De facto Religiosity, Transcending Borders, and Performing Diversity

by Robin Sacolick, UC Santa Cruz

They say it’s the journey, and to some extent, that is true of working on a dissertation. An academic department may or may not find a candidate’s topic interesting. However, when the candidate’s research involves interacting with people, other interested parties emerge. My work, which inquires into the Bay Area community who practice the traditional Mexican genre of music, song and dance called son jarocho, involves participation in performing, activism and group rituals. As I come to be personally involved, some of those subjected to my myopic researchers’ lens also come to be invested in the project. They care about accuracy in how they are portrayed, because they know the value of their activities. Other consumers of academic research may be found at conferences, of course, as well as within the more rare interdisciplinary studio, such as this one on Humanitarianism and Ethics. As an intercampus set of students and faculty representing multiple disciplines, our individual research topics vary greatly, at least on the surface. However, just a little deeper are shared concerns and common themes. The Studio has lent holographic dimension to my work by reflecting new facets of de facto religiosity, transcending borders, and performing diversity in son jarocho practice.

De Facto Religiosity. The genre comprises practices that involve regularly coming together (called convivencia in son jarocho parlance), group activities, humanitarian efforts, rituals called fandangos, and an ethic of respect for tradition. Yet they eschew dogmatism. Thus son jarocho praxis embodies a de facto religiosity without being religious. This becomes easier to recognize in light of the other Studio members’ projects. It is unexpectedly reflected in a colleague’s observance of victims of the Spanish Civil War who return over and again to witness exhumation of mass graves. Son jarocho participants’ humanitarian outreach efforts to support inner city neighborhood gardens, migrant workers, and children’s arts, reflect the community architectural projects studied by another Studio member. The immense cool projected by fandango dancers as they transcend suboptimal social conditions resembles some practices of gospel performers based in colonial resistance, studied by yet another member. Finally, a participating scholar’s study of the uptake of Tibetan Buddhist practices by groups of Native Americans reflects preservation of deep understandings of the order of things, as numerous son jarocho practitioners seek to do. Similarly, the two themes discussed below–transcendence of borders and performativity–evince aspects of de facto religiosity.

Transcending Borders. Son jarocho community practices have served to bridge borders within my ethnically and generationally mixed family, as well as between my family, larger Latin communities, and community artists of many ethnicities, generations, gender preferences, and national backgrounds. Other son jarocho practitioners speak of having had similar experiences. Border transcendence imbues the Studio format, which disregards the usual boundaries between disciplines–boundaries that may be construed, ultimately, to be artificial constructs in the way that Benedict Andersen explains national borders. Even more than the outside-the-box format, the actual content gleaned from other disciplines has enriched my musicological process. For example, it has been rewarding to work with a professor of Feminist Studies. The women of the son jarocho community generate a nexus of inquiry in my project, as they contribute much work, dedication and talent that help the community to cohere, even as they transcend historical borders separating gender roles. Related phenomena may be viewed in feminist terms, as well.

For instance, several issues surround a dynamic, within the community, of commoditization of son jarocho works by professional musicians, versus maintenance of ethical relations with the traditional practices. This might be interpreted epistemologically as capitalist-modernist versus traditionalist, or as worldly versus spiritual. A gendered analogy, though, reveals additional information. If making money as a musician is labeled as capitalist commodity fetishism, then it might be discarded (or embraced) according to the economic ideals of whoever considers the issue. However, by employing a gendered analogy, other possible interpretations emerge. If money-making with son jarocho is analogous to an individualistic, competitive ‘male’ muse (which women may equally ply) while non-profit participation in community fandangos, activism and humanitarian initiatives represent a nurturing, collective-good-driven ‘feminized’ impulse, then each exerts a significant role in both the community and the artistic expression. One might argue, of course, that the former muse is the feminized and the latter impulse the masculine, or bring in additional genders to deal with paradoxes; the point is that multiple gender approaches exist and coexist within broader society while economic systems are often sanctified or vilified as mutually exclusive and exclusively desirable. So by gendering contrasting muses in the son jarocho community, the benefits of each may be recognized.

