The Common Good
January-February 1996

La Cultura Cura

by Aaron McCarroll Gallegos | January-February 1996

Latinos' culture of healing draws on Christian and indigenous traditions.

All of us have lost somebody. Some have been shot. Some have been to prison. Some have been lost to drugs or alcohol. We're such beautiful people and we're killing ourselves. It's hard to talk about peace when we come with such pain, but I am inspired by you in the hope of nonviolence. This is the vision of my teacher, César Chávez: Si, Se Puede!

CALLED TO LET GO of their grief by Nane Alejandrez, the executive director of the gang-alternative organization Barrios Unidos, the young Latinos at last August's National Peace Summit gathered around a simple memorial to honor the names and symbols of their homeboys and homegirls lost to barrio warfare. Though no more than butcher paper taped to a wall in Santa Cruz's Civic Auditorium, the teen-agers brought it to life with their own hearts and souls, listing the names and symbols of those who had been killed in their neighborhoods.

The memorial became as sacred a reminder of the violence and pain of war for the young people at the Peace Summit as the black granite of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. And though the scale differs greatly, to those caught up in the midst of the chaos that rules so many of our inner-city neighborhoods, the experience of warfare is no less real.

As the list overflows from one sheet of paper to two-and then to three-one can begin to sense the depth of the crisis in the Latino community. Nearly all of those listed on the memorial died young, killed as the violence of urban America caught up with them before they even had the chance to learn that the same streets they played in as children become urban free-fire zones when they reach adolescence.

Some families are disproportionately struck by the violence, such as that of Rudy Buchanan of Phoenix, who lost both of his sons in one year. Near the top of the list are the names of several of Nane's relatives, all lost to what he calls the "madness of the barrio."

Barrios Unidos called the National Peace Summit in order to launch the César Chávez Peace Plan, their new multipronged initiative to address the root causes of violence in our society. Offering proposals to continue the gang truce movement through community economic development and the creation of a national violence prevention model, the César Chávez Peace Plan will also be the focus of another summit planned for this spring in Washington, D.C. There it will be formally presented to Congress and the Clinton administration as a national anti-violence program.

Attended by more than 600 young people and adults from around the country, the summit in Santa Cruz was also an occasion for the members the National Coalition of Barrios Unidos, which includes Barrios Unidos' chapters around the country and other groups working to stop the violence in the Latino community, to come together for mutual support and for the spiritual renewal that is at the heart of their peace movement.

"It's a spiritual movement-it has to be because there is so much pain," said Juan "Homer" Leija, the director of the Barrios Unidos chapter in Fresno. "There's a war right now against our people-first Proposition 187 to get out those who are illegal, then the three-strikes-and-you're-out policy to get the rest of us. The attack on affirmative action is another part of the war. Some of us are comfortable because of the sacrifices of our ancestors and now that is being attacked. We're dying and we must change if we're going to survive."

Scott Kennedy, representing Santa Cruz's mayor and city council, likened what was happening at the National Peace Summit to William James' 1906 declaration that in order to find peace, we first must find a moral equivalent to war that fulfills some of the more noble human qualities that war brings out, such as bravery, discipline, and responsibility for one another. "Barrios Unidos' work to create spiritual warriors," he said, "draws young people into the struggle for peace and justice with the use of culture and the insights and traditions of indigenous people."

THE TRANSFORMATIVE vision at the heart of the National Peace Summit and Barrios Unidos' work is part of the growing movement among Latinos to recognize and recover their spiritual traditions. Transcending many of the boundaries erected in mainstream America, this movement brings together indigenous roots with Christian beliefs, reflecting a multicultural heritage that draws from Native American, European, and African wells.

Indigenous American traditions and culture have always been a substantial part of life in the Latino community. But for centuries the politics of racism and occupation have made it necessary for Latinos to accept the European culture and history that was forced upon them to the exclusion of their indigenous American side.

"It wasn't a happy marriage of two cultures," said Manuel Kuauhtli Vasquez, a young spiritual leader who works with young people in San Antonio. "The Spanish came and raped our foremothers. Now we're supposed to call ourselves Hispanics? I don't accept that. If you take all of the Mexican blood in one pool, it would be 90 percent indigenous and 10 percent European." Especially since the Chicano movement of the 1960s and 1970s, the recognition and celebration of Latinos' indigenous heritage has been growing both in the United States and Latin America. Some young Latinos, unable to find a niche within the mainstream Christian church, are nurturing their faith by returning to the spiritual roots of their Maya, Aztec, Apache, Yaqui, Inca, Navaho, and other Native American ancestors. Many Latinos in the United States who are conscious of their indigenous roots are joining American Indians in sustaining their faith through prayers in the sweat lodge, purification with sage, and sacred pipe and sun dance ceremonies.

Called la cultura cura, or healing culture, it includes ceremonies, rituals, and arts that can be used to help many Latinos overcome the multigenerational pain that surrounds them and leads to the death and destruction present in the Latino community.

