I Went to Another World and Bought This T-Shirt by Alberto Chimal

0
175

Editor’s note:
Alberto’s article was the first publicly published post-Worldcon report on the experiences of members of the Mexicanx Initiative at Worldcon.  The initiative itself was conceived of and championed by John Picacio, Worldcon76’s Guest of Honor and Hugo Awards Master of Ceremonies.  By way of full disclosure, Amazing Stories was an enthusiastic sponsor of the initiative (we wish we could have spent much more time with our sponsorees).
Alberto is correct – this initiative was about more than just getting better representation at Worldcon for Mexican artists and authors – it was also a protest against the current administration’s words and policies on immigration and, more specifically, as push-back against the perceptions of Mexico and its citizens that are being pushed by this administration.  A big Thank You is owed to John and to those very brave members of the initiative who put themselves at potential risk by attending.  The Worldcon community, and SF Fandom in general, is a far better community now for having welcomed these cousins into the family.
Alberto Chimal’s original article, in Spanish, can be read here.  This translation provided by Tanya Tynjala, Amazing Stories Spanish Language Editor.
ETA 9/25/18:  Alberto Chimal sent in some edits to his translated text that have been incorporated below.

By Alberto Chimal

Last month I had an unusual opportunity: I was part of a delegation participating at the Worldcon in San José, California.

I had written about the convention for a Spanish language magazine. Despite being labeled as a “World” or global event, the Worldcon is primarily focused on the market and media of the United States. After all, its origin was a term initially used in the United States almost 100 years ago and very narrowly defined. “Science Fiction”, later called speculative fiction, was conceived as an artistic expression of material and technological progress ideals of that country, and was almost always limited by the habits, aspirations, and prejudices of just one section of its society: male, white readers of European descent. At the time, few did question most of the discriminative attitudes that are so much of the discussion nowadays.

The modern Worldcon is more open than, for example the Baseball World Cup… or than the World Economic Forum. What is shared out, commented and awarded there – the Hugo Awards are given during the event – ends up being translated, distributed and consumed by readers and fans of the genre in several countries. The best speculative fiction has always had the possibility and desire to imagine different life conditions than the existing ones and a good deal of key female and males writers of the genre, from Aldous Huxley to Nnedi Okorafor, have criticized injustices occurring at the time they were writing and in their own contexts. Lastly, In recent times the American fandom – the fan community and the creators, publishers and researchers that surround it – has expanded to incorporate more women, more LGBT+ persons…, and this year (precisely this year) more people of Mexican origin.

The delegation I was a part of was comprised of almost 50 Mexican and Mexican American artists, writers and readers, who were able to attend and be part of the convention program thanks to a fandom-funded project called The Mexicanx Initiative.

Widely known artist John Picacio created the Initiative. He was Guest of Honor at this Worldcon, the first time a person of Mexican origin has received this distinction. Picacio, as well as others, is aware of the openly racist and anti-Mexican position of the current USA administration and of how the distortions and tweets of its President, Donald Trump, are normalizing some hateful and extremist ideas. Many of us believe those ideas will without doubt be condemned in the future. In the meantime, the intention of Picacio’s project was not only cultural and altruistic, but also political, and since its announcement earlier in 2018, it has become more and more urgent. The White House’s “zero tolerance” policy has this year caused the separation of hundreds of immigrant children from their parents at the Mexican border, to be locked in what are practically concentration camps. This same year, a number of United Stated citizens of Mexican origin, including many who were born in the USA, are being persecuted with the intent of rescinding their citizenship.

The Mexicanx Initiative group took part in exhibitions, panels, readings and public ceremonies, during the whole convention. Among others, the group featured writers of several generations, from long seasoned pros like Gerardo Porcayo, José Luis Zárate or Pepe Rojo –who have led literary movements in Mexico– to very young ones like Smok, Andrea Chapela or Mariana Palova, whose approach to the trappings of fantastic imagination is very different from that of their older colleagues. Some participants were integrated into the general program activities: a panel about racism and other prejudices in literature, for example, or another one about how myths and ancient traditions are used in contemporary fiction. But there were also opportunities to showcase Mexican art and narrative in more specific panels and readings in English and in Spanish. A bilingual anthology: Una realidad más amplia/A larger reality, was independently crowdsourced and launched at the convention. The result of the work of anthologist and editor Libia Brenda Castro, it offered a selection of short stories from both sides of the border. There were a lot of people in atttendance for a panel about Mexican “narrativa de imaginación” from Colonial times to the XXI century, and also for another one about contemporary speculative literature in Mexico, which tends to try and “slip” into mainstream, childrens and young adult literature in order to get past the snobbish attitudes of most of the national canonical criticism.

This was the first time that Latin Americans have participated at this level in a Worldcon, an event that has been held annually, almost without interruption, since 1939. We were never disturbed, nor did we see any clear signs of discrimination from anyone during our activities, but there was a constant concern from the organization’s side about our wellbeing which we were thankful for. At the same time, we could feel some kind of odd atmosphere sometimes, even outside the convention center.

