I recently spent a week in silence at Spirit Rock’s People of Color Retreat organized by Dharma teachers of color, Spring Washam, Rolf Gates, Bhante Buddharakkhita and Ruth King. Unexpectedly, as I unraveled the many identities that lived in me, I questioned what I was being “seen” for.
I’m a long time meditator and have participated in many retreats at IMS, Insight Meditation Society, Barre Massachusetts, and at Spirit Rock, Woodacre, California. As usual, I felt nervous about going into silence for days at a time, but something in me told me that this retreat would be special. Three years earlier, during my first people of color retreat I was afraid of how other yogis would see me, whether I belonged in the People of Color sangha because of my lighter skin. Not having being born in the United States also added another layer to my many identity dilemmas. Despite my anxiety, the quality of sitting with other people of color took me deeper into the body/mind connection around issues of color, culture, and territorial boundaries.
I signed up for the yogi job to chop vegetables in the morning (after standing in a long line) and asked to lay down in my bedroom to rest my back. Two African-American women were working the registration process, and one of them I recognized from an earlier people of color retreat. Both women had volunteered to work as registrar, getting paid like Dharma teachers, based on a Dana system of donation by the participants. One of them attended to my physical needs right away, especially after telling her about the time it took to register us for the yogi jobs. This White guy seemed more “mindful” about how well he got his job done than our restlessness to get to our rooms. She offered me a motorized wheel chair but I decided to walk instead. I didn’t want to call more attention to my body. My color skin was already something I was becoming more and more conscious as I made my way into the dorms.
After a nap, I walked into the Dharma Hall to reserve my seat and to my surprise the statue of Kuan Yin and the Buddha were back to back on the floor surrounded in a circle with our yogi cushions. Flowers, crystals and other adornments decorated the altar, showing no hierarchies amongst the participants that were about to gather around them. It brought me back to those circles of truth we did in elementary school in Argentina when playing with a bottle we twisted around and whoever had the neck pointed at them had to choose between a Kiss or Telling the Truth. I always went with the second option, which brought me closer to what I was about to do all week, look at my own truth.
I also recognized the circle as an ancient tradition amongst Third World communities, African and Native American in particular, and I recognized the intention of bringing us back to “home” to the many communities that as people of color we had left behind or were forced to leave behind one, two, three or four generations ago. Our commonality: we all lived in the United States and related differently to one another depending on our historical and ancestral roots. I smiled at the altar image thinking its lay out brought us as equals, all brothers and sisters ready to strip ourselves of our egos.
A few days in, not having talked to most people on retreat and deep in my yogi mind, I began to question whether my pink olive freckled skin and reddish hair had people confused about my cultural background. My accent was what defined me once I opened my mouth, but here I couldn’t speak. Many times during my research on immigrant women in Dominican Republic and New York City, I had passed inadvertently as White, and most people thought I was a “White Gringa,” until I spoke up and shared my political views with a foreign accent. I never passed as “White” intentionally but my white privilege was at times my leverage for whatever situation could arise, or didn’t arise.
As hours and minutes went by (everything slowed down on retreats), I began to question: Am I Latina? Am I South American? What are the border differences of all my identities: Latina Immigrant, Third World, U.S. citizen, and Woman of Color? How do they include or exclude themselves? How do they include or exclude me? In a way, the many labels made me a “SATA,” a name Puerto Ricans used when they didn’t know the breed of their dogs, a “MIX,” a “HYBRID,” and in some instances a “TRANSGRESSOR” for daring to cross the lines of “pure blood” or White dominant culture.
I was sure of one thing, being of Italian, German and South American great grandparents who emigrated in the 1850s to Argentina, and having been born there had changed the way my European ancestry marked me. This stood in contrast to becoming of age as an adult woman in the United States. Many times I wondered why my ancestors decided to go to South America instead of North America, and I imagined how our fates would be different today. Besides, while growing up I adhered to a global middle-class South American rationale whereas looking up to U.S. and European culture, mainly through music and fashion in my teenage years, was the way to go and put me in a global community of personal tastes and lifestyles.
