Mama Tiwa: Proud Black Momma


Mama Tiwa is proud to be a Black woman. Black pride became a central part of our relationship as doula and pregnant momma and now as sister friends in the struggle for liberating ourselves. I remember meeting her for the first time in her home last year and knowing she wanted me to be her doula immediately. We would meet mid-mornings in the summertime, our dresses flowing in the wind as we walked in the park trying to identify plants for their medicinal properties. From prenatals in her car to one of our last in her mother’s home, we talked about her dreams for her child and personal goals. She’d share with me what it meant for her to be a Black mother given the current political climate, making it clear to me that she understood the responsibility and the reality of it. It was an honor to serve her in her pregnancy and birth.

I got to see her  postpartum, after she had spent a week with her partner’s mother; this is when I asked her about her birth story. I didn’t get to watch her child be born because the hospital had a limit on visitors and I wanted her family to witness the birth. When I arrived, she was breastfeeding her baby. “I’m definitely happy to be breastfeeding. It was difficult at first. She latched on pretty quickly and I also told them not to give her any bottle at all because I heard that disrupts the chemistry they got going on so I didn’t make them give her a bottle,” Mama Tiwa explained when I asked her how it was going. “It hurt a lot. Like, by day two, my breasts were really sore. And the lactation coach was not there.” The lactation coach ended up coming on the day she was leaving and gave her a brief tutorial. “She told me that if it hurts, that means I’m not doing it right. I was so nervous to breastfeed her because it hurt, but I need to breastfeed her because my breasts are so big and engorged, which also hurts. So I spoke to my grandma, you know, my source of power, and she was like, “It’s supposed to hurt.” I was like, “The doctor said if it hurts, I’m doing it wrong.”

Mama Tiwa’s mother never breastfed because of the pain. Her grandmother and her partner’s mother did so she talked to them. “My grandma was like, “It’s supposed to hurt. Don’t let no doctor tell you that you’re doing it wrong if it hurts you because honestly, just like the birth, it’s going to hurt. But after a while, it’s not going to hurt you anymore. And my boyfriend’s mom pretty much said the same thing.  When she latches on, I can feel the grip. Now it doesn’t hurt at all.” Mama Tiwa got animated as she described how she sometimes can’t wait for the baby to wake up because her breasts become engorged when it’s time for a feeding. This is one of many ways she has been getting to know her new baby.

She has had a lot of support in the postpartum and doesn’t know how people do it without it. “I give props to anyone who does ‘cause it’s hard. With support, it’s [still] hard because being around somebody for 24 hours a day who needs you is a little intimidating ‘cause sometimes I don’t know what she wants. I’m still learning. They say that usually she wants to eat, she wants to sleep, she’s overstimulated, understimulated, or she’s wet. So if I try all those things and she’s still crying, which happened to me last night…I’m like, “What is going on?!? Everything I did….!” I kept counting, “I did all the five things!”

That’s another thing too. I feel like a creep.” Mama Tiwa is so in love with her baby that she can’t help but stare at her. She felt bad while at her boyfriend’s mother’s home because there were so many people in the house and she just stayed in the room, looking at her. “No TV, no nothing…just looking at her for like hours at a time. And it was for days too. I would just stay in the room and just kept looking at her. My boyfriend does the same thing. It’s just…I feel we both are like creeps because we just hover over her like, “Look at her face. Look at her mouth. Look at her eyes.” Oh my gosh. I still can’t believe her. It’s crazy. I can’t believe I made that!”

During the week that she spent with her boyfriend’s family, she experienced a Nigerian baby bath. “It was excruciating the first night watching her do it ‘cause it looked so rough,” Mama Tiwa recalls. She described that within this bath ritual, the baby received rigorous massaging and they would hold the baby over the grandmother’s knees. “She had a bucket [on the floor]. First, she washed her hair and then she washed her skin. Then she pours the water all over her. And the baby’s so small and fragile and she’s crying like crazy. And I’m just like, this is not okay.” She kept trying to catch her and her daughter’s grandma would reassure her that the baby wouldn’t fall as she flips her up. “I was really on the verge of tears. She was like, “Are you going to cry?” “Are you going to kill my baby?” (laughs)

From her research, it seems like a lot of West Africans do the same ritual. She continued to try to do it every night on her own since it’s supposed to be done for 41 nights; she only stayed with her daughter’s grandmother for a week. “You have to be kind of firm with them, you have to be strong. And she said it’s a part of making the baby strong.” Mama Tiwa shared that the first few nights her baby would cry but soon began to relax into the ritual. She was scared but was glad to have learned the bathing ritual. “She took really warm water with a rag and she would just massage it all over the baby. [She would] straightened out the baby’s arms and legs; she said that’s to prevent bow legs. Remember she had that canal head? She would mold her head with the water and gave her a back massage [and belly massage to relieve gas].” Her daughter’s grandmother told her these massages were very important because the baby was always being carried and handled; the baby could experience a lot of pain from that.

Mama Tiwa benefitted from the week as well. Her boyfriend’s family cooked and catered to her. It was strange even for her own family because this type of postpartum tender love and care is not common in American culture. She was able to take breaks from the baby and family members would care for the infant while she showered or even just took a nap. And who is this baby? “Tiwa. It means, “She’s ours”. And we had a naming ceremony for her and the guy who named her in the service extended it to Tiwaloluwa, and that means “the essence of God”; “we all belong to God”.


A woman proud to be of the African Diaspora, Mama Tiwa wanted her daughter to have a very strong African name. “Her name is really beautiful; with talking about most high and God, she is the essence of that and we as Black people are the essence of that. We are the essence of God…and my baby, that’s what her name is. We are little mini demigods all over the place. And that’s what my baby is. That’s what I see in her. All I can think about from the time she was born was, “Oh so THIS is what God is.” Because I felt like I saw God when I saw her, which is crazy. I know some people might think I’m crazy but when I saw her, when she was born, for a while that’s all I could think about. And then Tiwaloluwa, which we found out seven days after, was the extension of Tiwa, just made a whole lot of sense. I have a piece of God right here in my hands that I made so that means I’m an even bigger piece of God. It’s beautiful.”

She shared with me that in many African cultures when a woman has her first child she is no longer referred to as her given name, but as Mama(insert child’s name here). “I think this is truly awesome as it signifies the evolution of a young woman’s life. You are no longer the person you once were, you are now someone’s mother… A bearer of life. At that very moment when your child is born your whole world is transformed and you are no longer the same person you were the day before.” She felt that change the very moment her daughter was born. Mama Tiwa felt the catalyst implode inside her that changed the very essence of her being. “I had an outer-body experience and knew at that very moment I was face to face with what many would call God. This was my true rebirth. My life is no longer my own and my purpose has become very distinct. I am so proud and so grateful to be Mama Tiwa. Baby girl has made me new.”

Motherhood has meant that she needs to step her game up, Mama Tiwa explained. “I want to be her inspiration. I want to show her the right way so she knows what’s right. When she goes out there, other people will tell her otherwise – you know how it is to be a Black woman, [we’re] never good enough. But I want her to know that she is the best.” Mama Tiwa spoke to her baby. “You are the queen of this earth so know that, because they’re going to tell you different. That’s why your name is Tiwa.” Her birthing experience made her feel amazing and strong. “For so many months, so many people told me I wasn’t going to be able to birth her naturally without any medicine or without this or without that.”

The doctors kept asking her if she wanted an epidural, completely disregarding her refusal and even coming into the delivery room with it. That was just one of the many ways society undermine the strength and willpower of birthing women. Mama Tiwa felt like everyone wanted to downplay and doubt her ability to birth without medications. “I faced it. I conquered it. And when I pushed her out, it was like so quick. I didn’t even know I could push her out so fast.” Her boyfriend was beyond impressed, praising her to be one of the most powerful and strongest women he has ever known after he witnessed her give birth to their daughter. When she got close to 10 centimeters, Mama Tiwa wanted to know how much longer it would take. She remembers feeling like she needed to have a bowel movement before she decided she wanted to push. The doctor who had just left came back. He instructed her to push while he attempted to break her amniotic sac. The pain was too much for her so she changed her mind. “He told me, “You HAVE to do this.” And I was like, “Yes!” I like strong people like that because sometimes when you’re weak, you need somebody a little stronger. He was like, “You have to. Nobody else is going to do this but you.” When he said, that in my head I thought, “He’s right. I have to deliver this baby. He’s here to assist me but I got to push her out.” And so I pushed and I screamed. And then he was like, “Don’t scream,’ and then I remember what my grandma told me. She said, don’t scream either. She said, “Grab your boyfriend’s hand, and if you break it, then it must break but don’t scream.”

Her grandmother told her to use the force of the screaming downward. Instead of screaming up and away from her body, Mama Tiwa bore down. “The second time I pushed, her head started crowning and they encouraged me to do it again. So I did it again. With that first push, the water just burst, then the second time she started crowning. I think I gave her three or four more pushes and she was out. And it’s like with every push, it felt better. Like, I was releasing something.” Mama Tiwa could barely believe it was a girl. “Somebody should have slapped me because I was just in a daze. It was surreal, that’s the only word I think I could use to describe it because I felt like I was in dreamland. Like at that very moment, nothing felt real. So I’m just looking around, I’m in a daze. They even asked me, “Don’t you want to hold your baby?” because I was stunned! I was so stunned that Isaiah was like, “It’s a girl.” I asked him what is it, he was like, “it’s a girl.” I was like, “A GIRL?! It has a vagina?!” I asked him that. He was like, “Yeah.” I asked him again, “No, it has a vagina?” He was like, “would you stop asking me that? Yes!”

