Sacred Activism: An Interview with Artist Veronica Ramirez

Note: This is an edited version of an interview conducted in October 2022 by Bioneers’ Polina Smith.

Veronica Ramirez, an Oakland, CA-based artist of Mapuche/Chilean-Mestizo ancestry, was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has been leading public “earth-altar” making (mandalas) for the past 24 years.

Polina Smith (PS): Veronica, you have had such an extraordinary career as an artist and ceremonialist. How did you start off on your path?

Veronica Ramirez (VR): I clearly remember the moment that led me to start creating sacred spaces and altars and then earth mandalas. I was at a gathering with a live DJ and vibrant art and lights all over the walls. It had been designed as an immersive experience. At some point in the evening, as I stood there observing the blissful surroundings, I got the urge to look up, and there above the doorway was a small stick mounted just above the door frame with a feather on the end of a thread that was tied to it. It swayed ever so gently, and I remember feeling my whole being captivated by this serene presence. In that moment I had had an inner knowing that had called on me to notice that object.

This gathering was super dialed up with music and popping artwork and people enjoying themselves, but I got the sense that this feather was saying: “I’m the calm in the storm, the gentle heart that seeks inner peace, the yin to the yang of this environment.” It felt perfect, but it also felt as though I was the only one seeing it or noticing its beauty. It gave me a sense of peace and a kind of familiarity, like seeing an old friend. I wanted everyone there to feel that peace and connection too, so that little feather on a stick inspired me to start creating sacred spaces, so that others could feel this too.

I joined the collective that had produced this event and began creating earth altars for “our” events from then on. I brought sand, soil, branches, shells, flowers, rocks, and of course feathers, to these sacred earth installations. I added journals and other interactive pieces to the spaces so that people could write what was in their hearts and minds and could write their prayers/wishes on pieces of paper and hang them on the “Pure Intentions Tree.”

The moment I discovered the art of creating circular mandala earth altars was when our collective was asked to come out to a peace rally event at the Civic Center Plaza in San Francisco. Because it was all outdoors, there wasn’t the usual environment of an interior space to work with, so I suggested we make a circular altar on the lawn. It ended up being a beautiful flower mandala with many hands involved in its creation. It was a beautiful ritual co-created with the public. It was pure presence! We were all guided by our own spirit to create with heart, love, creativity and cooperation. It was magical, and everyone felt it. It was our coming together that was the medicine and not necessarily the end result. That began my journey with this “earth mandala medicine.”

PS: Are there any of your projects that stick out most in your mind as being especially significant for you?

VR: After 25+ years of doing this work with all sorts of communities, many stand out. All of them have been unique in spirit and in purpose, but some of the living earth altars from the last few years have been really inspiring. In 2020 I got involved in a project at a houseless encampment here in Oakland. I was part of a grassroots, mutual aid coalition, the North Oakland Restorative Justice Council, that provided hot meals, sanitation kits and clothing as well as masks to the houseless communities. It was part of a coalition of many other organizations and individuals. When the Wood Street community (the largest such encampment in all of the U.S.) was asked what they wished to see in their communities, one of the residents told one of our partners that they really wanted gardens.

I suggested we build a living mandala garden. Its design included four directional garden beds and a center where one could come to sit, to pray, sing or even cry if that’s what was needed. Most of the “altarscapes I have created with people have been impermanent, so this one was especially exciting because it was going to be living and not taken down at the end of the day. This “medicine wheel garden” was created by many hands picking up compost, loading up logs for the beds, mulching, and finally planting.

The housed volunteers came out every Sunday to work alongside the residents on various projects, not just the gardens. It was a big beautiful vision by a group of housed and unhoused activists, artists and gardeners, healers, and many others. From the garden came a free clinic, then a kitchen, then a free store for the many donations coming in during this time. I should mention that this whole center, we called Cob on Wood, was not sanctioned, it was just what the residents wished for and many of us housed allies sought out ways that we could assist in this vision. It was not a sanctioned endeavor by the city of Oakland, but we captured the attention of many Oakland officials, authorities, and the press.

However, due to recent evictions by Caltrans (note: the California Department of Transportation), we’ve had to dismantle it all. People and plants were evicted from this Caltrans land. It was a devastating experience for the residents. I and others dismantled the living altar gardens and surrounding garden beds, potted up all the plants and bagged up bags and bags of rich soil cultivated and nurtured for the past 18 months by the residents and allies. This garden had been thriving and healthy. I had witnessed the residents of this community come together and build deep bonds with the many volunteers that came out to help each week.

It had become a revived ecosystem for birds, worms, bugs, butterflies. We had prayed, planted, nurtured, healed and sang songs in this space. On the last morning when I was bagging up more soil with volunteers, I took off my gloves for a moment and scooped up the soil with my bare hands, and in that moment profound memories of all the joy I had seen in the people who built that sacred space came flooding back. This soil essentially didn’t want me to forget what effect this project had had on others. It was letting me know that I needed to remember these stories and the people who came to contribute to its beauty.

