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Indigenous People’s Day 2018: Interview with Conchita Pozar

To celebrate Indigenous People’s Day, KDI’s very own Nereida Montes caught up with fellow North Shore resident Conchita Pozar, an indigenous activist and artisan originally from Michoacán, Mexico. One of a growing number of Purépecha immigrants in California and heiress to the Purépecha embroidery technique passed down the generations of her family, Conchita uses her traditional craft to bring her community together and advocate for change. She chats with Nere on a sunny afternoon about the marriage of art and activism, the injustices facing the Eastern Coachella Valley, and how both past and future are brought to life through the exchange of language and craft – of culture.

Photo: KDI 2018

Nereida Montes: What’s your name, where do you live, and where are you from?

Conchita Pozar: María Pozar, but everyone knows me as Conchita Pozar. I come from Mexico, the state of Michoacán, from a Purépecha community called Ocumicho. I live in California’s Eastern Coachella Valley, in North Shore, on the edge of the Salton Sea.

NM: And who are you?

CP: I am a homemaker and I would also define myself as a bit of an activist. I like to muster people so that they understand their rights and the things we can do by joining together, by meeting and asking for a school, a clinic, a park, whatever is needed. I am also an artisan, although on a scale of 1 to 10, I would put myself at a 3, because I still haven’t learned everything my mother and grandmother know.

NM: Tell me a bit about your activism – how you’ve come to do that.

CP: Well nonprofits look for me to help them bring people together, or to lend them my space so they can get people together. When they do meetings in the community center, people don’t come – because they can’t walk, they have to come by car. But if it’s here in my house, people can walk and it’s safer, so that’s why people come to me. It is difficult to bring people together. A lot of that is to do with their work, as they start at 5am and they get home at 5pm and then they make dinner, bathe their children, help them with homework, and there’s no time to dedicate to the community. So that’s what I do, and that’s why they come to me.

NM: What influences your activism?

CP: Seeing the needs in the community, because we can see the benefits that other communities have. We are all equal – nobody is bigger, nobody is smaller, we are all of the same blood. It doesn’t matter whether people are white, brown, coffee – we are all equal, we are all children of God, so there shouldn’t be any difference in state services or local services. Everything should be equal. We need to focus on the neediest places, on helping with infrastructure, health, education, everything. That is what makes me do it.

NM: How has your culture influenced you?

CP: Well, thanks to God I am blessed to be Purépecha, to speak the language.[1] That’s what I like most, the language. I do feel lucky to speak it when others don’t (laughs). I feel lucky that I am connected with my family, with my grandparents, my great-grandparents, and my ancestors. When I was young, I didn’t know what was all around me. Now I see that it’s something unique. There are different cultures and I thank God that I am part of one of them.

NM: And a very beautiful one.

CP: Yes, it is, and in Michoacán there are lots of Purépecha communities. Each community has its own art and I like that too. We have our diablitos (small, hand-painted demon figurines), silbatitos (whistles), pottery, and woodwork. There are other communities that do pots, clay pineapples… Each community has its own art. I’ve been told about the bishop in Michoacán, “Tata Vasco” (Father Vasco).[2] He was helping the Purépecha communities so they wouldn’t be conquered, and then they started to do craftwork, and he taught them to do it so that one person wouldn’t sell more than another. So he said that each community will have its own art, each community will have a different craft so that each person can sell their work and there won’t be any conflict. That’s why each town has its own art history, and its own art, and even outfits for the women that identify the community.

“Diablitos”, small hand-sculpted demon-like creatures, are another famous art form from Conchita’s hometown of Ocumicho. Photo: KDI 2018

NM: And you learned Purépecha embroidery from your mother, Natividad, who learned it from her mother. What kind of relationship do you have with your mother?

CP: It’s a very beautiful relationship, very profound. She helps me a lot with my craftwork. She orients me and tells me you’re not doing that right, or you shouldn’t sew like that, or you need to cut it that like that…. So I always ask her opinion. When I can’t finish a piece of work I tell her, I need your help because I have to submit tomorrow. And what I can get done in a week, she does in a day, so I always ask her help. She puts the final touches on every piece of art I do.

NM: Why is it important to pass on these traditions?

CP: I want more parents to teach their children to speak Spanish, Purépecha and English, because they are our future – our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. If I stop speaking Purépecha my daughter won’t speak it, and neither will her daughter, or her granddaughter, and so the history ends. So it’s a gift to teach them to speak and listen, to teach them the traditions, and to sew or do pottery.

NM: Is traditional art a way of preserving heritage, or can it be a way to make change happen, to do new things?

CP: It’s for all three. To make change, to find better ways… and it’s good psychologically too. When children get involved in art, they de-stress, and they get involved in other things and stay off the internet. It’s about union, psychological union, and preservation. So that other people know where art comes from – from the Purépecha community, from Ocumicho – they know who the first people were that started their history. People should get more involved because art is a heritage that nobody can take away from you. If you learn something from art, nobody can take it away from you. But it can die if you don’t teach it to other people.

Photo: KDI 2018

NM: Does being Purépecha have a role in your activism in the community?

CP: Well I started with the craftwork and that’s how people started to come together. Thanks to the craftwork we are getting involved with other people, different activists and organizations, and through that we are identifying what needs we have. When we started embroidery classes, it was an important meeting point and people realized what needs there were. So yes, it was a very important point, it has a very important role.

