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A woman in white blouse and tie-dyed pants poses with a brick pyramid in the background. People climb the steps of the distant pyramid.

Here I am standing before the pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan, Mexico.

Photo courtesy of Margarita Camarena

  • How I Carry on the Cycle of Indigenous Knowledge as a Wisdom Keeper

    I am a wisdom keeper. As you read these words, my hope is that you’ll be inspired to look deeper into the wisdom of your own soul, that you’ll find the messages your ancestors have left for you. May curiosity inspire you to dig deeper into the truth of who you are, where you came from, and the legacy your grandparents and great-grandparents left for you. Inevitably, what you’ll find is the opportunity to live a joyful life, a life in balance.

    As an example, I would like to share with you what my ancestors—the Mexica, Zapotec, and Maya people—have taught me about balance and what I’ve learned through my journey into the truth of who I am.

    Two boys and girl, descending in height, hold hands while walking down a sidewalk, dressed in fancy suits. A woman walks behind them. Old color photograph.
    Here I’m with my brothers Tony (left) and Mauricio (middle), followed by our mother, Gloria.
    Photo courtesy of Margarita Camarena

    I was born in Mexico City, in a land that used to be Mexico-Tenochtitlan, or better known as the great Aztec Empire. In 1521, this great city collapsed under the orders of Hernán Cortés, and the last Aztecs and Tlatelocans stopped their battle in the tween city of Tlatelolco where I grew up. As a child, I would cross the wide and busy avenue of Reforma to reach the archeological site of Tlatelolco. In the early 1980s, it was still possible to touch and walk on the temples. I remember visiting with my elementary school friends to look for the face of the devil (which we never found because there was no such a thing).

    In the turn of events after the earthquake of 1985, and the loss of my father in an open-heart surgery, we would end up in the generous land of the United States under the care of my mom’s younger brother. Recently widowed, and only forty-one, she, my two older brothers, and I found ourselves in a land with a different language, culture, social structure, and way of life.

    I was immensely grateful for the opportunity to receive an education and graduate from the University of California, Davis, with a double bachelor’s degree in studio art and environmental design. For a while, I worked as an artist for the university’s College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences—until my ancestors decided that my life would once again turn in a new direction, a direction back to them.

    In 2007, when the economy took a turn, I followed a new path to the healing arts and into the complexity of our multidimensionality. I wanted to learn how to heal the intricacies of the self from different directions, honoring the sacred chaos of the biology of our biography.

    I had many teachers and experienced many personal breakthroughs that led me deeper into the complex world of healing. There was so much depth in bodywork, the therapies and techniques, such as massage and reiki employed to improve holistic wellness, that, soon, the bodywork became a ritual to my soul. I found it fascinating how working inside a room could move so much energy for everyone involved in the healing process. Every session was, and still is, a reconnection to source energy which has such enriching experiences and incredible healing potential. Because the connection to source happens from within, not from without, the matrix, or the collective consciousness, began to steer me into new dimensions and new directions.

    One summer day in Albuquerque, my life changed yet again when I took the Curanderismo Summer Program at the University of New Mexico. While there, I went into deep remembering and healing. I became extremely sensitive because the Indigenous practices of curanderismo were the healing arts my grandmothers and my mother used to heal us in Mexico. I cried because I left my grandmother as a child and had never learned her medicine. I realized just how much I had lost: the connection to my culture and the immense joy of walking on the temples and the pyramids of Tlatelolco.

    I grew up thinking that all Indigenous people had perished with history. To my surprise, in that summer of 2015, I found the reconnection to what I thought were visions I had while playing at the pyramids: the wisdom of my ancestors through the teachings of many Indigenous people who practiced our Indigenous healing. I was shocked when I found out that all my visions were true visions of how people had lived. In that summer course, I met the teachers who would walk me back home. They helped me remember who I was and began to educate me on becoming a wisdom keeper with the knowledge my ancestors had left for me. I had to allow the healings in and open my heart and mind to the flooding memories.

    A woman in a white dress embroidered with red flowers and green leaves kneels on a stone structure, hands clasped in prayer. In the distance, thick green trees below the stone bricks.
    At the top of a Maya pyramid, I took the oath to wear the traditional dresses of Mexico as part of my new path practicing Indigenous medicine.
    Photo courtesy of Margarita Camarena

    I took an oath that, from that day on, I would wear the traditional dresses of Mexico. This was my way to begin the path as a traditional healer and wisdom keeper. I would share this wisdom if anyone asked about my apparel. It was also a way to support me in the inner healing work and my professional healing practice. I was excited to present myself to my clients and noticed how the healing began the moment they saw the colors and textures of the dresses, shirts, skirts, and jewelry.

    When I wear my Mexican dresses, I feel embraced by the fibers, the textures, the prints, and most of all the healing power of colors. It is not always easy to be dressed like this. Sometimes people challenge me with looks, actions, or words that can be offensive. Thus, the task of wisdom keeping and sharing becomes an everyday opportunity to talk to people and share why I choose to dress this way and the history of the garments.

    If you travel through the eight regions of Oaxaca, you will see that each Indigenous community proudly wears their traditional dress and speaks their Native language. Unfortunately, of nearly eighty languages in Oaxaca, only sixteen survive today. It’s imperative that we begin to preserve the ways of our people and learn as much wisdom from our elders before we lose our chance.

