Invoking a future ancestral dance

Indigenous roots, narco poetics and mestizaje in the dance from the borderlines

An essay by Mexican-Chilean-Austrian artist Amanda Piña about the research for the fourth volume of her long-term project  "Endangered Human Movements". 

by Amanda Piña

Danza y Frontera - Museum Version / Endangered Human Movements Vol. 4 (2020) by Amanda Piña © Emilia Milewskaari. Courtesy of the artist.  

“Algo muy cabrón tiene que haberle pasado a estos hombres para poder bailar así”- Leonor Maldonado, film-maker and choreographer

When asked about the choreographic structure of the dance and its performativity, Rodrigo de la Torre, the leading dancer of the Dance from the Ejido 20 of Matamoros, often uses computer games as a metaphor to explain the way the dance should be performed:

“At the beginning of La Matraca (The Machine Gun sequence) you are like a racing car with full tank. Like in a computer game. Then during the phrase you use that fuel and at the end of the phrase your tank is completely empty. This is how you should manage your energy during the dance: You give all your energy in one phrase, you end up dead each time, give it all. That’s why we walk after the phrase, to refill the tank. After many tanks get empty and full again we are like “mariguanos” without having smoked, the dance is like our drug”.

“Machine gun”, “empty gasoline tank”, “dead each time”, and “like a drug” are the metaphors Rodrigo uses to teach the dance. They are rooted in the lexicon for a dance practice that emerges in a border context where the violence resulting from drug trafficking, border militarization, and American media culture are present in everyday life.

The computer game metaphors serve in this context as a disembodied set of images that can translate into embodied practices, energy management, movement qualities and choreographic patterns, giving form to a teaching technology that reflects and subverts the context in which it is inscribed. This dance does not take place inside a theatre but rather in the streets and plazas, and it is not work in the sense of “professional” activity. It could be easily understood as a “traditional art form”, yet categories like “contemporary”, “modern”, and “traditional” fail to describe its complexity.

In the process of communicating this dance, which is practised by male members of the working class only, a form of learning emerges outside the canons of tradition and the modern/contemporary ones of Western art. This creolized phenomenon can destabilize binary differentiations that are present in the narratives of what decolonial scholars call modernity/coloniality.

In La Matraca, The Machine Gun dance sequence, the visualization of the rhythm of a discharging firearm could stand as an example for the construction of a new mestizo physicality which acts as a resistance to a violent border context, the paradox of a globalized neoliberal capitalism [i] where the circulation of capital and goods meet the stasis imposed on the bodies of the racialized people.

In her book Borderlands / La frontera: The New Mestiza Gloria Anzaldua writes:  “In the ethno-poetics and performance of the shaman, my people, the Indians, did not split theartistic from the functional, the sacred from the secular, art from everyday life. The religious, social and aesthetic purposes of art were all intertwined.[ii]

In the following paragraphs I will try to relate three purposes or functions to this: the social, the aesthetic and the sacred from the perspective of the body present in the Dance from the Ejido 20 of Matamoros as it is danced today at the border between Mexico and the United States. I will later sketch the central questions that articulated the performances Danza y Frontera, (staged in collaboration with the dancers of Matamoros and Nicole Haitzinger, Tanzquartier Wien in Vienna in October 2018), Frontera / Border, A living Monument commissioned by the Kunstenfestivaldesarts in 2020, rescheduled for May 2021, and the social sculpture Frontera Procesión, all pieces created in relation to the fourth volume of the research on Endangered Human Movements.

The Social

In the dance of Matamoros, the transmission and practice of the dance happens in the free time of the dancers and is considered as a hobby by most of them, a leisure time activity outside of work in the narcotraffic organizations or the maquila industry, the two main economic activities in the region. The maquila is the cheap labour industry on the Mexican side of the border with the United States, which is accentuated by the explicit restriction of workers to form unions.[iii] Many of the dancers are members or ex-members of La Maña, the cartel, and have been part of its operational violence. Some prefer to work in the maquila industry with 12 hours shifts earning salaries of around €50 a month. Some have migrated to the United States in search of better working conditions, like in the case of Rodrigo. Young working-class men often are employed as sicarios or contract killers for the cartels, and even if they are not, they are seen as such by society.

“We dance to be something else than Maña”, “to be something else than sicarios”, says Uriel Soria, Koala, drummer and dancer, part of Rigo’s group.

In the backyard of Rigo’s family house, the rehearsals take place, and the men gather around the dance. The choreography is mostly in unison, with the drummers also acting as a choir. In the streets where the dance is performed, the dancers follow the leader’s hand signs to know which sequence is coming next. Socially the dance is a space of unity, unison, sign language and non-verbal communication towards another representation of working-class masculinity in public.

The dance could be interpreted as a space for brotherhood and commonality acting towards identification through unison performances of the roles assigned to the young men by the social context at the border.

