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Accompanying Resistance

Headshot of Hank Willenbrink, he smiles and tilts his head to the right slightly.
This piece is part of a blog salon, 
curated by 
Caridad Svich, called 
"Stages of Resistance." The series 
welcomes reflections on themes related to making work for live performance in political and aesthetic resistance to forms and systems that oppress human rights and censor or severely limit freedom of expression. We are in increasingly hostile, volatile times around the world, and this salon hopes to serve as a space for considered, thoughtful, polemical articulations of practice and theory on the subject of resistance, the multiple meanings of political art, and the ways in which progressive, wholistic cultural change may be instigated through artworks. Stay tuned for more!


I.

It’s the day after the inauguration and my Facebook feed is filling with images of friends across the country joining the massive women’s marches in New York, LA, Philly, and DC. (One of my favorite photos is of my mom with her friends in Kansas City). But, my wife and I have canceled our plans to attend marches and are, instead, en route to Nogales to the Kino Border Initiative. For migrants, Kino provides a comedor (cafeteria) complete with hot food, camaraderie, “know your rights” sessions, medical attention, and free phone calls back home. We’re going to be gone five days—nights in Nogales, Arizona and days in Nogales, Mexico—on the way back, over a meal in the Tucson airport, we’ll watch as Trump signs the executive order to build the wall.

The philosophical underpinning of this trip is accompaniment. It’s something that undergirds a lot of Jesuit teaching around refugees and migrants—to be in the company of others. We’re slated to spend the majority of our time at the comedor where we’re doing some volunteering - helping out serving the migrants - but our real task is to talk to the migrants, to hear their stories.

One is surprised I know where Arkansas is. He’s headed back there after being deported. His girlfriend is pregnant and by the time he makes it back, she’ll have had their child. Most of the migrants are men, but there are women and children, as well. One migrant is trans. Another is Haitian. A whole group of them have been living in a fleabag shelter, six or seven to a room. The last day there, a young man shuffles in after the meal has begun. He’s wearing prison garb and seems oblivious, his eyes locked into a haunting thousand-yard stare. After the meal, the first task will be to get him new clothes. In his current clothing he sticks out like a sore thumb, making him a target. He carries with him a sandwich, apple, and Sunny Delight, wrapped in saran wrap. “At least they give him something,” Father Pete, one of our guides tells me, “they didn’t used to give them anything.”

We don’t spend time only on that side of the border. We also go the U.S. side and hike for a couple hours along a migrant trail. The arroyos cut through the landscape under the brush. Down here, migrants make their trek. Their detritus is all over—discarded backpacks, carpet shoes (so they don’t leave footprints behind), even a bra. Father Pete takes us out of the small ravine to a small tree. It’s what they call a rape tree, and probably the origin of the bra, placed as a perverse trophy of assault.

After mass, we have a potluck with some local ranchers. Nogales is one of those places that has a wall. Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Mexico were once the same locality, now they share the name “Ambos Nogales” (“Our Nogales”). But, where the wall stops, these ranchers often take over, “patrolling” miles of the border with barbed wire. One outspoken couple shows us photos that they’ve taken on their property: hauls of drugs, hidden camera images of young Latinos in olive green garb. It’s a presentation that they have at the ready and one that they share with visitors and on cable TV appearances. “There’s a humanitarian crisis,” they tell us. Thousands of people are dying on the border. "That’s why we need the wall."

The wall is really a rust-colored fence that cleaves the town in two and snakes onto the surrounding hills. Looking into the U.S. side, you can see a sleepy downtown with all-purpose stores and white stands with cameras and thermal sensors pointing down. On the Mexican side there are a proliferation of barbers, cheap hotels, and prescription stores. You don’t have to be here very long to realize the wall isn’t the end of problems; it’s the beginning of new ones, like what happened to Jose Antonio, shot by a Border Patrol agent whose bullet crossed the border. A graffiti mural of Jose, wearing a bulletproof vest, looks to the other side.

II.

This semester, I’ve been given a plum teaching assignment. With a senior department member on sabbatical, they’ve asked me to take over his American Literary Experience class for our Special Jesuit Liberal Arts program. I’ve put my own spin on the class and changed the syllabus to focus on authors who, in the past 20ish years, have challenged or reimagined the idea of what is “American” in their literature. It’s a fun reading list—Suzan-Lori Parks, Hamilton, Colson Whitehead, Lynn Nottage, Naomi Iizuka, among others—and, I hope, makes my students really get into new literatures and new ways of thinking.

We spend the first couple weeks doing some foundational work: what is a nation? What is America? Why do we say “America” when we should be saying “United States”? Then, as has been happening more and more to me these days, I come home and an alert goes off on my phone. Trump has instituted his first Muslim ban. My wife and I are glued to our TV Friday night into Saturday. When I return to class, I have to make the unfortunate confession that when we began this class that I thought I had an idea of what made people American. But now, I find myself at a loss. We embark on a new, spur of the moment assignment. Tell me how your family came to this country. Tell me what myths about America you believe.

This was one of the first times that I began to think of my work as a professor as being a kind of accompaniment. My students are companions in the reading of a text, the discussion of an idea, the critical investigation of an author or work. Sometimes, we have to slow down and remind ourselves that storytelling can be one of the most important reasons we come together in a classroom. And in these times when my students have been afraid, like I have, sometimes listening can be the most constructive act.

III.

Hilda wears this amazing jean jacket with her name, Rev. Hilda, airbrushed under the picture of an angel. We’re talking a bit after rehearsal for a play she is in and helped write, called Tell ‘Em ‘Bout Me. The short play was written by Hilda and five other community members of Chester, Pennsylvania for Theatrical Bridges, a film and theater festival where community members worked with professional mentors (myself, David Bradley, and Mike Durkin) to create short plays and films over three weeks. The title comes from the song by Chester resident and early blues icon Ethel Waters.

Theatrical Bridges is part of Boundaries and Bridges, a collaboration in Chester between Widener University and local artists under the direction of Sharon Meagher, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Devon Walls, of the Artists Warehouse in Chester. The project ran workshops on creative writing, food, dance, and theater as methods of creative placemaking. But much of the talent comes straight from the community. There are incredible artists of all stripes in Chester, though the headlines about the community focus on its post-industrial character and the crime, with the Philadelphia Inquirer running stories about gang violence and murder. Changing the lives of the people in Chester is why Hilda is here. At our brainstorming session on the play, she says she’s there to minister to the young and offer them hope. Judging from her writing and her oratory, there’s no doubt she can preach.

For these artists, the point is as much the community as it is the final product. They start out writing monologues that their director, Nadira Beard, and I read over and talk about. I ask her—what do you think the purpose of this writing is? And, she confirms to me it’s about changing the narrative. Hilda and others in the group, want to stop focusing on what outsiders write about.

Our group spans the gambit of ages from Hilda and Calvin, who are retired, down to teenagers. One of these, Alayna, gets applause during the show when she gives a monologue about her family, who have lived there for a hundred years. Chester’s coming back, she says. In the talkback, Hilda will remind Alayna that Chester has never left.

My role as a mentor isn’t to push anyone toward any direction, it’s to listen to all angles and help choices get made. I accompany the process, watching Hilda and Alayna define their characters, talk to each other through the scenes as well as to their community, who shows up to the performance on Saturday to listen and support. Ulysses Slaughter, the moderator, asks—what can art do? I think to the wall in Nogales, to my class in Scranton, to this room filled with people just off stage, out of the editing room, or raising their hands. We accompany each other. But, art helps us talk over the wall.

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