by Daimys E. García
Writing does not come easily to me; writing during this time has been especially excruciating. A close friend once described me and my process as a ‘mortar and pestle.’ A grinding effort that may produce beautiful results, but does so only through a series of meticulous, painful, relentless breakings apart. ‘It would be easier,’ he explained, ‘if you just channeled a food processor instead—dump all the ingredients and out it comes: same results, a lot less suffering.’ At first defensive and annoyed by the description, I now hold a deep tenderness for it. The way of the food processor removes all of the knowledge-building. This labored process I learned in the kitchen with my grandmother who still, at 90 years old, uses a mortar and pestle to grind garlic. Through it, she taught me how to feel food, taught me how to smell for readiness, taught me patience and rhythm through pain. I think of how her grandmother taught her how to tolerate that pain for the knowledge it brings, and I take comfort in that ancestry.
And so… I write to you bleeding: this labor an expression of pain and tenderness.
I began this letter to you four months into the ‘new normal’ of COVID-19. It had been 128 days of shelter-in-place—of total isolation. We had been deprived of the touching that M. Jacqui Alexander explains “is part of the work of decolonization”. I itched for gestures to read, for lines of eyesight to follow, for the hidden secrets between two friends’ bodies. Our senses had to learn to transition to the virtual company of endless online meetings. But I could not touch online. I sought the ancestral more than ever because I ached to feel in company when physically alone. Now, as I finish this letter, things have changed. It has been a little over seven months since the start of the isolation. I did not fully grasp the gift of virtual company until it was no longer a possibility with the one person I wanted to talk with most. The befores and the afters of 2020 are many. But the before and the after of the death of María Lugones during the after of COVID-19—there is no language for the profound grief of it all.
I spent the last three years learning from María in this physical world: I took classes she taught, I attended lectures she gave, I was active in a political-intellectual group she was a foundational part of[i], I joined her in office hours, I accompanied her to doctors’ appointments. I did not know it, but during this time she was teaching me how to learn. Her shrugs taught me when she wanted tea or when she wanted coffee, her sighs told me when she was in pain. I learned that she liked her tea with two Splenda, I learned the tea she liked from the café on campus was in a deep purple sachet. I learned to recognize migraine days or leg pain days, and how most days were just a different combination of both. I learned the water she needed, and the heat flashes she dealt with. I learned when to ask about what medications she was taking. I learned that she didn’t like oatmeal, instead preferring croissants during the small break between classes. I learned and learned and learned and learned. She taught me that negotiations of care, taking seriously the learning of people, is in the nitty gritty—make the everyday-ness of a person’s world part of your everyday-ness.
Moving online made this kind of learning difficult. Reading gestures became an impossibility when staring at tiny boxes filled with different people. Even if you could learn to listen to the movements, there was not much you could do about the slight scratch in their throat, or the quick glances of a search. I spent a lot of the summer sat in a beige room, on an old bed, call after call, attempting to learn the virtual space anyway. This is because in one of María’s and my Zoom chats, I mentioned wanting to attend the Middleburg Decolonial Summer School she had been a part of for over a decade. I remember how thankful she was that the school was still taking place, and how this online format helped her be with people during this period of time. The three weeks of this summer school would be one of those ‘before and after’ moments for me for many reasons. But central was that I spent what I now know but could not fathom then would be the last three weeks of my friend and mentor’s life with her.
At the start of the summer school, what I had were threads in my hand—threads made of blood, made of song, made of migration, made of salt; these threads sought their story in the tapestry. María taught me that the only option we have are other people: coalition. María reminded me to focus on what I did have instead of anguish about that which I didn’t. In each lecture of the summer school I listened for learning how to thread. I remembered that Laguna elder Lee Francis explained there is no ‘beginning, middle, end’ only ‘middle, middle, middle’. So I searched for how I, a first-generation-Cuban-Miami mujer, could have ancestry built from the middle. I listened for ways to enact what I had learned from María—coalition—and build ancestry from there. I kept María’s first question to me at the start of our meetings—is this peopled?—front and center. How could I people my empty history I had been taught in modernity?
