Interview with Lara Medina, co-editor of Voices from the Ancestors and Beyond: Chicanx/Latinx Spiritual Expressions and Healing Practices (University of Arizona Press, 2019)

LT: What prepared you all for the work you accomplish in Voices from the Ancestors?

LM: My own spiritual journey as an Indigenous identified Xicana began in the mid 1980s. Since then, I have been researching and writing on the topic of Chicana spirituality. In 1996, I interviewed many Indigenous identified Chicanas who began decolonizing their spirituality in the 1970s during the Chicano movement. That research was published as “Los Espiritus Siguen Hablando: Chicana Spiritualities” in the anthology Living Xicana Theory edited by Carla Trujillo (1998). This essay set me on the path to further study and document the reclaimed and reconfigured spirituality of our Indigenous ancestors that I participated in and observed in our communities. My master’s degree in theology from the Graduate Theological Union and my doctorate in history (with an emphasis on Chicanx religious history) from the Claremont Graduate School also allowed me to study and research the positive aspects of Mexican Catholicism that endures in Chicanx culture as well as our conflicted history with Christianity. My academic career has affirmed these commitments as I have taught courses on religions and spiritualities in Chicana/o communities at California State University, Northridge in the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies for the past twenty-two years. Most of my published essays and academic presentations have focused on Chicanx ritual, popular religiosity, Chicana/o theology, and political activism in the Catholic Church through the history of Las Hermanas, a Chicana/Latina national organization that brought the Chicano movement into the Catholic Church. My first book published in 2004 is Las Hermanas: Chicana/Latina Religious Political Activism in the U.S. Catholic Church (Temple University Press, 2004).

In addition, and of most importance is that I personally have experienced deep healing through Mexican Indigenous curanderismo along with Tibetan Buddhist practices and aspects of Santeria. I have met many healers within Latinx communities who are sharing their knowledges so that we do not have to rely only on Western medical solutions that often do not diagnose the root causes of an imbalance, but merely the symptoms and then treat them with pharmaceuticals. Western medicine can definitely be useful but I witness a (re)turning to traditional knowledge within our communities as our social and political context worsens. We can no longer rely only on Western medical institutions to respond to all our needs, and the holistic worldviews within Indigenous, Eastern, and African spiritualities are essential to helping us live balanced lives with a body/mind/spirit/nature consciousness. The consistent onslaughts on our personhood that come from the current political establishment necessitate that we have ways to protect our psyches and our bodies. My personal experience with female centered and earth-centered practices also gave me the preparation to gather the knowledge from our contributors and co-edit this book.

Co-editor, Martha R. Gonzales, also brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the project. Her doctorate in literature from University of California, San Diego and her bachelor’s degree in philosophy and literature from University of California, Santa Cruz prepared her for the rigor of compiling this anthology. Her personal experience with Indigenous and African based spiritual practices also greatly enriched our collaboration.

LT: What are the contributions that your book makes that will be of interest to the readers of Latinx Talk?

LM: This anthology, Voices from the Ancestors: Xicanx and Latinx Spiritual Reflections and Healing Practices (2019), is an offering to Xicanx/Latinx/AfroLatinx communities and allies across genders, sexualities and generations-an offering of medicines that we and the 89 contributors have experienced in our own journeys toward decolonizing our lives. Some of us walk the “Red Road” staying close to the path of Indigenous wisdoms and traditions while some of us integrate Indigenous ways with diverse spiritual traditions (i.e., Buddhism, Santeria) which can be called “nepantla spirituality” (Medina 2011, 2014) or some of us remain primarily Christian but from a feminist and liberationist lens. We offer this collection to heal the deep historical and generational traumas resulting from colonization begun more than 500 years ago and the wounds that fester due to the inherited or learned dysfunctional behaviors and the impact of racialized poverty. The banishment and criminalization of our ancestral ethical and ceremonial practices that ensued with colonization disrupted and silenced Latin American, Caribbean Indigenous and African knowledge systems that centered our relationship to the sacred cosmic forces, the natural world, the ancestors, the land, and each other; knowledge embedded within ritual practices and ways of acting in the world. Those of our ancestors convinced or forced to deny their Indigenous and African lineages became separated from the mind/body/spirit/nature web of consciousness. The Mayan ethic of In Lak Ech/Somos Uno/Tu eres mi otro yo/We are one, was disrupted but did not vanish. This central ethic has returned to hold a primary place in our understanding of interconnectedness and reciprocity, both foundational Indigenous and African values essential for balanced living.

