Tlahtolli: Interview with Yvette Mendez, elder and indigenous activist from Texas
TLAHTOLLI is a new series on Xica Nation featuring exclusive interviews with community leaders, spiritual elders, thinkers and artists that participate actively in community work and empowerment within the greater Xican@ nation.
We recently caught up with Yvette Mendez who is an artist, activist, danzante, and healer now living in San Antonio, Texas. She is a much sought-after elder who devotes her time and energy to various projects across Texas, particularly in Austin, San Antonio and Ruidosa out in the western borderlands of the state.
Hello, Yvette, and welcome to Xica Nation. Could you please tell us about yourself? What is your background? How do you identify?
My lineage is rooted in my father’s tribe, the Mescalero/Chiricahua tribes of the Apache nation. Both my grandmother and great grandmother were prominent healers from the “Tsehitcihende” (“Hook Nose”) Band of the Mescalero Tribe, Apache nation.
How did your journey into ceremony begin? Were you born into the tradition? What was your experience as a Xicana/Mexican American walking an indigenous path? Feel free to use the terms by which you identify.
My grandmothers were my early teachers. Through them I became connected to my native roots, and learned about my culture and various healing modalities from the Apache traditions.
My great grandmother still spoke fluent Apache, she spoke no Spanish, nor English. My grandmother spoke Spanish. Most of our people blended in with the Mestizo Mexicans. My grandmothers were healers. I remember people would come all the way from the valley to see my grandmothers. They were well known in the region around the border. They would heal people and they would also do “trabajos” or bad juju, meaning if someone did something bad, you would see them to settle scores. They were powerful women who practiced the old ways. I loved being around them.
I grew up harvesting mesquite beans, nopales, tunas and other natural foods that just grew wild. I would help my grandmother take the thorns off. She would set newspapers on the ground and we would sit in a circle cleaning off the cactus pads, or she would make us gather tender mesquite beans which we would boil and eat. We always ate with our hands and out of a big pot or plate. I still don’t like to use forks and spoons. Even though I am an educated woman, I still prefer to eat with my hands and tortillas, old style. I have never forgotten where I came from. That is why I consider myself blessed. I learned many things from my grandmothers, and many other grandmothers in my indigenous communities.
When I was about 19 or 20, I took a trip to the mountains of Mexico in Huautla de Jimenez, Oaxaca, where I met the late Maria Sabina. It was here where my awareness expanded and my spiritual journey began.
Since then I have continuously returned to Oaxaca for the last 35 years. Throughout that time I’ve worked extensively with respected medicine peoples of various tribal traditions including the Mazatec, Zapotec, Mexica, Ojibway, Lakota, and Mayan nations. For many years I was active in the tradición of the danza Mexica in the U.S.
I have also had a chance to study midwifery and plant medicines, as well as the ritual uses of herbs and tobacco. But my area of focus is in relationship to water, and its ritual use in all aspects of healing.
Could you tell us a little more about the community works you’re involved in?
I conduct an annual water ceremony through the use of the sacred “Turtle Mother” medicine wheel and am the standing medicine woman for the annual “moondance” ceremony on ancestral Apache lands near Austin, Texas.
I give lectures at water and environmental symposiums at various universities and am also involved in two important land conservancy projects. I am currently a council member of Alma de Mujer Center for Social Justice (Austin), an umbrella organization of the Indigenous Women’s Network, and President of the Chinati Ixtlan Cultural and Land Conservancy group in West Texas (Ruidosa.)
What is a land conservancy? What is Chinati Ixtlan?
The Chinati Ixtlan land conservancy is a beautiful preserve of 500 acres of ancient ancestral Apache lands in the mountains of West Texas in the LaJunta Region.
A land conservancy is a nonprofit organization and trust that works with landowners who are interested in conserving land who donate it to preserve the natural state of the environment for its scenic, productive or historic value.
In the case of Chinati, its importance is historical in nature, as it is the original ancestral grounds of the Apache. But it also has tremendous productive potential as a way for us to reclaim our ancestral ways of life, and thus preserve and maintain our cultural heritage and connection to our tribal lands.
In ancient times the Chinati region was the crossroads, meeting grounds, breadbasket of the various migratory Apache tribes. Here they would gather to meet intertribally to exchange goods, find mates, do ceremonies and basically all the relevant cultural exchanges among the people.
Why should people care about land conservancies? Why are they important?
It is important that we as human beings not only begin to take a real concern over what is happening to our planet, but most importantly what is happening to us. It does not take a rocket scientist to take note of the fact that as a human species we have become very disconnected from our natural state as human beings. We have lost our way, and thus our humanity. We have lost all self-respect and thus respect for everyone else including our animal and plant relatives. We have total disregard for the sacredness that is life and all the natural elements such as the water, the air, the fire, and the earth. We have forgotten how to take care of the earth, ourselves, and our families and communities. We have become very selfish and materialistic. We have totally bought into the illusion albeit a very strategically designed system of materialism and individualism.
