The Politics and Poetics of Digital Indigeneity in Latin America – by Thea Pitman

I’ve been interested in the ways in which indigenous communities across Latin America use the internet and other new information and communication technologies since I started research on Latin American digital cultural production, and cultures more generally, back in 2005. At that time, all I really knew about internet use in Latin America was the hype surrounding the Zapatistas’ alleged use of the internet in the mid-1990s to gain worldwide support for their cause, together with the seductive, though illusory, image of Subcomandante Marcos on his laptop in the Selva Lacandona. My research at that point focused on busting the myths surrounding the Zapatistas’ internet use – what was achieved in terms of cyberactivism, at least in the first instance, was heavily dependent on the actions of supporters elsewhere in the world who circulated information, rather than on the Zapatistas’s own use of the internet (Pitman, 2007). However, this is not to say that indigenous groups in Latin America weren’t using the internet at that point. The Zapatistas, as I argued, were not the first indigenous group to find tactical advantage in using the internet. Nor would they be the last…

Research on indigenous internet use in the region has really boomed since the mid noughties. Most of this research stems from media and communications studies and from anthropology (or a combination of both), has been conducted through on-the-ground fieldwork in Latin America, combined with internet ethnographic approaches, and has resulted in detailed case studies of individual communities or of the dynamics of adoption framed by the nation-state and its policies towards digital inclusion. Typically, studies have focused on the enormous, and still unresolved, issue of the digital divide: on access and on literacy. However, the best also go on to consider the issue of appropriation, of how indigenous communities can avoid simply becoming passive consumers of mainstream culture as they access the internet, or be seduced into handing over traditional knowledge for free to the sharing-cum-stealing culture of mainstream internet use, but can instead use it to lobby government for access to resources and fight for their rights, to make their communities more visible at a national and international level and in so doing to strengthen their sense of indigeneity through the forging of allegiances with other indigenous communities elsewhere in the region or in the world as a whole.

One question that comes up repeatedly is what difference the digital makes to the concept of indigeneity itself. Various books published in the noughties sold themselves on the ostensible incompatibility of ‘digital indigeneity’. We thus have Neil Blair Christensen’s Inuit in Cyberspace (2003) and Kyra Landzelius’s anthology Natives on the Net (2006). Nevertheless, this is just a sales pitch, designed to make your typical Western academic consumer sit up and pay attention. The authors and editors of these texts are really at pains to clarify that there is no incompatibility between being indigenous and using new technologies and it is, in fact, no more or less interesting or worthy of study than any other aspect of indigenous culture or cosmovision.

LIVRO - INDIOS ONLINE itoha

Itoha Pataxó-Hãhãhãe at computer terminal, as featured in @rco Digital (2007)

Nonetheless, this is not just a strategically exoticising gaze directed at indigenous internet users by Western academics. There is a tension evident in indigenous self-representation online that tends to perform the ‘indigeneity’ that those subjects believe mainstream society expects of them, particularly in the context of any discussion of how they relate to new technologies. This is particularly clear in the case of a very successful ethnojournalistic project such as the Brazilian portal Índios Online and related projects such as the online educational network Arco Digital (all supported by the NGO Thydêwá). Repeatedly in the images that circulate on the website, in the aesthetic choices made about web-page design, logos, headers, and in the discourse of the different voices that are included in these projects, there is a determination to ‘indigenise’ the internet by filtering concepts and practices through the lens of a ‘recognisable’, ‘traditional’ indigeneity. For example a computer connected to the internet may be reframed as an ‘arco digital’, a digital bow (with attendant arrow), and indigenous internet users become ‘guerreiros digitais’ or digital warriors. In visual terms, while photographs and videos of daily life that appear on the website show the use of traditional dress and decorative practices to be largely confined to moments in community life where a group’s heritage is being explicitly celebrated, there is a tendency to ensure that visible markers of traditional indigeneity are clearly in view whenever someone is pictured using a computer.

To be clear: I’m not identifying this as a weakness. It is a strategically essentialising tendency in indigenous self-representation. In particular, the performance of recognisable indigeneity is very much part and parcel of the politics of asserting indigeneity for the communities involved in the Índios Online network. Indigenous groups in the North-East of Brazil have all experienced a process of state-declared extinction in the 19th century, followed by gradual re-emergence over the course of the 20th century and particularly after the 1988 constitution that offered the possibility of formally demarcating indigenous territories. It is also the case that these groups depend more than many other more isolated groups on access to new technologies as part of what supports their re-emergence, but they also know that they need to self-represent as clearly indigenous as they engage in practices that mainstream society will see as incompatible with the re-assertion of indigeneity and use to condemn them as asserting a fraudulent kind of indigeneity.

