Thoughts in progress

The Context of Resistance

I arrive at the performance space—a large ballroom that the university makes out to be a suitable stage for performances because it won’t relinquish any of the actual theaters on campus for lowly student-initiated shows—right on time. Early by Chilean standards. A side door is opened by chance as I walk up, so I manage to sneak by the line I now see coils out the other side of the building. Spot a friend and sidle up to join her place in waiting. We barely make it in as event staff add extra seats and begin to turn away the less entitled.

This is my third or fourth year coming to the Latinx dance group’s annual spring show. Many of the performers are friends or acquaintances. I’ve considered auditioning in the past and have attended a number of their one-off dance workshops at the gym. These nights are always fun, raunchy, exciting, proud. Whatever the group may lack in coordination, consistency or technical subtlety, they always make up for with the most enthusiasm and sexiness possible. I love it.

This year is their 25th anniversary and they are celebrating with a free show—hence, in part, the line out the door—that is more well planned and executed than any before. It opens bombastically with salsa, all flare and flashing lights. Psychedelic cumbia and latin trap, reggaeton and Mexican folclórico grace the stage in short dresses and cute workout clothes, massive colorful skirts and flowing ghost costumes. We yell and cheer, whistle and clap. Everyone is in awe and heat.

The penultimate number is a medley of past dances, an homage and send off to the performers from my class, who form a particularly large contingent of the troupe. You can really tell how close they all are, my companion says. It’s sweet and we feel good. But as the red velvet curtains close I grow apprehensive. Surreptitiously check my phone under my seat, prepare the camera to record. A close friend, who is also from Chile, texted me last night:

    • Bitch

    • Have you gone to the latinx dance show

    • They did part of “and it wasn’t my fault” in the performance and I thought it was horrible

Two of the older company members, one a good friend, come out from between the curtains to thank everyone who has made the night possible, ask for donations a final time and introduce the last piece. The last year in Latin America saw a variety of uprisings for different causes, she says. Many of us have been personally affected by these struggles. We wanted to pay homage to the movements of liberation across the continent with this performance.

I want to believe a group like this, with mass appeal to a radical mix of people, dancing across nations, genres and styles, can create moving and effective political art. I want to believe in a pop revolution. I want to believe in a revolution that is sexy, fun, pan-American. But something feels off. I’m on an elite college campus in the Northeast surrounded by students who are feminists, anarchists, marxists, and going to work for Goldman Sachs, or Google, or a corporate 501(c)(3), or, hell, already published authors before they can legally drink. The common denominator is we’re all at this institution, following the traditional educational path, graduating with varying levels of debt and varyingly, but consistently, rosy prospects.

And then up on stage a group of dancers begin to yell the new anthem of Chilean feminist resistance, “Un Violador en tu Camino” (A Rapist in Your Path):

Y la culpa no era mía ni dónde estaba ni cómo vestía

(And it wasn’t my fault nor where I was nor how I dressed)

Y la culpa no era mía ni dónde estaba ni cómo vestía

(And it wasn’t my fault nor where I was nor how I dressed)

Y la culpa no era mía ni dónde estaba ni cómo vestía

(And it wasn’t my fault nor where I was nor how I dressed)

Y la culpa no era mía ni dónde estaba ni cómo vestía

(And it wasn’t my fault nor where I was nor how I dressed)

¡El violador eras tú!

(The rapist was you!)

