Petrona Xemi Tapepechul and the Angel Rose Artist Collective
Building Our Own Tables Episode #1
Viviana Vargas: Welcome to the Building Our Own Tables podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatre makers worldwide. In partnership with Advancing Arts Forward, a movement to advance equity, inclusion, and justice through the arts by creating liberated spaces that uplift, heal and encourage us to change the world. I'm your host, Viviana Vargas or Viviana Vargas or Viviana Vargas Salvatierra or Yura Sapi. I'm a mixed race, Indigenous and white, non-binary, Colombian, Ecuadorian and United States American artist, producer, healer, facilitator, educator, and founder of Advancing Arts Forward and Balistikal, an LGBTIQ+ healing and arts space centering community in Latin America based in Bogotá, Colombia.
Building Our Own Tables is a podcast that interviews Black, Indigenous and other people of color, founders of organizations in and related to the theatre industry. It stems from breaking away from the notion that racially diverse populations need to quote, get a seat at the table, or that white people need to quote, bring chairs to the table for people of color, meaning that people of color need to have decision making power at existing and predominantly white organizations and institutions. For me, a few years ago, I decided to stop focusing on infiltrating existing organizations, but rather starting my own.
In this podcast, I've been able to connect with other founders of color with the blessing that we all have a role in the revolution, checking in and learning from these incredible visionaries who have created their own tables of arts institutions, movements, collectives, initiatives, and more. Join me in this first season of podcast episodes, an oral and transcribed sharing of resources, to learn about processes pathways to success and challenges that Black Indigenous and founders of color have overcome focusing on strategies and structures that expand beyond white and Eurocentric quote, traditions.
In this episode, I talked with Petrona Xemi Tapepechul, Founding Artistic Director of the Angel Rose Artist Collective. The Angel Rose Artist Collective is a multilingual Two-Spirit Native American Transgender, Intersex, Asexual, Queer+ led collective of artists, healers, educators, and advocates, that uplift Two-Spirit Nation and BIPOC Communities through art and land justice. The collective is named in honor of late friends, fellow artists, and community member Angel Rose, who lost her life on 10 December 2019. May her legacy live on through our art.
In this episode, Xemi shares offerings about including, honoring, and working with elders in this practice about owning Trans-identity, about the importance in Native-Trans and Black-Trans solidarity, and the need for community care in leadership transitions. So without further ado, please welcome Petrona Xemi Tapepechul.
Petrona Xemi Tapepechul: Yek tunal! Nutukay Petrona Xemi Tapepechul. Naja ni Xemi. Naja se siwayul pal Kuskatan. Nimulini tik Kuskatan. Naja nunan timulini tik Kuskatan. Naja nunoya timulini tik Ulukwilta, wan ne munan ipal nunoya timulini tik Tzakatekuluka. Naja nuteku ne takat mestizo-sefardi timulini tik Kuskatan. Tuiknewan timulinit tik Uselutan wan Morazan. Naja ni mumachtiani ipal Nawat.
Good day, everyone. My name is Petrona Xemi Tapepechul. You can call me Xemi. I'm a Two-Spirit Trans woman from Kuskatan, the land known internationally as El Salvador. I was born in Mejicanos in San Salvador. My mother was also born in San Salvador. My grandmother, she was born in Olocuilta and her mother, my grandmother's mother, was born in Zacatecoluca. My father is a Mestizo-Sefardi man who was born in San Salvador as well, and his family is from Usulutan and Morazan.
I am a Nawat language student. I am an actor. I'm a playwright. I'm an author. I'm a model. I'm a language worker and an aspiring polyglot. I'm an educator. I'm an award winner and I am the Artistic Director of Angel Rose Artist Collective. [speaking in Nawat] Thank you so much for having me. Thanks for everything.
Viviana: Thank you, Xemi. [speaking in Nawat] I want to start off by asking you to tell us your origin story. What's the origin story for the Angel Rose Artist Collective?
Xemi: We started off as a lot of stuff because of exclusion. A lot of Trans Native folks create things because of exclusion. For us, it was no different. We found that there was a lot of miscasting that was happening in the DC theatre community, in the professional theatre community. There was white folks that were stealing the jobs that belonged to Indigenous people and that white folks were making money off of the stories of Indigenous people, and that when Indigenous people spoke up and said, "Hey, this is not right," there was pushback. A group of young, queer, Native folks were involved in this production here in Washington, D.C., Ancestral Piscataway Anacostan Land.
