By Brooks Kirchgassner
Alan Pelaez Lopez is a PhD student in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of California Berkeley. Lopez’s preferred third-person pronoun is They. Their research focuses on art as resistance among undocumented Black immigrants in the U.S., and the ways in which this art transgresses and challenges the law. Alan also comes from a community organizing background, where they have experience working with undocumented immigrants in the United States, specifically those who are Black, poor, and queer.
How and when did you start writing poetry and nonfiction essays? Who would you say are your biggest inspirations? How do you function as both a creative and scholarly writer?
At eight or nine, I began telling my mother I wanted to be a poet—she’s never doubted me. I didn’t start writing nonfiction essays, however, until Trayvon Martin was murdered. His death took a huge toll on my mind, body and spirit. I tried to write poetry, and a poem was not enough; a poem was not going to resurrect him. I was scared for my own life and I didn’t yet have the words to describe my emotions, which is what led me to discover the essay as an art form in which to write myself in conversation with those whom I desperately wanted to talk to, but couldn’t because of the forms of violence enacted upon our bodies.
A few years later, I was gifted a copy of June Jordan’s Affirmative Acts, which became my Black feminist bible. Since then, I have modeled keynotes and essays after her work. Jordan left us blueprints of liberation, frameworks of intimate resistance and words of affirmation in a single text. I am a scholar because June Jordan left us traces of ourselves where we least expected it—in empty rooms, hallways, schools, phone lines, body parts, etc. As a scholar-artist, Black feminist thought (which often is also Indigenous feminist thought) has been the field I look to for rigorous research methods, epistemologies, presuppositions, arguments and theories.
How would you describe the nature of U.S. settler colonial policies and power structures today? Given this, what does effective or successful resistance to U.S. settler-colonial policies and power structures look like? Who is involved in the resistance and in what ways? How do we gauge instances of success?
Settler-colonialism has not ended, and it is my fear that the university system often treats it as so. For example, I currently live in the “state” of California, which is one of the “states” with the highest number of federally unrecognized Indigenous tribes. As an Indigenous person, I know that the concept of “recognition” means nothing, but in an empire obsessed with legality/illegality, to not be recognized means to only exist as an archive (as a past), to belong to a museum (as property), to belong to nowhere (landless) and everywhere simultaneously (enfleshed).
I don’t have a legible answer for this question—at least not one I wish to write on paper.
As for part two of your question, I think that the people most active in resisting settler-colonialism are farmers of color who are trying their damn best to converse with the land and treat the land as a person; queer and trans farmers in particular (see next answer).
In your 2017 piece “An Artist Manifesto: For Brown Folx Surviving the Empire,” you state that “capitalism works best when we forget how to support ourselves.” You seem to allude to the effects of capitalism on memory, autonomy, and self-determination. Could you elaborate on this point and on how we might begin to remember?
I wrote “An Artist Manifesto” after Donald Trump was elected. I began to think about our human relationship to food, shelter, land and water. I realized that to be displaced means to have been cut short of our needs. Through an indigenous lens, the resources of the land are not ours— we ask permission before harvest season, before hunting, before collecting water. Our transaction is based out of respect. In the age of settler-colonialism, everything becomes a monetary transaction. For those of us who lack the finances to keep up with settler-colonialism and capitalism, we begin to lose our memory because the system(s) of settler-colonialism and capitalism create a catastrophic demand that we produce finances as to simultaneously survive and keep these two systems alive. Memory, autonomy and self-determination are therefore significantly impacted. The shift from monetary transaction to respectful/permission-based transaction with the land is a way to undo settler-colonialism and capitalism. This is exactly why I have recently turned to queer and trans farmers of color.
Your recent piece in Rewire problematizes the popular #HeretoStay and #IAmAnAmerican narratives being used in support of DREAMERS in the U.S. Specifically, you argue that the immigrants’ rights struggles are framed in exclusionary economic terms, as in “please don’t kick us out because we are hard workers.” As someone who is both Indigenous to Oaxaca and an immigrant to the U.S., how do you think undocumented people should make claims to belong to or in the U.S.? Many indigenous U.S. writers frame the “nation of immigrants” narrative and its mobilization as tied to a settler-colonial project. If you agree, how should this critical position inform immigrant rights and undocumented activism?
I think that this isn’t necessarily a question about how immigrants should identify. Instead, I think that this question speaks more to: what are the gaps that people committed to Black and Indigenous liberation tend to miss? I think that there are many, but I can only speak to some.
If a person is living in a land that they are not indigenous to, that person needs to make the decision of how to situate their existence in that land. I think that we need to re-create a culture of humility. I am a visitor to Ohlone land. I need to say that to myself every single day.
In writing the piece to Rewire, I realized that a commitment to my liberation as an Indigenous Black migrant means that I have to remember that I am a visitor everywhere. I want to make claims to Zapotec land because that is what I know. However, I am also not claimed by many Zapotecs because I am Black. As a diasporic subject, I am an arrivant to Zapotec land while also a Zapotec native. I am, let’s say, a contradiction within a very real system of . . .