Lutherie

Making ones own instrument is meditative. These Bay Area residents traveled to Veracruz to make theirs.

A related ethical problematic, which is acutely scrutinized within the discipline of cultural musicology, arises when considering the commoditization of son jarocho: cultural appropriation. This concept has been defined in different ways, but it is important to many. If compositions that are ancient, traditional, and public domain are performed for profit, are there certain people who have a greater right to do so? Are they the natives of the region that originally produced the works, or the most senior in a local scene? Are they the most accomplished musical technicians? Are they Latino? Are they male? There are potentially as many different perspectives on this as there are participants within the community. The bottom line is that at times, despite best intentions, border transcendence also amounts to transgression. The analogy to third wave feminist theory is easy to imagine.

Nevertheless, older-wave feminist themes apply as well. Focus on individual women as leaders and organizers in the son jarocho community is difficult to avoid, as their efforts are indeed critical, standing out because they transcend historical gender role boundaries. Even more difficult, however, is to tease out the motivations and history surrounding this shift; for these women continue to coexist–to convivir–and to learn profoundly from seminal community members who grew up when different notions of proper gender behaviors in traditional son inhered. My intervention proposes that the need for community within the prevailing political and social climate has catalyzed such participation, and, to some extent, a feminized muse; and that the analogy between the fandango tradition and de facto religiosity provides infrastructure for this muse.

Fandango

Fandango participants’ faces reflect meditative and euphoric states.

Performativity. A third theme in my work that has been exercised through participation in the Studio is son jarocho and fandango as performances of both diversity and life.

“Performing life” refers, in one way, to improvisational interchanges of lyrics and licks between artists in all kinds of performances. These interchanges mimic life processes. In the fandango, moreover, life is performed more directly, as genuine community issues emerge and resolve. For example, participants sometimes confront disillusionments when beautiful and transcendent experiences of community emerge from a background that is ultimately, inexorably, mundane and human. Egos may struggle with any variety of issues from inconvenient flirtations, to newcomers failing to conform to basic courtesies, to longtime participants going through life’s hurdles. The longer contour of fandango, as a regular ritual community practice of music and dance, provides a non-verbal forum to process such issues without direct manipulation of them. When one comes to see ones work through the eyes of others in an interdisciplinary studio environment, a similar kind of processing takes place.

“Performing diversity” signifies, among other things, the awareness among most son jarocho participants that the genre was created by the jarocho people of Veracruz, who were born of more than three constituent ethnicities (Mesoamerican, African and Spanish) hundreds of years ago. Consistent with the pan-ethnic diversity of the Bay, today’s participants comprise many ethnicities. Moreover, as noted above, practice of the genre today in the Bay Area involves a diversity of gender roles that, even thirty years ago, would have been unusual. For some, the community and its practices yield spaces in which issues surrounding complex identity definition may be, at least partially, resolved. Non-traditional or multi-ethnic families may find means of solidarity through involvement with son jarocho activities. More aspects of performing diversity include interplays of adherence to jarocho norms and flouting them; and of performing birth ethnicities and forming communitas with those of different origins. Identity formation and acceptance into the community unfolds through an informal sequence of learning the norms, practicing repertoire and sharing life experiences, much as takes place (at a vastly accelerated pace) in an interdisciplinary studio.

refugee

Impromptu fandango in San Francisco to support collecting clothing for child refugees.

These themes and others are expanded through ethnographic documentation of the community members’ experiences in my dissertation, which is nearing completion. With gratitude, I encourage others to find inter- and extra-disciplinary avenues such as the Studio through which to share their academic work. Genuine dimensions of perspective may accrue, while new sets of individuals receive the opportunity to benefit from specialized research they would not otherwise encounter.

