The safest I feel is when I am out observing the natural world. Even as a small child in an urban landscape full of concrete, corner stores, and apartment complexes, I would search for four-leaf clovers and play with whatever plants, butterflies, and sticks I could find. I loved catching skippers, tiny moth-like butterflies, cupping my little brown hands over anything they landed on while their fluttering wings tickled my palms, making me laugh so hard that I struggled not to let them go. I always regretted saying goodbye, but I loved to watch them pass by, high over my head.
These are some of the few happy memories I have as a child, before I understood what my mother meant when she would chastise me and tell me to behave more like a girl. I don’t think I really understood what she meant until much later, sometime after I was separated from my brothers in foster care because of my age and gender. Around that time, it dawned on me that my brothers and I wouldn’t have similar bodies for much longer. I realized that this was probably why I wore my hair long and they had theirs really short, even though one of my brothers often cried that he didn’t want his hair so short.
Having grown up in foster care, I often have more questions than answers about my extended family. Most of the family I have close relationships with, the ones whom I consider most reliable, are no longer breathing. When I was younger, I diverted questions about my family tree, worrying that people would pity me. And as a younger person without close family to affirm my gender fluidity, I also wondered where I belonged. My relatives’ absence left a lacuna; yet as I grew older, my experiences with art, nature, and spirituality would begin to mend and heal the gap.
Banishing shame and isolation, I wanted to illustrate how boundless and powerful my true family is—and how natural my earthly life experience is.
So when I was asked to write about my family tree in a class led by Chicueyi Coatl last year, I decided to be creative with the prompt. Rather than stalling with conjecture or worry, as I might have when I was younger, I decided to claim the kin in the natural world that inspire me and to which I belong. Banishing shame and isolation, I wanted to illustrate how boundless and powerful my true family is—and how natural my earthly life experience is.
In the creation of this new origin story, I reflected upon an insight that came to me at sixteen, when I was meditating with water. Highly adaptable after countless different living arrangements and culture shocks, I identified with the way water takes different forms. Determined to carve a life path of my own, one that would transport me far away from the statistics and the trauma loops in my environment, I prayed for water to illuminate me with the insight and clarity necessary to carve into the hardest of stones, eat away at the most insurmountable cliffs, and salir adelante—go forward. Water made its way, not through overnight destruction, but through diligence, by choosing the path of least resistance.
I prayed with water again and again, and water supplied insights that brought me peace, stamina, and motivation. I envisioned myself as the small pebble at the bottom of the river, smoothed over by the steady and constant flow. And when life felt like a hurricane out of my control, I became like a blade of grass carried through the water, bending and twisting with each new current.
With water, I had one clear ancestor-kin. Through research, I found more kin in nature to claim, finding species that are genderfluid like me. Reading diagrams of protogynous fish, some of which are socially organized around their changing sexual organs, and seeing pictures of birds that express two sexes on either half, one brightly colored masc and the other muted femme, made me realize I had been duped into believing that the two-gender binary system is “normal.”
The word that came to me was expansive. I started to understand my life and kin as gender expansive. I am expansive, I am natural, and I belong.
I started to feel an urgency to create a new language for a new normal, one that moved away from fixed definitions of masculine and feminine and the binary system inherent in words like “nonbinary.” I sought descriptors for the natural-world relationships and energies I was discovering. The word that came to me was expansive. I started to understand my life and kin as gender expansive. I am expansive, I am natural, and I belong.
As I see it, I am not genderfluid in a mercurial sense; I am not masculine or feminine at any given time. I am gender expansive in the sense that I contain and embody so many possibilities beyond those two. I can be womanly, fierce, masculine, calm, giving, receiving, motherly, fatherly, and childlike. I am the multitude of experiences, feelings, embodiments, and energies that can be found in nature—which, together, are all expressions of the same earth. My experience is less like a gradient of pink and blue and more like a painter’s palette full of colors ready to become a masterpiece.
I believe we are all such kaleidoscopes of possibility. Regardless of our origins, and regardless of how we identify, we are all natural, and we all belong. We are all a multitude of colors ready to become masterpieces. With these ideas in mind, I share a few prompts you can use to cultivate your awareness of the gender expansive energies within and around you. I invite us to stretch our notions of gender, welcome new inclusive origin stories, and learn from our natural kin, each an expression of the same earth energy.
What are the elements, anima, spirits, or animals that can help you cultivate and express more expansive energies? You can go outside or do some research online for inspiration.
What are the divine, mythical, and cultural figures that inspire you? You might look at your deities or saints for fierce feminine inspiration or for models of duality in harmony.
What are the icons, living models, elders, or ancestors that embody characteristics you would like to cultivate within yourselves? What are the behaviors and actions that draw you to look up to them?
This article is an excerpt from Balance, available via print on demand. Issue 07: Balance and Issue 08: Nourishment are printed together in one double-sided booklet.
Pepe Santamaría is a genderfluid, queer Xicanx creating art and poetry to document and uplift queer and system-impacted communities. They enjoy designing and facilitating collective spaces for people to tap into their creative powers for liberation and healing.
Zeferino Llamas is a Mexican American illustrator from San Diego, California, with a background in wildlife conservation. He is most interested in themes of traditional ecological knowledge of Mexico, Nahua spirituality, modern Queerness, and the way these three things intersect.