I am writing this after a difficult few weeks, a difficult few months, a difficult few years. In the past month, I’ve gotten COVID, been sick, had to isolate, had a bereavement, attended Zoom funerals, all alongside working on precarious contracts and not seeing my family for 2 years. I’ve experienced love, grief, support, solidarity, loneliness. This is normal for many now.
I want you to know this as you read this text because it’s important to know the cost of producing. This work is cathartic for me – yes, but it’s also work. There’s no point in me producing and creating work that doesn’t challenge the notion that art is worthwhile producing at all costs, that doesn’t acknowledge the fact that art is work, that doesn’t address and foreground that politics, grief, life, and struggle are happening in the backdrop of all artworks whether the artists acknowledge this or not.
True horizontality in art production means transparency, especially with the audience. It is no longer okay to shove our feelings, our mistakes, our budgets, and our skeletons in the museum vaults, in our inboxes, or backstage. In this spirit, please sit with any disjointed language, incomplete thinking, and slippery ideas that might occur throughout the text. Try to engage with art as a process and not a product.
Situate the space
To situate your space as you read this text, I recommend tuning into Radio Garden.
This will transport you to your abuela’s [grandmother’s] kitchen, to your tia’s [aunt’s] living room, and to the long car rides home with your primos [cousins]. An experience that seems to cross borders for many that end up away from home is the memory and crackling soundtrack of radio DJ’s introducing music, the sound of interviewers discussing politics and personal stories, and the manic switch to ads telling you to explore ‘Tienditas Valle Grande’ to find ‘los precious mas rebajados’ [Little shops Valle Grande to find the lowest prices].
Radio is a comfort, a narrative that weaves itself in and out of your activities. Whether that’s cooking, eating, talking or waiting. It’s the first thing I notice when I go home, the sudden switch to a language I understand, the tonal and rhythmic difference in the texture of all the Spanish(es) I hear. The way it pours out of different rooms in my home, how it trickles out of my neighbour’s kitchens, and the sound of it as it comes and goes as taxis and micros pass by on the street. The immediate contrast between the janky, cheesy, keyboard jingles and the comparatively clean, swish, and orchestrated audio quality of the BBC. I suddenly notice, I don’t think I’ve ever heard an advert for a garage on the radio in England. I’ve never been asked to message a WhatsApp number to book a time with the hairdresser, I’ve definitely never heard a Cumbia at an almost inappropriate hour in the morning.
If you have any of these memories, let them wash over you as you read this text. Let the words of the radio mingle and get mixed between mine.
The expansive language of grief
Currently, I am sitting with my abuelo [grandfather], who passed away three weeks ago. I will always be sitting with him.
Grief should be a verb – it is a doing. It is a process of feeling. It is not a static thing.
I think of Priya Jay’s assertion: Grief is a shapeshifter.
At a distance, shared grief takes on a textural quality. It sounds like a crackly funerary misa [mass] over Zoom, where the only way to tell what is going on is through the recognizable rhythm in prayer: Padre Nuestro [Our Father]. It is the grainy image of my grandparent’s home transformed into a waiting room and then a church; seeing the coffin in place of a family dining table. A new iteration of the dining room as a place of gathering, a liminal space in between life and death.
I find myself trying to find the words. How do you grieve in Spanish? I hobble together what I can by myself, grief seems slippery and confusing when the performance of it is private.
As performingborders starts thinking about expansive language that creates slippages between borders, I think of grief as a language. As a non-verbal somatic experience that slips between living and other, between oceans, between WhatsApp messages, between conscious and subconscious. Its vocabulary is varied, it is performed and it is private. Grief’s language is in tears but also in food, in memories, in company, and in loneliness. Grief’s language esta entre acá y allá [between here and there].
Is there such a thing as a mistake in the grieving process?
Grief is a language that crosses borders. It is hard for me not to think of it as a way of communicating, a way of connecting, and a solvent both personal and political. Grief crosses borders to bring us closer to those we know but also closer to those we don’t, it holds the rich potential to relate us to each other if we allow it to.
