Editor’s Note: I had the great pleasure of connecting with Lara Medina and Martha Gonzales, editors of Voices from the Ancestors: Xicanx and Latinx Spiritual Expressions and Healing Practices (University of Arizona Press, 2019). This beautiful edited volume is a collection of wisdoms worth exploring. I discovered the book shortly after its publication in 2019 and thought: This! This is the wisdom that needs to be shared! It was one of my sources of inspiration when I founded Ofrenda Magazine and will continue to serve as a compass.
The following is an interview between me and Voices from the Ancestors editor Lara Medina. Links to purchase the book will take you to Bookshop.org. (Ofrenda Magazine earns a small commission if you purchase books through this link.) —MC
Ofrenda Magazine (OM): How do you typically introduce Voices from the Ancestors to people who may not be familiar with the subject matter?
Lara Medina (LM): I actually begin by saying this book is an ofrenda, an offering of spiritual wisdom for Xicanx and Latinx readers and our allies who are committed to decolonizing their lives. The book offers a collection of wisdom writings from 89 contributors in the form of reflective essays, ritual guidelines, poetry, song, and/or visual art. It is wisdom based on our oral traditions, our research, our intuitions, and our lived experience. It is wisdom that has re-emerged over the last fifty years as we advance in our efforts to decolonize our lives, our minds, our spirits, our bodies and our relationship to the planet.
The wisdom contained in these pages is based on pre-colonized ancestral knowledges that understood our deep interconnectedness with all humans, all of nature, and the sacred cosmic life-giving forces. These knowledges are based on non-Western epistemologies so central to our process of decolonization, particularly in these most troubling times of increasing racial injustice, global capitalist greed, disastrous global climate change impacting the most vulnerable, misogyny, and violence on non-binary persons.
We, the editors, and the 89 contributors to this book believe that it is time our wisdom be shared with our peers, younger generations, and our allies, as we carry medicine in reclaiming and reconstructing the ways of our Indigenous and African ancestors and in rethinking imposed religious beliefs that uphold a separation between religions and human superiority over nature. The writings are in accessible prose and we hope the book will be used in classrooms and community settings as well as for familial and personal use.
OM: Voices from the Ancestors is a gift to readers, and—with over eighty contributors—it’s also a massive editorial accomplishment! What first sparked the idea for the project?
LM: Over the past 40 years, I have witnessed the reclamation of Indigenous identities and spiritual practices among many Xicanx and Latinx peoples as well as an uplifting of our African ancestries, often referred to as “the third root.” Foundational to these reclamations is the embracement of non-Western epistemologies.
We have come to understand our deep interconnectivity with all of humanity as well as plant and animal life and the natural forces of the universe. So we understand that how we live our lives impacts all others and that we must live with a consciousness of balance, reciprocity, respect and gratitude. We must honor the spirits in all life forms and not consider humans to be superior. We must take care of the planet and in turn the planet will take care of us. We must also maintain our relationships with our deceased ancestors (known and unknown) who have walked this earthly journey before us “as death brings another kind of wisdom that they want to share with us.” The ancestors gain the power to continue to guide and protect us.
These fundamental teachings vary drastically from Western epistemology, which has taught us that humans have superior power over other forms of life and that it is our right to dominate; that as individuals we need to be concerned with our personal well-being only and not the collective; that the deceased have no power and should be forgotten. In contrast, witnessing and experiencing how living according to a non-Western world view offers deep healing for the intergenerational wounds of colonization inspired us to gather the voices of like-minded Xicanx, Latinx, and AfroLatinx so that our knowledge and spiritual practices could be documented and shared for the present and the future.
OM: As a project, the book clearly has personal meaning to you. How does the work reflect your own spiritual journey?
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 University 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 my interests 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-five 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 Santería. 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 persistent onslaughts on our personhood that come from the right-wing 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.
OM: It’s admittedly unfair of me to ask you to choose favorites, but are there pieces or sections that have a special significance to you? For example, are there voices or perspectives you’re especially proud to have included in the book?
LM: All of the contributors offer powerful insights in their sharing of details of their spiritual consciousness and practices. It is impossible for me to choose favorites as they really are all my favorites! All are written with “thinking hearts.”
But I can say that it was important for us to address the significant parts of the life cycle as well as daily practices to support our relationships with ourselves, each other, and the sacred cosmic forces of the universe. A partial overview of the book chapters will be helpful to illustrate why it is impossible to pick favorites. We begin the book with morning prayers and honoring the sacred directions. We continue with how to create personal and familial sacred spaces. Then blessing our young ones is of great importance as is communing with our dying and deceased. Understanding the creation of art as a spiritual practice receives its due as does cultivating dream practices. The chapter on holistic health care includes important insights on the power of curanderismo and practices such as self-limpias in different forms and the sweat ceremony or temazkal. Puberty rituals and a “Transceñera” ceremony offer precious ways to honor physical changes as do reflections on “mynopause” and child bearing.
All of this is within the first eleven chapters and there are a total of twenty-two chapters! We also made a serious effort to restore the respect and honor that third-gender and transgender members of our communities held before colonization. The contributors range from university professors to professional artists, cultural workers, teachers, and organic intellectuals. Many are considered elders or “wise ones” in our communities and we include the voices of younger generations as well. We are grateful that so many responded to our invitation to contribute to this book and it affirms a collective awareness that our communities need this type of book.
OM: The title of the book is Voices from the Ancestors. The use of “from” struck me, since it could have more than one meaning: voices from the ancestors to (and through) the contributors, and voices from the contributors as ancestors to future generations. What advice would you share with our readers, who might be thinking about their own roles as ancestors to future generations?
LM: This is an interesting insight to the title and the use of “from the ancestors.” It really carries both meanings: the wisdom contained in the book comes to us through the ancestors, through ancestral traditions we have learned, or through the use of our intuition inspired by ancestral knowledges, and our research guided by our desire to know more about our ancestors. The intention is to pass on this ancestral wisdom in written form for the next generations.
The advice I offer is to take seriously our role as teachers and role models in our families, our personal relationships, our community settings, and our organizations. We must ask ourselves and the people we socialize with, what are the values we are living by? Do we value interdependency with all forms of life (humans, plants, animals, the elements), reciprocity among all our relations, living in balance, respecting each other, embracing diversity? The way we view the world really emerges from the values that we live by. And we must learn the traditions and rituals that nurture us, that offer us ways to support a body/mind/spirit/planet consciousness. We must learn to understand plant medicines and natural ways of healing. The writings in Voices from the Ancestors can assist us on our journey and for future generations.