A Zapotec Reflection on Freedom: Mom, How Do You Allow Yourself to Do What You Desire?

Photo: Ariadna Solís

FROM THE EDITORS: Freedom is a concept used in multiple ways to limit, cancel, or break community processes, especially those related to indigenous peoples. That is what the editors of Tzam: Las Trece Semillas Zapatistas try to answer this month by presenting a series of essays that explore freedom from an indigenous viewpoint. According to the editors, “Being free from what or concerning whom? Defending the freedom of individuals, as if freedom should not be framed as our collective relationships, has been promoted by those who hold a neoliberal vision of life.”

Photo: Ariadna Solís
Photo: Ariadna Solís

SOURCE: Nawé ¿gaklhe llue latg bi te ze llenlho gunho? Mamá ¿y tú cómo te permites hacer lo que deseas? – TZAM (tzamtrecesemillas.org)

Like many ideas, “freedom” was one of those words I found in the dictionary when I was young, but it did not have real meaning in my personal life. I do not remember the first time I heard it, but I do remember the first longings for freedom I experienced, which had nothing to do with the “universal” freedom I was taught in school. The freedom I knew and understood had more to do with the knowledge and desires inherited from women who preceded me and accompanied me through life.

I was about 12 years old the first time I inhabited the same home as my maternal grandmother. Not long after my grandfather passed away, my itinerant grandmother took turns living with my aunt and my mother, the two youngest women of all her children. Living with my grandmother in the city had nothing to do with the holidays I spent constantly in Yalálag, where my interactions with my grandparents were limited to the few times our parents translated between us: our grandparents, my sister, and me. It was only when my grandmother started living with us that I realized how abysmally violent it was not to be able to talk to my grandmother and ask her about her childhood, her experiences, her hopes and sorrows, or how she imagined our future, what she wished for her and for us. This fact was always painful for me, and it still is, but only recently have I been able to voice it and express it.

Although it was a dystopian experience to not be able to have a conversation with my grandmother, we began to have a very close relationship. In order to support herself, my grandmother sewed, knitted, and embroidered all her life, and we always had a sewing machine, needles, threads, and fabric of all kinds at home. Because of that and in deep despair thinking that our only occupation was schoolwork, she taught me my first trade: embroidery.

It was through embroidery floss that I began to have conversations with my history and with theirs. Thanks to the needlework they taught me, the drawings I inherited, but also through the economic distribution that was part of my share from sharing those activities. I started to earn a little bit of money. I also began to manufacture jewelry with wires and gemstones that I would buy with the money I had earned from embroidering the blouses that my grandmother decorated and sold. I would accompany them to crafts and arts fairs, and on weekdays we frequented places such as the Department of Anthropology and, on special occasions, bookshops or cultural centers that allowed us to learn about women’s struggles from other territories. All this constant movement, plus some of the savings I already had under my belt, allowed me to seriously consider working on my crafts fulltime instead of pursuing a university degree.

However, going with them to different open markets allowed me also to witness how much one has to struggle to be able to sell your craft at a fair price or deal with the racism of people who pretend to appreciate our work. Seeing all of this eventually led me to give in to my parents’ insistence to get my bachelor’s, so I embarked on a career that I did not know much about but which gave me the perfect excuse to emigrate for a second time in my life, further and further away from my grandparents’ life. I went looking for that thing they call “a better life,” although I’m still not sure what they are talking about.

Asking myself about freedom has meant asking about how my mother and grandmother experienced and yearned for different freedoms. I talk about them because I inherited many desires from them. I have seen them work from the early hours of the morning, late into the night, still unable to find time to do what they want or spend time on what they love, spend time with people they cherish or just enjoy doing something that makes them happy. They always seemed to be in a hurry and angry. Those two feelings have been present in my life for as long as I can remember: rushing to regain everything I have lost and angered because it has been violently taken away from me.

When I asked my mom about how she understood freedom in Dill Wlhall, she told me that freedom was about those moments when she could give herself the time or space to do what she wanted, and that made me think about how much we are driven by desire. Thanks to my mother’s and grandmother’s stories, I have learned that freedom means having the tools to create but also the resources to make time available. I have also learned that I own my “freedom,” as I know it, is thanks to the many sacrifices made and oppression lived by my mom and my grandmother. The most concrete example is how I have been able to decide about my own sexuality and my body from a very young age. 

I also think that many desires that my grandmother yearned for us, such as having a university education, became a priority but also included freedoms that were not limited to choosing a college career. For example: knowing how to walk without a map, or recognising pigweed on the way to the milpa to eat with a tortilla and freshly made salsa. In short, I believe that freedom is something that is sustained so that we can all find the space and time to expand our affections as much as we want, to do everything that makes us grow, but above all, to be able to make use of our legacy and imagine the future on our terms, when we undo everything we have been taught to desire.

Ariadna Solís

Ariadna Solís

Ariadna Solís. She was born in Villa Hidalgo Yalalag, a Zapotec community in the Sierra Norte of Oaxaca, a second-generation migrant. She is a political scientist and art historian from the National Autonomous University of Mexico. She is part of the Dill Yel Nbán collective, whose work focuses on the transmission and dissemination of the Zapotec language. Her research is also related to the study of textiles, archives, and feminisms.

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