Cuentos: A Solidarity Story

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #3 in September 2006]

The theme of solidarity is an inspired one; it is less of a question than it is a hopeful answer, as it presumes, in a generous and supportive way, that we can build solidarity. This could be an end in itself, but really this subject begs another question— how (can) we use our solidarity as an agent of change and resourcefulness. For me solidarity has come to mean building a safe and creative space of relationship and difference. I am an artist who has lived and worked in one general neighborhood (East Rogers Park / Edgewater) for over thirty years. I am also the artistic director of a local/global community based non-profit arts organization, the Cuentos Foundation that I founded in 1998 with other artists and activists. Cuentos operates out of my storefront studio located directly on Clark Street on Chicago’s north side. It was not an accident that Cuentos came about here. The people who live here speak many languages— they are from Pakistan, India, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, Russia, Bosnia, Serbia, Cambodia, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Cuba, Guatemala, Sudan, Somalia, and Congo.

Solidarity is a term that has evolved over the course of my work as an artist. In truth it is a term that has taken on much more significant meaning in the last ten years. Originally, as an artist solidarity meant a kind of no (wo)man’s land, a place where great artists lived, a sort of heaven of successful artists, creative geniuses safe from peril, infinitely successful and mostly dead. As a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the ’70s, solidarity was isolation from the world and community and identification with other (struggling and nonstruggling) artists, solidarity was with the “art world.” My political activism and philosophical thought was mostly set aside while in my training and then during my career as a gallery and studio artist. My own sense of otherness was always present.

In 1995, I visited Mexico—Mexico City and surrounding cities—for the first time. In 1996 I returned—this time to Oaxaca. In 1997 I went to live and study with traditional coppersmiths in the community of Santa Clara del Cobre nestled in the mountains of Michoácan, drawn by the hammered copper cauldrons (cazos) made in this community since the Spanish Conquest in 1533. I didn’t know their name, function, or source. I followed these vessels, huge and enormous like the inside of a furious drum, because their story spoke to me in words I couldn’t yet speak. And that’s how my journey of solidarity began, a journey I am still embarked upon, and one in which in this small text I can only barely explain.

The night before I left for Mexico, I had a dream—a vision of the artisans working in outdoor studios with open fire, flames dancing in the air. My experiences in Mexico profoundly affected me, stirred up my allegiances and my solidarities—both of which shifted infinitely forwards and backwards in time and history. I went to Santa Clara with a double objective, for my practice as both an artist and as a community cultural worker. I was inspired by Ricardo Moreno, with whom I had met shortly before my trip, in preparation for my upcoming residency at El Hogar del Niño located in Pilsen, in Chicago’s near south side, where he ran the after-school program. Rickey loaned me a book of Mexican cuentos and taught me the meaning of the Spanish word cuentos—fables, stories, myths, passed on from generation to generation— important because they tell you where you come from, because if you don’t know where you come from, you don’t know where you are going. When I went to Santa Clara the first time I barely spoke Spanish. I didn’t tell my teacher in the Santa Clara technical school, Maestro Maximo Velázquez Correa, that I taught in college. He didn’t know how old I was. After all I only had one child. During this first visit to Santa Clara, I had the immense fortune to live with the Perez Pamatz family, whose patriarch Maestro Jesus Perez Ornelas (now 83 years old and still a powerful master coppersmith!) is one of the most respected artists in the community, and a celebrated village elder. I became close to this family and their network of friends, and in this way entered the community and began to intimately know the village, especially in my subsequent ongoing frequent visits over the course of what will be nine years this November. One of the sons, Felipe Perez Pamatz, is the Cuentos Vice-President. Felipe came to Chicago as a visiting artist twice, on one visit accompanied by his father Maestro Jesus Perez Ornelas, under whom I have apprenticed over the past two summers. After this initial month of cultural immersion, I returned to Chicago with an illiterate Spanish. I could speak words that I could not write or read. But I knew where copper cazos came from and importantly who made them, and dedicated myself to learning and working with this amazing and struggling community and its beautiful art form.

Once back in Chicago I began to research and network to get my vision onto “papel” to make it a reality. One of my first (of many) contacts and supporters was Gonzalo Arroyo, the founder of a new immigrant organization, Federation of Michoacán Clubs of Illinois (FEDECMI). Gonzalo later became a founder of the Cuentos Foundation, and is currently a member of its Advisory Council. I quickly learned that to over twenty-five percent of Mexicans living in Chicago, Michoacán was a place they called home—their “tierra lejana.” This was how and when I started to think about solidarity in transnational forms. The entire community around my studio was a web linked to countries and villages around the world. What they have left behind most of us can barely imagine. Community solidarity began to take shape and meaning outside of boundaries of countries, nationhood, and time. In 2005, I spoke to over 400 members of the Santa Clara community on the occasion of the presentation of the book, Ritmo del Fuego / Rhythm of Fire: the Art and Artisans of Santa Clara, which I had created with the collaboration of artisans in the community and scholars of the area. I shared the story of my secret catalyst: memories of my blacksmith grandfather, Isaac Pollack, whose entire village of Motele was killed in one day in Poland in 1939 and buried in a mass grave.

The book Ritmo del Fuego was the fruit of more than 7 years of interdisciplinary and collaborative work and study, student exchanges, cultural identity projects, video documentary and more. Cuentos grew out of this transnational project and vision—linking Chicago to the coppersmithing community of Santa Clara del Cobra. Simultaneous to this exchange project Cuentos has facilitated, organized and engaged community (geographic, immediate beyond) in artistic projects delving into the cultures around and inside of us.

Turned over to these collaborations, my personal studio space becomes transformed from meditative, quiet workspace to the Cuentos community space. People are invited, welcomed in to create, participate, organize. Visiting artists create workshops and multi-disciplinary projects, forming solidarities based upon mutuality, respect, and equitable exchange. Through this local and transnational work Cuentos has developed and practiced a Model of Ethical Cross-Cultural Exchange, inspired by the anthropologist George Foster’s dyadic model of exchange (based on his studies in the indigenous village of TzinTzunTzan near Santa Clara del Cobre); Paolo Freire’s theories of pedagogic exchange (including his ideas about the oppressed repeating the actions of the oppressor); plus a good dose of Martin Buber’s I-Thou.

This model grows from what I have tried to practice and what others in and through Cuentos have tried to model and instill. Because we are always crossing bridges—because we are each our own culture, whether that be ethnic, racial, sexual—our individual culture meets our inherited culture, and these combined histories face us, imprint us, and those around us.


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