The Courage to Step into Comic Vulnerability

Gabriella Maestrini

Stepping into any kind of comic relationship as teacher, researcher or artist is an act of vulnerability, death and courage. Vulnerability in letting oneself be open to the comic teachings and possibilities which come with a piece of death of oneself to meet an ‘other’ and an act of courage to speak up on unspeakable matters.
The following two pieces are moments of encounter in Mexico City while researching disaster humor at the UNAM, the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. The first one is called Vulnerability: Entering skin first; the second one Vulnerability, Death and Research. In this last one, Candle stands not only in as alias for the live-in housekeeper but also to illuminate the role she has played for my research. She has been a guiding light in many ways.


© MAGA 2020 Leopard Spots – skin maps and markings

Vulnerability: Entering skin first

I move through the world skin first
I turn increasingly whiter as my spots progress.
As I sit in the scorching Mexican heat and my skin tans,
I show up to my own skin maps and writings
Unable to decipher the hieroglyphic markings.
Maybe they lead to what I seek.
Leopards – Jaguars are revered – are messengers – carry spots within spots marking not only their fur but also their skin. Revered in Mexico, the jaguar of the same family, has been depicted since Meso-American times as messenger between light and darkness.
The leopard spots on my own skin do not camouflage me as I enter the classroom, the research or the conversation; rather, they render me hypervisible.


Jaguars: Tenochtitlan – Teotihuacán – Pyramids

Even from the bus I can hear the call…
Vendors at the pyramids display carved jaguar heads
blowing into them to recreate the eerie rattling call of this elusive animal.
I feel a connection
To the spots,
To the elusiveness
To the eerie calls
That mimic the animal
To scare
To connect
To recall
To …
As I ascent the steep steps up the sun pyramid
Among others who have chosen to be there early on this hot day,
I hear the luring call.
Standing atop, I can feel the echoes of the calls far below in the valley
The space between the sun and the moon
Held together by the plumed serpent.
I let the sheer immensity of the valley,
The closeness to the sun descend
onto my skin and into my being as
I connect with energies that encircle these ancient creations.
My skin tingles to the rhythm of the calls
My own spots burn in the morning sun as
I turn toward the moon
Bringing my presence as a gift.
Why, do you ask, am I speaking of skin when I research humor? La blanca?  The privileged one?
I am thinking with Ahmed (2003), through my own skin as I enter my research/ teaching space in Mexico. White skin, or fair skin, seen as desirable, as superior, as privileged is marked on my own as different, as diseased, as dis-eased since many do not know what or who I carry. Am I diseased? Am I contagious? Am I an insider/outsider to my own skin?
Connecting my skin to humor makes sense as Mexicans pride themselves with a form of teasing toward obvious or prominent mental, physical or other distinctive features. Being at the receiving end of such teasing, makes you stronger, makes you belong or, in the other extreme, makes you an outcast. In my case, it made me both.
‘The spots of the leopard reflect selective advantages for its natural habitat’ Dimmendaal (2015, p. 2) clarifies. Although one might think there is but one adaptive explanation for the rosettes of the leopard, I may attach meaning to why the spots exist through a plethora of others. My strategies are humor.
Bromearse or teasing as a form of humor, brings not only laughter and care but also violence into the relationships that we might perceive as derogative and demeaning. During one of my first encounters with the students when talking about Mexican humor, I indicated that I might be called a ‘leopard’ or a ‘jaguar’ because of the spots on my skin. Self-deprecating humor, in this case, was a way to enter the classroom, to ease the tension of a foreigner coming into the students’ space in vulnerability.
Through my own self-deprecating humor, I helped elucidate two aspects: one, how to break the ice in a foreign research and teaching moment; two, how to acknowledge my own difference through vitiligo. In breaking my skin, in speaking first, I render myself vulnerable, expose myself to teasing and mockery opening the book to my own skin courageously in my own vulnerability.
Can a leopard change its spots? Can we ever change our skin?

Vulnerability, death, and research.

