A bus filled with performing arts professionals bumped along a cracked cement road in Mexico City. It was fall, and we’d come from across wihe Americas to participate in ENARTES, a global forum for the performing arts. The bus was making rounds, and visiting small theaters to see artists’ work.
On day one, I sat around a long table with performing art professors from Mexico, Uruguay, Spain, and the United States. Six of us had showed up. The remaining ten chairs sat empty with name cards, university affiliations, and printed list of scheduled participants. It was like a United Nations of no shows.
“Thank you for being here,” the Mexican representative said. “I want you all to know each other.”
She turned to me first. Blinking. Expectant. I answered by speaking my name and institutional affiliation.
“I . . . ” My jaw tensed. “I am . . .” I paused awkwardly, word-seeking. What is important for them to know about me? “I am an internationalist,” my mouth said. “I-am-an-internationalist,” I repeated—like a vinyl with a skip.
After the meeting, El Uruguayo introduced me to O Brasileiro. We boarded a bus together headed to see community theater. I’m a writer and educator who spent decades making dances for the stage. I am now, more or less, in the middle of my life.
“Tenho 52 anos,” O Brasileiro said.
We were born around the time in different parts of the world. I’m from the U.S. (California, to be exact), and he was from Brazil. My family’s roots in the U.S. are new. I’m first generation on my mother’s side and second generation on my dad’s. My ancestors fled the pogroms in Europe and immigrated to the Middle East and the U.S. to save their lives. My paternal grandmother grew into adulthood in the U.S. under McCarthyism. She became an activist and was harassed during the Cold War for being “Un-American.” My children are black Brazilian on their father’s side. On all sides, I have learned to distrust tiki-torcher-white-nationalism, and for good reason. It has cost family and friends their lives.
The bus stopped at an intersection. Red light. A far-right president had just been elected to a country that had barely shaken off the vestiges of a dictatorship. Kill the gays, the new president spat. “If we’d just killed 30,000 more dissidents, we wouldn’t be where we are now.” Jair Bolsonaro had been elected despite his ethnic cleansing rhetoric. This cemetery was now in charge of the largest nation in Latin America.
O Brasileiro showed me a group text on his phone with green and yellow conversation bubbles. His thumb hovered over a link in the thread called “como sobrevivir o facismo.” He looked me in the eye. It was a smart phone link on “how to survive fascism.” The list was a digital first-aid kit for facing militarism: rubbing alcohol, aspirin, butterfly band-aids, hope. He showed me a handmade video clip of a spontaneous street parade with armed tanks in the southern region.
I wanted to offer him some kind of comfort. After all, we’d just been through something similar one year, 320 days, and 11 hours ago with the election of Donald J. Trump.
“Remember to eat and to sleep,” I said to the worried man. I recounted the day after Trump’s election. I’d sat across from my son at our kitchen table, our eyes puffed out like Bazooka bubblegum in disbelief. The kitchen was a container of trapped air. Difficult to breath. The apparition of fascism was rising.
The next morning, I had to teach. Stand up, I coached myself. Balance.
My students were noticeably red-eyed from crying over the election results the night before. It was the day of their final presentations. They’d been working for months developing capstone projects to launch their dreams into reality.
“What’s the point?!” one brilliant Latinx student blurted out.
“You are the point,” I said, matter-of-factly.
After her presentation, we all teared up—teachers and students alike — —in the most controlled and sophisticated matter permissible in a classroom setting.
The bus shook and we wobbled side to side in the upholstered seats. A light rain speckled droplets on the window. When Trump was elected, I never imagined that I’d be comparing election notes with a fellow arts educator from South America. Elections in the north. Elections in the south. Uncomfortable signs of a global trend.
“Bolsonaro é mais extremo que o Trump,” O Brasileiro said. He saw Bolsonaro as extremely dangerous, even more outlandish that Donald.
I winced. He raised his eyebrows for emphasis. The bus dipped into a pothole, then tottered back to equilibrium.
O Brasileiro traced an invisible graph with his index finger on the back of the seat before us to represent who was most in danger after their election.
“Artist. Known. Gay. Progressive,” he said. He placed himself in the top 15% of likelihood to be harassed, detained, or even killed. He traced three circles in the air with his index finger — two small rings the size of a fist, and one bigger loop around them. “I’ve seen many circles in my life,” he said. The bus jerked and jostled us. “This one is bigger.” The largest circle represented the cycle of his life.
I know what inequality and hatred can do to a country. Fear mongering fueled the election of Jair Bolsonaro as Brazil’s president. Caetano Veloso called it: “The militarists are back.”
