Latinas Are Leaning on Ancestral Knowledge To Reclaim Wellness In 2020

There’s a wise saying often told by Dominicans in regards to medicinal plants: “Hay plantas que curan y plantas que matan” (There are plants that heal and plants that kill). It’s a saying that has resonated with many folks this year, including Latinas who have found themselves changing the way they look at wellness and incorporating plant medicine, remedio caseros (homemade remedies), and healing modalities of their ancestors to protect themselves from the physical and emotional toll of the COVID-19 pandemic
As the steady growth of coronavirus cases continues, which has killed more than 300,000 people in the United States, Latinx communities continue to be disproportionately affected by the virus. Many of us have felt the pressure to recommit ourselves to wellness and self-care while also recognizing how implicit bias and racial disparities in the U.S. healthcare system continue to fail us. 
At a time when it's more important than ever for Latinx folks to reclaim their health, many like Juliet Diaz, Afro-Dominican twins Dr. Miguelina Rodriguez and Dr. Griselda Rodriguez-Solomon, Yadira Garcia, Yaquí Rodriguez, and Cindy Rodriguez are leaning into ancestral wisdom while democratizing healthcare for a community that is chronically underserved by mainstream medicine. 
Here, six Latinas share their journeys to decolonizing and reclaiming their wellness during an immensely difficult year. Their supplemental remedies and ancestral practices don't just combat the effects of COVID-19 — but all the tolls this year has taken on us mentally and emotionally.

Juliet Diaz

Courtesy of Juliet Diaz.
When the pandemic hit the states, Juliet Diaz, an Indigenous Taína, Cuban-American activist, Seer, curandera (healer), and author, found herself calling up her abuelitas in Cuba for remedio caseros to keep her immune system strong. They recommended an amarillo de la gloria de la mañana, also known as yellow morning glory. That's how Diaz found herself constantly making remedies and teas this year using all the ingredients her Taíno ancestors from Cuba used, including anise, garlic, red onions, aloe vera, and guanabana (soursop) leaves.
But this is far from the first year Diaz has found herself tapping into ancestral knowledge and medicine. She published her second book this past October, Plant Witchery: Discover the Sacred Language, Wisdom, and Magic of 200 Plants, after decades of recognizing her own special connection to plants. “I wanted to bring back awareness and the sacredness of plants and the spirit of each plant being...[It’s] my way of decolonizing plants in witchcraft,” she says. "It’s meant to reclaim the true roots of the crafts, practices, medicine, and wisdom that has been white washed, appropriated, and taken from BIPOC.”
Diaz comes from a long line of curanderos and Brujas on both sides of her parent’s lineage. Now, a bohuit (healer) of her tribe Higuayaga, Diaz says she recognized her sacred gifts from a very young age and began learning about the ancestral practices of her family through her mom when she was three years old. If she got sick, her mother would go and gather plants and herbs to make a remedy. She taught Diaz how to pick plants and also taught her the significance of eggs, which are often used in limpezas to ward off negative energy. 

"When I make those remedios, I don’t just see my hands — I see the hands of my ancestors working through me."

Juliet Diaz
“Colonization forced us into learning [our colonizers'] religion. It was just another form of slavery. Another way of brainwashing our minds to worship something other than ourselves,” Diaz says. “This year, we recognized that magic that we all have. We recognized that we carry that connection to our ancestors. When I make those remedios, I don’t just see my hands — I see the hands of my ancestors working through me."

Brujas of Brooklyn: Dr. Miguelina Rodriguez and Dr. Griselda Rodriguez-Solomon

Photographer: Idris Talib Solomon.
Afro-Dominican twins Dr. Miguelina Rodriguez and Dr. Griselda Rodriguez-Solomon, known as the Brujas of Brooklyn, were raised in La 21 Division, also referred to Dominican Vodou, which is a syncretic religion rooted in African and Indigenous practices and rituals. The sisters — who have also dabbled with South Asian practices like Hinduism, chantra, and sacred sexuality — have found that a lot of the practices and rituals they do interconnect with health and wellness. Because of that, they are huge advocates of womb health and often discuss the importance of balancing menstrual cycles, using yoni eggs, and the significance of detoxing. 
“We are spirits having a human experience. What that means is this body that we have is a vessel and it’s temporary,” Rodriguez-Solomon explains. “Our spirits have lived before in our past lives and they will continue in our future lives, but in this incarnation our bodies are the vessel that carries the spirit. If your body is not in optimal shape, then there are a lot of spiritual faiths that will say the spirit can’t really manifest and incarnate at a higher frequency.”
With their outlook on body wellness, the sisters have found themselves preparing a lot of the remedies passed down from their mother and their grandmothers this year — not necessarily as a means of fighting or preventing the virus, but in an effort to strengthen their immune systems and balance their overall health. One of them is what they like to call “Dirty D’s famous Anti-flu/Immune Boosting Tea," which is a red-onion based tea that’s very popular within the Dominican community.
Rodriguez-Solomon believes this year has been part of a much greater spiritual awakening that has called on us to look at our health. “We’re seeing a resurgence of the witch and bruja identity because there’s a divine feminine awakening with the sign Aquarius coming to the earth itself in a Zodiac sign for 2000 years,” she says. “People are getting separated, people are getting married, quitting their jobs, and creating their own businesses because the divine feminine awakening is calling us to do that. We are being called to live a more holistic life.”