It took us time (especially to me) to realize we were feeling the mood of the city itself, and perhaps of the whole United States in this tumultuous moment of its history, in which its society is deeply divided (among other causes) over the search for acceptance, justice and vindication for “minorities”: groups that have been marginalized, exploited and subjected to violence for centuries. In hotels and public places, sometimes we could see on television screens the insistent and vertiginous images of the political scandals of the day. Immigrant workers and immigrant descendants – who support an important part of the USA economy, as everybody well knows – were on those places, talking in English with their clients or employers and in other languages, specially Spanish, between them. Once there was a little demonstration by some supposed science fiction fans of a conservative leaning (although they behaved more like members of the underbelly of conspiracy theorists from the far right), who felt “offended” by the amount of women and people with identities and sexual orientations other than the “traditional” ones. Of course, they were also angry because of the number of POC in the convention.

At the Hugo Awards Ceremony, N.K. Jemisin became the first person to win the Best Novel Award three times in a row (and for consecutive installments of the same series), on top of being the first African American woman ever to win that award in 2016. Because her speech was not sentimentally conventional but confrontational, denouncing the unequal treatment she received several times during her career, a lot of people applauded her. But Robert Silverberg – an important figure of 20th century science fiction, and at the same time, I have to say, an older, white man– criticized her, and when this was known, it caused a huge controversy, similar to those that America’s science fiction has been dealing with all this decade. As always in these cases, the bigger conflict was between the push for more diversity from one side and a bitter reluctance from the other: a desire to preserve “tradition” (or, frankly, privilege) within the genre.

Observing these divisions and noticing the numerous unspoken rules of inequality in the US made us think, by contrast, of the ways (very different and very similar at the same time) of discrimination in Mexico. There, racial and class prejudices are more intertwined. The majority of us learn, without ever having to say it, that “our pantone” – the color of our skin – more or less establishes from the start how educated, how virtuous and accomplished, will everyone be perceived to be, reducing each of us to a stereotypical image in a caste system.

On the other hand, one of the biggest takeaways of this experience for me was the discovery of the other part of the Mexicanx Initiative: those creators and fans born or living in the USA and culturally linked to Mexico. I believe everyone should have the opportunity to meet them and see their work, and it would be particularly good for readers and fans who live in Mexico to do so. It is very well known that many Mexicans are seldom interested in migrant culture; perhaps the menace of a racist regime could move us to correct this attitude, but even if it doesn’t, it’s important we learn a valuable lesson they offer through their work: how the meaning of “what is Mexican” (the things we appreciate and identify with as born of our culture) is transformed when Mexico is far away.

Without the Worldcon we probably would not have met Julia Rios, writer and editor, winner of a Hugo this year for her work in Uncanny Magazine, nor Emmanuel Valtierra, creator of the Codex Valtierra, an astonishing counterfactual graphic novel built as an ancient codex – in which Europe is conquered by the Aztecs – or Guadalupe García McCall, Lauren Snow, Felecia Caton, Sara Felix, Vania Soto, David Bowles, Aaron Duran, J. C. Cervantes, Patty Garcia, Gonzalo Alvares, Dianita Cerón… Many of them use traditional “Mexican” themes and elements to differentiate themselves in an extremely competitive and segmented milieu, but in any case they do it with an ease that’s missing in local, Mexican-made works, inside and outside the so-called “genre fiction”. Of course, opinions about Mexican exoticism are quite divided, as the Pixar film Coco (Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina, 2017) made plain. But to some extent, what discourages most creators working in Mexico from using many “national” themes is fear of being exposed to a kind of subliminal disapproval, taught as a disdain of those extravagant clichés. In fact, that disdain is closer to racism from a social and cultural elite whose desire is above all else to feel white: separated from that “other” group, the one they exploit and disregard. One of the pending changes of our country should be to make visible, to fight and overcome these attitudes and prejudices.

Worldcon76 Badge art from LA CALAVERA copyright (c) 2014 John Picacio, a Loteria card deck

My wife, Raquel Castro, also invited to the convention, told me that Coco -shown prior to a conversation with some of their Mexican-American contributors- makes sense, specially, as a idealistic, timeless representation of a distant Mexico. It’s a country that’s no more the everyday reality of those who evoke it, but rather has become a myth: an image of a “land of origin”, a source of sense and strength for the people who cherish it because they live somewhere else, in a hostile environment. Such transformation of memory and imagination has been, of course, part of the experience of millions of migrants, especially of those who migrate to escape poverty or violence.

John Picacio gave another example of how to remake and rethink what it means “to be Mexican”. The official Worldcon image was made by him: a sci-fi Catrina, far from the cliché representation made popular worldwide by such artists as Mexican engraver José Guadalupe Posada. That image was printed on t-shirts and I bought one. I had it with me for the flight home, along with books, names and addresses newly registered in my phone, and other mementos from my time in another world.

Alberto Chimal is the author of the novels La torre y el jardín (2012) and Los esclavos (2009) as well as multiple short-story collections. The recipient of numerous literary prizes, including the Bellas Artes National Short Story Award (2002) and the Colima Fiction Award (2013), his work has appeared in English in The Kenyon Review, Asymptote, Palabras Errantes, and World Literature Today and other print and online magazines. He lives in Mexico City, where he teaches creative writing at the Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.