Digital bows and arrows are not the only way of ‘indigenising’ the internet. Frequently critics have noted the fact that digital culture has grown out of the practice of weaving – the Jacquard loom is the origin of binary code – and have thus suggested that a multimodal discourse of weaving will prevail in indigenous appropriations of the internet, and even that indigenous people are the original cyborgs, based on an appropriation of Donna Haraway’s theorisation of oppositional cyborgs as being more inclined to ‘(net)weave’ rather than ‘network’ (1991[1984]). It is certainly the case that some communities, such as the Nasa of Southwestern Colombia do adopt a discourse of weaving in relation to their online activities. However, I would suggest that this kind of approach, particularly at a textual level, is more unusual than critics might claim.

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Front and back cover of @rco Digital (2007)

While the reasons underpinning these choices of appropriating discourse are the subject of my current research, I would like to end by referencing perhaps the best example of where these two modes of indigenising discourse combine:  The book @rco Digital (Kariri-Xocó, Nhenety, et al. 2007), that summarises the achievements of the online educational network mentioned above, has as its subtitle: ‘Uma rede para aprender a pescar’, thus combining the ‘warrior’ or ‘hunter-gatherer’ discourse of the fishing net which is used for obtaining food with a ‘weaving’ discourse born of the fact that the same fishing net is of course a form of textile (and there’s even a further echo of that other webbed textile much associated with indigenous lifeways in Brazil which is the hammock). Furthermore, on the back cover of the book, the lead author, Nhenety Kariri-Xocó, asks provocatively: ‘Você sabe quem inventou a Rede?’ [Do you know who invented the net/web?], thus contriving to frame his reference to ‘the net’ in such a way as to challenge the endless colonialist rhetoric surrounding the invention of networked digital technologies and the consequent occupation of cyberspace, of ‘homesteading on the electronic frontier’ (cf. Rheingold 2000[1993]). What this colonialist rhetoric achieves is, according to Ziauddin Sardar, a rerun of the Conquest without the inconvenience of there being anyone in the way, and thus allows the white, Western internet-user the fantasy of being both cyber-conquistador and digital native (Sardar 2000[1996]). Instead, in Nhenety’s formulation indigenous people become first-come in cyberspace. And this kind of rhetorical manoeuvre is perhaps what a poetics of ‘digital indigeneity’ can most fruitfully achieve.

Thea Pitman, University of Leeds, t.pitman@leeds.ac.uk @theapitman

References

Christensen, Neil Blair. 2003. Inuit in Cyberspace: Embedding Offline Identities Online. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press.

Haraway, Donna. 1991. ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’, in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. London: Free Association Books, pp. 149-81. [First published 1984.]

Kariri-Xocó, Nhenety, and other indigenous people. 2007. @rco Digital: Uma Rede para Aprender a Pescar, ed. by Derval Cardoso Gramacho and Sebastián Gerlic. Maceió, Alagoas, Brazil: Ideário. Also available online at: http://www.thydewa.org/downloads/arco.pdf.

Landzelius, Kyra, ed.. 2006. Native on the Net: Indigenous and Diasporic Peoples in the Virtual Age. London: Routledge.

Pitman, Thea. 2007. ‘Latin American Cyberprotest: Before and After the Zapatistas’, in Latin American Cyberculture and Cyberliterature, ed. by Claire Taylor and Thea Pitman (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press), 85-109.

Rheingold, Howard. 2000. The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press). [First published 1993.]

Sardar, Ziauddin. 2000. ‘Alt.civilizations.faq: Cyberspace as the Darker Side of the West’, in The Cybercultures Reader, ed. by David Bell and Barbara M. Kennedy (London: Routledge), pp. 732-52. [First published 1996.]

Sonia E. Alvarez in Glasgow – Turning to Feminisms: Re-visioning Cultures, Power, and Politics in Latin America, reported by Rebecca DeWald

As part of her self-confessed marathon of lectures and talks in the UK, Sonia E. Alvarez, Leonard J. Horwitz Professor of Latin American Politics and Director of the Center for Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, was kind enough to stop over at the Translating Feminism Network at the University of Glasgow on Friday, 7th April, to discuss her work on “translocalidades”, feminism and translation in her recently edited volume as well as a forthcoming article.

