What is The Commons Crit?

Last week at Chapel Hill Public Library, organizers of The Commons at Carolina Performing Arts, which culminates in this weekend’s public festival, hosted a public talk with two of its artists-in-residence.

Megan Yankee, who performs in The Commons at CURRENT on Thursday night, led the small group through a rhythm exercise. Remaining seated, we patted our thighs to “Las Poblanitas,” a song by Tlacuatzin, a band from Veracruz, Mexico that plays in the traditional musical style of son huasteco. Megan made clear that she had recently became acquainted with the group online (“They are just as new to you as they are to me”) before veering into lively footwork, buoyed by a violin’s energetic melody. Afterward, as she caught her breath, she offered an earnest disclaimer: Her performance wasn’t the “traditional” dance, and she wasn’t trained in that style.

This struck me hard.

Megan grew up in Texas. As she explained to the group at the library, she has come to identify herself as mestizx, or a person of mixed heritage—in her case, indigenous, Mexican, and white. Her performance is titled “On the Wretched Narrow” (taken from a line in Argentine writer Julio Cortázar’s famous essay about Mexico’s beloved and most odd salamander, the axolotl). It is an excerpt of her larger work Qué gringa, que gringa. This loosely translates to, “What, gringa? How gringa.” Of course, the term “gringa” could range between a pejorative and neutral meaning. Megan has translated it to people as “white girl,” a term that, for her, seems to also vacillate in its purpose.

As Megan figures out what reflection of herself the words show her, the world may expect more—from her and all mestizx people. She has noted to me, particularly in reference to the work’s umbrella title, that she doesn’t fit in with most assumed facets of her racial and ethnic identity. People often assume she must speak perfect Spanish, must know the indigenous cultural traditions of dance, food, song, and dress.

Megan’s disclaimer at the library reminded me of a recent essay published by the Washington Post in which John Paul Brammer, a queer Mexican-American writer, makes a case against authenticity in food.

“‘Authenticity is for tourists,” he writes. “When invoked, it assures the visitor that whatever they’re experiencing, be it a meal or a poem or a person, is rarefied and exotic, something they can’t get anywhere else.” He goes on to list what characteristics must be classified as “enough,” like speaking Spanish well enough, cooking enough traditional dishes, and so on. “These are not signifiers of true legitimacy,” he writes. “They are fetishes. But we are taught, sometimes by people who look and sound like us, to combine the two.”

As Brammer notes, in food and in performance, identity is often outrageously and palpably consumed. Megan is teasing out this idea, too, while struggling with her own reconciliation of how she’s moved through the world thus far—at times a hyphenated American, now proudly mestizx, but usually an “other” in a society that has normalized whiteness as its baseline, ignoring indigenous origins.

Our collective imaginary is already tainted. Megan is digging deep into history to prove it. The texts she’ll project on screen during her performance range from the time before colonizers claimed Mexico as Texas to the current moment, in which the same contested man-made border exists. The quotes she has collected from textbooks and news sources are vulgar about Mexican people. As of this writing, she doesn’t want to include their publication dates, a purposeful convolution that aims to prompt people to think about our current so-called “border crisis” vis-à-vis the long history of the U.S.-Mexico border. Megan has said to me, with a hint of relief, that the history lesson will give her “satisfaction in knowing that I’m not the only one in this room who knows these things now.”

The turbulence of this moment in history is visible everywhere: We witness frenetic outbursts every day in the news, in our communities, and this week, in Megan’s work. Her dance illustrates this with graceful and delicate movements punctured by sharp jabs. But whenever I spend time with Megan outside of rehearsal, my mind is directed more pointedly toward her personal story, embedded in this nation’s still-evolving history.

After rehearsal, we grab a quick dinner together. She tells me that as a mestizx, the direct link between the colonized and the colonizer lives “inside of her.” With her hand she makes a horizontal slicing motion across the middle of her frame. It’s the sharpest movement I’ve seen her make yet. The action is raw and deliberate, albeit unrehearsed. Her face hardens, and a distant stare takes it over.

“My diaphragm. That’s the border.”

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