And on cue, the lights change dramatically for emphasis. And in 20 seconds it's over. And the performance moves on to capoeira, a Brazilian movement practice created by enslaved Africans to preserve their forms of martial arts disguised as dance. I love capoeira, but I am still with Las Tesis, the Chilean feminist performance collective that created “Un Violador en tu Camino,” which goes uncited in the night’s program. A few people in the audience cheered or yelled during the incendiary Spanish chant. Though adoption around the world of this performance piece has proven its versatility and power in every context possible—beside the Arc de Triomphe, in the Turkish congress, outside of Harvey Weinstein’s trial, at the stadium in downtown Santiago where political prisoners were tortured and killed during the dictatorship—I don’t think it was meant to be put up on a stage and watched. It was meant to spread, just like this, but out to include the audience as well, to become radical, participatory theatre. I wanted to jump up and yell along, do the dance I’ve watched on my feed a thousand times and memorized all the words to, I wanted to confront the boy who kissed me at the grimy co-op party my freshman year when I didn’t want it, I wanted to face a cop and tell him “the oppressive state is a macho rapist,” I wanted to pick up a rock and throw it at the armored cars that I’ve seen take over the streets of my home, I wanted my eyes to sting from tear gas, I wanted to be scared because I was doing something right, challenging the powers, pointing at the rapists, fighting for my beliefs.

Instead, I sat comfortably in a fold-out chair and watched similarly piece-meal tributes to the protests in Puerto Rico and elsewhere. Pre-recorded voices of the dancers recited canonical revolutionary slogans and what I took to be some of their own feelings about resistance intermingled with resistance songs from across the continent. I sat comfortably with the inevitable tears coming to my eyes as Calle 13’s beautiful, essentialist, overused transnational ode “Latinoamérica” rang out and my classmates danced, pumping fists in the air and covering their mouths in perfect hip-hop coordination. I sat comfortably as they all assembled across the stage waving flags of countries that have detained, disappeared and destroyed millions of lives for resisting in ways far less perfect, spectacular and sexy than this. I stood up and clapped and expressed my discomfort to friends in middling terms so as to not ruin their experience of authentic Latinx rebellion.

I wasn’t angry with the performers or choreographers or my friends. I was just angry at the fact that I’m here at all, participating in an elite institution of education instead of fighting against the system I’ve studied and purported to resist since I got involved with protests in high school. I was angry to have been teased with revolution and community up on stage without any outlet, any possibility of release. I’ll go back to my class about Modern Latin American history, where I’m learning how we got to this transnationally fucked-up state, step-by-racist-capitalist-step. In the library, where I’m supposed to be brainstorming an essay “that explains how race shaped 19th-century politics of nationalism in two of these countries,” I tell my friend how I’m feeling and we conclude that perhaps writing is the closest I’ll get to release. So here I am. But like the film I made about the Chilean protests in October when they started, my creative expressions are mere redirection, repurposed containment of that energy. I sit comfortably alone making art that I will submit to classes for credit. And up on stage, I see a promise of communal anger and catharsis that I simply can’t have down here in the audience, where I sit and I sit, uncomfortable.

Circular Time

It wriggles in: emerging from a shower, as usual, I realize most of my life has been occupied by cyclical, overlapping processes of learning and then unlearning, not linear progressions of increasing, cumulative knowledge, but rather a blackboard being filled with chalk not entirely erased but written over, over again, over the ghosts traces impressions expired negatives leftovers washed out memories of what I knew.

When my mother was in university, in Chile in the 80s under a conservative dictatorship, she ran for student government as the representative of a newly-founded, satirical anarchist party. In Chile, student government is taken very seriously and there are actual parties that reflect the actual political spectrum, and student election results are sometimes taken as predictions of the country’s actual politics. But her party was absurdist.

I imagine her looking the same as I do, everyone says we do, and I wonder if it was even stronger then, standing at the front of one of those deep, brown auditoriums where the speaker is far below the audience but pooled in yellow light, while the sparse audience is almost invisible in the wood and faded checkered upholstery of plush seats that fold down. She gives a presentation on trilobites, imitating the professors of her short-lived career in biology, their way of lighting a match, beginning to elaborate on a point and letting the small flame smolder down to their finger while the cig hung precipitously from her mouth, shaking the match, continuing her thought, cig still dangling, lighting another match, all again, unable to smoke it ever in the whole presentation, just like they did.

