Yacatsol: A border-crossing, multilingual, decolonial, “cura” music and art project

Join Xica Nation / Xica Media network creator Iris Rodriguez to talk about Yacatsol, a border-crossing, multilingual, decolonial, “cura” music and art project created with her husband, musician and producer Ce Acatl Borsegui, and their children.

This episode was produced by Radio VoxFem Xicanindia a project which features music, visual art, film and changemaking by Xicana/Indigenous women. Episode 2, hosted by Producer Laura Varela, explores the musical stylings of Iris Rodriguez and Yacatsol.

Keywords from the conversation:

People, land, Texas, indigenous, resistance, music, dance, song, media, West Texas, Tonala, cumbia, Spanish, the Queen, Mexican Americans, protest, Mexican, birthplace, Edwards Plateau

The name Yacatsol is one of the indigenous names of the Texas Hill Country of Central Texas and is a Nahuatl-rooted word referring to a region of “noses” and “faces” on the stone.

Iris Rodriguez is a multidisciplinary artist, network producer, digital strategist, author, and poet from San Antonio, Texas. Since 2002 her projects have addressed issues such as environmental racism/justice, family detention, decolonization, cultural arts, guerrilla media, feminism and public archives. She is the founder of Xica Media, a Xicana-powered network of independent multimedia channels.


Laura Varela  0:15  

Hi, Iris, thank you for being here today with us at VoxFem Xicanindia.

Iris Rodriguez  0:20  

Hi, thank you for having me.

Laura Varela  0:22  

It’s quite an honor to have you here. I’m particularly tickled because in our day job, you’re my colleague and you’re my partner at Xica Media. You’re the founder and chief, you know, what is it the “xingona-in-chief.” And yeah, I just I feel that our work as Xica Media, as activists and artists and digital storytellers, informs your work as a musician. 

And today’s interview is gonna deal with you, your project musical project Yacatsol and wanted to share some of your music and activism and art activism with the world today. So I was hoping you can tell us a little bit about Xica Media and how it’s related to your music.

Iris Rodriguez  1:05  

Yeah. Hi, everybody. I’m Iris, thank you so much Laura for the opportunity to share this. 

Being involved in Xica Media and working with communities that are in crisis to produce media/multimedia, not just news, not just information but also storytelling and things that are important to us as a people. I get very used to being behind the scenes and not putting my face out there. 

Everything that we do at Xica Media has informed my work as an artist. I’ve had permission from the universe to work with a lot of amazing people…a lot of very resilient, very powerful people…a lot of people that are also suffering but not hopeless and doing what they can. Walking that path at the same time as me as a Xicana is walking a path to decolonize and walking the spiritual road and returning to my roots as an indigenous woman from Texas…paired together…has opened this new door to the music. 

We do creative media, but this is us venturing out as artists and also exploring what it SOUNDS like to be Xicanx, what it sounds like to be Mexican American, what it sounds like to be indigenous from Texas and in all these gray areas with the culture that we’ve been left with after hundreds of years of colonization. 

So the Yacatsol project is part of Xica Media. When we do work with Xica Media, I usually pull from our music database, which includes anything from cumbia to what we call bruja pop to indigenous instrumentation. (They call it “pre-hispanic” but it’s authocthonous Mexican instrumentation.) So in that space, in that borderland space that we are in as a people, this project is allowing us to experiment with those sounds.

Laura Varela  3:32  

Yacatsol is a musical project that you do with your family, correct?

Iris Rodriguez  3:38  

The word Yacatsol is in homage to the name of the what they call the Edwards Plateau, to the forest that they call the Edwards Plateau, Central Texas. 

[…]and in the documents although they say that many people shared that territory because it was a holy land. […]That forest was an enchanted forest that was part of a journey to the medicine gardens in the south of Texas. So many people from many nations would come and bring their generations – sons with their fathers and their grandfathers – would come to hunt the deer in that forest, and then go south. And the name that the Europeans recorded was Yacatsol and Dacate. […]It’s like a Nahuatl variant and it means “the place with the faces or the noses in the stone.” It’s this ancient forest…and for XYZ reason in the hills and that are in that place there are faces. Our ancestors are there. there our abuelxs. It’s also a place that is considered a birthplace of humanity. We came out of the water.