We made a community forum where we talked about these issues. We invited the community out to come and have the conversation. Though not many people came out that were not part of the Native community, which was very unfortunate because it wasn't like we were speaking to the crowd, but I think that the theatre company that we were addressing did feel ganged up on. They felt like we were ganging up on them. We had all these Native people just telling them how they were doing everything wrong. They were being anti-Native. Beyond that, we found an empowerment in that space. We found the empowerment to say, "Hey, this is not right. This is not how it should be and we can do better than this."
That evening after that panel, we went out to dinner, the group of folks, and we began talking about what we wanted in the future, and there was an elder with us there as well, who worked at that theatre company, the theatre company that we were, not protesting, but we were having discussions with. She said to us, "The reason why we created the theatre company," because she was one of the founding members of that theatre company. She said, "The reason why we created this theatre company is because everybody around us was excluding us. They excluded us because we spoke Spanish. They hated on us because we didn't speak English the way that they wanted us to speak English and now forty years later, we're seeing the same issue but within our community where white folks in the community are excluding Native people." She's a Native woman. She is a Maya woman from Guatemala.
I was very surprised to see how much she had endured. Forty years of these people basically not celebrating her for the creator that she is. And for me after she gave us that empowerment, that gift of empowerment, because I feel like when elders encourage you, that's a gift. Especially as a queer and a Trans person, when an elder empowers you, it's a gift because so many people just reject us. She gave us that gift and we took it and we decided that we were going to participate in this one event that we were invited to, and then after we participated in that and people really enjoyed what they saw, we decided we were going to go participate in this other thing, and then this other thing. And then we started working with kids and then we started working with elders, and we started making sure that the things that we were doing was not just for queer, Trans, Native people, but we were involving Native youth. We were involving Native elders. We were taking the stories of Native elders that couldn't write and putting them on paper, putting them on a stage, and putting them into this light that they didn't imagine that we didn't imagine could happen.
We did this for several years. This year, we became eligible for the Helen Hayes award for emerging theatre company, which is a huge feat for us because one, we're Trans, two, we're Native and three, many of us are and continue to, suffer through chronic homelessness and job inequality and transphobia, all these different things that affect us in our daily lives. So it was an amazing feat for us to be able to do this. It was because of this community and the fact that we were able to go from having nothing and creating something because we need it to. Not because we want it to, but because we needed to. We needed to heal and that's what it's all about.
Viviana: Wow. Yeah, I completely understand that need coming from community. I really appreciate the inter-generational participation. How does the group work together and how do you work with other people personally?
Xemi: I know it's complicated, especially when everybody's Trans and everybody's Native and... Well, not everyone's Native in our group. We also include Black Trans people and other trans people of color in our collective as well because the DC theatre community is very exclusive of Trans people that are not white. These issues that we as Trans Native people face, Black Trans people face in the theatre as well. Trans people of color also face in the theatre, the exclusion, appropriation, where they put cisgender people in roles of Black Trans women or Trans women of color. We also experience these things. In a form of solidarity, our group is a multi-racial, multicultural group. What does that mean? And how does that look in our production? First couple of years that we've been together, we have been focusing on Trans Native stories and we've been bringing in non-Native folks to work on the productions with us.
Here in Washington, DC, the only Black Trans playwright that has been produced is Dane Figueroa Edidi, and while Dane Figueroa Edidi is an amazing individual, amazing artist, amazing playwright, there's also the need for the DC theatre community to support and to uplift other Black Trans artists. And so for us, one thing that we definitely want to do is support Black Trans playwright. Now that we are getting more recognition, now we're getting more funds, we are starting to put into our budget to be able to support production for just Black Trans people and have productions where we celebrate Trans women of color, Black trans women, Native Trans women, altogether the same night. We're hoping that these things not only create solidarity amongst our siblings, our Trans siblings, but also show the cisgender community that if a couple of Trans Native people can celebrate and honor the work of Black Trans folks and Trans folks of color, then why can cisgender people with a lot of funds not do the same thing?
