As we struggle against the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and racist violence, which continues to cause the deaths of the poor and people of color, it is important for activists and community members to create opportunities for healing our traumatic experiences on the cultural front.
In Chicago, Black and Brown communities have been devastated by decades of systemic oppression, disinvestment and neglect. It is no secret that the violence and devastation caused by those social evils often define our communities to the outside world. But violence is the direct result of oppression. Our ghettos, neighborhoods and barrios are seen as dangerous and decaying places in the “inner city.” As a Mexican-American growing up in Chicago, I often wondered why we are referred to as the “inner city” in the first place, when Black and Brown communities make up the majority. We are the city.
Currently in Chicago, the communities with the highest rates of COVID-19 infections have been those zip codes with majority Black and Brown residents. According to data published by the Latino Policy Forum, my neighborhood of Little Village and neighboring North Lawndale rank first in death rate due to COVID-19 compared to all other zip codes in Cook County, Illinois.
Moreover, in Illinois, the Black and Latino population has contracted COVID-19 at over two and three times the rate of the white population, respectively. The virus has made visible what has always been hidden in plain sight: the huge racial disparities of health and wealth in American society. As the impact of COVID-19 rises, so does the violence in our neighborhoods. How do we begin to heal the wounds of such traumatic and violent realities that continue to plague our neighborhoods?
African and Aztec traditional healing ceremonies
There is a remarkable history of Black and Brown unity, dating back to the Great Migrations of African-Americans and Mexicans to Chicago. These communities have always lived side by side, sharing an often-hidden heritage of Black and Brown solidarity and healing in our movements for change and social justice. Our local history remembers names like Lucy Gonzales Parsons, Fred Hampton and Rudy Lozano, who dedicated their lives to racial solidarity, struggle and healing. Black and Brown cultural resistance work continues in Chicago to this day.
One example of collective healing is embodied in a series of African and Aztec healing ceremonies, which have been organized for the past three years to help heal wounds of violence in our communities. I form part of the Aztec dance group Xochitl-Quetzal, and in collaboration with two local organizations — Healing Every Youth and Culture Saving — we have been working closely with several Black healers and groups focused on cultural preservation in the city.
For the past several years, we have organized Black and Brown Unity events in the form of African and Aztec healing ceremonies held within communities impacted by violence. We do this with the support of local community members and organizations. Due to the history of segregation in Chicago, Black and Brown communities neighbor one another. We try to bridge Black communities like Englewood to Brown communities like The Back of the Yards.
These ceremonies are rooted in healing rituals dating back to before the enslavement of African peoples and the conquest of Mexicans in North America. At these ceremonies, African and Aztec dancers smudge each other with traditional copal and sage, herbs to heal each other in a sign of respect. The drummers gather to play rhythms and songs that have existed for many centuries. The ceremony begins with an offering of thanks to the four cardinal directions, thanking the ancestors for passing on these traditional ways to each generation.
Dressed in ceremonial regalia, the dancers form a circle and take turns offering their prayers in forms of dance. The ritual helps tell the stories of our survival, because the oral tradition and spiritual resistance of our people live in these songs and dances. I am amazed at how the instruments used in African and Aztec dances are so similar — the drums, ankle shakers, even the bead work on the regalia, with their bright colors and patterns sharing similar characteristics. The structure of the dance groups are similar, as well as the dance formations and the fact that it is mostly women who are keeping these cultures alive. These common traits connect these dance traditions, despite the geographic distance between their origins.
The African and Aztec dance groups have organized ceremonies in Chicago, which are often held along the dividing lines between Black and Brown communities. In 2020, during the pandemic, our cultural resistance work continues to hold sacred space in places for healing. This pandemic has isolated many of our people who are struggling to meet their basic needs, and part of those needs are also emotional and spiritual. Our ceremonies are one way to unify Black and Brown communities through cultural racial healing. This is embodied in a saying: La cultura cura, or culture heals.
