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Spirit of ¡Duende!: The Work of Jumakae Yodraj | Projekt NewSpeak
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Posted: 2012-03-24
Categories: Projekt NewSpeak

The Mexi-Asian Perspective: A Mexican’s Guide to All Things Latin, Asian, or Both

by David A. Romero

If I had a dollar for every time I heard the phrase, “We need to reach out to the youth in our community” I would be a billionaire. Many agree with the sentiment but few are willing to practice what they preach.

Through her current work with ¡DUENDE!, a grassroots organization providing free workshops to youths in Long Beach, CA, Siamese American Jumakae Yodraj proves she is ready and willing to sacrifice her time and money for the benefit of the next generation.

Jumakae Yodraj was one of the leaders of the nonprofit One Imagination, and continues to host a monthly spoken word event called Break The Silence. Aside from being a badass educator/organizer, Jumakae is also a dynamic and well-traveled singer, songwriter, pianist, and poet. In her own words, her work speaks for “the silenced people of the world; from the sex workers in Southeast Asia to the 9-5 worker with broken dreams.”

I caught up with Jumakae at Break the Silence (now hosted at the Homeland Cultural Center’s new Manazar Gamboa Community Theater in Long Beach) where we had a chance to talk about her plans to bring the youth of ¡Duende! to the 2012 Brave New Voices Youth Slam Competition in the San Francisco Bay Area.

I also got a chance to finish an interview that was started long ago in regards to Jumakae’s music.

For more of a complete story on ¡Duende!, its youth, its programs and fellow organizers: Mae Ramirez, Patricia Poston, Michelle Jackson and Kasi Teyana, check out this story in The Long Beach Post.

Organizing with ¡Duende!

For the Spanish-impaired amongst us, like myself, what does ¡DUENDE! mean? What led you and the rest of the team to choose that name for your group?

¡DUENDE! Long Beach was mainly the vision of Michelle Denise Jackson, a former CSULB classmate of mine in the theater department. She reached out to me and several others (Mae Ramirez, Kasi Teyana and Patricia Poston) about the creation of ¡DUENDE! and it aligned with what many of us already wanted to do with the community of Long Beach.

Although ¡Duende! is mostly associated with the mythological goblin, ¡Duende! is also a Spanish term that Federico Garcia Lorca used to describe this living spirit or energy that takes hold of an artist and compels him/her to create. Through the spirit of ¡Duende!, the performance also captivates audience members into a higher form of awareness. It has lots of different meanings, but that’s the core of it. It is a universal experience that anybody can relate to.

Many people talk about making a difference in their communities, what pushed you to take the steps to reach out to, and work with, the Manazar Community Theater and Cultural Alliance of Long Beach? What has your experience been like thus far?

The Manazar Gamboa Community Theater is the most recent extension of Homeland Cultural Center. I’ve always appreciated the work of the Homeland community. They have fought very hard to keep all of their classes free to the public and have been doing a fantastic job of providing opportunities for younger people to excel in their desired art form; taggers have turned into muralists, breakers have advanced to world-class dancers, and poets have evolved into playwrights. This decade has shown a great shift in their neighborhood. People were afraid to be anywhere near the area, but thanks to the Homeland staff and educators they have been able to turn Homeland Cultural Center into a safe space for young people to express themselves. The new theater is named after Manazar Gamboa, a great man who dedicated his life to poetry and the liberation of others from troubled backgrounds after spending 17 years in jail. ¡DUENDE! Long Beach is grateful to be the newest addition to the Homeland family and hopes to continue the vision of Gamboa.

The Cultural Alliance of Long Beach is still building a foundation for itself. The founders of this organization hope to create a collaborative arts scene in the more affluent downtown area that will help local artists sustain themselves without having to go outside of the city to promote their work. They also are looking at several venues where they can offer arts programming and festivals that will attract an audience beyond the city limits. Individuals who are involved in this collaboration include entrepreneurs, educators and artists from all backgrounds.

Despite being in the same city, it’s very obvious that Homeland Cultural Center and the Cultural Alliance of Long Beach cater to two completely different populations. One of my goals is to bridge this gap by utilizing the resources C.A.L.B. has to offer as a benefit to our ¡Duende! youth at Homeland, while also expanding it to other areas of Long Beach that need access to these types of programs. So far, it has been a great partnership! Mike Wiley, owner of MADhaus art gallery in downtown Long Beach, has offered us his beautiful venue for our Youth Grand Slam Poetry Competition that will take place on April 7, 2012 from 5:00-8:00PM. This slam competition will determine which 4-6 youth will represent the City of Long Beach in national competitions, such as Brave New Voices.

