Reporting from two places this week: San Antonio, Tejas and Lincoln, Nebraska. This past week-- in San Antonio, Tejas, I was very lucky to spend a late afternoon/evening in Chicana writer Dr. Norma Cantú’s graduate seminar at the University of Texas, San Antonio (UTSA). What an animated, smart, passionate group of graduate students. Orale! We were all quite involved with the discussion on Cherrie Moraga’s new book, A Xicana Codex of Changing Consciousness.
While various ideas and perspectives were expressed, my eyes kept focusing on the swift-moving hand gestures to the right of the table (note the picture below). Those hands are Rita Urquijo-Ruiz’s hands: knitting!
Chicana academic and performance artist, Rita Urquijo-Ruiz was knitting a gorgeous brown winter scarf during the entire graduate seminar while also contributing brilliantly to the discussion. She, like me, was a guest that night. I had brought my writing materials. She brought her knitting loom and yarn. I kept watching Rita’s fingers move up and down the loom while students quoted, argued with, questioned Moraga’s words. Moraga writes: “The language of the Xicana story—if it were to be real—is fragmented, it is the stutter, the garbled utterance caught in the silence between tongues, tongues literally ripped from mouths. It resides in the taboo languages of the body: the vulva pressed unashamedly against a bed of dirt or the body of another woman in the effort to remember what got lost somewhere. It is a paling Odami descendent speaking through the body of Xicana performance” (45).
Moraga’s words here kept me thinking about Rita “speaking” with her hands. Later I learned that Rita was “performing” her tia Rita's art form in the making of this scarf that she completed by the end of class and then gave to me (lucky me—see picture).
Rita reminded me of another Chicana writer, Belinda Acosta—who knits to create story. And then there is also Chicana performance artist, writer, jewelry maker and painter, Anel Flores, who believes that every art medium she uses is telling story.
So I decided to dedicate today’s bloga to these three Chicana writers/artists who create art in various mediums to tell a story, to bring together “fragmented” language/memories (prompted by Moraga’s words) in order to speak and remember art, story, who we are.
Rita Urquijo-Ruiz who, as I described, loves using the knitting loom to create lovely long, warm scarves, is an Associate Professor at Trinity University in San Antonio. She is co-editor of Global Mexican Cultural Productions with Rosana Blanco-Cano (see book below) and her single author book, Wild Tongues: Transnational Mexican Popular Culture, will be coming out next summer.
Growing up in Hermosillo, Mexico, Rita learned to knit when she was 12 from her tia Rita (her mother’s only sister). When Rita moved to the U.S., she soon forgot about knitting—until years later when she met up with Dino Foxx and Billy Muñoz, founders of “The Yarn Dawgz.” These Chicano brothers taught Rita all about knit graffiti and yarn bombing. “A gay man and two straight men who do knitting,” Rita tells me. She says they are passionate about bringing color and art to urban spaces. Passionate indeed because a simple “google search” on “The Yarn Dawgz” will lead you to multiple hits on Facebook and also a website/blog that announces their next creative project: a documentary about the yarn graffiti movement and their own work as “Fiber Artists.”
Rita is grateful that Dino Foxx and Billy Muñoz encouraged her to return to knitting. “For me,” Rita says, “There is something about knitting that is very comforting and it helps me concentrate better. It lowers my heart rate when I’m frustrated with work, with academia. Even if I just do it for 15 minutes, it then helps me return to my work with much more clarity. And the fact that it’s handmade—people seem to take to that over more materialistic gifts. It’s really neat to have something to relieve my stress and when all is said and done, there is a product to give as gifts. I also connect with the maternal side of my family while it makes people smile. It is just a gift from the universe—handmade. And my aunt gave me this gift.” Rita has been very productive with her academic writing and she attributes her success in good part to the many scarves she’s created. “I’m on my 25th scarf and they’ve all been given to wonderful friends. Each scarf is different.”
The “Rita” scarf I’m wearing in the picture is the one she began and finished in Norma Cantu’s class! My scarf has a literary creation story!
She says, “my painting and jewelry making inform my writing because I bring the story of my grandmother and other women’s stories into each art medium.” Anel’s story is that her grandmother lost almost all her possessions in a fire. One of the only items that survived was a small box containing her grandmother’s lace. This lace appears on the cover of her Empanada book, on her paintings, and she has created imprints of the lace on the rings, earrings, and necklaces she makes.
