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Dante Nava (1898-1958)

Dante Nava was my great grand-uncle; first generation Peruvian-Italian, the son of a Peruvian woman and an Italian immigrant who left during the Second Industrial Revolution. The couple settled in Puno, a majestic city in Perú on the shore of Lake Titicaca, the place where Dante, who the locals called Gringo Nava due to his fair complexion, became a celebrated indigenous poet.

I never knew him. Dante died before I was born. Over the years, I heard fragmented stories of his life, especially those told by my grandmother who was his niece and was very fond of him. I was told that Dante was a self-taught poet, a bohemian, an outcast, who spent all his money on books and liquor. He was also a social justice advocate, a critic of the system that exploited the indigenous people. He had loved an Aymara woman named María, who worked as a washerwoman, he wrote many poems to her.

In Poet of the Lake, I use images from Dante’s time and from my trip to Puno in 2018. By combining old and new images, I recreate some of the stories Dante tells in his poems. The titles in the series come from his writings and the poems accompanying this project are excerpts from his anthology. The Divine Comedy by another Dante--Dante Alighieri--was one of my great grand-uncle's favorite books. I used concepts from that work, to play with the idea that Dante Nava’s life was divided into three chapters: Paradiso, Inferno and Purgatorio.

That year, when I traveled to Puno, I learned that Dante’s poems had been adopted by local indigenous organizations who are reclaiming their heritage. I asked kids in the streets if they knew who Dante Nava was. “Yes,” they replied, “he is the Poet of the Lake.”

Dante never married or had children. He died poor in a rented room in Puno in 1958. This work is my homage to his memory.

Cuando el cuco era mi único terror (When the boogeyman was my only terror)Ahora que no hay ni trigo para acallar el hambre (Now that there is no wheat to silence hunger)Son tus padres los Andes, es tu madre la pampa (Your fathers are the Andes, your mother is the prairie)El canto a la belleza autóctona (Song to the Native Beauty)Como un cielo Puneño en el crepúsculo (Like a sky from Puno in the twilight)Tengo en los ojos oscuros, la imagen de los cóndores (I have in the dark eyes, the image of the condors)Canto a Puno (Song to Puno)La aurora se la llevó y no la trajo la noche (Dawn took her away and the night did not bring her back)Romance imperfecto del amor abandonado (Imperfect Romance of the Abandoned Love)El lago Titicaca templó mi cuerpo fiero (Lake Titicaca tempered my fierce body)Fué el oro que ambicionó sediento el brutal Español (It was the gold that the brutal Spanish ambitioned)Al proletariado mundial (To the World Proletariat)La belleza dormida y fría de los templos (The sleeping and cold beauty of the temples)Qué solo me he quedado en esta sombra tan sóla (How lonely I am in this lonely shadow)Orgullo Aimara (Aymara Pride)Soy un indio fornido de treinta años de acero (I'm a sturdy Indian of thirty years of steel)Soy la belleza cálida del Ande y la Altipampa (I am the warm beauty of the Ande and the high plateau)Yo soy carpintero, yo soy también herrero (I am a carpenter, I am also a blacksmith)Para que sepa el mundo lo que vale el Aymara (So that the world knows what the Aymara is worth)"Historias de Tierra y Mar" at the Multicultural Arts Center, 2020