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  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   November 2009

 

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Building Multiculturalism

Casa de la Cultura President Mara Eugenia Trillo says Grant County has a rich heritage to be thankful for.

By Richard Mahler

 



Thanksgiving comes early to Grant County again this year. On Nov. 14 — 12 days before the official holiday — a public, Native American-derived celebration of thanks will be held at the National Guard Armory in Santa Clara, featuring traditions of food, music and dance that originated long before Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock.

trillo
Mara Eugenia Trillo in her busy office.
(Photo by Richard Mahler)

"We have matachines coming from Texas," enthuses Dr. Mara Eugenia Trillo, president of Casa de la Cultura, the Thanksgiving event's originator and sponsor. Dressed in elaborate costumes and moving to the sound of violins, drums and rattles, masked matachines for centuries have been a part of celebratory rituals in Mexico and the Southwest. "We'll also have [a troupe of] Azteca danzantes," Trillo continues, "featuring three members of a family that carries on Aztec dancing traditions." Drawing on ancient beliefs and rites, the colorful dancers call forth sacred prayers and oral histories through dazzling movement and elaborate pageantry.

Why offer this in 2009, when our modern age seems to have dismissed or forgotten many of the New World's indigenous peoples?

"The mission of our organization," explains Trillo, a professor of humanities at Western New Mexico University, "is to affirm, celebrate, preserve and promote the Indo-Hispano and other cultural heritages of Grant County." In support of that goal, November's Thanksgiving holiday provides an exemplary teaching moment for area residents.

Trillo points out that Juan de Oate, one of the first 16th-century Spanish conquistadores to explore our state, convened the region's first European-directed Thanksgiving feast in San Elizario, east of El Paso and at that time part of New Mexico, some 23 years before the historic New England gathering of 1621. By coincidence, the matachines dancers performing at this year's Native American Thanksgiving hail from San Elizario.

"Part of the reason to offer such presentations is to build awareness across the diverse cultures of our area," says Trillo, a 57-year-old El Paso native who spent years in Mexico, Canada and other parts of the US as a professor and community organizer before moving in 2005 to the mining district, first residing in Bayard and now in Santa Clara. She holds degrees in Spanish Linguistics, Hispanic Letters, and Hispanic Language and Literature from universities in Puebla, Toronto and Albuquerque.

Trillo, who describes Grant County as "gorgeous and wonderful," counts among her extracurricular interests bilingual reading and writing poetry as well as studying Latino and Canadian cinema and the retention of New Mexico's unique Spanish dialects and proverbs. Her academic specializations include oral history and language acquisition.

"I love it here," the dark-haired teacher says with a smile, brown eyes sparkling. "When I think of all the people who are living in this region, we have a microcosm of the world right here. The cultural history is very, very rich."



Obviously, a local population that is more than 50% Spanish-surnamed will look south of the border and to Spain for antecedents. Many can trace their roots to other European countries. But some ingredients in our ethnic salad remain hidden. A few years ago, for example, Casa de la Cultura organized what is believed to be the first-ever local public celebration of Chinese New Year, a festival based on the lunar calendar that occurs in January or February. Although today's Chinese-descended population in Grant County is very small, a comparatively large number of Chinese immigrated to the West in the late 19th century and were involved in mining, farming, business and railroad construction. These often-overlooked contributions locally included the Chinese Gardens along San Vicente Creek that produced most of Silver City's fresh vegetables and, at one time, the operation of most of the town's grocery stores, restaurants and laundries.

"We have people often asking us, 'When are you going to do [Chinese New Year] again?'" says Trillo, interviewed at her university office on a bright autumn morning, shortly before a Spanish class. "But we're not sure. There's only so much a small group of volunteers can do."

At the time of our meeting, the Casa crew is still recuperating from its presentation of an exuberant mariachi and ballet folklrico performance at WNMU's Fine Arts Center Theater. The fundraiser, which offered attendees a chance to admire and purchase local craft items, showcased music, dance and costumes that represent Mexico-born traditions deeply cherished in the Southwest. For Trillo, such celebrations contrast with a time and place when simply being Chicano or Chicana was more challenging than it is today for most Mexican-Americans.

"I grew up in El Paso, in my time, with a lot of prejudice and discrimination," recalls Trillo, whose parents still live in her hometown. "It has taken a whole lifetime to rid myself of some of that negative input. I find [such racist attitudes] so pass, so 'two centuries ago.' Maybe it's human nature to separate oneself from the other and to be elitist. Yet we are all on the same planet, so why do we continue to think like this?"

The activist educator credits her beloved grandparents with opening her eyes to a more inclusive way of regarding humanity. "What keeps me going is the memory of the teachings of my elders," she says. "They did not promote division and antagonism, but rather the universal energy and beauty of all the people who surround us. When my grandparents passed on basic concepts, it was always in terms of 'us and we,' not 'they and we.' I try to live by those teachings, which were not religious, but definitely spiritual and very much cultural."

Trillo's family was among 5,600 residents forced to move from their humble homes in South-Central El Paso when, in the 1960s, the US and Mexico settled a 100-year dispute over a chunk of land called the Chamizal.

"Our homes were demolished to return an empty space to Mexico," Trillo told an audience during a lecture delivered earlier this year. She has interviewed other displaced families for a still-unpublished collective memoir. "All the people agreed the Chamizal wasn't just a physical space. It was a special sense of familia."



