By Karen Valladares. June 6, 2019. Last fall, I had the honor of being able to attend the encuentro between Santa Ana and the Menominee Nation in Wisconsin. I never imagined how life-changing the experience would be. As I headed back home, so much of me wanted to stay and continue to work alongside them in their journey. Through each interaction and conversation, there was love, connection, understanding, and compassion. Many stories were exchanged – all of which I will never forget. And through these stories, I realized there was so much overlap in our experiences with negativity, poverty, and oppression all of which have been rampant for so long in our communities. Because of these spaces that allow for people to come together, building can happen, change can happen. Through the exchange of stories, songs, language, culture, raw emotions, skills-sharing, and plans of actions we encouraged each other and created a relationship full of trust and founded on building each other up.
One of the most life-changing moments was during my first morning at Menīkānaehkem, when Guy Reiter, a coordinator at Menīkānaehkem, talked about his heritage and his ancestors. He spoke about having to learn everything, but he emphasized that this knowledge is within us, it is not lost or forgotten – we just have to remember. He went on and shared that learning and surrounding yourself with the things of your past will wake up that innate knowledge that is within you. Although the Menominee Nation has had to adapt and overcome much adversity, they are doing it and continuing the story. Tears filled my eyes, and I was overcome with joy and sadness. I had carried so much anger and guilt of not knowing my heritage or culture because it was taken from me at a young age. My mother feared any expression of our indigenous and Hispanic roots since many of her ancestors were killed for that same expression. That moment after Guy spoke brought so much hope, belonging, meaning and purpose in my life.
That day I reclaimed my identity and have been getting in touch with my roots ever since. I finally understood why it meant so much to me when I heard all of us singing or giving thanks in our language. It’s that difference of someone saying, échale ganas, a strength that I feel in my core, that I know I can do it and it’s okay. Language is so much more than words. My ancestors have fought and died to keep my heritage and culture alive. I welcome all encouragement, but I emphasize that point because it is a feeling I cannot convey – to hear one’s language and be reminded of the power we come with in this life. The power of the people around us and our ancestors, as well as the thought of creating a better world for our descendants. There is so much power that can be shared within these spaces and through these exchanges.
In it together,