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Death and the maiden
John Adams’s El Niño restages the Nativity


In the Mexico City plaza of Tlatelolco, in the fall of an infamous year, there were shoes — hundreds of shoes — left behind by people who ran and died when they were hit by bullets fired from government guns.

By 1968, the shoe was already an international symbol of loss. There were piles of shoes left over from the death camps (the Holocaust Museum in DC even exhibits a shoe pile for shock value). And there would be more shoes to come: mud-and-blood high-heeled shoes of Juárez women that one day would stick out of the dry desert maquiladora ground like explicit plants or immediate fossils; patent-leather office shoes that would one day be caked in Manhattan ash, temp-job pumps kicked from legs as they dropped from the 32nd floor.

But at Tlatelolco, the shoes were student shoes. They belonged to protesters whose words got them killed in the darkness of an October night. When Mexican poet Rosario Castellanos wrote about the student massacre at Tlatelolco — the very plaza where centuries earlier, violence between Spaniards and Aztecs resulted in the colonial birth of Mexico itself — she wrote about their shoes because that was all that was left. By the time the sun came up, the plaza had been swept clean of its latest round of violence, all evidence of murder erased. "Don’t search for what is not there: clues, corpses," she instructed, "Don’t comb through the files because nothing has been entered on the books."

There were no government memoranda issued, so Castellanos wrote her own, "Memorandum on Tlatelolco," and she took the "memory" embedded in "memorandum" seriously. Facing a crime scene stripped of the proof of its deaths, Castellanos advocated memory as a weapon against conspiratorial amnesia. Remembering what others refuse to remember is her "way of helping dawn to break upon so many stained consciousnesses," her way of finding a sense of justice in the emergencies of tragedy.

People usually cite Castellanos’s poem as an example of Mexican literature’s response to the crimes of Mexican history, but in his recent opera, El Niño, composer John Adams uses it to send an urgent memo to a larger audience: how does rebirth happen? how do we recover from disaster not just with hope but with ethical vision? Originally staged in Paris on the brink of the new millennium and now available as a recording from Nonesuch, El Niño is an elaborate restaging of the Nativity story full of New Testament gospels and Mary-God-and-Gabriel annunciation dramas. But with the inclusion of Castellanos’s poetry in the libretto — along with that of other major Latin American poets like Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and Gabriela Mistral — Adams works through religion to understand the secular experience of miracles in times of crisis. The niño of the title is both the boy and the storm, the niño born of el niño, the child born of disaster.

In Yreina D. Cervántez’s cover art for the Nonesuch recording, Sor Juana — the 17th-century poet nun — is depicted next to an Indian woman from Chiapas whose mouth is concealed by a bandanna, her hands full with two children. These are the heroes of Adams’s Nativity: women who refuse silence and give birth to revolution, whether in the Lacandon jungle where "todos somos Ramona" or in a convent where Sor Juana used a habit to be the woman she was not supposed to be, a woman who sought freedom through words. El Niño may begin with Mary the divine maiden and Virgin Queen, but it ends with the "Lady of the winds," a woman who is so tall, so naked, and so alone that her divinity has become art. She is, as the children sing in the opera, a poem.

El Niño is precisely the kind of art we need now, and it is just as precisely the kind that no one is paying attention to. In the midst of our own disasters, store shelves are full of "Star Spangled Banner" reissues and DVD titles that wave the flag for you: Independence Day, The Patriot, Saving Private Ryan. This is not art. This is propaganda, where purchase-power patriotism is meant to breed cash-register consensus and smother our own memoranda of dissent.

El Niño juggles conflicts and opposing voices — the Bible and Mexican feminists; birth and death — to help us find a way out. Castellanos practiced a similar artistic politics: the only way change is born is when we engage "the other." "Look around you," she commanded a decade before Tlatelolco, "there is the other, always the other." The great challenge of transformative art is not just to identify the other but to create a language that speaks to it. Without that language there can be no miracles after death, no birth after disasters, and we will all be like the chess players of another Castellanos poem, "Chess" — two people sitting in silence, trying to find a way to destroy each other.

Issue Date: November 15 - 22, 2001

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