Viviana: Chapter one, centering, involving, honoring, listening to, celebrating Indigenous elders.
Xemi: It's about community and about understanding what the needs of others are. When we work with elders, for instance, we understand that elders have different needs than young folks do. Elders need a little bit more training with technology, for instance, or elders can't rehearse for an X period of time or they need different formats for rehearsing. For us, when we work with elders, we want to ensure that we're honoring them and honoring their needs and honoring what input they're putting into the project because their inputs are priceless. The input that they give, you cannot put a price on it. It's everything. Honoring their time and honoring what they give is part of the creation process.
It's part of being community. There's a difference between going into a community and what anthropologists do to write their books. They go into communities, they take the words that they need, they write their books, and they never see the community again. For us, it's not about that. You're there with the community, even if we spent an hour and a half trying to get an elder on video because their mic isn't working, we spend that time because it's about community. It's about making sure that they're present and making sure that they are able to participate as well.
Viviana: Can you speak more about centering and involving elder guidance and wisdom as an essential part of this collective it seems?
Xemi: I'll be frank that, it's not been super easy to work with elders because of access. Access to elders doesn't come very often for Trans folks. Having an elder who honors your Trans identity is rare. When we first began the collective, a lot of us were closeted. We would talk to the elders and we just didn't talk about it because it's hard. It's hard when elders don't know about the Trans community, for instance, or they've never met a Trans person before and they don't have the language in order to talk to you in the way that you want to feel affirmed. It's a learning process. It's hard. It hurts sometimes. It's painful sometimes, especially when you talk about body parts and when those things come up. It's an integral part of what we do.
From the beginning, it was an integral part with what we did and I will say that, we stopped working with elders for a while, just because it was hard. It was hard. That was when we decided, let's just focus on Trans folks. Let's focus on what the Trans Native community needs and try to empower ourselves before we can go back in to the elders and be like, this is who we are and you have to accept us because we accept you and we love you and we want to be community.
I think that the collective has been growing with my growth as well. The more empowered that I got, the more empowerment that the collective was able to also have, because oftentimes I have been the face for the collective. Now with elders, when I speak to the elders that we speak to for the work that we're doing now, like right now, we're doing a play called, Sijsiwayulu, which means Trans women in Nawat, in the Nawat language, and we've been working with these three Nawat speaking elders to develop LGBT vocabulary in the Nawat language, so that Nawat learning youth can have the language to speak about themselves.
In this play, we have developed new music with the support of one of these elders named Nantzin Anastacia Lopez Lopez and she has written new music for this play of ours, and it's music that, not only is it new music, but it's music that celebrates Trans women, and having a famous Nawat speaker, somebody that a lot of people in the Nawat learning world know about, affirm and celebrate Trans women, it's going to have a lasting impact on our community for years to come. The support from the elders has been priceless. When you finally are able to find the empowerment for yourself, the elders see that, and they honor it. A lot of times we don't give the elders the credit, credit that they deserve. Yeah, they're able to grasp these concepts.
Viviana: That's beautiful. Yeah, and being able to transform the concerns within the community that you identified, and to be able to now have this new thing, this transformation.
Chapter two. Organizational leadership and transition of power. In her anti-racist theatre foundational course, Nicole Brewer talks about individual versus organizational. As a founder and leader of an arts group, sometimes it's difficult to see the difference between individual and organizational. I found it super important to accept the nuances and the truths, allowing myself to be aware of what is me and what is my organization, acknowledging that sometimes we are almost the same and sometimes we're very different. Once the initiative is created, it also exists beyond me. Also acknowledging the responsibility as a founder to steward the goals and values of the group and that my personal growth can translate to my community growth.
This idea of the collective changing and evolving as you are changing and evolving is something that I definitely identify with and understand. So would love to hear more about this idea of being a quote unquote, founding artistic director, acknowledging the largeness of what is within that and what that could include.
Xemi: Yeah. So when we first formed as a group, we were called, [speaking in Nawat], Seventh Generation Theatre. Our goal was to have that in mind, the prophecy of the seventh generation, that everything that happens today affects the seven generations to come. The seven generations after us are going to feel everything that happens today, and so we wanted to make that impact. The founders were three of us. It was three young queer, Native folks, and there was some intimacy stuff that happened. And so, when people that are in relationships are involved in the creation of an organization, things sometimes fall apart when they break up. And so, when these folks broke up, it was difficult for the collective to stay together.
