Mauricio Tafur Salgado and Carlos Sirah Discuss Vision and Values on Remember2019
Remember2019 is an effort to make space for the congregation of the Black communities of Phillips County, Arkansas. Our work is to support and facilitate local practices of self-determination, memory, and reflection that are directly related to the mass lynching of 1919, the lasting effects of racial terror, and the current and future health of these communities. Having recently developed and completed programming at the centennial of the 1919 Elaine Massacre in Phillips County, Arkansas, the Remember2019 team reflects on process, impact, values, aesthetics and vision around the work of the project over the last 4 years while also considering the futures of the work over the next four years.
In this exchange, Mauricio Tarfur Salgado and Carlos Sirah have a conversation about future vision, and values that ground Remember2019.

Mauricio: Carlos, Carlos, one two, one two.

Carlos: Can you hear me? I think you can. 

Mauricio: Great. Great. So, let's jump in. Do you feel ready to start? Do you want to go back and just back and forth it?

Carlos: Yeah, let's back and forth it.

Mauricio: I mean then, why don't we say that you and I will just rap in general about vision and values on the project, and we'll see how that goes. So, imagining, right, that we also got to introduce ourselves, give our byline. So, my name is Mauricio Tafur Salgado. Damn it, what's a worthy intro? So, an introduction.

Carlos: Can you tell me a little bit about who you are and your upbringing, and how that informs your world view.

Mauricio: Yeah, beautiful. So, my folks named me Mauricio Tafur Salgado. Complicated name, which kind of captures a bit of my upbringing. Tafur is my mother's maiden name, Salgado my father's. The Tafur name can be traced to one of the founding families of Cali, Colombia. My ancestors apparently stood in the courts of the queen of Spain at the time, as one of her primary liaisons to the colonies in South America.

Carlos: Wow.

Mauricio: Yeah. And then you've got Salgado, my father's last name. Portuguese roots, and yet what's interesting about that name is that there is less to be drawn upon because that name was carried by a very poor family, a family that was clearly mestizo, more indigenous than Spanish at least in appearance. It spent a lot of time placating and trying to assimilate into whatever bit of Portuguese blood it could claim.

So, in my household, this complicated thing happens where my father, a man raised in a traditionally patriarchal and misogynistic society is also a  Salgado, a name that covers the erasure of its Indigenous siblings. And then you have my mother who said, “I'm going to put Tafur in your middle name because you need to remember that I bore you," as a way of disrupting cultural misogyny without reckoning with the colonial violence and classism that Tafur perpetuates.

So that's a bit of the complicated mix carried forth by parents who migrated to the United States in the '60s when they were teenagers and, in this context, came into their own and tried to disrupt the ways in which imperialism played itself out in Latin America, and were trying to figure out who they could be. So, I came up in a house with a lot of processing. That's what my life was at home. I couldn't ask a question without my mother being like, "Well, there's this and there's this, and let me tell you about this, and you know your grandmother and so on and so forth, and well, your father," etc. etc. A lot of questioning, a lot of thinking, which is my world view, and definitely carries me into this work. You, Carlos, yourself, your upbringing, worldview, and how that brings you to this work?

Carlos: I grew up formed by the Mississippi Delta. I mean that by way of landscape. I mean that by way of the history of removal of the people who were on this land, the Choctaw, before African peoples were brought here, formed also, by a history of enclosure, which Black people, post middle passage and were brought to America as chattel slavery. I recognize that as a part of my history. I recognize the kinds of innovations or responses that had to emerge from the kind of enclosure that is the plantation and, extensions of the plantation, sharecropping and the fields. And those inventions and reinventions by way of song, by way of church, by modes of worship.  I grew up very much in the church. You might not know that if you meet me today because I'm not a person who attends church regularly.

Faye Duncan Daniel (right) and Louise Kerr (left) are emotionally moved after listening to Brenda Hughes sing God Be With You as flag bearers folded the Remember2019 flags.
Faye Duncan Daniel (right) and Louise Kerr (left) are emotionally moved after listening to Brenda Hughes sing God Be With You as flag bearers folded the Remember2019 flags. Photo credit: Steve Johnson. 