Aisha Mirza says in an article for gal-dem:Grief gives no fucks about linear time or capitalist notions of productivity, corporate wellness or respectability and for that we admire her.
We will never know all that we have lost. The number of deaths in the past year is incomprehensible, the number of people grief has touched and is sitting with even more so. It feels like an endless network connecting us all. To think that we have continued to plow on, that power systems have demanded progress, productivity, and efficiency while the world wept, tells us that grief and mourning are political. Racism, sexism, ableism, and classism tell us that there are people who are unmournable, expendable, andthese are people who can be left behind with little to no consequence. Not all lives are made equal. Death rates and those whose lives count are political figures.
Right now, grief feels like the space between rage and care. Grief has mixed with rage as we realise that the state doesn’t care, it never did. This makes collective grief and mourning more radical than ever. It means creating a space to care where there is none, it means making visible that which the state says is not there. It means remembering when we are being asked to forget. To be able to share this publicly with each other holds the powerful potential of protest.
Our grief can be anti-capitalist. Our grief can be anti-racist. To think that grief is an expansive language is to know that our individual pains are inseparable from the pain of others.
The words that Women’s Strike said in March 2021 ring in my head:
Remembering means Fighting
Like grief, ritual should be a verb- it is a doing. It is a process of feeling. It is not a static thing.
I felt unprepared for grief and it’s rituals. Like someone who had not studied for a test or paid attention in class. My memories became double-exposed photographs and I began to mix memories of dancing to villancicos [Christmas Carols] with the ones of my abuela making tantawawas during Todos Santos.
Being away from the collective in a time of ritual feels pointless, like the actions could only ever carry meaning when they’re co-created as a collective.
I tried to grasp at memories of ritual, and mis-reproduced them, I bastardised everything I had been taught in the process of misremembering and created my own pockets of ritual to carry the grief. This is the only way I felt I could take part in a performance I had forgotten the script for.
Is there such a thing as a mistake in the grieving process?
I find myself doing this whenever I want to connect to my family – I grasp at memories, or take one that is bubbling near the surface and bend it to fit my desire for ritual, to connect and encounter. I mix this with history to create a historically and factually inaccurate personal performance, created of memories, inaccurate histories, and my own invention. This space feels like the closest I can get to ritual by myself.
Whilst writing this, I encountered the concept of ‘ancestral tourism’:
Ancestral tourism implies ‘any visit which might be partly or wholly motivated by a need to connect or reconnect with an individual’s ancestral past’.
Without diving too deeply into a heritage tourism tangent, this comes from the field of heritage and tourism studies and looks at why people travel places and how they encounter heritage. In heritage tourism there’s the idea that people travel to see the ‘headline’ heritage sites, however, Solène Prince suggests that:
processes of resonance in ancestral tourism include enacting the family with distant relatives, partaking in [everydayness], and connecting to a mundane material heritage.
[…] not every tourist experience will be on a demarcated heritage tourism path since perceptions of heritage are subjective and fluid, making any location a potential heritage site and any object a potential historical artifact.
These observations feel like a really apt way to describe what the process of ritual making feels like at a distance. Instead of visiting a country, I visit my memories as a way of connecting to my ancestors. I create imperfect sites for encounter in my own home and environment. It also speaks to the entangled relationship between history and the everyday, because our embodied experience of heritage lives in our kitchens and living rooms.
For those of us that live in the diaspora, our ties with our histories and our ancestors often feel broken so we have to fill the gaps through imagination and reconstruction. Our family stories feel impossible to tell without the backdrop of historical events. At the same time, we are connected to our families in the everyday as we enact and embody the rituals that have been handed down to us. These rituals will not be what many envision to be ‘rituals’: not all rituals require a temple, a church, or a sacred site, not all rituals happen in the thick scent of incense, rituals do not always center prayer. Instead, rituals can be a way of tenderly cutting fruit, a recipe, a tendency to speak to birds, a dance, or extra sugar in our tesitos [teas]. All of these domestic activities become sites of connection, where every object becomes an artefact of ritual. I find I am most able to encounter my family, living and other, at this intersection of sacred and domestic.
