With gratitude anything is possible
By Ungelbah Davila
I'm obsessed with the symbols and icons that are unique to America. The history of this country fascinates me because it has birthed so many revolutionary ideas, from rock 'n' roll to the atomic bomb. This history is both violent and beautiful, and I find that it translates into a very sexual energy that inspires and influences my work as a writer and photographer.
My parents were in many ways the personification of an outlaw country song. I grew up off the grid in a cabin they built on the family cattle ranch. It didn't have electricity, and I didn't have any siblings or kids close by, so I began imagining and creating at a very early age. I would spend entire days acting out elaborate story lines using my dog and the many ranch cats as reluctant characters. Even today I find myself being entertained and fascinated by small details in my environment that others don't notice, because as a kid the world was my television and I learned how to observe it in a different way than other people.
I also learned how to be silent and listen, a tool that we have all but forgotten how to use in modern society. My mother read to me a lot, which contributes to my love of literature, and my father passed to me his interest in photography.
On road trips we would listen to country music on the radio, and the imagery of those songs would narrate the neon and railroads along the highway. It created a romanticism within me that I've never outgrown.
Being of mixed ancestry has blessed me with the ability to understand the world from different perspectives and cultivate compassion for every walk of life. I honor everyone's personal journey, even if I don't agree with it, and their unique part of the narrative we are all experiencing together.
There is no word for "feminism" in Diné, as there was never a need for it. While I think feminism is of great value in our world and I'm surely considered a feminist, in terms of following an ideology I just strive to be authentic to myself as a human being and storyteller, the way I imagine women did in traditional societies. My first instinct is to act in a way that serves the community/family and then serves the integrity of my spirit.
As an artist, I spend more time than I should doubting myself. But rather than view it as a negative emotion, I let self-doubt force me to look deeper at myself — am I communicating my message to the best of my ability, or is there a better way? I've created a home that I work out of that helps keep me grounded and connected with my truth. I have a little bit of property with big cottonwood trees and animals that keep my heart full of gratitude. With gratitude anything is possible.
Creating and publishing La Loca Magazine for three years and co-producing Rockabilly on the Route for five propelled me into what has been a very cool journey of meeting incredible artists, learning from amazing peers, and challenging myself to keep climbing toward my dream life. When you conquer a project or something that seemed impossible when you began, such as publishing a magazine or co-creating a huge music festival, you become more confident in yourself that anything is possible if you can just figure out the right way to do it. You quickly learn that failing is as important as succeeding.
I've never felt capable of true happiness working for someone else, using my creative energy to manifest someone else's dream when I have more dreams than I know what to do with. To do so would be self-treachery. So with a lot of help and support from my family and friends and by making necessary sacrifices, I have been able to climb every mountain I've stood before so that I can now call myself a "successful, working artist," which I think is one of the most difficult job titles to earn.
Haha, the best thing my father has ever said to me is, "Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke." It's amazing how often that simple little sentence helps the water roll off my back. Every day is a challenge. No one necessarily told me I had to be one way or the other as a woman, but the simple act of being raised in a patriarchal society brainwashes young women into believing lies about themselves — never mind the lies we are fed about being brown on top of being female. I see every day as an opportunity to decolonize my mind and embrace my truth.
For example, I had a moment recently when I realized that being nice is subjective. I will always be viewed as "not nice" to someone — usually because I'm not doing what they want me to do. So I've stopped trying to be a nice girl and have started just being me. Because, well, fuck 'em if they can't take a joke.
I am extremely inspired by my grandmothers — Berlinda Davila and Iłnazbah’ "Gladys" Daniel. I feel like it's my duty as their granddaughter to live my life to the absolute fullest, because they never had the opportunity to. I can't imagine how soul shattering it would be to have their vibrant spirits and be locked in bodies and cultures that kept them completely oppressed in subservient gender roles. I think that demonstrates an immense amount of self-sacrifice and strength on their part.
Once when I was a little girl, my nana, Berlinda, told me, "Get your education so you never have to depend on a man." That was probably one of the most important moments of my life. She was an RN that gave up her career when she got married. I loved her so much.
Failure is as important as success. Use every moment as a learning moment and be all of those things that girls aren't supposed to be: stubborn, impatient, passionate, opinionated, aggressive, bitchy. Balance the sugar with the spice and learn how to say "no." Embrace your truth, whatever it might be in the moment. Most importantly, be kind to yourself — the world will treat you the way you treat yourself, will view you the way you view yourself.
Ungelbah is a New Mexico-based writer, photographer, and designer. She is Diné — an 'Áshįįhi (Salt Clan) woman — as well as a native New Mexican of Spanish, Irish, and Sephardic ancestry. Her name ([Ahn-gee-bah]), which in English means a woman who has been to war and lived to fight again, was passed to her by her maternal great-grandmother and is a source of personal power that influences the unique narrative she brings to her many art forms. She has a BFA in Creative Writing from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and is the creator of the independently published La Loca Magazine. She has also launched the state's most successful Americana festival — Rockabilly on the Route — which she has co-produced since 2013. She has shown her photography at Santa Fe's Eggman and Walrus Gallery, and Axle Contemporary, as well as Albuquerque's Artistic Image. She has also been published in books, such as Effigies II, and literary publications including the UCLA American Indian Culture & Research Journal. She is a member of the International Association of Professional Writers & Editors, and has received accolades from the National Newspaper Association. Her article on the Pueblo of Isleta residence ordinance was cited in the Fall 2012 American Indian Law Journal.
Words: Ungelbah Davila