acelia portrait

Honoring Our Literary Ancestors: On Arcelia and Giovanni’s Room

by | November 11, 2021

In the days leading up to my grandmother’s death, my eyes lingered on her ninety-year-old hands. As a little tomboy, Arcelia’s hands had mesmerized me. I watched them feed cookies to caged parrots. I felt the caresses she offered to dogs, cats, and pigeons. In the kitchen, her mandil darkened as she wiped her wet palms against its threadbare gingham. At the kitchen table, her hands tore bolillo in half, fingernails digging into the white fluff, pulling it away from jagged crust. My abuelita Arcelia’s hands also lifted brushes, pressing them to canvas to paint portraits emphasizing vision. Brush stroke after brush stroke recreated our eyes. Her portraiture captured my sister’s anguish. Her portraiture captured my brother’s cautious joy. Her portraiture captured my queer childhood mischievousness so well that my earliest portrait still spooks people. This painting hangs in my parents’ home. Guests have asked that it be covered, claiming that its eyes proverbially follow them.

To look at a portrait painted by my grandmother is to see how much looking, and commemorating, delighted her.

My grandmother painted me many times.

Through those portraits, she taught me to see. And hear. Through portraiture, Abuelita prepared me to write.

My grandmother told me stories while she painted. The stories were never sweet. They elevated mortality, making of it the most sensuous and unpredictable thing. Her tales starred feminine heroes, masculine villains, and supernatural beings that had no use for gender. Knives hidden in wives’ rebozos appeared in my grandmother’s stories. Angels revealed themselves to would-be murderers in my grandmother’s stories. Revolutionaries attacked convents in my grandmother’s stories. Human remains nourished rose gardens in my grandmother’s stories. In my grandmother’s literary universe, humans took flight. Upon turning into owls, women cackled and soared, flapping their wings as they escaped into the Mexican night.

Portrait of Myriam by her Grandmother

My time spent as my grandmother’s muse turned artmaking familiar, making of it an activity that I will forever associate with affection, mortality, ancestors, and the gifts of looking, and commemorating, together. We spent countless hours on wooden chairs, an easel propped in the hallway, paint fumes intoxicating us. The caged parrots and I listened to Abuelita. Her legends kept us still. Hypnotized. She fused bardic traditions with the visual arts, thus crafting a legacy. To this day, I cannot separate storytelling from painting. I wouldn’t want to.

We paint stories as much as we breathe them. The tongue functions as brush, saliva as paint.

In her final years, my grandmother’s hands rested. Dementia sent her creativity into hibernation, and Abuelita lived in a bed, staring at a ceiling fan. She spoke only two words. “Quiero.” And “aguita.”

With a wet cloth, we moistened her lips with aguita. We lifted spoons filled with mango baby food to her mouth. While feeding her, I imagined us as birds.

A few days before her spirit left her body, Abuelita’s hands began to move again.

I sat at her bedside, watching. Later, in the dining room where the parrots had lived, I asked my mother, “Did you see what your mother has been doing with her hands?”

Myriam and her abuela
Myriam and her abuela

“Yes. She’s moving them as if pulling thread from her mouth. She keeps pulling and pulling. She keeps pulling thread…”

Neither my mother nor I voiced what we both knew: The invisible thread that my grandmother was pulling from her mouth was life. I knew about this thread because in addition to my grandmother’s stories, I’d read mythology during childhood. A book about the Greeks taught me about the Fates, three goddesses who artists often represent as crones. Holding a spindle, Clotho generates our destinies, issuing the thread of life. Lachesis feels and eyes the length, measuring, measuring, measuring. Atropos opens her scissors, performing the unavoidable.

My grandmother’s hands indicated which member of the Greek trio was coming.

Abuelita’s hands stopped moving on an August morning, but her eyes continue to see and tell. Abuelita gave me her painter’s eye, and I’m not alone in my visual understanding of narrative. In 1984, when Jordan Elgraby interviewed James Baldwin for The Paris Review, Baldwin described having his eye similarly trained: “I remember standing on a street corner with the black painter Beauford Delaney down in the Village, waiting for the light to change, and [Beauford] pointed down and said, ‘Look.’ I looked and all I saw was water. And he said, ‘Look again,’ which I did, and I saw oil on the water and the city reflected in the puddle. It was a great revelation to me. I can’t explain it. He taught me how to see, and how to trust what I saw. Painters have often taught writers how to see. And once you’ve had that experience, you see differently.”

James Baldwin
James Baldwin on the Albert Memorial with statue of Shakespeare, by Allan Warren

I offer Baldwin’s way of seeing, in connection with the way that Abuelita taught me to see, as evidence that Baldwin, Abuelita, Beauford Delaney and I belong to a lineage, one that braids the visual and literary arts with bardic and oracular traditions. Because I take knowledge, consciousness, community, art, spirit, and life seriously, I also take lineage and ancestry seriously. Abolitionist Ruthie Wilson Gilmore teaches us about the interrelatedness of these phenomena when she emphasizes the “selection and reselection of ancestors.” This practice encourages us to look at our pasts, at those beings whose struggles and knowledge we turn to, and rely upon, to enhance our present and our future. We identify and honor these ancestors so that they might guide us in the making of fruitful, loving, and life-affirming presence. We appeal to them, and thank them, for a gift that we participate in creating, preserving, and sharing: Generational memory. Memory fills the space between life and afterlife.

In the United States of America, institutions overwhelmingly encourage us to lie about ancestry. It’s no accident that these same institutions also discourage us from honoring and dignifying the social and collective dimensions of death. Dying is best done together. In that way, it is similar to living.

In the United States of America, schoolteachers use familial language when discussing enslavers and rapists, representing men such as President George Washington and President Thomas Jefferson as our “forefathers.” Such ghouls are foisted upon children as ancestors and a US history teacher once explained to me that he displays portraits of US Presidents on his classroom walls in service of chronology. I find that use of portraiture repugnant. I wouldn’t want to organize my understanding of time and space according to the projects of enslavement and genocide. I prefer to organize my understanding of time and space according to a selection and reselection of ancestors. In addition to Baldwin, Abuelita, and Beauford Delaney, my ancestors are Juan Rulfo, Carson McCullers, Lucille Clifton, Cécile Fatiman, Jean Cordova, tatiana de la tierra, Lorraine Hansberry, Jenni Rivera, and Narcisa Lugo Lozada Carrión.

Guided by these chosen ancestors, various writers and supporters of the literary arts have come together to create Giovanni’s Room, a space, both physical and metaphysical, that centers minoritized writers. We choose to use the magic of storytelling in the struggle for our liberation and yours. We pray that you will join us.