We Have Each Other: Turning to Indigenous Ceremony for Strength and Vision

Huehueyolotl, a Mexika women’s ceremonial drum group (A part of the Kapulli Tekpatl) honoring our gente—our people at Living Arts’ Teatro Chico: Dia de los Muertos. Photo by Julianne Lindsay

By Mayté Penman

“They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.” – Mexican Proverb

In 1990 I immigrated to Detroit  from northern Mexico, where I had the fortune to meet sisters who come together to practice Indigenous ceremonies as a way not only to preserve our identity and culture, but as a way to heal ourselves. We are learning through the practice of nahuatl songs, Aztec dance, inipis/temazcal, vision quest and moon dances. We share our personal struggles and experiences while we break bread, pray, honor our ancestors and celebrate our community as part of our extended family. We search for unity, love and self-determination, recognizing that the healing of a single person causes a ripple effect, and becomes the catalyst for the community to be healed and empowered so we can address the many issues we need to address collectively.

I am part of Huehueyolotl, which is a Mexika women’s ceremonial drum group and part of a larger group, the Kapulli Tekpatl. The mission of Huehueyolotl is to help our Indigenous-descended community heal from the harmful effects of the colonialism that started in 1492, by recovering, protecting and offering sacred Indigenous songs, with an emphasis on songs in the Nahuatl language. Nahuatl is a language that has long been widely spoken by members of many Indigenous nations in the area now known as Mexico, and continues to be spoken today.

The work we do in our ceremonial drum group is very important because it helps us to decolonize and heal. By singing our sacred songs, we reclaim our worldview, language and connectedness, and are uplifted. This gives us the strength to deal with the communal effects of anti-immigration, which are breaking our families and leaving many of our loved ones powerless, disheartened and demoralized. Through the songs, we learn and gain strength, as our ancestral teachings are embedded in the songs.

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When I first arrived in the United States, people talked openly about their immigration status. Organizations, churches, banks, and schools provided aid. It was difficult living in the U.S.; however, we hoped for this to be temporary since home was what we had left behind. We had compassion for each other and knew that each individual had their own story to tell, and we were not alone in our struggles because we knew we had each other.

For undocumented immigrants, life is constant uncertainty. People take whatever opportunities they are afforded. Accustomed to living day by day, they take whatever chance they get to work, to make some money to pay for bills and save what is left over. The future is unclear and uncertain, there is no idea what it will hold, and it is understood that even though one day things may be “normal,”  the next day you could be deported. Living in a place that is not welcoming feels and looks like living in the shadows, living in the dark.

Things became progressively worse for the immigrant community during 2006, when the government introduced the legislation known as H. R. 4437 that prohibited any aid to “illegals” (word used without making a distinction between the person and the actions). Anybody who hired, supported or provided any type of help to an immigrant would have to pay a fee or go to jail. As a result of this, thousands of people mobilized in massive demonstrations across the country, including Detroit. This marked the way many of us decided to step up, participate and be active in the political arena. The 2006 demonstrations woke up the sleeping activist in many of us newcomers. We felt that united, we could make a difference.

Many people in Detroit organized themselves to provide trainings to immigrants about what to do in case  they were stopped by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). This work extended to Macomb, where I used to live. In both areas, Macomb and Wayne County, community organizers provided “Know your Rights” training, which was intense, emotional work.

In the process of this work, I realized that what we were doing was only covering the surface of the real problem. People don’t want to leave their home countries and leave behind their loved ones. People come here because they are forced to. U.S.-Mexican relations have always been fraught with injustice; however, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) exacerbated the issue, displacing individuals in Mexico and forcing them North. Many people lost their jobs and small businesses and entrepreneurs went bankrupt. This was a difficult time for Mexico, evidenced by the middle class, who also began to travel to look for jobs. They were trying to survive or pay for loans, which skyrocketed with the devaluation of the Mexican peso. There was a time when only unskilled workers came to the USA. Now we had a group of folks with college degrees who came to work as laborers. Most importantly, this migration changed the face of agriculture in Mexico, making rural livelihood nearly impossible and forcing people into cities and northward into the U.S.

