Let’s start with Rafa’s writing (followed by my translation of it):
Soy aquel que marchó en esa manifestación seminal que enfrentaba a una posición hegemónica, el que gritaba más fuerte que nadie las consignas por el cambio que –vaya ironía- llegó tarde y bastante descompuesto, el que nunca huyó. Soy quien traducía las letras de las canciones que tanto les gustaban y que entonces ayudaban a configurar el entorno que intuíamos progresista y libertario; ese que escribía en las revistas que rompieron moldes caducos del lenguaje e información, lo que abriría la puerta a tanto tema por discutir en nuestra gran (e hipócrita) familia mexicana. Soy aquel que lanzó la invitación a tripear y experimentar aquellas sustancias psiquedélicas y de brío sin esa culpa católica que sirviera por tanto tiempo como interferencia para esa conexión con nuestro inner deep. Soy el que inventó –al transgredirlo- un nuevo lenguaje que sirvió como punto de partida para nuevas alianzas y un anuncio más creíble y cercano de lo que estaba por venir. Do you remember me?
I’m the one who marched in that seminal protest, squaring off against a hegemonic position, the one who yelled louder than everyone else, shouting slogans for the change that—how ironic—came late and only partially, the one who never fled. I am the one who translated lyrics of songs they liked so much and that then helped them build a scene we intuited to be progressive and liberatory; the one who wrote in magazines that did away with outdated patterns of language and information, which would open the door to so many debates in our huge (hypocritical) Mexican family. I’m the guy who sent out the invitation to trip and experiment with psychedelic substances and with a spirit unburdened by that Catholic guilt that prevented us for so long from connecting with our inner deep. I’m the one who invented—by transgressing it—a new language that was a starting point for new alliances and a more believable and intimate picture of what was to come. ¿Te acuerdas de mí?
A little over a year ago when Rafa Saavedra died suddenly and unexpectedly, I started to pen a little essay about him. Or maybe an essay started to come out as I slowly realized I’d never see him again.
(Who was Rafa Saavedra? There is a bio of the late Tijuana writer on the KCET website. Several extracts of his writing are there in English. Pieces I originally translated for a book called Tijuana Dreaming where his work joins a slew of other works about la city: o sea TJ.)
In any case, I wrote some words and then stopped. I think I felt like other people were closer to him, and we should listen to them first.
But a year later, I think it’s time to look back again. I googled around to see what is available online about Rafa now. His Wikipedia page is only in Spanish. And the page needs updating. Sometimes Rafa “was” something in the past tense, then he “has done” things in the present perfect and he “is” still Rafadro in the present simple. It’s a mess. I didn’t search on JSTOR or anything, but in Google Books, there are more than 500 mentions of his name in quotes. Almost all in Spanish, but a few in English.
But typical of Rafa and his cyber-lifestyle, there is more on YouTube. Lots of videos of him reading. Various interviews. And now a number of videos in homage or talking about him and his work more generally. All in Spanish.
And something about this flurry of activity and writing in Spanish made me want to go back to this essay. To think about the question he raised on his Crossfader Network blog (in his characteristically re-appropiated, re-constructed English): What’s happen now?
A veces olvidamos el poder de nuestras contradicciones.
(Sometimes we forget the power of our contradictions.)
– Rafa Saavedra
I could say that we, and here I mean writers in the U.S., should pay attention to what is happening on the physical margins of this country, just over the edges. But that seems a bit schoolmarmy, a bit scolding. What I love about Rafa was that—like so many border dwellers on the Mexican side—he inverted the entire equation. Tijuana was what mattered to Rafa, not this side, not the U.S. or even English, but rather TJ in all its glory. The U.S. became his backyard. A backyard with all kinds of junk and detritus and pop icons and alternarock icons and writers and border patrol agents ready for the taking.
I remember sitting in VIPS on Avenida Revolución in Tijuana, drinking coffee and talking with Rafa. I’d been working on the translations of several of his essays for Tijuana Dreaming and I was asking him questions. Chatting. His excitement was infectious. He seemed to like the questions. Finding some pleasure in the inquisition. And I think, pleased with the challenges and conundrums involved in bringing his work into English. We drank coffee. Or I drank coffee. Or maybe beers. I can’t remember. And he’d walk me through his thinking, his invention of his own peculiar and fascinating language, his own bizarre combinations of lexicons. His writing was mainly in Spanish, but constantly peppered with English phrases, except the English often featured creative spellings and re-significations out the wazoo:
Usando las palabras de Marc Auge, aunque él se refería a París: “En medida que Tijuana continua resistiendo a Tijuana, TJ me gusta”. Tijuana es teenager, quiere estar siempre a la última, ser buten cool y megadiver; sin embargo, no necesita coartadas: la city es rebelde y transgresora per se.
In the words of Marc Auge, though he was referring to Paris: “As long as Tijuana keeps resisting Tijuana, TJ me gusta.” Tijuana is un teenager who always wants to be up on the latest trend, be buten cool and megadiver; and yet, it needs no alibis: la city is rebellious and transgressive per se.
