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Indo Of the Month – October – Written by Liz Mahina Souza

Hi there, My name is Elizabeth “Liz” Mahina Souza, very often strangers speculate about my ethnicity, of course, living in Southern California I get the most obvious guesses first, Latino, Hawaiian, part Japanese. Very often people approach me so certain I am Native American, that their first words are “What tribe?” You know I have these cheekbones; I can’t help it. I don’t mind that people think I’m from those ethnicities at all, but I do find it difficult to explain what I actually am. I’ll I say I’m Dutch Indonesian- a term my parents hated because they considered it inaccurate, they were Dutch, or they were Indische. I choose to simplify when explaining because I know most people are not really interested in the complexity of what I am- what we Indos really are- they are just curious. What we are is not just a combination of genes stemming from Dutch and Indonesian descent, we are a cultural group that evolved out of many different nationalities and races mixing together in the Dutch East Indies, a product of European expansion into the Pacific. And we are unique, culturally rich and because of our long history of cultural mixing adaptable and in danger of loosing our core culture. Thankfully because there is a new renaissance of young people striving to understand our background we won’t go away. Even if we add some more ethnicities to our mix. My children who heavily identify as Indo are also Scottish, Portuguese and Ashkenazi Jewish, lucky them. That is my two cents about my cultural identity and here is my personal story. My parents, Richard and Elaine Coert (Ridy and Zus), grew up in the Dutch East Indies to parents who were already ethnically mixed. My father was from Malang, and my mother Kediri, both towns in East Java. I was raised hearing their fantastic stories of flying on banana leaves, monkeys coming out of the trees to steal their lunches while they played, living on large estates with extended family and servants, as well as the horrors they faced during the Japanese occupation and my father’s service in the KNIL -a foreign legion branch of the Dutch army. They met after World War II, my father was a tall and very handsome man -the girls even stole his cap and wrote “Lady Killer” on it in English- his family was financially comfortable, and very old fashioned. He had enlisted in the air force, but was conscripted into the KNIL before he could go for training in Australia at 17 years old. He spent three years as a prisoner of war in a Japanese POW camp Kanchanaburi in Thailand until the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. My mother was petite, the oldest daughter and middle child in a family with seven siblings, she loved to tell stories and laugh. After my parent’s wedding they sold all their gifts and moved to New Guinea where my father was stationed for five years. Their time in New Guinea produced more fantastic stories, I don’t even know which ones to believe. They had a still born son while living there and sent all their money to my dad’s parents in the Netherlands where it was saved for them. Ten years after their wedding they finally had a baby, and that was me! It was 1957, I was born in Utrecht, the Netherlands. My father resigned from the military and worked for Dutch Shell, waiting to be allowed to immigrate to the United States. In 1959 we moved to the states and we lived in Long Beach, California where my sister was born. After a few years we bought a house in Huntington Beach where I grew up. Back then the town was not very developed and after my father took me to see the movie Mary Poppins I asked if we could go for a drive in the country, to which he replied “We live in the country!” We had a lovely little home with the best garden in the neighborhood. The Hollandse bakker used to drive around Orange County delivering foods to Dutch families and he would bring us kaas, ontbijtkoek, and special Indo foods often. Our American neighbors would evencome over and buy products. They all loved my mom’s cooking, she was a great cook. My parents loved to socialize they would go to dances at the AVIO and also entertain at home. Mom would make piles of lumpia, and dad would make sate. The ladies were always gossiping and sharing news while the men stood outside and got auto repair tips from my dad. My parents loved Hawaiian culture and when they realized I had a talent for dance I started taking lessons mostly in Polynesian dance. I was hired as a principle dancer at the Tiki’s in Monterey Park when I was fifteen years old. I went to college to study art where I met my husband Robert Souza who is a story artist for Walt Disney Studios now. I wanted to be a stay at home mother like my mom and quit school to raise our four children Jason, Jared, Jasmin and Jillian. We lived in Santa Cruz, California for eight years but eventually decided to move back to Southern California because it had more job opportunities and our family was here. Before going back to college I raised my four children, and then helped raise one of my grandchildren. During the time my kids were growing up, I continued working as a dancer both Polynesian and Tribal Belly Dance and even ended up travelling to Europe to teach dance classes. I also have been a knitting teacher, spinner, weaver, and have written articles for the Interweave Press publication, Spin Off. Even though I left college when I got married I continued practicing art and for the past three years have been in college full-time. Recently I graduated with a BA in Art from California State University Channel Islands (CSUCI). Currently art and family are my biggest passions. I am preparing to apply for an MFA program and am hoping to be an art professor one day. For the last year I have been working on a series of paintings that depict my Dutch Indonesian cultural identity. So far the paintings have taken the form of large 30” x 40” oil paintings. They are figurative and contain surreal symbolic elements to tell the story of my diaspora. I have my own feelings about what each painting means, but I hope viewers will also read their own meanings into the pieces. I am currently working on smaller watercolors inspired by historical photos. I am also making a shadow box theater with puppets in the style of Indonesian wayang kulit depicting cultural icons. The entire series will be featured in an art show at my alma mater in Camarillo, California. I would love to have a big Indo turnout for the reception of the show which will be March 14, 2019, 6-8pm in Napa Hall. The art will be up for viewing from March 4-April 4, 2019. If you’d like to follow me as an artist you can see my website www.elizartist.com (please forgive me, it’s an ongoing work-in-progress) or you can follow me on Instagram, @elizabethmahina.

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2 thoughts on “Indo Of the Month – October – Written by Liz Mahina Souza

  1. Wonderful story and well told! I am impressed that you continue to study the arts and work towards your MFA even though you are only a year younger than me… And I am retired!

  2. amazing story of your parents travels ending in America! Thanks for sharing Liz!

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