Tiwa at 6 months strong

“Can I see?” So, I didn’t believe him so I looked, I gave him a side eye and said, “It IS a girl!” So then, I was like, I wanna hold the baby. I want to hold her. I held her; she’s all slimy and white. And she sat there [on my chest] for I don’t know how long…it felt like a long time but then it felt too short because they were like, “We have to take her to clean her up.” I’m like, “Where? Take her where? I don’t want you to take her.” “We’re going to just clean her.” I was like, Isaiah please go with them. Make sure they ain’t doing nothing crazy. But she came back to me like an hour later, which felt like so long.”

Mama Tiwa’s tone turned into one of disgust. “Oh my god. Just thinking about the labor experience, that was the worst. Giving birth was magical even though I didn’t do the pool or anything like that because I was pushing her out but the labor, being alone for so long on that hospital gurney without my doula, without my friends, without my mom, without my boyfriend?!” Women are usually alone at when in triage, which is why I couldn’t be by her side sooner. Unfortunately the way she was treated at Bronx Lebanon Hospital is not uncommon. She asked me to share the name of the hospital so that other women are aware of what she experienced. Though women across cultures experience subpar treatment during their labor and birth, Black and Latina women suffer the brunt of this abuse. “Yo. That was really wicked how they treated me.” I was on a gurney, throwing up…and they just looked at me, and would continue with their conversation. I called you and was like, “Ynanna, I’m throwing up. I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t feel well.” And you’re like, “You’re about to give birth. You’re in transition.” And I will never forget, you was like, “I’m on my way.” I was like, My DOULA!! (pumps fist in the air) That’s how you ended the conversation. You sounded really upset too. And I’m like, “Good. Sheesh!”

She was alone for eight hours with no support. “I’m just disgusted. Like, that was wicked. It’s evil. It’s wicked. And they would sit there and watch me in pain; with you, with Isaiah when I was home, he would massage my back every single contraction. To have that support made it so much easier but to go through it alone?  And then to hear other women screaming on each side of you? This is not cool.” Mama Tiwa is a huge advocate for doulas now and recommends them to any she can.  Many low-income women do not often have access to doulas because of finances and lack of knowledge about the role they can play in their births.

“It’s being able to have support and dealing with pain, like pain management, because those massages…and those techniques – even like the breathing? When you told me to calm down…I remembered that when I was alone for those eight hours for every single contraction, I would just breathe.” The strength Mama Tiwa had to endure what she did to birth her daughter is the same power every woman on the planet has to do the very same thing. As a Black mother in the United States, it is not the last time she will need to tap into this strength. In the experiences that women of color have with reproductive health care, there is much to be desired. It is my duty to support and bring awareness to both the injustices and the triumphs that happen in my community to women who look like me.


Birthwork in the ‘Hood

Nothing brings me the kind of joy helping women give birth in the Bronx does. My formal training as a doula began in New Jersey through a fellowship in which I served three low income women in exchange for in-depth education. I remember learning the statistics for African Americans birthing in this country. It enraged me then and it still does, if not more than ever. I knew that the traveling to be educated on pregnancy and childbirth, from New York to Jersey to Texas and back, meant gaining the ability to come home to the Bronx. Bringing my skills to the most financially disenfranchised congressional district in the country became a necessity and an honor. I’ve seen birth in Lincoln Hospital and Bronx Lebanon and have experienced my first homebirths in the Bronx; the sacrifices were well worth it.

I am blessed to have been a doula for a childhood friend during her second pregnancy and birth. To be able to have women like her that I’ve had some kind of bond with come to me for assistance feels special. Often, we are not privy to such intimate moments of our kindred spirits, activist community members; to be invited to see a woman in her rawest form is a huge privilege.  It was my first homebirth after graduating from Maternidad La Luz, a midwifery school and birth clinic in El Paso, Texas. I got to see her mother, who knew me as a child too, come after the birth with food and to bond with her new grandbaby. Being able to attend this birth with a sister midwife was also wonderful. It was a beautiful early June morning.


The last birth I attended in 2015 was Tanya Field’s homebirth. I had known her from a few years back during the days I was building connections with social justice organizers. Meeting her was the first time I learn of her work with food justice in the South Bronx. The BLK Projek was created in 2009 when the Bronx activist and mother wanted to take a more proactive approach in her quest for social justice and inclusive economic development. It seeks to address food justice and economic development by harnessing the local, good food movement and creating small business and career opportunities for willfully neglected women and youth of color. Being involved in her prenatal care gave me a glimpse into how we are directly impacted by the disparity in food options available to our community. In the summertime, I’d walk to her at the Libertad Urban Farm, a plot of land in our neighborhood that she and her staff have been cultivating to grow food. I listened to her experiences as a Black mother in the South Bronx.

When the opportunity to collaborate with a licensed midwife on her prenatal care presented itself, I was excited about it. It was perfect that Tanya and I happened to live a 20 minute walk away from each other, so I was close enough to assist in providing her care from her last trimester through 6 weeks postpartum. It made me feel like a community healer serving women of color in my local community. It mattered to me to help her and contribute to her health in such a meaningful way. In our neighborhood near Hunts Point, we don’t often experience being loved in our interactions with physicians. This was something Tanya, my other clients, and I reflected on; it means a lot to us when someone treats us with love, respect, and kindness.

Credit: Sedgwick & Cedar x Joe Conzo
Credit: Sedgwick & Cedar x Joe Conzo

The summer and fall of 2015 blessed me with being able to work with primarily women of color in the Bronx. I was able to be a resource of empathy and personalized maternal care in a culturally relevant way. I remember feeling the weight of birthing while Black in this country when I held space for my clients witnessing the murders of young Black folks over those months while grappling with the effects of systemic racism on their lives. The experience deepened my understanding of how low income women struggle against the bureaucratic, uncompassionate and at times inhumane gatekeepers of their access to quality reproductive health care. I watched how my sisters were treated in the hospitals during their pregnancies and births; just to think of the neglect, wickedness (as one of my clients says of her labor and birth at a Bronx hospital) and abuse I’ve endured with them boils my blood. Being involved with my clients’ process gave me an intimate look at the scarcity of options and resources for low income women of color planning to start and expand their families.


Being a part of the efforts to improve birth outcomes in the Bronx has also given me a rich experience of the strength, beauty, and resiliency Bronx women and their families possess; I am inspired by all the encounters I have had. I was able to assist two of my clients through the Healthy Women Healthy Futures (HWHF) project last year made possible through a grant from New York City Council. The project provides birth and postpartum doula care to women in New York City who otherwise cannot afford the services; I decided to focus primarily in the Bronx. Now in its beginning stages of outreach and impact, the HWHF project is helping to raise awareness about the necessity and benefits of doula care. It was amazing to watch my two clients by way of HWHF become mothers for the first time. They were both courageous and fierce in their own ways as we navigated the hospital system during their labors and births. I would muse with them and Tanya about our respective relationships being mad hood, as recommendations, assessments and life stories were weaved together in our urban vernacular, in our homes, and sometimes wherever we could make it happen. I have memories of having prenatal visits in clients’ cars because home was a little too hectic at those moments. We laughed and enjoyed these times, aware that Black women being able to care for each other in this way is homegrown and not sterile in the way our bodies are often treated by the American medical system.

For Tanya, having had a midwife – assisted delivery in her home a couple of years back, she knew the difficulty navigating the system to have that care. Some women who birth in hospitals do it because homebirth is not a financially viable option for them; Tanya shared with me how the complexities of getting insurance to cover midwifery care can shut out low income women who cannot pay out of pocket for this service. It was such a treat for me then to be a part of her care for this pregnancy. I loved answering the questions her daughters had about what I was doing during my visits at her home. Seeing her be able to surrender to her birthing process was nothing short of amazing as I witnessed her achieve the homebirth she wanted. It felt triumphant to me knowing the things she was going through in her own journey fighting for social justice in her community.


There is something very healing about seeing Black and Latina women birth their children. It comes from having grown up in the Bronx for 17 years and understanding that people that come from where I’m from are not expected to succeed nor be resilient. The Bronx is often remembered as burning, with the era of destruction by fire in the 70s and 80s; but I know my hometown’s story does not end in ashes. I am grounded by being of service to women from my hometown; my experiences here fuel the work I do of framing and contextualizing the lives of women of color. Every woman of color I assist in bringing another person of color into the world makes the genocide of Black and Brown bodies a little less harsh. My work gives me hope. It gives me the reality and potential of our transformation through changing our healthcare, addressing the human rights violations experienced by low income people and folks of color, and supporting the already existing efforts and neighborhoods fighting to grow something beautiful. For me, this work connects me to my roots and that which I am passionate about – the liberation of all people oppressed in this world. Here in the Bronx, I can do my part to make sure it keeps birthin’.

Dancing For Herself: Beyoncé’s Embodiment of Motherhood & Feminine Power


I still remember the night I fully embraced Beyoncé Knowles – Carter. I was in the first quarter of my midwifery school career working yet another long shift at the birth clinic. One of my beloved roommates was also on shift that night of December 13, 2013. She came up the stairs when we were all winding down from a long day of prenatal appointments to put me on. She excitedly turned on her tablet and told me that not only did Beyoncé drop a surprise album that day but that it was a visual album with a series of 17 music videos, something that I have not seen done before. I was beyond impressed at the talent, boldness, innovation, and skill this artist had to pull off a project of this scale in secrecy and execute it flawlessly. As I watched the videos throughout midwifery school and the last few years, it is not just the artistry that has made me take a closer look at Beyoncé. I have felt a catharsis through this particular and ever changing chapter of her journey in womanhood, particularly through her art.