In his writing, Rafa invents words, appropriates and re-signifies vocables from English, mines the depths of alternarock and 90s and 00s music to carve out a new lexicon. I don’t even remember what megadiver means, though I remember he explained. And the buten part can be found here and here, but it is nothing like listening to him lecture on his own linguistic inventions. And buten had to stay; buten was a word that needed to exist in English, just like so many words from English that Rafa said needed to brought into Spanish.
Rafa apostó por la creación de un nuevo vocabulario, otro idioma más suyo. And he didn’t translate for anyone. He didn’t change how he wrote to include those not in the know. He assumed you were on the inside, not the outside. And if you weren’t already on the inside, the door was open anyway. You could walk right in and he’d be the first to welcome you and show you around.
This is a photo from a Sunday party in Tijuana from like 2010. I remember I felt really awkward at this party. Like my body was really big. And out of proportion. Like I didn’t belong. I remember Rafa sitting next to me at this moment on the step. Talking to me. Making me feel at home. As a person. As a writer. He had a gift for making people feel comfortable in their own skin.
I always tell this anecdote about the word serio/serious. In Spanish, if someone calls you serio, it’s often not exactly a nice thing to say. It has a double edge. It’s like saying the person is stuck up or maybe just too stiff, like the person isn’t alivianado enough. Like the person isn’t relaxed enough, not down enough, not laid back enough. But in English, serious so often feels like a compliment. Like wow that person is serious, they get shit done, they make it happen.
And I don’t know, maybe I imagined it all. But I feel like he made me feel better, despite being súper serio that day. It’s funny, in the photo, he’s the only one who looked at the camera. Like he’s smiling. Like he knew I’d look at it later. Now every picture or video I look at, anything I read of his writing, I am reading back with hindsight. Thinking he knew.
Rafa took a picture of me once. I’m not going to show you the picture though. I’ll just say I’m squatting down on the ground. Because, as Rafa told me before taking the photo, pictures always look better from above, especially in the age of social media. I’m wearing a plaid shirt and peering over the edge of my transparent glass frames. I’m on the asphalt of a mall parking lot in Tijuana during their annual book fair some years back. It’s one of my favorite pictures of myself. Rafa was good at seeing people.
Seguirás en las calles de la city. Plasmaste una manera de hablar, un habla, un habla cotidiano que tenía algo que ver con la manera de hablar de la gente, pero tenía más que ver con tu manera de imaginar el mundo a través del lenguaje.
You were able to imagine a new language made of all the threads of your experience: shoegazers and Coachella concerts and indie rock and Tijuana side streets. Like a lot of amigos mexicanos de la clase media, you knew more about U.S. pop culture than I did. I was (and am) too busy running away from or actively avoiding U.S. commercial culture to notice all the music, movies, TV shows. But for you, it was different. It was all something lighter, something you always had a foot in. You’d explain intricacies of 80s and 90s U.S. bands, you’d walk me through what should have been “my own” culture, but about which you knew much more. You’d chewed it all down, digested it, and then used all the energy from it to make something so much brighter, so much stronger, so much better than what it ever was.
Now I read through your books in my house. You sent them to me in a package. And it seems like you were always thinking about not being on this earth, like you knew your time here would be short
lo único que permanece eres tú.
(Six words // I. // at / the end / everything / ends / in disappointment. // II. // the only thing left is you.)
Rafa me mostró que se puede cruzar de manera constante, que está bien, que no pasa nada, que it’s no big thing. Que stop trying to make such a big deal out of it, y vive la vida que te tocó. Disfrútala even.
Rafa never worried about being a writer for everyone. He wrote for Tijuana, for el borde, he wrote for his friends, he took millions of pictures of everyone out on the town, looking pretty, looking bad.
He made it all seem meaningful for a minute.
A friend told me a story about one time that he was in the line to cross the border when he ran into Rafa. My friend was already in the line. The line was long and they chatted for a second. My friend offered Rafa the chance to stay with him and skip the line, but Rafa said no. He said he’d rather go to the back of the line.
Probably it’s nothing, maybe it doesn’t mean anything, but no, actually, I think it says a lot. There was Rafa, saying no to the chance to skip the line, to butt ahead of the other people waiting. He had no sense of entitlement, no desire to game the system. Maybe it’s just the tijuanense code of línea ethics, pero a mí me dice algo.
After Rafa passed, I saw this video he made:
I’ll translate a bit: in the video, he talks about how he began to take walks along the Tijuana boardwalk facing the Pacific, after being told that he was at extreme risk of a heart attack. He posted each and every walk on Feisbúc with a photo and a few lines. I remember my feed filling up with these walks when he was taking them. But I didn’t know why he was doing all this walking. But now I see these walks (and the video) in a totally different light. Like a way to say goodbye.
I don’t have any conclusions here. Any call to action. But I wanted to put something out there to say I am still thinking. Thinking about Rafa. And wondering how not to forget that our power comes from our contradictions.
Wondering how we remember people we have met along the way.
Wondering what it means to remember.
Wondering how not to forget everything he never had a chance to write.
What’s happen now is that I should be translating more Rafa Saavedra.