Viajando por Las Americas: From Guatemala to Washington, D.C.
The immigrant experience is a complex one. Public debates on immigration—around such issues as citizenship and deportation—occur at a national level, but it’s not a monolithic experience, and it entails more than a generic story of a search for a better life. Beyond this narrative are memories of our homeland, childhoods, joy, and heartache. It’s often embedded with difficult decisions—ones involving risk and uncertainty, both physical and emotional. Whether we migrate by foot, land, water, or air, these journeys continue even after arrival with new challenges such as learning a new language or securing a place to live.
Along the way, we discover our resilience.
The 2017 Folklife Festival program On the Move explored the experiences we carry with us as we move to and within the United States. Wherever we go, viajamos—we travel—with our backpack of memories, knowledge, music, dance, food, language, and generations of ancestors who came before us. We reach for these items as we settle in and adapt. It is our toolbox from which we resourcefully build our place in new surroundings and circumstances. We remember the past, but we also learn to adapt.
One such resilient individual at the Festival was Ubaldo Sánchez, an accomplished Central American artist committed to sustaining the craft and tradition of the alfombra de aserrín, which he began learning from his family back in Guatemala when he was five years old. The alfombra is a rug-like decorative piece created on the ground from moist dyed sawdust and other natural materials such as flower petals, rice, beans, and corn. It’s a tradition related to the celebration of Holy Week as practiced throughout Central America and dating back to the sixteenth century. Today, the tradition is not limited to religious occasions.
In the D.C. area, Ubaldo formed a group called Los Viajeros de las Americas—the travelers of the Americas. Here, the craft of the alfombra bridges multiple communities, and Ubaldo’s memory is a resource offered to his new community in the United States. During the Festival, his group created an alfombra on a wooden walkway with four panels: one celebrating the Festival’s 50th anniversary and three depicting scenes in Guatemala and the United States.
“An immigrant remembers everything he had to go through in order to get here,” Ubaldo explained. “I remember that one day I carried a gallon of water through the desert. Just like the images I depicted in the alfombra, it made me remember how that journey was once part of my life. All of us who worked on the piece have experienced something like what is represented in the images we created. It is part of what we live in order to get to this country.
“Although I was young, I remember seeing small children in the desert. Sometimes we had to help carry the kids when they were too tired to walk. I also remember how we were left for a night in the snow. One of the people traveling with us almost died.”
Ubaldo described his vision for the alfombra and the significance of its imagery. He explained why the American flag is held by four different hands.
“We put the four [cardinal] directions,” he said. “That represents the colors of the skin according to the color of maize. For the Maya, these four colors are really important. The white corn represents white, the yellow represents the Hispanic or something along those lines, the black represents African Americans, and the red represents the Native Americans or indigenous peoples. Everything has a relationship to nature. All of this has the same colors that we as humans also possess. Based on that, we made the design to represent North America using the American flag with the four colors that represent the human.”
Click on the above image to see a slideshow of the making of the alfombra de aserrín
Finding and affirming one’s own identity can be a struggle that takes time to resolve. Ubaldo explained how he had once tried to deny his own indigenous heritage.
“There was a time when I didn’t want to speak my language, Mam,” he recalled. “Perhaps it was my own ignorance, or maybe it was just a phase of my rebellious youth years. Then one day, my high school teacher shows up at my front door unexpectedly. He told me, ‘Look, Ubaldo. If you would recognize your identity, you could go really far with your art. Your cultural roots are really important. I expect that your mother understands Spanish, but I imagine that she also spoke to you in Mam during the nine months she spent with you in her womb. So how is it that you deny your mother?’”
In that moment, Ubaldo realized that art could support his sense of self, and that he in turn could teach other generations of people to continue the tradition of the alfombra. Today Ubaldo continues to create alfombrasat local churches for Holy Week and other religious holidays. He has been invited to produce pieces at the Smithsonian and the Kennedy Center, and in honor of President Barack Obama and Pope Francis during his visit to D.C. in 2015.
As an active member of his community, Ubaldo is committed to passing on his craft to younger generations. He also wishes to use his art to break stigmas against indigenous peoples, who are sometimes viewed as possessing primitive knowledge. With the wellbeing of his community in his homeland always in mind, he started a nonprofit organization that sends support for medical aid and access to drinking water for indigenous children in Guatemala.
The remarkable immigrant and migrant experiences—the ones we carry from other places to the ones we create in our new homes—give meaning to our livelihoods and shape the way we interact with the world. The voices and cultural resources of immigrants significantly contribute to who we are as nation. They are stories that deserve to be told.
Michelle Aranda Coss was born in Mexico City and raised in Los Angeles. She is a student in Chicanx Studies at California State University, Northridge, and she is particularly interested in the arts as tools for transformation and social justice. She was an intern with the On the Move program of the 2017 Smithsonian Folklife Festival.
Read more: Colorful Sawdust Carpets: A Guatemalan Tradition from Hola Cultura