5 Questions With Dr. Elias Serna
A Tele-Jaguar Exlusive
Professor, writer, performance artist, story teller, member of the groundbreaking performance troupe Chicano Secret Service, preserver of legend and memory and the creator of new ones, a scholar and a warrior, so don’t take him for a sucker, cause that’s not what he’s about, what a mighty fine Chicano.
We here at Tele-Jaguar were honored to get a chance to catch up with great Elias Serna and pose to him 5 questions. Here are his answers. Enjoy.
1) You were a founding member of the seminal group Chicano Secret Service. Did you or any of the others ever imagine when you formed just how far the group would go or influence it would have? And are the rumblings true? Might there be a return in the works?
As a 20-year old junior in college, aspirations were dreamy but vibrant; we were in a politically volatile atmosphere, and feeling very creative. Chicano Secret Service took off like a rocket on the UC Berkeley campus during the 20th anniversary of the Third World Strike. We were in the middle of our own protest movement for Ethnic Studies, and MEChA was a key leadership group; we rallied numbers and enthusiasm. The hip-hop scholar Jeff Chang was student body president; I was co-chair of MEChA at the time. Our legacy is the American Studies Requirement: since then, every UCB student must take an Ethnic Studies class. The cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz, who was an Architecture grad student, and I co-founded the group on the 5 freeway, and premiered at the August 29 San Francisco Chicano Moratorium at La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley. San Diego State student Tomas Carrasco soon joined. We modeled ourselves after el Teatro Campesino and the San Francisco Mime Troupe and the Royal Chicano Air Force. The Berkeley campus and Bay Area audience nurtured us, and we animated the radical politics on campus. Someone once “accused” me of using MEChA to promote CSS; around that time another friend said I was using CSS teatro to recruit for MEChA. They were both right. Through teatro we put Xican@s in the spotlight, we were politically vigilant, we organized and pushed agendas, and we envisioned a future for our people. And speaking of futures… the omens have come true! Chicano Secret Service resurrected and performed several shows last year, 2019, during the Quincentennial of Spain’s invasion of Tenochtitlan, just as Toltec poet-king Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl had prophecized! We also worked with musician Lisa Flores and recorded a comedy cd/mp3 of Chicano Secret Service Best Hits, due out this Summer 2020.
(Chicano Secret Service is also scheduled to produce a surreal-supernatural oye-como-va teatro play titled “Xican@ Time: 2021.” It will involve a war against Nazis and Hispanic tapados, decolonizing minds and taking over schools, and time travel back to Tenochtitlan and into the Silver Dollar Bar to catch the punk ass rata that killed Ruben Salazar,… but we’re still working out some kinks on the time machine… ponganse listos!)
2) What is Xicano time?
Myself and a few others developed the concept of Xican@ Time to promote a quincentennial consciousness. I have always been obsessed with anniversaries; they are great opportunities to revisit, self-reflect, be creative, and teach young folks about our history, which has created our present. The years 2019-2021 are especially significant to Xican@s because these years coalesce with 50 years of the political apex of the Chicano Movement, and with 500 years since Cortez’ invasion of Tenochtitlan. When I say “Xican@,” I personally include Mexican, Central American, political Raza, and bi-racial realities; these are often the students I find in my classrooms. I really was moved by 2019. “El Plan de Santa Barbara” was collectively dreamed and produced in Santa Barbara in 1969. I’ve heard critiques and dismissals, but rarely do academics reference the powerful tenets and foundational principals that are completely relevant and worth upholding today. Or to give props to the document that imagined their jobs. When I was young, I heard the RCAF vetes say that this book and 2 others were their “sacred texts.” I was moved by that. I too hold it as a sacred text, alongside Betita Martinez’ 500 Years of Chicano History, Rudy Acuña’s Occupied America, Wretched of the Earth, and the Autobiography of Malcolm X. The epic first meeting between the invader Cortez and the eloquent tlatoani Motecuzoma occurred on November 8, 1519. In Santa Monica, at the Pico Youth and Family Center, we organized a tribute to this key moment. Speaking with Diego Magon and Roberto Hernandez, we realized that Mexicans seem to focus on 1521, “the fall” of Tenochtitlan, “the defeat” of the Mexicans. I thought that it is peculiar that (some) Xican@s were more focused on 1519, the encounter, as it provides a window into the rich Mesoamerican past, culture and civilizations as yet undisturbed, the “well-springs” of our past, as Frantz Fanon wrote. This coming June, 2020, will be the 500 year anniversary of the Spanish massacre of Aztecs at the Toxcatl festival, “Noche Triste,” and the Mexica rebellion which destroyed over half of the Spanish army and their allies. For a year, the Mexicas regained control of their magnificent capital. These memories are significant in the process of Xican@ decolonization. I think we have serious self-reflection to undertake. I am not of Aztec descent, my people are Pame-Otomi, but I recognize, like Gloria Anzaldua, that the Mexicas held the keys to the greatness of ancient Mesoamerica. The island city of Tenochtitlan – with its amazing libraries, schools, universities, markets, structures, urban planning and technologies – was the “gem of Anahuac,” as the novelist Graciela Limon writes in her excellent historical novel, “Song of the Hummingbird.” Reading, revisiting, retrieving our culture and legacies are a big part of our Xican@ decolonization. I deeply believe that Xican@ people have a profound contribution to make to the decolonization of the hemisphere. We are a complicated people, but we are indigenous to the hemisphere, and we are progressively realizing our role as caretakers of our barrios, the land, Anahuac, Turtle Island, Mother Earth Tonantzin and the hemisphere.