The Gateway International Bridge, one of three international bridges that cross the U.S.-Mexico border between Texas and Tamaulipas.  © Stacy Sodolak. Courtesy of The New York Times

The Aesthetic

We wanted to dance and look cool in the neighborhood”. - Uriel Soria, alias Koala, dancer and drummer of the group

The third influence, “American Anglo” media culture is present in the translation and transmission of the dance. The fuel metaphor, the computer game as a war machine, the weapons as in machine gun (la matraca phrase), are constantly present in the economic contexts of la frontera, the border.

The representation of young working class men in media, the aesthetics of the “cool” in hip-hop culture and in media representations such as Hollywood action films or computer games are part of the traces to be found in the dance. This aspiration to appear cool is also related to Chicano aesthetics; to imitate the gringo, the white, means to become him, to canibally devour its cultural codes and to distance oneself from the folkloric idea of “the Mexican”, undervalued by the colonial difference, resulting in racializing schemes present in both countries.

When asked about their costumes, Rigo says:  “We wanted to be cool, if we put the huaraches and the feathers of the Matachines dance on we would look ridiculous and the girls would make fun of us. But still, we wanted to dance and we wanted to dance like in the neighborhood, like the bad guys, the dangerous guys we wanted to be. So, we went to the other side (the United States) to buy Nikes and t-shirts and caps, and we changed the costumes and the dance to make it our style”.

This sense of coolness can also be read into the dance movements themselves: close to the floor, like hiding; like neighborhood thieves or dealers, hiding in the corners of that urban territory. In a pose with the torso in a slight contraction, the stepping and turning are performed like this, close to the ground, a posture which resonates with indigenous dance practices but also assimilates Afro American features like “on the ground beats”. They dance like hip-hop heroes, like gangsters, like dealers, like mariguanos (weed smokers).

The dance could be interpreted as a space for their identification with the racializing schemes imposed on the indians and the mestizos (mixed race people) by the folkloric representation of the nation, as well as a process of cannibalistic appropriation [iv] of the features of the other.

Frontera / Border - A Living Monument. Endangered Human Movements Vol. 4 (2021) by Amanda Piña © Patrick Van Vlerken. Courtesy of the artist.  

The Sacred

In ancient Mexico-Tenochtitlan the two words for dance, Macehualitztli and Netotilitztli [v] withheld various meanings. While Netotiliztli referred to simple dancing, Macehualitztli meant also to make any kind of penitence. The word Macehua, root of Macehualitztli means to receive, make penitence and dance with a mystic meaning. Through dancing, one obtained the gifts and graces of their deities and sacred entities that populate the world, but since Macehua could also be used for “stealing” that brings us to the conclusion that through dancing one can also steal the richness of nonhuman entities. Furthermore, the word Macehualli was used to refer to the members of a class that was above the slaves and beneath the nobles. Macehualli performed military service, paid taxes and worked in collective labour. They could own property, marry free people, have free children, and have relative freedom. They had the right to own a plot of land as long as they cultivated it, which could then be inherited by their children if they worked it in the same way. What they could not do was alienate it or give it in pledge of another good, because in reality they were usufructuaries of the plot.

This system of land owning, called calpulli, is at the root of the Mexican structure of ejido, which derived from the land reform developed during the Mexican Revolution. The figure was later modified by the government of Carlos Salinas de Gortari in the nineties. It describes an area of communal land used for agriculture, on which community members farm designated parcels and collectively maintain communal holdings.

In the movements of the Dance from the Ejido 20 of Matamoros, a working-class neighborhood built on ejidal land, we can find traces of the sacred and communal functions the dance had in pre-Hispanic, colonial and modern contexts. Communal organizations related with indigenous social structures prior to the ejido, are today affected by the neoliberal logics of exploitation, racialization and criminalization.

As forms of resistance, sacrifice and liminality are central aspects of the dance of Matamoros, acting as a processional dance accompanying social/religious/mestizo rites of pilgrimage to sacred places today in the context of Christianity.

The continuity of the sacred sites, altars and temples, that were destroyed by the Spaniards and later Christianized, but remained in the same places, is well documented. There is also a continuity of the dances that became Christianized but continued being performed in the same sites and pilgrim paths.

In these processions, the dancers and drummers act as supporters of members of the community that are pilgrimaging for asking for the deity’s gifts, (in this case catholic saints), or thanking them for already granted favors by walking on their knees or on their backs, bringing offerings, etcetera. The main deity in this case is a mestiza embodying a creolization of pre-christian female deities and the historical mother of Jesus, the virgin of Guadalupe. “We dance for the virgin of Guadalupe”, says another member of the dance group. ”So she shall protect us.”

My thesis would be that the sacral aspect of the dance could be read as a form of continuity of the physiological (liminal) functions that indigenous dances had in pre-Hispanic and colonial times. This liminal function being more resilient than the changing ideologies and power structures the dancers have been forced to enunciate through history.

