Where Thou Art
In this series, Joan documents a year-long research project in which she travels across the United States, exploring the different ways in which communities use the arts to address trauma.
The concept of “home” is a basic human right, but more and more I find that it’s regarded as a luxury. I often think about what that word means as I’m spending this year traveling across the United States essentially without one for the New Works Research Project (NWRP). However, I still say, “I’m headed home” when driving back to the house I’m living in while in Portland, Oregon, and I “went home” for the holidays. “Home” is my high school theatre room in Woodland Hills, California, as well as my aunt’s house in Spring Lake, New Jersey. It’s a privilege that I can refer to four different places with one word while many struggle to keep one. Since the beginning of time, people have been driven from their homes, and today we’re certainly not unfamiliar with these headlines.
The goal of the NWRP is to discover ways in which we, as a society, can better use the arts to heal communities in distress. I’ll be mapping the efforts that cities already have in place while investigating new ways in which they hope to creatively process and recover from trauma.
The city of Portland doesn’t necessarily appear to be outwardly struggling. So when I announced that I was starting the NWRP here, the question arose: “Is there trauma in Portland? What’s the cause of distress?”
Land. A large portion of the population of Portland struggles with the ownership of land. While temporarily living here, I witnessed three manifestations of this.
The goal of the NWRP is to discover ways in which we, as a society, can better use the arts to heal communities in distress.
The Original LAND
On my seventh day in Portland, I attended a “Conversation Series” hosted by the MFA students of the Art and Social Practice program at Portland State University. I sat with the eight students in a circle at the back of the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art and listened to Judy Bluehorse Skelton talk about land. I learned how the federal government uses very specific language to describe reservations and native programs, intentionally avoiding phrases like “trauma recovery.” There’s nothing like changing or eliminating language to project the same desired effect on a controversial era in American history.
“All humans suffer that trauma when you have to leave the land you’re from, where your ancestors are buried,” Skelton said. It was almost as if preceding and pained voices spoke through her. Forced exile is a dramatic trauma exclusive to no single time, place, or culture—she called on her heritage, the plight of the Jews, and the exodus of Syrian refugees today. It isn’t new information that survivors pass on their traumas; recent studies even show that the DNA of second generation trauma survivors is affected. From Judy’s talk, it was clear that both the land and people suffered a devastating colonization.
Judy recalled the tribes who lived in Oregon before colonization and how European farming practices disrupted vermin control, land management practices, and flow of wetlands operations. What spoke to me was her recent social efforts to reconnect the people to the land. She facilitated the restoration of an old potato farm—now Quamash Prairie—in order to regenerate camas, a first food and source of carbohydrates for Indigenous people. In addition to regenerating the land, the project has a deliberate emphasis on relationship-building. Quamash Prairie now serves as a place for elders to share their stories “in a way that they’ve never shared” with a younger generation. For the outlying community, hopefully these efforts will increase cultural awareness, serve as an example for the relationship-building that lies ahead, and create truly sustainable and regenerative communities.
In 2013, Oregon was the number one destination among people who moved from one state to another, according to CNN. With the cost of living of half that of Los Angeles, lush scenery, and hip culture, Portland is a desirable place to live. However, the boost in population has driven up low housing prices, slashed job availability, and steadily increased traffic and commute times. Although almost everyone I’ve met in Portland has been kind, friendly, and willing to engage in conversations with me—even after learning that I’m from Los Angeles—in most interactions I start off explaining, almost apologetically, that I was only in Portland temporarily. Baristas and bartenders talk about the invasion of outsiders. Many Californian developers are buying up land, demolishing gorgeous historical buildings, and building high-rent housing, which means some lifelong residents feel they are being forced out.
Urban exile, commonly and casually referred to as gentrification, is occurring in Portland, and it’s similar to what’s been happening in San Francisco. Unique cultural aspects draw people to these cities, but start to slip away as more people claim them as their own. Portland is notoriously an artisanal town, but as it hits its saturation point, it almost becomes a caricature of itself. Battle lines in both cities are being drawn along economic and cultural lines.
In the midst of the housing emergency in Portland, I’m thinking about Quamash Prairie, and envisioning how the NWRP can creatively address the ongoing struggles of a community and consider real-time responses.
This past fall, I managed to obtain a ticket to the sold-out closing weekend production of a new musical Cuba Libre, a memory play that tells the coming-of-age story of a musician caught between two cultures. Comprised of the real-life stories of Tiempo Libre’s band members growing up in Cuba under Castro’s dictatorship, the play offers bilingual Afro-Caribbean music (known as "timba") to Portland theatregoers. After three years of development, the production was directed by Artists Repertory Theatre’s artistic director, Dámaso Rodriguez, a Cuban-American transplant from Los Angeles.
I think audiences loved Cuba Libre because the stories told on stage are not dissimilar to the headlines we read in the news. Throughout the play, I was reminded of the devastating front page photo of Syrian refugees washed up on the shores of Greece. Desperate situations beget desperate acts; people don’t get on rafts unless the water is safer than the land. Jorge Gomez, bandleader and founding member of Tiempo Libre, said during the making of the production: “It’s very easy to talk about things you don’t really know. You have to live it. Tourists go to Cuba and stay in hotels where they have everything they need. If you’re Cuban, you have nothing.” Set mostly in the nineties, the play almost felt dated, although those struggles and conditions represent modern Cuban life and resonate with political exiles and refugees.
The vibrancy and spirit of Cuba Libre depicted a version of the hardships of living and ultimately escaping Cuba. It also managed to make me homesick for a land that’s not even mine. It transported me to Los Angeles eight months ago: my struggle between ambition and romance, the beginning of heated political debates, and the music! I went salsa dancing every week in LA to destress, refocus my energy, and remember where passion lived inside me. In Cuba Libre, the salsa dance rueda circle in the final musical number had me in tears. I eventually found the salsa community in Portland and quickly remembered why dancing is my therapy. I don’t understand most of the Spanish I hear while dancing, but when the entire room starts singing along, energy rising, all clapping at the same time—I live for these moments. As I’m turned and dipped, water wells in my eyes because, to me, in that moment, that is home.
Cuba Libre offers the city of Portland an interesting perspective. It is an artistic rendition of what it looks like when a group of people are faced with economic hardships so harsh that they have no choice but to leave their home. The housing emergency in Portland is not nearly as desperate as Cuba during Castro’s dictatorship, but it now reframes the picture.
“Home” is caught between geographic coordinates you can find on a map and something you carry in your heart. Cubans carry on traditions to celebrate their culture with music, singing, and dancing. Native tribes hold ceremonies to pay homage to the land and their ancestors who previously walked on it. Both have found creative ways for their communities to honor—perhaps sometimes mourn—and celebrate their roots. Through these traditions, ceremonies, and transformative aspects of theatre, I’m able to find myself and my own sense of belonging, however temporary.