March 20, 2019 – I sur/re/n/der myself vulnerable –
I opened up
guided by this Candle
who treated me like any other gringa at first … it bothered me…
For some reason I wanted her to like me…
We lived in the same house … but it took vulnerability … my own …
my own tears … they changed everything.
On my mother’s birthday I woke up crying
not knowing that the Candle was in the kitchen…
tears streaming down my face as I reached for coffee
Her little frame, long grey hair… haltingly walks over, embraces me
As we stood there in shared grief …  just two women … crying together
She had lost her brother… way too soon… we shared the how, the when and the why … as grieving people do…we shared…we hugged…we embraced across oh so different bodies…
I hugged the dogs … they knew … always…
nothing     mattered
Time stood still
Time stood still
Time               stood             still
Even if for a moment, my mother’s presence and passing transported me back to when I got the news … I couldn’t breathe…
I learned the Mexican word for it: ella falleció… [she was missed, she left, she passed on, she expired, she disappeared, she stopped existing] — yet present…
The Candle, a devout believer in the Virgin, urges me to go to church …. she would even go with me if she could … to see the ‘big one’ dedicated to Guadalupe … the Virgin … the Black One … The one woman we can relinquish our plights to …
She will listen, the Candle says. She will make it easier…
I fight the urge … I resist those Catholic roots … I am reminded by those around me that it might help to relinquish my grief … nothing else …
just abandon myself to a moment of vulnerability … just a moment…
just to have
time      …      stand             …        still       …
I went to church that evening … to a Catholic Mass… something I had not done in years.
The only foreign body among locals … la gringa… I laugh to myself. Whether I want to or not. …. I shake my head … at ease and yet so out of place
The mass starts with the acknowledgement of those that have passed … lent … resurrection … the body of Christ … my mother’s body lying in the sun for a stranger to find….
I shiver, feel sick, feel


Embodied Moments of Recollection


I sit in the most uncomfortable wooden pew… the ancient timber digging into my sacral bones …
…. I have trouble following the familiar yet so foreign prayers in Spanish … I still remember them…[f**k] … so much work to forget, so little needed to evoke…
After Eucharist a tiny woman clad in black moves toward me taking my hand in both of hers … she extends the ritual … she mutters words I do not grasp … I silently accept her gesture…. Do I belong now? A sign of peace – finally?
The ceremony closes … for a while, I rest in the church plaza with soft wind rustling through the trees … I observe the night sky, feel the wind on my wet cheeks …. the evening hustle of people moving through this space with whom I have no connection … only the death of my mother has brought me here.
Finally, something makes me move…. a somnambulist among the awake …  I hesitantly make my way back to the house… tourists and locals alike cross my path as I continue through the plaza de los coyotes with the fountain releasing sprays of multicolored droplets….
Coyotes …. Tricksters …. reminding me in their spirit form that there is humor even in the darkest of times ….
…. their playful presence a reminder of my strength, of my abilities to survive, to conquer, to strive … … to flourish?
Cobblestones await me – the unevenness – the darkness of the unfamiliar streets too… as I turn the corner to Calle Escondida, the secret, the hidden street, …. I hear the tamale vendor in his nightly call:
! tamales! … ricos tamales Oaxaqueños ,
… tamales…
……………….. for ten pesos I give in to his seductive call.

