Decolonize the Bloodline and Save the Women
By Adriana Balvaneda
DNA: Grandmother’s Journey
In Kendrick Lamar’s famous DNA song, he says: “I got power, poison, pain, and joy inside my DNA”. I, too, wonder what’s inside of me, and how colonization has forever rewritten my family’s DNA through religion. Am I destined to repeat my family’s history, or is there something else in my DNA that can liberate me?
My maternal grandmother, Maria, was raised in the Catholic Church, and is the second child of seven. Not much is known about her father, Vicente: a man with a light complexion and green-hazel eyes; he farmed the mountainous region of Intibuca, Honduras, which was a small, remote with no roads or any semblance of modern medicine. As a result, sometime in the early 1940's, Vicente tragically passed away from an easily treatable fever.
If my maternal grandmother’s life were a book, this is the part where her life changes forever and marks a tragic beginning. After Vicente’s death, my great-grandmother, Estefania, decided to abandon her children and remarry a local man: beginning a new home with new children. When later questioned for her decision, according to my mother, Estefania’s response was always: “What was wrong with that? I left them at home.” This left her eldest daughter, Maria, to care for her five younger siblings. Becoming a mother, and a pseudo wife, at 10 years old left my grandmother uneducated, abused, and limited. Her older brother became the father figure and farmed their father’s land for their survival. My grandmother recalls spying from her window to see when her older brother would arrive, because she needed to have his food served before he set foot in his home, or else he would beat her. However, Catholicism, combined with a sense of duty to her family, never made her question her role. She followed the Church's blueprint of her future: to care for a household, marry, and to raise children in Chrisitianity.
Once her siblings grew up, it left my grandmother with an opportunity to make a new life. Yet, one’s options are always limited with indoctrination: she soon married a local man and had two children. Due to some bad inlaws, who made my grandmother’s life miserable, she left her first husband, but she took her children with her--unlike her mother.
She decided to leave her hometown and made her way down the mountain to San Manuel Cortez, located in the valley. Along with her eldest son, three at the time, and her four-month-old baby, she walked for three days down the rocky mountainside. She slept outside under the open sky and cooked meals on a campfire along the way.
By the time she arrived in San Manuel Cortez, the small village had already been occupied by White, evangelical missionaries as another wave of colonialism. My grandmother soon converted to Evangelicalism after being disillusioned with the Catholic saints once her prayers went unanswered. However, this sect of Evangelicalism was very strict, and imposed new rules on the women in San Manuel Cortez: they were not allowed to wear pants, cut their hair, dance, or leave their homes except for church gatherings.
Feeling alone, and without parental support, my grandmother sought security in marriage again, and soon after met my grandfather, Mercedes, who she married and bore five children for. My grandmother lived a sad life because Christianity never allowed her to dream that there was more to life than motherhood and being a wife. She stayed with a man who was an alcoholic, and who frequently spent his pitiful earnings in bars -- leaving her to fend for herself and the children.
Not only was he irresponsible, but he also took out his frustration on the family. My mother recalls her father coming home and beating Maria senseless for minor infractions: because she didn’t cook his food to his liking, or simply because he came home too drunk. However, an excuse for beating her was never needed, and this physical abuse also extended to his children who lived under a “no-questions-asked household” -- only punishments were guaranteed. Despite all of this, leaving her husband was never an option.
And History Repeats Itself: Mother’s Journey
During my mother’s early twenties, Mercedes' corpse is found with machete wounds in the fields near their home. The story goes: my grandfather was cheating on my grandmother with a local married woman, who left her husband in hopes that my grandfather would leave my grandmother in exchange for her because she was pregnant. My family speculates that one night after he finished drinking, the woman's husband followed my grandfather from a local pub to his home and killed him. Of course, this is all speculation, since San Manuel Cortez had no police force to investigate, which left my mother with no answers and only rumors. Yet, it also meant that for the first time in her life, my mother felt a sense of free agency.
Distraught by the lack of opportunities in San Manuel Cortez, she imagined a life outside of poverty. Along with two of her friends, my mother worked to eventually raise enough money to pay a coyote to cross the border into the United States. However, this soon turned into an endeavor of its own, as my mother didn’t have any family members willing to loan her the money; nor did she have sneakers to make the journey. She recalls walking home crying after her oldest brother refused to loan her money, when her neighbor Ingriz asked: “Why are you out here crying, girl?” Taking pity on my mother, she lent her some money on the promise that my mother would repay it. The next part, my mother says, came easier as her younger sister found a friend willing to give her shoes. The following weekend, my mother set forth on her one-month journey by foot to Pasadena, California, with only a pair of gym shoes which were two sizes too small and $50 USD in her pockets.
Growing up in a dysfunctional and struggling family left my mother, Melba, with her own set of trauma, as she renewed the same toxic family cycle based on Christian values. At 21, she was alone and without parents in a new country, and soon sought comfort in marriage. There she met my father, Manuel, and after six months of dating each other, they married because religion had taught her that was the only option. This is where colonization is written in our DNA because my mother also married an abusive alcoholic, who wasted his money in the same manner her father once had.
They say opposites attract, but forget to mention that trauma seeks trauma: the next thirty years of my mother’s life are marked with domestic abuse and alcoholism. Maybe my mom thought she could change my dad, but the first ten years of their marriage were defined by late-night, drunken fights, and verbal abuse between them. Oddly enough, I think she felt empowered in this relationship because she refused to remain docile and battered and would fight back.
However, growing up with no good role models for marriage on either side of their families tricked my parents into thinking that the constant drama between them--and their stubbornness to never divorce--somehow meant they were truly in love. While in reality, all I see are two deeply traumatized people, who never had a chance to escape Christianity. Yet, just like her mother before her, leaving him is never an option.
Uncertainty: My Journey
At eighteen, I followed in my older sister’s footsteps and attended university two hours away from home. This was my first time away from my family, and I could finally breathe away from their toxic fumes with an accompanying sense of freedom. However, like the women before me, I was full of insecurities and doubts about myself, but this time they centered around school. I never felt smart or worthy and I felt alone and parentless in this new space. Thus, like the women before me, I sought the comfort of a man to make me feel safe and loved.
That’s where I met my fiance, a sweet, docile, white boy who helped me feel safe in this white environment. Sadly, finding a partner who is healthy must be rare for someone with trauma, because we were two trauma-filled kids who found comfort in one another, only to repeat our families’ histories.
Growing up with no good role models of marriage on either side tricked us into thinking that the constant drama between us--and our stubbornness to never break up--somehow meant that we must truly be in love. Thus, he took on the role of his own meek mother, who learned how to be a good Christian wife: who always submitted to her husband’s authority and lived within his constraints. Leading him to not be assertive no matter how wild my requests were, while I found myself imitating my mother’s critical voice and short temper. Although slightly different by our generation, we were reenacting our families’ trauma.
Now, I'm in my early twenties, but unlike the women before me, I reject religion because I see how it controls women and limits our options. However, I am scared this cycle is unbreakable, and if there are forces beyond me that will continuously push me to lead the same life as the women who came before me. Maybe it is the trauma, or maybe it is something else, but I also seek the safety and comfort promised to me by men.
Yet, I recognize I must be my own person, and only I can provide myself a safe place as I am more educated and therefore, more aware than them. As a result, I realize that colonial religion took away the strength and options from the women in my life, and I'll be damned if I allow it to make me weak too. I know that I will be the one to end the generational trauma, become truly decolonized, and perhaps the first one to leave, "him."