 

Humanitarian Violence: The U.S. Deployment of Diversity

By Neda Atanasoski

Neda Cover

When is a war not a war? When it is undertaken in the name of democracy, against the forces of racism, sexism, and religious and political persecution? This is the new world of warfare that Neda Atanasoski observes in Humanitarian Violence, different in name from the old imperialism but not so different in kind. In particular, she considers U.S. militarism—humanitarian militarism—during the Vietnam War, the Soviet-Afghan War, and the 1990s wars of secession in the former Yugoslavia.

What this book brings to light—through novels, travel narratives, photojournalism, films, news media, and political rhetoric—is in fact a system of postsocialist imperialism based on humanitarian ethics. In the fiction of the United States as a multicultural haven, which morally underwrites the nation’s equally brutal waging of war and making of peace, parts of the world are subject to the violence of U.S. power because they are portrayed to be homogeneous and racially, religiously, and sexually intolerant—and thus permanently in need of reform. The entangled notions of humanity and atrocity that follow from such mediations of war and crisis have refigured conceptions of racial and religious freedom in the post–Cold War era. The resulting cultural narratives, Atanasoski suggests, tend to racialize ideological differences—whereas previous forms of imperialism racialized bodies. In place of the European racial imperialism, U.S. settler colonialism, and pre–civil rights racial constructions that associated racial difference with a devaluing of nonwhite bodies, Humanitarian Violence identifies an emerging discourse of race that focuses on ideological and cultural differences and makes postsocialist and Islamic nations the potential targets of U.S. disciplining violence.

$25.00 paper ISBN 978-0-8166-8094-8
$75.00 cloth ISBN 978-0-8166-8093-1
280 pages, 10 b&w photos, 5 1/2 x 8 1/2, December 2013

https://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/humanitarian-violence

Interdependence as a Lifeway: Decolonization and Resistance in Transnational Native American and Tibetan Communities

Natalie Avalos (UC Santa Barbara)

Struggles for decolonization are increasingly global and transnational. Colonization fosters massive diaspora migrations, either forced or out of necessity. These peoples, although residing outside of their home nations, continue to fight for the liberation of their peoples. While decolonization projects are diverse, they generally call for both the undoing of colonization as a structure and the removal of colonization’s effects. A core focus of many decolonization movements is resisting culture erasure through religious revitalization—the logic being religion constitutes the core values and traditions of a given community. When cultural identity is strengthened these communities are better able to resist colonial advances as well as practices of extermination. My research explores how the religious worldviews of transnational Native Americans and Tibetan communities living in the U.S. inform their respective movements for decolonization and resistance. Both of their religious traditions, though distinct, recognize a world in which all phenomena are interrelated. I ask, how does interdependence as a ‘lived’ tradition inform decolonization? In addition, what do Tibetan Buddhism and Native American religious traditions have to offer global movements for decolonization?

Native American religious traditions are rooted in a sacred relationship to the land, one’s community and the spirit world. The spirit world consists of the dynamic ‘life force’ immanent in all natural phenomena. Native American peoples cite an interdependent relationship to all natural phenomena as the fundamental logic driving the protection of sacred sites, sustainable ways of living and nationhood. Tibetan Buddhism combines land-based conceptualizations of interdependence to Buddhist philosophical concepts of ‘dependent origination’ –meaning that all phenomena are inextricably ‘dependent’ on one another—to theorize a unique form of interdependence. Buddhist ethics rooted in interdependence encourage empathy and compassion for all others, since they are ultimately an extension of one’s self. Living in diaspora contributes to myriad losses. However, ethnographic research among transnational Tibetan and Native American communities living in Santa Fe and Albuquerque illustrates that their religious traditions remain. The distance of diaspora has not tempered the desire to work for the betterment and liberation of their respective peoples—if anything it’s bolstered it. Due to a shared logic of ‘interdependence,’ working for the benefit of others is not framed as special or extraordinary but instead as a rational response to connectedness.