I noticed it immediately. Each video on her album showed her in a light that I have not seen her in before. Beyoncé has always been a sex icon for as long as I can remember but at this time of her life, she embodied that sexuality. She has always been sexy but she, like many of us, has grown into it and is maturing into erotic. She owns it and in turn is continuing to own herself. As the lead singer for Destiny’s Child, she was still a teenager like many pop stars, singing lyrics about things yet to be lived by her. Beyoncé has literally grown into a woman before our eyes. More than the songs and lyrics, I noticed the change in her body. I spend a lot of time observing and studying people’s bodies. I have studied my own body and understand that life experiences can cause us to carry, treat, display and be in our bodies differently.

With pregnancy and childbirth, I have especially noticed the deep effects that women’s reproductive lives have on their psyches and bodies. I have seen women emerge over time as grounded, empowered, traumatized, unrealized, inspired, depressed, and many other states of being after giving birth. I have seen friends and clients become more bold, daring to take leaps of faith for themselves and children, leaving abusive relationships, fulfilling lifelong dreams, be more in their bodies, become deeply reclusive, develop body insecurities, hide their goals behind solely being absorbed by the mother role and more on the spectrum of how birth changes people. In Beyoncé‘s case, I feel like I have been witnessing the stellar emergence of a woman set on fire.


Raw. Uninhibited. Sensual. Unapologetic. Vibrant. Sophisticated. Those are the words I’d use to describe her work. As I watched each of Beyoncé’s more recent videos, I watched how she moved her body and expressed her songs visually. It was watching particularly “Yonce/Partition” several times (one of my favorite videos) and seeing the way she danced that spurred my curiosity. It seemed so different to me that I decided to watch “Dance For You”. Something about her in that video felt girlish and slightly sanitized. Her voice, always strong and powerful, was missing something.  A certain depth unnoticeable if there is nothing to compare it to. I took a look at “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” and it was the same thing. She had more of a super model feel to her; it was choreographed, youthful and carefree – all appropriate for where she was at that time. I ended up watching as many of her music videos as I could and continued to find a commercialization that reminded me why I previously was not a fan. Beyoncé is a pop star and with that comes certain molds that need to be broken in regards to the consumption of womanhood. I wanted her out of the mold.

I remember watching “Drunk In Love” and the contrast of the dark and light captivated me first, followed by the richness of her voice as she belted out the song. Beyoncé didn’t perform the song; she lived it. She felt it in a way I seldom seen her do in her long career. She was emoting the song and every other successive video. I couldn’t help but be slightly surprised at how brazen “Blow” was. It’s not that sexiness is new to me nor is anything Beyonce sings about conservative in any way. Her body, voice, eyes, pelvic gyrations…her entire being was radiating a power and rawness that was not there before. At best, her previous videos and performances were too perfect. In the essay, “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” by Audre Lorde, it speaks of the difference between something being pornographic and something being erotic. I would not classify her previous work as pornographic but in comparison, it lacked a certain depth and wildness of uncharted feelings that her work is now tapping into. “Pornography emphasizes sensation without feeling. The erotic is a measure between our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings.”


Beyoncé has become more erotic in the chaos of her tribulations. In my research on her, I watched her documentary “Life is But a Dream”. I learned a couple of things from watching it but two things stuck out for me.  Beyoncé suffered a loss in 2011 when she fired her father as her manager. This is pivotal because he had a certain control of her career since she stepped into the public eye and thus, in a way, she was not fully an adult. At the time, Beyoncé must have been about 29 or 30 years old. This is significant because of an astrological event that happens every 28 – 29 years of a person’s life: The Saturn Return. To put it simply, the Saturn Return is an astrological transit that occurs when the planet Saturn returns to the same place in the sky that it occupied at the moment of a person’s birth. While the planet may not reach the exact spot until the person is 29 or 30 years old, the influence of the Saturn return is considered to start in the person’s late twenties, notably the age of 27. Psychologically, the first Saturn return is seen as the time of reaching full adulthood, and being faced, perhaps for the first time, with adult challenges and responsibilities (Wikipedia). Reeling from my own Saturn Return, I can relate to Beyoncé’s growing pains and in the same breath, gain inspiration from seeing what someone just five years older than me is becoming after the trial by fire. Her emergence from such turbulence gives me hope in a much more solid way than “Survivor”, “Run the World (Girls)” or “Diva” could ever provide for me.


Her motherhood has had a huge impact on her life. She describes her pregnancy and feelings in the most genuine and sincere way throughout the documentary. “Life is But a Dream” is the most I have seen about her experiences with becoming a mother. My eyes welled up when she spoke about her miscarriage and I heard the song that came from the very depths I have been speaking about all along. Beyoncé recognizes how deeply birth has transformed her. In an interview, she said, “Her new music “is a lot more sensual . . . empowering.” It celebrates being a wife and a mother, reflecting the obvious changes in her life. “Right now, after giving birth, I really understand the power of my body,” she says. “I just feel my body means something completely different. I feel a lot more confident about it. Even being heavier, thinner, whatever. I feel a lot more like a woman. More feminine, more sensual. And no shame.” For a nullipara (a woman who has never given birth), it is important to hear such a famous woman celebrity talk about birth in this light.


Beyoncé broke the mold that prevented me from connecting her on a visceral level. It has been getting a glimpse of personal transformation, and not the conquering of worldly pursuits like Grammys and Superbowl performances that others give so much value to, that has attracted me to the Beyhive. Reflecting on her artistry, the critiques I’ve had and have of her do not overshadow her achievements. Beyoncé grew up, providing the world with songs that empowered many. She now offers the maturing audience that got bodied with her and declared their independence in her lyrics a woman in beautiful transformation.


Of Mothers & Midwives: Respecting Birthing Mothers & Birthworkers

Let me just begin by stating a few things that folks must not seem to understand about my position regarding hospitals and birth. My position is first and foremost informed by being an Afro-Latina woman born and raised in the Bronx who has experienced firsthand micro-aggressions and neglect on behalf of the healthcare practitioners that are and have been available to my community. Before transforming into a birthworker,  I already had strong feelings about the aspects of the American medical system that now drive me up a wall. What has further driven my rage has been the fact that 99% of the women I have assisted in childbirth and reproductive health matters identify as women of color. I have experienced and seen firsthand the abusive, dismissive, and otherwise neglectful treatment they have received. So, when I am stating my position that explicitly supports and favors midwife managed prenatal care and home birth, it is based on my personal experiences; the statistics, studies, and articles so many of y’all seem to cling to as evidence is just extra to me because y’all still argue what’s best. Also, the argument about safety is null and void because hospitals are not inherently safer. If they were, the maternal mortality rate in the United States wouldn’t be rising. Alright then? Great.

Before getting to the birth, let’s just start with prenatal care. it is common that women who are receiving care from the medical system are unsatisfied by their healthcare providers. The usual length of appointments are about 15 minutes and feel inpersonable, only checking vital signs but having no real time to hold space for the pregnant mother. I’ve come across cases of downright neglect, disrespect and abuse in the stories told to me over the last couple years. In comparison, homebirth midwifery care, hospital-based midwives, and some ob-gyns who practice a holistic model of care have made expectant mothers happier more often than not. As a doula, I have experienced the ability to fill in the void for women that their care providers are leaving. To further compound the issue, the chances of Black and Latina women receiving quality care are slim due to the socioeconomic barriers they often face.

When I was training in the birth clinic over a year ago, I noticed the difference in dynamic between patient and client. For me, when someone is treated as a patient, the healthcare provider assumes authority and absolute knowledge over the sick or care-seeking person. There can be a sense of infantilization that occurs in which the person is treated like a child, experiencing at times condescending attitudes and tones of voice. Whereas, when regarding someone as a client, there is a different feel to it. Combined with the midwifery model of care that places women at the center of their care and assumes the woman is the primary person responsible for her health, treating someone as a client brings the implication that the person is ultimately the accountable one for achieving optimal health. It can be argued that our collective inability to respect birthing women as capable adults stems from our parentalistic and patriarchal society; both ideologies combined imply that women are subservient, infant-like and unable to make sound decisions. Racism also promotes a similar treatment.

I am not surprised but I am deeply concerned not just for the physical experience women are having in hospitals but also for their emotional and mental experiences in prenatal care. Unfortunately, even mothers who are aware of homebirths and midwives have barriers that prevent them from having this care. One barrier is finances. Many mothers are unable to afford homebirths or doulas for hospital births on the budgets they live on or because their insurance doesn’t cover it. Midwives are then faced with the options that come with that: taking substantially lower compensation, serving more clients than they may feel comfortable with to support themselves, dividing their clientele on a sliding scale or turning down clients who just can’t afford it. In addition to finances, mothers face the potential barrier of unsupportive friends and family. Homebirth is still seen as primitive and dangerous. They could be forced to either shroud their birthing plans in secrecy to avoid stress or reluctantly birth in a hospital because they need to avoid being ostracized or losing relationships. For marginalized people, such as recent immigrants, losing relationships may mean a loss of livelihood or stability on some level. In an idealistic society, all mothers and all midwives would find it easy to work with each other without being encumbered by capitalist demands.

