On Representation in the Macalester International Organization (MIO) Cultural Show

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Last week’s article by Katie Harger, “MIO’s Cultural Show Brings Politics to Stage,” (page 14) incited me to express a concern I’ve had since I decided to perform a traditional Bolivian dance in the Cultural Show: what are the implications of representing authentic' Bolivian culture on stage at Macalester? I was part of a group that performed a ritual dance called "Tinku," which is an Aymara word for unity, convergence, encounter, and equilibrium. This dance represents the convergence of two opposite bands, the conflict of their encounter, and the unity that emerges upon its resolution. Tinku is still practiced as a ritual in indigenous communities, but the dance is mostly performed in national celebrations by the urban middle and upper classes. It is also common to hear Tinku in bars and discos where a lot of tourists go to experience exoticized Bolivian culture while drinking beer.<br /><br /> This was precisely the scene that we tried to present in our performance. We showed a tourist who didn't speak Spanish but she had learned Tinku because she thought it was moreauthentic.’ Our aim was to critique the exotification of indigenous peoples by tourism while sending a message that we did not try to represent Bolivian culture' simply because such a monolithic construct does not exist. Getting this message across proved to be difficult because of the mainstream understanding of culture as somethingauthentic’ and exotic' that can entertain consumers.<br /><br /> I am troubled to realize that even at Macalester we often have this inadequate understanding of culture. The performances were ethnicized, racialized, and nationalized by both performers and viewers.<br /><br /> An interviewee for the article commented that the MIO show was more "cultural" than previous shows by UnitedStatesian artists such as Brother Ali and Haley Bonar. How can one show be more "cultural" than another? This comment reflects the process ofotherization,’ in which marginalized peoples are subject to judgment by the colonial gaze. It is also problematic to assume that culture and politics are separate, and as Harger pointed out, this has been a recurring problem with cultural shows at Macalester. Far from being apolitical, culture constantly undergoes transformations through sociopolitical processes.

Five decades ago, the term multiculturalism was introduced as a political tool for oppressed peoples to ensure their spaces of cultural legitimacy outside of mainstream white-male-straight cultural hegemony.

However, in recent times, multiculturalism has become part of the idiom that acknowledges difference without referring to power. When we treat culture as superficial entertainment, ahistorical, and free of political content, we perpetuate the power structures of racism that continue to manifest themselves in U.S. society and around the globe.

The audience’s response to the MIO Cultural Show made me wonder what is expected from me as an international student at Macalester. Why does an institution invest so much money in making it possible for me to be here?

Hearing people use the word “culture” in such a simplistic sense makes me feel that international students and students of color are simply part of the image of Macalester as international' andmulticultural.’ This image is sold to Macalester’s tuition-paying students and financing alumni, and I wonder if I am simply a commodity here.

Is Macalester just another neocolonialist institution like museums, corporate ethnic restaurants (i.e. Tacobell, Chipotle, etc.), amusement parks, and tourist agencies? These institutions exoticize, commodify and depoliticize culture.

Don’t get me wrong here; I do not believe that the Cultural Show should be abandoned. Much to the contrary, cultural events are necessary as venues for people to express themselves using their artistic talents. They can be vehicles for us, all of us, to explore the sociopolitical processes that are expressed through cultural products.

Without this self-consciousness on the part of participants, audiences, and newspaper critics, however, we risk objectifying, commodifying, and appropriating the cultural traditions of other people for our own shallow amusement and in the name of depoliticized “multiculturalism.”

Contact Victor Llanque Zonta ’08 at [email protected]