Packaged and sold to us by the U.S. government, the media and various institutions. We are completely bought in and blinded by all the fancy gadgets, and superficial fast paced way of life. We have forgotten to walk in beauty, calmness, to stop and smell the roses now and then. This fake way of life is killing us literally, and making us very unhappy. Depression and suicide is at an all time high. Our teenagers and children are very angry and sad.
In my years as a teacher in public school, I saw it everyday in the faces of my students. So much ADD and ADHD, children on meds. People walk around in a constant state of anger and agitation. No one is recognizing the simple fact that we have forgotten how to live as human beings, interdependent on each other and every other living organism on the planet.
My dream is that through this community and conservancy we can begin to reclaim what it means to walk in balance within ourselves and with nature. There is much work to be done, but many people seem to be interested in a new way of thinking and living. Really it is not new, it is just re-membering what was lost, putting ourselves back together again, and healing our hearts and mind from our experiences with colonialism and genocide.
As a people we lost a lot when the white man came, we are all a product of that conquest. It was not just a conquest of a people but of the heart and minds of the people. We are all sons and daughters of ancestors who went through some very nasty things, and we still carry in our hearts the wounded memories of the souls of our ancestors. We may not know how to articulate it, but it is a very deep pain that sometimes defies logic and understanding. But it has an origin, and that origin is a forgotten memory of pain and suffering at the loss of our ancestral lands and ways of life.
But the time for crying and suffering is over, we are at a point where we need to take an active stand on how we think and live. It is the time of awakening consciousness of finally liberating ourselves from our past to begin a new future. It is a time of renewal and healing but we must act fast.
Each and everyone of us has a mission in life and a responsibility. We need to take charge of our lives and dig ourselves out of the rut we have been in. There are many ways to do this and we can learn from our ancestral traditions. These are the kinds of teachings we will have at Chinati Ixtlan.
In your experience as a strong, outspoken mujer in the community I imagine you have gained much insight on navigating the multiple paradigms we as mujeres exist within. In your opinion, why is it important for wombyn to become vocal, active participants in their communities and sacred circles?
I think it is very important for women to practice using their voices. By this I mean to speak up and speak out. As women our voices have not been valued very much. But our voices are important because we are the teachers, the caretakers, the mothers, the healers. As women we have many different responsibilities, the greatest of which is being a mother, of raising decent human beings. It is a tall task, and a very challenging one in this day and age.
I believe it is hard for us because many times our men carry so much anger, and violence in them. It is not a natural state for them but has become the only way they know how to be. They too have suffered a lot. Their ability to be men and the protectors and providers of their families was taken away, and they were made slaves of the Spanish, and then the English. Their women, mothers, and sisters were raped, many times in front of them. That was a tactic used to disempower them, to emasculate them.
Unfortunately in their anger, they took it out on us, and we have taken it for a very long time. They have also punished themselves by avoiding us, by finding solace in the bottle, or in drugs, or sex with other women. Colonization has really fragmented and destroyed our integrity as families, it has also eroded our ability to communicate with each other as couples, and has created a huge gender gap. This is a very real problem, and a stark reality we live every single day.
The term “feminism” in our community has become a very bad word, which in and of itself speaks to a problem of gender bias. If we choose to be leaders and use our voices to question their machismo or need for control, they call us man haters, and untraditional. (Traditional meaning stay at home, shut your mouth, and stay in your place. This is not okay.) Our men need a lot of healing too.
As leaders of our sacred circles we have a right to grow and develop our own paths. It does not have to be threatening. I believe the fear of machismo is deeply rooted in the conquest and colonialism. We need to be strong enough to heal ourselves, and then have enough love to help our men heal too.
How can we overcome this? What steps can we take to begin and/or contribute? Where do we go from here?
Before we can heal, we have to understand our past, who we are, where we came from, what we really want out of this life. If we cannot know who we are, how can we expect to have a healthy relationship with men, with our parents, friends, other people. We need to learn self-love. We always think of love as something external that we give to others. In truth, before we can love others we need to learn to love ourselves for the beautiful flowers that we are. Flowers come in all shapes, sizes, colors. Nature doesn’t discriminate. It does not matter if your are short, tall, gordita, prietita. You are beautiful just as you are. We are much too critical of ourselves. We need to show kindness to ourselves, not to berate, belittle or devalue our worth.
We have false images of what beauty is because of the media. Photos of real women are altered, and we buy into it. Always trying to obtain the next fashion, change our hair color, use all kinds of poisonous and harsh cancer causing chemicals on our bodies to try to fit an image. This is not self care or self love. We have to learn to accept our faces, our bodies, and our minds exactly the way they were given to us. Nurture your minds and your spirits, and your beauty and inner light will shine like a star.
Are there any upcoming community events you’ll be working with?
On February 28th from 1-6 p.m. I am sponsoring an event at Alma de Mujer with Russell Eagle Bear of Shield the People, a spiritual resistance by the First Nations peoples who are organizing in solidarity with the Lakota to “protect and shield the people, natural resources and cultural heritage” from the Keystone Tar Sands / XL Pipeline devastation to Mother Earth.