All Your Grandmas: Ancestor Veneration, Mixed-raced Identity and the A word

6:54:00 AM


"Five Goddesses Walk Into  a Bar..." by Andrew G. Jimenez, 2017
Me, The Morrigan, Brigid the Healer, Oshun and Spider Grandmother walk into a bar...
Morrighan orders a whiskey, Brighid orders a scotch.
Oshun orders a Cuban rum, Spider Grandmother orders tequila.
I order a shot of each in a glass just for me.  I like mixed drinks.

The Meeting of Rivers...

There are a lot of dimensions when it comes to identity.  Some people would be very uncomfortable with the idea of mixed people mixing spiritualities.  Some people don't have strong enough ties to any of their cultures to feel like part of the community.  That's the tricky part about being American; often we are not surrounded by people who share the same ethnicity or culture, but we share the greater culture of being American, which in and of itself is a mixed-raced experience and can manifest in a number of ways.

When I think about myself, I don't see a native-white-black-latino-plus or a mulatto.  I see a little bit of everywhere and everything. I see my Irish and French and English ancestors, I see my West African ancestors, I see my Indigenous ancestors, I see the little bits and pieces that all come together to make me look the way I am, but does not define me.  Mostly, I see the struggle and accomplishments of all the women who came before me.  I don't necessarily envision oppression and triumph- I see humanity.

I suppose that's what makes the green path so easy for me; it is a universal among my ancestry, it is a universal among peoples, utilizing plants and their virtues for the benefit of life.  The ewe veneration of Santeria, the medicine of the American Southwest, Pacific Northwest indigenous herbalism, English wortcunning, Greek pharmakaeia; it's all a source of goodly, godly wisdom to me, and it transcends each culture and the boundaries of land and race, and extends out towards all people, urging us to commune with the garden of life.  The green path has no race, no culture, no god; it encompasses many and all; a legion of beliefs and an eternity of mysteries in between.  Whether a yerbera, osainista, cunning man, medicine woman or herbalist; whether a shaman, spiritual naturalist or hard animist, the green road rises in every direction and leads always to the heart of the woods.  By whatever name we walk and on whatever road we take, the path is verdant, alive, green.

Syncretic means blended, and that's what happened when people immigrated to America and condensed in different regions.  Curranderismo isn't Spanish and it isn't Indigenous, it isn't Catholic and it isn't spiritism- it's all of that and more.  Hoodoo isn't voodoo or Ifá, it isn't indigenous medicine, it isn't Christianity- it's all that and more and less depending on where you go.  Southwest witchcraft is one thing in Santa Fe and a completely different thing in Los Angeles.  American syncretic religious systems like Louisiana voodoo, hoodoo, conjure, granny, New English witchcraft, bruja- only exist BECAUSE of multiple cultures mixing religious beliefs and folklore.  The syncretic religious systems of the South are rooted in Afro indigenous spirituality, European Catholic symbolism, Indigenous American Medicine and various other bits and pieces; for example, Arabic medicine in Curranderismo, Chinese divination used in Cuban Santeria, or the influence of Filipino Catholicism in Louisiana Voodoo, or Basque, Jewish and African folk charms and remedies in Mexican brujeria.

When the rivers meet, where the compass converges, you get the magic of the New World.  You get hundreds of strains of multicultural intersectionality and developed religious traditions to reflect this complex, tumultuous history.  Since the colonization of this continent; the cultures and ethnicities of Europe, Asia, West Africa and America have mixed, assimilated, blended and warred.  It's everywhere.  It's part of American story telling and folklore and it's a part of you. Americans ARE a culture- full of cultures and subcultures and countercultures. Magic in the New World is unique because it no longer resembles the people who delivered this wisdom, rather, it reflects the merging of peoples.

Maybe rather than focusing exclusively on the great seas of divide between our ancestors and the complexities of culture and colonization, take some time to explore the common threads in their folk magic?  Animism, Funereal rites, Agrarian rites, Ancestor Veneration & Propitiatory Rites, Divination, Apotropaic charms, Anathemic charms, Herbalism- Medical and Mystical, Oral Traditions and Story Telling- there's a whole hell of a lot of magical principles and metaphysical ideologies in common between peoples' folklore.  Shape-shifting, dowsing, charming, conjuring, placation of spirits, laws of silence and spirit-retrieval- you can find it in Indigenous animism, Afro-American spirituality, European folklore, Southwestern witchery, East Asian shamanic systems- the mystic has some very basic commonalities, and it makes sense how these things derived from one another, emulate or conflate with one another.

The Boundaries Between Trees...

There are people who are not ethnically related to the culture in which they grew up or live.  There are people who do not resemble the dominant culture to which they belong.  There are people who are mixed with two or more different and distinct ethnicities and displaced and they are not immersed in a single culture.  There are people who come from families where nobody looks like each other, nobody is genetically related and everyone shares their cultures and faith in an amalgam, a very American thing to happen in "new normal" families. The latter is where I'm from. There are hundreds of different dynamics to culture and race, our perceptions of ownership and sovereignty- nobody has a monopoly on the situation.

All that can be said as a universal truth on this matter is that culture is a shifting and complex thing.  This is especially true in meltingpot countries like the Americas; our identity IS mixed raced, it IS blended, and not every single instance of that is a product of rape and assimilation and colonization.  Some exchanges in the world are natural happenstance with humble beginnings.  I think we Americans can obsess over identity politics to the degree that we ignore the common human curiosity that made our ancestors travel, intermarry, share religions and customs without force; that curiosity that drives people together rather than apart... we forget that the story is bigger than our shores, and more human than our historical demons.