Laura Varela  4:54  

I did a installation for 10,000 years of Yanaguana. There was that story of the four springs, (which is San Pedro, Comal, Guadalupe, and Barton Springs) that kind of form a half moon. And on the night of a full moon or a super moon, that they burst and springs and humans and critters and creatures came out. And I think that’s one of my favorite creation stories. It’s also where we get our water. So it makes a lot of sense. That’s the Edwards Aquifer.

Iris Rodriguez  5:20  

En donde nace agua, nace la gente. It’s a birthplace of humanity. 

It’s so funny because like, you get into these politics of identity and they’re like, “Oh, you’re Xicana, you can’t be indigenous.” And it’s like, “Well…” […} 

Xicano is political for me. But I’m indigenous. Those are the faces of my abuelos in the stone. I was blessed to have grown up playing in the ancient forests of my grandfathers. And I didn’t know. I didn’t know.

Laura Varela  5:54  

And that’s the part of colonization and white supremacy…being in charge of school systems. First of all dispossessing Xicanos of their land because many of us are not immigrants, many of us who have always been here. And number two dispossessing us of our language, culture and history. 

So the clip that I wanted to see is called “Abre La Tierra.” And in it we see images of land resistance and protests, and I believe it’s like a pipeline that was happening in West Texas. And so this was about a year or two after Standing Rock.

Iris Rodriguez  6:28  

That video specifically was my attempt at weaving a popular music in that case, which is like a cumbia type of mix with visual resistance, an actual social justice resistance, defense of the land, indigeneity (Xicana). I wanted to see it all. So in the Xica Media style, I put a call out to the public. “Hey, I have a vision. Are there any videos of movements or resistance we could use to put together with this video? We’ll share links and we’ll put it out there.” 

And sure enough, Greg Harmon, from Deceleration News contacted me. He had gone out to West Texas with several different community members from San Antonio – indigenous, Mexican American, Xicano, and also the kalpulli that Laura Rios works with, that she runs, and they went out to protest and chain themselves. And he shared that footage loud and I actually sang the song behind it, which is lyrics dealing with connecting and reconnecting with the land. But it went viral. And I thought it was so cool because where you see people like us from San Antonio resisting in Texas. Because in Texas, we’re particularly oppressed in ways and that go as far as the criminalization of protests. And as also as far as the colonization of our minds.

Laura Varela  8:17  

Well, let’s look at the video and we can talk a little bit more about it.

Iris Rodriguez  8:20  

So what you see in the film, or in this video is historic footage of a resistance in West Texas. It’s very rare that you’re going to catch that mixture of elements together. The concept of indigeneity in Texas is not completely buried. It’s never been, they’ve never been able to kill us outright. But certainly, it has been hidden as much as possible and underneath many layers of things. Because keep in mind that Texas is also one of the places that made it illegal to identify as indigenous. So many of the people there have called themselves Mexican or Mexican American or Xicanos for generations. 

That erasure has also erased the connection with the land. Has also caused for a lot of people to…not want to protest. It’s a very colonized place, a very oppressive place, the state of Texas. So it’s very unique the opportunity to get this little window into that moment of that protest at that time because one of the things you see is a grandmother chaining herself to a machine. Not in a reservation. On lands in West Texas. That is so critical because even though they tried to erase us and erase that connection to our land. Despite the “ownership”…the people are still there. 

I wanted that to serve as an example for my inner city, my urban indians. What’s happening in the planet right now …we got to get together and we got to do what we need to to protect the Earth and protect each other and protect our families. And that’s what this video shows, through a fusion of cumbia music which gives it this element of action and movement, but not anger (growl) and villainry. No, no. There’s definitely this sense of taking the earth with care. And that’s what Yacatsol does. It’s fusing…returning back to our values as indigenous peoples, returning back to those life ways and those ancient relationships that colonization can never wipe out…and just putting it back into a popular medium and the internet and taking it to the next generation.

Laura Varela 12:56  

I also love the the imagery of the dancers because we don’t get to see that a lot.