Mauricio: Although, you do in Phillips County. 

Carlos: I do when it's part of the work, and that's complicated. It  has to do with the history of the church and its evolution, post-Civil Rights,  and into this moment. I think about that with a lot of other Southerners who talk about where the church is in this moment, post-Civil Rights, and I hear two perspectives. I know the church that I emerged from, leadership was developed in that church.  That was my first public speaking, that was my first singing. You learn these skills. You're put to work in the church as a child in the South, or at least I was and lots of my friends were. And so, there was a way in which the institutions: church, school, and lots of the teachers from my school were also Sunday School teachers were also folks who lived in the community. Institutions like band in school, all of those spaces flowed into each other and there was a natural ecosystem that emerged. These spaces were where me and my friends were held, where we grew and gained knowledge,  and then you get grown and you go out into the world. And you're confronted with the world as you want it to be,  but then there is the world as it is, and then the world as you imagine it. 

I was very much formed in relationship with violent histories but also, within that violence, very productive histories and examples of living.  I never experienced in my family's telling of history, that we have given ourselves over to violence,  that we somehow resign to it. I'm really particular about how I see that history in art, how I see the history of Mississippi and the Delta region in media, often what doesn’t align with my experience of place. It's about holding that violence and knowing that people have been beat down, and that yes, people have experienced terrible violence, but also people have innovated at every turn, have shored up together. I look at the mutual aid cultivated in Tallahatchie County, when I was a child, and that predates my existence, but also that I witness now in my own town of Charleston, MS. 

The Mississippi Delta is not that far from the Arkansas Delta, a river separates them.  There are so many things that are similar, that I hold in common with folks from the Arkansas Delta. I would meet someone in Jackson or I would meet someone from the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and I would have more, I think, culturally in common with folks in the Arkansas Delta than I have with those folks. So, recognizing that has been important. So, yes: land, water, spirit, and kind of everyday experiences.

Mauricio: That's beautiful, and there are a couple of things you said, Carlos, that immediately move me to think about the values within this work. When we first started talking about churches you said, "Well, I go to church here when it has to do with the work." And I wonder what value it is that leads you to make that decision? There's something that we value that orients you to spend time in spaces you wouldn't otherwise, in particular, churches.

And then the second question has to do with your perspective, the way you understand violence. How does that perspective inform our values, how do our values inform that perspective? 

Carlos: Why do I return to church? I understand what the church,  when it operates best,  and what I mean by best is when it operates in relation to community, when it serves the needs of community, both spiritual and material, and how it cultivates, how it holds history and how it transmits and retransmits that history, can be, a source of progress and transformation. So, that's directly in line with our values, and particularly the sharing of stories by way of testimony, by way of song, by way of devotion, and all of the other ways in which Black people tell story,  by way of adornment, by way the shout, all of those things are ways in which we carry history and which we share history for folks who may not know us, but also for our children who come to be us.

Aligned with adornment and the way that we share our stories, something that I was speaking to a little bit earlier, is cultural specificity. And that happens on both micro and macro levels. The micro sense is that every church, and there are lots of churches in Phillips County where we've been working over these past years, that every church has its song. Every church has its distinct modes of dress that exist within the kind of larger Black church.  So,  if we can imagine these concentric circles that move out, out, out, out, that's how I imagine the Black church cultures.  They overlap and move across and over each other, we hold songs in common, yet we sing them differently. There's intonation on this song that is slightly different than another church’s; and because of people and their lived histories, the epic and the mundane, someone might attach to a particular verse and that song becomes the song of that church. 

Mauricio: And what I hear in the cultural specificity, tell me if this rings true to you, we definitely value oral traditions, local traditions of telling history, and that choosing particular  institutions is about choosing institutions that we feel do that in a unique way, right? Because there are so many other places we could be interacting with. But it is about these institutions in particular and the way they hold history, as you're naming, in song and story that we want to be affirming, that we want to be in conversation with. Yeah.

Community members gather in a circle under a tree at M.M. Tate High School, the former Black school in Marvell, to close the listening party. Brenda Hughes lifts song.
Community members gather in a circle under a tree at M.M. Tate High School, the former Black school in Marvell, to close the listening party. Brenda Hughes lifts song. Photo credit: Steve Johnson. 