Somehow—though I’ve never been able to land the picture in my mind of this part from her vague descriptions—she focused on those traces left on the blackboard by the professor’s incomplete erasure, the dust left and then layered over. I imagine her drawing trilobites with chalk, alluding vaguely to some absurdist politics, attempting to erase, unlit cigarette dangling, writing over again. Now that I myself am in university, I think my mind is a blackboard, accumulating undersea fossils, their traces in stone and chalk’s dust on fingers and the impossibility of clearing the board all the way, of restoring the darkness.

Or a sandbox where kids’ paths and games, their stories, are piles of footprints, journeys untrackable, each day of play smothering the last imperfectly. In kindergarten, I could spend all day, or what in memories feel like days, digging paths in the sand, great arteries for water and marbles, castles and gates with no pretension of permanence, structures for stomping upon. What memory does the sandbox hold? Our buildings growing more complex over time? Our slow outgrowth?

Hopefully, I think, the layers are getting surer and fuller like an onion, or spiraling (if you look at the whole situation from the side) in some direction, concentrically in, towards a point, like the diagram at the beginning of the dinosaur encyclopedia I grew up with. Part of the obsession with sandboxes was what might be found between the grains, my dreams of becoming a paleontologist materializing right there in the playground. On one of the first pages of the dinosaur book, which I read into shreds, time was a slinky, stretched out and falling: Cretaceous, Triassic, Jurassic, going down, each layer of the spiral illustrated with choice reptiles of the era. The image wormed its way into my mind as the shape of time. But I don’t think the authors meant the spiraling itself to have particular significance— perhaps it was a means to save space where a straight line would’ve taken up too much.

I believe the repetition of the spiral going back over the same space is weighty.

A few years ago, I stumbled on a stop-motion animated short film online title “The Eagleman Stag.” It is a meditation on time revolving around the idea of the exponential nature with which our perception of time changes as we grow older— the first second we breathe, that is our entire definition of time and life, but by the next breath, the next second, seconds have halved in duration relative to our lifetime. By the end, a second is only an infinitesimal fraction. The image of our perception of time as a line on a graph shooting upwards—which the protagonist draws using spilled beer on the countertop of a bar—has slipped into my mind much like the spiral.

A few scenes after drawing the graph, the protagonist makes an about-face in his life and claims the moments feel “weighty” once more. He has been searching for ways to get back to the feeling of each second being something close to a lifetime, or at least, of seconds having some sort of relevance beyond their passing. Despite the momentary weightiness of changing his lifestyle, he soon despairs again.

It is only when we find him in a retirement home, groping for worms in the grass as he did in his childhood, that time seems to slow down again. Returning to the state of forgetfulness of children, time is no longer defined relative to our life. The graph is not reversed mathematically, but perceptually, and perception is all it ever measured.

A few weeks ago, my family finally moved my grandmother into a nursing home. She has had Alzheimer’s or some form of memory-loss dementia for several years now and was living with my parents, slowly wearing them down, too. Over the phone, my mother tells me it’s like her mother has three brains: the healthy, rational one that is totally clear; the one that is absolutely lost and confuses time, place and self; and one in between, that fills in the gaps of her clarity with fantasy. The three brains overlap, play leapfrog, and unpredictably, uninvited, switch between tea and dinner time. The one in the middle, the magical-realist brain, is the one that baffles us.

She tells her friend that at the nursing home they bring her breakfast in bed, that a woman came in and tried to use her bathroom, that she isn’t paying anything for her lovely new home. She understands she’s in a home now, but when details slip, new ones are fabricated. I want to know what time this brain lives in. It’s like her blackboard is finally getting fully erased, but pesky traces keep reappearing, insisting themselves upon her present.

A musician friend who could listen to basically any genre appreciatively, explained his recent obsession with Britney Spears as a “coming back around.” There are two ways to listen, he claimed, “on the way over and on the way back.”