Once in the United States, I studied the ways globalization impacted inequality, social justice, color, and class, and it took only a few years before I became more and more politically “aware,” especially when I taught Sociology at the university, resisting and bringing social awareness to discrimination against the Latino/a community in the U.S. and abroad. I also saw the impact U.S. domestic and foreign policy had on Third World countries, and how these policies were connected to migration patterns in the Americas. In the beginning of the week, I even told one of the teachers in an interview, “I don’t feel I belong anywhere. I’m a US. citizen but I wasn’t born here.” Why wasn’t thirty years living in this country enough of an alliance to feel “American”? What was I missing? I was American, I would tell myself, having been born in South America. How ethnocentric of one country to take the name of a whole continent? Other times I had been able to differentiate between community politics and government decisions, telling myself it was okay to feel “American” even when I didn’t agree with our government policies. Many of my U.S. American friends didn’t agree either. I told that same teacher that I had noticed the lack of Latino Dharma teachers in this and other retreats, and he kindly agreed with me.
By the middle of the week, I felt anger and frustration with Spirit Rock for not training more Latino Dharma teachers. I was also frustrated with the U.S. government, foreign policy, oppression and violence in the world, and how every single person on retreat was affected by the larger picture. Each hour I became more self conscious and self aware of the political underpinnings of our identities, colors, class differences, but instead of going down the spiral of blame, guilt, and shame, I focused on what was at stake for me to become a more conscious, loving, and compassionate individual in the midst of social oppression.
One of the notes included my thoughts on the endless causes and consequences of our racial and cultural crossings, and the lack of Latino representation in the teaching body. To make things worse, one of them said in a Q&A session in reference to the Black Body and her own experiences: “and then we have the immigrants.” Her phrase didn’t land well in me. It made me feel even more foreign. I thought to myself but I really meant it for her, “Let’s revise the history of colonialism/imperialism/capitalism please,” and how countries’ policies affect immigrants in their decision to displace themselves from their families and places of origin. Why was being “an immigrant” such a big deal in my head? Was economics the only motivation guiding our decisions? Why did I feel on the defensive? Were immigrants not included in the “people of color” U.S. definition? It reminded me of a polemic with affirmative action in the eighties when newly arrived immigrants from South America were filling requirements that critics said “should have gone to the colonial groups that have been oppressed for generations in the United States like African-Americans, Latinos/as, Asian-Americans, and Native Americans.” After days of observing my stories, cravings for likes and dislikes without crossing the bridge between wanting, feeling, and doing, I realized that my “difference,” the one I carried in my body and psyche, revolved around the fact I was born and raised in South America, and two of my grandparents were born in Uruguay and Brazil, two countries with a large African and Indigenous population and a process of mestizaje that was now part of my historical origins, locality and identity. For the first time in the Dharma community, this acknowledgement deep in my yogi mind changed the way I saw myself, from the moment I migrated from South to North in search of a professional degree at eighteen, to a day on retreat where after thirty years of having lived in the United States, I was still feeling like a “foreigner.”
Interestingly enough, when I wasn’t in my head, the experience of my body was a different one. On this retreat I felt comfortable, safe, taken care of, pampered with good, healthy food, and caressed with love and good boundaries when it came to our presence and communion together. The peace I experienced sitting in community with other people of color was magic, and it didn’t matter where we were from. In fact at one point on the retreat I realized that thinking about our own cultural/racial origins was endless, so I began to see each person as another human being, and allowed for our common and yet unique human experience to settle in. This was possible because of our own understanding of the suffering we have carried from generation after generation around discrimination and oppression in the world. Used to spiritual bypassing in so many violent forms, going deeper into the realm of color and identity made my retreat much more real and powerful. I was able to heal those forms of violence that got us to who we are today, to be seen as empowered people of color, giving back to those who made this retreat possible, from the White guy assigning yogi jobs, to the two women in the registrar office, to the people who raised the funds for us to afford the retreat, to the teachers for giving us the opportunity to sit with them and heal with us.
My change in one week was radical. By the end of the week, I began to feel I belonged in this country. It just took one look at the meditation hall, back to our circle of truth, to look at my “other” brothers and sisters like me “to be seen.” Buddha, Kuan Yin, us holding each other’s back. Like them, I also lived here, and was part of the myriad of races, cultures, skin colors, and intertwined histories of colonialism and modern capitalism that made up the United States today. We weren’t “the hungry” and “the poor” His-story had wanted us to be for an easier assimilation; most of us brought culture, music, aliveness, resources and much more of our humanness that we were able to admit, contributing to our ongoing, unraveling “American” commons.
Today, as I write this and wait for my next silent retreat at IMS this Fall, where I was given a scholarship as a people of color to sit with White folks once again, I wonder what yogi mind will emerge as I go deep in self awareness with them and “others.” Will I be “seen” for my many labels or for who I am? Will I embrace my Latina Third World Woman of Color without the need to speak up about it? My mind/body connection begins to dread the geographical contours of my Self as I set myself for another journey inward, yet in communion with what may arise in our common humanness.