For Tibetans in Santa Fe, religious practice has taken on a new political dimension. Religion has historically played an integral role in Tibetan governance, what Tibetans referred to as chos srid gnyis ldan or “religion and politics combined.” The Dalai Lama served as both the spiritual and political leader of Tibetans, overseeing their spiritual and material welfare. Tibet never existed as a united polity as we understand nation-states today. The unifying thread among regional and sectarian differences was Buddhism. To be Tibetan was to be Buddhist. It was only after the Chinese invasion that a new ‘national’ in-group identity emerged, one united by Dharma but also in defense of the land against the ‘invading other.’ In exile, Tibetans make strategic use of this new pan-Tibetan identity, rallying non-Tibetans to join their cause. Thus, religious practice in diaspora has become infused with politics. Consultants state that they must preserve Tibetan culture for those in Tibet who are experiencing cultural genocide. One man says, “I feel even stronger, that I am Tibetan when I know that my countrymen are suffering.” They regularly gather at one another’s homes to pray and make offerings on behalf of those suffering in Tibet. Religious practice helps them assuage the pain and frustration they feel over Tibetan oppression. It is also intended to create merit. In essence, practice creates positive karma that will procure the causes and conditions for Tibet’s liberation. Because all phenomena are related, one’s words thoughts and actions are thought to have material and immaterial effects. Thus, prayers, the recitation of mantras and other Buddhist practices are done with the express intent to change the social conditions of Tibetan peoples. Even the activism on behalf of Tibet’s liberation, such as marches, rallies and petitions, are often pursued with the intention to help others, transforming these mundane events into ‘Dharmic activity.’

Native American peoples living in Albuquerque and Santa Fe live out a diverse set of religious practices. Like Tibetans, Native peoples were not a united polity before colonization. They are distinct tribes, with distinct languages and separate nation-to-nation treaties with the settler state. However, tools of assimilation, like the boarding school system that began in the late 19th century, and a federal relocation program in the middle 20th century, which transferred large numbers of Native peoples from reservations to urban centers for ‘employment opportunities,’ contributed to a pan-Indian identity that thrives today. The exchange of religion, belief and practice characterizes this pan-Indian identity. Historically, these exchanges have informed movements of resistance. For instance, religious revitalization catalyzed the Red Power Movement of the 1960’s and 70’s. While most Native American religious traditions had to go ‘underground’ during the initial decades after the reservation system began in the latter 19th century, due to federal bans on ceremonies, such as the Sun Dance, many survived into the present. Some of most basic features of Native American religious traditions do not require elaborate ceremonies, but only prayer and contemplation. Many of my consultants emphasized that they could maintain a relationship to the spirit world, wherever they were, even if they were far away from their home tribes or had been living in diaspora for generations. I was told by one consultant, “the land is all around you. If you have water, earth, air and fire, you can pray. You can connect with Spirit.” For many, this religious practice was not only a testament to survival but also an active tool of resistance. Due to the interrelatedness of all phenomena, several of my consultants explained that prayer, ceremony and even speaking kind words ripple out into incalculable results—“like a pebble in a stream” one consultant said. Another consultant explained that the prayers of elders in the nearby pueblos shaped everything that happened in Albuquerque and even New Mexico, meaning these prayers had the power to contribute to structural and social change. Decolonization was described as maintaining healthy relationships to the spirit world, the land and one’s relations. An Apache man in his 60’s said “I don’t need a federal recognition card or to live on a reservation. This whole area is where Apaches lived. It’s my home. It’ll always be a part of me.” In this way, he recognizes these places as ‘Native land.’ He and the land are sovereign.

