Interview: Quetzal — “We Are Not Owners Of This Land, We Are Guardians”

Feature, Interview, Music

quetzal rulan

Quetzal Guerrero sits at the back of the Wellington Opera House in New Zealand. He’s just come off stage with his dance company, Dancing Earth — Indigenous Contemporary Dance Creations. The group are in New Zealand dancing with Kowhiti Dance at the Wellington Opera House — this event is a cultural exchange that celebrates indigenous dance and is sponsored (among others) by Creative New Zealand and The Wellington City Council. But, that is not why I am here to see this man; named after a bird indigenous to South American countries, known for its striking colours ( this is a description, perfect for how I find him to be). In the interview with WDYFILWHH Quetzal makes it is clear just how important culture, roots and heritage are to him, as a Native American and descendant of Mesa, Arizona he explains, ‘One of my great grandfathers was a founder of that city actually.. Since before it was a state, it was actually a territory of the United States. My father comes from the Coconino and Yaqui tribes of the South-West.’ Remembered in many bboy circles for his alternative style of bboyin, back in the day when he danced with his crew called Sour Patch (named after a lolly); his story begins in Arizona; near the Pima Reservation, where many of his boys are from. Quetzal remembers winning second place in a battle judged by bboy legends like Ivan the Terrible and Style Elements Crew; receiving approval from people like this he says ‘validated’ their place in the bboy scene, making it all good to remain ‘alternative’ in terms of dance style and attire; he remembers they were more gothic; with leather studded jackets and mohawke hairstyles as opposed to Puma suedes with a cheese cutter. “We were all brown, but we were all diverse.” Quetzal came up at a time when bboyin in America was like ‘hanging out… because that’s just what you do with your friends’. The feeling of chilling out with mates was a natural and organic one for hime he says, back then there was no hype, no showmanship — just fun.

Making extensions to his dance career, beginning with breakin is actually how Guerrero came to be one of the original founders of the Dancing Earth company; along with other members of his bboy familia from Sour Patch. However, as he grew and matured in life, bboyin and the fun of it began to fade; branching out and exploring his own personal roots as a half Brazilian — his passion for an awareness of one’s cultural roots and heritage is what led him to Capoeira:

“The biggest thing about Capoeira is that it’s about community building, it’s not just a martial art.. Because it was created by escaped slaves essentially who had their culture, language and everything taken from them. So they had to recreate something to give them the self-worth, strength and identity back. Capoeira is part of that — reclaiming their identity and their culture — just like Hip Hop culture. Hip Hop culture to me is a more recent version of what capoeira was because you have kids in the street, in the hood, who have no opportunities, no money — they have nothing. So they have to create something out of nothing, they have to create something that’s going to give them a sense of self-worth, a purpose. That’s what Hip Hop culture to me represents, it’s a subsistent culture that’s created out of the need to survive.”

For Guerrero, the decision to make a commitment, what he describes essentially as a ‘marriage’ to capoeira, was a serious but easy one. Whilst in New Zealand, using historical and cultural events drawn from themes like colonization and cultural-rebuilding in his own dance pieces, held significance in Aotearoa. He says it was easy to draw parallels between Maori culture and  Native American roots and heritage:

“First and foremost, the respect of the earth and the natural resources of the earth and to know that we are not owners of this land, we are shepherds of this land, you know guardians of this land. I think almost every indigenous culture understands that..because you have to have that mentality if you want to be able to live for a thousand years — if you want to be able to survive, you need to have the respect for the earth.. you have to.. because if not, you’re essentially shooting yourself in the foot.”

“A lot of the colonized cultures are greatly affected by  the new culture and the social oppression that comes along with that. So they suffer from a lot of debilitating social diseases like alcoholism and drug abuse. All those kinds of things — they’ve lost a lot of who they are — or they feel they’ve lost a lot of who they are and that accessibility to identify with their culture isn’t there anymore. That’s why things like Hip Hop culture come into play and for Native Americans, it’s that reclaiming of their identity and their culture and embracing who they are — again”.

There is pain portrayed in the Dancing Earth performance piece using themes of culture lost and  the audience in the session I sit in, is a matinee of primary school children. Talk hums backstage about teaching the next generation indigenous history in order to affect change; a woman’s voice comes through on the dictaphone post-interview, saying children are a very forgiving audience.  Other cultures in the show include South African and Pacific nations. There’s a purity and emotion translated to the audience with a certain grace that moves me past wanting to interview Quetzal the bboy. He starts.

