Growing up I did not have much family. My mother’s Black family disowned her when she married my father from Panama. My grandmother called me “the brown one” until I was 19 when she realized I was sticking with the college thing but she still wasn’t necessarily nice to me. My father’s adoptive White family disowned him when he married my Black mother. I have only met one of my four grandparents. There were no large family gatherings, no supportive cousins, none of that. I used to say that I was All-American and my culture was pop-culture + survival as a kid. I was what this US system was designed for with the exception that none of us were dead yet. When you are flung from where you came from and what you know, that is the diaspora and it is deadly or leaves you culturally hollow.
This question of where do you belong plagues many of us in the US. For those of us removed from our ancestors and culture it is more commonplace than people may realize. I tend to think the majority of us are removed whether we were colonized or dragged here through slavery or come from colonizers who view the land they stand on and often own as a commodity to yield returns on. Either way connections are severed unless you are indigenous then there are another suite of ways dominant culture is trying to rip at you. How can you shift your thinking to feel connected where you stand?
A year ago today I took a leap in belonging. Five months prior our family was passing through Nebraska from Colorado on the way to my nephew’s graduation in Indiana. I drove straight through and when we switched drivers I was playing on my phone to realize we were an hour south from a town in Nebraska I know some of my ancestors fled to there when they left slavery in nearby Missouri as the Civil War was turning in the North’s favor. I started having an anxiety attack thinking we could visit their graves but realized with the time change we were too late and the cemetery would be closing before we got there.
A year ago today on November 1st our youngest was starting fall break and I booked us tickets to fly to Omaha. I rarely have anxiety and could not let go of the feeling of adrenaline and hope that my body went through during the summer at that rest stop. We flew in, hopped in our rental, and drove straight out to Schuyler, Nebraska.
Schulyer is a fascinating town filled as a collection of the diaspora if you will. The town is a big agrichemical town now filled with non-white, immigrant residents. There is a big Somali hall, panaderias, a closed library, and a historical society that I could not get a hold of and that was not open that day because of a broken down vehicle I was told. The nearby slaughterhouse kills thousands of pigs a day and the watershed is polluted from the products of big ag. They were hit by floods this past year and that watershed was a concern. It is a fascinating study and officials from DC are examining it for “model diversity” as some business owners told me. The youngest and I explored a bit, used our Spanish, and bounced to the cemetery.
In the cemetery is where the magic was. Visiting on November 1st was intentional. There is a beautiful global convergence that happens after the harvest when people can rest and give praise for the bounty and what contributed to it. For those traditionally not removed from land you thank those who came before you and got you to where you are. In many Northern Hemisphere cultures you still thank those who came before you and the forces connected to the land for your bounty at this time of year. This is where Día de los Muertos, Samhain, and other festivals come in. I remember when my Chinese bestie would try to race out of her home after school and need a reminder why the ancestral altar was done up that day. I would just shout “Moon Day” and usually get it right when it was close to Halloween. Globally, most of us recognize our ancestors and I thank my best friend and her family when they let me set food and flowers on the altar on her wedding day. There is significance in this recognition and it is what I planned to do in Schuyler.
My son and I were not trained in any specific way to recognize our ancestors, we planned to do it with love. I had my bestie’s Chinese altar, growing up in Los Angeles where Día de los Muertos was prevalent, and small ofrendas I made for my baby brother as my training. I could not find marigolds for the trip but a good friend knew of my trip and offered specific incense for my ceremony : Ancestor Summoning Incense – we brought flowers, pictures, and food. We planned to meet our relatives.
I will save the specifics of what happened for another time but we did connect. There was power in reading the names in front of me on their tombstone and then how names rappelled down our family tree in my hand. There was power in the smoke from the incense carried by the wind. There were animal encounters all the way through leaving Schuyler and now our six-year-old knows with all his young being that red-tailed hawks are connected to our family being here with us. I am still holding the sacred of what happened at the cemetery that day but my point is that I feel so much less lonely a year later.
There is great power in knowing where you came from. I said the names of my ancestors at their grave. I thanked them for what they endured as the property of other people as well as their resilience when they took their freedom and had to forge their own paths. I thanked them over and over for the gift of their resilience. I thanked them for that power that they have given to my children as well as myself. I know I am their wildest dreams and I thank them for that.
Today, a year later we will make our altar. We have a bowl of bright, yellow flower petals. We have been collecting marigolds from the garden to save seeds and remove the yellow petals for smoke. We have been collecting pictures. The kids will combine the altar as a nature table of sincere offerings for loved ones. We will remember these ancestors in Nebraska and their lines as well as those still lost to us from my father’s side. With him at least we know he his indigenous Guaymí now and he learned his mother’s name when he got his passport for my wedding over a decade ago. There is great power in names.
Say out loud what you can. You will feel a lot less alone.
If you want to make an altar or offering DO IT. Be sincere. Do it out of love. It most likely is not cultural appropriation since most cultures do it. My only note is that the veil is thin at this time. Do an altar in a balanced way as a love offering. I see way too many people claiming to be witches these days doing their best to push for imbalances in an already unbalanced world. Invite your ancestors to let them know they are remembered and let them know they have to go back until next year.