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On the Limits of Witnessing

11.3 / On Being Included

On the Limits of Witnessing

By Raquel GutiƩrrez April 15, 2020

In the summer of 2002, I had my first internship at the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) working on a project that conservation architects were in the middle of, a project that brought my Salvadoran identity to the fore. In 2001, El Salvador was hit by an earthquake. It measured 7.6 on the Richter scale. There were 611 confirmed dead, 2,400 injured, and over 20,000 evacuated. Thousands of homes were destroyed and three times as many were damaged. Of those who died, 542 were in the landslide that took place in the San Salvador neighborhood of Santa Tecla at Las Colinas. There, my Tía Haydee y Tío Samuel died in their humble two-story, 500 square foot apartment that I had visited on three separate trips over the course of ten years. It was a devastating loss for my family. I had just seen my aunt a few months prior, having visited the country for the first time as an adult on an artistic and cultural exchange organized by my friend and first mentor, the community archivist and artist Leda Ramos.

At the time, I was an undergraduate student at California State University at Northridge, majoring in journalism and minoring in Central American studies, the first university to offer such a program in the country. It meant a lot to take classes taught by others who looked like my aunts and uncles, and it was important that they teach classes to those who looked like me: the awkward, the fat, the Brown, the bilingual, the asexual, the angry, the able-bodied, the nerdy, the queer, the girl who felt like a boy. It was here that I saw what it meant for those who have been historically dispossessed to receive institutional support for self-determined study of their cultures’ historical and present-day issues. It was important to be in Central American solidarity spaces to acknowledge the realities of those countries—which are all too often overlooked—and to help further contextualize the depth of power the earthquake had on El Salvador’s economic situation at the turn of the 21st century. In these spaces I learned how both sharing your personal testimony and witnessing those of others can be powerful vehicles for creating structural change. So, when it was time to find internships that year, it was incredible to find a project interested in my mother’s land. The GCI was looking for an undergraduate intern who was familiar with the history and culture of El Salvador and who could come and work on a conservation project centered on restoring the colonial architecture that suffered earthquake damage. The buildings were located in the Salvadoran municipality called Izalco. Izalco—which translates to “the city of obsidian houses”—is at the foot of the famous volcano of the same name.

Adobe brick molds found in Tierra. Sangre. Oro., envisioned by Rafa Esparza, at Ballroom Marfa, Marfa, Texas. Courtesy of the Author. Photo: Raquel Gutiérrez.

The Getty sent a small team of conservationists to Izalco to work with Venezuelan structural engineers to assess the buildings. I remember my interview with conservation architect Mary Hardy, who helmed GCI's El Salvador Earthquake Relief Project, assisting authorities in training and planning to stabilize and repair damaged monuments. Now, I didn’t know anything about conservation architecture except that I knew the soul of a place lives inside its buildings. And Mary didn’t know how to spot the characteristics of a Salvadoran soul or the Indigenous inhabitants that were systematically annihilated in a countrywide massacre in 1932. That’s where I came in, the only Brown kid on the floor. It wasn’t just that I was the only Latinx person in that office space that summer—where I spent most of my days at my desk staring out the window to one of the most incredible views I have ever had of Los Angeles. It was also that I was maybe one of the few Americans in the América sense. Most everyone I worked with was of European descent. For me, that was a challenging novelty. It meant having to navigate not just other peoples’ cultures, but an institutional work culture that forced me to learn how to discern the interpersonal dynamics of everyone who worked there. It was often confusing. Witnessing these dynamics revealed to me what it means to be in the pressure cooker of an institutional work environment, a space where we, as representatives of “the other,” come into the mise-en-scène to imbue a dominantly white institution with our difference—what big philanthropy calls diversity, a way for institutions to show our Brown and Indigenous faces without having to interrupt the foundation of the structure in question. At the time, it was a way for me to keep working in the arts. Maybe someday it would all make a difference.

Raquel Gutiérrez presenting at SOMArts, San Francisco, California, March 14, 2013. Courtesy of the Author. Photo: Matthew Schoonmaker. 

The following year, I did a Los Angeles County Internship in the Performing Arts that took me to the intersection of Olympic and Cloverfield Boulevards, to the funky performance art haven now entering its 30th year of operation: Highways Performance Space. With its concrete floor where patrons were invited to Sharpie the names of loved ones lost to AIDS, the audience cozying up to each other in the venue’s 99 seats, a new production every weekend (save the two weekends during the holiday season)—Highways still feels like an artistic home to me. It was here that my queerness was found in the green room, behind the bar brewing too-strong coffee, wrangling volunteers, and making the opening speech before each show. On and off stage, Highways’ productions created bright and shadowy circles that called us back to ourselves and to one another.

At Highways I received my education in performance art. As an intern I was tasked with working on the Ecce Homo/Ecce Lesbo queer arts festival. This was one of the first endeavors of its kind in Los Angeles during the late 1990s. I worked under the vision of artistic director Danielle Brazell, a fierce, femme, lesbian white girl from the projects of Northridge in the San Fernando Valley. Performance art saved Danielle’s life, and she in turn committed to creating space for other outsiders shouting down the locked gates of culture. For Danielle, those outsiders were queer women of color, and she made sure they could find their safety and voice, fearlessness and community through performance and curation. It was there at Highways where I learned the importance of creating space for marginalized voices and experiences, that art was a salve.