Carlos: Yeah, absolutely. And I think it's maybe in some way about how concentrated, let's take Phillips County for example, how many folks who are reared in Phillips County have to come through places like First Baptist Church in Elaine, where Vera White, who lifts up spirituals in Black ‘n da Blues also lifts up the congregation.  And so, that institution gathers all of the, in part the essences, the material but also the metaphysical and spiritual remnant of all the people who have come through there. And so, I think there's a concentrated kind of energy and knowledge that exists in the institutions with which we work. And because of that, and the same thing with BGACDC, the Boys and Girls and Adult Community Development Center which is in Marvell, the history that has come through there. The histories around Black empowerment, the kind of histories that were born out of the Civil Rights struggle and that have been maintained and nurtured, by folks like the executive director, Beatrice Shelby, who have had to shift and maneuver and be nimble and agile and flexible with the times, still hold all of that energy. And they carry that institutional history and story but also the ethos of the place and the spirit of all those people who have put in the work of lifting up those spaces.

So, in many ways, this project kind of leads back to you and an encounter that you had at, I think, the Proctor Conference where you heard Bryan Stevenson speak, and I guess I'm interested in what did that incite in you? And I want to talk a little bit about vision. Can you take me back to that moment when you heard that call? What did you imagine was possible? What did you see happening?

Mauricio: Yeah, the vision. I do want to, as you name the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference and Children Defense Fund Conference, I do want to draw that lineage a little further back. Because it really begins for me at Union Theological Seminary, learning under Dr. James Cone, who in many circles is one of the fundamental figures in Black Liberation Theology. He made it very clear to us that our theology had to reckon with the liberation of the poor and the oppressed or else we weren’t engaged in the Christian pursuit.

At Union, I was within a community that was rigorously asking, "What is liberation? What is freedom?" And, "how do we center our thought around that?" Whose experience, if we really sit with that experience, can liberate the experience of us all? And as a first generation, U.S. born, backed up in all of the mess I described earlier, that was a deep question for me because I have historically struggled with this. 

And in all the work I've done in various types of communities - both domestically and internationally - I had not deeply reckoned with the deep struggles that the African American community had experienced in the US. Union really woke me up to that. And it was my work at Union that ended me up at the Children's Defense Fund Proctor Conference.

And it's there that I heard Reverend William Barber speak, and  Marian Wright Edelman speak, and Bryan Stevenson. And Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative makes a case for anyone that was in the room, be it an artist, educator, activist, theologian, minister, whatever your particular social location may be, your practice or position of power, to engage in the deep work of reframing the cultural narrative to reckon with the history of mass terror. That the trauma that exists in the United States is exacerbated by an erasure of terror within this country. And the only way to start reckoning with that trauma is by dealing with the way these histories were erased.

And so EJI had set out to create markers, historical markers across Montgomery in particular, but really encouraging folks across the country to do that work as well. And that work got me thinking: what does it mean for me as an educator, an artist, an activist of Colombian descent, of mestizo descent, what does it mean for me to engage in this particular endeavor in the United States?

And as I read the work of the Equal Justice Initiative, I got curious about this one particular massacre that I knew nothing about. Mind you, I didn't know much about any of those massacres because I wasn't taught all that well in my public schools about any of that kind of stuff. But I knew nothing about the Elaine massacre in Arkansas, and I started connecting with other artists like you and Arielle, Yaz and Ashley and Alessandra, who were engaged in other similar works, works around memory and history and location. And it seemed to me appropriate that we start by visiting, by showing up and asking the question, "Hey, what's happening around here? What is this Elaine massacre? How does that continue to reverberate in this community?” 

And then encountering a community that was in tension with what it means to memorialize.  In the midst of that tension, doing a lot of what you described, Carlos, which is to reckon with how we focus on these histories. To center spaces that understand history from a different perspective, from the Black perspective not bound up in an assimilation to whiteness or white supremacy.