We are so uncomfortable with being comfortable with being multicultural sometimes that it impacts our spiritual development. We literally have to question if we are allowed to enjoy our own cultures or explore our own identity.  We have to question if we're somehow being disloyal to one side or the other when the truth is this anxiety is an illusion; there is only you and your faith, far transcending culture and race. There are often no black and white areas when it comes to the transmission of spirituality across the world; each and every instance of emulation, assimilation, dissemination and yes, appropriation, must be judged on an individual level with some rational reasoning.

Not all cultural exchange is inherently appropriation, especially not faith and spirituality.  When we throw around complex terms like appropriation in the pagan community, most of the time we're talking about the legitimate problem of adopting cultural spiritual beliefs while knowing little of and contributing nothing to that culture; when one exoticizes a culture and wears a costume to fit in while having the privilege to take the costume off and leave that culture in times of struggle.  We're usually talking about someone in a place of privilege banking off the intellectual property of the people disenfranchised by the dominant group.  It's a matter of authenticity and respecting boundaries. But these days it's a term sometimes used to reinforce colorism, ethnic stereotypes and to insinuate that mixed-raced multiculturals must choose their religious identity according to shade of skin, roundness of eye, accent of voice.  It's tricky and touchy and nobody agrees on the matter, which is why it's important to be authentic to yourself and have thick skin against people who see you as a traitor to their own ideals.

It's one thing to pretense at the customs and faith of a culture you know little of and contribute nothing to and have the power to simply dismiss when needed, it's entirely another to be multiracial and multicultural following a respectful relationship with the old ways of your grandmothers.  Taking issue with mixed people blending their cultural religious systems delegitimizes and invalidates the perspectives of mixed people as well as adoptees and our unique experiences.

Take joy in who and what you are.  Take joy in your community and what you represent.  If you're a native/black/white/Latino mixed kid, go see what those cross cultural exchanges have made in the magical world around you.  Seek out and explore this uncomfortable realm if you're uncomfortable with it.  Don't be afraid that you're skin is too light to research your Orisha ancestors, don't be afraid your skin is too dark to honor your Irish or French ancestors.  Don't let that fair hair or wavy kink make you feel like you're supposed to follow gods who look like you.  Follow gods or spirits who love you; whom you love and respect.  You can do that as a mixed American without resorting to appropriating or co-opting from distant and unfamiliar sources.  Be authentic to the experiences that have shaped your entire world.  Know thyself, learn about where you live and be respectful of your limitations, of your own ignorance- hell, just acknowledge your ignorance and go from there.  You know who you are.  You know what you are.  So if the pagan path leads you to take the different roads of your ancestors, then maybe that's exactly the path you should follow.  Let no one tell you to choose between your grandmothers.

Strange Fruit...
"As a black person in America, living with the legacy of slavery and all that it entails it has been difficult for me to honor my European ancestors.  How to I honor ancestors who most likely became ancestors by raping my other ancestors?  How do I, as a priestess, honor certain ancestors while ignoring others who are also responsible for my existence?" - Szmeralda Shanel, My Blood Song, from  Shades of Ritual: Minority Voices in Practice edited by Crystal Blanton

Every time I read about her experiences with Brigid and her difficulties reconciling her loyalty to Afro diasporic ancestors and their oppressors, I am reminded at the privilege I have knowing my mixed ancestry and having a positive experience with it.  Sometimes I'm not nearly as woke as I'd like to think I am, and when it comes to mixed people, sometimes I forget not everybody is as happy about it as me.  Not everyone has a reason to be...

How do we honor a bloody history?  That's for each of us to answer for ourselves.  I was lucky to come from a place where history can be reconciled for me; it's never been a problem for me to feel the love between my ancestors through me.  This may not be the typical black American pagan experience. Maybe for a lot of melanated American mystics, there's absolutely no reason to acknowledge some parts of their ancestry, or maybe, only enough room for a little bit of influence.  Not everyone gets the privilege of being in a position where they can reconcile their ancestry with such ease, and I'm aware of that stark difference the more I speak with young mixed black women trying to find a balance spiritually between all their ancestors.

In the black pagan community I've encountered, there's a definite question as to how one can honor their African ancestors while at the same time acknowledging the ancestors who bought, sold, worked and raped those African ancestors. How do we deal with the dissonance of history?  It depends entirely on you, your familial history, your culture- but ultimately, why don't you just ask the spirits? Is there room at the altar for all of your grandmothers, or do some grandmothers need to be quietly relegated to the pages of history?  Maybe, just maybe, there isn't room at every altar for every grandma, and that's okay.

Room At The Altar.

The spirits I come from and deal in are beyond the cruelties of their past lives.  They stare across the expanses at each other, in agreement that whatever it is they were and are, they live through me.  And they love me.  And I love them.  And that bond, that contagion has formed between them through their mutual interest in their descendants.  You'd be surprised what differences can be set aside when a common goal unites you.

There's room at my altar for all of my grandmothers, I know this because they share something wonderful in common that extends beyond the scope of space and time and history.  They have me.  They have the culmination of their bloodlines, they have the reflection of their deeds and lives all personified in a single person, and that's me and my siblings.  There is no bad blood between Brigid and Oshun in my house, or between Grandmother Spider and An Morrigan.

Your grandmothers came from Europe, they sailed hellish seas and they had names.  Your grandmothers came from Africa, they were beautiful and stolen, and they had names.  Your grandmothers came from the East, from Islands and Archipelagos and continents far distant, and they had names.  Your grandmothers were in the New World when the others came, and they had names.  Your grandmothers' skin was gold, and copper, and milk white, and clay brown.  The blood of their trials and tumult runs through your veins, and while your ancestors may have warred and fought, you are their legacy united in a single form, and many are bound to love you.  Do you love you?

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