On the way over, you arrive at a piece of music, from whatever you were listening to before, and decide you like it. You grow up with Britney, hear her on the radio, dance to her at middle school parties. The first way of listening is that initial appreciation, that liking directly— taking her in as she is. Eventually, you move on to something new, through different artists and genres and trends, slowly leaving Toxic, Oops and One More Time behind. You might add her to the queue at a party when people are in the mood to scream along to “old” songs, but you wouldn’t say you listen to Britney.

But sometimes, as your listening continues in time, you turn back around—maybe so imperceptibly, on such a large arc, it’s like how the world is round and you don’t even realize it—and one day you find you’re there again, playing the Britney CD in the car. Now you’re listening on the way back, and she is different. You can still remember what she sounded like all those years ago, but in the meantime, you’ve gotten into metal, and then death metal, and maybe opera too; you appreciate sonatas and so Toxic sounds like something else entirely. It’s not just about Britney, or the songs themselves, or the music videos with the pyrotechnics we see right through now; it’s about the worlds of meaning they all contain, and what it sounds like to tell your friends that you’re getting back into Britney Spears, ironically, you might add, though it’s so much more than that.

As my I spirals through and “keeps passing herself on her way around, her former self, her later self,” she hopes that with each passing again, each coming back around the cycle, grows a little tighter, more focused, blackboard blacker and clear.

I am in Florida now, like I was last year at this exact time, though I don’t live anywhere near Florida. This time around it’s just for a weekend, but then I was arriving to stay for three months; life by the college-timeline. They sent me off to pick a boy up at the airport, late at night, like it is now, and after I pulled up at the single terminal and we managed to locate each other through the phone, after I spotted him by the politics of his t-shirt and rolled down the window and called out from the SUV, he asked me, after my name again, what my conception of time was. One of those people who like to make themselves mysterious, who don’t ask “what do you do” but rather, “what’s your story,” who really just want to tell you their story. But I decided to indulge him, genuinely.

“I think time is circular,” I’m sure I began, saying something about how my conception was informed by Indigenous Latinamerican cosmovisions.

“Having grown up in the U.S., I still can’t let go of the linear, progressive march of time, though,” he replied. He was mestizo too, light brown and raised in Spanglish.

“Yeah. I guess I want to believe in the cycles, but still feel like we’re moving in some direction, you’re right,” I said. There was construction going on at the airport exit and I missed the on-ramp to the highway. I wasn’t super experienced driving, easily distractible, and told him to hold his thoughts while I found the orange-signed detour back. I wasn’t the only one mixed up, lights ahead sweeping around in large arcs to get onto the rising curve of the cloverleaf interchange, the repetition of each car making their u-turn like a lighthouse.

We merged lanes, picked up speed. “I’m a visual learner, picturing things helps me understand. If you imagine time as a cycle, a circle, it’s a closed loop repeating itself. But instead, what if we take the layers of loops and stretch them out like a spiral in space. Maybe the loops even get tighter as they move along, funnelling us toward something even as we hit upon the points of our life over and over again, just doing so more precisely and selectively, getting better each time. Circular progress,” we conclude, mestizando. I don’t remember what we talked about after that. But I’m back in Florida now, a year later, with the same thoughts and I don’t stay long, I take them with me.

So time, or we in it, passes itself, ourselves, over, over again, while moving and hopefully spinning a little faster each time, until we’re so dizzy we fall to the ground, to the point I was getting to all along. I see myself in years, lying panting in the middle of a circle my feet traced in the sandbox as I spun around and around and around, arms waving lost but reaching there eventually, dizzy but smiling up at the sky with this idea of a space that’s inserted itself between the words. I want to believe my time will get me there. Like a security deposit, there, all along, something I will get back when I fall onto what must be an answer.

We don’t get it back, though. I think of my grandmother and my mother. Think of all the people I know, older, who’s spirals fizzled, or broke or branched into a million split ends, their timelines hairs that need to be trimmed to grow healthily again. I lie down in the sandbox and stay there for a moment after the wobbliness passes; I want to stay. But my legs independently, uncertainly, knowing they must, draw themselves back in and bend, stand, draw me away from the sand and start back up over the circles.