Danza y Frontera - Stage Version / Endangered Human Movements Vol. 4 (2019) by Amanda Piña © Hubert Marz. Courtesy of the artist.

Danza y Frontera: Staging dances from the borderlines inside the fortress Europe

The performances of Danza y Frontera are a collaboration between artists and dancers from outside the context of art and who are also not from Europe in the creation of a series of performances that account for the complexity and interweaving of identities into a process of disidentification as in Anzaldua’s terms,[vi] or into a Ch’ixi form of choreography as in the conceptualization of the Ch’ixi (in Quechua) or Cheje (as translated into Spanish) developed by Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui.[vii]

The process of disidentification describes the deconstruction of a model based on a dualistic logic, (Anzaldúa 1987) as for example, in what is owned and what is stranger, the here and the there, the civilized and the barbarian, the modern and the traditional, the local and the migrant. In the concept of the mestiza as a border subject (Anzaldúa 1987), living in more than one world where different identity planes interweavethere is no place for binary identifications.

As a mestiza artist living in Vienna and in Mexico City, I am confronted with the way I am perceived and identified as a Latina, as a migrant in Europe and somehow local in Chile and Mexico, (I hold both nationalities). Those asigned identities are never total or pure. As a female artist, dancer, I’m perceived as brown when in Europe, while in Mexico im perceived as a ‘güerita’ a pale one. My identities are many layered and difficult to embody fully in contexts where one is expected to be one and not many. In this sense, being more than one, being manifold, does not serve the forms of representation which rely in the capacity to represent and embody one single perspective, as the ability to represent one nation state for example. To be Mexican, or Austrian, or Chilean only.

To become a unit, as a Western construction of singularity, which stads in strong contrast with Indigenous forms of identities more fluid and processual, relies strongly in the concept of national borders. Those who are more than one, which are in flux live within and beyond certain constructed borders. One is different depending on the side of the borders one is in. One is allways contextual.

The need to cross the border is created by the mere existence of a border; the impulse of people to move existed even before the border. This is how the attempt to domesticate, discipline and normalize human movement is confronted. The figures of the “migrant” and “la mestiza” are defined by the politics of migration or colonial annexation. As metaphors these two figures introduce new models of representation of subjectivities beyond a binary logic, proposing a utopia of heterotopia. The celebration of the multiple identities embodied by border subjects, beyond esentialisms, finds in Anzaldua’s ‘new mestiza’ an expression which problematizes the heteronormative, patriarcal order.

Amanda Piña is a Mexican-Chilean-Austrian artist and cultural worker living between Vienna and Mexico City. Her work is concerned with the decolonisation of art, focusing on the political and social power of movement. Her works are contemporary rituals for temporary dismantling the ideological separations between modern and traditional, the human, the animal and the vegetal, nature and culture. Amanda Piña is interested in making art beyond the idea of a product and in developing new frameworks for the creation of sensual experiences.  She studied Painting before going into performance and movement based art, Studied Physical Theater in Santiago de Chile, Theater Anthropology in Barcelona and Contemporary Dance and Choreography in Mexico, Barcelona, Salzburg (SEAD) and Montpellier (Ex.e.r.ce Choreographic Centre Montpellier). In 2006 she received the danceWEB scholarship and in 2007 the scholarship for Young Choreographers from Tanzquartier Wien. In 2018 she was awarded with the Fonca Arts grant from the Mexican Government. She finished the international post graduated studies in curating in the performing arts at the Salzburg University with prof. Nicole Haitzinger and Sigrid Gareis. Since 2008 she leads the gallery space specialized in expanded choreography and performance nadaLokal in Vienna which she founded together with the swiss visual artist Daniel Zimmermann. 

[i] Gutiérrez Rodríguez, Encarna. “Deconstruir la frontera o dibujar nuevos paisajes: sobre la materialidad de la frontera” en: Política y sociedad no. 36, 2001. pp. 85-96.

[ii] Anzaldúa, Gloria, Borderland / La Frontera, the New Mestiza, Aunt Lute Books, San Francisco, 1987, pp. 88. 

[iii] Gutiérrez Rodríguez, Encarnación.“Deconstruir la frontera o dibujar nuevos paisajes: sobre la materialidad de la frontera” en: Política y sociedad no. 36, 2001, pp. 85-96.

[iv] Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Cannibal Metaphysics,University of Minnesota Press, 2014.

[v] Sten, María, Ponte a bailar, tú que reinas. Antropología de la danza prehispánica, Editorial Joaquín Mortiz, Mexico, 1990.

[vi] Anzaldúa, op cit.

[vii] Rivera Cusicanqui, Silvia, Ch'ixinakax utxiwa: una reflexión sobre prácticas y discursos descolonizadores, Tinta Limón, Buenos Aires, 2010.

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