A Conversation with Josefina Báez
A Conversation with Josefina Báez
In her most recent piece, Comrade, Bliss ain’t playing, Josefina Báez writes,
I am from where I was born.
I am from where I am right now.
I am from all the places that I have been.
I am from all the places that I will be.
But above all, I am that place gathering
Selected, subjective poetry
on my own trail.1
“Pure potentiality,” she says, “[is] my religion.” The work, as she claims on the inside cover, is indeed an intimate and spiritual diary of this Afro-Dominican woman, emerging from a need to address the connections and disconnections of being in diaspora. This is a question that is all too familiar to Caribbeanist scholars, and one that Báez charts in a “heart-centered” cartography that weaves its way throughout her corpus—outlining her existence: “This island called me.”2
This interview with Báez considers the spiritual locus of enunciation that she has termed el ni’e, a space that is very much grounded in the present and yet exists as the liberatory potential of radical love.3 We met at the CUNY Dominican Studies Archives in New York on 17 October 2017, thanks to the kind help of the chief librarian, Sarah Aponte. I leapt at the chance to record our discussion about this theoretical and practical approach that has become one of the major spaces from which we might consider Caribbean borders, crossings, solidarities, and futures. Josefina and I discussed these things as they relate to the bodies of black women, the beauty of creation amid pain, and a need to embrace the heart and vulnerability of the other in order to move together as one. Her writings and thoughts address the silences that are implicit in the fragmentation of diaspora—in a region that is filled with blank spaces and separated/connected by the fluid movement of water. Báez is a Dominican performance artist, writer, director, and activist who currently resides in New York. She is the founder and director of Ay Ombe Theatre.
Joshua Deckman: You exude an extraordinary mixture in your work by playing with hybridity in language, geographic space, and temporality. Places seem to take on a spiritual urgency to connect with what surrounds us in the present. It seems that home becomes a performance of the types of experiences you narrate in your works: displacement, disjuncture, but also a search for a somewhere else—a new space from which to make new paths. Is “home” for you spiritual in nature?
Josefina Báez: Home. For me, “home” is that is that is always present. I prefer to dwell in not what I have lost but what I have gained—what it has given me. Migration is not a burden, I am a builder. So my home, then, is el ni’e. My home is “the neither” that I know, that I have built. If I stayed in the Dominican Republic, I would still be in the ni’e. I was always a migrant, and I think that all migrants have been migrants in their dissenting communities. We wander and create. I am very much informed by the type of thought that Anzaldúa writes. I remember a class at the University of Georgia, Lorgia García’s class. I told her, “Don’t you just Foucault my work, Anzaldúa it!”
JD: I find it interesting that you mention Gloria Anzaldúa and also the creative space of el ni’e. To me el ni’e recalls the psychic and physical space of the border, and the hidden structures of power that lie beneath.
JB: Yes, but it is also the Anzaldúa from Light in the Dark, su tesis . . . o su no tesis.4 [Laughter] That for me informs a lot of my work and my life over the last fifteen years. To cross the border, yes, but to also dwell in and create knowledge from the cracks—el ni’e. It is like the militant Anzaldúa tells us, you are shown a path down which you can see all the stuff you do and all that you have to do to survive, and how to express it, and how you break yourself . . .
JD: Over and . . .
JB: Yes, exactly, at all times. And I have to ask myself is it possible to always be breaking?
JD: So I wonder if you understand pain as a foundational concept of what it means to inhabit el ni’e.
JB: Pain as joy too. They are polarities, and one will not take more than the other. Balance. More than the burden of a feeling, el ni’e is the as is of the feeling.
JD: Is this an embodied feeling, something that is always present or carried?
JB: I would not use “embodied.” I would use what is. It may be more simplistic, but it is that simple. El ni’e is. Border as a place, a meaning. Border as a place of being. More than limiting me, it is that space of creation. For me it really is the space of being. I will always construct and deconstruct what it means to be.