Connecting healing practices to the broader movement
We are living through the largest social movement our country has ever seen. While the vast majority of Black Lives Matter protests this year — 93 percent according to a recent study — were completely nonviolent, riots and looting did take place in Chicago. This led to a rise in racial tensions between Black and Brown communities. At times, those tensions did escalate to violence and vigilantism.
This was true between my neighborhood of Little Village, which is a Mexican immigrant neighborhood, and North Lawndale, which is a Black neighborhood. Youth and community activists mobilized several types of demonstrations to bring the Greater Lawndale community together to address anti-Blackness that resurfaced in my community as a result of the looting.
At one solidarity march, I was walking from my house with a friend to a Black and Brown feeder march that was going to join a unity march. As we crossed into North Lawndale, I was carrying my Black Lives Matter sign and passed several young African American people who were sitting on their porches.
One of the young men stopped us and said, “Hey man. Why you carrying that sign? You should be carrying that in your own neighborhood.” Several people noticed nearby and tried to help ease the tension. I explained that I was walking in an act of solidarity, but I tried to hide the fear, shame and embarrassment I felt. One young African-American woman in particular tried to jump in, saying, “It’s cool, let them be, they with us.”
We did keep going and eventually met up with the solidarity march, but I kept reflecting on what had occurred. After the action, I walked home and, as I crossed back into Little Village, a young Latino man driving by noticed my sign and shouted out of his car to me, “Get the fuck out of here with that, Black lives don’t matter,” laughing as he drove away.
What happened before and after that demonstration left a profound impact on me. Those words shook me and challenged my convictions and activism. What we do with our time before and after protest is what truly matters. Those words made me question how much work we are doing in the Mexican community to address the anti-Blackness that has existed both subtly and not-so-subtly for generations. The young Black and Brown men who made those comments really made me think of the reality: not enough is being done in Brown communities to address anti-Blackness where it persists, and this is where we need to focus our energies.
Because of that experience, in September we held our most recent African and Aztec indigenous ritual followed by a peace talking circle with activist and community members. Talking circles provide a sacred space for community members to gather to speak, reflect, process and heal. We chose to host the ceremony at the intersection of Ogden and Lawndale Avenue, the dividing line between North Lawndale and Little Village. On that intersection is a corner store and an auto body shop with a mural of Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez. In these businesses, Black and Brown people work together every day.
After the ceremony, local activist Shelby Chaney and Luis Narvaez hosted the talking peace circle in a vacant lot next to the mural. Talking circles are rooted in indigenous practices from First Nation peoples in North America. The circle gathers community stakeholders to address and resolve important issues to a tribe or community in a meaningful way.
“Throughout history, Black and Brown communities have been strategically divided,” said Chaney, a bilingual Black woman. “We therefore have to have strategic conversations in order to mediate the existing tensions and foster opportunities for growth.” Chaney described the historical and cultural roots of anti-Blackness in Latino communities, and identified this as a moment of opportunity to call this out. “Through this, we can begin to foster conversations that move towards healing the generational traumas, stereotypes and misunderstandings,” she said. “We can learn so much from each other and begin much-needed healing processes when spaces are provided to communicate our hurts, wants and needs as communities.”
Luis Narvaez, a program director for the Chicago Public Schools, reflected that even though Chicago is a diverse city where African Americans and Latinx people make up the majority of residents, these conversations do not happen enough. “This is personal to me as the parent of both Black and Brown children,” Narvaez said. “I want to make sure to provide them with a future where they feel safe and supported by all groups around them.”
Narvaez works to provide support for undocumented students in the city. “[We need to] call out the multigenerational usage of the word ‘Black’ as a derogatory term among Spanish-speaking communities,” he said. “It is up to us in this generation to call it out and hold each other accountable for our words and actions.”
These Black and Brown healing ceremonies provide a space to share and learn from the similarities that exist in our shared experiences in this country. It is remarkable that indigenous traditions can still be found in the heart of the community. “It was powerful to be in that space and experience dance and culture from both Black and Brown ancestral practices along with modern urban spoken word,” Narvaez reflected. “The sight is not a common one to see here in Chicago, despite the diversity of its residents.”
Teaser photo credit: By Mplanetech – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54943464