'Is This Ours?' by Camila Egusquiza
Camila Egusquiza is a Political Science and Communications student at UWA (University of Western Australia). Her story 'Is This Ours' was written to let out frustration about how colonisation continues to profit from exploitation.
CE: "My work is inspired heavily by postcolonial thought. I was born and raised in Peru, a country that was colonised by the Spanish, so I draw a lot from that experience. I like to explore the themes of identity and reconciliation with native culture. When I was young, I distanced myself a lot from my native roots because of all the Westernisation I saw in the media. I believe that this happens a lot to native people and as we grow; we have to learn to love our culture and appreciate its greatness, despite what the media says. Is This Ours? Is a story that I wrote to let out my frustration about how colonisation continues to profit from exploiting native cultures. I hope that by reading it more people can look at museums differently and think about how this colonial past has impacted the way we live."
'Is This Ours'
When I was five years old, my family and I travelled to New York. I was mesmerised by the city and the shining lights from the thousands of billboards you could see on every block. My mother was excited to see the famous places she had only ever seen in movies, and my father was eager to visit the Empire State Building. If I am honest, I can't remember much from that trip, just images of things that don't have any correlation to one another. But there is one thing I cannot seem to forget. One memory has stuck with me all this time.
According to my father, on the fifth day of our trip, we visited The Brooklyn Museum. I didn't know where we were going, but I was excited because they had promised to buy me an ice-cream. I don't really remember this; my memories begin when we entered the museum.
The first thing that struck me about the place was the tall ceiling and the white paint on the walls. I felt like I was inside a church, a place of purity and prestige. My mother took my hand, and we started walking through the massive halls that seemed to go on forever. We walked through many galleries full of paintings and strange artefacts, but more than anything, people. There were so many people, with cameras in their hands, taking pictures of every single thing that was on display, trying to capture the moment. We lost my father in the crowd, but my mother did not panic. She squeezed my hand, and we continued walking. I don’t know for how long we walked when she suddenly stopped in front of an old rug that was protected by a box made of glass.
I remember pulling her hand, trying to get her to move, but she ignored me. Her gaze was fixed on the object, and her posture was not relaxed anymore. She looked surprised, like something had struck her without any warning. I was puzzled by her behaviour, so I looked back at the old rug, trying to find what had caused my mother to stop, but there was nothing, at least nothing that could impress my young mind. It was just an old rug, another of the many displays on the museum.
My gaze moved to the bottom of the glass box, and I found a small white rectangle with some writing on it. I did not know how to speak English back then. I did not even know how to read or write in my own language, but I was able to recognise one word. One word, I had seen many times before, which according to every grown-up, was the name of our country. Peru. It was there, plastered in the little white rectangle. It was tiny, but I managed to see it.
I turned back to my mother, happy about my discovery. Her expression continued to be the same, but I was not scared. My mother was loving and caring. She was not mean, so I asked her something without fear of interrupting her moment of focus.
'Is this ours?'
She turned to look at me, and her serious expression transformed into the saddest smile I had ever seen.
'No,' was all she said, almost whispering. I knew she was saying those words to me, but it felt like she was also saying something to herself, like my question had made her realise a hidden truth she wanted to ignore.
I did not understand her sadness. I felt happy and proud to see the name of our country in the museum. The other tourists were taking pictures of it and admiring it. Why was that a bad thing? As more tourists gathered around the display, my mother led us away from the crowd. Not long after that, we found my father, who was waiting for us at the entrance. My mother said she was tired and wanted to go back to the hotel, so we decided to leave. I took one last look at the museum, and that was the last memory I had of New York.
One of the first things I learned about my country was the tale of the fall of the great Inca Empire. I had just learned how to read and write, and my second-grade teacher thought it was a good idea to make us re-enact the tale for the entire school to see. She separated the class into small groups and contacted our parents to let them know about the big day that was coming.
My parents were not happy about this. They worked long hours and barely had time to make me do my homework, and now they had to make sure I memorised some lines and rent a costume which I was only going to wear for a few minutes. It cost them unnecessary money and time, but they did it anyway to avoid any conflict.
