|Shelley Gilchrist, Jimmy Santiago Baca
Rita From the Sky
mixed media on wood
10" x 21'
Rita And Julia
But they think I am crazy—
and I let them believe I am mad—
but I will tell you the story, who,
and what I did—
My name is Rita from the Sky
and what you have done to me is not fair.
I escaped the State Mental Hospital in Kansas twice
because I heard my ancestors calling me.
What you have done to me God will punish.
I leave when I hear the ancestors speak to me
to me in the nopal cactus
in the exquisite
prairie blossoms and the sage and the prairie doves.
Have you seen a prairie dove?
At dawn, plump, they veer here and there,
carousing with the light,
as if they are aware of angels
in every flower, in every rock, in every tree.
They are like my heart feels, that’s how they fly,
at dawn, how my heart feels
for humanity, for my people,
the sorrow, joy, sadness that is so great
nobody even knows.
Instead they say I am mad,
and I walk, walk, and walk
back and forth in my cell,
thousands of miles, four steps one way, four back,
thousands of miles.
To keep an old woman in this cell is mad,
but I cannot contain your madness,
the insanity that sane people have,
tearing up the forest, killing the land
dirtying the waters.
I hear prairie doves singing to me
in the rocks and sand and dirt and sage and cedar and mesquite
I hear their wings as voices
telling me there is a sacred religion
that none of us are aware of
but which I hear.
I hear the singers singing words that make me feel
alive, make me feel part of life, make me feel
as if my heart means something, makes me feel
I am woman, and my journey means something.
--Jimmy Santiago Baca
Artist Shelley Gilchrist and Poet Jimmy Santiago Baca
The journey of a Tarahumara woman who walked to Kansas from her home in the Copper Canyon of
Chihuahua, Mexico inspired New Mexico poet Jimmy Santiago Baca to write "Rita from the Sky," a
work that transforms her unimaginably difficult sojourn into a pilgrimage to the land of origin of the
Aztec people. The poem is written in a long-form monologue, weaving the harsh realities of Rita's
physical undertaking and the symbols of her spiritual crossing as she responds to the summoning
voices of her ancestors. As in Aztec mythology, the natural and spiritual worlds are intertwined in the
poem. Chicago artist Shelley Gilchrist responded by interpreting some of the poem's vivid symbolic
imagery: desert, animals, sky, sun, heat are represented in encaustic on stepping stones that
symbolize Rita's journey of return, while on interspersed "sky" pieces are text fragments of Rita's
monologue that invoke the sacred and give meaning to her odyssey.
Included in the art work is a reproduction of the seven caves of Chicomoztoc, the mythical place of
origin of the Aztec people, from the Historia Tolteca Chichimeca. The line drawing depicts Rita's
journey in the style of the Aztec migration rendering in the Codex Boturini. Aztlan, or place of the
Aztec ancestors, is often represented in mythology by the blue heron. Chili, cornmeal and sage,
essential in Aztec and Chicano culture, are elements of the mandala. The onion "carried" by Rita is
homage to Spanish poet Miguel Hernandez and a reference to his work "Lullaby of the Onion."