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  • Writer's pictureKevin Shorner-Johnson

Transcendent and Liberatory Imagination

I remember the first moment when I noticed my toddler daughter playing with her imagination. She was outside on the porch, picking up something imaginary and putting it to the side on top of a cooler. This memory sticks with me because it was such a magical moment, the chance to witness a very small piece of the imagined worlds that fuel our creativity, stories, and worlds.

Within peacebuilding, I have written previously about the power of imagination. When situations seem completely hopeless, it is the power of our imagination that can find a different way. When society powers the “myth of redemptive violence” others can imagine an approach that is built from non-violence and civil disobedience (Wink, 1999). And it is imagination that finds the creative approach, constantly adapting to the challenges of the present with new imaginings of the future.

Our newest episode with Martha Gonzalez has also taught me of problem of violent imaginations. Citing Bonfil Batalla’s México Profundo, she discusses the ways that imaginaries of “progress” and “modernization” fueled the erasure of indigenous peoples in post-1910 Mexico. During this time, the dominant imagination formed ideas of a modern Mexico that let go of its rural richness, to embrace cities, centralized big business, and a place on the world stage of modernity. Indigenous mesoamerican communities were quickly declared dead and obsolete, as a new “mestizo” class was imagined to replace the rich diversity of peoples. This imagination allowed systems of domination to extract capital out of land and force thousands into poverty while the few profited off of the many. This imaginary along with stereotyped imaginaries of black and indigenous bodies as backward and less than human allowed domination and oppression to become systematized within a New Mexico.

In her book Chican@ Artivistas, Martha Gonzalez also relates the story of her father’s drive to become a famous ranchera singer. Within this imaginary, a quest for fame, recognition, or a way out of poverty became destructive as a relentless search for more damaged family and relationship. His imagination and dreams of music as an object that could be used to replace relationship ultimately left a trail of brokenness.

This was new for me. I have often thought of imagination as an unquestionable good, one that is transcendent and transformative. However, this podcast helped me to think about the ways imaginations can be destructive and the ways they are immensely powerful.

For me, one of the most powerful examples of transcendent and liberatory imagination is the annual gathering of Fandango Fronterizo. This gathering on April-May of each year is a gathering of son jarocho musicians, dancers, and activists on either side of the US-Mexican border. With the laughter and joy of collective music making, they “will the border out of existence,” building shared music and song across borders. These are borders that separate, divide, tear apart families, and drive thousands to their death as they attempt to cross deserts or roads that lead to human trafficking. These are borders that are built on imaginations of the threat of the Other and a believed difference that is irreconcilable. With the hammer of heels on the Son Jarocho tarima and the shared power of music, there is no boundary, no border that can stop the transcendent power of sonic imagination.

Bonfil Batalla, G. (1996). Mexico Profundo: Reclaiming a Civilization. University of Texas Press.

Gonzalez, M. (2020). Chican@ Artivistas: Music, Community, and Transborder Tactics in East Los Angeles. University of Texas Press.

Wink, W (1999). The powers that be: Theology for a new millenium. Random House

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