Generational Trauma

The importance of how the experiences of my ancestors affect my life was introduced to me as a Black Studies major in college. It wasn’t until the last couple of years that I not only understood that but also felt the effects. I would like to share my thoughts of how I came to hear and feel the trauma to the point of understanding how we are repeating the choices and lives of our foremothers and forefathers.

Writing my book, “Hija De Mi Madre”, made me reflect on what that means. Much of my views on sex, spirituality and the world were influenced by my environment growing up. Getting my hair relaxed at age 6 and watching all the women around me follow suit religiously made me reject my natural hair. Portrayals of Latinos as only resembling White people made me feel like there was something wrong with me. There is also the element of mental health. I had a vague understanding growing up about what women around me seemed to suffer from, “los nervios”, and ended up seeking therapy to heal from them. Through my work with mental health and observing how it affects African American and Latino communities, I began to notice the silence around the cycles that continue not just mentally but on all levels. Moreover, I saw how feelings of disempowerment have served as an obstacle to healing and transcending oppression.

I often have difficulty talking about generational trauma because I don’t want to come off as accusing anyone of doing a bad job at raising myself and my generation. Our families and communities have done what they could given the circumstances created by the dominant culture. Yet, I feel the necessity to talk about how so many of us are carrying the things we learned just by experiencing life with our parents and families. Speaking as an Afro-Latina, analyzing the Latino culture, my own experiences and sharing with others, there is a legacy of oppression that has become internalized from colonial times and beyond.

Internalized oppression stems from people being targeted and discriminated against. Often, the myths and misinformation that society communicates to them about their sociopolitical group are internalized – they believe and make it a part of their self-image. Exploited people such as African Americans, Latinos, women, LGBTQ individuals, and impoverished populations then act as if they were true. In our contemporary society, this internalized oppression manifests in our urban communities, relationships, beauty regimes, and families.

Latinos have had to endure various levels of oppression in Latin America and in the United States. From the time of conquistadors through the enslavement until now, the ideologies of white supremacist, patriarchal and capitalist imperialists have sought to undermine the self-determination of the African and indigenous people in the Caribbean and South America. The amount of trauma that our ancestors endured was intense and unfortunately, has never properly been addressed. Various forms of violence, lack of social mobility, feelings of unworthiness, religious intolerance, racial biases and family histories have been inherited through generations on a personal and collective level.

Not all members of groups that are discriminated against or oppressed necessarily turn stereotypes inward. Many remain proud of their heritage, or are able to take prominent places in the larger society through their exercise of effort, intelligence, talent, interpersonal skill, and self-respect. However, the effects of internalized oppression are present in our communities. As we work to change the conditions of oppressed people in the world, the necessity to speak about how breaking the personal cycles within ourselves, families and communities becomes imperative.

Genesis – 1st Belly Cast

When I think about how These Waters Run Deep came to be, I take myself back to where I was in my life when it all came about. I was living close to Riverdale at the time. In those days, I was working as an art model in various art schools in NYC and working at my old stomping ground, Youth Ministries for Peace & Justice (YMPJ). It was during this time in my city adventures that I met Lizzy Fox and Sharon De La Cruz.

I saw Lizzy at a poetry performance and was so taken by her piece that I asked her to hang out. I was interested in using my poetry and art to convey powerful messages and she was on the same wavelength. We would meet once a week and took on our healing journeys through our poems. As we worked on our first collaboration, the idea of creating belly casts as a way to speak about health disparities for women of color came to me.

Sharon and I worked at YMPJ together. We came to find out that we were both deeply involved in our Womanist ideology through our social justice work and through our art. Sharon is a talented graffiti artist whose art speaks in political volumes. By the end of 2010, I wrote out all my ideas and was motivated to create a call for mothers and begin the 13 belly cast cycle. My first belly cast was created after many conversations with Sharon and an invitation from her to  present my project at Female Flava, an annual conference at The Point CDC, a non-profit dedicated to youth development and the cultural and economic revitalization of the Hunts Point section of the South Bronx:

I began to search for the first volunteer. As the conference got closer, I began to worry. The Universe interceded and brought me to Mercy Tullis. I took the bus to Co-Op City to meet Mercy. She was referred to me through a friend who I told about my project. Mercy was 37 weeks at the time of our meeting. I spent the day before scrambling to find gauze and plaster of Paris, reading up as much as I could on casting. I was nervous, wondering if I knew what I was doing.

Mercy was very excited to meet me. She had the most adorable son who was intrigued that I was in the house. Mercy’s father was also in the house, helping her with the last few weeks of her pregnancy. We spoke first about my project, and she shared more about herself. Then we began. I did the belly cast in her room as I spoke to her and the baby. I learned quickly that my favorite part of this project is rubbing the mother’s belly with Vaseline. The Vaseline serves to prevent the plaster from adhering to the skin. She was smiling as I rubbed her belly and talked to both of them. I almost cried of happiness. Mercy felt like I was serving her and I was honored that she was volunteering for my vision.

Her father was stunned that I was doing this for free. He couldn’t believe that I was doing the project out of my passion and heart. For my efforts, he gave me a shot of a lovely rum from Honduras. It was his way of thanking me for giving his daughter special attention during the last part of her pregnancy. Mercy is a Black, Honduran, American with Jamaican roots, 35 year-old woman married to a Pakistani-American Muslim.  She has taught English Language Arts to thousands of our New York City public school children for 11 years.  Mercy took a two-year hiatus a couple of years ago, just to find herself back into teaching.  Right now, she is solely focused on being a mother. From my last contact with her, she lives in Colorado with her two beautiful children and husband.

For the conference, I painted the belly and gave a presentation on the health disparities for women of color in birth:

Here are some of the words she wrote in her letter to her baby:

“Be yourself.  Love yourself.  Know yourself.  If you do those three things, nobody will ever tear you down.  Always know that Mom will always encourage you to be your true self, and Mom will always be next to you, regardless of anything.”

Stay tuned for the rest of the belly cast stories!