Jean Casimir, in one of the summer school lectures, gave us an example of being from the middle. He demonstrated that origins are facades, beginnings and ends illusions. The Haitian revolution was a building from the middle: once-enemies on the African continent created communal solidarity to build ways of being. They created a coalitional ancestral memory that emerged from each of their knowledge systems. They threaded their different stories together, a weapon of survival, to build a lasting resistance. Jean explained, it was a ‘living with the modern life, not by the modern life.’[ii]
Jeannette Ehlers and Patricia Kaersenhout, both visual artists who build ancestry back into history, during their lecture asked us ‘who tracks their history clearly? And who builds their ancestry?’ Many walk alone for so long, learning that they have been stripped of people, stripped of memory, stripped of the capacity for language through history. But Jeannette and Patricia revealed that seeking a history that answered to modernity bore not fruit. Instead they turned to ancestrality. They have the courage to mutilate that which mutilates: history. Jeannette through dance, through whips, through statues—Patricia through dinner, through fabric, through textbooks.
Ovidiu Tichindeleanu made it clear in his lecture why we have had trouble sleeping these last few months. He explains an essential part of modernity is the destruction of dreams. The summer school sessions had been a kind of lucid dreaming: my days became fever dreams and my nights became anxious realities. It has been in dreams where possibilities are endless; life becomes unpredictable, order becomes fragile—we sense with profundity in dreams, we yearn with intensity, we weep with hurt. It is sensing free from the strictures of individuation that is inflicted on waking realities. In my dreams, when someone appears from nowhere, everyone shifts as if that someone has always been there. There has always been a capacity for ancestry in dreaming, and now, I feel it too.
The lecture by Fabían Barba stressed that we cannot claim the present because then we leave it with no agency; the West presents itself as ahead of history. Aldo Ramos’ lecture emphasized that it is not possible to change the future without changing the past; land is eternity. Rolando Vázquez warned that thinking of time spatially traps us in linear thinking. Each of them are attempting to dislodge from the impressing present-ness. I turn to indigenous peoples’ writings for guidance on these understandings of time and land. Laguna Pueblo writer and storyteller Leslie Marmon Silko explains that storytelling is like a spider’s web; Chippewa poet and scholar Kimberly Blaeser explains that starting from Native American epistemologies means weaving the ribs of a basket; Abenaki/Polish scholar Lisa Brooks explains that stories, time, and land are inextricable. If the ancestors are ahead of us because we follow their path, then how do we think of their path, if not spatially? We take seriously that of the image indigenous peoples are giving us—an understanding of image that is not representational but what Laguna writer and scholar Paula Gunn Allen calls a ‘psychic quality,’ not a material one. Gunn Allen uses the example of color: red is not just a color that represents an emotion but a ‘quality of being.’ The physical world and the spiritual world cannot be separated, they weave together to tell a story. Fabían’s image is in dance, Rolando’s in the path. Ancestry builds an image from the middle that has no beginning and has no end.
In the few weeks of the summer school I saw ancestry build in front of me. When my grandfather died in 2014, I thought my ties to Cuba had begun severing. I had been taught that I was ‘American’ and any connection to Cuba was in those that were born and had grown up there. So what happened every time one of those connections left this physical realm? Who would I be without my grandparents’? And then I met María. I learned about the myths that we are born with a clean slate, that we are made in one generation. Then, I was in this summer school learning from teachers all over the world. I found companions in the women of color I met, what felt like an awakening of dormant connections I have known before and after although we have only now just met. Another before and after of 2020. Ancestry was not just blood; it was coalitional.
María was our elder in the summer school. I called her at the end of each day and chatted through what we learned, how we felt. Every time she reminded me of the importance of learning the other students. It was like a soothing mantra: are you making friends, Daimys? Are you building connections? Have you reached out to this person, or that person? People who meet in this summer school are usually life-long friends. I look back at these treasured conversations and I think, she gave out the secret so willingly. In our phone conversations, in her lectures, in her questions to others. The secret is other people.