I am in Hong Kong. It was July first. The twenty-second anniversary of the island’s hand over from the British to the Chinese, and a historically contested date where protests and celebrations have coexisted, or contradicted.

I changed into black clothes but forgot to put on good shoes, arriving in cheap flat tennis shoes to the march at Causeway Bay. For a long while we stood in the shade of tall buildings, surrounded by people, waiting to move. Light refracted and reflected off the glass towers; a woman whose legs were as tall as me modelling a summer dress on loop above our heads. Red and yellow signs announced in English and Chinese: Condemn police for firing on protestors! People power. Stand up for HK! Stop violence or else more protestors. No extradition to China.

Condensed speaker voices pushed through the heat with slogans and chants, keeping the crowd on its feet. My friends translated those they could. I tried to sharpen my ears, get the sounds and the cadence right, still struggling with the idea of tones. The repetition like a language-learning tape.

It sounds like there are changes in the front. The original route was set to end at LegCo, the Legislative Council building where everything has been happening lately, but the destination was changed by police. My friend told me about the last big protest on this date, in 2002. They had called for the chief executive’s resignation then too, and succeeded. It some so unlikely this year, though all records have been beaten and the protestors have been so consistent. I remember another sign: persist, resist, insist.

It was one of my first sunny days in Hong Kong, without the usual low fog and silk sky (I am sure this is unoriginal and in fact the Internet says an annual summit to discuss China’s Belt and Road initiative is called Silk Sky. I think that’s ok, keep it). There are good shadows. Babies and elderly, of course, families, marching. Some of the chants call on them to support the young people at the front. The road opens and widens after a time and the day is beautiful for protesting. Sometimes people bark when we pass police-lined intersections and it sounds so real. At their headquarters we hold up signs to cover our faces from the cameras peering from elevated corridors above.

The march had gone up two parallel streets up until then, but joined. Soon young adults with face masks appear standing on low traffic barriers, pointing to the right. The crowd is spread over this wide way and some begin drifting in the direction of the fingers. My friend asks what I want to do. Follow the main, sanctioned protest up the road? Do we want to veer right towards LegCo? We do. I start moving things around in the little purse slung over my shoulder for easier access: passport in a zip pocket, Burt’s Bees, hairtie, coins, phone, wallet, bandana, disposable camera.

We take one of those footbridges up and over the giant crowd and it is beautiful. The crowd is, and the people lining the edge of the bridge looking down are, and the signs and drawings and crowd-written rainbow post-it notes covering the walls are amazing. She says three protestors have committed suicide over the last month of unrest, some hopeless, others martyrs (she doesn’t explain more in the moment so I just looked it up but it’s not my story to tell so I’ll leave it there. Their memory is strong and their presence present. Now rest)

The woman playing a melodica walked by us again as we were taken back into the crowd (a different crowd, dressed mostly all in black, with surgical or other masks, with helmets sometimes and goggles resting on top or other things but never weapons, trust me).We dutifully covered our mouths and noses, less for the slinking threat of tear gas crawling up our legs like it would if it were in a movie (though in truth it explodes in a cloud like dust clots) than for the sharp barrel of a camera taking your face.

The street running along the side of LegCo is kept very clear. A large young man whose mouth I see only once, drinking water, is ensuring people stay to the side all afternoon. Runners up and down constantly with materials, supplies, ideas. Every while a group of six will come panting by, pushing a triangle made from the barriers that criss-cross Hong Kong’s streets. If you’ve never been here (like I hadn’t before this summer), there is a thing here that is, I suppose, to curb jaywalking and make sidewalks safer. They are lined with child-sized metal fencing, imagine maybe the white picket fence surrounding a suburban house, turned metal and gray, on the edge of most streets. I hope that is clear.

