A Fabulous Witness

Benji de la Piedra reflects on Tei Okamoto's workshop, which discussed two projects that explore the intersection of oral history and public health.  This talk took place on Thursday, October 2, 2014.

October 2nd, 2014. After a few minutes of warm chatter and snack passing, the OHMA 2014 cohort has finally settled into its seats around the long table in Knox 509. Sitting at the head of the table is Tei Okamoto, here to speak publicly about his two interrelated oral history projects: “The Love and Affection Project,” which gathered stories of individuals who lost parents to AIDS, and “The AIDS Epidemic and House Music: Twenty Years of Children of Color at Church,” which used oral history methodology to investigate the ways in which the house music scene shaped and was shaped by the lives of those who had been affected by AIDS. I and two classmates—Liz Strong and Sarah Hollingsworth—are sitting in a line to Tei’s right, ready to lead and record an informal interview with him before the public presentation starts.

We start off by asking Tei, “What experiences led you to become interested in these subjects?” Tei responds first by giving a brief definition of house music, followed by the beginnings of a reminiscence of a house in San Francisco where he used to live with two DJ’s that were integral to the scene: DJ Nadia and DJ Black.

As Tei’s response begins hitting its stride, I bend my head down towards the table to check the volume levels on the recorder and our microphones. Everything is looking good.

“Oh, shut up!!”

For half a second I am utterly baffled. Did one of my classmates really just say that??  Then I hear Tei repeat those same words through a smile. Everyone bursts out laughing.

I look up and see a stranger in the doorway, a tall curvaceous woman with dark blonde hair and absolutely striking features. “This is Cecilia,” says Tei. The class says a collective “hi” as she walks in, kisses Tei on the cheek, and sits down at the table to his left. Liz invites Cecilia to introduce herself for the record.

“Hey my name is Cecilia, I’m a transgender woman, Latina, from Argentina, 42 years old so I lived the whole house—scene.”

Everyone laughs as soon as she pronounces that final word, “scene,” because we all seem to understand how insufficient a term it is to capture all of the experiences that it implies.

Cecilia remains by Tei’s side throughout our interview and the subsequent public lecture. She speaks as a supporter of the projects, as an extremely close friend and confidante of Tei’s, and, most importantly, as a witness to the tragedies and triumphs told in both of Tei’s oral history projects.

* * *

In a paper published in the Fall 2005 issue of Literature and Medicine—“Holocaust Video Testimony, Oral History, and Narrative Medicine: The Struggle Against Indifference”—OHMA Co-Director Mary Marshall Clark writes about video testimony of Holocaust survivors that the scholars Dori Laub and Geoffrey Hartman created and curated with the support of Yale University. “By watching these videotaped testimonies,” she writes, “the viewer is asked to identify and journey with the survivor in an effort to overcome the temptation to succumb to indifference, and, instead, to join in an act of remembering.” [1]

That is precisely the effect that Cecilia had on Tei’s audience, of making the sadness and the joy of the AIDS epidemic and the house music scene feel so palpably alive and present to all of us who were there to listen. The effect was all the more intensified by the fact that we were not receiving Cecilia’s testimony through the medium of a television screen, but instead from her own living body, with which we shared the room. After re-watching the video of Tei’s presentation—which I unfortunately do not have permission to share—the example that stands out most to me is this: After playing audio clips from some of the oral history interviews that he had conducted for the house music project, Tei turned to Cecilia and asked simply, “Is there anything you want to add?” Cecilia responded with the following:

“No, just, you know, how amazing these testimonials are—and me as having been a part of that same dynamic. I’m from Argentina, and everything was the same, but in Argentina. We had houses and we had the clubs and then we had the epidemic. And we had drugs and we had sex work. And everything came together in this amazing experience, where many of us survived, but some of us didn’t. And, you know, I like a lot what he [the narrator whose interview was just played] said about being a superstar, and I was one of those people that was lucky enough, I guess, or smart enough, to start making money out of my queerness. I used to be paid to go to these clubs. To do nothing. You know, you want something as queer as me in your club it’s gonna cost you money honey! And everything comes together at once, because you’re such a celebrity, and all these kids come to you, and then you become a mother of a house, and then you have to deal with these kids being HIV-positive and all of a sudden you’re their fucking mother and what the fuck am I gonna do now? And also, with being in that kind of thing, where everyone was so fabulous, the music was so important for us, and mind you, the language barrier—it wasn’t really about the lyrics, because I didn’t understand shit of what the lyrics were saying, because I didn’t speak English at the time. So it was the music as a whole entity that would cover all of that and us being superstars and making our living out of that lifestyle, and being high, and experiencing with sex, and experiencing with survival, and experiencing with living a reality that separates you from your levels of poverty, and dealing with something as HIV, and dealing with death. You know, because you get to the club, and so-and-so died, last night, and you still have to be fabulous and you still have all your surrounders and you still have to make money and, oh shit I had sex with that person three months ago, but you having to keep going with the night. And, in my country the idea of health and being tested and all that was almost zero. We had no idea.“

Through her improvised testimony, Cecilia completely embodied the style and manners of the world to which Tei’s project meant to introduce us. To give you a sense of that world, here is the trailer for a documentary called “How Do I Look?,” which Tei recommended I watch in order to better grasp that complicated narrative and aesthetic of queer fabulousness that Cecilia personifies.

Cecilia’s testimony was so richly layered with details and indications of emotional gravity that arise from the interrelationships of illness and spiritual fulfillment latent in these two projects. When I spoke to Tei over the phone in preparation for this post, he told me that the reason he invited Cecilia was to give the presentation space “a kind of life…a bit of a visceral experience in addition to an intellectual experience.” In so doing, Tei’s presentation perhaps unknowingly achieved the highest aim of testimony, which Mary Marshall defines in contrast to oral history.

Unlike oral history,” she writes, “in which the narrator is always seen as a witness to history and the interviewer as the second witness, testimony depends upon a joint act of imagination in which the experience of horror can be shared, and therefore perhaps divided up.”[2]

My experience of Cecilia forces me to happily reconsider this definition of testimony. In addition to an experience of horror, Cecilia’s testimony invited us to share an experience of unassailable joy that is part and parcel of house music’s history, and dialectically inseparable from the history of HIV/AIDS. Tei's talk benefitted immensely from his dialogical engagement with Cecilia. Their relationship produced the talk's most memorable moments. Together they embodied the shared love and pain that house music sings of, and it was a pleasure to watch. 

I’ll close the way Tei did, by playing this song, which to him is always a reminder of Cecilia.

Columbia University’s Oral History Master of Arts Program and the Program in Narrative Medicine have partnered this year to present a workshop series open to the public on the intersections of oral history, health, and medicine. Join us next time.


[1] “Holocaust Video Testimony, Oral History, and Narrative Medicine: The Struggle Against Indifference.” Literature and Medicine 24, no. 2 (Fall 2005) 270.

[2] Ibid, 277.