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Bill Moyers interviews Gregory Nava on NOW. 11.29.2002
MOYERS: This broadcast is about stories and the creativity that gives birth to them.
Gregory Nava tells stories about the people he knows bestthe people of Latino America with roots south of the border and deep in the past.
When I first interviewed Nava months ago in the infancy of this broadcast, PBS had just premiered his dramatic series called AMERICAN FAMILY about the Gonzalezes.
But I had become intrigued by Nava years earlier, when I saw his unforgettable film, EL NORTE. It's about a brother and sister making their way north, to the shining dreams of California.
I still place it in the list of the top ten movies I've ever seen.
I realized when I saw EL NORTE that somewhere along the way Gregory Nava had learned about drawing on great universal themesthe hero's journey, the odyssey, the dark forest, the quest for the grail, loss and recoveryto bring to life the stories of ordinary human beings.
Lo and behold, as I learned in that interview months ago, the wellsprings of Nava's creativity run deep in mythology.
Not the myths of Europe or the Middle East where the worship of one god began, but the myths that people lived by in this hemisphere long before Christopher Columbus arrived here by accident.
It was a world peopled by many gods, strange and powerful and very real to the ancestors of Gregory Nava.
On this ancient pyramid in Mexico, the stone carvings take us back to the long-lost world of the Mayans for whom the gods were next door neighbors.
The god Quetzalcoatl, whose name means precious feathered serpent, had the face of a coyote, when he emerged from the jaws of earth to become the deity of the sun and moon, symbol of rebirth and renewal.
One of his many faces is depicted here with a mask made of turquoise and shell on wood.
My own favorite is this one, the head of Quetzalcoatl on the temple in his honor at Teotihuacan.
Encircling the plumed serpent at the temple are sculptures that make me think of Stonehenge in ancient England.
These mythological creatures of the pre-Colombian cultures were a part and parcel of the daily lives of the people who worshipped them.
Here the supernatural met the natural, now and the hereafter emerged, and the dreams and stories and speculations that inspired them, and in turn issued from them, became a canopy of images stretching across the journey from life to death and beyond.
It's a canopy Gregory Nava knows well.
And he is here to talk about it.
MOYERS: When Joseph Campbell was just nine years old he came to the Museum of Natural History here in New York and his mind was exploded by the pre-Colombian art that he saw there...
MOYERS: ...and the totem poles, the masks, all of that that had come down from the stories of the past. And his life was changed by that. Were there myths that changed your life?
NAVA: Yes, very, very much so. You know, when I was a young man I went to central Mexico in order to study pre-Colombian culture, Spanish, and to get in touch with my roots because I was Mexican but I was born in the United States and I wanted to go on a journey so I could find my roots, find who I was in a sense...
...because you know, living in the United States, being raised with the Mickey Mouse Club, it's all great, but you feel suddenly in your heart that something has been lost in this journey.
So I went there and I studied. And a world opened up for me that was extraordinary. Ever since I was a child I've always loved mythology. I've always been attracted to mythological stories.
And suddenly when I went to central Mexico I found pre-Colombian mythological stories that hooked up with the Greek and the Celtic myths and Hindu myths that I had been reading as a child...
MOYERS: What happened to you?
NAVA: It was an explosive process, I think. It was really kind of the beginning of my journey as a filmmaker. It opened me up in so many ways. You know, it caused a deep trembling in my heart. It's like an awakening within me of something, because suddenly what I was, who I was, got interconnected with everybody else and everything.
NAVA: And what was marvelous about it was, is that you could see the interconnections between this and Christian mythology and Greek mythology and Hindu mythology and all these other mythologies.
They all had a commonality.
The human experience is like one incredible complex kaleidoscopic jewel. But each one of these great mythologies sees it from a different perceptive and illuminates it in a different way.
If you look at the great religious thinking from the world, you know, I think that the pre-Colombian represents a triangle from what we think of as western and then what we think of as eastern. And then there is the pre-Colombian.
If you think of Christianity, what is the great statement that Christianity says? You know, it's do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If you think about the great Eastern religions, what is the great truth that is revealed there? All is one.
If you look at the pre-Colombian, the great truth, the one phrase that sums up that incredible religious thinking is, make your heart your face.
Take what you have inside of you and put it here so the world can see who you really are. Live honestly. It's another way of saying it. You know?
The ancient pre-Colombians believed in a concept that was called ollin, which means movement. And the idea of making your heart your face was to them the ollin heart.
They believed that everybody had a journey in their life -- something that they needed to do in their life, and that it was everybody's responsibility to find what that was because once they found what it was and other people found what it was then the entire society would find its ollin.
Everybody who needed to be a poet would be a poet, and everybody who needed to be a warrior would be a warrior. But the way to find your journey in life, the way to find your path in life, was to make your heart your face.
And when you made your heart your face it opened your eyes so you could see. And when you could see you could find your path.
MOYERS: Joseph Campbell called that follow your bliss.
