“What can we do when apparently nothing can be done, and doing nothing is not an option?” This question guides Diana Taylor’s vibrant exploration of politics and performance across las Américas. In her book ¡Presente! The Politics of Presence Taylor collects rich narratives and develops incisive analysis from decades of walking and talking with activists, artists, and scholars. Together, the stories display repertoires of presence, ways of being ¡presentes!, that resist, subvert, and respond to colonial and capitalist modes of exploitation. As an eminent scholar of performance studies, Taylor attends especially to the styles, gestures, and rhetoric of actors as they creatively improvise within a system that seems to exercise hegemonic cultural power.
She draws especially on her work with the Hemispheric Institute in order to share stories from the Zapatistas in Chiapasand Villa Grimaldi in Chile, to the Ayotzinapa 43 and their parents’ pilgrimage through the United States. The narratives crackle with verve. By taking reflexive stock of her own walking and talking, Taylor at once inspires her readers to action while calling for a more reflexive political practice. Teachers will find her narratives pedagogically instructive while researchers interested in the cases she studies will find rich detail for analysis.
My own interest in Taylor’s work emerged, most immediately, from the happy coincidence of the titles of our nearly simultaneously published books. (My book is ¡Presentes! Nonviolent Politics and the Resurrection of the Dead.) As our conversation displays, while working in distinct disciplines—performance studies for Taylor and political theology for myself—we share common interests in the possibility of agency within systems of domination: cultural, military, biopolitical, and epistemic.
What does it mean to be ¡presente! to one another, to the dead, to those ground up by the gears of civilizational “progress”? Neither Taylor nor I venture a final answer. Yet, Taylor’s book and our conversation reveal the modes of discernment entailed in response, the first step in taking responsibility.
A Way of Living
I really loved reading your book. I appreciated, so much, your stories, which I thought communicated real power and insight. I saw from your CV that your BA was in creative writing, and I thought that really showed through in the storytelling.
In view of those stories I thought we might start our conversation at the end of your book: the final story you tell of Las Patronas. It’s such a beautiful story. As I read it sitting on campus I was moved to tears.
Briefly, for those who will be reading along with us, you tell the story of the women who handed up food to migrants traveling on the migrant train La Bestia. And you said “They know they will never solve the problem—but they tirelessly exert themselves anyway” (247). And I think the story struck me especially because it cuts directly through the kinds of paralysis that can come from structural analysis and critique. These scholarly tools are very productive when they can serve the work of social transformation, but they can also introduce forms of resignation. We do nothing when encountering the suffering of others because, well, it’s even worse than we might imagine, and all of our interventions in fact might collaborate with those structures. But the story of Las Patronas, I think is emblematic of the kind of work of being ¡presente! within a system that seems to broach no options for agency. It’s a gesture. It’s not final or complete, but their gift of food and water is a life affirming form of ¡presente!
I wanted to ask you to reflect on the habits, the virtues, and the actions that sustain a posture of ¡presente!? How have you cultivated those habits or virtues of this mode of being in the world? How did you identify ¡presente!? When you saw it, how did you know you were seeing ¡presente!?
Maybe I’ll tell you the long way around, which is that I grew up in Mexico. And I was a teenager at the time of the 68 Tlatelolco Massacre of students. I grew up, or I came into presence as I say in my book, with the understanding that our government would be willing to kill us in broad daylight rather than have a dialogue. And I think it’s growing up with that understanding that we need to affirm and maintain and defend the right to speak and the right to be there, the right to stand up and make claims. I learned that there. I never thought I had a choice. It never occurred to me that I was going to just sit back and say, “Oh, these terrible things are happening. I’m sorry about that.” That just never came to my mind.
