Ancestral Wisdom in Our Work
Updated: Feb 25
My ancestors play an important role in my work.
That wasn’t always true.
It was a big leap for me to begin understanding my life in relation to all that came before me and all that lies ahead. I remember the goosebumps I felt when I first heard strategist and Zen teacher Norma Wong’s words,
“We are the descendants of our ancestors and the ancestors of descendants yet to come.”
With her words I also felt a pang.
Like many of us in the US, my relationship to my ancestors is complicated.
I call myself an assimilationist baby, the offspring of a process by which “either immigrant diasporas or native residents come to be culturally dominated by another society." Or in the words of poet May Yang,
i am American
i am good at forgetting
I'm the daughter of “golden child” parents who were the first in their families to go to college and leave behind poverty and dislocation. As a child, my father moved with his family slowly from Ecuador’s rural coast to the city. When they finally reached Quito, my grandfather died, leaving my teenage father to take on financial responsibility for his mother and sister. Through my father’s intense focus on school, the US strategy to create a Latin American consumer class, and a huge dose of luck, my father made his way from Ecuador to the US on a scholarship, eventually becoming a citizen and holding on tightly to the economic security he found here.
My mother was a different kind of migrant, a child of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, and great granddaughter of German immigrants. She spent her early years moving around the Midwest as her parents searched for work, until they finally came to eke out a modest living running a local diner in Kansas. As white people, my mother's family faced severe economic hardship and classism, but not racial discrimination or racial violence. Like my father, a scholarship pulled my mother out of the world she knew and into a brand new life.
Thanks to my parents I have never experienced poverty. But assimilation has its price.
Grabbing hold when an economic ladder gets thrown down changes us, connects us, emotionally, to the worldview of the ladder, to the story of the individual, to the mythology of progress, to the hierarchy of race. We are pulled to erase and denigrate the values and experiences of the past that contradict the worldview of the ladder. We become disconnected from the wisdom and lessons of our true past, freezing ourselves into a rootless present and an irreverent future.
The mix of history I inherit also complicates my relationship to my ancestors. I am only a few generations away from my Indigenous Andean ancestors, and my ancestors from the Ecuadorian coast who lived in huts on stilts. And I am that same genealogical distance from the displaced European immigrants whose survival led them to the North American prairie and the violent displacement of Native nations there.
Trying to connect with my ancestors can feel like I'm walking on broken glass.
I’m learning to feel the contours of the shards without turning back. I'm learning to welcome my ancestors into my daily life.
Year round I keep a mantle with photos, candles, small objects, and slips of paper with names of ancestors on both sides of my family, those I’ve known and those whose names are all I know.
A few years ago I began celebrating Día de los Difuntos (Ecuadorian Day of the Deceased, or Day of the Dead as it’s known in Mexico) on November 1. Sparked by facebook photos posted by my cousins in Ecuador, I now make guaguas de pan and colada morada, and invite family and friends to honor the lives of those who have passed during the year. Falling days before the 2020 US election, a day to replenish ancestral strength feels more necessary than ever.
In my work I now seek to honor my ancestors, and my responsibility as a future ancestor, by approaching my efforts with 100 year vision. I ask myself and others, What is the trajectory from this effort to our grandchildren’s children? What does that trajectory tell us about the milestones we need to aim for 50 years from now?
10 years from now?
Welcome to my work, ancestors.
I’m so glad you’re here.
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