JD: It seems to also mirror the path of movement as well—you shift between Spanish and English and beyond. It almost reflects the language and rhythm that we experience as we walk down the streets of Washington Heights or Harlem . . .
JB: Yes, and to create that identity I will always return to the is, not the politics of it. I find the politics of it to be bitter and limiting. Politics will always limit the possibilities of identities. El ser, “the being,” is such a grand possibility, specifically the possibility of doing a dialogue like this. We are creating as we speak, and that is the highest good. My entire work makes me laugh about myself. And when I say myself, I mean what came through my senses at that moment. Not myself the “identity of me,” Dominican woman from DR, . . . what everyone always talks about, mujer negra, migrante de clase trabajadora, todo ese rollo. Es ese ser que es eso y muchas cosas más . . .
JD: Que es muy espiritual . . .
JB: Like everything around us and everyone. What I take from the spiritual is that is when you are able to be in the pause. The identity breaks . . .
JD: And in that break or rupture newness pushes through.
JB: Achha. Exactly.
JD: That is interesting. So I wonder what your reaction is to the many identities and words employed to talk about you and your work, almost putting your identity into a box . . . mujer, dominicana, negra, afro-dominicana, afro-latina.
JB: But that for me . . . those penta-thematic things that I always mention are the things that people always see. The first thing that you see is this woman who is black . . . and very content with all that that includes. And if they see my passport, they know that I was born in the Dominican Republic. Things that people see. But, yes, it is that and more. It is how I braid those things together that is what’s important. The only person that I might declare my own identity to might be somebody who is blind. I go back to what is vital, to what makes me and breaks me. I put those things into polarities and find the third one. And in that third option I become a better person, and I do not place the other in the identities that I see. And when I started doing that, I took on a lot of the costumes that I know that I am. But for me two things have been vital in my process: exclusion and invisibility. These have been my best gifts. Because I do not see myself as part of anything, I have been able to create amazing discipline and amazing one-ness in my work. And because I am invisible, I don’t belong . . . and that feeds my journey. So then I have not been able to cry and hate myself about what I am missing or what I don’t have. My lack of. So with that, I have created an amazing life for myself. Bliss. I’m not looking for integration, to be included. I’m just being and doing and what has been my reaction to the is to being. That politics that is not self-centered, it is heart centered. Heart centered and really concerned for others. Right now it is my mentorship of others that has really taken me to a great place. I have never done anything good until I have worked with and mentored others. To see the world and the work of others, and I can pause my own. High communion. Listening to others and the youth and being fed their energy. There is no match. Identity is that.
JD: And so the fragments of your identity and how you weave them together is a useful tool to connect with others. Your personal story of diaspora can be opened to reach out to the other?
JB: Again I will go to the politics of identity, and I don’t want to limit. My personal history is important. I don’t want to lose my personal history in any of the identities that I am. My personal history is my salvia. It is my blood memory. That must be what I’m loyal to.
JD: Pero es algo que también trasciende la sangre, trasciende el cuerpo.5
JB: Sí, sí, pero not trascender . . . or trascender in the best sense of the word. I prefer the tiny story that I have, because in that tiny story I’m not different from anybody. And that tiny story is related to the others that have similar conditions to my identities with my identities. And then un pobre piensa igual por razones muy particulares, sí is, is sí.6
JD: Entonces la pregunta sería, que tipo de comunidad se está construyendo en estas relaciones . . . en esas interrelaciones, en the is. ¿Una comunidad, como bien dices, “of the heart”?7
JB: Totalmente, a heart-centered community very concrete. Concrete freakin’ underlined. I’m as interested in if the other is secure, safe, if the other person is eating or paying rent. It’s not just what are you reading, but for me it’s your wellness . . . when I say wellness I mean what are you doing to be well, to survive. That is the community.
JD: A politics of care?
JB: Yes, look to the Lorde. Audre Lorde. The queen. And if you want to see her name in the most concrete way, go to the clinic that has her name, on West 18th Street. It is the most ideal way that you will see the world. You might see a nun. You might see a transvestite. And we are all caring about each other.