HH: What was it like growing up in Mesa? 

Q: It was pretty much white and brown.  You know there was a lot of Mexicans, a lot Native Americans — my house is about a mile, two miles outside of the reservation of the Pima tribe. And it’s also the second largest Morman capital in the world, Mesa — it was founded by a lot of Mormans so it was interesting to say the least. You know, there was a lot of white kids but a lot of brown kids too.

HH: Are your family religious? 

Q: No, my family is not religious. They [his parents] were both raised in Catholic church/Catholic school. So they’re very anti-religion after going to Catholic school..Growing up was very free, very open. I grew up in a very creative family; both my parents are artists my mum is a musician — she’s a classically trained pianist and my father is a very well known Chicano artist — he’s a mass maker, sculptor and a political muralist..I grew up in a very, very nurturing environment, for the arts especially, it was in junior high that I got into Hip Hop and discovered the Hip Hop culture in Arizona.

“My mother’s from Brazil, and if you’re a Brazilian you know how to dance. And if you’re a Brazilian you know how to sing and you appreciate music and you grow up listening and dancing to music.”

 Quetzal is also a trained classical violinist and after catching the travel bug, for him Los Angeles proved the perfect place to go. Whilst there he worked with a record label he’d signed to in Puerto Rico called Yoruba Records,  it gave him opportunity to tour South American musical festivals as a solo musician. “I am so grateful to Los Angeles”, the city really supports its artists in comparison to Phoenix, which he explains still doesn’t suit him so well. “They pass a lot of racist laws and policies and the politicians are constantly doing things that are getting national headlines because it’s very racist and biased.”

HH: Was breakin your first taste of Hip Hop? 

Q: I grew up listening to Hip Hop. In the States Hip Hop is everywhere, in the 90’s when I was a teenager I was listening to Tribe Called Quest and a lot of West Coast music —  Dr Dre, Tupac and Biggie Smalls were just coming out, and I was listening to the classics, you know like Kool Herc and all the classic Hip Hop tracks that you grow up listening to as a kid listening. I mean Hip Hop music was prevalent as a kid —  it was just another style of music that I gravitated towards. I wasn’t particularly a fan until I saw break dancing and bboys, I kind of saw this amazing expression of creativity through dance and I was immediately drawn to it.

HH: So did something click in for you, or? 

Q: I think it was more like a product of what was happening around me. Bboys were the ones getting all the attention, the bboys always looked like they were the ones having the most fun. You know what I mean? All my friends started break dancing — all of them started getting into it, so I did too. It was just a natural thing, like what you did. Just like a lot of kids started skating — hanging out because that’s what you do with your friends. It started with just us on our lunch break, breaking and messing around at school — to everyone coming to my house and break dancing at my house, to weekends going to bboy jams, to competing and practicing every day.  You know, it really became an obsession for me, for a long time.


HH: Was it quite an organic development? 

Q: Yes, it was very organic. Intuitive I would say…It was just what was around me, you’re a product of your environment, all my best friends were break dancing and again, it was so much fun.

“Break dancing now has become much more commercial and it’s become much more of an art form and respected.  I think because it’s lasted that test of time.”

HH: What style did you dance? 

Q: I did a lot of foot work….There was a candy called Sour Patch Kids and we entered  a battle and we didn’t have a name, so we came up with Sour Patch last minute thinking it was funny… We ended  up taking second place in this big battle with bboys from all over the country and a bunch of bboys from California, so we got a lot of attention, mostly because we had our own style — we really had our own way of expressing our movements — we didn’t really copy or emulate anybody. Of course we had a lot of inspirations in dance but I think our crew, especially our circle, we always made it a point to really be diverse in how we expressed ourselves… We were really well known for being the abstract, avant-garde — you know real creative style of bboyin. It wasn’t typical at all. In fact a lot of the guys in our crews started a whole movement of, I would say, the alternative bboy scene.  A lot of the guys in our crew started dressing like goth kids — all black, with tight clothes and they would do different movements that weren’t specifically foundational bboyin — although we all knew foundational bboyin, we took that and we turned it into something else, we really brought in aspects of just dance.

