Sitting on the couch of Ariana Brown’s living room in the Riverside area of Austin, Texas, I notice boxes stacked around me; she’s in the middle of a move to Pennsylvania to start an MFA program at the University of Pittsburgh. Ariana is a long-time personal friend – we both began our poetry careers together at our high schools in San Antonio. We performed at local youth slam events through Fresh Ink, a youth organization she founded. Since then, she has gone on to perform across the U.S., winning titles such as “Best Poet” (twice) at the CUPSI National Collegiate Slam and getting featured in a number of major media platforms such as PBS, Huffington Post and Remezcla to name a few. Amidst jokes about home, musings over the culture shock that happened in our coming to Austin, and serious talks about our lives, we indulged in a conversation about her work and her latest release, Three-Headed Serpent.
Ariana Brown, San Antonio native and Afromexicana poet — hearing your work, you’re very conscious of your racial identity, both in terms of your heritage and your external identity as a Black woman. Could you talk about why you think Afromexicana fits you best?
I came to the term Afromexicana because I realized that they didn’t have to be mutually exclusive of one another. I didn’t necessarily like the idea of separating [Blackness and Latinidad] so having them in one word became really important to me because I am biracial. I find that a lot of people still don’t really know how to talk about biracial and multiracial people’s identity. A lot of time I was divided into fractions in a neo-colonial way of thinking; I didn’t want to feel that I was only 50% of one thing. I always explain it like being a member of two organizations; does that make you half a member of each? In any other context, that idea just doesn’t make any sense. So for me, saying that I’m Afromexicana gets across that I am Black and I am Mexican and the rest is left up to interpretation.
Your new chapbook, Three Headed Serpent, is described as not only a chapbook of poems, but also a research project on curanderismo and capturing of history. Where did it stem from? You have a poem on curanderismo, is this a continuation of that?
I wrote the poem, Curanderismo, in Spring and Fall of 2015. I took a class with this amazing professor, Rachel Gonzalez-Martin, and we had to create a small-scale research project. I knew that I wanted to study curanderismo, I just didn’t know how I wanted to. Part of my hesitation was that there’s so much that’s been written about it that’s false; my curandera told me that at one point if you typed “curanderismo” into Google the synonym was “quackery”, so nothing even remotely close. I knew that I wanted to study it and I wanted to do it justice. My curandera had given me a book that was written by her teacher who is trained in the Mexican or Aztec tradition of curanderismo, and so I looked to that book and thought I would really love to know how faith, spirituality and medicine moved through my family. I’m really proud of it and I was excited at the possibility of doing a chapbook instead of a research paper because it challenged what academia expects. I was writing something that is fundamentally emotional, spiritual and grounded in the ancestral. For me, writing poems makes way more sense to honor those ideas than trying to iron them out into an “objective” research paper.
Can you tell me about some of the themes that you discovered or approached in this project?
I think misrepresentation was one of the biggest ones. For example, the idea that there’s only one correct way to perform curanderismo; it’s such a child of the diaspora because when it was formed after the conquest it was morphed with Spanish, African and Indigenous elements. When it came into contact with Catholicism, there were all of these changes. It’s always described as a folk practice because it takes elements from all these cultures and really looks different on everyone who practices it. It’s not an institution. There’s no book saying, “this is how you have to do this.” I know tons of curanderas who wear rosaries and do “Our Father” prayers before they do limpias. There are all these points of convergence that are easy to write off when you’re familiar with them, but when you sit down and study them, you can point to them and say this is from here and this is from there.
Another thing that I wanted to talk about was gender. My mom and grandmother are both matriarchs and single parents. Throughout my research I found that curanderismo was typically passed down by women in the family. Most people know curanderas. It’s a female-centered practice that was passed down through the home. For me, it was really important to center women’s work in my work.
Do you feel that you are engaging in a process of reclamation?
I was reading this piece from a book called “The Location of Culture” by Homi Bhabha, a literary critic. He’s looking at literature and all these “Third World People” as he describes them, or People of Color in a diaspora somewhere, and he’s looking for themes or patterns in their work. He has this idea that if we can’t go back to before our lands were colonized, before slavery, before racism and before globalization, then we have to go beyond. What that means is the only way it’s possible for us to move forward is for us to look back into the past, find what is useful for us there, what will sustain us, and leave behind what will not. It means leaving behind antiquated ideas about gender and race, but taking what is useful and incorporating that into our daily lives so that we can have a possible future.
What does being from the South mean to you as an artist and an individual?
I think to be an Afromexicana artist from the South is to be surrounded by haunting, everywhere. I think one thing that I’m really trying to keep in focus with this manuscript I’m working on, is that many different people have a history on this land, in Texas in particular. My great-grandmother on my father’s side was the daughter of a sharecropper in West Texas, and my own grandmother picked all kinds of crops across South Texas. This idea that both sets of my ancestors worked this land, toiled on this land, died on this land for me is terrifying, but I also know that I have a responsibility to them. It’s something that I’m always thinking about. I think about poetry in the South a lot, because many really amazing writing retreats and festivals never happen in the South. They have all these incredible shows and residencies in California and New York, along the East and West Coast, but when do you hear about people gathering in the South to write? I think part of it is that people are scared of what it’s like here, and rightfully so. You couldn’t pay me to drive through Mississippi, you know what I mean? ‘Cause in a way Texas is the South but it’s not the Deep South.
I’m from the Southside of San Antonio, which is primarily Mexican and Mexican-American. I was the only Black person on my street and in my school so that’s a different vantage point from someone who grew up in the backwoods of Alabama. That’s a different experience. But I do think that being from the South and meeting other Black people from the South and understanding what Black Americans’ perception of the South is in general, there is a lingering haunting that’s inescapable. James Baldwin says that “Blackness is an immutable bond” and I really do believe that.
You can purchase “Three-Headed Serpent” and find more of Ariana’s poetry here.
WORDS / JOSEPH FLORES
PHOTOS / CHRISTOPHER DIAZ