JD: Y esa es una comunidad del heart.
JB: Es totalmente una comunidad heart centered, concrete. That is the poetry of life. The poetry of possibility, of today in the is. This is the greatest space because we are not able to be blinded anymore. That’s it!
JD: So this is, talking about the formation of a community of the heart, where everyone is very conscious of the plight of the other. You say that this is grounded in the being of today. Is this being open or looking toward something? What type of future does this space imagine?
JB: Not imagining. We have to create it. We are building it even if we are not here. What we are doing is today. The important thing is that we care. If it happens that we invest in this thing that for us is important, that is what will be carried into tomorrow. But I mean today we really need to care for ourselves and the others. And we cannot dwell too much in each other’s pain. I know that in theory it sounds cool and can be very deep. However, I do not want me or my people in more pain. I do not want our reference to be more pain. The only thing that I recall when I completed Bliss is when they asked me, “You wrote that?,” and my answer was, “Yes, we too think about bliss and beauty.” That is why for me the is will have what you decide at that moment, including the past and the future. As is.
JD: So the care or heart erases past trauma? Histories of pain?
JB: No, I don’t like that mindset. For me that is not possible. We have to freakin’ create something different. I don’t want to undo the past. I don’t have time to waste with my oppressor and their shit. I don’t have time. I don’t even acknowledge their system. I come in and out of their system, and I want to build what I’m building in order to survive when I have to go into their system. We have always had that. We don’t exist. And when we do exist, we are killed. I won’t accept that reality. Our communities, we are a big body. Each artist or each community or group will emphasize a part. I am placed here [places fist over her heart], this is where my nation is. I have been here in the hand sometimes, I have been here [places hand over her throat], and here in my gut. But it moves with my needs and my urgencies. But I always see where I am as a body. And with each project, I say from where I speak and which part of this big body I belong to. And I belong to people with different shades—shades as skin color and the shade they throw. But it is that. I’m not interested in referring to myself and my pain. My pain is very personal, and I deal with it in a very personal way. I will make my suffering nothing. Not the place to sit and dwell and study. Fuck that shit. Our story cannot be a story of pain. We are an amazing people. We have personal histories that are amazing that are not being addressed or talked about. Stories of love and connection. I think these silences are important. I don’t want to compete for our suffering. I am informed by it. I have been through it. I know it. But to dwell there is not my choice. The heart is my choice. Beauty is my choice.
JD: Disconnecting from a focus on suffering that others would impose upon your body, almost in an essentializing move, in order to move toward a space of liberation and love. Like you said, the is or being in a heart-centered community.
JB: And liberation is ultimately my choice. My story is more about joy, about how we have created amidst all the crazy shit we have been through. We have been through that, and we have mastered some freaking macramé shit. Creation has kept us alive. Yo apuesto a la belleza. Yo apuesto en los diálogos. This is the only thing. I understand identity politics, but I have no time for it. It is urgent for me and the people very close to me to be well. We are not in times for me. Again, we are part of this amazing body that has a different foco en cada momento. Everybody that reads my works, I don’t want to inform the reading of my work. Your personal history decides where and how you receive my work. So I have no take on it. This conversation is a dialogue with a person that I want to learn more about, that works with amazing women that inhabit that body . . . and we are all in this body . . . ¿como puedes llamarla?
JD: ¿Afrodiaspórico? ¿Afro-caribeño?
JB: Perfecto, so the afro-diasporic body. And in that body each one of us has their own work to do. And the work defines what part of the body it is. Some of us are standing tall with fists, and these fists are needed. Others are in the heart. Others that are in the mouth and very vocal, we need that. We all have been through all.
JD: That is beautiful. The diasporic points on the body work in connection and disconnection, while recognizing the context in which each of them is found and the necessity for the work that each of them does. Diaspora moves as one.