3) Your pop up series is incredible. Could you tell our readers about this project and what inspired you to go this route?
Tlazocamati, thank you. The Xican@ Pop-Up Book movement was dreamed up as a creative protest of pop-up books and curriculum to proclaim “You can ban Chicano Books, but the still POP UP!” It was a sort of California version of “LibroTraficante” (Tony Diaz & troops in Texas) pushing back on the banning of Chican@ Studies texts in Arizona. Many of us from Los Angeles traveled to Arizona to participate in Raza rights movements, in particular the struggle to defend the Raza Studies department in Tucson, which was ultimately destroyed by racist state legislators in 2012. That was when the “Eagle met the Seagull.” I often rolled with friends from Santa Monica, East LA, San Fer and Riverside as early as 2010. During those years I was in the English PhD program at UC Riverside, when I won a campus book-collecting contest in 2013; soon after I entered the national contest sponsored by the Library of Congress and won 1st prize! I thought it was a big deal because UCR and I got money, they flew me to DC and I got to propagandize for Raza Studies. Back home, UCR Mexican dance profe and pioneer Johnavalos (of “Zoot Suit” film fame) helped me design a book case, and came up with the idea of creating pop-up books. We got started, Quetzalcoatl descended into the 7th realm of Xican@ literature, and the rest is history. We’ve created curriculum with marvelous teacher Ron Espiritu (see his Ethnic Studies Tedtalk), presented at the annual XITO and other education conferences. Recently our pop-up books were featured in Educator magazine, the LA Times and on a NPR’s Latino USA episode on Ethnic Studies. Most significantly we have successfully inspired students to learn, create and participate creatively in a political movement. We’ve produced 3 manifestos so far: the original 2013 “Xican@ Pop-Up Book Manifesto,” “El Plan de Santa Pop-Up” (a 10-point plan), and last year’s “El Pop-Up Vuh.”
4) In addition to your work as an artist you are also a man of letters and education in fine institutions of higher learning. How does your background as a performing artist inform your teaching?
The arts have always been in my arsenal of teaching. I love teaching with graphic arts, music, movies and graphic novels like “The Death of Speedy” by the Hernandez brothers. Currently, I’m an assistant professor in English at the University of Redlands, teaching a course I designed called “Writing in the Public Sphere,” modeled around my PhD dissertation which looks historically at how Xican@s historically repurposed communication technology – ie. the camera, newspaper, manifestos, film, etc.- to organize and persuade audiences into action, and to imagine more ideal futures. Recently, I was moved by something my good friend, the artist Sandra de la Loza expressed in an interview: that victories are not always won or seen immediately, they manifest over time in future generations, and that liberating structures or things are often expressed subtly in paintings, teatro, or a line of a poem. Therefore, it is important to continue imagining, alongside our students, the world, to continue creating art that envisions collective futures which our children, their children and many others will occupy and inherit. Johnavalos told me the other day, our students are living through such a horrible time, make eye contact and make them laugh, make them look forward to the class. Teaching is a lot of work: reading, preparing lecture, discussing, listening, grading and giving feedback, and interacting one-on-one. But all this work also informs and inspires art. I have been lucky to be in a profession so far where I can bring my talents and skills to good use. Everyday I remind myself how lucky I am to work in a classroom. It has not been easy, it’s a huge responsibility, but it has been incredibly rewarding.
5) Just how vast is Tomas Carrasco’s collection of ill gotten wigs?
I’m glad you asked. Dr. Tomas Carrasco – currently the chair of the Ethnic & American Studies department at Santa Barbara City College – administers an extraordinary collection of fully fabricated fantastic filament (wigs), which really is an unexplored dimension of teatro technique and technology, usually disdainfully dismissed as a sub-category of “props.” The ancient coastal Chumash of Santa Bruta believed that our hair fibers were a sort of antennae to the natural world and ancestral universe, so through every acto-skit, Tomas is actually serving as a metaphysical medium to otherworldly supernatural messaging. Carrasco’s follicle genetic ancestry (also part Hairy Krishna) is most certainly Chumash, because going to his maternal lineage, his mother was heard saying that, “Tomas socializes Chuu-mash, he parties chuu-mash, attends protests meetings chuu-mash … he’s just Chuu-mash!”