By Yael Tobón Uribe
Before coming to Montreal, I had already been admitted to medical school in Mexico, and everything was ready for me to spend the (approximately) next ten years of my life studying medicine. It took me a while to admit that I didn’t want to study medicine and that the only thing I had always enjoyed was writing. I looked through my very limited options and concluded that pursuing a literature-related career in Mexico wasn’t the best idea. Life presented me with the opportunity to study creative writing here in Montreal, a city that has a vibrant and stimulating artistic community with which I am deeply in love. However, I wasn't expecting to encounter such a lack of representation not only in my area of study but also in the community in general. This, ultimately, led me to feel like “the other”. I went from being an ordinary person in Mexico to belonging to a minority in Canada.
Given that this is a literary journal and that I find myself immersed in this artistic environment every day, it seemed essential to talk about the (lack of) Latinx representation in the literary community. During a recent conversation with a friend, the question arose in my mind––is the lack of Latinx representation due to the intrinsic oppression within Canada or a lack of initiative on our part? To be honest, I am not sure about the answer, but something tells me the latter is true.
I feel that most of the Latinx representation revolves around the loss of identity of those who grew up in a Latin household outside of their home country and therefore feel like they belong neither here nor there (expressed beautifully in the poem Bilingual/Bilingüe by Dominican poet Rhina P. Espaillat). I believe that this is the discourse with which we are constantly identified. Many times, our identity outside our home country is reduced to not belonging. For example, back in Mexico, I felt that my peers and I were all fighting for the same things: femicides, classism, racism, politics, and, of course, all those more androcentric yet universal topics such as heartbreak, depression, loneliness, etc. When I arrived in Canada, I felt that I could no longer use my art in the same way because I was no longer in my land. My efforts to create an accurate representation of Mexican culture and its people would be in vain due to the lack of community support. In short, I felt as if I was fighting by myself here because my experience is very different from the one that connects Latinxs in Mexico.
Faced with the inevitable difficulties that arise when I try to have my voice heard as a minority, I have turned to Mexican poetry now more than ever––which is something I had never done before leaving my country. One of the artists who has captured my heart is the indigenous Mazatec poet María Sabina, born in 1894 in the town of Huautla de Jiménez located in the Sierra Mazateca. She was a poet, curandera, and shaman. She didn’t know how to read or write, and her verses were firstly translated from the Mazatec to English and then, finally, to Spanish. However, Sabina never took credit for her poetry. It caught my attention that during her lifetime, Sabina was very close with the American banker Gordon Wasson, who was a fan of mycology. This man took advantage of the poet and wrote much on the rituals present in this Mexican region. This, of course, afforded her a very pleasant economic stability due to the credit he gave her, but she was made an outcast by her people for profiting against their culture. The “gringos” often just wanted to have fun with the mushrooms, contrary to the sacred tradition of the Mazatec people. Sabina said a few words about this:
"A lot of people took advantage of me. I remember that time when Wasson came back; he gave me a record with my songs on it. I asked him how he had done it, I never imagined hearing myself. I was upset because at no time had I authorized Wasson to steal my songs. I cried for a long time because of this and insomnia did not let me sleep.”
I think that paying attention to different kinds of Latin American discourse can be helpful to create an empowering identity within the Latinx community outside our home countries. As a Latina poet and writer, now more than ever I find comfort in returning to the most quintessential poets and writers who embody the values of their traditions to create a new discourse around Mexican culture. Not as someone who has forgotten their culture, but as someone who embraces it a little more each day due to the huge distance that separates them from it on the physical plane, but never on the emotional one.
Last but not least, please enjoy this beautiful poem by Maria Sabina.
“Cure yourself with the light of the sun and the rays of the moon.
With the sound of the river and the waterfall.
With the swaying of the sea and the fluttering of birds.
Heal yourself with mint, with neem, and eucalyptus.
Sweeten yourself with lavender, rosemary, and chamomile.
Hug yourself with the cocoa bean and a touch of cinnamon.
Put love in tea instead of sugar, and take it looking at the stars.
Heal yourself with the kisses that the wind gives you and the hugs of the rain.
Get strong with bare feet on the ground and with everything that is born from it.
Get smarter every day by listening to your intuition, looking at the world with the eye of your forehead.
Jump, dance, sing, so that you live happier.
Heal yourself, with beautiful love, and always remember: you are the medicine.”
– María Sabina, Heal Yourself