By providing ongoing multicultural programs and presenting special events that celebrate varied traditions, Casa de la Cultura manifests Trillo's belief that "our children deserve more than the prejudice and discriminatory practices that, to some extent, we still abide by." Yes, even in Grant County. Even in communities that give lip service to the value of diversity and multiculturalism.

"We have to be honest, frank and sincere with one another," insists Trillo, who recalls that attendees "were aghast" when she cited the area's longstanding racial and ethnic divisions in a public meeting. Trillo, uncomfortable about the elephant in the room, noted that rural residents, in particular those whose primary language at home is not English, are not well represented locally in many domains. "'Oh my gosh,' they murmured. 'Oh dear,' they said when I spoke out. But I did it because until we identify a problem we cannot fix it. If we are going to build bridges, there have to be people at both ends. And I do have hope that we will build those bridges."

In Grant County, Trillo suggests, the idea circulates "that art is only for the rich, educated and elite.... Silver City is used to being the focus of art and life in this county and I challenge that view, because until we serve everyone — which is what Casa is trying to do — we will always be lopsided and it will always be a rural-versus-urban situation. I don't think we have time to continue in that mode."

This legacy of discrimination and prejudice includes sanctioned mining industry practices that for decades meant separate but unequal pay scales and housing for Hispanic and Anglo employees. Earlier, Asians were barred from employment in some mines and expected to accept low-wage jobs others did not want to do. Today, a quick glance at hierarchies throughout the region suggests that Hispanics and non-whites remain poorly represented in the upper ranks of many institutions, businesses, professions and government agencies. It's a situation not easily changed, but that doesn't stop Trillo from trying.

"I personally cannot dwell on the negative for very long," she sighs. "If I do, I will lose it. We are surrounded by crime — by options for good or bad — and I prefer to tap into the creative, positive flow.

"What I find here [in southwestern New Mexico] are so many people with tremendous talent — musical, poetic, visual — that is not being tapped. I find a lot of strength here and that is inspiring. I learn every day how strong people are."

This strength derives in part, Trillo speculates, from a spirit of self-sufficiency and a type of rugged individualism spawned by physical separation from the mainstream US and, for that matter, Mexico. "We in Grant County are cut off from the railroad system, the interstate highways and the big airports. When there's a dust storm, we can't even get to Deming or Lordsburg. That has an impact on the way people think and act. We make do with what we have."

And while computers and other tools of digital technology are blurring such boundaries, Trillo suggests the area has some distance to go before abandoning some of the rigid and increasingly counterproductive ways of the past.



Trillo knows firsthand how destructive the old ways can be. In Canada, she served as an Spanish-English interpreter for victims of torture in various wars in Central and South America. Although Winnipeg and Toronto were far from these battlegrounds, her experiences there provided stark reminders that human beings are capable of great injury to one another under the guise of political and economic expediency. Yet Trillo never forgot the life-affirming casas de la cultura that she found so inspiring during her college years in Mexico, where she earned her bachelor's degree.

"Other casas I've known are places where people drop in all the time," she says, noting that "houses of culture" are common throughout the Latin world, offering daily programming to community members of all ages and inclinations. "A guy might come in and say, 'Hey, my uncle just gave me this guitar and I want to learn how to play it.' There's a maestro for him right there, and someone else to teach violin or trumpet, to tap-dance or to cook, to weave a basket or to use the Internet. It's an incredible space that belongs in, for and by the community. It's an environment for youth and seniors, for people of all kinds."

Casa de la Cultura's third annual Native American Thanksgiving Dinner will be held Saturday evening, Nov. 14, at the National Guard Armory, 11990 Hwy. 180 East, in Santa Clara. Ticket prices range from $8 to $10 each and include both food and performances. For information on this and other Casa de La Cultura events, call 519-9738 or e-mail metrillo2002@yahoo.com

Trillo envisions such a place for Grant County, but acknowledges this dream is far from being realized. Our local Casa de la Cultura is an underfunded nonprofit organization, with six current vacancies on its nine-member board of directors. There are no staff salaries and a capital campaign is just beginning to raise funds to construct a building to house the group and its programs. Some past events, including an International Christmas Tree display and crafts fair, will not be held this year because of a shortage of funds and volunteers. "We have to limit ourselves," Trillo explains, "because we don't want to burn ourselves out." The group currently uses rented or donated space for its meetings and events.

Thankfully, the organization itself seems on solid footing after undergoing several transformations since its founding as an outreach committee of Santa Clara Catholic Church. Casa de la Cultura is now fully non-denominational, non-partisan and community-based. It invites public participation and has established a board that strives to reflect the diversity of Grant County.

"We started out rather naively thinking of [our heritages] being Indo-Hispano," says Trillo. "Then we looked at our families and our friends and saw what a mixture of cultures we have. We asked ourselves, 'How can we celebrate the left arm and not the right arm?'" The result is a group that embraces equally flamenco and horseback riding, Halloween and Da de los Muertos, oral history and summer camp, bilingual theater and Mother's Day.

For Mara Eugenia Trillo, the effort aligns with her personal commitment to always give something back: "I believe that wherever I find myself I want to be of service to the community that is feeding me."



Richard Mahler is a writer and tour guide based in Silver City.
Learn more at www.richardmahler.com





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