This series is going to be about how I regained myself, found my voice where it had once been stitched shut.  Tonight, I’ll tell the story of how I got my very first stitch.

I remember my dissertation as if it were a dream.  A very, very distant and beautiful dream.  I loved my topic:  how grassroots Latino filmmakers used the aspect of compromiso (reciprocity) to learn about the medium and to barter services on their filmmaking projects.  It was awesome.  I had a great group of filmmakers, who are my lifetime friends.  I even married one (well, we were married before I started the research, so…).  As most Chicana scholars would say, I was the emic of the emic perspective.  And I had access to all kinds of knowledge (read “chisme”).

I framed the dissertation using Gloria Anzaldua, my fav of all fav scholars You’ve read about nepantla, and I encourage you to learn more (read her book Borderlands, La Frontera.  It takes about a day to read and you’ll feel simultaneously affirmed and connected in ways you never thought possible.)  I started with that.   But, the majority of the framing was based on her article “and now we shift…the path of conocimiento….inner work, public acts.” (This Bridge we Call Home:  Radical Visions for Transformation)

This one piece of literature has framed my life for a decade  now, and it shows no signs of losing its relevance to me.  Further, every time I use it in class, my students go bonkers.  Trust me, read it.

The reader’s digest version is this:  In our lives we have moments when, if we are careful and perhaps lucky, if we listen to ourselves and honor all of our feelings, we can set off a series of events that will allow us to recognize our most powerful, transformational parts of ourselves.  And to use those gifts.  Oh, there’s more.  But, that’s actually a chapter in my dissertation.  Here’s a quote, though.

“Motivated by the need to understand, you crave to be what and who ayou are.  A spiritual hunger rumbles deep in your belly, the yearning to live up to your potential. You question the doctrines claiming to be the only right way to live.  These ways no longer help you with your central task–to determine what your life means, to catch a glimpse of the cosmic order and your part in that cosmovision, and to translate these into artistic forms.  Tu camino de conocimiento requires that you encounter your shadow side and confront what you’ve programmed yourself (and have been programmed by your cultures) to avoid (desconocer), to confront the traits and habits distorting how you see reality and inhibiting the full use of your facultades.”–Gloria Anzaldua (2002)

Ay, Gloria!  Que gloria!  You were the one who recognized me.  Perhaps it was your many references to earthquakes, or even the use of nahuatl words that my tongue tripped over at first, but instinctively kept repeating until I had found a way to make t’s and l’s and x’s happily co-exist in the same syllables.  It must’ve been a recollection of the times that my Anglo father had tried to teach me nahuatl when I was little.  Some sort of attempt to make me connect to that culture. Either way, you recognized that my shadow side was a constant companion, an invaluable part of me.

Back to the dissertation.  The research process was phenomenal.  It felt so easy.  Quite frankly, I felt guilty that research could be so much fun.  My cohort members did really dreary projects.  Language acquisition, blah blah blah.  I got to hang out with chismoso filmmakers, plan conferences, put together great film screenings, and wonderful dinners with producers and distributers.  I got to go to conferences and watch them vie for power.  Great stuff!

But, it was in the writing that things went wrong.  Well, I’m not sure things went wrong exactly.  I don’t know.  I haven’t read my dissertation since the day I turned it in.  But something must have gone wrong.  I wrote about my friends as lovingly, as truthfully as painfully truthfully as I could.  I reported what they said, I placed it in theoretical context.  And that theoretical context was incredible.  What a beautiful web it was.  It glistened like the wolf spiders who overtook my porch that spring.

But when my real life friends were put to paper, I could not, no matter how I tried, capture them.  They were, and still are, some of the most transformational filmmakers I will ever know. They are so dedicated to not just the medium, but also the community of film/video.  They bleed it.  But their films? 

Most scholars, even Chicano scholars, study film using an offshoot of literary criticism, which has its roots deep in classical performance.  The main question to the film is “Is this film good, and if not, does it at least make an important cultural statement?”  (Most film critics will try to deny this.  But, if you analyze their criticism, it’s usually just that.)

I find this rubric offensive.  These films aren’t artifacts.  Neither are they some outdated binary of good/bad imposed on all of the filmmaking world by a Shakespearean 5 Act structure or a Classical Roman 3 Act Structure.   (No dis to Shakespeare or the Romans.  They’re great.)

These films, in this context, represented where an individual filmmaker, or even a group of filmmakers were in their personal cycle of conocimiento.  Thus, the films were (and are) the most precious gift a filmmaker can give: their wisdom.

They represent the wisdom gained over the 10 years that it took to collect the footage and have enough money to edit it, the determination to make films despite years of having babies in between film shoots, the missed paychecks and the all too many marriages re-seamed in tentative threads, just like the film stock pieced together from different shoots.

They represent their ingenuity and resilience, their ability to get films made despite every single possible odd.  Their desire, their deepest dream to above all, make something beautiful that changes our world.

At the time, I didn’t have my own wisdom to capture the beauty of their films in my dissertation.  Several members of my committee looked at the films, and wondered why I hadn’t picked something “edgier” to analyze (read Robert Rodriguez or Quentin Tarantino, or Efrain Gutierrez).

I didn’t have the wisdom to question my committee, to stare them down and defend my friends.  I had no words.  I was mute.  I sat in bed for days on end and refused to eat.  My husband would try to soothe me.  He would call my friends and have them talk to me to cheer me up.  Everyone said, “Just write what they want.  Get it over with, Lisa.  Nobody reads those things anyway.”

So, I changed the words in the dissertation.  It didn’t take much.  A few words here, a phrase there.  This was the first stitch in my lips.  It was painful, and bloody.  But, in my fear and lack of wisdom, I had sold out my friends.  And my dissertation is now unreadable to me.

Over the next few years, I had my mouth stitched shut.  Sometimes by others, mostly by myself, my shadow side, my fear.  You’ll hear more about these years, but don’t worry.  It all comes out in the end.

For now, know this:  something happens when a woman’s mouth is stitched shut.  Her body starts screaming, as if it were calling 911. Mine did.  And I am ever grateful.