I had trained in theater and then as an academic. And I wrote my first book, Theater of Crisis, thinking about politics and performance. It wasn’t until I got to Argentina in 1990, and I started walking with the mothers of Plaza de Mayo, when I realized that there was a very different form of being ¡presente! Their children had been disappeared. They were demanding justice. They knew that their kids were dead. They knew that their weekly manifestaciones (protests) were not going to bring them back. But they knew that they had to stand up and they had to make a claim for information. They had to make a claim for justice. And they did it every single week. When I got there in 1990, this had been going on for 17 years. And the women who are still alive are still there today. Then I understood, I think consciously, that being ¡presente! is not just a reaction, something that you do because that’s your instinct. It’s also a commitment. It’s also a way of committing a life. And they had committed to that way of life.
So, for me, then, this idea of protest intervention that lasts a lifetime became a new way of thinking. It’s not just I’m going to go out and, you know, support Black Lives Matter today, or go and march with the women’s movement tomorrow. This is a lifetime of commitment, and we can’t expect to have things solved in a day, or perhaps in a lifetime.
The difference between Las Madres and Las Patronas as I mentioned in that chapter is: I understood the Madres in a very visceral way. Their kids had been disappeared. But for the first time in my life working with activists and artists, I saw in the Patronas a group that spent their life being there for people that they did not know. They themselves had no personal experience of migration. Nobody in their family had migrated. So, it was an act that came out of a space of pure recognition or empathy with another human being. That act makes the women and the migrants more human. Leonila—who is the mother who had made that extraordinary decision when she says, “I’m going to feed them”—she said before I used to see them as flies, you know, kind of attached to the train. That’s the word, moscas: they were flies. And all of a sudden, they’re humans. This act of extending a hand becomes what makes us human on the deepest level. I found that extraordinarily powerful and that’s why I want to end with it because I was hoping people would take that with them as the most basic gesture, most elemental.
The Dead as Presente
I’m especially interested in the presence of the dead: how the dead become presente, how they haunt us, how they act, how they make claims upon us. The dead as presente also seem to play an important role in your work from your observation in the first chapter that death is a transitory condition in Spanish, to your focus on the Ayotzinapa 43, to your work with Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo. I wanted to invite you to reflect on how the dead act upon us as well as how we can be presente to the non-material or the more-than-material?
On one level, I very firmly believe that we carry our dead with us, our personal dead. That’s a presence, and a way of being, in a very direct relationship to a world that people might consider non-material. I would say also, at a broader level, that the dead are always with us. We’re still, in Latin America, suffering from the dead of recent history, of the disappeared of disappearance as a political technology. But the dead in the Americas have been with us always. The United States and all of the Americas have been built on genocide and slavery, built on the dead, and the unacknowledged. Those presences, especially when they’re so unacknowledged, continue to make themselves felt.
There is such a mandate now to be present, as in present tense, as in what happened yesterday doesn’t matter, that presentist understanding. Everything that I know pulls me in the other direction. We’re always accompanied. In your own book you talk about the claims that the dead make on us in theology. We can talk about other kinds of claims, for example in literature, you think about Hamlet’s father’s ghost. Literature is full of these claims that the dead make on us.
Or Toni Morrison’s Beloved.
Beloved, absolutely. We are never free of the dead. I think that this is good and bad. I mean, we shouldn’t have to carry some things forward like Hamlet. But for others, it’s good to know that our dead are with us.
I had to give a lecture the other day, and I used this example that I didn’t use in the book of death being a transitory condition. In this lecture I was talking about how in the Mesoamerican philosophy things are always in a state of equivalence. It’s not metaphor. It’s not metonymy. It’s really an equivalence, and things are always in motion. Time is not linear in the way we tend understand. I talk in the book about time being either spiral or circular, coming back. Death in that sense really is a transitory condition. It may be puzzling in Spanish because Spanish is a colonial language. But when you think about it in the Mesoamerican context and in other languages it becomes obvious that the dead live.
One interesting thing is the way that the dead speak and continue to be activists. That’s interesting to me. For example, there is Commandanta Ramona saying, “It didn’t matter, we were dead already.” There is Regina Galindo enacting, from a place of death. We’re taking a stand in a place of death. We’re fighting back. It is the same thing with the mothers of the Central Americans and the other disappeared. This is activism in the space of death. Death, of course, is a kind of a terror system. But death also is a reality that we have to occupy, own, and speak from in order to keep moving.