    As a wisdom keeper, I educate myself about going deeper into the ways, traditions, and costumes to record them and pass them to others who are going to hold them with respect, humility, and responsibility. I am currently embracing four ancient wisdoms: the Toltec, Zapotec, Mexica, and Maya. I was chosen to hold them by the elders and elements: fire (creativity), air (mind), earth (body), water (emotions), and movement (the animation of the elements). It is a tremendous responsibility and one that is for life. I learn, record, and transmit when the times are presented. In the same way, when I become an elder, I will be in a place to share according to what the elements show and to whom, where, and when.

    A woman in white embroidered blouse and bright red skirt kneels at the edge of a circular mandala pattern of pink flower petals, white and yellow flower heads, green plant stalks, and white corn husks, arranged on bare brown earth.
    I made this altar to Mother Earth in San Francisco, California, in gratitude for her guidance and protection.
    Photo courtesy of Margarita Camarena
    From above, an offering laid on a table, with a central swirling, geometric design, bowls of corn kernels, brown chicken eggs, and candles.
    This altar holds the tools and elements used in a ceremony of bringing back balance and harmony to the individual.
    Photo by Margarita Camarena

    I like to share with people one of the teachings from my Zapotec teacher, the Toltec wisdom named the Toltecayotl. Toltecayotl can be translated as “the art of living in balance.” This wisdom has a structure given by the Toltecs who continue to live in different parts of Mexico as ancient wisdom keepers. The Toltecs aid and heal many people who have lost their health or, as we like to call, their center and their balance, their harmony.

    The aim of Toltecayotl is not to always remain in the center but to live life in accordance with nature and the natural cycles of life. We have four seasons in nature, as we do within our lives: birth, youth, adulthood, and elderhood. We accumulate experiences in our youth that become wisdom, and when the time comes, when we are elders, we will become the guides and guardians of those less experienced. Through storytelling, we’ll offer the wisdom of a lifetime that can help them assess life and find their way back to wholeness—and their center, their hearts.

    The Mexica elders speak of principles that will help a young child grow into a very strong, straight, tall, tree.  These principles are detailed in the book The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom by Don Miguel Ruiz. I encountered these principles as lessons my grandmother used to tell us when we were kids: “Lesson one, watch your tongue as it can become an obsidian knife and cut someone’s heart by saying something hurtful.” She used to say, just because someone was not sensitive in the way they were speaking does not mean they did it to hurt you. “Do not take things personally.” Third, if someone in your outer environment said something you got triggered by, it doesn’t mean they did it to hurt you. “Do not assume.” And life will have its ups and downs, but the only thing we can do is to arrive fully to the ever-generous present moment. “Always do your best.”

    As a wisdom keeper of my grandmothers and the teachings that have been vested upon me, I have also taken a formal oath with a group of healers, including my teacher Laurencio Lopez from Oaxaca, and Maya healers Efrain Vicente and Don Pascual Yaxon from Guatemala. I have promised to respect, protect, and share with those who are ready. This medicine is for everyone as it comes from Mother Earth. It is intended to be used to bring balance to our planet. It is crucial to share it with people who will also respect it, honor it, and protect it to preserve it.

    I am, as a wisdom keeper, also a healing practitioner of the Indigenous medicines. When someone comes in for help, it is my responsibility as a curandera to make sure the person is well, seek out the imbalances, and offer the right approach to healing. The approach could be through manual therapy—like Mesoamerican fire cupping, craniosacral therapy, or womb massage—a plática (spiritual advice), teas, herbal baths, healing treatments, rituals, or ceremony.

    A massage bed set with turquoise blanket, a smoldering incense holder, a striped feather, and a small  bouquet of flowers.
    Photo by Margarita Camarena

    In these ways, we are also sharing the wisdom and knowledge of our ancestors through the practice of them. People learn through the direct experience of their healing. If someone learns the art of living in balance by the constant practice of finding their way back to the heart in trying times, then this person is already protecting and preserving the wisdom of our ancestors.

    I feel very honored and proud of myself for changing my career to this path of the red road, the Indigenous medicine of my people. There is no going back now, as a keeper and practitioner of the sacred Indigenous healing. If we stop practicing, we become ill. Thus, this commitment is seen as a marriage to our sacred purpose.

    I hope my personal story has inspired you to create a relationship with your grandparents, great-grandparents, and beyond to become the wisdom keeper of your family. Learn what their Indigenous ways were. It is your inheritance. You carry it in your blood, your bones, your psyche, and your mind. It is a treasure. Wouldn’t it be lovely to find out what it can do for you? How would your internal environment change? Dare to explore and experience all that is waiting for you. You will be surprised at how many wisdom keepers are ready to show you the cycle of knowledge.

    Margarita Camarena is a curandera, Reiki master, and transcendental healing artist who has built a multidisciplinary healing practice in the San Francisco Bay Area over the past sixteen years. Her mission is to reconnect people to themselves through the ceremony of healing and personal ritual.

    This article received federal support from the Latino Initiatives Pool, administered by the National Museum of the American Latino.

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