This guest blog comes from Submittable’s inaugural 2019 Eliza So Fellow, Alan Palaez Lopez, mid-residency, in Missoula, Montana.
When I tell my amá that I received a fellowship to work on a hybrid play and poetry collection titled “libélulas,” my mother reminds me that “libélulas” is the castellano word for dragonflies and that in our village, the word we use for them is “chambalés.” I thank amá for her wisdom and ask her if “chambalé” is a word in Zapotec. She tells me she does not know and we both sit in silence as the conversation becomes yet another fragmented memory of the land we had to bid farewell to two decades ago.
After our phone call, I google “chambalé” and although there are very few matches, I find flyers to community events in Oaxaca, México that read, “Grupo Folklórico INDIOAFROMESTIZO.” A few clicks get me to different Facebook pages and as I look through albums of the folklore groups, my heart fills with warmth at the sight of Black Indigenous children in México smiling and dancing amongst each other. I close my laptop, and although I am nervous to fly to a state where I don’t know anyone, I try to imagine myself finishing the manuscript and bringing it to a community stage with one of the folkloric groups in my distant Oaxaca.
The day after I arrive in Missoula, I decide to walk through town in hopes that I can situate myself and not be too dependent on my phone’s GPS. Within the first five minutes of my walk, I encounter a large mural of a green dragonfly surrounded by other local organisms on the outside entrance of the Montana Natural History Center.
Every few days, I stop by the building to further linger with the dragonfly. I remind myself that I am not in Missoula, Montana and re-situate myself as a visitor in occupied Pend d’Oreille and Ktunaxa land, a geography that served as a meeting site for the Salish, Blackfeet and Shoshone people pre-European settlement.
As I sit with the image of the dragonfly, I begin to wonder what kind of role the tender insects had in the everyday lives of Pend d’Oreille and Ktunaxa people before they were relocated. I ask myself if Pend d’Oreille and Ktunaxa children also spent hours playing with the dragonflies as if they were pets, and if the insects also provided them with evening nourishment.
I find a nighttime routine that consists of watching YouTube videos about dragonflies until I fall asleep. My frequent interactions with the dragonfly mural combined with YouTube videos and my vivid imagination lead me to dream about dragonflies. As soon as I wake up, I walk over to the living room, open my laptop and begin to work on my manuscript. In a phone conversation with a friend, I explain, “my dreams are literally writing this whole manuscript.”
On my first full weekend in Missoula, Karin Schalm—a new friend and office manager at Submittable—invites me to the Western Montana Fair and mentions that there will be a ceremony for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls at the rodeo.
The rodeo opens with an honor drum song where elders and community members stand in front of the rodeo fence and a color guard of flags held by representatives from all Montana tribes congregate in a straight line inside the field. As an Indigenous person from North America, I realize that our experiences of loss are far too similar.
When the horses leave the field, one of the elders takes the mic and speaks the names of the women and girls that have gone missing in the state as some of their photographs are projected onto a screen on the left-hand side of the field.
Although the rain makes it difficult to hear every word spoken, witnesses cannot miss the amount of grief shared by each speaker.
In the manuscript I am writing, there is a moment where the protagonist, an unnamed toddler, approaches a dried stream and asks the water for an explanation of how they became a former sibling. As the stream magically fills with water, the water rises and begins to answer the toddler’s question. But instead of telling the toddler that their sister is one of the many missing and murdered Indigenous girls from North America, the water speaks in riddles, only leaving the toddler more confused.
As the manuscript progresses and the toddler’s role transitions from “toddler” to “former toddler,” the young person begins to realize that their status as a “former sibling” is directly tied to the ongoing occupation of Indigenous lands in the Americas.
When the rodeo ends, Karin and I engage in a conversation about mourning and grief. We share only a few words, but the words we do share leave me thinking for days. I spend about four or five days thereafter thinking of how to be clearer about the toddler’s sister in the manuscript. A few nights later, I dream about my own family shape-shifting into dragonflies to escape settler violence. It is in this dream that I decide to complicate my manuscript and make the toddler’s sister a shape-shifting figure that transgresses the violence of sequestration and murder, a contemporary Indigenous reality that is often understood as a nineteenth-century past and not a twenty-first-century truth.
To this day, the decision to make the sister a figure that escaped sequestration and murder has me a bit unsettled, especially since that portion of the manuscript is somewhat autobiographical. As I examine my authorial choices, I conclude that I made this decision in pursuit of an elsewhere—an Indigenous future that is always already working against settler violence. At first, I thought that I was taking the “easy” route to avoid confronting an intimate and familiar experience, but I realized that when a community has lived through violence, every day becomes a form of confrontation with the past. In short, there is no “easy” route.
When I accepted the Eliza So Fellowship, I didn’t think that Montana would change me. The truth is, being alone for a month in a geography with so much Indigenous resistance will change anyone who seeks out the history and community.
With every walk around the periphery of the Clark Fork of the Columbia River, every hike up to the “M,” and with each sunrise and sunset, I was reminded that a connection to land means a larger connection and commitment to life.
The fellowship offered me an opportunity for a type of solitude I hadn’t experienced before, and it was in this solitude that I dreamt and imagined the most.
My manuscript isn’t finished because what started as a choreopoem is shape-shifting into a full-length play. The shape-shifting of my work is in part informed by the mountains and waterscapes of Missoula.
Who knew that an Afro-Zapotec migrant from Oaxaca, México could find so much of home on Pend d’Oreille and Ktunaxa land?