I realized that until we collectively support the local economy and workers have decent wages, nationally and across the world, we won’t see the change we want. Immigration is not new and it is not something that just happens to two or three countries. It is a global problem that is rooted in a history of colonialism, which displaced and removed indigenous people from their land. Formerly colonized countries continue being disenfranchised and weakened by contemporary neoliberal powers. As we healed from our colonial history, it became necessary to use the same community-based healing to resist current neocolonial exploitation.

The anti-Immigration forces took a sharp turn when, during the 2016 elections, then-presidential candidate, Donald Trump, expressed how he felt about minorities, particularly about Mexicans. Discrimination has always been a part of our lives, but when he openly attacked Mexicans, he validated the opinions of those who had previously hidden their bigotry.

The Latino community organized and began to boycott businesses that supported Trump. However, we wanted to believe this was temporary, a really bad joke that eventually would come to an end because, thinking rationally, how could we have a President who is openly racist? How could we support someone who is so interested in building walls, instead of looking for ways to connect with others?

And on November 8th the reality hit — and hit big time! And ever since then, it has been a nightmare.

Since the election, people have been intimidated, even in schools. Our youth are being harassed by other youth. People are being detained, and when it happens, they are not held at local jails, they are transferred to different states. Moving detainees to other states leaves their families powerless, making it more difficult for them to get legal support and increasing travel expenses.

There is a deliberate effort to “break” the community. Now, many families are being separated.  More than ever, women are seeking ways to prepare themselves for they know their lives are on the edge. It has become evident that building relationships with other ethnic communities is essential. Many community organizers and activists are assisting families to understand the importance of having a system in place and to be prepared, to organize their assets, if there are any, and most importantly, to have a person who will take care of their children in case parents are taken.

In the midst of the situation, and right after the elections, many activists and community organizers in Southwest Detroit rallied around a call from Mary Luevanos to acknowledge our angst and do something, to go back to the healing practices and traditions of our ancestors by planning an intentionally symbolic night, a memorial to “grieve democracy” as we knew it.  Ismael and Amelia Duran, Eliza Perez-Ollin, Oscar Chapa, Peter Velazquez, John Cummings, Bianca Suarez, Mary Luevanos and I organized this gathering for our beloved community at El Garage Cultural. We must recognize the need for comfort and the healing of our wounds. We know our community is resilient; people unite, organize and mobilize.

This was not a representation of a specific group, organization, or nonprofit agency. This was the work of folks who were willing to come together and work intentionally to create a safe space for healing. This was an opportunity where we could bury our hate, our fears, recognize our anger and transform our energy into something positive.

We created an actual casket, wrote all the things we wanted to let go of and deposited them inside the casket. We made a procession and burned all our fears and anxieties, and then we wished for a better future. We celebrated our indigenous roots with our traditional Nahuatl “cantos” by Huehueyolotl, honored our creator and blessed the four directions with the Aztec dance led by our brothers in Kalpulli Tekpatl.  We honored our mother earth, our Pachamama. As we used traditional songs and dance, we asked for strength as we began to move forward. God knows we needed it then, and we need it now!

We opened the space for more songs and poetry, remembered that our gente—our people—had been in this path before and had been weakened, but not defeated. We knew we needed to strengthen ourselves by using healing symbols and medicine to invoke feelings of love, peace, and tranquility, to reclaim our humanity and to remind ourselves that we must preserve our dignity in difficult times. We broke bread, hugged, cried and laughed, and most importantly, we acknowledged that despite our struggles, we are not alone. We confirmed that we have each other.

The Kapulli Tekpatl and Huehueyolotl (Bilingual Group) continue to meet for teachings, inipis/temazcales, vision quest and moon dances. The ceremonies are geared toward Indigenous-descended people especially, but not exclusively to those who identify themselves as Mexicans, Chicanxs, or Latinxs. For more information on the Kalpulli, please call:

Flint  Abuela Celia (Bilingual)  810-715-9009 o Gelbert  810-691-5596

Detroit   Sandra (Bilingual)   313-938-6323, Mayté 5867700603 (Bilingual) or eliza 3136295363, elizaqperez@gmail.com (Bilingual)

Lansing  Tonatzin (Bilingual)   517-775-1721 or Toby 517-646-5050.

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