Iris Rodriguez  13:03  

Yeah, well there’s a lot of elements there. Thank you for bringing that up. As a Xicana also reclaiming my life ways and the ways that I communicate with nature…and my own sense of what is LIFE, not spirituality but just way of life. Prayer is a critical part of who we are. In our prayers always having these fluid conversations whether it be with Creator or nature around us. And we as Xicanos, a lot of us – a group of us have been returning to those life ways. Some of us has gotten back to praying with our peyote medicine. That’s our ancestral birthright medicine. It grows on the holy land that is Texas.

Iris Rodriguez  14:01  

And as someone that has stepped – been allowed to step back in front of that fireplace, one of the things they teach is you don’t record prayer. One of the things they teach you, you don’t take a camera into ceremony. So the fact that we’re SEEING a prayer is, I think, really important. And so you have to ask yourself, why? What is it that you’re seeing? And that prayer is going on at the same time that there’s elders chaining themselves. So that prayer is coming from a very real place. In the original video you don’t only hear the the drum beat. People’s heartbeats are racing, you know, and bringing that moment – not only the fact that it was captured, but bringing that moment with respect and carefully placing it into this video was really important for me. Not because it was breaking the rules. But because it’s important for us to remember that as Mexican Americans, Xicano peoples, part of what they took was our sense of prayer and our spirituality, our spiritual path. And in order to resist, we’re going to have to get that back. And it’s not going to be an easy dance. And so that video is a metaphor for that. 

And I thank my sisters Laura, Madelein, Luissana, and I think Amelia was out there too, holding it down, holding it DOWN in the middle of all that…as part of a community that is discredited from being American, from being Mexican, from being indigenous. They’re there praying. Women. 

Laura Varela  15:48  

Absolutely. Most women are going to save us right now. I strongly believe.

Iris Rodriguez  15:55  

As a community, we’re a part of all of this. Sometimes people say, “You’re not indigenous enough,” or “You’re not this or that.” That information is in our blood. It’s encoded in our blood. It’s a matter of reconnecting to ourselves, our ancestors, and to nature. And it’s funny because as Xicano peoples – detribalized peoples – let me rephrase that – as detribealized peoples (like I said earlier) […]thousands of years of relationship with Earth are not going to be disrupted by 500 years of colonization. And something happens when you open that channel again. It’s a beautiful experience. And I strongly encourage everyone who is looking for their identity of the Mexican American diaspora, the pan-Mexican diaspora, Latinx, whatever you want to call yourself…if you’re on that journey, you start inside and with nature.

Laura Varela  16:55  

Right and acknowledging the original peoples of the land that you’re living in. Learn about them. Firstly, learn about yourself, learn about them, and see where you know they intersect. That’s beautiful. 

Laura Varela  17:08  

So, speaking of another beautiful music video, I want to see my favorite one, which is “Canto A La Tierra”, and I was hoping you can talk a little bit about it. I think it’s one of my favorites because it has you and your babies in it, and it’s one of the sweetest things I’ve ever seen. So do you want to talk a little bit, introduce it? Just quickly. We’ll look at it and we can talk about it after.

Iris Rodriguez  17:35  

“Canto A La Tierra” is a video I did with my children. It’s in Spanish, which is actually my second Spanish song to come out. It evokes this idea of unity, family, happiness community, Earth, reconnecting with Earth. I filmed it as a recent transplant to Tonala, Jalisco. it was filmed on a sacred mountain. And there’s layers of meaning behind the attire that we used, the locations that we used. 

Laura Varela  18:09  

All right, so let’s roll.

I love that music video because it First of all, it’s a Xicana transplant in Mexico in a sacred site, creating a music video with her children, which is also radical because in a lot of work we do as artists, people don’t want to see our children or know that you’re parenting. But you’re in this place. That’s the Cerro de La Reina Cihualpilli. So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that. Tell us what we what we saw, what was the mask and all that?

