‘I went to a map store recently, like two days ago. Randomly. It sounds like maps is all I do…’ Cy turns to the side as she scratches her head and I pipe up, ‘it does!’ She looks into the camera at the top of her computer screen, laughing, ‘it’s not all I do! But I just went to a map store. It’s fascinating. Some of the maps feel imposing. You know, they mark a south and a north. They mark a Western, colonial form of thought.’
I hear an ‘mmm’ come out of my mouth.
‘I have this map here, it’s the upside-down world,’ Cy takes down a postcard of an upside-down world. I’ve seen them before in shops scattered around, usually on the edges of cities. These kinds of maps tend to be stored behind faded ones; the maps of the past made to look like the Past. In this one, the landmass is white, it sticks up from behind the blue of the water. It’s a declarative map; it has something to say. I nod, ‘oh cool.’ Cy takes a look at it for herself. Pins it back above the computer and I can’t see it anymore.
Cy is the nickname of Cynthia Citlallin Delgado Huitrón, an artist and teacher of mine. She is also a Dissertation Fellow and Ph.D. candidate in Performance Studies at Tisch School of the Arts, NYU. Her dissertation is titled “Staging the Interstice: Cartographies of Contemporary Trans- Performance in Mexico City,” and it theorizes the relationship between urban space and trans-embodiment by looking to performances that unfold in interstitial locations such as the prison, the subway, the cabaret and the rooftop. Maps and mapping are key components of her writing.
‘It’s a postcard, whatever, but sometimes you see these maps and you know that it’s a specific vision of the West, thinking and reconceiving the world in a specific way. But then you see some old maps. For example, there’s this beautiful map of old Tenochtitlán, what used to be Mexico City, an Aztec City. The way these were drawn back then, it was still Western but… remember when we looked at the Florentine Codex with Alex [Vazquez] in class?’
‘Yeah! So beautiful,’ I remember and Cy says, 'there’s a certain type of drawing that, just from looking at it, you know there must have been a conversation that made that drawing happen. That it wasn’t just a drawing top-down. The colours are different. The way the animal was drawn was very different. It contained all the conversations that may or may not have happened to make that animal into a taxonomic… to give the animal a category for the Western mind. But we can also read that as some kind of resistance to something.’
Cy is interested in exploring transitions as a modality of study. In her work, she writes walks with artists such as Lia García (La Novia Sirena) and La Bruja de Texcoco. Lia García is ‘a Mexican transfeminist performance artist, activist and pedagogue’ and La Bruja de Texcoco a ‘transfeminine musician and performer from Mexico City, whose music draws from different Mexican and Indigenous traditions, primarily thinking through transfemininity, magic and different forms of desire in Mexicanidad.’ These artists both serve as focal points for Cy to unravel the means by which artists of movement, within their own identities and through the physical pathways they traverse, create archives that are constantly in a state of (un)becoming. Her work can be thought of as a written map which outlines as it blurs the boundaries between gender and placement, identity and the forces that police it.
She looks to the side, looks into the camera: ‘So I guess maybe that’s how I, when I get a map, look at it. And some maps immediately because of the way they’re made, feel scientific, direct, objective. Like Google Maps, right? As opposed to the maps that are much more like the one I sent you. So not proportional. So not accurate. You know, a whole other frame of mind.’
She gives attention to latent intricacies in language, unravelling a multidimensional, imagistic landscape. Often in her writings and her class, Cy uses words as both nouns and verbs. For example, of the word ‘transgender’ in her article published in Transgender Studies Quarterly, Haptic Tactic: hyper-tenderness for the [Mexican] State and the performances of Lia García, she writes: ‘I develop the verb transgender alongside touch to bring attention to the embodiment of touch and the stickiness of its many affects. Standing at a stark contrast with the state and the law, in this article I argue that Lia transgenders touch in ways that serve as a balm for a hyperviolent state by (re)producing hypertenderness… Theorizing through and alongside Lia’s hypertender touch reveals the materiality of the trans-ness of touch and its inherently migratory state: a constant movement, a dynamic state in between’ (Delgado Huitrón 167). Cy studies paths of transition to reveal how everyday movements connect us to histories we are always walking within.
She takes a second to think to herself and then says, ‘I guess that's kind of what I look at when I think with a map. How would I wander around with it more than how would I get there? Where does this take me? And how long will I be there?’
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary maps are ‘a representation usually on a flat surface of the whole or a part of an area’ and ‘a diagram or other visual representation that shows the relative position of the parts of something.’ In other words, maps are a conjecture, an approximation of a physical space aware of itself as a ‘false’ document, unable to completely encompass what it’s trying to describe. But what does the definition mean by ‘visual?’ Could the arrangement of letters, a brush of a colour, a title be a map? What does she think about that, as a mapmaker of words?
Cy looks up, carefully. ‘I imagine it like a line, but specifically on that is some kind of three-dimensional movement. A line that is more like a drip of paint. Or better yet, like a drip of something that falls and spreads throughout. Like if you were to use sand to mark a line, you know the sand is going to kind of spread out onto itself. So it’s never a contained thing. And neither is paint, I guess.’