"It's about looking within," said Nane Alejandrez. "I need the sage, the sweat lodge, all those sacred things so I can cry, so I can heal. We must get rid of the hatred."

Manuel Kuauhtli Vasquez says, "If the youth could learn their pre-Hispanic indigenous culture, then they would gain respect for life and for the Earth, and the interconnectedness would begin to stir human compassion in them. That has to be the basis for building peace. The foundation is respect for human life. When we go into the teocalli [what the Aztecs called the sweat lodge] we pray and purify ourselves with the most basic elements. Earth, fire, water, air. We all sit right on the earth, with no one better than anyone else."

Popos Rodriguez, a young leader with Denver Crusade for Justice, told the young people at the Peace Summit, "Chicanos have the blood of indigenous from all over the continent. We have to blend all of our influences. This is our culture. People are working against our unity. They know this is our land and they are afraid that we will wake up one day and take it back."

BUT LA CULTURA CURA isn't just about philosophy and rituals. Its healing also flows through the art, music, poetry, and dance of the vibrant Latino culture of Atzlan, the Aztec's mythical place of origin that many Chicanos believe to be the southwestern United States. Poet and author Luis Rodriguez called on artists to take a leading role in the healing of the Latino community, using poets as an example. "The Aztecs all were poets," he said. "They didn't just fight with weapons, they fought with words. Let's keep fighting-we need poets because language is power and we need to get back to power."

The indigenous people of Mesoamerica, for whom there was no distinction between art and religion, saw ceremonies and the creation of art as terrestrial re-enactments of what was happening on the spiritual plane. In a similar way, la cultura cura can be a catalyst for the spiritual healing and renewal of the Latino community.

The celebration of la cultura cura was evident each evening of the summit, as the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium was transformed into a dance hall beneath the eyes of a life-size painting of Guadalupe and the framed portrait of César Chávez. While some prepared the stage for performances of Aztec dance, poetry reading, and the Latino rhythm and blues of Dr. Loco's Rockin' Jalapeno Band, others started moving to the ranchero, rap, and rock-and-roll pounding through the sound system.

Youth Struggling for Survival and PODER from Chicago put on a short skit in honor of Marcos Cardova, a young leader who was killed shortly before the summit began. The young people from Chicago, still obviously grieving the loss of their homeboy, bravely stepped on stage one after another to illustrate the problems many urban youth face-sexual abuse at home, alcoholism, AIDS, unintended pregnancy. In the middle of their performance, a young woman broke down and cried, "It just has to stop. This killing has to stop."

The release of her pain and anger affected everybody gathered in the auditorium and bonded the young people together. Later, several dozen men, women, and children from the White Hawk Dancers offered a healing ceremony of traditional Aztec danzantes in costumes of brilliantly colored, feathered Mexica regalia, strengthening the hearts of all.

Another powerful example of the healing at the heart of la cultura cura occurred when inmates from the Department of Corrections' "Straight Forward" program offered a presentation urging young people to stay away from activity that would cause them to end up in prison. After their talk, Chemo Candelaria and Enrique Dominguez, two spiritual elders in the Chicano peace movement, offered an honor song for the prisoners. With the entire assembly standing in respect, the men gathered around the drum circle and the elders spoke to each of them and then anointed them with cleansing sage smoke.

"They had to have a ceremony done for them," said Teresa Candelaria, another spiritual elder. "Then they could allow themselves to forgive themselves for any mistakes they did, correct them, and move on."

Earlier, Blanca Martinez, a board member of Barrios Unidos who works with youth in Dallas, offered an electrifying speech urging the young people to start the healing process themselves. "When Jesus Christ was crucified on the cross he could have called down all of his angels and kicked some butt," she said. "But he forgave those who crucified him. The only reason we want to knock each other down is because we don't feel good about ourselves. We need to stand together and be family."

"That's where we that carry the medicine come in," Teresa Candelaria said, "to start the healing process."

RECOVERY OF INDIGENOUS traditions presents the potential of a serious dilemma for many Christians-especially those in the Latino community. It took hundreds of years to build a predominantly Catholic Latino world, and generations of our ancestors have struggled to establish their families in Christianity.

Yet more than half a millennium after the arrival of Europeans and the Christian faith in America, the current crisis of violence in the Latino community is leading many to draw from other, older wellsprings of strength. Though some remain uneasy, this is consistent with the history of Christianity around the world that has always drawn upon the resources of the surrounding culture to address crisis and situations particular to that context.

The 1531 appearance of the brown-skinned Virgin of Guadalupe-which both Catholic friars and conquered Aztecs could recognize as a blessing in their own traditions-helped the indigenous people of the Valley of Mexico raise up something new out of the ashes of their civilization and reconcile themselves to the new Christian context in which they found themselves. Perhaps in a similar way the recovery of indigenous traditions can inspire the Latino community to rise like an eagle on the wings of peace and healing as we all reach together into the heart of the next millennium.

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