Iris Rodriguez  20:25  

Yes. The mountain is a sacred mountain and now what its name is Xictepetl, which is the Mountain of the Belly Button. And in Spanish, here locally, now they call it El Cerro de La Reina because when the Spanish arrived, there was a queen. It was a monarchy. And that’s something they don’t tell you. Apparently, neither as Mexican or as Mexican Americans, that indigenous peoples…there were matriarchies. There was a woman here and she lived on this mountain. 

Iris Rodriguez  21:05  

At that time, I had just arrived not too long before. And it was such an honor to know where I was and where I was putting my feet. My kids and I filmed this video with a mask that was given to my son of what they call a Tastoan, which is a mispronunciation of the Nahuatl word “tlatoani” which means “king.” The corrido de Tastoanes is the “running of the kings.” It’s a reliving of the battle that happened on this very mountain. 

The Spanish made it all across Mexico, and the Queen knew the capacity of death that came with these people. So she ordered the youth and the elders to the […]Barranca de Huentitan, into these caves, and they hid for hundreds of years. But she asked for the women to stay behind and receive the Spanish so that they would not be taken by force. 

And so she invites them, they have this big feast and this big dance on the Cerro but the local kings that were underneath her, not everybody was agreed with her. So they, without telling her, attacked during the feast. And they wore their traditional masks which were in honor of Ehecatl (which is the wind) because there is a relationship with wind in this land. 

So they massively freaked the Spanish out. 

Tonala is Nahuatl for “the land where the sun is born” which makes it an incredibly important, powerful place. It was not conquered. And because of that, Guadalajara got founded not too far from here. But they were trying to establish Guadalajara on the most powerful point on the western part of Mexico, Central Mexico, which was this mountain. And they couldn’t do it. That mask that my son is wearing is part of this still ongoing commemoration of that battle. And so the fact that he is Tejanito Xicano wearing that mask, having the honor to wear it. Also wearing the manta, the traditional cotton cloth that grows here that people have been wearing for a millennia. I wanted to show that as Mexican American peoples as Xicano peoples, we can still connect. We can move through time, and we can still bring our children into this. Not everything was taken. There are still things that are alive. 

I showed my son in that mask and I then I show my daughter in a little cowgirl hat, wearing, manta shirt, jeans. And I wanted to show that those two things are CAN coincide and they ARE coinciding. Also one critical component of that video was that I felt I wanted to show this joy, this feminine joy, this embracing of a moment where you’re on the green grass with your kids. And that was important to me to show. Showing me happy, showing me well, showing me healthy, showing me reconnected to my culture, showing me dancing on top of the Mountain of the Queen was a very direct arrow I wanted to shoot at the system.

Laura Varela  25:06  

Oh man, talk about resistance. Talk about joy activism. 

Iris Rodriguez  25:13  

And you know, I think it’s also important to that in that resistance…I have had years of anger. I have had years of bitterness. I started Xica Media documenting people dying in front of me. (There is a Super Fund site in South Texas, the birthplace of Monsanto.) So as a producer, I’m coming from a place of a lot of pain. As a Xicana I’m coming from a place of a lot of pain. For many reasons as well. So showing resistance with joy is like a creation resistance. It’s gets us past the unhealthiness of having to process all that matter…and showing that we can still dance and we can…

Laura Varela  25:57  

…be resilient…

Iris Rodriguez  25:58  

Thats correct.

Laura Varela  26:04  

I think also what’s important for us, for our community, for our relatives, Xicanos and Mexican Americans to know is that Mexico City, Tenochtitlan, not the only major place of indigeneity and pyramids. Tonala […] that whole area was as large as Tenochtitlan. And the Toltecs…so like that whole story, that whole part of Mexico on that whole history, and the fact that there was a Queen or, you know, they wouldn’t have called them queens at the time. […] I just feel like it’s so important that we bring back that history to the forefront of Xicanas in resistance and remind them we have been in resistance for over 500 years. Black and brown women have been leading grassroots movements for a very long time. So I just I’m really glad that that you’re able to tell a lot of these stories through art and because the pills are more digestible.