Lines create boundaries, turning what was a landscape into a space, a form suddenly contained within a new language. Maps of cities, of the inside of the body, of oceans, they are all different ways people try to express how they saw what they saw. But many have a tendency to think of maps as an authoritative document, as opposed to acknowledging that maps are representing a specific vision of something imbued with the authorial voice of the mapmaker. But how can maps be made in a way that acknowledges the place it delineates is always in a process of transition? Is it about the ontological approach of the mapmaker?
Cy nods, ‘I’m trying, through my dissertation, to map an imagined trajectory. I’m trying to map something that isn’t necessarily mine but that I want to wander with. Or map an imagined wander with these artists. To follow them around and see how their map, their trajectories, can also be part of my maps, and maybe my maps be part of theirs. I want to wander the city with these artists, I want to see how they see the city and see the potential that they see in it. I’d like that to expand throughout,’ Cy gestures in progressive chunks through the air.
Cy also encourages readers to think about lines on maps perhaps ‘less as marking a trajectory from one point to the other and more as a connecting line or path that you could go back and forth and back and forth on. And maybe a line that can be,’ Cy squiggles their hands through the air, ‘you know, re-moved. As if it were a piece of thread that you could, with the same amount of length, reposition, to take you to some of the maps, other little orifices. Little roads that are made.’
So making a map isn’t an act of defining something which cannot be shifted once it’s drawn, but strands of possibilities to follow and then abandon again? Or is it both?
Cy nods, 'One of the beauties for me is precisely how difficult it is… how beautiful and scary it is that at the same time that they serve as a tool and provide a roadmap for ways of imagining things, they’re a creative moment that displays the efforts to understand and read something. Unfortunately, or not, they also cement certain feelings, certain ideas, and thoughts, and identities. And feelings, why not.’
As wanderer and guide but also a follower, how do you go about asking the artists you’re mapping questions in such a way they feel included in this written mapmaking project? Be placed in the space that you are in so clearly?
I really try really hard to develop a relationship with them before anything. And that’s the thing. It almost feels as if I’m working with my friends. Some of them more than others. Lia and I have a tight relationship. And in writing, and with her specifically because of the way that she is, it’s been easier to… know we’re in it together. I genuinely think that this is a collaborative project. That you’re never just doing it alone. And it wouldn’t be transfeminist of me if I did it any other way. I’m proud of that. And I don’t know if they feel the same way, I’m also speaking for myself, I don’t know if they feel included, or if they feel in any other way. But I’m trying really hard to be very careful. To make sure that they don’t feel like I’m just writing about them. Because I love their work, and I’m so emotionally–probably too emotionally–attached.
But I guess that’s what I kind of do. I make sure that in my writing I say when something is theirs. Not something as in the artistic object, but like ‘I didn’t know this, and this person took me there, with them.’ Right? I think of these interviews not just as them telling me a story, but as a moment of them teaching me. A pedagogy. So I listen to you, and in my writing I make sure, hopefully successfully, that my reader knows that there are things that the artist and the artwork allowed me to write about that I would be unable to write about without them. So it’s not top-down, being like, ‘this is what I think about the artwork.’ It’s being like, ‘how did I get to that conclusion? It’s because the artist took me there.’ It’s theirs, and ours. You know?
This is a braid. This is like a braided conversation.
I love what you just said about maps as a proposal for how. It’s like you’re giving these spaces in which people can join you, people can leave you, there can be a blending...
I’m doing my second chapter on the work of La Bruja de Texcoco. I start by sharing her originary myth. How she became a witch. She’s a witch. And she’s transfeminine, and constantly becoming witch. So, the story has to be a myth. And it has to be a story, that’s why that chapter begins with a story, at least thus far, we’ll see if it remains that way. I have a feeling it will, but we’ll see. But part of what is so fascinating to me, is the map I’m trying to make of her subway performances, as I imagine them, alongside her staged performances. For example, she has a video shot in Xochimilco. Xochimilco is… all the chinampas.. I don’t know if you know?
[I shake my head.]
Back when it was an Aztec city, Tenochtitlán, Mexico City used to be on water.
[Cy spreads her hands through the air.]
So, Mexico City is super soft, and that’s why it’s sinking a little bit every year.
[Cy lowers her hands towards each other, cutting through the previous image she made.]
It used to all be a lake. Huge lake, and they used to have all of these beautiful waterways. Their farming techniques used to be these little islands, chinampas, where they would grow things. The only place left like that is Xochimilco, it’s in the south of the city. You can go even as a tourist, it’s one of my favorite places.
[Cy moves her hands out of her heart.]
It’s super local but also super touristy. But they still have these parts of Xochimilco that are very local, that you don’t have access to unless you know the people and are part of the community.
[Both of us nod, for different reasons.]
And La Bruja has a deep connection to Xochimilco. One of her videos was shot there and some of her music emerges from Xochimilco. She used to perform at a yearly staging of the legend of La Llorona, I don’t know if you’ve heard of this famous Mexican legend of La Llorona.
The woman who wails.
[Cy gestures down her face.]
