According the plan outlined in the introduction to The Commons Crit, we are providing two takes on Megan Yankee’s May 30 performance in The Commons festival at CURRENT ArtSpace + Studio. One of the writers, Stephanie Elizondo Griest, was only privy to the final performance, while the other, Victoria Bouloubasis, was embedded with Yankee throughout the month-long residency and development. We invite you to compare the outcomes, and read Victoria’s prior pieces here and here

By Stephanie Elizondo Griest, final writer

The U.S.-Mexico border is both my homeland and my muse, but I’ve often wondered whether my books are a worthy response to the region’s sufferings. When I learned that ICE raids inspired Megan Yankee’s performance Qué gringa, que gringa, I was eager to see how she handled this moral quandary.

Entering the darkened room, my eyes gravitated to the stage and the dancer’s lit torso, which was upside down and hovering in mid-air, her legs bent like the number four. A traditional Mexican folklórico skirt rippled over the rest of Megan’s body, obscuring her chest as well as her face. Yet there was no masking the effort that went into the arduous headstand: Her muscles visibly quivered.

This display of human strength contrasted with the symbols of human cowardice that surrounded us in the space—namely, three simulated border walls. Rising in the aisles were two waist-high walls of gold boxes stacked like bricks. Further away loomed a twelve-foot wooden wall that flashed bilingual texts side by side. The English excerpts were culled from nineteenth-century editorials condemning the mixing of races as “a cancer, an unpardonable sin against mankind,” while a Spanish poem by Gloria Anzaldúa celebrated “firewomen who give light to the dark night.”

Eight minutes into the performance, Megan parted her legs like a peace sign before kicking out of the pose. Removing the padding beneath her, she revealed not a yoga mat but a black bulletproof vest. She slipped it on.

That’s when the wooden wall started issuing commands to the audience. Choose a box from the structures. Remove it. Find a new seat. At one point, it told us to dictate Megan’s movements by raising and lowering our hands. She flailed around like a marionette, jumping high and crouching low as if mimicking an immigrant’s plight through the hurdles we created with complicity. Gradually, however, she reclaimed her agency and smiled as she knocked down the remaining boxes of the golden walls.

While this was clearly a work in progress with rocky transitions and a perplexing score (Dolly Parton?), Megan created arresting images that emitted potent ideas. I was especially awed by a section in which she wore both the folklórico skirt and the bulletproof vest. For me, it epitomized the schizophrenia of being Mestizx—a blending of bloods—and negotiating the fact that half of your ancestry actively oppresses the other half.

Megan feverishly turned backbends and handstands against the wooden wall. Failing to scale it, she then threw her body against it. Unlike the golden walls, it did not crumble. Megan curled into a fetal position of defeat, then pulled dollar bills out of her vest and flung them in the air—a devastating nod to Trump’s proposal for a $25 billion wall.

When we parted that evening, Megan encouraged us each to take a box home: “My goal is for them to get as far away from each other as possible.”

Indeed, maybe only when immigrant injustice is inside every American home will we finally rally against it. Megan’s art is a powerful way to take it there.

By Victoria Bouloubasis, embedded writer

Megan Yankee’s performance did what it set out to do. By boldly exposing her complicated identity against the backdrop of even more complicated politics, she implicitly posed questions to the audience about their own.

The title of this excerpt from Megan’s longer piece Qué gringa, que gringa, “On the Wretched Narrow,” comes from Argentine writer Julio Cortázar’s essay on axolotls, in which he encounters the Mexican salamanders in a Paris museum. Cortázar notes how the creatures cluster together, balancing on a thin stretch of moss and stone simulating the bottom of Lake Xochimilco (their native habitat). He writes: “The axolotls huddled on the wretched narrow (only I can know how narrow and wretched) …”

When Megan recited this sentence to me one afternoon, she gave me a knowing look.

This idea of restricted existence permeates Megan’s work. To see her dance is to witness freedom in layers of movement. The contrast between freedom and restriction that Megan embodies brilliantly interprets Cortázar’s quote. Like the axolotls, she is on display. And for brief moments she lets us peer into her psyche, showing an identity that is a balancing act.

Megan performed in a bulletproof vest and Mexican baile folklórico skirt, overtly acknowledging facets of her identity and heritage. She moved to the chirps of mockingbirds, the Texas state bird. Y’all know the ones: Loud and annoying, they mimic the sounds around them, assimilating for their own safety.

“On the Wretched Narrow” shows us that this balancing act is also part of Megan’s everyday life. Like the axolotls, she is on view for us. Like the mockingbirds, she knows how to perform assimilation. But she also knows that the viewers will set their own expectations. Her movements give a glimpse into her internal struggles with this daily spectacle.

Early in the piece, a voice over the speakers told her in Spanish to “negotiate the moment.” Upon this command, I watched her collapse. As she danced, she kept ducking. Later, in our talkback, she told the audience that because the prompts were spoken in Spanish, she didn’t understand them all.

I wanted to ask her if she understood the prompt to “negotiate the moment” and consciously dodged imaginary dangers as a result. But then I realized it didn’t matter. Just like it doesn’t matter if Megan fumbles through Spanish verb conjugation yet calls herself “Mexican,” or identifies as Mestizx even if she’s half-gringa. It doesn’t matter if she admits to improvising a traditional dance style from Jalapa, Mexico, simply because the music moves her.

What matters is how she uses the truths she finds within herself, those researched and those felt, and gifts them to us. In doing so, she gives us the choice to engage or not. The work needs no further explanation or fact-checking. It simply demands to be taken on its own terms.

Susan Sontag once spoke of the writer’s need for self-preservation: “There is only so much revealing one can do,” she said. “For every self-revelation, there has to be a self-concealment.” Megan likewise offered us both. She directed our eyes but never our feelings. 

She really never told us what to do.

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