To kick off the session, which she stressed should be an “informal discussion”, Prof Alvarez helpfully contextualised her work, since the members of Glasgow’s Translating Feminism Network, launched in June 2016 with a lecture by feminist translation trailblazer Prof Luise von Flotow, University of Ottawa, come from a variety of different backgrounds and academic disciplines. The initial idea, Alvarez explained, originated in conference discussions which led to the idea of founding a Bay Area research group comprising of Latin American Studies scholars (an established academic discipline struggling with its Cold War connotations) and Latin@ Studies researchers (the product of a political struggle within the university. The participating members’ aim was to rethink the relationship between their two research areas, the former typified by white Western scholars (with very few Latin Americans themselves), and the latter as a group converging around Spanish speakers in the US. A shared concept, as Alvarez defines in the Introduction to Translocalities/Translocalidades: Feminist Politics of Translation in Latin/a America (Sonia E. Alvarez, Claudia de Lima Costa et.al. eds., Duke University Press, 2014), was the moving back and forth between localities and places, “across multiple borders, and not just between nations”, hence the term “translocal” (p.2). While translation was not initially at the heart of the group, it became more and more central throughout the network’s exchanges. Alvarez names the notion of “women of colour” as an instance where perceptions diverged and necessitated a consideration of the “translatability” of the term into different languages and cultures: Latin@ scholars took umbrage at the expression, since not all Latina women are women of colour. Alvarez herself preferred the term “Third World women”, to stress that the very concept is the result of political formation. This led to the wider question: How do terms and texts travel within and outwith Latin America?

Translocalities/Translocalidades was the result of these debates, which went on over 5-6 years until the group decided on a coherent structure for an edited volume. Translation pervades the collection itself, since articles were often initially written in Spanish, or written in English by non-native speakers “translating themselves”. The advantage of a small-scale seminar over a big keynote speech is that we participants were given the opportunity to diverge from the “set” reading and discuss the ideas in relation to academic disciplines, but also personal experience. “We translate and code-switch all the time”, Alvarez asserted, naming her own life between English, Spanish and Portuguese (she specialises in Lusophone Studies and her partner, Claudia de Lima Costa, is Brazilian; her dog, she assured us, only spoke Portuguese). The fuzzy border between translating – that is, working between different languages – and code-switching – adapting one’s register to the context – became obvious in her examples of researchers undertaking field work in Latin America, unaware of the impact their English-slanted accent in Spanish would have on their field notes and research outcomes.

Since all the participants could empathise with the feeling of “translating oneself”, I put it to Alvarez to communicate this notion of “being in translation” to monolinguals, in order to reach as many people as possible with academic work in and about translation, cultural and otherwise. Alvarez’s answer is contextualisation, and refers to the notion of “equivocation” discussed in the forthcoming article ‘Turning to Feminisms: Re-visioning Cultures, Power, and Politics in Latin America’, where it says:

“equivocation – a term derived from Amerindian perspectivism […] – signifies not only deception or misconception, but also failure to understand that there are different understandings of different worlds. For example, class, race and ethnicity are categories that belong to the colonial division nature/culture. However, when deployed by indigenous peoples, they do not necessarily correspond to the meanings they have been given in Western history. They are, in other words, equivocations or equivocal categories: although they appear to be the same (i.e., to have the same meaning), in fact they may not be when signified by other communities.” (p.20)

In other words, searching for transgender narratives in colonial literatures is a mental leap, though even supposedly “easily translatable” terms that seemingly travel unscathed from one context to another, might change in the process (an obvious example beside gender is democracy, which is constituted of very different moral convictions in different contexts – in the recent The Guilty Feminist podcast on democracy Deborah Frances-White illustrates the point by explaining that women in Ancient Greece, held up as the cradle of democracy, were not allowed to vote).

