Who am I without my story?
Who am I? A question that surges from time to time like the ocean when it is rocked by a powerful jolt. Lately, however, I find myself pondering who I am without my story. My story explains how I came to be where I am today, but in the deepest sense, it doesn’t really feel like who I am.
Here’s a condensed version of my story:I was born in Mexico and migrated to the U.S. when I was exactly 10 days old. I had a very dysfunctional childhood (now a days, who didn’t?) Growing up, I suffered a great deal of abandonment and betrayal. I taught English for 14 years. I have a bachelors and Masters degree in education. I had my daughter at age 18 and was a single mother, with the help of my beautiful grandmother, for ten years before I married the love of my life. I have traveled to many corners of the world. I was in a terrible car accident with my husband a few years ago. I learn from nature, the children I am surrounded by, the books I read, the stories people tell me, and the experiences I have.
But does all of this feel like who I am in my soul? It’s helped shape my life, but it just feels like a story in my life, not who I am now, in this very instance. I am someone that loves the creator, my family, and sunshine. I love freedom and adventure, being creative, writing and dancing, learning about the natural world and my heritage, and I love supporting and empowering others. This feels more real and honest. I also know that my story began long before I was born, and in order to fully appreciate who I am, I have to find a way to connect to all the pieces that make me whole.
A couple of years ago, I attended a photography exhibition of Mexico, and of all the photographs, and there were many beautiful ones, the following struck me the most:
I was completely captivated by the gaze of dignity and pride in this boy’s eyes. It’s a difficult gaze to find in children, and in adults for that matter. The young boy is participating in a traditional ceremony that pays tribute to the great jaguar spirit. For more than three thousand years, the jaguar has been Mexico’s most enduring symbolic animal, in part because of its powerful nature, agility, ferocity, and strength. Since Pre-Columbian times, the jaguar has played a majestic role in spirituality, traditions, agriculture, hunting, and rites of passage among Mexico’s indigenous people. The gaze in this young boy’s eyes is a result of his understanding of the importance he plays as the link between his ancestors and the future generations. He is part of a community that values and embraces him, and flourishes from his participation in it. He knows his story began long before the day he was born.
As I contemplated the photograph, I recalled a photograph I’ve carried with me for many years; a photograph that I pulled out of a UNICEF desk calendar of a boy whose eyes told a story of disillusionment. The kind you feel when you discover the monster in your closet can disguise itself as your mother or uncle; when the grumbling of your stomach is louder than your laugh; or when the earth beneath your worn soles stings from wandering. What atrocities happened in this child’s life that created this look of degradation? What is his story? Where does he come from? Because the one thing I know. . . he is more than his dilapidated appearance. Unfortunately, like many children in his circumstances, he will grow up feeling unworthy, believing himself to be inferior and undeserving, having to struggle with sabotaging thoughts and beliefs that will become his greatest obstacles in every decision he makes in his life.
Growing up, this is the same story I accepted as mine, because those thought patterns and beliefs were the coping mechanisms that allowed me to make sense of the marginalization and violence I endured. I grew up in a world of survival and hustle, and within the maelström of evictions, government assistance, waiting lines, and crime ridden streets; there was no time to slow down to learn that I was here because my ancestors had chosen me to honor them and continue their wise teachings. I exist within the context of a lineage, and only within the context of that lineage am I able to take my rightful place on earth. There is something that happens inside of you when you understand that your purpose extends back hundreds of years and reaches toward divinity. There is a rumbling in your soul, the way a jaguar roars to announce its ownership of a territory. We must reach back and gather the best that our past has to teach us, so we can fulfill our greatest potential. If the story you have been told portrays you as weak, conquerable, and conforming in the face of adversity, then you have an inalienable duty to challenge that narrative. Whatever we have lost, forgotten, or been stripped of, we must reclaim if we are to uplift ourselves and our children.
First I began by reclaiming my own story. This doesn’t mean I activated the negative script about how I was victimized and rendered powerless – this would have simply caused me to feel more pity and shame for myself, creating a reality that is disconnected from my true purpose and dreams. Reclaiming my story means having the courage to speak of my endurance as a way of dignifying my existence, being willing to navigate through the pain in order to bring closure to the wound, and embracing forgiveness for myself and the transgressors in my life in order to heal. As I brought my story into the light, I realized that these stories are linked to past experiences and emotional suffering, and while they are part of the human condition, without the knowledge of our ancestral past, we will lose sight of the magnificent strength and wisdom that has propelled us to the place we are now.
A tree grows from the bottom up, and from the inside out. The primary growth occurs at the tips of the roots and stems and results in their growing taller, robust and noble. The other growth takes place in the diameter of the trunk, with each ring serving as the memory of its experiences and wounds. As the resiliency of a tree is possible only to the extent to which its roots support it, I AM possible only to the extent to which I acknowledge the roots of my heritage.
When I listen to the strings of the jarana in a Son Jarocho, I imagine in that moment, music transcends time, for my soul feels the same vibrations of the high-pitched cords that my great-great-great-grandmother, Aurelia Bello, felt when she listened to this music of Indigenous, European, and African influence. When I cook black beans, especially in those undisturbed moments when I’m separating the debris that gets mixed in with the beans, I can feel my grandmother’s presence. In my hands, I see her hands, the way she taught me. And in her hands, are the hands of her mother, and the hands of our indigenous ancestors that cultivated this crop with so much love. Even in the simple act of making beans, there is a sacredness characterized by the unbreakable bond we hold with our ancestors. When I dance to Mambo and Danzón, I can feel the energy of my great grandmother, Cristina Garcia Lopez, as she danced the nights away under the humid embrace of Veracruz, and its undeniable link to Africanismo by way of its sister, Cuba.
Whether I pay tribute to La Virgen de Guadalupe, celebrate Dia de Los Muertos, play the congas and sing in verses, or write the stories that have been passed down to me through generations of suffering and overcoming, it is through those acts that I am able to reinforce my roots to my heritage and my loved ones. These celebrations and traditions are an opportunity to set new intentions and new ways to find, deeper, meaningful connections to my past, strengthening my roots, to flourish beautifully in the future. The more I connect, the more I feel their presence, and hear their wisdom through the language of my soul.
In reclaiming my past, I have come to know that I am more than my story; I am the continuation of the collective strength and wisdom of my ancestral chain. Only through reclaiming my past have I come to realize that I have been equipped with all I need to fulfill my purpose in this life. The Akan (Ghanaian vernacular) word, Sankofa, means one must return to the past in order to move forward, so we understand why and how we came to be who we are; to stand in more presence and awareness of who we are today than ever before! There is no other way to feel more alive.
The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned. – Maya Angelou Home is that quiet, persistent space where I am unconditionally loved by my grandmother and my ancestors; where I am accepted and forgiven every single time.