The knowledges in this book come from deep places in our hearts, bodies, and minds and is intended for personal, familial, and community well-being. The writings reflect wisdom passed on through the oral tradition and lived experiences, research applied to our lives, or from our own intuitive creativity. As we learn from each other in a variety of ways, we have gathered reflections and practices in the form of short essays, poetry, visual art, ritual guidelines, and songs. It is wisdom based on the ancient knowledge received from Indigenous and African ancestors who understood their interconnectedness with one another and all life forms, with nature, and with the sacred cosmic forces. We and the contributors to this volume believe that it is time our cultural capital be documented and shared as we carry medicine in reclaiming ancestral teachings, in rethinking imposed religious beliefs, and in learning from diverse spiritual traditions.

This collection reinstates the place of honor that non-binary persons held in our cultures before colonization. Reconstructing our spirituality based on non-Western epistemologies is central to our process of decolonization, particularly in these most troubling times. A decolonized spirituality is a strategy of resistance to Western capitalist greed, heteronormative patriarchy, misogyny, racial injustice, and disastrous global climate change. Among the contributions are reflections and practices to address the life cycle, from birth, growth, maturity to death as well as everyday living. We requested the writings be in very accessible language as we want the book to be used in family and community settings, with children, elders, peers and allies. Overall, Voices from the Ancestors is a testament that the spirituality of those presumably conquered has survived. As contributor, Alba Onofrio states in her essay on creating sacred space:

“We must first collect the scattered pieces of our stolen cultures, languages, histories, and religious traditions, and then we must sort, discard, reclaim, and recreate ourselves in the images of the Sacred we seek. By acknowledging our spiritual authority as healers and co-creators, we are able to take the best of our past and weave new ancient practices on the loom of our sharpest political analyses. And in doing so, we carve out sacred spaces for our aching Diasporic bodies to find spiritual identity and home in the powerful legacies of our many ancestors.” (47)

LT: What motivated you all to do this kind of work?

LM: Simply put, the era that we live in requires us to return to traditional earth-centered and female centered knowledge that will help us all heal and survive the challenges we face in Western society. The fragmentation of our minds from our bodies and our spirits imposed under colonization have long lasting consequences on our relationships and our self-understanding and how we navigate social marginalization, racism, and poverty. Our disconnection from the planet, from natural medicines, from nutritious food sources, from the ancestors, and from the sacred elements (earth, air, fire, water) has the power to mold us into individuals disconnected from one another and natural healing energies. Traditional knowledge is being reclaimed in many parts of our communities and we need to share this cultural capital that can help us all, particularly our young ones. Voices from the Ancestors is our effort to meet this challenge.

LT: How is the book aligned with current trends in Latinx Studies and Ethnic Studies?

LM: Our focus on spirituality is very much in line with current “trends” in Latinx and Ethnic Studies as more scholars develop work on decolonization, Indigeneity, and spirituality. Hopefully this is not a trend but rather pointing us all to an essential trajectory in decolonization. Most recent text along this line are Eros Ideologies: Writings on Art, Spirituality, and the Decolonial by Laura Pérez (2019) and Calling Back the Soul: Embodied Spirituality in Chicanx Narrative by Cristina Garcia Lopez (2019). These texts however build upon an an extensive bibliography addressing decolonization, spirituality, racial and cultural hybridity that was set in motion with the work of Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands: La Frontera (1987), a text that gave us all permission to think, write and transgress all that was holding us back from attaining our full potential as brown people indigenous to this continent. Simultaneously, Chicana and Chicano theologians began the work to decolonize Christianity and interpret it from a “mestiza and/or mulatto” perspective. So, forty years later we have the resources and the lived experience to write with honesty and authenticity how we think and act spiritually in the world. This is a political choice as understanding ourselves in deep relationship to all that is, challenges and defies the Western values of individuality, profit and even the academy. Voices from the Ancestors is helping us to return to our deepest cultural epistemology, our deepest cultural wealth.


About the co-editors:

Lara Medina is Professor of Chicana/o Studies at California State University, Northridge.

Martha R. Gonzales lectures in the Ethnic Studies Department at Glendale Community College.

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