Although these communities are unrelated, they contend with parallel struggles for decolonization. They both hold provocative religious conceptualizations of interdependence that transform their religious practice into resistance and liberation. These religious traditions provide a new perspective on humanitarianism—one that differs from the liberal discourse from which it is currently situated. One need not be a ‘rational’ agent in the world in order to be worthy of humane treatment. These religious logics illustrate that the just and humane treatment of others is necessitated in world in with other’s are an extension of one’s self. The transnational spaces where these religious logics are actualized provide a unique platform for their proliferation. In fact, consultants in both the Tibetan and Native communities explained that these practices are sometimes for oneself, often for their own people but many times intended to end the suffering or oppression of all peoples. As one consultant says, “when you are oppressed, we are all oppressed.” In this way, we can understand the respective expressions of interdependence as a lifeway to translate to a form of anti-oppression politics facilitated through the spirit world. They also de-center materialist interpretations of social justice and resistance by positioning religious practice as an efficacious tool of resistance. In these transnational communities religious continuity is framed as a means of resistance that not only humanizes and empowers but is also contributes to global projects of decolonization by seeking the cessation of suffering and the continued vitality of all peoples.

Ronald D. Schwartz Circle of Protest: Political Ritual in the Tibetan Uprising 1987-1992. NY: Columbia, 1994.

This ethnography chronicles the Tibetan uprisings against occupying China in the late 1980s and early 1990s, noting that most of these insurrections took place in the form of religious practice. While Chinese occupation greatly compromised Tibetan Buddhist practice in Tibet, Tibetan peoples fiercely guard this tradition as essential to their Tibetan identities. Schwartz’s first hand accounts of civil disobedience and other forms of protest among Tibetans reveal that the leaders and organizers of these actions were young Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns.

Film: Tibet’s Cry for Freedom. thinkFilms

Description from Amazon:

“Inspired by a burning passion to raise awareness of the Tibetan freedom struggle and using the Beijing Olympics as the springboard, first time filmmaker Lara Damiani quit her job, sold her clothes and furniture, maxed out several credit cards, used her life savings, grabbed a camera and embarked on a journey across India, Tibet and Beijing, interviewing the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Prime Minister in exile, Chinese dissident and pro-democracy activist Wei Jingsheng, former political prisoners who’d spent up to 27 years in prison, and many more. Tibet’s Cry for Freedom explores both past and present in Tibet’s long suffering non-violent freedom struggle. Learn the truth from the Dalai Lama about Tibet’s real history and ponder the future of a nation whose time is fast running out. Understand why China’s grip on Tibet is so tight, hear true stories of human rights abuses and listen to why many believe the 2008 Olympics should never have been held in Beijing. Tibet’s story from the time of the Chinese occupation through to the uprisings in Tibet that shocked the world in March 2008 is told. Learn about the human rights abuses, political persecution and environmental destruction of this land known as “The Roof of the World.”

Wounded Knee PBS: We Shall Remain—American Experience series

Description from PBS website:

On the night of February 27, 1973, fifty-four cars rolled, horns blaring, into a small hamlet on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Within hours, some 200 Oglala Lakota and American Indian Movement (AIM) activists had seized the few major buildings in town and police had cordoned off the area. The occupation of Wounded Knee had begun. Demanding redress for grievances—some going back more than 100 years—the protesters captured the world’s attention for 71 gripping days.

With heavily armed federal troops tightening a cordon around meagerly supplied, cold, hungry Indians, the event invited media comparisons with the massacre of Indian men, women, and children at Wounded Knee almost a century earlier. In telling the story of this iconic moment, the final episode of We Shall Remain will examine the broad political and economic forces that led to the emergence of AIM in the late 1960s as well as the immediate events—a murder and an apparent miscarriage of justice—that triggered the takeover. Though the federal government failed to make good on many of the promises that ended the siege, the event succeeded in bringing the desperate conditions of Indian reservation life to the nation’s attention. Perhaps even more important, it proved that despite centuries of encroachment, warfare, and neglect, Indians remained a vital force in the life of America.

Treat, James. Around the Sacred Fire: Native Religious Activism in the Red Power Era. New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003.

This work argues that the Native ecumenical movement of the 1950s and 1960s, which united Christians and traditionalists, catalyzed the Red Power movements of the 1960s and 1970s.  Treat’s study explores the nuanced relationship between a land based Native religiosity and efforts for self-determination and sovereignty among both ‘reservation’ and urban Indians.