MOYERS: And there was a great deal of misinterpretation about that, as if it were just, ooh, go and do anything you want to...
MOYERS:...and you know, play light and frothily on the surface of the water. That's not what he meant. He meant if you're a warrior, be a warrior. If you're a writer, be a writer.
MOYERS: If you're an entrepreneur, be an entrepreneur. And find the joy in fulfilling your identity as your destiny and as your vocation.
NAVA: Yes, that's right. It's not an individual thing. That's what's so powerful about the pre-Colombian point of view. It is a communal thing.
When you find your bliss in a sense, when you make your heart your face and find your path, you're not only doing what's right for you, you're doing what's right for your society -- because the society needs for you to do these things.
And when everybody does this, then everything in this society will be taken care of.
And I was introduced to this idea of ollin when I was a young man and I went to Mexico, and it has really changed my life. And I realized what my ollin was...
MOYERS: Wich is...?
NAVA: Being a storyteller. I'm a storyteller and that's what I need to do in the life that I do. One more thing I wanted to comment about that is that to the Toltecs they had no monasteries. There was no concept of retiring from life to find God. Their entire concept was that you found God in what you did, in your work, again getting back to this concept of ollin, you know.
So doing what you need to do and finding what that is. You know, everything was sacred to them, and to the indigenous peoples in Mexico and Central America to this day it is still the same. Getting up in the morning is a sacred thing. Making the tortillas in the morning is a sacred thing.
You know, everything they do is sacred.
MOYERS: But let me give you a slightly different take on the Christian story and see what...if there was something akin to it in pre-Colombian culture.
The Christian story is not primarily ethical in this tradition; it is revelatory. It is God finding you; not you finding God. And it is the sense that God was incarnated, the word became flesh, God became human and suffered with human beings in order that human beings could be transformed.
And I was struck in the little exposure I've had to pre-Colombian art, by the rituals and mythologies of sacrifice and resurrection, death and life in that culture. Is that true?
NAVA: Yes. Very, very profoundly so. One of the things that's incredible about pre-Colombian mythology is the concept of twinning and duality.
I got a big dose of this when I was working on EL NORTE and working with Mayan people.
And even though the conquest happened 500 years ago and people were nominally Catholic, they still had a deep-seated feeling that the western, shall we say, take, on God, got it wrong. The idea that God was one or God was three, right, keep missing the point to them...
...because in the pre-Colombian viewpoint God is two. God is a duality. The pre-Colombian religion as all Native American religions is very sensitive and very interconnected with nature.
And since God is a creative force, what is the number of creation? It's two. One cannot create, and three, it's odd.
MOYERS: It may also be illegal.
NAVA: That's right [LAUGHTER]. It takes two deer to make another deer. Two people to make another person. So does it not make sense that you need a coming together of a duality in order to create the world and to create life as we know it. And that's how they saw God. And to this day, they see God as being a duality.
MOYERS: How do you see God today?
NAVA: You know, to me God is a tremendous mystery which is impenetrable and needs to be so.
And I think that that's one thing that I love about pre-Colombian mythology, is that nothing is judged in pre-Colombian mythology.
MOYERS: What do you mean?
NAVA: Well, it's...you know, for example, they have this god who is the god of mischief making and you know, all problems that people have, right?
MOYERS: There's a trickster god in the African...
NAVA: Yes, so it's like everybody's arguing and disagreeing, and he's always sowing dissent.
NAVA: Yet this god is worshipped and prayed to because there's a spirituality in that that you have to get at in order to deal with it as opposed to cutting it off and dismissing it.
The idea being that whenever you cut something off and try to repress it, it only comes back in a negative way. So the fact is, is that you have to kind of embrace all of these things and realize that they ultimately all are one...
...because this duality that we see in pre-Colombian mythology, you know, all heroes, everybody's twinned, there's no one hero; there's always two heroes. Right? The twins of the Popol Vuh, always doubles, doubles, doubles, everywhere you look...
Has given the false idea that the pre-Colombian mindset was a dualistic mindset. It wasn't. It saw the duality as being one, kind of in a Daoistic way...
MOYERS: The yin and yang.
NAVA: The yin and yang.
But it is manifested in a particularly pre-Colombian way. Let me give you a very, very beautiful example. You know, you talked earlier about the incarnation of the word in flesh which exists also in pre-Colombian mythology in the form of the god Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent.
So the feathered serpent has often been compared to Christ, but the feathered serpent can also be compared to Buddha because like Buddha everybody can become a feathered serpent if they reach a certain point of enlightenment.
Being a feathered serpent, the pluming of the serpent, is the coming of enlightenment.
But, Quetzalcoatl has a twin, his dog Xolotl. And the planet Venus is seen as being this god, Quetzalcoatl, and the planet Venus has two manifestations: it is the morning star and it is the evening star.
And as the morning start it is Quetzalcoatl, and as the evening star, it is Xolotl. As the morning star, it is darkness coming to light, reason and enlightenment; as the evening star it is the light going into dark. And this is seen as being the animal -- the animal twin that we all have with us which is very important in pre-Colombian mythology, which is our instinct.