We met some folks who were doing some land justice work. We went out to their land and we started working there. We decided to basically just be together. We didn't have the capacity to run lots of social media. Didn't have the capacity to apply for all the different grants. We didn't have the capacity to run multiple organizations. So we were like, all right, let's all just put our thinking caps together and do this together. We entered the Theatre Washington Program. You have to produce a full length play in one location for at least nine productions in order to be eligible for the program. The capacity of the other founder was not there. They weren't able to continue with the collective. It essentially was myself and other folks that were involved in the collective. I started asking other folks to be a part of the leadership because I've always been this person that, the reason why I wanted to do this was so that I could be on stage.
I'm an actor by trade. I went to acting school. I went to school for three years to get the little certificate so that I could be an actor. I love producing work. I love writing plays. I love being able to bring people together, but at the end of the day, I'm an actor. You can even hear it in this thing. I'm an animated person. I'm an animated person and I'm an actor. I want other people to feel empowered, to feel like I can write a play or I can direct the play, or I can design for a play or whatever it is for the projects that we need to do. So, we've going through that process where people have been empowering themselves and doing this work.
Late last year, we had something happen to our community, something really tragic. One of our community members passed away. Her name was Angel Rose, and she was only twenty-one years old. She was the bilingual community outreach director for our collective, that was at the time called Nelwat Ishkamewe, which means Indigenous root in the Nawat language. She empowered a lot of us when she was alive by just existing in the spaces that she existed in. She would always show it to empower other people. When she passed away, it was really hard on a lot of us. I'll speak for myself. It was really hard on me, specifically. Being able to create art was a way for me to thank her for the things that she brought me. After she passed away, our collective decided that we wanted to rename our collective after her, and that's why we're called the Angel Rose Artist Collective.
We hope that the work that we do empowers other people the way that it empowered Angel, and that the legacy that she left us, to be community, to love one another, to empower one another. And not just that, but to be scared. It's okay to be scared, to try new things and mess up and to succeed and to have fun. She taught us all of these things through the arts, and it was really empowering, and we hope that her legacy can definitely live through the art that we do, and we hope that everything that we do is in honor of her.
Viviana: And I'm sure she's absolutely blessing and watching over everything. What's next for the Angel Rose Artist Collective and for you?
Xemi: Great question. We've been talking with some local folks who want to be able to include Trans folks in their spaces, and they told me that they want to do a lab for Trans playwrights to develop the work of Trans playwrights of color and Black Trans playwrights and Native Trans playwrights because I said to them, "This is where we're at right now," because they came to us. They were like, "We want to do one of your plays. We want to do one of your plays." And I said to them, "I would love to do one of your plays, but I am a non-Black person.
The main community that your theatre, who you perform for are Black folks. It's really important for the first Trans playwright that you bring out to your community is a Black Trans playwright. Right now, there's Black Trans playwrights that I can recommend to you, but the ones that are in the metropolitan area, they don't have plays. They need workshops and these sessions where they can develop their work." And they were like, "That's a really great idea. We should do this."
Then I was like, "Yes, we should do this. Get the budget and get the money to do it, and we should do it." And they're like, "Okay, let's do it." In 2021, there's going to be a playwriting lab for Trans playwrights and that's super important. It's super important for there to be one here in the DC metropolitan area, where there is a lot of Trans people, the population here is like 4% Trans. On a personal level, my spouse and I are having our first baby in January.
Xemi: We're very excited. We're getting ready for the baby's birth. I've been thinking a lot about my role in the collective and what the future of the collective looks like not just for me, but for the collective. And I think one thing that... Breaking news, breaking news, one thing that I would really like is to not be the artistic director of the Angel Rose Artist Collective. There comes a time when there needs to be new leadership. Folks deciding about the plays that we're going to do, folks deciding about the actors we're going to bring in and all these decisions that need to be made. If we're trying to have a different, not new, but a different type of company, then we need new leadership.