JB: Eso es. And then we move together. And it’s a dance, an amazing dance that is the walking of all of us together. A ritmo that includes pauses, that includes silences, not knowing, knowing. But we are part of this body, and for me that is what is important. Apuesto a ese cuerpo.8 We are in this is that is wonder and possibility. It’s no joke. Working together and having dialogues from a place of vulnerability, que incluye pausas y silencios. Siempre he pensado que puedo entenderte no el cuerpo del dolor sino el cuerpo de la fragilidad que somos. Que somos frágiles muy fuertes y viceversa, fuertes muy frágiles.9
JD: And this vulnerability makes the community or the body stronger?
JB: Y vulnerabilidad not seen as weakness, but as is. This is part of us. This is what connects us. I don’t even have to say it, because when I need time for myself everybody in my circle knows that we are working from the heart. And sometimes I will start crying from seeing a butterfly or from someone not being able to pay their rent. Vulnerability como a vital part of ourselves sin ninguna pretensión. This is important for black women, como yo tengo que ser la mujer combatiente, the angry woman. A mí me recuerda muchísimo a los historiadores españoles que decían que no tenemos alma. Y como no tenemos alma, en el cuerpo este de nuestra comunidad no hay nada en el corazón. Y no podemos sentir ni el dolor ni el placer . . . ¡anjá coño! Entonces nos jodimos. Y por eso yo trabajo desde el placer y la alegría. Para mí es bien importante porque si la seriedad de nuestro trabajo o la seriedad de nuestras vidas va a estar basada siempre en la parte de la historia que es el gran dolor o el extremo de la hilaridad del negro . . . [trails off].10 Pero mi alegría, my joy is not the laughter, my joy is this freaking content that I have fucking decided on my own terms. When I say joy, it is that. Es la soberanía. I’m not reclaiming, I’m not fighting. My body has always been mine. Home is where my heart is.
Joshua R. Deckman is an assistant professor of Spanish and Latinx studies at Marywood University in Scranton, Pennsylvania. His research and teaching center on contemporary Afro-Latinx and Caribbean literatures and cultural studies. He is currently working on an edited collection of essays (with Victor Miguel Castillo de Macedo and Alline Torres Dias) titled “Oxalá: Afro-Latinx Futures, Imaginings, and Engagements.”
1 Josefina Báez, Comrade, bliss ain’t playing (LatinArte, 2013), 2.
2 Ibid., 2, 12. On the inside cover, Báez classifies this work as simultaneously “performance theatre text; performance poetry; non-denominational spiritual practice of an urban devotee; Dominican artist inner diary.”
3 Here I use “locus of enunciation” as Judith Sierra-Rivera outlines: it represents a space from which connectivity to the other (in a spiritual-loving sense) underscores the limits of reality in order to offer a third option—carving a new (oppositional) space in social fabric. See Judith Sierra-Rivera, Affective Intellectuals and the Space of Catastrophe in the Americas (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2018).
4 “Her thesis . . . or nonthesis.”
5 “The question would be, then, what type of community is taking shape in these relations . . . or interrelations? A heart-centered community, as you have called it?”
6 “And then a poor man will think the same as me for his own particular reasons, sí is, is sí.”
7 “The next question would be, what type of community is being built with/in these relationships . . . with/in these interrelations, with/in the is? A community, as you have termed it, ‘of the heart’?”
8 “I believe in that body, I would bet on that body [to save us].”
9 “I have always thought I can better understand not the body in pain, but the vulnerable bodies that we share. We are a fragile people who are very strong and vice versa, we are a strong people who are very fragile.”
10 “I am reminded of the Spanish historians [and European explorers] who used to say we do not have a soul in order to exclude us from the human. And, since we lacked a soul, in this collective body there can be nothing in our hearts. Thus, we cannot truly feel pleasure or pain . . . well fuck! Then we are all fucked! It is for this very reason that I choose to work from a position of pleasure and joy. For me, this joyful position is important because if the seriousness [legitimacy] of our work or the seriousness [legitimacy] of our lives is always going to be rooted in those historical moments that represent the great sorrow or the extreme hilarity of the negro . . .”