Carlos: Yeah, thank you, that was really beautiful to hear the history and the context around that history. And I guess, you talked about being there, being in Phillips County and meeting the people of Phillips County, and how people kind of reckoned with those histories and doing the public memorial work, and there's been a monument involved. And I guess I'm wondering about the ways in which this worked, since going on this journey has surprised you, has challenged you, has challenged your notions, how has that been lived out? What's challenged you about this work or informed your vision in unexpected ways?

Mauricio: Yes, surprise, good one. I've done work like this before. So to say, the work of building trust and relationships within communities that are not my own and surprise is just par for the course. I enter this work with a deep knowing that I don't know. There's so much I don't know. So, everything, to some extent, has been surprising.

That said, some specifics: The way in which this history continues to terrorize people. Folks do not want to talk about what happened because they outright say, "If I talk about it I'm going to get lynched." Right? The ways in which people still drive by plantation spaces and name that those are still the masters of this community. The ways in which that is such a dominant part of the narrative. That is powerful, it's strong, it's orienting. It definitely orients the way I understand what it means to be here, to work with folks here.

As one of our collaborators, Jarvis Smith puts it, the kind of plantation mentality that is so deeply embedded across the county affects how the community engages in space. 

What's not surprising to me is the level of suspicion that folks have towards us or towards any efforts or towards each other's efforts across the county. It's not surprising in lieu of what seems to me a system that perpetuates a financial scarcity across the county that makes it difficult for folks to access funds. It's not surprising to me the way that folks expect our loyalty and what that looks like - who we talk to, who we spend time with, etc. 

Carlos: Beautiful.

Mauricio: What else, Carlos? What am I missing? What am I not saying about that? Surprise.

ELAINE. Mr. Edward Marshall sits in deep conversation with another community member at the Elaine Listening Party.
ELAINE. Mr. Edward Marshall sits in deep conversation with another community member at the Elaine Listening Party. Photo credit: Steve Johnson. 

Carlos: You talk about the challenges that Remember2019 has faced and met. Do you feel like the work of 2019 has met the challenges that it set out for itself? And how do we intend to meet those challenges? How do you see this work moving forward?

Mauricio: I remember the moment where the question I had been asked changed. So, the question I had been asked in the beginning was like, "Why are you here?" People in particular kept asking, "Why are you here? What are you invested in? What's in this for you?" And my initial answer was always, "I'm here to listen." And I was open to however I could be of support. I didn't have any investment because that word investment to me suggested that I was here to reap the benefit of this work in order to take it back into my own career. And I was really suspicious of myself, and folks are suspicious of me for that, right? So, I was really trying to monitor that. And then, there came a point at the end of our programming in 2017, where my answer changed to, "I'm here to acknowledge, to advocate for the right telling of this history and to advocate for the well-being, the fullness of living of the Black community that has suffered through an erasure of that history and that continues to feel the terror of that. I'm invested in this because my humanity is wrapped up in it. Because my artistic vision is now wrapped up and informed by it. Because this consumes my thought and my practice at the moment." And it was at that moment that one of the people who had asked me that question all the time said to me, "Ah, now I trust you. Okay, now I am with you." 

And so, then in 2017, we had this week together where we devised the mission statement, and I love where it begins, right? It begins with our work is to support the efforts of local Black cultural workers, artists, organizers... And that supporting I think, starts it for me. That verb, to support, because it centers the desire or the ideology or the beliefs of the community. To me it begins there.

And then it goes on to say that it's to support these workers in their effort to bring community together in spaces. To cultivate spaces that affirm memory and self-realization and heal from the trauma of the ongoing history of racial terror within the community. And that other little bit in there about support the organizing of space, as an artist I deeply care about space and what happens in space and the potential for space. And I feel like that's how the community has also seen us show up.

Where at the beginning, we were showing up to folks' spaces, we've now committed ourselves to present a version of a space. Black 'n da Blues was a proposal for how to be in space together. The Listening Parties is a proposal for how to be in space together. The way we organize story circle, the way we show up with food, all of those things are ways in which we propose. And that I think what I've heard in response from the community is an appreciation and oftentimes a surprise on their behalf of like, "Oh, that's a way to show up, too. Oh, these people could organize, too."