At the last protest these were torn from the ground (to make escape easier) with brute force, wiggling forward and back until the bricks came up. Now an adjustable wrench will do and they take the fencing out and zip-tie three sections into a triangle to build barricades.

I learn the hand symbols. All this is new since June twelfth. Raise both hands above your head and form a triangle. Listen to what they are yelling, try to just get the pattern of sound, so you can join more quickly. Now spin your arms around each other. There’s a sound I think of as cow-patty, I won’t tell you what it means (I don’t know if it’s sort of top-secret, the hand-symbol code, we’ll pretend it is), but your hands bounce above your head. There are more. A call starts somewhere and just passes up the lines through shout and hand until the material (scissors, lighters, zip ties) are found and a runner appears hugging twelve umbrellas up to The Front.

In my head I start calling it The Front, like All Quiet on the Western Front because I’ve always liked how that title sounds but not at all like it because it actually is pretty quiet on this Front. I mean, they are building barricades and ramming through the strengthened glass of the Legislative Council building but no one is getting hurt. The occasional call for First Aid (in English, this one I can chant), is always resolved so quickly. And our road is so clear an ambulance even comes through once, but I think the ailments are mostly fatigue.

Across the road there is a mass of umbrellas that hugs the building. Underneath I imagine the students building and taking apart, preparing and leaving messages. Sometimes the whole umbrella beast moves as one to a separate part of the building. A call crosses the crowd to not take, or at least not upload, pictures, to protect the identities of the uncovered few. Sunset is beautiful, my friend points out, how fast the clouds are moving above LegCo, they have some hurry out to sea, they are golden you know. I want to take a basic tourist photo but restrain. Restraint is the name of the game.

It is dark and we are still up and down with our arms and others are still up and down with the road and suddenly up in the great windows of LegCo we see our helmets and friendly points of light and waving arms, and we wave! Cheering, finally for something I can see and experience. I don’t know why they wanted to get in but they did and we waved and cheered because we’d done something, all of us all together in some way had built a way in, had built a hole in the wall. They run up and down the great stairs and someone makes a character in Chinese on the glass with their spray and the calligraphy looks beautiful to me at least.

At this point I get hungry and thirsty. I take one of the small bottles from the stockpile I’ve been helping grow, because I feel like now I’m really here, a body in this protest, a body needing water. But no food, which is ok, the hunger passes.

The Front is calm now and we pass around to it, not very close of course but enough to see the shattered doors. Safety is handed out for free, insisted upon. Arms in plastic wrap, a stronger mask, soon a helmet and goggles until I feel like the possibility of tear gas couldn’t even get in here. Sit skittish on the ground, rest legs from standing and shouting. Oh yes, I’ve learned the Cantonese word for fighting, to yell in response to Hongkongers! Fighting! and also I just yelled in Spanish sometimes (the language I learned to protest in) or in yips and tongue rolls to give the runners strength.

I just thought about how much had been accomplished, how there was no leader, no leaders, about the Telegram group chats I spied over my friends’ shoulders where decisions were made and updates and photos I sometimes was shown. The photo of the protestors standing inside parliament, the people holding session, that was the one. Imagine if we could walk into where the decisions are made without us, in our name. Make our own decisions. Do we stay the night here? We should ask the people outside to stay with us (after midnight it gets more complicated, lights go out and subway closes, my friend tells me). Three of us should stay, a peaceful delegation. We should all leave together. Those inside and out of the building discuss and decide, in person and text. Then we start to chant (we are exhausted) leave together! Leave together! And we do.

Afterwards I see videos of the protestors breaking the glass and I see why the protests are called violent, but I never thought it was. No one was hurting. It was to say we belong here too, though we weren’t appointed by Beijing. And I also see the photos of where protestors left a basket full of money for the sodas they drank in the council canteen. And the spray painting on half the city logo. And the paper signs on the shelves of cultural artifacts that say not these. And they weren’t harmed.