I recently purchased a book that I have been eager to read. The book focuses on Spiritual Herbalism and Ancestral Healing, and how to put the information into practice. As I read this book, I was confronted with a question.
What explains the tendency of families who emigrate to the mainland US to forget their ancestral ways and practically discard all they have learned and loved in the past?
It was impossible for me to stop thinking about this question after reading the first few pages. I was not prepared for what happened next. My body began to feel this wave of emotion rush throughout my entire body. There was a feeling of heaviness in my chest, reminiscent of heartbreak. It was as if a profound sadness and overwhelming grief had set in. As my emotions became more intense, I began to question their cause. As I began to reflect on my situation, I began to ask myself, “Why was I so sad?”. While I held such knowledge in my hands, how could I possibly be anything but joyful? As I had been eyeing this particular book for months, how could it possibly have brought me to such a pivotal moment in my life? As I became more aware of the heaviness, I began to mentally check in with myself. Then it hit me, I’ve lost touch with my ancestral ways. To put it simply, I didn’t know who my ancestors were, since they’re supposedly extinct, or so I thought. I was longing for a connection, and this book forced me to realize I needed to figure out who I was. In order to live my true purpose and thrive I had to find out more about my ancestral lineage to get a better understanding of coexisting with all that is. I started to realize the grief I was experiencing wasn’t just for myself. The jumble of emotions was for my parents and my grandparents before them. The generation before me wasn’t taught the ancestral wisdom that permeated through my grandparents, because they had to give up all ancestral and folkloric knowledge to assimilate to American culture. The trauma of assimilation and losing what made them unique was visceral. Living a life without a sense of connection to life’s true purpose must be difficult. The inability to pass on nuggets of knowledge that were once cherished by those before you, to transmit the wisdom that was intended to be passed down from generation to generation. Learning how to live within a community rather than avoiding it.
However, here I was craving for what was lost, what my family may have been too ashamed to bring over from Puerto Rico. My family is Puerto Rican, but I was born and raised in the bustling city of NYC. Puerto Rico has a long tradition of ancestral food, nourishing recipes, and knowledge of folk medicine and living off the land. Although I am not a historian, I will try my best to provide a brief overview of my ancestral island. Puerto Rico (originally called Boriken) was once home to indigenous people known as Tainos (now believed to be extinct). Sometime between the late 1400s and early 1500s, the Spaniards (Europeans) colonized the island and brought over slaves from Africa to work the land of Puerto Rico. This is all to say that our people, culture, and history are a wonderful and complex melting pot of many features and elements. A wide variety of skin colors can be found in our country, ranging from alabaster to gorgeously enriched with melanin. We have a strong African and Indigenous influence within our culture. However, with such an extensive (and sometimes painful) history, once we leave the island and emigrate to the United States, (as in my family’s case whose chosen destination was NYC), we tend to cut off all ties to the folklore and magic that surrounds our island. It is assumed that in order to assimilate to the “American” way and the popular religion of choice, Catholicism, they lost touch with their ancestral way.
Growing up, I was raised in a household that did not teach us the importance of honoring the Earth or working in close partnership with the elements. Although I do not wish to blame my parents, I believe they did their best with what they had. Their intention was to instill in us what they believed would keep us safe. The environment in which I grew up was completely disconnected from nature in any capacity. As a child, I spent a great deal of time running away from insects, both indoors and outdoors. Walking through Central Park, I would fear that an animal such as a racoon, a pigeon, or even a squirrel would attack me. My ignorance led me to assume that animals should be kept in controlled spaces and cages (i.e., in the Central Park Zoo or the Bronx Zoo). As I grew up and developed into an adult, however, I began to feel as though something was missing. Suddenly, I realized I did not wish to maintain the walls I had been taught to build in order to keep myself “safe” any longer. The idea of being apart from nature was not appealing to me; rather, I wished to become one with her. Instead of being afraid of the ocean, I wished to splash around in it and listen to the waves crash onto the shore, rather than being intimidated by it. In my teenage years and even into my early twenties, I can recall evading the sun. It was customary for me to wear long sleeves during the hottest days of the summer in NYC, as well as to regularly apply sunblock. It was a real concern of mine that I would “burn”. As a result, I was completely inhibiting the healing power of the sun from radiating down onto my golden skin (something my ancestors would’ve known well). Once I reached full adulthood, my mid-twenties, I began to crave a connection to the “old ways”. My heart longed for something to fill the void that was slowly beginning to grow inside of me. As a way of identifying myself, I began to read about different cultures like, Paganism and Druidism. I was particularly interested in the tribal culture of West Africa, which I wanted to learn more about. My attention was then drawn to the Yoruban influence in Puerto Rico, and I delved into learning as much as I could about the many cultures that influenced our part of the globe. In terms of my direct ancestors, I did not have a great deal of information except for the recipes that have been handed down from generation to generation of women in my family. As I savored bowls of Sancocho, or copious amounts of deliciously seasoned rice, I felt a sense of renewal, love, warmth, and protection. It seemed that I felt a connection to a higher power while devouring fried fritters known as alcapurrias. While eating salted fish accompanied by ample side dishes of root vegetables such as Yuca, malanga, and yautia, I could almost hear the waves of the island beckoning me to come home. Last but not least, I can recall practically crying tears of joy while enjoying my paternal grandmother’s secret recipe of fried bread and stewed beans. My heart was filled with a wonderful feeling of love with every bite of this glorious food, and I wanted more. Without the guidance of my living relatives scattered throughout the United States, I felt stuck and unsure of my next step. I put this quest on hold for a while until the desire for connection resurfaced again. As a result, I took the next logical course of action. As part of my search for information about my lineage, I took a DNA test, and the results were eye-opening and wonderful. It has since been revealed to me that my ancestors are not only from Puerto Rico, but also from Peru, Europe (Spain, England, and Sweden), Yoruba Nigeria, Gambia, Mende in Sierra Leone, and Kenya; I am a mix of all the lineages within my family tree. As I have assumed all my life that I am solely Puerto Rican, I was delighted when I learned that I come from a number of different places, even in the tiniest amount. There is a melting pot of many places within me, resulting in one human being. It is my goal to gain a deeper understanding of what makes me, ME! It is now clear to me that the reason why I have felt this yearning for knowledge is because my ancestors believed that I should walk in their footsteps, learn as much as I could from them. There was a reason why this book was placed within my reach, and I felt such an urgent need to pick it up and read it. The memories evoked were brought to the forefront in order to help me realize that I am to help myself and others to remember who they are. To learn and teach how to respect the Earth we share and have the privilege of living on. In order to lift up our respective communities, I believe that our ancestors want us to learn from the plants and elements and use them as medicine and as a resource for wisdom. To approach all facets of life as a lesson to be learned. There is a need for us to understand that our path is not to be separate from nature, but to be interconnected with it. To become whole, we must learn to live in a harmonious and symbiotic relationship with this beautiful living planet. It is important to live in gratitude and to honor those who have come before us. Once we have accepted all this, can we regain our sovereignty and reach our divinity, and become the beings we have always aspired to be.
To conclude, I would like to ask you a question: What will you do to live in harmony with Gaia, the living Earth we have the honor to call home? In order to elevate all that we consider family and community, it is important to honor not only yourself, but your ancestors as well.
I wish you love, prosperity, and most importantly, ancestral healing.