Xica Nation exclusive interview with Juan Tejeda of Aztlan Libre Press, grupo Xinachtli, and Conjunto Aztlan
What is your name / location(s) / how you ID? Title?
Juan Tejeda, a Native American Xicano with roots on my father’s Tejeda-Martinez side to the Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation that goes back to the Payaya people who were here in Yanawana (San Antonio, Tejas) 15,000 years ago. San Anto is my hometown and I still live and work here on the southside. I am a recently retired (Dec 2016) professor of Mexican American Studies and Music from Palo Alto College in San Antonio, a musician (button accordion, flute, percussion) and songwriter for the Conjunto Aztlan, ex-jefe danzante Mexica-Azteca conchero with Xinachtli, arts administrator, writer, and co-publisher/owner, along with my wife, Anisa Onofre, of Aztlan Libre Press. I am the proud father of three children Zitlalli Aztlan Libre, Juan Francisco Tonatiuh and Maya Quetzalli, and recently, on February 20, 2017, my son and daughter-in-law made me a first-time abuelo to baby Ella.
At what age did you begin to have an understanding about race and cultura?
I think it was in the second grade at St. Leo’s School when the teacher would punish us for speaking Spanish in class. She would send us to stand at the back of the room and whack our hands with a ruler. I also distinctly remember feeling ashamed of taking my flour tortilla tacos de frijol con chorizo, or papas con huevo, to school and eating in the cafeteria with the other students that had bologna or ham sandwiches, even though most of the students in this catholic school were Xicanitxs. I used to go outside and hide while I ate my tacos. I didn’t understand at that time what was going on with the systemic racism against MeXicanxs and our cultura within the U.S. educational system and society at large.
My father, Francisco Mariano Tejeda, who loved music and came from somewhat of a musical family, wanted one of his children to learn how to play the button accordion. My older brother and sister didn’t take to that too well but since I displayed an early talent for music, my father took me for accordion lessons with a young Santiago Jimenez Jr. when I was nine years old. I quickly learned how to play some polkitas, shotizes and valzes from him. Later, after my primo Tony stopped playing drums with Santiago Jimenez Jr. y su Conjunto, I took over as the new drummer. I played drums with Santiago Jimenez Jr. y su Conjunto for about 2-3 years when I was 11-13 years old. But there was a stigma attached to playing the accordion and playing in a conjunto band: it wasn’t cool like The Beatles or rock-n-roll. Much like the “taco syndrome” I mentioned above, I was made to feel ashamed of playing the button accordion and conjunto music, so much so that I never told my friends at school that I played the button accordion, nor did I perform at any school functions or talent shows, and eventually, because the conflict was so great to my psyche and spirit, I ended up quitting playing the drums for Santiago Jimenez Jr. y su Conjunto and virtually stopped playing the accordion all together throughout high school, until I went to the University of Texas at Austin.
How did the arts impact your responses to racism, discrimination as you were growing up? Was there a particular moment in your life when you chose to dedicate your energy to community empowerment?
It was as a freshman at the University of Texas in Austin in 1972 that I first became more politically, socially, and culturally aware, and active. The Chicano Civil Rights Movement was in full bloom at the university and I took my first Chicano History course. That was it. I was hooked. Why hadn’t I been taught any of this history in elementary through high school? The only thing I had been taught was that the “dirty Meskins” had killed off the heroes of the Alamo, and to feel ashamed of my language, culture, food, music, indeed, to feel ashamed of who I was. I rebelled and became a part of the Chicano Movement. I took all of the Chicano Studies courses that were offered, was a member of the first Chicano Cultural Committee at U.T. Austin, and volunteered with La Raza Unida Party. Between 1972 and 1978, when I graduated from U.T Austin with a BA degree in Chicano Studies, I took my first Chicano Poetry class with alurista and we published our first book from this class, Trece Aliens; I began playing the button accordion again and we formed the Conjunto Aztlan; we formed CASA/Chicano Artistas Sirviendo a Aztlan and worked on campus and in the East Austin Chicano community; I began doing traditional Mexica-Azteca danza and became the jefe segundo for Xinachtli from about 1975-1984; and I worked on various projects with LUChA/League of United Chicano Artists where for five years I directed the Festival Estudiantil Chicano de Arte y Literatura working with students from K-12 in the Austin Independent School District.
This was my training ground in helping me to become a more fully realized spiritual, cultural, political and socially conscious human being (I am still trying). I realized the importance of education and the arts in helping our gente, and especially nuestra juventud, to overcome the racism, sexism, political and economic exploitation and discrimination in this country, to learn our true history, to reconnect with our indigenous roots, and to feel proud of who we are, our cultura and cultural identity. I learned the importance of community based organizations, of networking and organizing with our gente and comunidades to address these issues of social (in)justice and to work for a true liberation, justice and peace for all people.
When I returned to San Anto from Austin, I worked at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center for 18 years (1980-1998) as the Xicano Music Program Director and developed community-based music classes, founded and directed the Tejano Conjunto Festival en San Antonio (now in its 36th year), directed the Performing Arts Series, and edited and worked on various center publications, educational programs, and multi-media projects.
After I left the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in 1998, I went back to school and received my Master of Arts degree in Bicultural Studies from the University of Texas in San Antonio where I taught for two years before I was hired at Palo Alto College to create and develop a Conjunto Music Program, the first in the nation at the college/university level. During my 15 years at Palo Alto, we also developed the Mexican American Studies (MAS) Field of Study and offered courses and an Associate of Arts degree in MAS, established the first Center for Mexican American Studies in the Alamo Colleges district, organized Somos MAS/Mexican American Studies San Antonio, Tejas, and we have been very active with the National Association for Chicana & Chicano Studies Tejas Foco in implementing Indigenous/Mexican American Studies in Texas schools from Pre-K-12th grade.
