American Routes Shortcuts: NEA National Heritage Fellows 2018

Nov 23, 2018

Ofelia Esparza
Credit American Routes

Every year since 1982, the National Endowment for the Arts has presented Heritage Fellowships. It’s America’s highest award in folk and traditional arts. We’ll celebrate heritage in concert and conversation with Native American basket weaver Kelly Church, rodeo tailor Manuel Cuevas, and Day of the Dead altar maker Ofelia Esparza.

Nick Spitzer: Kelly Church is a fifth-generation basket maker from the Anishinaabe tribe in southwestern Michigan. She harvests black ash bark and weaves it into elaborate patterns. To preserve the art, Kelly teaches and advocates to protect black ash forests from extinction.

Kelly Church: I belong to the Gun Lake Pottawatomi Band, and I’m a descendent of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa. Originally, they were utilitarian baskets; they would have used them to carry our babies, fishing creels were made from black ash, there are wedding baskets that are made for weddings, ceremonial baskets that are made, so yes our baskets really were an integral part of our life. One basket that I make, I do it in a green color and I weave copper into it and it will have a bug inside, and really that is to draw them in to share the story with them of the Emerald Ash Borer because the Emerald Ash Borer has been killing all of the black ash trees. The USDA predicts 99% of the trees will be gone, but what I like to say is, “Listen, there’s 1% living.” I totally believe in my heart that we will not lose it forever, that we will be able to sustain it, and that we can continue to make black ash memories.

NS: Rodeo tailor Manuel Cuevas began sewing garments in Michoacán, Mexico when he was seven years old. His talents brought him to Hollywood in 1952 where he eventually became a lead tailor for Nudie Cohn, whose elaborate Nudie suits outfitted country stars like Porter Wagoner and Gram Parsons. Manuel opened his own shop in Los Angeles that clothed Elvis Presley, John Wayne, Dolly Parton, and Johnny Cash.

Manuel Cuevas: I wanted to be somewhere where I could actually work. So I crossed the border, loaded with a little cash. I said, “I’m ready to break into the USA, what the heck.” So I started working for Nudie on Monday, and I kind of liked the Western thing because my heritage is totally Western, it’s horse and rider and ropes and what have you, you know. It’s kind of a hick culture really it is. You gotta shine, you gotta be brilliant, you gotta be like so much out of this world. But it’s fun, and I think people approach me for the fact that I could do anything. You think I just put pills and nude women and puppies and marijuana plants on the suit just for fun? I do it because my clients have ideas, and they have dreams, but my dream is limited to just seeing the smile of a person that tries something that I made for them. My suits are my babies, and I’m proud.

NS: Ofelia Esparza, another 2018 Heritage Fellow, grew up in East Los Angeles, where she learned the Mexican practice of altar making from her mother and great grandmother. Ofelia’s altars for Catholic saints and in remembrance of loved ones have been exhibited internationally in museums and in festivals.

Ofelia Esparza: Día de los Muertos is a very ancient tradition and it’s rooted in the indigenous people of Mexico, but the way it’s celebrated, I feel- the way I learned from my mother and now what I’m doing- is very colorful, an expression of not only reverence and respect and honoring but also festive, because we celebrate the life of our loved ones who have passed, of our ancestors. My mother said we humans all experience three deaths and that the first death is the day that we give our last breath, the day that we die. And the second death is the day that we’re buried, never to be seen on the face of the earth again. And the third but the most dreaded death of all is to be forgotten. I think that it’s important to understand that we’re celebrating a life of our loved ones and that we want to remember them. As long as one of us remembers, they are still in our hearts, and you pass that memory, that knowledge of who you are, where you came from, to the next generation.

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