Words and photographs by Spring 2016 Artist in Residence, Becca Haydu
Today I read in National Geographic that scuba divers discovered human bones at the bottom of a cave in Yucatan that turned out to be 12,000 to 13,000 years old. These are the oldest human remains ever found in the New World.
Today I read in National Geographic that women who lived in the Americas 13,000 years ago suffered malnutrition and domestic abuse. They were significantly smaller than their male counterparts and rarely lived past 26 years of age.
The bones that were found at the bottom of that cave belonged to an adolescent girl. They called her Naia after Greek mythology, even though she’s more closely related to the Maya of today than to the Ancient Greeks. The archaeologists suggested that she must have fallen while exploring the cave. But what if she was pushed off the edge?
13,000 years later, we hear the same story. She fell.
Today I read that misogyny and gendered violence have existed for at least 13,000 years and I cried. Is this our destiny?
13,000 years later, 180 miles from Hoyo Negro where Naia’s skeleton was found, I contemplate women’s work. In Yaxhachen, women carry and care for children, wash their family’s clothes, make tortillas at least twice a day, clean the house, feed the animals, and in their spare time embroider a new dress to wear for a special occasion or to gain a small income. They make time to laugh, to rest, and to enjoy themselves and their families. Then they go to sleep and do it all over again the next day.
The same issue of National Geographic highlighted the figure of Venus, a piece of stone shaped into a female form by human hands in what is now Germany 35,000 years ago. On the opposite page is a tiny sculpture of a female bust found in France dated as 25,000 years old. The caption debates whether the depicted is a “young girl” or a “madam.”
Today I learned that the earliest representations of the human body were feminine. 35,000 years later, the female body remains a symbol, an object, a canvas, but still fights and claws for true representation. As a woman and an artist, how can I rewrite this story that’s been 35,000 years in the making? Our work is never done.
My grandmother is from rural Ireland. I imagine her childhood as one similar to life in Yaxhachen today. My grandmother Philomena grew up in a small stone house with a thatched roof along with her parents and three brothers. Her mother never used a stove but cooked over an open fire. Her father raised cattle, allegedly among the finest cattle in all of county Longford. This is what I’ve been told.
One day while visiting my grandparents in Pennsylvania, my grandmother took me into the basement and showed me her sewing machine. “When I die, this will be yours,” she told me. I denounced her morbidity, but thanked her for the gesture. I thought of generations of women’s labor being passed down to me via this machine. But I can barely sew a straight line.
Today in Yaxhachen, Doña Irma is last to eat dinner because making tortillas for a group of hungry men takes time. I can eat with the men only because I’m a guest and a foreigner. My help in making a few tortillas is a novelty, and after about five they tell me to stop and eat. I offer her teenage daughter to eat with me, but she refuses saying “al rato,” later. Educational and employment opportunities for women are also behind those for men. For example, Irma never learned much Spanish, but her husband is completely bilingual.
I aim to embrace our similarities rather than to dwell on difference, but how can we appreciate our shared experience without understanding the nuances of our differences? How can we transcend difference when it is constantly shoved in our faces? How do we value equality without undermining our diversity?
Irma shares with me her difference through teaching me vocabulary in Maya and showing me how to cross-stich. The neighborhood boys ask me what it’s like in the United States. “Is it cold all the time? What kind of food do you eat? It’s very different from here, isn’t it?” Difference is always a topic of conversation. It is an opportunity.
Other times, difference is painful. YAXHA Bordados aims to provide economic opportunities where “no hay trabajo,” there are no jobs. Many people simply leave and you’d be hard pressed to find someone in Yaxhachen who doesn’t have an uncle, brother, or parent living in California or Oregon. Doña Eneyda and her family have been working with YAXHA for over a year and their income has more than doubled in that time. Yet they’re still struggling to stay afloat.
It’s pouring rain one evening in Yaxhachen as Eneyda and I sit embroidering in one of the two cement-block rooms of her family’s home. This room is a new addition, a sign of prosperity, yet water still pours in from the ceiling. The only people who go outside in the rain are little kids playing in puddles, and they relish in it. Eneyda and I stay put for a while. This is one of the beauties of embroidery: women sit down together and talk. In this case, I just listened.
Eneyda needs me to understand. She tells me that out of the money they have earned from embroidering t-shirts, they don’t have a single penny to show for it. This is a big extended family, not a nuclear one. Anything earned is shared among 15 or so individuals. Investments look like buying a few pigs or turkeys, not opening a savings account. Eneyda doesn’t feel safe storing cash in the house as a way to save. A conversation about the family economy quickly leads to a more personal account of injustice, and gender is at the heart of everything.
“As a woman, I have suffered like Christ suffered.” Eneyda fights back tears as I let mine go. Stories of domestic violence, of burden, of shame, of fighting as hard as you can to get ahead only to have the world tell you that you’ll never get anywhere because you’re poor, because you’re a woman, because you’re indigenous. I’m reminded that life can be brutal and unforgiving. I’m reminded that there are experiences I’ll never, ever, be able to share because they’re simply not mine.
But what shows through Doña Eneyda’s pain is her strength and love. She told me that her greatest joy in life was motherhood. I’m a big critic of the myth of motherhood: why should women derive our worth only through biological coincidence and our relative status to children and men? Even so, the pride Eneyda displayed in her mothering touched me. God blessed her with seven children, she says, and the gringos that come to visit are like her adopted children so she must have about fifteen by now. The ability to give love and that person’s openness to receiving it are most important to Eneyda. I imagine that when we are on our deathbed, does much else really matter?
I wonder what Naia’s greatest joy in life was 13,000 years ago. At only 13 with a life expectancy of 26, was she already a mother? Did she find heaven in the eyes of her child? Did she feel at peace in the labyrinth of underwater caves that surrounded her home? When did she give and receive love?
I am brought back to Arundhati Roy’s words in her “Come September” speech, given a year after September 11, 2001:
To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never, to forget… another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.
If this world is thousands of years in the making, where are we to go from here? 13,000 years from now, will our descendents find New York City 7,000 leagues under the sea and scratch their heads at how primitive we were? Will they chuckle at how not much has changed? Or will we sooner become just another extinct species?
In her essay “Love as the Practice of Freedom,” bell hooks affirms, “Without love, our efforts to liberate ourselves and our world community from oppression and exploitation are doomed.” This echoes the words of Doña Eneyda, of Arundhati Roy, and of my inner voice. Love is the only way out. Love is a choice. Love is freedom. Love is not a transaction. It cannot be bought or sold. Love is community. Love is truth. Across borders, across languages, between a mother and child, between neighbors, between strangers, for yourself. Without love, we cannot imagine a new world free of domination and subjugation. Without love, we cannot work together to make that world a reality.
Love is the only way out.