By Josh Inocéncio
I drive west on I-10 to Houston, the sleepy sun stinging my eyes as he climbs down the horizon. Worse than any fog, these luminous rays blind me, blurring the road ahead. I utter one of the few incantations I know: “Huitzilopochtli. I do not appreciate your attacks from the west. You are envious of my yearning for that cave, that primordial womb, Chicomoztoc. But I am Coyolxauhqui’s son, and moon-fire sustains me.”
My family’s roots in Houston reach back to at least the 1930s, when my grandfather José, a native of Michoacán, Mexico, immigrated to Texas to construct railroads and cultivate strawberries with his father, Jésus. During World War II, my grandpa enlisted in the United States Army and was deployed after the war to Austria where he met my grandmother, Fritzi. Born in Vienna, the bombings across her homeland had displaced her before she settled in Linz, Austria, with her parents and younger siblings. In the devastation of a war-torn continent, my grandparents kindled new love, crossed the Atlantic, and raised seven children, including my dad, in Houston, Texas.
This family lineage colors my earliest memories. Grandpa José died from a heart attack nine years before I was born, but Oma Fritzi told me her tales about Austria and Mexico, fashioning fantasy images in my child’s mind of the far-off lands from which my ancestors emerged. Lands where Saint Bernards bounded through avalanches to rescue lost wanderers, lands where La Virgen granted prayers for those whose knees dug deep into her earth. I heard these stories along with the fairy tales Oma read me, and all of them ignited my love for crafting narratives through performance.
Growing up as an Austro-Mexican, cultural awareness was always present. I knew which languages I wanted to learn, and I had family members with whom I could practice. I learned our recipes that were passed down orally through generations and still converge in cultural harmony during the holidays when we eat tamales for dinner and Linzertorten for dessert.
But these cultures and their myths—from countries much older than the United States—also shepherded my sexual orientation as a gay man. While living away from Houston in the swampy Florida flatlands during graduate school, I learned to embrace my sexuality as a cultural core that bound together my ethnicities. My research included queer indigenous identities in the Americas, commonly referred to in English as “two-spirit,” indicating a person who is born with masculine and feminine spirits in balance. As Chicana author Cherríe Moraga writes in Still Loving in the (Still) War Years, “It was evident then, as it is now, that there are some of us born this way, possessing pronounced male and female attributes, and this possession is not a curse, but a blessing with its own integral power, which requires respect from our community.” Both historically and in the remaining indigenous communities, these individuals fulfill necessary roles, such as mediating between genders and cultures. Far from simply being appropriated, the history of these same-sex-loving and gender-bending individuals lives on in my bloodline. That history also gave me the courage to come out and claim my identity.
My Mexican heritage, then, is inseparable from my sexuality. When I was younger, I took spicy peppers and Taquería Arandas for granted. But when I wandered away from these Texas lands, closeted still and nostalgic for my childhood upbringing, I discovered how my ethnic inheritance and sexuality co-extend. Like the Houston ports that shaped me, I’m a bridge-maker—a soul in which different languages, customs, and memories meet. If I don’t open the border to them all, who will?
The sun god Huitzilopochtli dismembered his warrior sister Coyolxauhqui, but she returns in pieces as the moon, fully formed once a month. I’m tied to her phases, balancing the waves of my restless ancestors. The moon teaches me to blend the memories. The women in my family have carried our history. Oma. Tante Lola. Tía Agapita. Tía Maria-Helena. As Coyolxauhqui knows, we spend a whole life re-membering.
With each generation preserving fewer fragments, I perform to remember. Last year I wrote and performed my first solo play, Purple Eyes, on my family’s Mexican and P’urhépecha history. Now I’m working on the second play, The Little Edelweiss; or An Immigrant’s Fairytale, which revisits Austria and the queer precedents in my Germanic blood. The third play, Chocolate Gravy and White Jesus, will focus on my mother’s side of the family, which is mostly from the mystic culture of Appalachia in rural Kentucky. These plays will form a trilogy in which I perform both as myself and as ancestral figures from each of my three backgrounds.
To write Purple Eyes, I collected memories from family members willing to share their stories about Texas and Mexico. I assembled these stories into a performance piece that includes passages of machismo from four generations of Inocéncio men—from my great-grandpa Jésus, to my grandpa José, to my dad Joel, and finally to me, an inheritor of their experiences and a conjuror of my own.
I’m embarking on a similar journey to write the next plays. As a theater artist and cultural worker, I’m crafting these stories that emerge from pockets of the United States to illuminate the narratives of immigrants who have chiseled out a mosaic of American identities. Reawakening these histories through staged encounters with ancestors is, for me, a path to redressing the homophobia, sexism, and racism that have corrupted all our lineages.
Beyond performing, I’ve also begun sharing my writing process in workshops so that other individuals, from both artistic and non-artistic backgrounds, can create solo plays based on their own ancestral memories. In a society that encourages us to forget our cultural histories, remembering is an act of survival. But revisiting our ancestors’ stories fulfills the human need for engaging with sacred myths and discerning our purpose in the world.
Let the balancing begin, my friends.
You can contact Josh Inocéncio about his workshops at [email protected] or view his Purple Eyes website at thepurpleeyes.com. You can also view his personal website with other projects at joshinocencio.com.