I think about our residents this year, I think about Miss Anita with  BGACDC, and the way Ms. Anita showed up and organized an event that was a sharing about the history of that center and it was  told intergenerationally and what that meant in the eyes of Ms. Beatrice Shelby, one of the founders and the current executive director of BGACDC. And for her to see Anita in a whole other way than she had seen her, right? That's a way of proposing space and of others proposing space that sheds light or surprises community in ways they hadn't thought of.

Or, for example, the way that our residents invited the cohort into their space for a meal  and that they were sharing their spaces in ways they hadn't shared before with members of the community they hadn't shared before, and how deeply that was appreciated. So, it doesn't just have to be about big presentations or spectacle to the extent of The Listening Parties or Black 'n da Blues, but it's also the way we invite one another into each other's spaces.

So, it's been beautiful to see the progression of that support, the potential of space, and for the potential of what remembering looks like, what it feels like, who gets to remember how it gets remembered. I think that's also been very present in the work as well.

Carlos, last thing I want to ask you about is our values of transformative justice and moral fundraising. We have this beautiful list of values which, to me, really orients the work. That, to me, is the benchmark for how we think about what we do. Are there any values that you want to talk about? Any values that you're like, "Oh yeah, I'm eager to see how that one informs us a little more because it hasn't informed us just yet." Or do you feel like all the values have informed all the work equally?

ELAINE. James White lovingly holds a baby outside of his store, The Spot on Main Street at the Elaine Listening Party.
ELAINE. James White lovingly holds a baby outside of his store, The Spot on Main Street at the Elaine Listening Party. Photo credit: Steve Johnson. 

Carlos: No, I don't think they have informed the work equally. I feel like all of them are present, and the way I engage with the values is a kind of a reflective space, an evaluative space, a space where we get to contend with who we are, where I am, where we are in the work. And to address this question of like, "Oh, how have we not met, or how have we not lived up, how have we not fulfilled, or how do we live more fully in a particular value?"

The ones that we're constantly really, really steeped in are “sharing stories,” “cultural specificity,” “culturally specific history,” and “intergenerational collaboration.” Some become more prominent than others. When I look at our values, and I look at “transformative justice,” which has to do with the carceral state and how it denies a community's right to self-determination. And so, that's very present as we receive the histories and collect the histories we meet people with those histories and, of course, we have to contend with that. One of the people that we're in community with is Jarvis Smith, who works with youth in a formally, probationary way, but also working with them in this way of wanting to protect their lives from entering into and staying in a carceral system that is akin to chattel slavery. And so we've done a couple of story circles with those youth, but I feel like that is a space we could do so much more in, with more time. And I think as we grow, and I think we're right where we need to be in terms of building trust with community, but the longer we stay, the more people we encounter, and those encounterings open up more and more channels.

And I think this carceral piece is directly related to these histories, right? And so, I know that the sharecropping and the plantations and the fields were all tied into surveillance, they were tied into the ways in which Black bodies are controlled and exploited for labor. And those are existing and continuing practices. And it’s all about holding space, right?  I've done work in prisons before, engaging with folks who are incarcerated, and they talk about space. They talk about the ability to speak their truth. And so, I know people are longing for those spaces and we can facilitate those spaces to amplify those voices. Then that work is in direct relation to the histories, even of racial terror, that happened and the torture of Black bodies. The torture of Black bodies, having people housed in jails, people jailed for things that white people aren't jailed for, the surveillance of those bodies, all those things are tied. And there's a direct line to that that I think we, in Remember2019, can explore a little bit more.

And the other one is “moral imaginary,” and I also feel like where we are with this value is kind of where we have to be. As I understand this value, it is going beyond our polarity, going beyond this localization even, that you talked about, bridging people. It's making bridges within the Black community and also making bridges, when we're ready, when the work is sustained and the people of Phillips County are ready to build bridges outside of Phillips County, then I think that work will happen. But I think the connections being made across the county and across these townships, across from Marvell to Elaine, to Helena-West Helena, are like the seed of what moral imaginary will grow into be. And I think if there can be continuity and nurturing and support for those relationships as they grow and gain power, then I can imagine a council of Phillips County folks together being able to speak with other kinds of counties across the nation and even across the world.