Queer Mondays at Highways Performance Space, Los Angeles, California, May 24, 2010. Courtesy of the Author. Photo: Ian MacKinnon.

I went on to pursue a Master’s degree in performance studies from New York University, and a letter of recommendation from Danielle earned me a place to work with the late and great queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz. It was working with José that taught me to write about performance art and visual culture. Looking back at Los Angeles from the safe distance of New York allowed me to write about artists in Los Angeles who meant a lot to me, who gave me language through movement and gesture, oils and canvas, adobe bricks, and colorful paper party ribbon. In return, I gave them the context I imbued into their work, my commitment to explain to anyone who gave me 30 minutes of their time why Black, Brown, Indigenous, and Latinx artists are the ones really doing the work that could save contemporary art as we know it.

The underground carried my curiosity for a deeper study and practice in service to art, the arts, artists, and us—those that work as the connective tissue between these important entities. A punk show or an all night dance club should be a site of ontological meditation, a 4/4 beat reminding you that there’s only now, even though the now has been shaped by the past. These are the energies I bring to my life in the arts: a sense of collective expression and the belief that we should hold space to spark transformation as participants in each other’s interpretations of the worlds we are bound to.

Raquel Gutiérrez performing at The Broad Museum, Los Angeles, California, August 17, 2017. Courtesy of the Author. Photo: Paul Outlaw.

The first year I could finally vote, California Proposition 187 was on the ballot, scaring anyone who was undocumented into thinking the state was intent on deporting them. It was called the “Save our State” initiative, and though passed by voters, it was ultimately found unconstitutional by a federal district court. The level of xenophobia animating gubernatorial and senate campaigns that year was appalling. I was generally able to disassociate from all the vitriol being thrown at immigrants and their kids, but to think about it now—to think about the way Mexican and Central and South American immigrants are seen as disposable and undesirable, as dirty, as our food smelling weird, all these ways that Brown-skinned, monolingual immigrants are completely denied humanity—this was the stuff that fueled my anger, my resentment, my sadness, and the question that has persisted since my adolescence: Why does it have to be this way? 25 years later, what I educated myself about and fought for and against back then couldn’t have prepared me for today’s news of horrible treatments against children migrants suffering at the hands of an administration executing some of the most vile and dehumanizing policy we have seen in this century. How could we let it get this way?

Raquel Gutiérrez performing at History of Lesbian Organizing, Ave. 50 Studios in Highland Park, Los Angeles, California, May 27, 2017. Courtesy of the Author. Photo: Meiling Cheng.

I am often asked by younger people about my earlier experiences and what an artistic life might look like in 2020. But I’ll be honest. I haven’t thought a lot about this period of my early adulthood. There are painful memories that still affect me in ways far greater than the usual fodder that comes with adolescent angst and early adulthood hopefulness. There are a-ha! moments where intersectionality emerged in my thinking. Where an embodied matrix of compulsory social categorizations of race, class, and gender as they apply to me or you became clear, and I understood how we may regard them to overlap and enact interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage. I was forced to confront intersectional dilemmas in art, which put me at odds with disciplines like art history. I pursued performance studies because that felt like one way to compel art history to account for racialized capital-building. Elementary school field trips taught me to appreciate Mayan antiquities in the museum of Los Angeles County, but there were also necessary contemplative periods in my life that beheld Western civilizations and the canons it built to dispossess the communities from which I came. By witnessing I made meaning of the traces of Brownness in the white walls of the institution; the place where the canon is kept and protected. But there are limits to what witnessing alone can do when a place thrives because of the Brown hands that invisibly maintain the whiteness, keeping everything bright and clean. The awareness of these conditions imbue the witnessing with a quiet rancor that allows for a critical undertaking of the way the institution might hold itself accountable. Staying in these halls means keeping the oils of our fingerprints from being fully erased, in hopes that the next generation might find what they need to secure equity.

Brown Commons blurb at Angels Gate Cultural Center, San Pedro, California, September 16, 2017. Courtesy of the Author. Photo: Alison Picard.

This is one narration of Brown witnessing the white cube and its attending supremacies. Or rather, it’s my attempt to articulate what an ethics of care for one another could look like in a time and under an administration currently working around the clock to ensure our annihilation—and not just our annihilation, but the erasure of our ancestors and descendants. How many of us did not have the experience of migrating, but felt the ghosts in the rooms where our families raised us? How many of us here have found refuge in the artistic compositions of other immigrants and the children of immigrants? How many of us are painfully aware of the whiteness that surrounds our culture?

I have worked in the arts for twenty years. It wasn’t something I had always wanted to do—mostly because it never occurred to me that it was something I could do. I wasn’t raised in a family where a profession in the arts was a viability. Would I carve out a career or starve trying like the compulsory cliché of the working artist? My immigrant parents hoped for more legible stabilities: a healthcare provider, an engineer. I had to find a space for creativity while fighting those possibilities. As I got older, I gravitated to people who were makers. I loved all of my artist friends and wanted to go beyond witnessing and be in service to the projects they produced. Their endeavors brought people together, and I was interested because they wore their curiosities on their sleeves. They made new worlds when the one we were conscripted to failed us altogether.

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