“I weave everything together.” Indeed—Anel’s work braids together all of these artistic mediums to create a pattern of stories about the struggles, the pain, the understanding and love in family and relationships.
Belinda Acosta, author of the two quinceañera novels, Damas, Dramas, and Ana Ruiz and Sisters, Strangers, and Starting Over also knits. She is a Chicana, born and raised (and who learned to knit) on the great plains of Nebraska. Currently, she lives in Austin, Tejas while making regular visits al norte to visit familia in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Damas, Dramas, and Ana Ruiz and Sisters,
Strangers, and Starting Over by Belinda Acosta
“It helps encourage creativity,” she says. Belinda learned to knit, “in Home Ec (home economics) when they used to have such a class in Jr. High.” She remembers learning the various structures: weft and warp knitting, knit and purl stitches, flat knitting vs. circular knitting. Like Rita, after leaving the class, she stopped knitting. It wasn’t until a few years ago, after her father became ill that suddenly she had a strange feeling that her body was telling her to head for the yarn store and begin knitting. “I was surprised that I picked it up fairly quickly. My body knew how to do that and because of my body’s reaction, I kept being surprised at how fast I picked it up—that my body knew and hadn’t forgotten.”
I asked Belinda if knitting also informs her writing as Rita and Anel have noted. “Knitting is very rhythmic. It is something similar to praying the rosary or meditating. It is an activity that settles you, calms you because you are creating rhythmic motions over and over. Often when I’m writing or in the middle of a writing project and I get stuck, I’ll either take a nap or get to my knitting. Knitting allows you to take a break from the problem and because you’re involved in this physical activity, it gives you a chance to relax your brain and then you return to the writing with much more clarity.” Here are various pictures of Belinda’s knitting methods and here is a scarf she made for me.
Belinda also knits, because, as she says, “I can be a stress eater. I can’t eat when I’m knitting. At the same time, I get to massage a different part of my brain where there may be a knot. I free it. Plus—I like to make things for people.”
Rita, Anel, Belinda—all making beautiful art that tells a story. In Norma Cantú’s book, Canícula, there is a section entitled “Cowgirl.”
Cantú writes: “My brand-new, black patent shoes, bought with the money Mami made selling dresses she sewed on Bueli’s Singer, remain hidden by the long, full skirt of the red gingham dress, also one of Mami’s creations” (33). Then later in the chapter entitled “China Poblana One,” there is a picture of a young girl in a China Poblana outfit. “Mami has braided my shoulder-long hair, adding volume and length with yarn—green, white, and red—verde blanco y colorado la bandera del soldado. The dazzlingly white blouse embroidered with bright silk to shape flowers like the ones that grow in our yard—roses, hibiscus, geraniums, and even some that look like the tiny blossoms of the moss roses remind me of summer, although it’s a warm February day” (38).
Reading this description of dress-making and hair braiding (with yarn!) reveals a narrative of immigration, of two cultures (Bueli’s Singer, black patent shoes, and embroidered silk), of seeking to place on the page a remembrance of what Mami created in a land where the month of February is warm, where hibiscus, roses, geraniums grow, where individuals are discovering and reconfiguring their identities.
As for the history of knitting: It is too long of a story so I will be brief. Historians trace the origins of knitting to the Middle East, specifically Egypt. The Spaniards learned the art from Muslim knitters. The Spaniards then brought knitting arts to Mexico. There are also paintings of knitters throughout history. The fifteenth-century German gothic painter, Bertram of Minden painted the Madonna knitting (see below). And contemporary Chicana artist, Yolanda Lopez has “Our Lady of Guadalupe” not knitting—but at the sewing machine creating and shaping art (in this case, her blue estrella-laden mantle) with cloth.
It was a pleasure talking and spending time with Norma, Anel, and Rita. Now here in Nebraska, Belinda has given me this beautiful red scarf that she made.
I am wearing Belinda’s scarf next to a Patssi Valdez acrylic entitled “Saturday” (1997)
How lucky can I be: two scarves, a gorgeous heart necklace, and their important words on the page. It's important to place a focus on these writers'/academics' knitting, jewelry-making, painting. They are mostly known for their serious and poignant writing which is indeed a gift to us. How they illustrate "story" in other mediums also gives us additional information and stimulates our own aesthetic sensibilities. And stretching oneself creatively is indeed healthy as well.
Thank you all and happy knitting! Vamos a tejer! Let’s go unknot our brains!