was still providing for me.

When I think about it now, the fact that we chose each other in that suffocating silence—that’s something to celebrate. Because we didn’t have to, because in that moment, we could have both said that we failed each other. We refused that narrative.

We hold on to wounds, because they give us very particular narratives, particularly in woke and radical spaces. But when we think about wounds celebration together, that union allows us to remember that there is a future. My hope is that we find a way to articulate what came before the wound, what happened in the wound, and the future after the wound. And it’s not just about past, present, and future, but all of these times can coexist. There is a future in the present. The fact that one can go and protest for BLM, then go home and have sex, that is a future in the present.

Itai

You write a lot about relatives and relations. So putting together these pieces—memory, grief, mourning, healing, and celebration—what role does forgiveness play in the way you think about healing?

Alan

When I think about forgiveness, I think about what happens to people who couldn’t be good ancestors because they were navigating a social and material reality where the only thing on their mind was basic survival. Is this somebody that needs our forgiveness or is this somebody that we don’t need to forgive, because they didn’t do anything wrong? When we think about forgiveness, we have to think about how we are understanding right and wrong under the conditions of colonialism.

A lot of migrant youth don’t grow up with their biological parents. Sometimes, an aunt will bring them to the states, and say, I can raise you. Your parents are not in a material condition where they can raise you and keep themselves alive, so I’m going to raise you, they may explain. That parent didn’t fail. The community worked together to maximize the quality of life of everybody.

Before thinking about forgiveness, we have to take into consideration people’s social conditions, the material realities that they’re in. And then think about ourselves. If we lived through that same reality—the reality of the person we demand forgiveness from—, would we have reacted in the same way as them?

Itai

Yeah, my great-grandfather moved one county line over and said, We’re not going to talk about who we are. People can call us whatever they want. He raised his children with so much self-hatred.  My dad was raised in that shadow.

I’ve taken the time to go visit his grave, put down tobacco, and think about what he was experiencing, what he was running from. I keep his photo in my house now, because I’m here. I survived. If he’d acted differently, I don’t know how things would have come out.

Alan

There’s a lot of pushback in my family, too, around identifying as Indigenous. My grandmother, my mother’s mother, tells us we’re Indigenous, but my mom is the only one who sometimes accepts it. When I was a child I was always confused—so are we Indigenous?

My grandmother left her ancestral land when she was a teenager. Her only living parent was working for land redistribution, and he was killed for it, so she left to another rural village. None of my family members grew up in ancestral Zapotec territory.

My family members are illiterate, but when I tell them what I write about, when I translate pieces for them, they ask, How can you move in the world in this way when we know so little about our culture and community? They’re frightened that I am so visibly Black and openly Indigenous. They’re like, You can’t be saying you’re Zapotec, because you know very little. Growing up, I thought this was scarcity, that none of us had the tools to claim our Indigeneity.

I haven’t had always had access to my grandmother because of displacement. When my status adjusted, and I was able to travel back home and help her get a visa, I brought her to the states. It was the first time she had seen my mother in twenty-something years. And I started asking her in front of my mother about a story my mother used to tell me—about how we’re shapeshifters. When I asked my grandmother about it, she had so many stories, immense stories. My mother was shocked to hear her stories, shocked that we had this access. We just had to ask.

Sometimes I think we understand scarcity in relationship to finances. We think that because we don’t have access to finances, we don’t have access to anything else. And that’s because under capitalism, our value is based only on labor productivity, which is inherently anti-Black, anti-Indigenous, ageist. But when we reevaluate what we do have, which is culture, which is what the settler lacks—the settler doesn’t have an understanding of the world and how they relate to it—when we understand culture as an access point, we realize we live in abundance.

Itai

That connects to the last line of “Eighteen Notes on Love”—“we create abundance where we thought there was none.” If wounds are the place where our story and our medicine comes from, there’s abundance in that. What are your thoughts on abundance?

Alan

We have an abundance of grief. And that grief is a source of knowledge. If we ask ourselves, when did we first feel this grief, we enter into a collective consciousness that creates an abundance of memories and an abundance of stories.

We have an abundance of trauma, and we shouldn’t build relationships off our traumatic experiences, but naming our traumas allows us to name the actions we want to take collectively. And those actions are something we can build relationships from.

When we look at the water protectors, for example—they named the place of violence and then organized around it. There was this action, and this community formed around that action. It wasn’t the trauma that formed the community, it was this collective vision for the future, which formed critical relationships across not only Indigenous communities, but many targeted and racialized communities.

Itai

We carry so many wounds, and so many traumas, that sometimes we spend a lot of time trying to figure out how we’re going to fix it. We forget that we need to trust the abundance of our own magic.

My dad and his sister were complete opposites. My dad was the proudest Indian in the world. She was so ashamed. And when my dad passed, and I got on a plane to go home, I told my family on the phone before I left, We have to do his rites in a traditional way. That’s what he wants.

My aunt has avoided this her entire life. But she stood with us. A couple months later, I went over to her house, and one of our medicines was growing right in her yard. I looked over and I said, Look at that. She’s asking for us to take care of her.

I said, Do you have any tobacco? She did. We sat on the tailgate of a truck for five hours, processing that plant medicine.

A month before, I could not have imagined sitting with my aunt on the back of that truck working that medicine. Only after my dad passed could he pull off that much magic.

Alan

There are so many commonalities in what we’re sharing. Whenever a newborn is sick, my family comes together because we have all this traditional medicine. Even though my aunts say, Oh no, we’re not Indigenous, when somebody is sick, because we don’t have health care, we lean on rituals.

I remember the first child to be born in the states—the first time that child got really sick, all my aunts came together, brought all these herbs, covered the baby with herbs and then sang songs and engaged in ceremony. It was a reminder that this is who we’ve always been, even if we’re not naming ourselves as Indigenous. Maybe our attachment to naming and categorizing ourselves isn’t much of a service. Yes, we can be unapologetically this or unapologetically that, but at the end of the day, the questions are: what are the energies that we trust in? And, what are the values and understandings of the world that are allowing us to live and allowing others to live easier?

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