When I started this letter to you, I was thinking through the ancestral, yes, but if I am being honest, it was more of an intellectual pursuit. Yes, I would yearn for the company of my grandfather and started on this journey of ancestrality through and for him. I waded through my memories of him. I sifted through all of the dreams my grandmother had told me about. I stumbled through all the rituals we had growing up—glasses of water under the bed, sage in the corners, flowers on specific days. Then, I read María and I recognized there was something I was missing. When I met her, I realized that I did not understand the sheer possibilities of being alive. But now, with Maria’s passing, the urgency to feel the ancestral plane became different. I had built an intellectual ancestry in Audre Lorde and Gloria Anzaldúa and Paula Gunn Allen and Celia Cruz. But all of these people I hadn’t met, I hadn’t laughed with, I hadn’t cried with, hadn’t hugged. It was an ancestry built in my imagination. And I did not have the knowledges that share how the imaginations are just as real as the waking world. But for the first time I have language to think through ancestry. As I finish this letter to you, I now have to think through the transition from one plane of existence to the next. Maria is a mentor-turned-ancestor in a time where loss is endemic. Where I cannot see that path ahead of me but have learned to listen to the path in me—learning where I stand.
Gloria Anzaldúa gives place and condition: the borderlands. She “sits here, naked in the sun, attempting to visualize you.” It is a standing at the colonial difference, as Walter Mignolo called it during his lectures. Some, who seek to be like Anzaldúa but cannot let go of the universality of the West, stand in between what Rolando would call the double negation. The double negation illustrates how modernity becomes universal: it first denies humanity to certain people and then denies the denial. It is between these negations, in seeing the negations as separate or sequential (| |) that the many thinkers stand: they see the destruction caused by colonialism but inevitably enter back into modernity by ignoring the denial of this destruction as its very function. It seems as if those theorists can see us; but they cannot—their position within the double negation only allows them to see themselves. In this formation of the double negation it is crucial to understand that it is not peopled. María helped me see that. But standing at the double negation from another position reveals a peopled option: the standing at the colonial difference. The double-ness of the negation is centered; that is, these two negations are no longer separated but crossed. (X) It is in that crossing that it becomes peopled. Those who stand in this crossing can never unsee the brutality of attempted annihilation by modernity. It is an unmitigated seeing in all directions at all times. And so I stand at the colonial difference, as I stand in the borderlands, as I stand in the herida abierta: as place, as condition, as the path.
Early into the COVID restrictions, my phone broke. Communication with anyone became extremely limited and feeling connected to anyone became particularly difficult. I emailed María to let her know my phone was broken and that if she needed me, I would be checking my email frequently. She wrote to me
Dear Daimys, I would like to see you now that you do not have a phone. I look at the wooden train like thing everyday in the garage and think of you. I will zoom you so we can talk. I will e-mail you for it. Don’t worry about it. Sometime I will find you. Abrazos, Maria
Before, I attempted to visualize the ancestors…the ancestors that pieced themselves together for us—for those of us who are orphaned. I searched for their embrace as I listened for their cooing—a wind, a whisper. These ancestors, deprived of ancestry themselves, built an ancestry for us. I felt their warmth as I read their words: Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldúa, Paula Gunn Allen, Celia Cruz.
After, I feel her blow the wind that carries me, I hear her voice as the whisper that reverberates. I feel it jostle in my ribcage; I feel it ripple in my intestines; I feel it jetting down each nerve; I feel a reckoning with myself. Now, it is learning from María as my ancestor: a rearranging of words, a profound adjustment of relation. I have not fully processed it but have divulged to you in all its chaos.
I write so sometime, she can find me.
This writing es un despojo: burn it slowly and walk around the earth: find the ancestors who send winds to carry us and whispers to rebuild us: they are waiting for our thread to weave the tapestry. Don’t worry, sometime, they will find us.
Daimys E. García is a writer, artist, and educator from Miami, currently based in Binghamton, New York working on a PhD in comparative literature at SUNY Binghamton.
[i] Center for Philosophy, Interpretation and Culture. A PhD program María directed for some time turned political-intellectual group after its closing.
[ii] Casimir, Jean. “The Counter-Plantation System: The Communal as the Political.” Middleburg Decolonial Summer School lecture, June 29th 2020