Iris Rodriguez  27:14  

But there’s another side note here: Cihualpilli which is like a princess or queen. Cihualpilli Tzapotzintli was her name. Because the Kings betrayed her, she was seen as a traitor by her people. Not by the people she saved but but by the people that didn’t agree with her acceptance of the Spanish. She was seen as a traitor. She was seen as a traitor by the Spanish because they were sorely defeated at that feast. So here we have an example of a woman who is written out of history and remembered as a traitor. 

For that reason, part of the body of work that Yacatsol does is also based now on this Cerro, because I feel that this Cerro is speaking, not just to me, but to who we are as a people. And part of my journey in reconnecting and in talking to the vendor again, but also as a trusted digital warrior for my people, is to connect those two dots, and therefore the land can speak to my community. And that’s my work. 

Well, “La Cultura Nos Cura” is the first song I did as Yacatsol. […] I didn’t really know what to say. I just felt like creator was telling me to sing…or make people dance…and make people wake up at the same time. So I came up with this little cumbia, that all it says is “la cultura nos cura.” And then there is an intro – instead of saying “1, 2, 3, 4,” I say ce, ome, yei, nahui. Just a little bit of language there to reconnect folks back to the Nahuatl, which in Texas variants of Nahuatl were spoken. 

So I thought it was important to mix that into Yacatsol. That video is very political. Its opening scene is children, black and brown children hitting, BEATING a pinata of Trump. I did this video when he first ran for office. I had no idea he was going to win. But I knew that if he was going to win was going to be bad. 

At the time, a friend of mine, she’s an activist, Erika Gonzalez out of Austin, Texas. Well, really Eagle pass, Texas (but I met her in Austin. She’s co founder of PODER Environmental Justice. She lives in Oakland and is a teacher at the Roses and Concrete school that Tupac’s mom started. She sent this video of the kids beating the pinata and I thought it was just so perfect. Again, Xica Media style, I told peopl, “Hey, I want to put out this song called “La Cultura Nos Cura,” any women out there want to dance? I got some dance moves, just copy them, video them, send them to me.” And I had several submissions from across the United States of different women on the border, just different places, sending themselves dancing. And then we also have the participation of Tara Evonne Trudell, the daughter of John Trudell. She’s in her kitchen making tortillas and dancing to the music. So it was an awesome collaboration, a lot of positive femininity at a time when there’s femicides, at a time when we’re under occupation, land and body. You see women, brown women dancing, even in Juarez, where that’s known as a very dangerous place for women…dancing…and we’re still there. So I wanted to capture that in this video and that’s what we’re going to see here.

Laura Varela  31:17  

Okay, let’s play the clip.

Laura Varela  32:58  

I love that. I think my favorite part was the kids hitting that being after Trump. We really need to see that right now. Yeah here in the United States because, um, those, you know, four years later…and which I guess is gonna lead us to our final segment. I know that you’re gonna do a special performance on a song for us for the COVID people who are mourning and people who are sick right now,

Iris Rodriguez  33:26  

One of the things we wanted I wanted to do today was share song with you all.

Laura Varela  33:33  

Okay, and I think we’ll go out after that. We’ll say goodbye. And thank you, Iris, for being so committed to the work that you you do for our community. I think a lot of people don’t realize how xingona you are because you are behind the scenes. And so I’m glad that we were able to talk about your work and your music and thank you for the song that you’re about to offer right now.

Iris Rodriguez  34:01  

Oh, thank you so much. I want to just quickly talk about the song. So as a Xicana stepping into ceremony (now, over 10 years ago) one of the first things that I felt was, “Whoa, I’ve been here before.” I feel that DNA woke up. But in the process of the Native American church ceremony, you sing songs all night, with the fire. And I connected with that. And through I’m singing, I have reconnected with my ancestors and done a lot of healing and also come to this place where I understand that everything that I do to this work to this body, affects seven generations backwards and seven generations forward. So, with a lot of respect, I want to share a song…not that I wrote but a song by other Xicanos that I heard in ceremony, a variation of it, which is singing a song to Mother Earth and to the divine feminine. So, with respect, I’m singing this song outside of the fire, but I am doing it in a good way in honor of everybody. And everything that we’re going through, everything that you and your families are going through, everything that we as a people are going through, that we as a human people are going through, that our earth and our animal and plant relations are going through. So in a good way like that…

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