Hot Tin Roof is a program to showcase current literary work produced in Iowa City. The series is organized and juried by representatives of two Iowa City-based cultural advocacy organizations: Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature and Little Village magazine, with financial support from M.C. Ginsberg Objects of Art. To submit your work for consideration, email email@example.com.
By Diane LaDuke
The geriatric van tattooed with faded peace signs sped past golden stacks of Iowa wheat on this sticky September afternoon. Our driver, Ana Mendieta, had the five of us, plus her photography gear and plastic buckets, stuffed in her vehicle for the short drive to Old Man’s Creek near Sharon Center. The smells of mud, fish, creek water, cornstalks and honeysuckle greeted us as we slipped down the roily sides of the stream. Ana reminded us that our female smells were the most important ingredient in this natural brew. She said, “You can’t separate nature and the female form … it exists together, we celebrate them as one.” Her mantra, “We are all part of violence, life, death, identity, place and belonging,” was repeated to us many times. That day, our innocence protected us from the tragic events that would leave only four of us alive 13 years later.
I met Ana Mendieta at a raucous New Year’s Eve party a few months prior. It was dark with snow falling when my husband and I parked our car, but I could see a group of barrel-chested men in the backyard. A large animal was being roasted over a fire; the men were singing and passing a bottle of booze. Later, these Slovakian goat-mongers charged into the house, wearing the severed hoofs of the roasted goat around their necks. They began to dance wildly, their large hairy arms engulfing everyone in their path. Ana joined them and rubbed goat blood on her face as the men raised glasses to salute her. Later, when Ana and I danced, I avoided the goat blood, while she puffed on her clove cigarette and twirled and kissed each man who passed by. I wondered who she was and where she came from.
The smells of sweat, marijuana and charred meat were as thick and intoxicating as carbon monoxide as we partied toward 1973. At midnight, Ana stood with her back to the fire; her regal body language seemed to echo an ancient culture. A primal scream of “VIVA CUBA” came from her throat as she tossed her glass backwards directly into the burning logs. We all followed suit.
During Castro’s regime, Ana was torn from her Cuban homeland when she was 12 years old. This was part of Operation Peter Pan. She and her sister were plopped into Dubuque, Iowa and put into a reform school. Ana passionately and sadly spoke to me of her past situation. The focus of her studies at the University was combining her body and nature. (This fierce and stubborn feminist stance was based on her early years of loss and struggle, which was a strange irony later.)
Back at the creek, we undressed on the slippery banks of the languishing stream and looked for a spot to hang our clothing. Ana found a small maple with outstretched arms that she quickly named “Loverboy.” Ana quipped that Loverboy was just how she liked her men: “silent, but useful.” We all laughed.
Our bodies nestled in the Iowa loam, the afternoon heat made our minds as hazy as the landscape. The neighboring dairy cows mooed their displeasure as we wallowed in the mud, plastering our bodies with leaves, twigs and grass. Ana moved quickly among our freezeframe flesh recording each body print in the primordial gumbo. Our young, smooth bodies were in deep contrast to the ancient mud and debris accumulated at the creek’s edge. We were transformed into sludge-covered nymphs as we lay at the edge of the creek, our long hair trailing like blood in the water. Posing and laughing, we listened to the clicking and clucking of the field birds competing with Ana’s camera.
Ana spoke of being ripped from the womb when she was taken from her homeland early in life. Her art was a way to re-establish the bonds that unite women to the universe and return them to the maternal source. I felt purposeful and strong. I was proud of my body and felt united with these women. This day changed me, it made me fierce and aware of my female strength for the first time in my life. A seed was planted in me that germinated and grew into who I am today.
Sadly, Ana was gone from my life in a couple years. She joined the A.I.R. gallery in New York City, which was the first art gallery for women to be established in the United States. I read about her achievements in local newspapers and from friends who kept track of her. Her death at age 37 on Sept. 8, 1985 was devastating and shook me to my core. Once again, she was plucked against her will from what she loved. My beautiful friend, Ana, fell from her 34th-story apartment in Greenwich Village. Her husband, Carl Andre, reported that after an argument, Ana threw herself out the window. None of us ever believed his story. He was tried and acquitted of her murder three years later. To this day, there is uproar and protest regarding her death.
In 1990, I was living in Champaign, Il, when I saw that the University Latinos were hosting an Ana Mendieta night. That night, I peered into the doorway of the Casa Latino house to see a group of young Latina women watching a film of Ana. I waited at the door until one of the students beckoned me in. It became quiet in the tiny house as curious faces turned and stared. I hesitated, then stood straight and tall, as Ana would, and said proudly, “I knew Ana. I danced with her on New Year’s Eve.”
Suddenly, unfamiliar faces didn’t matter. We all knew one another; tears flowed from my eyes as each woman stood and embraced me.
Diane LaDuke lives and writes in Goosetown. She’s a retired Drug and Alcohol Counselor who is interested and active in social justice. LaDuke is writing her life story to keep her family’s history alive.
Editors’ Note: From 1960-62, more than 14,000 unaccompanied minors were brought from Fidel Castro’s Cuba to the United States. Operation Pedro Pan was spearheaded by the Diocese of Miami Catholic Welfare Bureau, facilitated by the U.S. State Department. For the last 10 months of the program, the U.S. allowed children to enter without visas or fees. About half of the children, aged 4-16, were released to family members already in the U.S. The rest were placed in orphanages and with foster families across the country. By 1965, most had been reunited with their families.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 248.