The discussion seemed to gyrate around common markers known to the participants: we all know what it feels like to speak a foreign language abroad; we’ve all committed cultural faux-pas and been oblivious to it; we all agreed on the importance of feminism as one of the key factors in driving contemporary cultural studies, both in a Latin American Studies context (thanks to the influence of Latin@ Studies), and in the field of Translation Studies, towards increased engagement with political issues. Hence we were all surprised to hear the circumstances of ‘Turning to Feminisms’, co-written by Alvarez and de Lima Costa for the forthcoming New Approaches to Latin American Studies: Culture and Power (edited by Juan Poblete for Routledge). The commissioned article aims to offer an outlook on the next 25 years of feminism within Latin American and Latin@ Studies. Though Alvarez and de Lima Costa had argued that there should not be a separate article on “feminisms” in the volume, but rather that the collection should include more feminist authors and that other chapters should put more focus on feminist issues. Since none of their concerns were heard, the article takes a rather brazen stance towards the “essay question”.

The context for this upcoming article shows one of the issues early careers researchers – in this case network facilitator Dr Emily Ryder – want to find solutions to: “How do you combine academia and real-life activism?” Alvarez’s advice is to combine otro saberes with your academic work, by staying in touch with the work of “full-time” activists, so as to not influence your scholarly output directly, but be aware of the impact it might have in the “real world”. Another example of this is watching what “young feminists” [in Alvarez’s eyes a derogatory term, only employed by “old feminists”] do when they take feminism back to the streets, to make it a “real threat again”. Instead of jettisoning the term “feminism”, including its history, her advice is to resignify it.

In an answer to another question about issues with institutionalisation, Alvarez returns to the conflicted relationship between feminism and universities, which still seems to pervade the forthcoming New Approaches to Latin American Studies: when Alvarez identified as feminist (within Second Wave feminism, though she dislikes the term), there were still many academics who did not want to call themselves feminists, who instead opted for “being one of the guys”. Simultaneously, groups of so-called “autonomous feminists” called feminists in academic institutions and organisations “handmaidens of neoliberalism” (her side-remark: Marxists never get accused of being white, but feminist get all the slack), though it is partly thanks to women in policy advocacy that feminism is still as active, since they “made the movement move”. All in all, Alvarez has a positive outlook on the future of feminism: “the movements are going to continue, even when they’re not on the streets”.

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Many thanks for reporting on this for us – wish The SALSA Collective could have been there in person, but it’s great to hear about it from Rebecca!

If you’re interested in writing for SALSA about events like this, or just have something to say about latinidades in general, please do get in touch!

thesalsacollective@gmail.com

@salsacollective

@eilidhabhall

 

 

 

 

Wee nota

Thanks to everyone who is reading our past blog posts and checking in with The SALSA Collective.

Apologies for the hiatus on new material, we’re very busy on other projects at the moment but will be back soon with more blogs on all things latinidad.

If you’re interested in writing a Guest Blog for us, then please do get in touch!

For now, feel free to keep in contact via Twitter and Facebook where we still regularly share cosas que nos interesan!

Y may the force of La Lupe be with you!

leiapupe

Lalo Alcaraz, 2016

http://www.pocho.com/carrie-fisher-1956-2016-may-the-force-be-with-you/

Reflections: Latin American Indigeneities Workshop by Cian Warfield

As we reflect on Indigenous People’s Day (October 10, 2016), Cian has written a blog about the Latin American Indigeneities Workshop at UCC.

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Thursday, 6 October 2016

The Centre for Mexican Studies, Department of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies (UCC) in collaboration with The Marginalised and Endangered Worldviews Study Centre, The Study of Religions Department (UCC).

The blueprint for this event was established weeks before I was to take the lead in organising the workshop. Both Professor Nuala Finnegan (Centre for Mexican Studies) and Dr Lidia Guzy (MEWSC) had met on a number of occasions beforehand eager to organise a workshop where the sole purpose was to explore contemporary expressions of Latin American Indigeneities. In the context of University College Cork, this had never been achieved before so there was a tangible air of excitement around establishing a workshop of this nature. As a PhD candidate in my second year of the doctorate working within this very field of study, I was quickly invited by both Professor Finnegan and Dr Guzy to take the position of lead organiser of the workshop, a position I was delighted to hold throughout the entire process even when the organisation of academic gatherings tends to involve very non-academic details (what’s the price of a cup of coffee?; when should we have coffee?; should I include wine with the meal?; oh dear, I completely forgot about supplying water, where do I purchase some last minute?).