There is nothing inherently wrong with medicine and doctors. As I often explain, the art of healing and curing people and their illness is the root of the medical profession. What we understand as the medicinal arts and system today in contemporary society has roots in indigenous methods of healing. Nearly if not all medications have a plant base or hormone that exists in our natural environment or in our internal chemistry; the medicinal properties of plants have long been proven by traditional healers in cultures uncorrupted by imperialism or colonization. Furthermore, the presence of physicians and doctors were documented in Ancient Egypt, as well as the role of medicine men and those skilled in dealing with the supernatural. The presence of midwifery is also found in antiquity, sometimes the professions being interchangeable. I bring this up to say that my rage is not against the medical profession but rather the abuse of human rights and of technology and interventions. My rage is directed at the patriarchal and parentalistic attitudes that permeate the medical system, and how women and those most vulnerable bear the brunt of these ideologies.

In “Women and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her”, it speaks at length about how man has separated themselves from nature and by default women. What struck me most is how the hate and disrespect women stems from a mistrust and fear of nature and because women are close to nature in ways men are not (i.e heightened intuition, knowledge of plants, ability to birth, etc), we are subjugated and objectified in the same way our natural environment is. Women are constantly denied the wisdom of their bodies throughout their lifetimes and particularly when it comes to their reproductive health. Midwives are denied the respect of their worthy professions because its essence is antagonistic to a technocratic model of care in birth. Steps to rectify the severe imbalances include a dismantling of patriarchy, a reevaluation of patriarchal attitudes in the medical system and a return to trusting our natural environments and nature. We remain at a crossroads with our reproductive and maternal health where we are experiencing high rates of maternal and infant mortality and a host of other grievances. It is our work to restore the respect that mothers and midwives deserve in this country and world.

Griselda Rodriguez: The Spirit of Sankofa in a Dominicana

*first written and published on La Galeria Magazine

She was finishing up pumping breast milk for her son Talib. Then she dimmed the lights and lit a little bit of sage. Her wall had a print of the map of the continent of Africa, with African fabric and a picture of Sankofa accentuating it. “Sankofa” in the Akan language means that we must go back to our roots in order to move forward. She had other images that echoed things, people and places that were a part of her. Suddenly, her office became a sanctuary and intimate setting to share her life with me in it. Dr. Griselda Rodriguez is the director of International Studies Program at the City College of New York (CCNY); that title is just the tip of the iceberg for what this first generation Dominican woman encompasses. She began our conversation by describing how she came to be. Griselda and her identical twin, Miguelina, were born at Bellevue Hospital to their immigrant Dominican mother. They lived in the Lower East Side of Manhattan until they were around 5 months old. “She’s undocumented, she’s been in this country for less than two years and couldn’t really cope with raising two young children on her own, so she sent us to the Dominican Republic.” babies

That separation from her mother had a profound effect on her. It’s been years of healing to recover from that impact on her formative years. From her studies in Kundalini Yoga and birth work, Griselda learned the spiritual and biological significance of the mother-child connection. “Birth to 3 years old is, in yogic philosophy, when my electromagnetic field [and] my aura were being developed and it’s best to be around the mother so that I’m basically reinforced by her. And then psychologically, birth to 5 years is when neurological development happens and having both parents, but especially the mother, is ideal…and I didn’t grow up with my mom in those formative years. My eldest aunt, who I call Mama Cilila, who passed away two years ago: she was my mom. We’re raised by this woman who, in our minds and hearts, is our mother until we’re almost four, and then our biological mother comes and rips us away from who we thought was our mother, and then we had to get adjusted to living with this woman.”

Photo by Idris Solomon
Photo by Idris Solomon

There is an understanding on Griselda’s part of why such a separation had to occur. The harsh realities that immigrants face, in terms of financial stability and adjustment, don’t make Griselda and her sister the first nor last children to go through this. After her mother picked them up from the Dominican Republic, they spent the rest of their lives in Brooklyn. “So we’re one of those rare Dominicans that are not from the Heights. We grew up in the hood of 90s Bedstuy-Brownsville but I always say I grew up in the hood but my house was never hood. We grew up in a very traditional Dominican house without a father, which I kind of appreciate now because I didn’t really experience that very patriarchal oppressive male figure at home.” Her home was a sanctuary with her twin sister and mother. Griselda describes her mother as a wonderful provider, with home-cooked meals, all utilities and bills paid, and special attention to her daughters’ academic success. Her mother’s hard work also afforded Griselda and her sister’s annual trips back to their homeland. “I have a very close tie to Dominican Republic because in addition to living there, my mother made it her business to work really hard during the cold months so that we could spend our summers in DR. So from the time I was five until I was maybe 14, every single summer we spent in Dominican Republic.” moms and twins

Griselda and her sister went to SUNY Binghamton. Being the first generation to get to the undergraduate level was “an interesting roller-coaster ride,” she mused with a smile remembering what it was like to navigate the U.S college experience. “I always tell this story: My sister and I both went to EOP [Education Opportunity Program] programs through SUNY and she had to do a six week summer program and I only had to a weekend program, so we both ended up being in Binghamton at the same time but my sister had already been there for three weeks.” Miguelina had a list of things for her mother to buy, including a shower caddy. “You know, the little canasta that you put the shampoo [and toiletries] if you walk from your room down the hall to the bathroom. I didn’t know what the hell she was talking about, of course my mother didn’t know. We didn’t have people in our family that went to college. So my mother bought her a beach bucket. Oh my god. Literally like one of those little plastic beach buckets with a little pail and she sends me with it, y que sabia yo? I’m just like, she wants a bucket, I don’t know what the hell she’s talking about.” Needless to say, Griselda’s sister was embarrassed but that was just one small example of what it was like to go to college without having had any point of reference.

She went on to Syracuse University and got her Ph.D in Sociology. She completed it in 2010 and has been in the CUNY system since. Her collegiate career taught her many things but some that stand out from her story were her journey into her Black consciousness, and her dissertation work in Dominican Republic. She took a senior African American studies seminar in her undergrad. “The professor suggested I do work on the African presence in the Dominican Republic, and I remember how baffled I was because I didn’t understand that there was that connection. Then I went to Senegal, West Africa to study abroad and that’s when it really hit me like, holy shit, I’m Black.” She became immersed in research about Haiti and the Dominican Republic, citing her focus on the significant role that the island played in forming Black identity on this side of the world. “I started looking at my family and looking about our ways and understanding that there was a little element about who I was and who my family was that was always missing and that I felt like wow, I finally found that little piece of the puzzle that I didn’t understand with regards to my family and it was the fact that they were denied that they were African.” family

Griselda did her graduate research in the Dominican Republic from about 2005 to 2009, spending every summer there and deepening her connection. Griselda went into Syracuse wanting to do education and nearly left after a year. One of her mentors inspired her to change course. “I took her class on Black women and domestic workers and then on sex tourism. She saw something in me. She said, ‘you have a really interesting insight, especially being Dominican, you should get a Ph.D in Sociology,’ she encouraged me, I applied. She was one of the ones who helped me understand that as a Black Dominican woman, it was my duty to do work to enhance my and other people’s understanding of what that is.” Through this experience, Griselda realized how her identity as a Black woman was a shared one around the world. Her dissertation was rooted in understanding how being Black shapes the experiences of Dominican women within the labor market. “What I found was that being Black and being a woman in DR often means that you’re going to be the bottom of the barrel. It’s intentional. Most Black Dominican women do very similar things in the service sector. You clean other people’s houses, take care of other people’s children, sleep with men or women, clean the streets, serve coffee in corporations…” Her specific work looked at how aid from the United States and the World Bank comes into the Dominican Republic and pimps these structures that exploit Black Dominican women. She interviewed women and went all over the eastern part of the island by public transportation, shocking her family and breaking the mold of what a woman was thought to be able to do. “I saw my younger cousins paying attention to that as well.”

 griselda graduation

 As faculty and staff at CCNY, Griselda continues to be a role model for younger people of the Diaspora. “I didn’t set out to be a role model but apparently based on what my colleagues tell me and seeing that students take me really seriously, I don’t take that lightly. I’m very humbled by it.” She is blessed to be able to see the effects of her work manifest in her students. “I just saw a student randomly in the back stair case last week. She was picking up her tickets for graduation. She was in my class two years ago and she said, ‘Doctor G, your class really had an impact on me.’” Griselda works now with a more diverse student body as the director of International Studies; she remembers what it was like to have mostly Dominican students when she taught a Dominican Heritage class. “I found that either students loved me or they hated me. They loved me because they appreciated the teachings I was presenting to them. They brought them new insight about themselves, their family and their world. In other cases, students didn’t really vibe with me because I was challenging their very existence. I found that a little bit more with students that were fresher from DR – those that still had those engrained doctrines of what it means to be Dominican. I would challenge them and they would just not want to associate themselves anymore with my class.” She is steadily planting these seeds nonetheless and knows her work is important.

With her training in Kundalini, Griselda’s connection to her spirit sustains her transformative work. She also embraces West African-derived traditions and is no stranger to its presence, growing up with her mother practicing Las 21 Divisiones. “How we make sense of that connection depends on where we were raised, what country we come from, what experiences we’ve had, but I think the most important thing I respect in people is just that honoring that we’re all God and that we should be treated as that. Of course my family and other people think that yo lo que hago es brujeria. Sometimes I dress in all white. It’s so powerful because people are either like, ‘wow!’ or people are like, ‘what are you doing?!’; it really scares people. I feel very powerful when I wear all white and I feel like I take that wherever I go. I feel like these [institutions of higher learning] can make us feel disempowered and crazy; [this is] the only way I can avoid feeling that way.”