NM: And how did you get involved with KDI’s work?

CP: They came to see me because of my craftwork, and then we started to get more involved through the community, through meetings. Now I’m going to do a tapestry in the community of Oasis for their park, for their community center, and I thank them for taking my art into consideration. Other people will be able to see it and say, that wasn’t made by an artist from Washington. All craftwork is beautiful, but it’s also beautiful to involve art from the local community.

NM: How do you feel about the fact that your art is appreciated and famous in the valley?

CP: I feel very happy and proud that they appreciate and value it. It’s when I feel most proud about where I’m from and who I am. I want more people to know about it at the state level, nationally, and everywhere. I want them to value the cultures that we have, and value art in every sense – not just mine but all art. There is a lot of craft and the government, politicians, organizations, all of them should help continue preserving what it is.

Photo: KDI 2018

NM: Tell me, or rather, the readers, about North Shore – what kind of place is it? What is it like to live here?

CP: Living here in North Shore is tranquility, peace, harmony, love. You hear the birds sing, the leaves move in the wind… In the mornings you hear the cockerels crow, and at night you look at the sky and you see all the stars and the moon. It’s very beautiful living here. But unfortunately we have the lake (the Salton Sea), which is drying out.[3] It’s releasing toxic dust which is harming our children and elderly, causing asthma and other types of illness. My daughter keeps getting nosebleeds. I went to the doctor and they said it was because of the contaminants in the air. We met a politician and they said they were investigating, but they need to get to the bottom of it. That’s the problem of living here in North Shore, but if it weren’t for that, I would be very happy. I would retire here.

NM: What do you believe ties us together, the neighbors and the community, the residents of north shore?

CP: There’s no violence, there’s no delinquency. There’s a lot of peace. That is what ties us together. It’s a spacious place, a safe place.

Photo: KDI 2018

NM: What don’t you like about here?

CP: I don’t like that there aren’t any sidewalks for the children to walk safely. There’s no lighting, there’s no speedbumps, there’s no signs. We don’t have a school, we don’t have a clinic, we don’t have another supermarket, or a library for youth to study in. But all of that can be solved. All that can be solved, and there’s a solution for the lake too. It would be difficult, but we need to start working on it.

NM: Why is the future of the lake important?

CP: It’s important because it’s the biggest lake in California. So it should be of interest not just locally, but statewide and nationally, so that it doesn’t become history. What would our grandchildren say? I go up to that lake, I took at it and I say, how wonderful would it be if you weren’t contaminated, if you weren’t poisoning us. It would bring lots of tourism, lots of help for the community and the Coachella valley. It would be wonderful if it were saved. The politicians, before making a decision, they should consult with the community. I understand that now there’s no water going to it, and that decision should have been made in consultation with the surrounding communities first, because they are the ones suffering the consequences. The consequences that are making elderly people have to move to other towns. The children getting asthma and nosebleeds.

NM: What is your vision for North Shore and the Valley?

CP: For the Coachella Valley, it would be that the lake is saved. It can be done. That is what I want. What I would like to see in North Shore is a clinic, a school, a library, for there to be lighting in the streets, for there to be stop signs or traffic wardens, for there to be a postcode so they can define where we are. That is what I want to see.

NM: All the work that you do without pay, where does this enthusiasm to help the community come from? What motivates you?

CP: My daughters motivate me, because I want something better for them. I want a better future for them.

Photo: KDI 2018

To find out more about Conchita and her work, check out the following articles:

https://www.desertsun.com/story/life/entertainment/arts/2017/03/09/secret-magical-needle-unites-women-north-shore/98363926/

https://splinternews.com/this-indigenous-woman-is-using-amazing-700-year-old-em-1793862675

The interview has been translated from Spanish and edited for length.

 

[1] The Purépecha language long predates the colonial era. Around 120,000 people spoke it in 2000, although the proportion of speakers to non-speakers is falling and 90% are now bilingual, making it an endangered language. Fortunately, since 2000 Purépecha has shared the same status as Spanish in the areas of Mexico where it is spoken, and many schools teach both languages.

[2] “Father Vasco”, or Vasco de Quiroga, was the first bishop of Michoacán, appointed in 1536. His importance in Purépecha history is perhaps somewhat ironic due to his colonial position, but even today he is celebrated in Michoacán as a protector of indigenous peoples. As bishop, he congregated Purépecha communities that had been brutalized by the conquistador Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán and, inspired by Thomas Mores’ seminal political text Utopia, sought to create communities in which people would work in specific crafts and industries and learn the principles of self-governance – while remaining under peaceful colonial control. He also indoctrinated them into Christianity, training priests and translating religious works into native languages. Recently some indigenous activists have scrutinized “Tata Vasco”’s legacy, arguing that while he may have protected indigenous peoples from violence and brutality, he was nonetheless an agent of the systemic cultural genocide that changed Mexico forever.

[3] The Salton Sea is a vast saline lake straddling Riverside and Imperial Counties, California. For the last few decades it has been shrinking at an increasing rate, causing the concentration of salt and agricultural deposits to rise while exposing fine, toxic lakebed dust to the wind. In January 2018, “mitigation water” to maintain the water level stopped, causing the lake to shrink even faster. KDI is working with Alianza and youth from the Eastern Coachella Valley are collecting data to fill the information gap on how this is impacting air quality, and using storytelling and journalism to elevate community voices.

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