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With all of those intricacies organised and out of the way, the workshop could finally begin. Including our invited keynote speaker, Dra Patricia Torres Mejía from CIESAS in Mexico City (pictured above), there were twelve speakers in total delivering papers on Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, Argentina, and Brazil. My aim for the workshop, from the moment I took the lead, was to ensure that not only was there a healthy balance between the number of PhD candidates and career researchers presenting at the workshop but that the event itself adopted a hemispheric approach to the study of indigeneity in Latin America, promoting cross-regional dialogue by exploring expressions of indigeneity from a variety of countries in the Americas. This aim, along with a multidisciplinary approach, was most certainly achieved.

Dra Patricia Torres Mejía from CIESAS in Mexico City is an accomplished anthropologist and academic and it was a pleasure to introduce her as the workshop’s keynote speaker and also as the first paper of the day. Audience numbers surpassed my expectations considering Latin American indigeneities is a less frequent topic of discussion in higher education in Ireland. Dra Torres’s paper was titled ‘Indigenous Knowledge and Higher Education in Mexico’ and explored the current state of intercultural education in Mexico today. Her paper was detailed and precise. This paper established significant points of debate and discussion for the remainder of the workshop including, of course, the all important division between Western thought and indigenous worldviews which continues to plague this area of study. The workshop then transition into the area of cyberculture and indigenous cyber activity and resistance, where Dr Thea Pitman (University of Leeds), whom I was delighted could accept my invitation to attend the workshop, followed with an insightful discussion on indigenous cyberculture in Brazil. Dr Pitman’s paper explored netweaving and the virtual poetics of resistance. Eva Cabrejas (PhD candidate, UCC) concluded this session on digital indigeneities providing a very concise and well thought-out paper on the online activities of Zapatista women in defending and promoting their rights including their efforts to podcast and radio broadcast as well as produce online magazines.

After lunch, the workshop resumed with Gillian Watt’s (UCC) first paper of the day which reflected on her recent field work in Latin America, this time in Peru. Gillian brought to the workshop personal reflections of her time spent in Peru with the Ashansinka and her observations of their ritualistic use of ayahusaca, an organic hallucinogenic brew. Before breaking for coffee, I, Cian Warfield (UCC), followed with a discussion on ethnopolitics in Bolivia, particularly noting the changing shape of the relationship between the indigenous and landscape and, in turn, the change in indigenous political activism in the country as a result, noting as a point of reference the construction and development of lavish neo-Andean architecture in El Alto (pictured below).

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With the coffee break finished and a keen awareness that the workshop was at least thirty minutes behind schedule (nothing surprising in academic circles), the final session resumed. Dr Lidia Guzy (UCC) gave a wonderful talk on Davi Kopenawa’s monography, The Falling Sky. Her talk reflected on the book as a form of indigenous resistance in Brazil by the Yanomami indigenous group in a country where indigeneity is a backward, almost non-existent concept. The discussion that followed Dr Guzy’s paper focused on the narrative of the book itself which, while written using the personal pronoun, is in fact a co-authored book by Kopenawa and his anthropologist friend Bruce Albert. This debate on the narrative of the book fed into the wider discussion throughout this workshop; the difficult, often complicated relationship between Western academia and the wider indigenous community in Latin America around assisting the marginalised in helping them reclaim culture, language and political rights without colonising their worldview, knowledge and way of life. The final paper of the day was Gillian Watt’s (UCC) second research paper of the workshop which was a further reflection of her recent experience of field work in Latin America however, this time in Argentina. Gillian presented on the co-existence of eco-villages in north-east Argentina and local Mbya Guaraní indigenous communities emphasising the possible benefits of globalising influences or tendencies.

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As the first event of its kind in UCC, it is more than safe to say that it was a complete success in what it set out to achieve; to open up a greater, multidisciplinary dialogue between researchers of indigenous studies in Latin America, to promote the unique work that is being done in this area and to foster important and necessary debate and discussion within this field of study. While these boxes where being ticked, attention turned during the post workshop dinner to the possible future collaborations now available as a result of the connections and contacts made during this workshop. As a first time academic event organiser, I couldn’t ask for a better outcome.

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About: Cian Warfield is a second year PhD candidate with the Centre for Mexican Studies, Department of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin America Studies, University College Cork. His current research focuses on a comparative analysis of contemporary forms of indigenous political representation in  both Bolivia and Mexico; a regional comparison of state and anti-state forms of ethnic politics.

109585826@umail.ucc.ie

@CianWarfield

 

‘No eres de aquí? A solo adventure to Teotihuacan’ by Harriet Smart

‘No eres de aquí, verdad?’