Another extension of her identity is her journey in birth work. Griselda began her certification as a doula in 2012. “I feel like I’m one of those people that can say that I was born to do this type of work. I can’t tell you why or how but it just comes so instinctively and naturally.” She has a chapter coming out in a book by Black Women Birthing Justice in October. In the chapter she wrote about her first experience with birth at eight years old. “My godmother’s daughter was having a baby. They didn’t speak English and we were next door neighbors so they [told me to] call the ambulance. She’s there in active labor, I’m looking at her paralyzed and my godmother is [instructing me], ‘Dile que ella esta…’ I feel like that left something in my psyche [because] I had never seen a woman like that before. Especially being Dominican we’re always like, ‘don’t make too much noise…’ and to see her electric and wild in her power while she was laboring, it did something to me. I mostly have worked with first generation Dominican women having babies. That’s been very important for me and interesting because I see how easy we’ve been conditioned to give our power away so I’m glad that I’m a doula.” wedding cake

Her Black consciousness came into conflict with her mother due to Griselda’s partner being African-American. “My mother cried the day after or a few days later. She said, ‘porque tu me eta haciendo esto? Tu ere una muchacha preparada, tu ere tan bonita, tu te puede conseguir el hombre que tu quiera.’ You’ve seen my mom. Not that it would make it any better but I think psychologically if my mom were like phenotypically White or even lighter skinned, I’d be like, all right… you’ve been positioned in society a certain way that makes you feel above but… she [has dark skin] and she has this complex.” At the time when her mother met her partner, Griselda was diving into this work and understanding the African presence in DR so she understood the legacy that she was coming from. “It was rough. I mean, I would say, I brought him around the family starting about 2002, and it took like a good three to four years for me to feel really comfortable when he was around my family. My sister always jokes with me, she’s like, ‘You kinda got the ball rolling’ ‘cause now several of my cousins are with other Afro-descendant men or women. My family has already been through the ringer with me that now it’s okay. Now in family gatherings, you have the old school family and then the newer generation. We’re like the United Nations, but it’s mostly Black, it’s mostly African, because then my sister was dating a Dominican who was [phenotypically dark] and my mother was just like, ‘You girls are going to drive me crazy.’”

Photo by Idris Solomon
Photo by Idris Solomon

Griselda and her partner, Idris, welcomed their son Talib into the world last August. Her pregnancy and birth have left a tremendous impact on her. “A woman who is allowed to give birth the way she wants to can go into a level of herself that nothing else could let her reach. I loved being pregnant. I feel like we live in such an anti-woman, woman hating, sex-hating, pregnant hating, mother hating culture that a lot of times I [expressed] that, and especially women [responded], ‘you crazy!’ I loved being pregnant. I loved seeing my body change, I loved feeling my breasts getting bigger, him getting bigger, kicking me, my feet swelling and being in tune.” Griselda made up her mind that she was going to carry this baby very differently from how she and her sister were carried. “My mother cried a lot when she carried us. It was a traumatic birth. She had to be hospitalized a month before because my sister had a heart murmur. We were identical so we were in one sack but we were in a way where I was perpendicular; I was over my sister and I was compressing her umbilical cord. Her oxygen level was low so they had to monitor my mother for a month.” Her mother had to have a C-section. Griselda decided to do it differently. She described herself as a happy warrior, determined to be at peace and in tune throughout her pregnancy. “I was very vigilant about the thoughts I carried, the things I said, the people I was around, even the stuff I ate. At first I wanted to have a midwife in a hospital, and then a birth center. Then I went to a birth center and thought it was still medicalized. Then I met Ina May Gaskin last year and she said, why don’t you just have a home birth?”

Photo by Idris Solomon
Photo by Idris Solomon

“It was amazing. It was my husband, my twin sister, my comadre, my sorority sister, the midwife and two doulas. One of the [doulas] was your traditional doula, the other one was a spiritual doula. We had a birth altar. She was in front of the birth altar praying and meditating. I was one of those women: I was a day short of 42 weeks and I had the baby at home.” Her mother wasn’t very thrilled about the idea of giving birth at home because she, like many women, understands that birth is when the veil between life and death is very thin. “My mother had seen a lot of causalities in el campo, with women dying or the baby dying because there was no access to medical care and she had that vision of home birth. But when I told her, una partera comes in with her supplies, she was a little more at ease.” Griselda’s mother opted to not go to the birth but gave amazing support from the moment Griselda was postpartum. “He was born at around 3:30am and my mom was there before 5 o’clock con una olla de sopa de gallina.” Griselda’s family made sure she had what is called la cuarentena. Cuarentena is a period of approximately 40 days, or six weeks, during which the new mom is solely dedicated to breastfeeding, bonding with and taking care of her baby and herself. During this time, other members of the family pitch in to cook, clean, and take care of other children, if there are any.

“For those 40 days, I was home. If I went outside for whatever, my head was wrapped. I didn’t wash my hair, I didn’t paint my nails, I didn’t wash dishes, I didn’t sweep, I didn’t do anything. My sister, my mother, the spiritual doula…somebody was always there. Somebody was always there cooking and cleaning.” Griselda’s home birth experience made her an even more passionate advocate for natural birth than before. The chapter of motherhood in her life has also had an impact on her personality. “I’m more patient. In one I can say I’m more patient because I see [a person], I [remember] a woman labored to bring [them] here – whether it’s C-section, medicated, at home or hospital. Because, if I hurt your feelings, how would your mother feel?” On the other end, she has very little patience for other things. Having a new human being she is now responsible for makes her understand there’s a lot of love and light in this world to worry about those who don’t support that. “Motherhood is amazing. I just feel I’ve been initiated into this tribe of [mothers]. I did something that humans need to live. I produced another human being and I feel with always having been a feminist, I have really low tolerance for [patriarchal] bullshit. How are you going to disrespect me, a woman, when you need us?”

Photo by Idris Solomon
Photo by Idris Solomon

With all her experiences from being a first generation Dominican in the Diaspora to the journey she has embarked on as a mother, Griselda has strived to just be herself. Her closing words to other folks in the Dominican Diaspora on how to navigate this experience: “You just have to be sincere with yourself. As new age, first generation U.S born and bred Dominican youth, that level of self-sincerity is going to be very different from what their parents expect them. And I feel like too many people are dying, physically or metaphysically, because we’re just all trying to fit into these boxes that weren’t made for us at all.” Griselda embodies the concept of Sankofa, having gone back in her personal and professional work to get knowledge that is rightfully hers to share with the world.

Claudia De la Cruz: Motherhood As a Part of Her Revolutionary Process

*first published and written for La Galeria Magazine

Claudia was recently postpartum when she shared last year how supportive her community had been as she became a mother. She made mention of the remedios her mother and elders gave her that kept her healthy and well in a world where postpartum mothers often feel unsupported. I had known her as a powerful revolutionary woman in the movement and became deeply interested in listening to the most recent part of her evolution. I invited her this past May to elaborate on her experience. It was fitting then that I waited for her at Mothers On the Move (MOM) in the South Bronx, a social justice community organization that prioritizes four issue areas for base-building, local campaigns, and policy work: Housing Justice, Environmental Justice, Youth Organizing & Education Justice. Rebel Diaz shares a space with them so it is a space Claudia is familiar with; the Rebel Diaz Arts Collective is an important part of her community.

She showed up wearing her son Roque and she began to share about her motherhood journey. Claudia is a Bronx native (born at 139th and St. Ann’s in the South Bronx and raised in the University Heights neighborhood) whose parents immigrated from the Dominican Republic. She is a graduate from Theodore Roosevelt High School, and a graduate with a BA (2001) in forensic psychology from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and two Master’s degrees; one in social work from Columbia University and the other in divinity from Union Theological Seminary (both in 2007). “I’ve always identified myself as a Black Dominican or Afro-Caribbean. I’m an educator and pastor.” Claudia has served as the pastor of Iglesia San Romero De Las Americas but currently does not have a church. “I will always be pasturing in whatever capacity or space I am in. I’m a mom now, you know. I think it’s a part of my revolutionary work. I see [Roque’s] life as something that is not solely mine individually or his individually but as part of the collective,” she said.

​– Claudia speaking about being a black afro Caribbean woman

“I called him Roque in honor of Roque Dalton. I went upstate [one] weekend with my family and one of my nieces learned one of the most famous poems that talks about ‘la sangre unánime de los que lucha’ y ‘el pan, como la poesía es de todos.’” Claudia chose to name her son after the Salvadorian revolutionary and poet. “The reason that I choose this name is because of that man, who was able to articulate a working class struggle, more than anything. And the beauty of our culture, being accessible and being for everyone. As someone who’s an educator, I think a lot of the times there are languages that are created to leave people out and academia is definitely good at that. When you read Roque Dalton and he talks about la poesia igual que el pan es de todos…there’s no better way for me to be reminded of a collective struggle and name my son Roque and know that’s the reason that I named him that. Because we’re still in the struggle.”