I agree that the “nation of immigrants” narrative further perpetuates settler-colonialism. I can only speak from the context of the “U.S.”-education system. In this system, we are taught to only empathize with European immigrants (who are actually colonizers). At a young age, our education system frames settler-colonialism as a migration, thus, framing occupied territory as a “nation of immigrants.” When immigrants claim the “nation of immigrants” as theirs, they unintentionally perpetuate the same systems they are running away from. The learning curve is large for all of us.
Your written and spoken-word performances highlight the importance of art/artists in resistance to the Trump agenda’s immigration policies, and his blatant white nationalism in general. In his 1969 book Custer Died for Your Sins, Vine Deloria Jr. writes “When a people can laugh at themselves and laugh at others and hold all aspects of life together without letting anybody drive them to extremes, then it seems to me that that people can survive” (167). What role does comedy, humor, and laughter play in resistance to oppressive people/institutions in the U.S.? Are there specific Afro-Indigenous or Zapoteca forms of humor that you draw on or integrate in your performances?
Comedy, humor and laughter remind us (the colonized, racialized, gendered, etc.) that we are still embodied subjects. There is no need to over-analyze or intellectualize it: Indigenous people and Black people have always lived multidimensional lives. Humor is a part of that life, as is death, as is pain, as is sexual pleasure.
Often, the academy treats the Indigenous and/or Black body as always already dead. This is the project of the Western education system. I don’t care to argue against it because Black and Indigenous subjects have built a future-present so advanced in understanding our bodies as tools that undo time and space that the academy doesn’t quite yet understand.
As an Afro-Indigenous immigrant to the United States from the Zapoteca nation of Oaxaca interested in the political activism and creative expression of undocumented Black, queer, and trans immigrants, what are some of the best examples of bridge-building and intersectional solidarity that you have witnessed? What enabled these to be achieved? Could they be replicated? How would you define solidarity? What steps can we take to instantiate this moral-ethical principle?
I think that border communities continue to inform me on new ways of resisting, surviving and thriving. Indigenous people who live in the Mexico/Guatemala border have been leaders in the fight for both Black and Indigenous lives. The geography of Mexico/Guatemala is a geography of encounters: Black migrants from Belize, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Colombia, Brazil, etc. need to make it through the Mexico/Guatemala border, and they often succeed because Indigenous people of “Mexico” aid them. They see similar struggles (as many in the community have shared with me through hundreds of nights of storytelling). In the U.S., I recently began building relationships with Indigenous people who live in what is now “Arizona,” and have family members on the other side of the fence. These communities are in places where colonialism is the most obviously present—everyday they are reminded that a wall separates them from loved ones.
Many African-Americans know that there was considerable historical mixture of African American and Native American communities, with many citing the figure that at least one third of African Americans have “native blood.” At the same time, many U.S. Native scholars are very critical of the idea that Native and Black Americans should be considered natural allies since this position often fails to take seriously the distinct histories of each community. Still, most Native American scholars in the U.S. academy, when mixed with non-Native groups are the products of mixture with white groups. As an Afro-Indigenous artist and scholar, what are some common oversights or misunderstandings in the thinking of non-Indigenous African Americans or non-Afro Indigenous Americans? How should we constructively think of what Vine Deloria Jr. called Red-Black relations?
I think that in the context of what is now the connected 48 “states,” this conversation is an ongoing and frustrating conversation. A while ago, I was sitting in a library with a sketch of a slave ship. I was trying to recreate it using matches. That’s when it hit me: the trans*Atlantic slave trade was one of the best ways to rip away enslaved Africans from their indigeneity. Their bodies were placed strategically: two bodies of the same tribe couldn’t really be within sonic distance from each other because they could plot an uprising. The slave ship is such a generative way in which to think a Black Indigeneity that is often erased.
If we want to have this conversation—let’s make it accessible: Have you seen the Black Panther movie? It’s a movie about a Black Indigeneity that we often overlook. Seriously, Wakanda is a country of indigenous tribes, and the tribes have had to engage in the traumatic negotiation of having a monarchy precisely to avoid settler-colonialism. Thing is, some of the indigenous tribes in Wakanda are oppressed: the border-tribe lost a whole bunch of tribal members when Klaw escaped. That tribe represents the state of Indigeneity—Indians are always the first-contact to the western world, the first to go. There is also an Indigenous tribe in Wakanda that hasn’t been visited by the royal family in decades. These are the ways in which I’d like us to think through a Black Indigeneity.
I cannot speak of a Black Indigeneity in the U.S., because I do not know it. My Black Indigeneity is something I barely understand. I can only understand it through my experience of having been undocumented. The most indigenous “thing” about me is having been labeled an “illegal alien,” or as Mai Ngai states, an “impossible subject.” The blackest thing about me is having been an “illegal alien,” or as slave narratives identify, a “fugitive.” This may be the only lens I have and because of it, the most important.
Brooks Kirchgassner is a PhD student in the Political Science Department at UConn. He received his M.A. in Political Science from San Francisco State University and B.A. in Politics from the University of California, Santa Cruz. His current research interests are primarily in the fields of political theory and comparative politics, especially race, the politics of solidarity, political culture, and labor unions in the U.S. and Latin America.