What is the importance of creating intellectual spaces in the barrios? in the virtual barrios?
It is super-important to create and develop our own intellectual spaces and organizations in our barrios. The U.S. public schools are not teaching us about our history, our cultural identity, our literature, our music, our important cultural contributions. In fact, there has been a deliberate attempt to erase us from history and from the textbooks, to paint our people and culture as inferior, and to get us to assimilate and acculturate. And for the most part they have succeeded. Yet, our people and our Indigenous/Mestizo/MeXicanx culture is strong and we have resisted. It is up to us to create our own schools, organizations and spaces that teach us who we are, and the true and positive history of our people, and our ongoing struggle and work for social justice and peace.
And in this age of global technology and communication, the virtual barrios and spaces are equally important. To inform. Educate. Communicate. Organize. Create. And work. We must use all of these tools at our disposal for organizing within our communities for social activism and change.
What is the story behind Aztlan Libre Press? What has the community response been?
I have been involved in writing and publishing, one way or another, since my college days, but when my wife, Anisa, began working with Gemini Ink, a literary arts organization here in San Antonio, and learned In-Design and then became its Publications Director, she suggested that we develop a press and publishing company. So, in 2009, Aztlan Libre Press was born with the passion to publish and promote our own Indigenous/Xicanx writers and artists. Our first book was alurista’s Tunaluna (2010), and since then we have published 11 books and 7 Xicanx Art Notecards, the last two being A Crown for Gumecindo (2015) by former San Antonio and Texas Poet Laureate Laurie Ann Guerrero, and our latest, Las Nalgas de JLo/JLo’s Booty: The Best & Most Notorious Calumnas & Other Writings from the First Chicana Columnist in Texas 1995-2005 (2017) by Barbara Renaud Gonzalez. In fact, we’re having the National Book Launch for Las Nalgas de JLo on April 28th at the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center here in San Antonio. You can get more information and check out/purchase all of our publications on our website at www.aztlanlibrepress.com
The community response, in general, has been very positive. There’s a great need for independent Native American/Xicanx presses because there aren’t very many of them/us nationwide, but more importantly, because there are many Native American/Xicanx writers and artists out there whose voices deserve to be heard and whose work deserves to be published. The major presses in this country, for the most part, are not publishing works by people of color, so we have to do it on our own.
We’ve received some excellent reviews for our publications, but since Anisa and I were working full-time and were involved with the familia and other projects, we haven’t focused enough time on promotion and distribution. I hope to do more of this now that I’m retired from Palo Alto College.
We’ve made a little money in the book business (sales at readings, book festivals, website and through Small Press Distribution, our distributor, etc.), but most of it has just gone right back in to the publication and printing of our next books and projects. We plan to change this and start putting our books and press out there more and distributing them to libraries, bookstores, worldwide, where possible. We’ve already begun converting all of our books to e-books also.
While our community loves the idea of an independent Xicanx press publishing important works of our Raza, most of them will not buy a book. We have almost 3,000 likes on Aztlan Libre Press’ Facebook page, and I have 5,0000 “friends” on my Facebook page, but I would say that probably less than 50 people have ever bought books from us over the last seven years. If you really want to support Native American/Xicanx poets, writers and artists, and independent presses, it is as simple as buying a book. Share the gift of literature and art. Buy the literature and art of our people, those writers and artists and musicians who are telling the stories of our people, who are documenting our history. In fact, buy two and gift one. We must support those organizations, and presses, and issues that are important to our people and communities. If we don’t, who will?
In your opinion, what is the importance of book publishing in resistance movements? this current technological age?
Publishing, in general, has been very important for resistance movements throughout history. It is one of the ways that we have to tell our stories and put them out there for the world to read. The other stories that they don’t want us to read. The stories of the Red, Black and Brown people. The stories of women, the oppressed, the poor. The stories of hope and struggles for a more just world. It is through books, and pamphlets, and magazines and newspapers, and posters that we communicate our issues and concerns, address them, get organized, call the people to action, and express our vision for the future generations. Books and publications are for the people to read, to think about, to communicate, to share, to learn, to create, to spur us to action. Revolutions have been born and burned on the backs of books.
And so it is in this technological age. The whole publishing world is going electronic and digital with e-books and being able to access millions of books, art, literature, magazines, newspapers, music, studies, and other documents right at your fingertips and on your phone. Pretty amazing. Never before in history has the world had so much access to books and information, and been able to communicate so much information with each other, and so easily and quickly, as we are doing now. We must use all of these mediums, including video, photos and social media to inform each other about what is going on in the world, to communicate and to address those important human and civil rights issues of social justice that affect our communities, such as poverty, racism, sexism, women’s rights, worker’s rights, unequal education, immigration and detention centers, police brutality, environmental issues to protect our mother earth, sacred waters and air. We must use all of the tools available to us to organize and take action in our communities, to help us become better human beings and global citizens.
And of course, we have to emphasize the importance of reading and education, and developing our spirituality and critical thinking skills. I’ve always like César Chávez’s quote: “Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.”
If you could say one thing to the next generation, what would it be?
That’s tough, only one: Connect with your spiritual and human roots, and work with your community for social justice and peace.
Are there any events or links you would like to share?
How can people connect with you to support?
By going to the Aztlan Libre Press website above. Tlazokamati/Gracias.
In tlanextia in tonatiuh/Que tu sol sea brillante.