‘No, soy inglesa’

‘Ahhh… y viajas SOLA?’

Teo Pyramids 1

Dawn was breaking quickly over the Teotihuacan pyramids, one of Mexico’s breath-taking archaeological sites and, armed with my sister’s SLR camera, I was in a hurry to get inside its gates to capture the moment.

In keeping with my usual meticulous planning, I had sauntered out of my nearby guesthouse a few minutes before, assuming I would just wander in and around the ruins. Not so. A waiting taxi driver enthusiastically reprimanded me that the nearest gate was 30 minutes walk and I would definitely miss the sun. He would take me. I hopped in, expensive camera keenly slung around my neck.

When we reached the first of Teotihuacan’s five gates, I handed the man the last of my pesos. I was in time to get my photos! My mood quickly changed as I approached the entrance to find nobody there and the gates locked. Despondent, I gazed around.

‘Get back in, we’ll go to the second gate’.

Anxious that the disappearing morning light meant I wouldn’t get my photos, I gratefully climbed back in. I realised that my indulgence in the guesthouse’s (excellent) carnitas the night before had also now left me without any cash to pay him for this extra journey.

As we sped around the dusty recinto track, a Virgen rosary swinging around the rear-view mirror, the driver turned to me with a quizzical look. ‘You’re not from here are you?’. (I always felt a bit indignant at this refrain, as if my Spanish was clearly not good enough). ‘No, I’m from England’. The man looked a bit surprised and followed up with, ‘AND you’re travelling ALONE?’, his eyes narrowing. ‘Yes! I’m on my own’, I said faux cheerfully. Something about his manner made the camera feel heavy around my neck and I felt suddenly alone.

Before I left for six weeks PhD researching in Mexico last April many people had seemed surprised that I would travel there by myself. If I’m honest, this annoyed me. Nobody would say this to a man, I thought. And, even though Mexico has its problems, its capital is actually, as I found out, as safe as any major city.

I’m not sure if my taxi story has grown in the telling, but I do remember feeling the need to turn away from his gaze. As I studied the landscape from the window, I remembered the concerned and bemused expressions, the surprise that I would even entertain going to Mexico on my own. Let alone a deserted archaeological site…

I quickly compensated for this obvious solitude by gabbing about how many (imaginary) friends I had back in Mexico City, while he looked bemused beside me. As we arrived at the gate, I apologised feebly that I didn’t have any money. He batted his hand, amused, ‘Oh, you don’t have to pay.’ Oh.

As I neared the end of my research in an archaeological archive in Mexico City, a visit to Teotihuacan loomed large in my mind. Extolled by each person and guidebook as a ‘must do’, I couldn’t go home without a visit to one of Mexico’s most important archaeological sites. Las pirámides lie thirty minutes’ drive from the capital. It’s a honeypot for tourists who travel up on local buses, or more expensive guided tours, for the day to see the magnificent pre-Aztec city.

Teo Pyramids 2

I was nervous for the journey because a friend had warned me of a person boarding his bus at the Estación del Norte, taking photos of the passengers; a record ‘in case the bus was taken hostage’. I put this tale to the back of my mind and I booked my tickets. I would go on a local bus (much cheaper, more authentic) and stay in the guesthouse (with pool!) to make the most of the cooler mornings and dawn light. Everything would be fine.

The night before my trip I googled ‘Teotihuacan’ to check the metro stop for the bus and ‘Teotihuacan armed robbery’ popped up as suggested search. Of course, it would have been sensible just to ignore these posts but, of course, I spent hours engrossed in a succession of horrifying tales of armed robberies on the D.F. – Pirámides route. My Airbnb host, perhaps keen to get rid of me for the weekend, assured me it would be totally fine, everyone went to the pyramids, but maybe take the camera to hand over in case of a heist. Reassuring…!

In the end, of course, the bus journey was completely fine – no hostage photos or robberies – and I was even serenaded by some very enjoyable mariachi music for most of the way. But what I mean is, by the time I hopped into the taxi the next morning, I couldn’t help but feel nervous and vulnerable.

In another planning failure, I had pitched up without a hat, something which every single person had advised me to take: ‘it is a desert there, Harriet’. Luckily, the Teotihuacan locals had this covered and I bought a beautiful, overpriced hat by the kiosk.

It was a privilege to see the pyramids in the morning light. For a few moments, I was the only person inside the Teotihuacan precinct. It’s hard to describe the sight without resorting to cliché – so I hope these photos I took can show you what I saw.