I see my abuelo in the everyday, cuando pelo las papas, cuando busco los sabores terrosos y dulces del maíz, y con cada trago de Pepsi (nunca Coca-Cola). [I see my abuelo in the everyday, when I peel potatoes, when I look for the earthy and sweet flavour of corn, and with every sip of Pepsi (never Coca-Cola)]
Encuentros Solitarios is a method.
It connects history and the everyday through performance. This process centers solitude as a key element in being able to create these connections to people and stories who are not physically with us.
By recreating recipes, listening to Zoom recordings of family meetings, dressing up as a vaquero [cowboy], or trying to find our grandmother’s favourite tree in east London, we can create situations to encounter, challenge and explore the entangling between history, family, and our shifting geographic and political landscapes.
Encuentros Solitarios [Solitary Encounters] is an imperfect, inaccurate ritual for grief at a distance – an opportunity to encounter. In a time that feels empty without ritual, this is an offering to all of those who need it.
Let a memory bubble to the surface, let it mingle with others and with histories, lived imagined, and learned:
Let your mind and your imagination travel far and wide, let yourself follow your intuitive sense of curiosities and take a deep dive on the internet, spend time with your libraries, decipher the lyrics of a song or delve into your photographs. Fill in the gaps to your memories with history and fill the gaps in history with your own embodied knowledge.
Don’t try to reproduce your memories of ritual, instead, feel the slippages into fiction, imagination, and invention. Make the ritual work for you and your context – reflect on the changes you’re making and why. Feel free to embellish and change, what is the meeting ground between you and your ancestors/family?
Set your site for [everydayness] and choose your ritual objects:
How will we engage with this memory and history? What kind of grounding materials can you use around you? Is there anything you want to offer?
Perform the memory:
To music, to silence, to a recording.
In a Sound Altar run by Alicia Reyes McNamara, they mention the way in which the beat in Latin music rocks people, even in sadness, the comfort of a beat holds emotions and comforts the listener. I suggest being held by a beat, a familiar rhythm.
Enter a space of encounter:
What embodied memories surface? What gaps appear in the knowledge of our histories? What do you see? Who do you meet? How do you feel?
Migrants and everyone that exists on a border are always speaking through grief. Through the inherited grief of our ancestors, of our culture but also of relationships, through the mourning of realities where we are ‘home’ (however impossible that term feels to us now). Encuentros Solitarios is a way to enter a space where we can encounter this grief entangled with history, joy, comfort, and care. Grief is not always sad, it is an expansive language that speaks through performance, art, music and joy too. It is an undercurrent to all landscapes we inhabit.
A tonic for disembodied grief in the performingborders archive
Camille Barton has done incredible writing around grief and postcolonialism, they have an embodied practice that looks at the links between embodiment and social justice.
Anahi Saravia Herrera (she/her) is a London-based writer, producer, and community organiser. Anahi is physically based in the “west” but as much as possible, creates work in the Latinx diaspora, she was born in La Paz, Bolivia.
Her practice revolves around a creative research process that leads to creating anything from playlists and sounds to writing, collaborating with others, and performances at the intersection of the everyday. It is a collaborative, process-led practice driven by intuition. Archives and language are a core part of her practice and she often works from a collected archive of memories, sounds, notes, and family photographs. Creative methods of exploring the politics of feminism and anti-racism are at the forefront of Anahi’s practice. She is an organizer with feminist groups such as the Feminist Assembly of Latin Americans as well as the Designer and Cultural Workers Union. @anahi_saravia
This commission is a part of the performingborders 2021 programme, supported by Arts Council England. The full August newsletter: Shifting Landscapes can be seen here.