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Interview with Federico Cuatlacuatl

Local artist and SPACE Board Member Pam Chévez spent time in conversation with Tiemperos del Anthropoceno: Tolchikaualistli artist Federico Cuatlacuatl.

Un tiempero bien rasquache:  Federico Cuatlacuatl

A blue sky, a prehispanic teocalli remanence hidden by what now looks like a hill with a beautiful yellow church at the top, and in the background – the presence of Popocatepetl, the soul of a Tlaxcalteca warrior now resting as the most majestic Mexican volcano. In juxtaposition, I dare to say, it would almost seem like this catholic temple is trying to reach for that same glory. A dreamy landscape, but also, a visible wound to the Nahua’s heart and a proof of its resilience throughout time. This is Cholula, Puebla; this is where Federico Cuatlacuatl’s life journey starts, to be more specific…in the little town of Coapan, “Place of abundance”. 

After the Cholula Massacre of October 18, 1519, the oppression and abuse of power has since displaced thousands of indigenous communities from their land, forcing them to migrate to other cities and even countries as an act of survival. Federico’s family was not exempt and this is how he ended up in Indiana, USA, where he grew up and studied his career in Animation at Ball State University. 

His own experience growing up as an undocumented immigrant holding DACA (DEFERRED ACTION FOR CHILDHOOD ARRIVALS), his love for his roots and his enthusiasm for history and archaeology, has shaped his work into a way of reclaiming his community’s land and traditions. 

Pam Chévez: Immigration plays an important role in your work and life. When thinking about this experience on a personal level and as an outsider, how has this influenced your work and what you want people to take from it?  

Federico Cuatlacuatl: That part of my life keeps affecting me in different ways. It’s something I keep grieving. All of my personal experiences, witnessing my parents, friends and the community’s journey have made my work a way to help amplify this collective voice. One theme I always bring up is how catholic religion imposed its ways to the point where now there is a tourist myth that Cholula has 365 churches, one per day of the year. There is another debated “myth”, the massacre of Cholula, which is more of a truth trying to be erased by “whitexicans”, including the mayor of Cholula in 1980, in an effort to control the narrative and keep the situation in their favor to keep marginalizing us. My hope is that by sharing all these facts and making them part of my work, maybe people will start asking themselves the same questions I do. Maybe, we can ask those questions together – Why were my people forced to self-displace? Who is responsible for this? Why weren’t we protected when we were so vulnerable? Why and who failed us? Why do we keep being ignored and erased?

“Ni de aquí, ni de allá”, is this saying relatable? 

It’s funny, cause it would appear to be the obvious sentiment as an immigrant. This is something that has been imposed on us as indigenous folks, to feel like we don’t belong. But no, it actually should be, and is for me, more like “I belong, here and there…wherever I go” because I am reclaiming land and space. We were always from here, no one discovered us. The USA resides on stolen land and México gave our land away to colonizers. In the end, both countries displaced us, and we keep fighting for our land.

In your last piece, Tiemperos del Antropoceno, why did you decide to focus on the Nahua community? 

My grandfather’s generation is the last one to speak Náhuatl where I come from. And for me, it has been important to focus on the traditions of that town, on what is left of our indigenous identity and so I started involving náhuatl in my pieces as my way of preserving and revitalizing our culture. To build resilience. 

What is a Tiempero?

It refers to a person in the Nahua cosmology that has a direct relationship and connection to a site in the landscape, call it volcano, river, mountain. They mitigate the conversation and relationship between nature and local communities to understand and meet the needs of each other, in regard to agriculture and local climates

How has your art evolved since you first started?

I have seen a lot of growth in how I approach my work nowadays. I am not only talking about the technique but the investigation process. I have been putting more effort in asking myself critical questions, and with those questions I have been digging more into history, being more involved with archeological and anthropological interests, am I a professional at it? Maybe not, but  I’ve taken on the responsibility of building more historical transparency t, and this is part of our role as artists, to seek accountability and transparency.

What does your creative process look like?

Oh! It is mostly intuitive, I really don’t have a rigid structure. It’s all about intuition and learning how to listen to it. But there are also a lot of conversations with my parents, with the diaspora, and a lot of observation. Once I get to the point of developing and producing the idea, I might enter into a more structured system but I am still listening to my intuition. If I am filming, I give myself permission to modify it and not follow a script. I would say one of the challenging parts of the process is dealing with the 3D and animation software – oh man, do I get frustrated sometimes! But I am stubborn, and I have my vision…I will make it happen.