She stayed active in her organizing work through her pregnancy. “Although I was quite healthy for most of my pregnancy, there were decisions in terms of my day to day that I needed to make. So as an organizer, you go to protests, you organize…and I kept on doing that to the extent that I decided when I was 7 months pregnant to go to Ferguson because of everything that was happening around Mike Brown. And I remember my mom saying something like, “Tu ere’ loca.”

Her mother was concerned with the tear gas that was being thrown, telling her daughter it was dangerous for the baby and asking why she was going. “Well, because it’s a reproductive [health] issue too. They are killing [our] babies out there. They are killing other women’s babies and there are a lot of women out there, I’m imagining, that are also pregnant. So I’m gonna go.” Claudia describes her journey to Ferguson with the 17-hour ride going and coming back as spiritual for her. Regardless of what was happening, she saw that the protesting was grounded in family. She also went to the protest in support of Palestine with Roque still in her womb. “I think I found strength in another way. It has a certain level of more strength for me as a person of color, as a woman, as someone who thinks of herself as part of a Black radical tradition to say, I’m a mom. To me, that’s also part of a revolutionary process and I shouldn’t exclude myself or exclude him from spaces that are about transformation, and so I kept on doing all this work while I still was pregnant, and I couldn’t have done it if I didn’t have community, those women, but also my partner. As un hombre consciente, he doesn’t say, “No, you can’t go,” but instead, “let’s have this conversation, okay? Why do you want to go?”

Claudia took a different role after midnight and continued her work. “The folks that I work with are mainly men in the collective, in the Ñ Don’t Stop project. You see all these men like, “Okay you gotta do this interview? Let me carry him.” Everybody assumes the responsibility that he is not only mine or his father’s but he’s part of the collective and we’re all responsible for him. It takes a village.” That village and community is and was of the utmost importance to her through her pregnancy and now in the postpartum. Being pregnant reminded her once again of the severe lack of quality in healthcare. She knew the hospitals in the South Bronx were not a good idea. “I also know what our reality is so…I went to New York Presbyterian, which isn’t the greatest either but they offered the combination of a midwife and doctor. I felt comfortable there.”

Photo by Imani Vidal of Instye Photography

Her pregnancy was awesome. The first three months were challenging because of the morning sickness but it never felt like pregnancy was a deficit. The men around her were protective of her and didn’t want her to lift or do certain things. “I’m pregnant. I’m not sick. It’s not an illness, it’s a condition. I’m pregnant, it happens and I’m going to continue to do the work that I do.” Claudia’s labor was hard for her due to laboring for three days and acknowledging the difficulty of being so hormonal and experiencing so many changes. Becoming a mother changed the relationship with her own mother completely. She has much more value and a bigger sense of her mother’s wisdom. Their relationship has been strengthened and has moved into a space of sisterhood. “I had to get a C-section because his heart rate dropped when I was in the hospital but my mom had three C-sections.” She was in a lot of pain and mused that she was whining about it. “My mom is like, ‘I did that shit three times!’ That gave me strength to be able to get up and walk around cause I’m like, ‘you did it, I could do it.’ Let’s get this popping.”

The wisdom of her mother and community has been incredibly nourishing. “I understand that the reason my mom was able to provide for me some of that counsel is because she got it from her mom. And her mom got it from her mom, and that’s the case for a lot of the women that are around me. Unfortunately in the larger scale, in our community there’s so many levels of disconnect.” Claudia spoke about the reality that the immigrant experience includes sometimes being separated from mothers. Women have sometimes left because of socioeconomic or political reasons, leaving entire families behind while they’re here on their own. That separation can cut them off from old school wisdom during their pregnancies. “There’s a level of also just assuming or thinking that conventional medicine is the way to go and that ancestral medicine has no strength or depth or value. And then there are the folks that choose not to listen to ancestral guidance. For me, as someone who believes in liberation and transformation, ancestral wisdom has a very big place in my life.”

There was no way for Claudia to receive the fullness of her life’s work without that connection to her elders. Her mother stayed on top of her daughter’s diet during her gestation period, “que si una sopa de esto, que si una sopa de lo otro…” and has continued to nourish her and Roque to this day. “As soon as I gave birth, she came and she brought me té de tres anis to help with the gases and the release of water.” This knowledge of what and how to care for women is part of the Black indigenous tradition that is lost, unfortunately, in a country where there’s no value for blackness or indigenous cultures. “In terms of that community, I feel like it’s always been there and it’s always led me. My pregnancy and my birth were not gonna be the first time for me not to value it; if anything, es donde yo mas he asumido mi negritud y ese tipo de sabiduría ancestral.”

Photo by Kerbie Joseph

The same way her son became a part of her life’s work while she was pregnant, he continues to be present. As Claudia mentioned how it takes a village to raise a child, she spoke about motherhood and the ideas about it. The society in which we live has a bad idea that children are bothersome. “You go to a meeting, you don’t take your child because va a molestar. For me it’s like, if it bothers you, then you have a problem. Because, my child goes where I go. Y eso es muy de nuestra tradiciones. No necesariamente para las sociedades que se han creado ahora, en estos siglos, pero antes del colonialismo, antes de todo eso, andaban las madres con sus niños cargaditos.” She knows there is strength in that and the council of women in the meetings affirms her. “[They] go, ‘Roque!!!!’ and they carry him around and they play with him, and we carry on with business; he’s not alien or he’s not isolated or he’s not seen as an impediment. Whereas we live in a society or country where there are spaces like meeting spaces or working spaces where they see a child and it’s like ‘oh, there’s a baby.’ And the feeling is like, ‘why is he here?’”

Claudia thinks many women have felt excluded or have been excluded from spaces because these are not created for children. “No se crean espacios para que un niño pueda participar en eventos. Now that I’m in a new phase as a mom, even though I was more conscious about it before with my work with women, now I’m even more conscious of it. We have a speaking engagement? Oh, I’m bringing my son. And if you don’t want me to speak with him on the podium, then I’m gonna have to bring somebody else who’s gonna take care of him. I’m not excluding myself from the work that I’ve always done because I am mom. He’s part of it.” One of her practices that merges her sociopolitical views and motherhood are her letters to Roque. “His life is a project. It’s a social political project because he is part of something that is larger, something that I may not be able to see someday but he will, and maybe he won’t be able to see it. There’s hope that something will change in this society. I’ve always thought of him as part of that hope.”

Though, it is not lost on her that Roque is both a part of the collective and her responsibility. “I never thought about him as like, my child. My kid, my boy, right? So it wasn’t until he was born and the nurse came and gave me my son. ‘Here’s your son,’ that I was like ‘oh shit, he’s my son!’” Claudia knows he is not solely a socio-political project. She has most of the responsibility of guiding him and facilitating a process by which he understands himself as part of a collective. “And so I started writing to him con esa noción. He probably won’t even pay attention to those letters until he’s in college. But I wanted him to know the social, political, economic, spiritual space in which he was born.” For Claudia, giving her son the context in which she is raising him is important. “A lot of the times we don’t know why our parents migrated, what was happening in the countries where we’re from or we don’t know why our parents were forced to live in the conditions that they live here.” She shares about her own life and parent’s history: “I was born in the South Bronx and my parents had to make the choice when I was five and my oldest brother was eight to send us back to the Dominican Republic to be raised by our grandmother because where they were living, the social conditions of the space when they were on 149th and St. Anne’s…we’re talking about the 80s. It was a neglected community, they’re immigrants. They’re like, ‘wait a minute, they don’t need to be here where they could be in open land with their grandma’…living more of a quality life and I was able to understand their choice when I first learned history. What was happening at that moment in time historically that made my parents make the decision that they made.”

“Tu tienes hambre, papi?” She took a moment to breastfeed Roque and we continued. She wants her son to hear history from her because what is taught in school is more often than not inaccurate and lacking analysis. In her letters, Claudia shares life lessons that she hopes he’ll share with the world. “That’s his choice because he’s also an individual and he’ll grow into his own man.” She reflected on how in her own journey growing up, she had a period in her life in which she lost sight of the value in her community’s wisdom. “I grew a lot but at the same time I devalued a lot of what I was coming from. A lot of what I was coming from was so popular…tan del pueblo, tan básico. My grandmother used to say, ‘tu no eres mejor que nadie y nadie es mejor que tu. Tu eres única.’ Como cosas sumamente simple, and I was like…new knowledge and new way about doing shit and nobody knew better than I did, right?”

As she continued to grow, Claudia understood that it was the foundation she was given from her family and community the reason she was able to capture many feminist, communist and radical principles.  Particularly, she realized her mom was exactly the type of woman she was trying to save the world for. “This is some straight up colonizing way of dealing with this. I feel a lot of folks in different spaces or just in movement in general, we get so far from the ordinary folks that we’re supposed to be struggling with and for. Luckily I had folks around me that were like, but your mom is great. She cooks great, she raised you three, she’s done this, she’s done that. The idea that everyone, everyone has value.”

Her homegrown values were only heightened by these political ideologies.  “As young people of color, we need to, again, acknowledge that we come from a long Black radical tradition that is prior to enslavement, prior to the process of colonization, prior to imperialism…and we need to look back, like the Sankofa movement.” She believes we must look back to be able to know how to hold the present and the future. This requires research and investigating, reaching out to our elders who are still with us. “Ask those questions. If mom is alive, ask mom. ‘Cual era los consejos que tu mama te daba?’ One of the things that I started telling my mom, and this is just because she has an ability to memorize remedies and stuff, I was like, why don’t you just write a recipe book, like write it down because ultimately my grandmother’s gone, you’re still around but who knows?”