And so, that moral imaginary means, to me, that it contains the possibility of how oppressed peoples: across counties, across locales, across nations, across waters, talk in a response to each other to combat and to kind of live a better existence in the world.

Mauricio: The potential, I mean, what's so exciting to me about everything you're naming, is the ongoing commitment to these values, to what we believe in and the community. And maybe I wonder, just as a last point to reflect between us, what I think distinguishes our work is that it is ongoing, a thought that's developing, relationships in process. It will continue to reveal new ways of thinking and experiencing, as you're naming, with this value around the moral imaginary, as you're naming, with the potential of building other relationships and supporting transformative justice in the community.

To me, I see that as a great difference between this "memorial effort" if folks want to categorize it as that memorial effort, in comparison to other memorial efforts in the county. Anything else that you would distinguish, in your experience, between this effort, the way Remember2019 has worked, or the process that we've been a part of in comparison to other memorial or monument efforts that you might know of?

Carlos: Yeah, time, duration, I think that's part of it. And I think there is, and I've been challenging myself to tease out or think about this notion of monumental time and memorial time and what that actually means and what that has to do with what I think we've been doing.

And I think what distinguishes us is, from the very beginning, and it continues to this day, is deep reflection. Which I think is what the best kinds of monuments and memorial spaces do, is that they provide opportunity, they provide space for reflection, a reflection that incites something, a reflection that compels one toward something new, towards a new action, towards a new way of being, towards a new gesture. That reflection piece, but reflection plus action. I think that distinguishes the work. 

Reflection and call. And this came to fruition this year..., or at least, I saw it most clearly this year in Black 'n da Blues with Angela moving and being with the audiences, and later watching Arielle facilitate these moments that broke open a time, during the Marvell Listening Party.  Each event contained reflection and calling, the gathered,  towards a future, towards action, towards possibility. History is in process. In those moments, I witnessed a reframing, which we must adopt. What does it mean to believe,  to posit, that our liberation is inevitable? What does that disposition, with what does an orientation of inevitability provide us?

HELENA-WEST HELENA. Kai Mitchell waves one of the Remember 2019 flags in the night to welcome listening party participants
HELENA-WEST HELENA. Kai Mitchell waves one of the Remember 2019 flags in the night to welcome listening party participants. Photo credit: Steve Johnson. 

Mauricio: What you are saying is so on point. And I just want to close with, as you're naming, reflection. So much of it, for me, has been about the reflection. The deep reflection that has happened between us. And even this conversation is a reflection that reveals thoughts that we haven't necessarily shared, and I continue to deepen my sense of the work and my place in the work and my collaboration with you. And I so appreciate you naming that distinctly and then calling that into a quality of time which is monumental. There is a kind of reflection that exists only within a quality, a quality of a scale, of scope that supersedes our understanding of how time functions..

Carlos: Yeah, yeah, I'm into it. I don't know how often I say this, maybe I do, maybe I don't, I don't really check, but I do have a deep and abiding, like wells and wells of gratitude to you all, to you, to Yazmany, to Ashley, to Arielle for the work that you do, to how we have been in relation across distance and been able to do work that we feel still is meaningful and that is in relation to the community in the ways that the community has expressed that they appreciate. And that this work, it's life changing work, it's root work. So, I just have wells of gratitude. I just wanted to express that.

Mauricio: Thank you. Mutual. The feeling's mutual. 

Carlos Sirah

Carlos Sirah is a native of the Mississippi Delta. He is a writer, performer, and cultural worker. Sirah creates formal structures rooted in Black expressions of possibility that take the shape of concert, lyric prose, procession, & screen and stage plays. His work aims to center and uplift the voices of the often unheard. Sirah’s transdisciplinary work takes its cues from multiple aesthetic traditions:  Black Arts Movement, Butoh, Free Jazz,  Blues, & Field Hollers.

Mauricio Tafur Salgado

Mauricio Tafur Salgado is a mestizo + first gen + born to proudly subversive Colombians + brown skinned + amateur bio-regionalist + aspiring theologian + cis-hetero + married + artist, pursuing justice and healing through a decolonial framework. He is currently an Assistant Arts Professor in Theatre Studies at New York University.