Where do you find yourself to be more inspired to create?

Last year I spent 6 months back in my hometown. I learned a lot. I had never spent this amount of continuous time in my hometown since my family and I had to migrate. All of the little details of our traditions that I was not able to learn as a child were re-introduced to me and that meant a lot. It’s not a place, it is the community which inspires me, even on this side of the border in the USA, watching people celebrating and honoring their identity while being so far from the homeland. 

Federico, what has been the hardest obstacle in your career?

Hmmm. Something they don’t tell you about DACA is that after finishing school, you are pretty much in limbo. In 2016 I got my very first job at University of Arkansas. I was so excited. I talked to them about my situation- “Hey, I’m DACA, are you all going to be able to support me on that end?” They said yes, they offered to get me a Work Visa and a lawyer to get everything set, but as soon as I got to Arkansas, they realized they can’t really help me because they didn’t really know what that entailed and there is really not a process and resources to make this happen for teachers under DACA and just like that, it all went down. I lost my job, lost my DACA status and I became undocumented again. It was so stressful. 

Why is public art important?

When you are trying to tell a story, accessibility and democratization of the arts is important if you want it to spread the message. Access to art is important so people can start asking critical questions, so we can have healthier conversations as a society.

What is your dream project?

It’s actually 2! I want to film an experimental documentary at the foothills of the the Volcano Popocatepetl. I met the Tiempero of that place 3 years ago, he hikes halfway to the volcano and brings offerings twice a year. It’s a special connection he has with the volcano, an ancestral one, and I continue to be deeply inspired by this. The second one is a project about my father’s migratory experience. I want to revisit his memories of those 3 months he spent in Tijuana before crossing the border. I feel it would teach me a lot about who I am and what he went through to for me to be where I am now.

You founded Rasquache Artist Residency. Can you tell us about it? When, where, why and for who?

It started in 2016. We named it after my grandfather’s nickname and because in the 60’s, Chicanos in California started an artistic movement with that name and their vision was to rethink poverty or low class as something beautiful when it comes to creating and expressing because you have to be resourceful, resilient. To be rasquache is an attitude, the lifestyle of the underdog. That made me think of the house my parents built for 20 years with the hope of going back to Coapan. It had been there sitting empty, waiting for someone to breathe life into it.  So, my brother and I decided to establish this Artist residency using their house, to give it a purpose, to honor and celebrate our parents’ efforts through art. Rasquache Artist Residency is not only an opportunity to come and work on projects, but an opportunity for artists to get involved with the community, learn their story and understand the benefits and importance of integrating art into the community.

Federico Cuatlacuatl is an artist born in San Francisco Coapan, Cholula, Puebla, Mexico. He is currently based in Charlottesville, VA and is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Art at the University of Virginia. Federico’s work is invested in disseminating topics of Nahua indigenous immigration, social art practice, and cultural sustainability. Building from his own experience growing up as an undocumented immigrant and previously holding DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), Federico’s creative practice centers on the intersectionality of indigeneity and immigration under a pressing Anthropocene. At the core of his most recent research and artistic production is the intersection of transborder indigeneity, migrant indigenous diasporas, and Nahua futurisms. Federico’s independent film productions have been screened in national and international film festivals and exhibitions. As founder and director of the Rasquache Artist Residency in Puebla, Mexico, he actively stays involved in socially engaged works and binational endeavors.

Pam Chévez is a multidisciplinary designer born and raised in Mexico City where she got her BFA in Graphic Design. While in Mexico City, she worked for a variety of studios where she got the chance to be involved in broadcasting, explainer videos, and video-mapping projects for clients like Nickelodeon, Sam’s Club, Kinder, The National Institute of Archeology in Mexico, and more. Today, she works as a Motion Designer for p3 Maine. She is developing her AR and VR skills as she wants to create a more interactive scene for the community in Portland. Pam has a call for adventure and this recently took her to co-found More Women + Surf, an organization supporting inclusivity in the line-up and breaking socio-economic barriers to the sport with a focus on under-served communities. Pam is serving her first term on the SPACE Board through winter 2025/26.

SPACE Reader

🕯️ The dance show of the summer is Scapegoat Garden’s Liturgy|Order|Bridge. The Hartford-based company calls upon Black church traditions and ideas of faith, nature, fashion, and experimentation in their limited performance run June 20-22. Tickets available now, presented by SPACE at Mechanics’ Hall. 🕯️