You’ve rocked the globe as a performer; moving from country to country. What is it about leading the ¡DUENDE! team and ¡DUENDE! workshops in Long Beach that has inspired you to rest your travel bags for the moment?

¡DUENDE! is a collective effort, not only with the organizers but with the youth who have been committed to the weekly workshops. To be honest, my goal was to leave the country by January 2012. I planned to return to Cambodia and Thailand to do a mini-documentary about my partner’s journey back to his motherland for his first time and the refugee camp he was born in. However, when he applied for his passport he found out he was not a US citizen, despite arrival to the US when he was only 8 months old. This story is all too common amongst refugee babies and is also related to the issue of deportation amongst Khmer Americans and other ethnic groups. This process has taught me a lot about how flawed our immigration system is, but we are still working towards his citizenship and will not stop until we have it. In the meantime, I have dedicated myself to ¡DUENDE! while I’m still in Long Beach.

You have been doing workshops on a variety of issues and teaching practical skills for as long as I have known you. What was the first workshop that you ever led? How was that experience different from leading workshops now?

Quite interestingly enough, my start at facilitating workshops was with Project Choice at CSU Long Beach, a branch of the non-profit group AADAP (Asian American Drug Abuse Prevention Program). I was assigned to do peer-advocate trainings throughout the community on drug abuse prevention, HIV/AIDS awareness and safe-sex education. My first workshop was in an Asian American Studies class, where I taught about the transmission of HIV through a short script I wrote (I was a theater major at the time). I used McDonalds play balls as the “anti-bodies”, people in hula hoops as the CD-4 cells, and HIV as the intruder. It made learning about the scientific portion of HIV/AIDS fun and interactive. Afterwards, we would have beer goggle relay races, though you’d have to take a workshop for more details. 😉

Today, I lead more performance-based workshops that relate to people’s personal experiences and I mostly work with youth. Organizing with the womyn at ¡DUENDE! has broadened my horizons on how to also include a writing component. My workshops are intended to bring out the storyteller in the participants, whether it be through the visual or the performance arts. Through this process, I hope people find some sort of healing or liberation of their past experiences by allowing their stories to be heard.

Your Music

In your song, “Beautiful Lady Dark Skin,” as well as in more than a few entries of your blog, “Jumakation,” you promote the beauty of a dark complexion. Why has this theme become so prominent in your work?

I grew up very insecure about my skin color. Growing up in an ethnic community where being lighter-skinned was praised made me very self-conscious about my background and I was often made fun of for looking too Indian, African, or Mexican. People who I’ve confronted today will try to correct themselves by saying it was a compliment, though I know they just want to avoid embarrassment. Listening to artists such as Erykah Badu, Black Star (Mos Def & Talib Kweli), Lauryn Hill, and other neo-soul/hip hop artists really empowered me. Although I am not African American, their message resonates with anyone who has dealt with racial prejudice and discrimination.

The major turning point for me came when I went to visit my mother’s village in Southern Thailand. My gorgeous cousin was there to pick me up from the airport. When I complimented on her natural beauty, she shook her head and said to me (in Thai), “I’m so ugly! Look at this dark skin. I want to be white.” She also mentioned how she tried to find work as a banker in the City of Bangkok, but too often felt discriminated so she chose to return to the countryside to be farmer. Of course, people with darker skin complexion can thrive in their careers; they just to work much harder at it than others, especially in developing countries.

“Beautiful Lady Dark Skin” was written during one of my trips to Phnom Penh, Cambodia in January 2009. At that time, I was volunteering with an up-and-coming hip hop organization called Tiny Toones Cambodia. The vision of Tiny Toones Cambodia is for all youth of Cambodia and beyond to live healthy lives free of HIV and drugs, realize their full potential through educational and creative opportunities; to pursue their dreams and become positive leaders of tomorrow. I was hanging out with two youth who were flipping through a magazine. They would point to a picture and say “Ugly” or “Beautiful”. All the “ugly” pictures were of people with brown skin while the “beautiful” ones had a lighter skin complexion. It was then I noticed that majority of the youth were not applying lotion to their faces; it was bleaching cream. And what’s even more shocking is that these creams are produced by major corporations such as Nivea, Oil of Olay, Garnier, and several other companies that sell basic lotions and tanning creams back in the states.