You see, we have our reason and we have our instinct. They are both one, and the planet Venus is the same planet. It is one, but it has two manifestations as the morning star and the evening star; as Quetzalcoatl and as Xolotl.
And so when you look up into the heavens you see your inner soul reflected and the journey of your life reflected in the movements of this planet.
MOYERS: Enrique and Rosa in your classic film EL NORTE, this brother and sister coming from Guatemala, which was where so many of these myths grew up. What do you make metaphorically of that struggle of theirs to leave a bloody ground of Guatemala and make it to the El Dorado of California?
NAVA: Well, that journey takes place on many levels. It is the individual real story of two people who have to leave their homeland and come to the United States to work without papers to try to make a better life.
It is their individual spiritual journeys as they find who they are. And it mirrors the great Mayan book the Popol Vuh, the twin heroes of the Popol Vuh, Xbalanue and Hunahpu.
And this is why I wanted to have that movie have dual protagonists who were both equally important. And when I was first sending the script around, people would say to me, you know, in the film business, you can't do this. It has to be Rosa's story or it has to be Enrique's story. It can't be both their stories equally.
MOYERS: The individualist of the American ethos.
NAVA: As opposed to this duality. I said, no, that's the whole point of the piece. It has to be about both of them equally.
I want to see the man's experience and I want to see the woman's experience. I want to see how both of those things interplay and how this unit of brother and sister gets attacked when they come to the United States, you know, and the different kinds of values.
The other level that the journey takes place on is a very big mythic level where the story starts in a purely and totally American world, what I think is the true American world, that is the indigenous Native American world, a Mayan world.
When that movie starts, you see the people wearing their [wepeelas], and you see their mythology, and it is as if Columbus hadn't come.
Then this horror comes to their lives and it cracks it open. And that native world is released and it makes a journey through the mestizo which is represented by Mexico in the film. And the mestizo is the combination of the European and the Indian.
It makes a journey through that mestizo world and then into the Anglo world of the United States. And we see these three steps, represented by three languages, [Maya], Spanish and English.
And so in a way I wanted the film to be a journey of two people trying to make a better life for themselves, and in a sense a journey of the Americas and what all the interplay is of the cultures in...you know, in the Americas.
MOYERS: And then there is that incredible unforgettable sequence in which Enrique and Rosa are making...are journeying through the tunnel under the border...
MOYERS: Full of rats in the darkness...
MOYERS: And far...you don't think they're going to make it.
MOYERS: And then far, far, far down the pipe is a little glimmer...
NAVA: Of light.
MOYERS: Of light. And to me that was powerfully mythological.
NAVA: Yes, and don't all of us in our lives have some life and death struggle with some demon, some horror, that we must transcend in order to find ourselves. You see that throughout all mythology and in all hero myths.
And in a sense, in EL NORTE that's the moment. They're in this dark tunnel with these rats, which is a real story -- that is to say, that really happens. People really do crawl through those tunnels. I got that story from somebody who had made that journey.
And when they told me that story, I went, this is what I'm looking for. I want something here, when they cross this border, that will be so, as you say, dark, mythic, terrifying, that when people watch it, they will no longer think about the politics. They won't think about the culture of Rosa and Enrique. They will be united with those two young people in that moment of fear.
And when those kids emerge from that tunnel they will be one with them and they will be seeing the world with their eyes. And that's what those kinds of heavy emotional experiences do.
I mean, after all, Bill, film is all emotion. Completely, 100 percent emotion. And myth is all emotion. When you hear those incredible myths, what do you respond to? Do you respond to it intellectually? No. You respond to it like the images in a dream.
You don't necessarily know what they mean, but they make the back hairs of your neck stand on edge and you know that you are suddenly understanding something on a deeper level, on a mythic level.
MOYERS: Mythology is not meaning, it's living. I said to Joseph Campbell, are you a man of faith? And he said, I don't need faith. He grew up a Catholic. He said, I have experience.
NAVA: Yes. Yes.
MOYERS: Myths are about the experience of living, right?
NAVA: Yes, they're about the experience of living and they are told on dream terms in a dream like way. The logic of myths is the logic of dream.
And I think this is where they come from. But they come from cultures that have a very fluid relationship with dreams. When you go and you meet with Mayan people down in Chiapas and in Guatemala, they make no differentiation between their waking life and their dreaming life. For them it is the same.
And as a result of that, as a result of the barrier being so, you know, they can move through it so easily, they do move through it very easily evening their waking life. They go back and forth into a dream state.
You see that very, very strongly in Celtic mythology which I love and adore. And there's, by the way, a tremendous relationship between Celtic mythology and Latin American. It's very powerful.
And that is one reason why James Joyce and his novels have such a tremendous influence in the great Latin American dream realist writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Miguel Angel Asturias.
MOYERS: These stories are like seeds carried on the wind. And we're almost out of time. Thank you very much, Gregory Nava.
NAVA: Thank you.