I played one of the Spanish conquistadors after I had refused to play an Inca. All I wanted was to have blonde hair and fair skin, just like the pretty girls on the television. I was unhappy with the darkness of my hair and the tan complexion of my skin. I did not know much about the world, but I knew for a fact that Incas were not blonde or white. They were not what I wanted to be.
When the big day came, we all went to the auditorium to see each group in action. I only had one line, but I was still nervous. Lucky for me, there were no problems during my performance. It all went down smoothly, and I got to see my classmates stutter the words they had to memorise. Every performance followed the same plot with small variations:
In 1532, in Cajamarca, a meeting between two different cultures took place. Atahualpa, the last Inca, arrived at the plaza on a gold throne carried by his leaders and servants, while the Spanish held their ground with their big and mighty horses. The Spanish Capellan walked to the throne with a cross in one hand and a bible in the other. He asked the Inca to refuse his pagan beliefs and to accept the Christian faith and King Charles as their legitimate ruler. He offered Atahualpa the Bible, which he took and held it close to his ear, waiting for some sound, but nothing came. The Incas had not developed a written language, so a book meant nothing to them. Atahualpa threw the Bible away, and the first shot was fired.
Some performances lasted longer than others. They included different things like the Spanish refusing a sacred beverage before the offering of the Bible, or the Inca, drinking from the skull of an enemy to intimidate the Spanish. One even depicted the Inca hitting the Spanish Capellan after he tried to help him to open the Bible. There were many versions, but they all ended the same way: with the Spanish conquering the Inca Empire and cementing their rule over the land. The Incas always lost. They never won against the colonisers.
At the age of twenty-three, I went back to New York to visit some friends. The city that had amazed me as a child now seemed grey and artificial. I still enjoyed the skyscrapers and the blinding lights that shined every night, but the brightness that had once struck me about the place was missing. The city was different.
I went to all the places I had been before as a child. Everything seemed smaller than I remember, and the images I had that did not correlate to one another started to make sense in my head. Old memories came back to the surface of my mind, and the memory of the museum was more prevalent than ever.
On the third day of my trip, I visited The Brooklyn Museum. I went there early in the morning, not wanting to spend much of my time inside. I walked through the long halls, trying to focus on the artefacts and relics on display, but my mind was somewhere else. I felt numb, and so overwhelmed by the large crowds and the hundreds of muffled voices surrounding me. I walked rapidly, trying to find the most famous pieces in the museum. I walked and walked until my feet ached. I was in such a hurry that I almost missed it.
The old rug was still there, but this time, it was not an old rug anymore. This time it was an ancient mantle, a relic of the Incan culture. It was just as I remembered it, inside a box made of glass. The white rectangle with the name of my country was still there underneath the mantle. The sense of pride and happiness that had once invaded me as a child was nowhere to be found. I felt confused and angry. I did not understand why this object was here, thousands of miles away from its place of origin. Why had they not given it back? I was lost in a state of inner conflict, just like my mother had felt more than ten years ago. I finally understood her reaction. The sadness that had invaded her that day overcame me at that moment. The question I had once asked her came back to me.
'Is this ours?'
How could I say this mantle, this piece of history, belonged to me when I had wanted for so long to distance myself from the culture that made it? How could I claim it as mine when I had denied myself that part of me for so long?
Tears I had not expected started to stream down my face. I turned around, looking for some comfort, but as I looked at the other objects on display, I noticed a commonality. They were all stolen.
The eager tourists taking pictures around me only exacerbated my emotions. How could they not see the injustice of this place? How could they not care? The white walls and the high ceiling that had once reminded me of a church were no longer pure or prestige. They felt tainted by the blood of the millions of people who had made these objects, people whose land had been invaded by outside forces, people whose only choice was to surrender to conquest.
As I wiped away my tears away, I noticed a young boy looking at me at the other side of the room. He was alone and had a sad expression on his face. We were the only two people without a camera, without joy. A silent truth was uttered between us: This was not ours. Not anymore.