A ‘Hidden’ Crisis: The Cost of Power

Jed Anderson

“Technique has penetrated the deepest recesses of the human being. The machine tends not only to create a new human environment, but also to modify man’s very essence.”
-Jacques Ellul[1]
The Technological Society
On a starless night in August, I drove with a clergyman friend through a lightning storm into what seemed like hell on earth.
Racing through a downpour on the backroads near Worsley, Alberta, my hope of catching a glimpse of a starry sky was obliterated by a black blanket of clouds and offset by blinding lightning. This was an exciting alternative to stargazing – fireworks of a different sort. Our route through Treaty 8 Lands passed through the traditional territories of the Dane-zaa and Woodland Cree, through family farms carved out of boreal forest. I chose it for the lack of light pollution.
After a day spent reading books along isolated lakes, watching moose plough through muskeg, avoiding roadside deer, and drinking beer, I had hoped for a glittering quiet drive across the invisible border into British Columbia. Instead, the glow of apocalyptic red flames began to light up the undersides of the clouds, even as forks of blue-white lightning continued to lance down around our small Volkswagen, occasionally hitting so close that we needed to brake as thunder rattled the windows.
Passing into BC, we were treated to the reality of fracking and the LNG economy.
In a landscape devoid of natural light other than lightning, the belching flare-stacks gave everything the character of Tolkien’s Mordor. Flames from metallic towers licked the sky and the stench of petroleum and chemical by-products was heavy in the air. None of these sights, sounds, and smells were alien to me. I have lived in the Peace Country before, although typically it’s grainfields and boreal forest that define the norm. This aesthetic combination of fire and thunder, after years spent in the numbing cocoon of Vancouver, was a brutal reminder of the ongoing crisis. It was an education from the land, a sort of fever nightmare that affected the rest of the trip.
The next day we walked along the edge of the valley which the half-constructed Site C Dam will eventually submerge, obliterating an entire landscape. Protest signs from First Nations and local ranchers line the highway, pleading for someone to “Stop Site C”, but the trees are already being clear-cut. Concrete pilings and towers for a future bridge rise in a farmer’s field, soon to be underwater.
We then went to look at the W.A.C. Bennett Dam, which provides between a quarter and a third of BC’s electricity. The construction of the dam in the 1960s flooded the homeland of the Tsay Keh Dene First Nation, broke up caribou herds, altered whole ecologies, and ended a way of life for thousands of people. The W.A.C. Bennett reservoir is one of the largest in the world and the scale of the destruction its creation wrought is disturbing.
Travelling south from the dam, we passed open-face coal mines, logging operations, and pulp mills. I’m a bit numb to these industrial operations. I live several blocks from the Parkland Refinery in Burnaby, where Vancouver gets most of its gasoline. But it has been some time since I’ve been pressed up against the full reality of raw resource extraction in BC, since I’ve smelled hydrocarbons burning off from active wells, heard the buzz of thousands of hydroelectric gigawatts, or seen the reality of large-scale coal mining in progress. In northern BC and Alberta, one is confronted with the hungry mouth of capitalism chewing through the land, rather than the flatulent residue of consumption and digestion that we tend to witness in Vancouver.
The solution to the crisis which we are most commonly sold is to remove that flatulence.
The electric car, for example, will give us cleaner skies. But last month, Elon Musk’s calls for nickel production were answered eagerly by Vancouver-based Giga Metals, which owns the proposed Turnagain Mine, 70 kilometers east of Dease Lake, BC. Vancouver’s air will be cleaner, at the expense of another tailing pile, another road, another leachate pond. Giga Metals promises a cutting edge environmentally conscious mine, British Columbians would be wise to be suspicious.
All of these things are a ‘hidden’ crisis – both environmental and human. BC casts judgment on Alberta while committing equal or worse acts of environmental destruction. These acts are kept far from the eyes of those who might otherwise take action against them. Indigenous people in northern BC have seen little to no return from the billions of dollars siphoned off from these lands, and non-indigenous communities have had their entire essence oriented to the extractive economy.
It is not an accident that Vancouver is the ‘mining capital of the world’, with hundreds of firms here, many with dubious operations in nations with poor human rights or regulatory oversight. We have had practice on ourselves. UBC is funded with the tax proceeds of fracking, mining, and logging, but can revel in its green leafy malls far from the unattractive sights of such exploits. A huge portion of the power that lights our homes and classrooms is derived from the flooding of another people’s homeland. We’re doubling down on this destruction with Site C, new pipelines, and new mines.
This is a crisis.
In Jacques Ellul’s book, The Technological Society, he describes the nature of technique and the technical society we all live in. It is an unsettling picture of a disturbing monism, where everything in our world is made to serve ‘the machine’, where centralization is an inevitable outcome of technique. Ellul suggests we have made a Faustian bargain for a taste of power and in the hope for a technological ‘paradise’. It was just this type of exchange I was reminded of, as I rolled past small country churches, through darkest night, into silent sulphurous flames, and a stench that the mythological figure of Charon would have enjoyed.
[1] Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (New York: Vintage Books, 1964), 325.
Jed Anderson Bio:
Jed Anderson is a PhD candidate (ABD) in the department of Educational Studies at UBC. He is studying higher education in northern British Columbia and is interested in similar cases in other northern regions in Canada and Scandinavia. Jed is curious how non-metropolitan, rural, and peripheral institutions are created and how higher education relates to regionalism and northern development. His research at UBC has led to a greater focus on the role imperialism and individualist-oriented capitalism plays in maintaining spatial inequality in BC.