She would want to pass that information to a daughter, should she have one. “I would want to leave her that in the future as something that is a living testament of this is how we carry on. I think that’s important, like have folks write down ese remedio.” She feels the movement of doulas and midwives coming up in contemporary times is a reflection of claiming that ancient knowledge. “I think these women are looking for that ancestral wisdom to share with other women. And that’s something that the system has also broken, you know, the sisterhood. The ability of women sharing with other women.” Claudia cites the way the system pushes for women to compete with each other as a reason we have lost some of our ties. “That’s not what this is about. We’re not here to say, fulanita llego a tal sitio, yo quiero llegar mas lejos que fulanita. It’s about complimenting each other’s strength and also helping each other strengthen our weaknesses. When we’re able to see ourselves in those lenses then we’re able to share more and grow more as a community.”

In concluding my time with Claudia and Roque, she shared some wisdom and words she is gaining from her process. “There’s a need to build with other women and I’m talking based on my experience in a heterosexual relationship because again, there are partnerships where, or relationships where, there are two women about to have a baby, right? When you talk about a heterosexual relationship, the dynamic changes. There’s things that women go through that men will never understand, regardless of how good they are and how supportive they are and how present they are, they’ll never understand. But when you speak to a sister, even if she hasn’t given birth, there’s a certain level of sensitivity you have to say that is there that I think, not only when we’re pregnant we need it but we need it all the time. So I think building that core group of women whom you trust and who are there for you, que estan en solidaridad con el proceso tuyo. I think that that’s highly necessary and probably the most important thing that I would say and it doesn’t go only to the extent of the nine months but it carries through. It should carry through because you’re going to have to find out like, okay if I’m gonna breastfeed him, right, how do I stack breastmilk so that I could be able to have a life? That’s another thing right, I want to be able to take him to different places but there’s also the space of mommy needs time. So when mommy needs time, you need to be able to delegate or share the work with your compañero and compañera if you have one or if you don’t have a compañero or compañera, someone in that core circle needs to step up or needs to be able to say, “okay, I need help.” That only happens in community. That you feel the trust to say, okay I need time for myself and now I have to share him with someone else. Yo creo que la coletividad es sumamente importante, entre mujeres es importante.”

Links to Claudia’s Work:

Claudia de La Cruz’s outreach work helps teens and young women soar like ‘Urban Butterflies’
Latinas Celebrate Their Womanhood In Washington Heights
Statement for Mumia Abu-Jamal from San Romero de Las Américas Church – Pastor Claudia De la Cruz
People Power Movement – Free The Mind – Claudia De La Cruz


Turning Thirty: Lessons Learned While Aging Beautifully


There is a general dread in our culture of aging. Often in my life I have heard the reminder, “te estas poniendo vieja!” when a birthday comes around. It is usually in a mocking, teasing tone trying to conceal all the things we have come to hate about getting old: wrinkles, white hair, dramatic body changes, menopause, and ultimately death. I tend to celebrate turning a year older with a lot of reflection and praise, embracing the gift of experience and lessons that come with the passage of time. I usually take an inventory of the year that is coming to a close but with turning thirty this year, contemplating 10 years worth of evolution has been emotional, to say the least.

My twenties were one hell of a rollercoaster. From my perspective, I changed drastically in this decade. I began it not being quite a girl but not yet a woman. I was 20 in 2005, two years into my undergraduate career. I was adjusting to my family living in Albany and all that came with that. I was celebrating my 2nd year with my chapter sisters and enjoying my college life. By this time I was already a Black Studies major; I was experiencing rapid leaps in my understanding of my identity as a Black person in the United States. My first physical manifestation of the pride I was developing in my African roots was the return to natural hair the year prior. At twenty, I feverishly wrote poetry and was part of the poetry scene at SUNY New Paltz.

white tube top

21 came with the ability to drink at my leisure and also with the shattering of an illusion. One of my clearest memories of that summer were standing on the porch as the idea I had of my father imploded. I made choices from then on that showed a lack of worth in my self and a loss of innocence that I’m now understanding more and more. I got to meet poets from around the country that year through being a part of the slam team in college. The next year, I would graduate from college in December 2007 and was deep into my spiritual practice. I had begun delving into yogic traditions for a year or two but by this point was into what is considered “alternative”. My yoga practice influenced my understanding of the universe and was also my first stepping stone out of Catholicism after the couple of years I spent after 17 grappling with the idea of divinity. This change in worldview affected my diet and fostered my understanding of the mind-body connection.


I took a class called “Women in the Caribbean” that set the stage for my book, “Hija De Mi Madre”. In that class with Denise Oliver-Velez, I identified as an Afro-Latina for the first time. This was the capstone for me, as I had become a Black Studies major shortly after crossing over into my sorority as an 18 year old. My twenties had a lot to do with embracing my African heritage as well as untangling the story of how I came to be Dominican. I am still learning. Becoming a Black Studies major marked the end of two decades full of self-hatred based on my skin tone. I often consider that major my personal major; that is to say, that being a part of the Black Studies department was more of a healing and transformative choice than for my career. Wonderfully, my Black Studies education has informed pretty much every career move I’ve made after graduation.

Post college was the most difficult adjustment to date. The first tumultuous moment after graduation was the beginning of the conflicts with my mother. In retrospect, much of that conflict that persisted for about 7 years because of a couple of reasons. I was not the daughter she expected to return from college. I had become more African-centered, more liberal, un-Catholic and everything she had not raised me to be. My mother was 4 years into life as a diagnosed bipolar person. I hadn’t lived with her most of those years and didn’t know how to relate to her. I think we both yelled and reacted to each other from being in extreme spaces of trauma. It was in the last year that I stopped blaming her for all the problems and truly took accountability for my role in our relationship. There was a lot I didn’t understand about mental illness, both my own and hers. My true understanding and in turn compassion for my relationship with my mother, for her and for myself is ever expanding.


I spent four years as an art model. That was a very intense and also mindless job. Last night, I sat in bed contemplating why I chose to do that for so long. Part of it was this fascination I had most of my life with my naked body. It was a journey in my nudity as art. It was also the manifestation of how detached I was from my body. It was an object, regardless of the artists’ intentions. I made myself vulnerable to potentially fatal situations by spending time naked with men I barely knew and trusted way too much. I wasn’t connected completely to the sacredness of my nudity, I needed to make money, and on some level the attention was intoxicating. I don’t regret the photographs that exist of my bare body and in the same breath, understand that it was harmful even with the lessons I gained. From the experience of art modeling, I did cultivate a deeper appreciation for peculiar jobs that involve sexuality. It opened my mind to be less judgmental about the choices others make with their bodies.

My twenties saw my heartbreak several times. I was governed by my desire to be wanted and, discovered later in therapy, my relationship with my parents. Ultimately, that culminated into one particularly painful relationship that took the last 5 years to recover fully from. I know that I was not mentally well enough to stop the pain sooner and yet, the experiences I had with this individual have taught me a great deal about myself. Being violated on all levels cracked me open to be able to get to deeper root reasons for who I was being. I still find myself triggered when I least expect it. I know now, five years removed, the metaphysical reasons for it and though it was far from okay (it was fucked up), it doesn’t define me.

The last half of my twenties is when my mental health took a different turn from the downward spiral I can now look back and identify as my path. I began to go to therapy in 2011 and have been happy about what I have learned about myself and my anxiety troubles. I’ve been a huge advocate for mental health wellness. In the same vein of healing, I also incorporate my spiritual health as the foundation for my mental wellness. I have been able to gain control of my mental faculties. My mental health has been greatly improved by my devotion to the Ifa/Lucumi spiritual tradition. I cannot stress enough the ways in which disorganized spiritual faculties can greatly distort and affect everything. The moment I began to study this African spiritual practice, my life began to change for the better. It is the root of much of my inner freedom, and dictates my mission as a radical birthworker on the planet.


I became deeply invested in my womanly body. From years of detaching from it, I simultaneously also studied on my own about my menstrual cycle and reproductive system. Through my studies and healing of my trauma connected to my body, I tapped into a deep wisdom that my body contained. That wisdom contained my dreams and passions, including affirming my role as a healer and teacher. This realization in college is what propelled me to become a doula and then, more recently, a midwife.  Healing myself made me want to help facilitate the same healing for women of color. My twenties, particularly my late twenties, saw the full transition from girl to woman. In that transition, I gained so much from reading about my womanhood as a Black Latina woman on a political level, which contextualized my experience out of a vacuum and into contemporary times. The personal is always political; while I can access other levels of understanding my self and body as a woman, I know that advocating and fighting for the rights denied to us in healthcare and in society are important in fostering that understanding for myself and for others.

Becoming a birthworker brought that all together for me. I understood my mortality. I understood that only birth and my own body can cause such a profound change to my whole being. I felt connected to women through generations and circumstances because of the honor I have had to attend births. It has made me have a deeper reverence for mothers, become a fierce advocate for human rights and give deeper thought to becoming a mother myself. There is so much about my power that I will get to discover when I take this step as a woman. I have experienced death and birth already in my experience transitioning from being Carmen to being Ynanna. I know that what I know of spiritual death and birth is a preparation for the physical birth(s) I will have one day.

