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Decolonization and the Ancestors

Ritual and Ancestral Connection

· dia de los muertos,mexico,ritual,ancestral work,healing

My favorite holiday when I was a kid was Halloween. When I was young, I loved the idea of dressing up and becoming someone else, of being whoever you wanted to be and making a conscious choice to embody that person deep inside you who was otherwise hidden. For me, it played fabulously into my fantasies of someday having a life and identity drastically different from what I knew as a child. Publicly saying I favored Halloween also helped me disguise my unorthodox views about death and my belief in an afterlife without alarming the folks around my small town in the Bible belt.

Today, my love for Halloween is still alive and well, but alongside it exists a growing appreciation of the depth of my own often-suppressed cultural heritage. The ritual and reverence for the cycle of life and death inherent in Dia de los Muertos is much more fitting for my personal cosmology than an ever-more commercialized Halloween. In my search to return to the lineage I lost to assimilation, I've done an extensive amount of research to educate myself on things I never learned as a child, and one of the things I've read about is decolonization. I first read about decolonization in an article a friend shared on social media, and that initial exposure to a concept that was foreign to me until then opened the door to a lot of healing. Growing up, I assimilated to the United States from toddlerhood on. Unaware of what I was doing, I took on a mindset inherent in white supremacy that whiteness sets the bar for everybody else. This subtle but persistent and powerful conditioning informed so many of my choices, and affects how I relate to the world around me to this day. I never grew up with much of an awareness or learned the nuance of these issues until my mid-twenties.

For the past several years that I've been refining my intuitive skill--something I usually keep under wraps--I've begun to remove the blinders that white supremacy has put in front of me. It's tough to have these realizations, but the more I've learned about the history of colonization, the more I've begun to make peace with the self I never felt was allowed to shine in my small, conservative town. I've always felt an intense conflict between "Mexican me" and "American me," and the compartmentalizing I've had to do to adapt to the world around me has resulted in exhaustive self-policing.

As I have started to build space in my life for a connection to my ancestral lineage, both metaphorically through open-mindedness and physically through an ancestral altar, I have been faced with several opportunities to connect my personal struggles to the collective struggles folks in Latino communities may face as a people whose current lives are impacted by hundreds of years of colonization. When I think about my ancestors and how they were wounded by the colonizer, I wonder what I can do in the now to effect change and bring my family as a whole the healing we need to move forward. Colonization, for me, has meant that I never spoke Spanish around people who weren't also native speakers out of shame. It has meant I've only had minimal knowledge of folk stories and myths from Mexico and that I've never really learned anything about Mexican history. I became so assimilated that I never even heard of Dia de los Muertos until a few years ago. Decolonization, then, has been a way for me to remove the cloak of assimilation and reveal the true self I kept hidden out of a duty to be "a good Mexican."

I set up an ancestral altar for the purposes of working directly with my ancestors intuitively, and I'll be making my ofrendas on this altar today and tomorrow. Communicating directly with my ancestors has begun to change how I think of what it means to be Mexican. It's also persistently brought up some questions around family trauma and colonization that I don't know if I will ever be able to answer. What Dia de los Muertos means for me, personally, is mostly about reclamation. It's about honoring my ancestors, though I never knew them, and building a relationship with them even though they're gone. The main purpose of this for me is to help heal the intergenerational trauma that has affected my existing family members and me. I mostly have surface-level conversations with my family in the present-day, and this intuitive work gives me the opportunity to walk between the physical world and the world of spirit, to cross the bridge between the two, as a means to learn more about my ancestors and to learn how to help my family, past and present, move through trauma. I am becoming more acutely aware of the ways the members of our present-day lineage have been directly impacted by the effects of colonization and assimilation, and the more I learn, the closer I get to feeling a little more comfortable in my Mexican skin.

I am aware, in some form, that I have been called to be an intermediary, that walking between the two worlds of the physical and the spiritual and helping others heal from trauma is what the curandera--the medicine woman--does in service to her community. It is a duty I do not take lightly. Though I have just begun my journey, as I walk the path, I feel ever more grateful for the rituals that have survived colonization, and I also feel a deep desire to dive more fully into the healing work I do that is simultaneously personal, sacred, political, and collective.

In the meantime, I do what I can to educate myself. I keep learning Mexico's rich history and read the literature of its amazing authors, listen to the traditional music, and read up on the history that brought us to where we are today. The history of this holiday, alone, is full of symbolism and significance with roots in philosophical ideals, the cyclical nature of death, political unrest and resistance, and the shattering of socio-economic divides. Dia de los Muertos, for me, is not only a celebration of the lives of our loved ones who have passed on, it is an opportunity to reach deep into the past so that we learn from it and heal the present. It is a reminder of the impermanence of everything, and a way for us to process the grief we feel over loss while also recognizing the beauty of the spirits of those we've loved and lost. It is a chance for me, personally, to decolonize my mind and my life, and to bring forth the gifts I have been blessed with that I felt I had to hide in the process of assimilation.

It is important to me to preserve the traditions and history of my culture, to pass on those traditions and the knowledge of history to my children, so that they will know the grounded confidence and self-love I grew up missing. For me, learning about our ancestors and connecting to them has broader implications than just my immediate personal experience. Remaining connected to our traditions allows us to come to terms with our history, not only as a family, but as a people. Knowing the stories of those who walked this earth before us allows us to integrate what we learn to make more conscious choices going forward. It allows us a self-awareness and self-reflection necessary to heal the wounds of the past so that we have an opportunity to create the peace we need in the present. For those reasons, Dia de los Muertos is a day of reckoning for me, a day to honor and serve my ancestors, a day to plant seeds to heal our familial wounds, not only for my children but also for any descendants who may follow.

The Calaveras / Jose Guadalupe Posada / Public Domain

Banner Photo: Alex Harvey on Unsplash

Bottom Photo: The Calaveras by Jose Guadalupe Posada / Library of Congress, Public Domain

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