This thing that happened in bboyin and Hip Hop culture in general provokes a lot of discussion in Hip Hop circles about whether or not it is okay, or cool, to switch things up into a more contemporary, flasher form of dance, using bboy moves. At the time, Quetzal and his friends probably weren’t thinking about how such a unique style would affect the Hip Hop culture they loved, as it inevitably did, once mainstream markets began to understand Hip Hop’s ‘cool factor’ and its potential in branding as a major commodity. It was around the late 90’s and early 2000’s when rap music and breakin began locking in on Hip Hop culture’s prevalence in the mainstream media — around the same time Quetzal says he began to question the scene he loved so much; after living it for 10 years he saw and experienced how money’s presence in the scene could take the passion and fun away. He says, “Hip Hop politics is kind of one of the reasons why I winged myself off bboyin. You know, I bboyed for about 10 years and then I just saw too many politics get involved and I saw a lot of exploitation happen with bboys and I didn’t like it —  it kind of turned me off the whole bboy scene.”

Q: I think that the generation of bboys coming up underneath us — it became much more of a trend and a show. It became more flash and took a way from the art.. I think it’s gone back to the art now, but at that time, about 10 years ago it became very flashy, it became all about the one move, the one frieze and we would go to a lot of these bboy battles where the judges were very biased or there was guaranteed money — they’d promote a bboy battle as $500 [for the] prize, and the winners wouldn’t get paid. That was very regular practice in a lot of bboy jams that we would got to and it made me ask myself —  man I’m spending all this time break dancing and entering these competitions —seeing a lot of these guys who deserved to win, were not winning or guys who will win and not getting paid..

I realised at one point break dancers were the most exploited of all the dancers because people just didn’t value it. I think now they do because you see it in movies, videos, commercials, break dancing now has become much more commercial and it’s become much more of an art form and respected.  I think because it’s lasted that test of time — it wasn’t just a phase. A lot of the media kind of treated it like, ‘Oh this is just a trend, people are doing it now but nobody cares about that.’

I think now it’s kind of validated as an art form and people respect it a lot more, so they’re willing to pay bboys and willing to sponsor bboys and endorse them — those things didn’t really happen when I was a kid unless you were from Rock Steady Crew or you lived in Los Angeles and you were battling and performing. There was a Vegas show that happened to have a lot of really dope bboys and those were the guys who were making bboyin work for them.

“The thing that I miss  about [bboyin] the most, is the camaraderie —that was the real reason why I got into it in the first place. Being with my boys, my family, expressing ourselves creatively and just having fun.”

HH: Is there a sense of pride for you, to be from somewhere so successful? 

Q: I have mixed feelings about that. I don’t really think it was about where I was from, it was about who I was with; which was just a circle of really creative and free and expressive people —  kids who wanted to go for it and were not afraid of expressing themselves and doing what they love. As far as the city, I moved away from Phoenix many years ago just because it doesn’t support artists, its a really hard place to make a living if you’re an artist and politically it’s a very racist state, still to this day — they pass a lot of racist laws and policies. The politicians are constantly doing things that are getting national headlines because it is very racist and biased.

One of the other dancers traveling and performing with Kowhiti, Lexi Hodell from the Los Angeles based Tiger Style Crew comes walking through the hall with a Go Pro and snaps shots of the interview, he says what’s up and then he’s off again. Quetzal continues…

Q: L.A’s been really good for me as an artist to help me grow and find my home in so many ways. I’m forever grateful for L.A. Because there’s so much more platforms to be an artist — you know it’s a bigger city, it’s much richer in culture and they support their artists — definitely a lot more than Phoenix does.

HH: When did you fall in love with hip hop? 

Q: Like I said, when I got into bboyin and when I got to see really good bboys, like the top guys do it. You’re just seeing this mastery in a way that’s so expressive, it’s so freeing, it’s so powerful. To me, bboys for me, and any dancer for that matter, are like modern day warriors. In a sense that you’re not fighting with blood and guts but you’re fighting with spirit and energy. You know, you’re fighting with strength and declaration. That’s what bboyin was to me — a form of self declaration to say, ‘I’m strong, I’m free and I am confident and brave enough to express myself, in front of all of you…And you know Hip Hop music was awesome in the 90’s… 80’s and 90’s is the best, for sure. You know 2000’s it really fell off, I think it’s kind of coming back now a little bit, but it’s not what it used to be. A lot of people will tell you that, now you have trap music, you have rap music and you have these people that are trying to claim Hip Hop — who are not really in the spirit of Hip Hop or what Hip Hop once was — which was that self declaration, that creativity, positivity, that positive energy, you know?

Listen to the extended audio of the interview HERE.

Catch up with Quetzal on his website HERE.

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