Stephanie Shugert is my neighbor, co-shenanigans instigator, local wise woman, and friend. Stephanie and I know from our RA that no student lives in the one room between our rooms on the second floor of Latinx Heritage House, so a lot of the time when we hear sounds coming from that room, we'll text each other and our neighbor on the other side of our rooms to see if they just dropped something, plugged something in, slid something against the wall … .
Each time so far, the other person has said it wasn't them. Often, the other person is asleep or outside. Believe what you will, but to me and Stephanie, this— not to mention several instances of motion, usually involving shadows, in our peripheral vision when we're here— is enough evidence that there is a resident spirit in the building. No, not like in movies, not an evil spirit, and probably not a ghost.
Stephanie was the one who really changed what I thought of the supernatural through true stories from her "haunted" high school, and she and I both think a lot about the ways that capitalism and colonization distort our perceptions of spiritual realms and folk practices. At the tail end of what our generation affectionately calls Spooky Szn, I sat down with Stephanie to hear her thoughts on fear, spiritual realms, and the passion project that is her Latin American Folklore ExCo. Here are some snippets of our conversation.
[Content warning: anti-indigenous violence.]
What has it been like with your ExCo this semester, and what has it been like going into spooky season?
The ExCo is on Latin American folklore. A highlight for me and for my co-instructor is that this topic is so vast. We are not professionals at all— we were just limited to our familial connections. The only myths that I knew were from Mexico, that's it. All the time we're learning, and now I know a lot more, but you're never gonna know all of them because there are just thousands and thousands. Hearing the stories is just half of it at this point. I always thought, I wanna know the stories, and poom— we're done. But it's not just that, it's, where does it come from? What is the impact it has on Latinx cultures?
So, the story of La Llorona— very, very popular. Now, in 2019, 2020, I've been seeing it more distorted in the media, again by a white lens, and I feel like that's making people forget where it comes from. People really forget the indigenous roots of that story. The protagonist is an indigenous woman. Still, it's been really fun to hear about the different versions— me and Marilyn have heard different versions, but it's all the same conclusion, you know? She cries, and whatever. *Chuckles.*
Another thing that's pretty dope is, I love preparing for each class. Even though it does take a fat minute, because we have to do the presentation and research and everything— it's really fun because now I know a story from every Latin American country. Not only do you learn, but you can also see the connections that each country has with the other. I see a lot of similarities not only with the content or the plot of the stories but the way they're told or shared as well.
Oral storytelling is not just speaking, it's the way you present it. So, you know, you use your hands, you do this, and that is something that's really passed down in a lot of our families whose origins come from these roots of storytelling. When I hear someone from Brazil share with me a popular legend from their country, I could have never heard of it and it could not sound like any story from Mexico, but just because of the way they tell it, I will feel connected. Because it's like, yes— it's just the vibes, it's literally the vibes. They're unmatched!
I love that! What else have you been learning from leading this ExCo?
When I'm reading these stories, some of them are more American, urban, scary vibes, and some of them are more meaningful. Growing up, these things were always used as ways to discipline. In a way, I would argue that they contribute to the cycle of chancla culture that we are always witnessing. [Chancla culture describes the way cycles of generational trauma show up in methods of disciplining kids within brown and Black Spanish-speaking cultures.]
You don't realize that as a kid, and you grow up and you think about it, and I'm not saying that we shouldn't tell these stories— I love them and they're important— but it's the fact that they're turning into discipline methods instead of actually sharing for the sake of sharing, for the sake of bonding. I was always threatened that I was gonna be freaking kidnapped and eaten if I didn't finish my freaking frijoles. It's transforming into this— "Oh, no lavas los trastes? Te va a agarrar el cucuy. Te va a comer, te va a matar, te va a ahogar," you know what I'm saying? I was told La Llorona was gonna drown me in the lake. It's like, why you gotta be violent like that? So, I feel like, this is my attempt to reclaim the true meaning of what these stories are.
What else would you like to use storytelling and mythology for going forward? If you could create a new world with this same mythology, but do with it what you will— what would that look like?
When you really cut through the B.S. and you go back, these stories do have good lessons. Not like, eat your freaking beans, not for chancla culture— today the lessons are being used to achieve the wrong goals. We have to go back to what it's really all about, which is living symbiotically with nature— not only with each other as human beings, and not only with the physical beings we see around us. We have to remember that nature is not just the physical literal things, it is abstract, it is multidimensional. It is energy, it is feelings, it is thoughts, it is present in multiple realms, multiple dimensions.
In my perfect world, I would use mythology to teach these lessons and to cleanse the very poisoned and toxic minds that all humans have adopted, that we have accepted, really, as the status quo, as the norm. To decolonize our mindsets and decolonize our hearts, at the end of the day.
BIG yes. What does decolonizing our hearts mean to you?
You can know something is right, but you have to feel it, too. That's why I really do believe that it's not just what we see is there and that's it. There has to be more, because there's nothing like a gut feeling. There is nothing like those heartstrings that are pulled when you're in a space that's… Okay, I'm gonna go off on a tangent.
My mom has been recently trying to connect more with her Zapotec, Oaxacanian roots. In her journey to that, she has been listening to a lot of folk music from indigenous cultures. I heard some that came to my high school two years ago as a performance. They're from Ecuador, and they played these wind instruments, and I started crying, like, immediately. I was sobbing. What was it about that sound that made me feel like that? It wasn't the actual sound of it, it wasn't the fact that it was beautiful. Just that was enough to make anyone cry, but it was the generational memories, the generational trauma that it reminded me of. I was just sitting there, my eyes closed, like this. Images went through my head that weren't my experiences, in the sense of, they didn't happen from 2002 to 2018. In my head— just like, videos and images of the beauty of indigeneity before colonization, and then, how it was ruined. That music put those thoughts into my head, and I don't think I made them up. I honestly do believe that those were evoked by my ancestors being like, "Let me remind you of what it was like and what happened. Don't forget." This is why I truly believe in this stuff, because how could that happen?
Tell me one Latin American myth that you've learned from this ExCo process.
Some of them are so morbid in terms of the origins. I'm gonna share one from Nicaragua that dates back to colonial times. It's called La Carreta Nagua. In Nicaragua, if you hear this invisible cart that’s supposedly being pulled by death and two skeleton oxen— if it stops in front of your house, somebody will pass away, meaning that death has come to take that soul. Where it comes from is very sad, because colonizers— murderers— would arrive and enslave the indigenous people. They would take them on these carts, driven by two oxen, and take them to the mines to work them to death. Those were the same carts that took their dead bodies out. Every time the people would hear the wheels of those carts, they would run and hide in the forest because they knew what it meant. They knew it meant death and torture and suffering.
Just because something is sad doesn't mean we don’t have to know. We have to face it. It's important to preserve stories like these because they have a messed-up origin. We have to accept the realities. If you don't even know what you have to heal from, how can you heal? Or, depending on who you are, how can you make proper amends?
Keep your eyes peeled for Part 2 of this interview, coming in the next few days!
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