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The main feature of Teotihuacan is the Avenue of the Dead, or in Nahuatl, Miccoatli. On its eastern flank rises the astonishing Pirámide del Sol and straight ahead is the smaller, but no less impressive, Pirámide de la Luna.

I spent the morning climbing the sections which are open to the public. The whole experience was incredible and the views are just stunning. As the sun rose higher and higher, more people bussed into the huge site and I realised how lucky I had been to experience this atmospheric place on my own.

By mid-afternoon, I made my way to the bus stop. So far so good, I thought. In the scare stories I had consumed, armed robberies happened on those buses which stopped off at Teotihuacan rather than departing from there. As the bus rolled in having come from the town of San Juan Teotihuacán, I thought well, it’s either this bus or stay at Teo for the rest of my life. I climbed aboard, nervous.

All was going fine – disappointingly, no mariachi this time – until we pulled over in the motorway. A large man climbed on board with a huge plastic bag. Oh here we go, I thought, resigning myself to at worse, death, or at best, just losing my (my sister’s) camera. He reached into the bag and pulled out a huge box – of herbal tea to sell.

I arrived back at the Airbnb a few hours later, fully versed in the health benefits of green tea.

‘So how was it?’ asked Diego.

‘Yes! Great – I got some good pictures’

‘And it was ok on your own?’

‘Yeah it was totally fine’.

Harriet - Teo (1)

Harriet is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield. Her research explores the relationship between state and local Nahua rituals during the time of the Aztec empire, with particular emphasis on underexplored non-elite and private ceremonial.

She is organising a conference on indigenous languages and cultures at the University of Sheffield which will take place in September. Please read more about that here.

https://indigenousculturesconference.wordpress.com/ 

Thank F*** for the Riff Raff!

IMG_3685Last week New Orleans-based indie folk band Hurray for the Riff Raff, came to the Norwich Arts Center giving myself, and fellow SALSA Collective co-creator Eilidh, a wonderful opportunity to reunite after several months apart and to say goodbye before my big move back to the United States. And wow! What a way to honour a beautiful friendship; not least because the band produces some incredible music but because Eilidh and I have been very inspired by the band’s Puerto Rican front-woman, Alynda Lee Segarra.

It is not purely Alynda’s musical talents that had us enthralled from the start but the powerful and at times sombre messages embedded within her music. Songs on the latest album, Small Town Heroes, acknowledge violence against women’s bodies (The Body Electric), persistent gun violence in New Orleans (St. Roch Blues), feminism (Nothin Gonna Change This Girl), and the love for ones community–whatever and wherever that may be (Blue Ridge Mountain). And because her story, presence, and music is so moving, we thought we’d share a little about our experience getting to see and meet her (yes, that’s right meet her!)!  If you haven’t given the band a listen yet, this is your official invitation to do so right now! I promise, we are doing you a great service.

A Little About Alynda Lee and HFTRR

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Alynda left home at age 17, riding trains around the U.S. with fellow teenage runaways honing her musical craft before ending up in New Orleans, a city which serves as a major influence on the band’s folky and southern sounds. Alynda even sings with a southern twang that is organic and appropriate for the American roots genre. While Hurray for the Riff Raff is a New Orleans based band, Alynda is a Bronx-raised Puerto Rican. The intersectionality of these identities (and many more) is a complexity that is included in the band’s sound, lyrics, and in Alynda’s stage presence. She invites us into her heart and mind introducing the circumstances that inspired each song before she dazzles you with her music, her politics, and her voice. And just in case you miss her lyrical advocacy for  women’s rights, the LGBTQ community, and/or her ties to Puerto Rico, she pays tribute to them by displaying the Puerto Rican flag and Rainbow flag unapologetically on stage and in some cases on the band’s album covers.

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Becky and Alynda Lee of Hurray from the Riff Raff

Proud, and perhaps overwhelmed, at seeing a fellow Latina on stage (this is Norwich, England after all), I could not help but express some kind of solidarity. I needed to communicate how honored I was to be in her presence; how thrilled I was to have her voice and perspectives included in this typically male and white dominated genre. So I gave a good and literal shout out to ¡Puerto Rico! And as if the gig wasn’t incredible enough, Alynda herself was fabulously humble and charming. Even as I rushed her at the meet and greet table babbling, ‘I’m the one who screamed ¡Puerto Rico! I’m Latina too!’ Ever cool and collected, Alynda appeared genuinely excited to meet me and gave me a button that read: Latin People Power. And it is this nod to her roots and to the empowerment of marginalised communities more generally that makes the music and her presence so captivating. She ended the set with a simple and yet provocative message: “The world is pretty messed up, let’s make it better.”