And she used to perform at this thing there with her harp… she has a very deep connection to it.
[Cy carves her hand down into fist through the air.]
You can hear it in her music, and you can see it in the way… in her videos, and just in the way she is herself. So I’m looking through a map of the subway, and then I’m looking through a map of… back in the 16th century, 17th century, when the Spaniards took over what Tenochtitlán used to be.
[Cy weaves both hands through the air.]
There’s this specific subway route that appears to be exactly the same line as where a canal used to go, that is now a line of the subway.
[Cy carves a hand through the air.]
So it’s in finding how those lines kind of overlap.
[Cy places both hands on top of each other as I grin.]
That to me is when you realize, you have to do the work.
[Cy nods her head.]
As you interpret these things you realize that these are ephemeral. A map can’t tell you by itself, I don’t think.
[Both of Cy hands are splayed as she speaks.]
But definitely the same place has had so many maps that have traced it.
[Cy places her open hands on top of each other.]
That’s the way, what I’m doing in that chapter, that I might graphically conceive of it. It’s the canals of Xochimilco and the streets and subways of contemporary Mexico City, put into one. And not all the lines align. At all. But there are streets in Mexico that used to be giant canals, too. It’s like water. It’s like plants. It’s like Vazquez’s mangroves. They grow underneath and they will eventually come to the top and show themselves again. So, to see the way time continues to place, the fact that what once was a canal, now is a street, tells you so much about the way the past continues to inform the way we structurally understand space, right? And how our everyday movements are still indebted to structures, to urban structures, put in place in the 16th century and even earlier.
[Cy moves her closed hands through the air.]
So that’s my answer to that, I think. An attempt, through writing, through thinking through performance, to me, might be one of the ways in which we can think about how history continues to emerge.
[Cy lifts her hands up through the air and crosses them over each other.]
From the ground, to show itself, that nothing has stopped. Everything’s still the same space and yet it is completely different in its order.
I’m so moved by that.
I think it’s exciting. When I see it in the maps, I’m like, how? This is so interesting! It’s fascinating to me.
I’m wondering how you would define a map. And also how you would define an alternative map. And if they’re the same, or different. Or if ‘alternative’ is a kind of categorization that you impose for the sake of legibility in structures of power. Or if it’s a kind of, I don’t want to say justification because I think that creates a hierarchy. But as another option? Or is ‘alternative’ just another word for… I’ve said enough. What do you think about that?
These are all questions that I still have... I don’t even know how to answer it yet. I don’t think I’m there yet.
But I will get there. There’s this writing I’ve been reading, Extinct Lands, Temporal Geographies by Mary Pat Brady, and it’s about Chicana critical feminist geographies. She’s talking about Chicana literature, and how they map certain things. When she says counter-cartographies, she’s very specific to say, ‘it’s not just a different, a ‘counter’ cartography, actually. It’s a whole other idea in and of itself’. Which I’m fascinated by. And I completely agree. I guess the word ‘alternative’ doesn’t work, in that sense, because alternative would mean, just ‘Other’. Or ‘an alternate of’. I do think that calling it ‘alternative’ might be an easy shorthand to say it’s not normative. It’s not the primary, and it’s not what is most known about. It’s not necessarily… but it’s still a map. And you’re still using certain tools to map certain things, I guess. So I don’t… how do you go about making an alternative cartography? When cartographies themselves sediment certain things?
I don’t know, you leave loose ends, maybe?
[Cy shakes her head.]
I have no idea how to answer it yet. I don’t know what makes this alternative. The easy answer is ‘well, it’s alternative because it’s about minoritarian performance,’ but I don’t think that makes... I’m not satisfied.
I’m not satisfied by the easy answer. But I’m not sure how to get there yet. I need a map.
[We both laugh.]
Yeah, I’m not sure. I’m really obsessed with the idea of secrets, and I wonder if part of it is maybe, alternative cartography is about making sure that there’s secrets kept within it somehow?
I love it.
It’s a code with… because maps are supposed to make everything very rational,
Or the idea, you know, that people usually have. That it makes something visible, rational. But maybe ‘alternative’ is something that is intentionally revealing but also has some kind of hidden code.
Like those maps that we studied in Alex’s class.
I love that. It’s making me think kind of like the infiltration (that we were talking about with Lia’s work).
How does a map tell you two completely different things?
I really like that. It’s about foregrounding maps that are also already there. Not ‘maps’ maybe, at this point what I should say is ‘movements.’ And cartographies. Or just trajectories. Right?
So if I can’t grasp a trajectory, at least maybe ‘mapping’ it might give me a documentation of that movement. Even if that documentation’s ‘truth’ is only at that moment when it was made. You know?
But it remains! It’s a way of mediating something that happened. It’s another archival document. Whether it’s an actual cartographic map or whether it’s a drawing, or whether it’s a story that gives you the map of a place, or a poem, or something like that. Maybe ‘alternative’ is partly ‘underground’. Something that you can see but how do you make it come out of the earth? Because it’s already there.
In conversation with…
La Bruja de Texcoco
Alexandra T. Vazquez