I enjoyed my twenties and feel only a slight amount of nostalgia for them. I don’t want to go back in time and relive any of it. I am focusing on coming to peace with everything I experienced in the last decade. At 30 years old, I feel more whole than I ever have. I get to start this new decade of my life with a wonderful partner, a mature view on my life and what I must do to get it on its feet, a lot of compassion for myself and those around me, and my womanhood in full bloom.


photo by Vixon John
photo by Vixon John





Community Birthworking and Accessibility –

source unknown
source unknown


I met a Bronx momma one Sunday to check in. We had a prenatal visit in her car one afternoon by a park. Reclining her driver seat back, I asked if I could touch her growing belly. I felt for baby’s back and head, showed her where and how to feel for them. She told me about this ache near her groin; I explained about the ligaments that support the uterus and how normally they aren’t stretched the way they are in pregnancy, that this can cause some pain but it’s normal. I kept touching her belly and my hands went instinctively to where it ached, massaging. I kept talking to momma about birth and that I understood why she was scared of the pain and gave her some advice about taking the last couple of weeks to disconnect from everything and focus on the last precious moments of having her child this close to her. I saw the tears. I heard the all-too common statement that rarely does she receive attention and touch in this way. I think about her and how she is one of many women who would not have this moment if it weren’t for community doula grants and organizations that advocate for every woman, regardless of finances.

Though some of the systems of making this happen are not perfect, they are an attempt to support doulas financially who would love to completely dedicate all their time to moments like this.  For me, it seems that the women who can afford to have me at their births are those who are in a financial position to do it. While I do not make anyone wrong for this ability nor shame doulas who market themselves to demographics who can afford their rightfully deserved fees, I think about women like the Bronx momma who cannot afford me because of the different systemic barriers that come with being a Black low-income woman. I think that as a birthworker, I must tread carefully the line between being paid what I deserve and knowing there are women who truly cannot afford it who I want to serve. I often wonder why I haven’t managed to completely support myself on what I love. I am reluctant to pursue higher paying clients because I know that with money comes the ability to have easier access to this service, and to be completely transparent, I want to attend Black and Latina women in my community. This is also not to say that Black and Latina are inherently impoverished but the chances of them suffering from economic disenfranchisement are pretty high. Because of this, they are more likely to birth in subpar hospitals in their communities and run the risk of not being informed about their options nor anything being done to them.

Recently, I had to pay a visit to Lincoln Hospital and memories of the cruel and unusual treatment (read: torture) that I witnessed with birthing women came flooding back. I won’t go into detail about them but the awful bedside manner and proceedings that I saw have been enough to drive me up a  wall just with the thought of it. Hospitals are my least favorite places but I also know that in a couple of situations, I was at the very least able to ease the blow of these circumstances. Ultimately, I wish they could have birthed at home on their own terms and with a much more compassionate team of healthcare providers at their feet. I am reminded of this as I figure out my next steps in my career. I want to find a way to continue to reach women who need women like me to help them. It is my hope to have more moments where a woman’s gratitude is the most rewarding thing after a prenatal session.

Bottom line is, there continue to be many barriers that keep women from having the care and support they need. I would like to see the red tape that keeps the funding from some organizations that deeply desire to do this. I would like to see there be less debate on whether a woman has the money for it and more emphasis on doing the work while keeping in mind the element of not being taken advantage of (that’s real). Above all, I want to have more experiences like the one I opened this stream of consciousness up with: homegrown community connections that truly matter and have an impact.

Raquel Penzo


I never wanted to be a mother. Being responsible for others wasn’t appealing to me, still isn’t! But when I became pregnant and decided to follow through with the pregnancy, I took it seriously. I told myself that I wouldn’t half-ass it, because the mothers in my life didn’t half-ass it with me. That baby was going to get what I got and whatever more I could give it, including a sibling. As soon as I had one I knew in five years I’d have another. It was the ultimate gift I could give my daughters (besides life): a very best friend, each other. Same as my mom gave me.



Passivity and Blame: Understanding Women in Labor and Childbirth

A couple of weeks ago, I was able to connect with a fellow birthworker to process our feelings about birth. We spoke about why we do what we do, voluntarily going on the front lines in the hospitals to both hold space and at times advocate for the women who are at risk of medical abuse. Something came up that encompassed a silent frustration I’ve felt over the last 5 years of my work as a doula and now midwife.

I have been blamed before for an outcome of pregnancy. I’ve had to work out incredible feelings of guilt and shame, doubting myself and my abilities to be an asset to women. I can still remember that day. The anger in her eyes and the questions as to why I didn’t do something differently shook me to the core. I went home that night and felt so angry – both for what happened to her and because I was being blamed for things out of everyone’s control.  I’ve been chastised for not being impeccable and perfect support. I’ve been given the complete silent treatment, leaving me to wonder if I had done something wrong or didn’t do enough. My work has been undervalued and underpaid, questioned for its validity, and seen as minimal. Often, I’ve wondered why even keep trying to make a change with the pushback that birthworkers have gotten not just from the medical establishment but also the very mothers we seek to aid.

Now, in me writing this piece, I am aware of the heighten sense of emotions in pregnancy and childbirth. I do not condemn women who I’ve described above for how they’ve reacted.  They had reactions fostered by their lives and emotions. It is my duty as a birthworker to learn how not to take anything personal, as difficult as that may be. What I am saying is that we live in a culture of blaming and lawsuits. We have been conditioned to simply react and not process our feelings in ways that lead to breakthroughs. Furthermore, doulas and midwives feel a brunt of displaced feelings that come from women who have been programmed to do the following: to hand over their power to the current medical system, to be passive as women in relation to the power over our bodies, and encouraged to blame someone when things out of everyone’s control happen. Our society perpetuates the myth that women are the eternal mother figures. We are expected to give comfort and hold everyone’s emotions at the expense of being hated, unappreciated and dismissed. This problematic view of women is further expounded by race and class. When this view is combined with the belief that medical professionals are supposed to guarantee outcomes that everyone is happy with, it can be a setup for disappointment.

I mention race and class, as it is something very present in my mind these days with the current social unrest. As a Black Latina, I am harmed by the Strong Black/Latina narrative. I am expected to be a strong pillar of strength that must be infallible and perpetually present. This is compounded by my role as a midwife. I have felt sometimes that I am supposed to save women from birth. I feel that my own feelings of rejection and guilt have been tempered by my ability to know her reaction actually has nothing to do with me.  Childbirth is an intense moment. Because it is focused on the genitals, it is important for me to remember that not only am I holding space for trauma that may be triggered by the pain, but also all other preconceptions about her body, motherhood, sexuality, and anything else that comes up.  It is a common reaction to trauma for a person to leave mentally and spiritually, thus seeming passive or absent. Sometimes women regress to being little girls in childbirth, needing their mothers, which is normal when one is experiencing intense pain that we want to on some level be saved from. It is not my wish to control all of these very really reactions in childbirth. In fact, childbirth can be one of the only times a woman can lose complete control, or on the extreme side, where her need to be in control can be exacerbated.

Yet, there is something to be said about women in general and in childbirth going from being a passive passenger to an active participant in their transformation. We as women have been conditioned to feel powerless and weak. The use of epidurals is symbolic of having been slowly brainwashed that we are not strong enough to withstand the pain of childbirth. I believe in the compassionate use of pain relief but not in the way it is overused. Together we, both birthing women and birthworkers, need to speak about empowerment as it relates to birthing and our bodies. Though I understand not wanting to speak on trauma to others, it is a part of doing the work to not simply “get over it” but rather work through it, in an effort to no longer be controlled by our pasts. These sentiments remind me of the quote, “Stand and Deliver”, which implies a much more powerful stance than being forced on our backs to birth our children. It is time for all of us to empower women to re-imagine the messages they have received not only about themselves but also birth. As far as blame, let us be more conscious of who we place the blame on and why. We must begin to take responsibility of our births.

This is easier said than done but necessary, as we cannot expect to be satisfied by something we don’t completely own. Now, this is also not to say that power and responsibility only looks a certain way. I am suggesting that women and all person who give birth give their birthing process much deeper thought. And you know what? Maybe this space to examine the ways we show up in medical settings isn’t as available. I’ve learned over the years that we are all doing the best we can. The knowledge that used to be inherently ours as women and people is now more and more being remembered. As always, a sense of compassion must go along with holding ourselves accountable, not for the outcomes of our birth (which are mostly unpredictable), but for who we are through it all.  I am speaking about taking responsibility for our prenatal nutrition and lifestyle with the understanding that it doesn’t only affect the growing fetus but the woman’s overall health.  Practicing outside of a hospital, I have a much different point of view on the woman I serve.  I am not a savior nor am I delivering anyone or anything from anywhere. I am a witness and medical professional responsible for the woman and fetus’ well-being, but ultimately the woman is responsible for her health. She is my client, not patient. I also speak from the place of a woman who has not given birth and has attended quite a few births, so I cannot say I know exactly how a pregnant woman feels yet I understand the process of rebirth well enough to know the ownership that comes with it. Even furthermore, for us to birth powerfully, we must begin to challenge and ask of our communities and eventually society to create a much more compassionate, fruitful and healthy space for birthing women. As it is, there is no true conversation around mental health as it relates to pregnancy.  There can be guilt in talking about things that keep us quiet and passive, from years of being silenced.

It is my hope that not just in birth but in our lives, women continue to foster their power and become active participants in their lives. Myself included. These are all things we don’t know all about yet. Many of us are waking up to our bodies and what we want for our families as we break cycles of the same thing from the last couple of centuries. We are collectively learning how to navigate our personal power and accountability; more and more we can let go of passivity, reserve blaming and be active participants in our births and lives.