One goal for me is to perhaps have an associate artistic director that comes and learns how to do everything, so that perhaps in 2021, once my baby's born, I don't have to be artistic director anymore. We can have a new artistic director who can continue the legacy that Angel left us and continue the work for our community and I will be able to participate as well. I also want to participate. Yeah.
Viviana: Yeah. I completely resonate with that because I have Advancing Arts Forward that's working on creating liberated spaces like this podcast, but also workshops and facilitation in the U.S. and English mainly. And then I have Balistikal, an LGBTQ+ healing and arts space based in Latin America. Everything's mainly in Spanish and I sometimes see myself flowing more, being needed in one of them more than the other. I can see the importance of being able to have more people taking on leadership and taking on decision-making power within these organizations that I created and I founded, wanting to share that and give that power and decision-making freely to someone else, and without stress of it feeling, is it going to work? I absolutely understand that.
Xemi: Yeah, and the reason why I definitely want to have a training period for somebody is because you know how they say, throw people into the fire or throw them to the wolves? I'm not really sure what the saying is, but a lot of times when people bring Trans folks into spaces, it's like, oh, I'm bringing you in because you're a Trans person and not because they're a good actor or a good playwright or a good whatever, just because, "Oh, you're Trans? Come, I need you."
Xemi: Yeah, tokenism, essentially, yeah, tokenism. We don't want to just tokenize a person and be like, all right, we're going to throw you into this. Fail, if you fail, don't fail, if you don't fail. I think that training and supporting emerging leadership is incredibly important. We don't want our people to fail. We want our people to succeed and we want people to have the tools that they need in order to have that success.
Viviana: Yeah, and making their success something that is a community goal. It's not just put it all on that person to do.
Xemi: Yes, exactly. Exactly. The things that I have been able to do, for instance, apart from the Angel Rose Artist Collective, being able to publish plays and get nominated for awards and be able to speak at all these different places. These things, people that are like me will witness these things and then be empowered to do them themselves, or do things that are similar to them. I used to say that, "No, that doesn't happen," but I've actually met people and I'm actually working with people now who have said to me that, "A couple of years ago when I first got your book, a book that I read every single day that was really empowering to me, and it helped me get through a lot." And for me, I was like, oh my gosh, I can't believe that I was able to do that because all I was doing was just writing down the things that happened to me. Us being empowered in ourselves. Us, as Trans Native folk, as Trans folks of color, we help other people by helping ourselves.
Viviana: Are there any final tips, advice you would give to anybody listening who might want to start their own collective within the theatre, within the arts world?
Xemi: It's hard to say, because I think everybody's different and everybody's experience will be different. Not everybody's going to have the capacity that other people have. One thing that I say about myself is that I'm a little bit of a robot. I interpret for six hours, I have a two hour rehearsal, and then I'm on this call. For me, I have all this energy and I'm okay with it and it's fine, but for other people it's not. If you work, then you don't have time to go to rehearsal. It's going to be different for everybody. I think one thing that I would like to say to younger me, even, we are all in different places. We can all have the same goal. We can all have the same desire. Our goal is to create a company and our desire is for it to succeed, but the reality is that we all have different capacities. Honoring our capacities is a way that we can honor each other. That's very important when we're trying to create with other people, because we don't want it to be the Xemi show. It's not all about one individual because if it is all about that one individual, where is the sustainability?
Viviana: Thank you so much, Xemi, for joining us in this first episode of the Building Our Own Tables podcast, and congratulations on being a mom.
Xemi: [speak in Nawat].
Viviana: You're listening to original music by Julian Vargas all throughout this podcast. You can find and follow them on SoundCloud.
This has been an episode of the Building Our Own Tables podcast. I'm your host, Yura Sapi. This podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of this series and other HowlRound podcasts in our feed on iTunes, Google podcast, Spotify, and wherever you find podcasts. Be sure to search HowlRound theatre commons and subscribe to receive new episodes. If you love this podcast, post a rating and write a review on those platforms. This helps other people find us. You can also find a transcript for this episode, along with a lot of other progressive and disruptive content on howlround.com. Have an idea for an exciting podcast essay or TV event the theatre community needs to hear? Visit howlround.com and submit your ideas to the comments.
See you next time and until we meet again, bye.