Yaquí Rodriguez

Photographer: Darren J. Sabino.
Yaqui Rodriguez, a reiki healer, spiritual practitioner, and founder of Wave of Healing (an organization she created to guide and support those on the journey to reclaiming their inner peace, personal power, ancestral wisdom, and connection to the earth) felt spiritually intuitive from a very young age but ignored it for years. It wasn’t until 2017 that she really started to feel spiritually grounded. After receiving a certification in reiki, Rodriguez later discovered that curanderas and healers ran in her lineage, including her abuelo, who has practiced folk medicine in the Dominican Republic for years.
“The folk medicine my Abuelo does is called ensalmos. It’s healing from the campos (countryside) in the Dominican Republic,” says Rodriguez, who eventually started to dabble in ancestral healing practices, enrolled in ancestral medicine courses, and applied to be a practitioner. 
Rodriguez describes the work she does in ancestral lineage healing as a way to restore ancestral veneration, communication, and elevation that was severed mostly when colonization spread; she believes doing so can help intergenerational patterns of family dysfunction. She has also found herself tapping deeper into ancestral practices this year after contracting COVID in March. Rodriguez made herself plenty of teas from herbs like Japanese Knotweed, which is known to allegedly combat symptoms of respiratory discomfort and inflammation. She did a lot of herbal baths and smudging, and prepared herself limpezas using a bark that’s especially popular in the Dominican Republic called ruda. She journaled, she meditated, and she made sure to connect with her Dominican ancestors consistently, asking for guidance and wisdom as she fought the virus physically and mentally. 
“If you look back in our cultures, we didn’t have traditional forms of therapy. The therapy was to go see the curandera (the medicine woman). I’m seeing people returning to those old ways and seeing the value in it,” she says. “What keeps a lot of POC from seeking spiritual work is the stigma that’s still associated with it. Our colonizers colonized our spirituality. They outcast anyone that practiced anything that was earth-honoring or healed people.”

Cindy Rodriguez

Photographer: Anna Ryabtov.
In 2017, after having gotten laid off from a startup, journalist Cindy Rodriguez embarked on a solo road trip that took her to nature landscapes and parks across the country. It was during this road trip that she realized the spiritual significance of being in nature. This led to the launch of Reclama, a spiritual hiking and journaling community for women in the New York and New Jersey area. “A barrier I noticed in the community is the idea that you only see white people in the woods. You only see white people hiking or in nature, and I wanted to change that,” she says. “I wanted people to see that we can occupy space unapologetically and not just as a woman of color but as a woman of color connecting to spirit. I wanted to use this as an opportunity to teach these women some of the things my family has taught me about nature and spirituality”
When COVID first hit the states, Rodriguez had to pause the hikes. From March to July, she would only do full and new moon Instagram Lives and also sent out newsletters to her dedicated followers. By July, the hikes were back on but organized with much smaller groups and stricter restrictions that followed CDC and government guidelines. In many ways, the hikes have helped her get through this challenging year, along with her regular baños, limpezas, and daily journaling. She has also been making ancestral teas — many that have been passed down in her family.

"Just knowing I’m drinking the same tea from the same land where my family’s history is so ingrained is an affirming connection to the land there."

Cindy Rodriguez
“What soothes my soul is drinking te hierba luisa (lemongrass tea), that’s grown on my grandparents land. I remember my Abuela Fela making me this tea whenever I had trouble sleeping. It helps me breathe life into anything I do. Just knowing I’m drinking the same tea from the same land where my family’s history is so ingrained is an affirming connection to the land there,” Rodriguez says. “Peruvians worship the land, like many other Indigenous groups. It always goes back to connecting with and taking care of Pachamama (a goddess revered by the Indigenous people of the Andes, also known as the earth mother).”

Yadira Garcia

Courtesy of Yadira Garcia.
For Yadira Garcia, chef and founder of Happy Healthy Latina — a community-based business (CBB) and movement for POCs that currently exists as an open-air culinary school — ancestral knowledge and wisdom is something she joyfully finds in food. The food activist works in educational institutions to get fresh food to communities while also fighting for food justice and equity, which disproportionally affects Black and brown communities. She partners with specific community-based organizations, local elected officials, and nonprofits to create paid youth apprenticeships, educational programs, and free-to-low cost classes.
Once COVID hit, Garcia realized how dire the emergency food situation was — and her work took on an entirely new focus “Many people lost their jobs, and many people lost access not just to income but to their ability to purchase fresh food,” she says. “As a community chef, I felt very called to serve during this.” From March to December, Garcia partnered with the Fortune Society — an organization that houses formerly incarcerated people with the mission to help them thrive as positive and contributing members of society — to provide meals for those struggling with food insecurity.
Personally, Garcia has been leaning on her great-great-grandmother’s remedios, including one recipe that includes guanabana leaves, fresh ginger root, and turmeric. As she taps into her ancestral recipes, she feels a powerful awakening happening in her community. “You can see it erupting like a volcano on various fronts that we’re finding each other. Our people are finding each other, and even though our stories were hidden, it’s like a seed,” Garcia says. “It just comes back up through time. You can bury it, but it’s going to keep trying to resurface. It’s going to keep trying to come back.” 
Go to the CDC website for the latest information on symptoms, prevention, and other resources for COVID-19.

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