At this point, I was feeling pretty empowered with my brown American self. University courses and conscious hip hop/reggae/neo-soul helped with that. I then rallied up a couple of the youth who were striving emcees and discussed with them my vision for this song. I played for them “Blackstar – Brown Skin Lady” and “Nujabes – Lady Brown” to give them an idea of how other artists have gone about this topic. Thanks to Silong Chhun back in the states, we had a wonderful beat to work off and resulted in “Srey Sa-hat Khmow Sraw I’um”, or “Beautiful Lady Dark Brown Skin”. Now when I return to Cambodia, I hear several of the youth singing the chorus to themselves. It’s still one of the only Khmer phrases I actually know how to pronounce. =)

In your song, “Check the FACTS,” you attack a mainstream culture dedicated to “erasing our roots.” Please speak on some of the attacks on indigenous cultures of which you have become aware.

Although we can discuss the impact of mainstream culture on indigenous communities in the Americas, I’ve been deeply affected by the changes I’ve seen in my mother’s own village, Phatthalung of Southern Thailand.

My mother and I often travel back to Phatthalung since this is where all of her family (except for one sibling) still remains. My grandfather is now the eldest in the village so much of the community comes to pay their respects to him. I remember getting picked up from the airport by at least 10 family members who all packed up in the back of a pickup truck. It would take us at least two hours to arrive to the village, so on the way we would stop by the Sumano caves; a mysterious place with Buddha sculptures hidden within every crevice, sounds of water trickling through cracks, and the echoes of monks chanting in the Pali language. We would come here to explore the jungle and offer alms to our ancestors. My mother would say, “There’s no such thing as a beggar in Phatthalung. How could you ever be poor when there is food and shelter all around you?” I hold this place very dearly to my heart.

However, last year was quite different. My mother and I returned in February 2011. Instead of my family members taking us to the Sumano Caves as usual, they drove us to a newly established shopping center called “Tesco Lotus”. Tesco Lotus is the Wal-Mart of Thailand. It’s also where the younger kids come to hang out now because of the free air conditioning and food samples. I was heartbroken, and although I knew that my family wanted to catch up to modern times this was something that would devastate the community in the long run.

My family dropped off my mother and I at the Phatthalung train station, a cheaper alternative to the airplane. It was here where I witnessed my first beggar. I cried during the train ride back, knowing that things would never be the same when I return.

On a positive note, I joined an established roots reggae band in Bangkok, Thailand called the Kai-Jo Brothers. Although Kai and Jo were raised in the city, their parents are coincidentally from the same village as my mother. We connected on such a deep spiritual and artistic level and I went on to tour with them for several months as a keyboardist and vocalist. They also felt the younger Thai generation’s lack of interest in learning the work of their ancestors, so they would travel to remote villages and record the elders’ songs and help uphold their musical traditions.


Asian Latin fusion food has become a veritable phenomenon. Do you think that Asian Latin fusion food is just a passing trend, or the future?

Culture is always evolving. We can only thrive if we learn how to share ideas with one another; and often times, the best way to communicate that message is through food. In the future, it will evolve into a new dish fused with another ‘ethnic’ or authentic flavor that will be the next trend, and hopefully by then we won’t have to use ethnicities to describe our foods anymore. (I still hear Thai people fight about which village really created pad-see-ew.)

Who is your favorite Latin celebrity, historical figure, or fictional character?

I’m a big fan of Frida Kahlo. She taught me to paint my own reality, not only on a canvas but through life. I’ve envisioned what I’ve wanted for myself and the community and chase after that, despite trial and error. She’s also given me the confidence to be honest with my work, even when people will disagree. Thanks, Frida!

Would you rather date an Asian or someone of Latin descent?

Whoever can cook better. Just kidding, as long as s/he treats me with love and respect then it doesn’t matter! Aren’t we related somehow anyways? =)

Any last words or shout outs?

Thank you for this opportunity to share some of my story with you. You owe me Korean tacos.

Aside from ¡DUENDE!, I also host a monthly open mic at the Manazar Gamboa Community Theater called “BREAK THE SILENCE”. The next one is Thursday, March 29, 2012 from 7-9:30PM. (open mic sign-ups begin at 6:30PM). Featuring: Khmer Girls in Action of Long Beach with a public service announcement on healthy living & Excerpts from REFUGEE NATION, a play by written Ova Saopeng and Leilani Chan based on the stories of Laotian refugees as they escape the Secret War in Laos and struggle to assimilate with American Culture. We will also introduce Tiyya Foundation, a local organization that provides basic resources to refugees and displaced Americans.

How can readers support ¡DUENDE!?

Three ways!

1) Find out more information on our website: http://www.duendelongbeach.weebly.com

2) Donate to our IndieGoGo campaign: http://www.indiegogo.com/duende2bnv

*We need to raise $2,500 by April 1st and we’re barely reaching $500. Can you please help us make our goal?*

3) “LIKE” us on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/duendelongbeach