Nothing had been average about this trip. When I landed in the Mexico City Airport, I switched my phone off airplane mode and a warning text pinged.
“Be calm when you hear the news,” a companion wrote.
No response. Wait for wifi.
I stood in a packed hallway, wedged in a thick line of strangers, like a snake with no head or tail. My phone pinged again.
“They shot up a synagogue.”
The tiki-torchers were at it again. My gut clenched. Eyes pinched. Tears.
That morning I’d just had a poem published called “It ends with the line: “a gun is a gun.”
A rose is a rose. A gun is a gun. Let’s call things what they are.
I texted my friend about the odd timing of the anti-gun violence poem and the shooting. I couldn’t move my body because we were jammed in every direction. Still, airport staff sang “excuse me” and “con permiso” while trying to push people in wheelchairs along the cleft between the snake of passengers and the wallpaper.
“It’s not your fault,” he wrote.
I knew that. Poems are not triggers. They decipher things.
Don’t be confused by a gun is not a gun, the non-violent poem said. A gun is a gun.
I will shoot you anyway, history said.
The mandala poem was a circle of spinning phrases, with rays emanating from the center, designed to spin Trump’s rhetoric on its head. Guns don’t kill people; people kill people,” the NRA says. The poem knows better. People kill people with their guns.
The poem wants to turn Bolsonaro’s rhetoric upside down, too. I’d walked the street of Liberdade after a shooting on Avenida Peixe in Bahia, Brazil. Police in baklavas paced the streets with rifles flared. My tense body wished for invisibility as we tried to walked unobtrusively along the edge of the desolate streets. “Just look at me and I’ll shoot,” their eyes said. Our family and friends had become hostages in their humble homes under curfew.
When will the peace come? We all know the story about eyes for eyes, and teeth for more teeth. It’s a never ending circuit.
I showed the poem to my new friends from Brazil, Uruguay, Canada, Mexico, and Spain. They all nodded their heads.
We have come full circle.
Phusssst. The bus parked. We reached the theater a little early and disembarked. El Uruguayo, O Brasileiro, and me set off in search of cafecito. We walked through the neighborhood of jagged streets and surfaces, everything under construction. Finally, we eyed a little coffee shop with a small, round table outside.
“Eu compro os cafezinhos,” O Brasileiro joked, “e vocês compram o jantar.” He dipped inside to place our coffee order. Before long, three tiny cups brimming with roasted heat shimmied on our table.
“I just spoke to my father this morning,” El Uruguayo said quietly, clenching his mobile phone. “He was a torture survivor.”
“How can people forget?” his father had asked him.
El Uruguayo was crying.
I cried in the airport. O Brasileiro cried on the bus. El Uruguayo cried on the corner drinking espresso, and El Uruguayo’s father cried to his son on the phone.
It was not the poem’s fault.
How did the poem know about the snaking line of travelers—the short line for citizens, and clogged line for visitors? It hadn’t seen the U.S. newspaper reports of Trump sending troops to the southern border, or the front page of the Mexican newspapers smattered with images of Hondurans in a caravan of trucks inching north like a peregrination in time for Christmas. One person’s peregrination is another person’s ambush. One person’s god is another person’s prisoner.
“We complain about our treatment at the border [with the U.S.]” Una Mexicana told me, “but we treat the Hondurans just as badly here in Mexico.”
The world is a sloppy layered cake of borders and guns and buses and airplanes and street corners and telephones made from missed understandings. But not us. We knew how to sit next to each other on a bus, or in a theater. We knew how to drink espresso at the same table.
“Decolonization is not linear,” an Inuvialut woman artist from the Western Territories said. She circled her arms. “It is a constant process.” How might the arts play a role in saving subjugated cultures across the Americas, including the 68 endangered languages in Mexico?
I write lots of sentences but I don’t have words in all the disappearing languages or the languages that have already been lost. But I know a circle when I see one, and I’ve become afraid of certain circles, big holes that entire peoples can fall into and never get out. I know not to blame all of this on the bus, the phone, the coffee, the newspapers, or the table of name cards with people missing.
I have lost the words of my ancestors, but I am using the languages I’ve learned to point my own rock of David at the Goliath of white nationalism. I am an internationalist, with a stone the size of a small planet, in my hand.
Amy Shimshon-Santo is a writer and educator from Dogtown, a place that no longer exists. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in creative non-fiction (2017), Best of the Net in poetry (2018). Her most recent publications include 15 poems from her collection Even the Milky Way is Undocumented (2019), and the essay “‘Do Our Lives Matter?’: Music, poetry, and Freedom School (SAGE 2018). Connect with her at www.amyshimshon.com, twitter @amyshimshon, ig @shimshona.