If you’d like to learn more about Hurray for the Riff Raff check out their website included in the links above. Alternatively, Alynda is featured in an interview with Latino USA that you can listen to here. If you are not subscribed to their podcast already do it! The band is also on Twitter at @HFTRR.

 

Iron Maiden, the Book of Souls, and the Ancient Maya – Guest Blog by Suzanne Nolan

Of all the film stars, celebrities, and bands I expected to be next in line to use the ancient Maya in their art and marketing, Iron Maiden did not reach high on my list. In 2011 and 2012, I presented numerous papers on the ancient Maya and the so-called ‘end of the world’ event. In that research, I delved deeper into the use of ancient Maya imagery, language, and culture in contemporary popular culture (an example of which can be found here). Since then, I have continued to note examples, and think about why ancient cultures are so used and misrepresented in popular culture and marketing today.

Iron Maiden jet

In April this year, I was surprised to see another resurgence of Maya imagery, this time adorning the tailplane of Iron Maiden’s very own 747 jet – ‘Ed Force One’ (if you know nothing of Iron Maiden: ‘Eddie the Head’ is their… ‘mascot’). A friend, and huge fan of Iron Maiden, approached me rather sheepishly to ask if I had seen it, and would I get annoyed every time I saw them wearing the accompanying t-shirt? Would I come with him to see them play live? I gave a rather non-committal answer, and said I would investigate.

The problem is, when you are known as an expert in a particular topic, you gain a reputation. Groaning at poor journalism (That kid didn’t find a lost Maya city, by Dr Yates), cringing at terrible references in movies (I’ve never been able to decide which I hate the most: 2012 or Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), or laughing every time I see the Aztec calendar stone being used as a generic ‘ancient Maya’ image. I am sure scholars of the ancient Greek, Roman, Hindu, or Chinese find themselves similarly afflicted when they watch television, head to the movies, or open a magazine.

So investigate I did… and what did I find? Book of Souls, the sixteenth studio album released by Iron Maiden, is themed around the concept of souls. Fairly self-explanatory. The ancient Maya, well known for their belief in souls (of all living, and many non-living things), and that souls continued to hold a person’s ‘essence’  after death, seemed like a logical choice for the art and styling to follow.

Imagine my happy shock, then, that upon deciding such, not only did they contact an actual academic on the topic, Simon Martin, but they requested that he actually translate some of their song titles, and write out the ancient Maya hieroglyphs for them.

Iron Maiden tale

These same glyphs, translated by Martin and penned by his expert hand, now decorate the band’s plane. He even got a diecast model of the plane as a thank you.

This was perhaps the biggest shock. Not only had Iron Maiden sought out Martin and his expertise, but they actually used it – and it looks great. TV shows are known for hiring historians and then ignoring their advice. Tudors springs to mind. But this heavy metal band took it upon themselves to offer something new to the world – an accurate portrayal of the culture they re-appropriated.

For me, this is vitally important – there is no need to sensationalise or distort ancient culture. There is no need to misrepresent it as bloodier, or sexier, or with more intrigue then there ever really was. There is no need because it is already fascinating. Because it already excites and enthrals – that is the whole point of becoming an academic.

The learned scholar will look at the Book of Souls art and see a curious adaption of Maya hieroglyphics, but there will be nothing insulting or angering about it. It has not over-simplified the Maya to a barbaric or cartoonish peoples. The glyphs are clear, accurate, and beautifully worked. Importantly, too, the non-specialist will look and see something that might interest them for the right reasons – and when they go looking for more information, they will not be put off by the wholly different representations in books.

Needless to say, I returned to my friend, smile on my face, and gave him every blessing to wear his new t-shirt in front of me. And I’m looking forward to seeing them live… I might even overlook that they are using the Aztec Sun Disk as a set piece.

Photos courtesy Iron Maiden


Thanks so much to Suzanne for sharing this Mayan metal story with us!

You can follow her on Twitter @ZannPhD and read more about her work at her blog: http://snresearcher.blogspot.co.uk/