Those stories can live on in this soil that can be carried forward, to a new site to be imagined in our hearts and minds. I was uplifted by this channeled message and shared this with all of the folks shoveling soil. I invited them to circle with me in the center and touch the soil and give thanks and remember the stories here. With tears of immense connection, I shared this message. We are not defeated as long as we remember who we are and what’s really important. The relationships we have formed were a crucial part of this creation and are not for naught. They live inside of us and will guide us to the next creations we construct together to touch many other hearts.

PS: Is there a project on the horizon you’re really looking forward to?

VR: I have a couple of projects that I’m dreaming up from my experiences, building other gardens anchored on some secured land where the housing and community are not threatened by evictions but rather stewarded by those who live there. Some communities are working to secure land for tiny home villages in Oakland for the unhoused, and I would love to collaborate on bringing sacred garden spaces into these projects. I recently met two city employees working to provide resources to the houseless communities, and they were very interested in my coming to do these sacred garden projects in other houseless communities that they are supporting. This would seem to be a most timely partnership in the making.

Another project is a vision of someday hosting multiple altarscapes, much like the four I brought to this year’s Bioneers. I can envision many of these throughout a large space where each one would carry specific healing themes and intentions. Each altarscape would represent a group or issue that needs healing or raised awareness, such as homelessness, gun violence, or MMIW (note: “murdered and missing Indigenous women”), which was one of my altarscape themes this year at Bioneers. I would invite individuals and organizations working on an issue such as social justice, climate change, peace, immigration, LGBTQ+ rights, etc. to collaborate with me. I think it would be a meaningful blessing for those engaged in their particular arena of social/global activism to be able to co-create their own altars of importance.

The project launched at Bioneers was in a way an initiation of this idea of having multiple altars. There is tremendous opportunity to collaborate with others in this creative and interactive healing endeavor. It’s been humbling to witness the many hands and hearts who come to create, heal, grieve and celebrate life in this way, together.

Another project on my bucket list is a mandala book. I want to share the many stories that have come from this work over the years, before I forget them. There are many ways to convey the stories, told by me or by people sharing themselves. I recently have been inspired to find a way to create an interactive children’s book as well. I just need time to develop this and secure resources to make it happen.

PS: What role do you hope your art will play in the world?

VR: “Sacred Activism” is what I call this work now. I introduced it in SNAG magazine this year. I had invited Tara Trudell, an artist, activist and bead-maker to collaborate with me on this healing, post COVID issue of the magazine. The “Call to Sacred Action” was first born when the murder of George Floyd shook the world. I had a moment of breaking down in tears, in my car at a stop light when this news was freshly being delivered all over the world. I realized that if I could somehow spread the word of earth mandala creations all over the globe, that this would be a prayer and powerful medicine to help transform the hate and destruction taking place. I thought that if we can plant trees to offset carbon emissions or have a day of peace or a walk for a cause, then why couldn’t we have a day for making earth mandalas to heal our hearts, and our communities? What a prayerful act of love it would be to tip the scales to a higher vibration of existence and change.

I have called this work “Sacred Activism” since that time. Back then I had a vision of earth mandalas all over the globe for the purpose of healing the illnesses of our world, to offset the negativity and all that is out of balance with our society. I don’t have a social media presence, but I tried to create an Instagram account dedicated to this work in the hopes that this “Call to Sacred Action” that Tara and I launched would begin to take off. We trust it will over time and with a shout out at every opportunity. We asked people to share photos of their sacred actions and their earth mandalas or prayer beads. More about this is in the magazine. #sacredaction4healing #makearthaltars #prayerbeadpoweringup

PS: When things feel challenging and seemingly insurmountable, what keeps you going?

VR: A few things keep me going, especially my prayers to “Divine Spirit” or “Sacred-Source.” I also give thanks for the day, the morning, my breath, my body, my mind, all that I have that I am grateful for. Gratitude practices/prayers can bring me back into balance. I also take a walk to the marina and sit on the boulders to meditate just before the sun sets. It’s a sweet time for me to speak to my ancestors and the elementals. Sometimes a seal will pop up out of the water to say hello.

PS: How does that connection to the sacred influence your work?

VR: The sacred is my guide and has been from the very first moment this work was ignited in me. It’s deeply connecting and opens the channels to magic and wonder. It’s a responsibility that humbles me to carry the work with reverence for life and intentionality—the prayers are the invitation to the sacred.

PS: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

VR: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to express my process. Much of what I do is for that specific moment, so having the opportunity to put words to what I do is another form of expression. I like to do and make with purpose. The work is really for those who have been in those spaces, engaged with me, uncovering the unspoken and mystical parts of the piece itself. It doesn’t completely translate to photos; you have to be there to experience its true gifts and healing energy, like a ceremony.

These earth-altars have been kind of spiritual friends or guides in my life. They’ve shown me grace, presence, joy and peace, like that feather on a stick. The true potency of this work is people doing it together. It’s been a truly humbling experience to witness how it touches people in deep ways, whether they participate in its creation, offer their blessings in song, dance and prayer or help with the final dismantling phase. Over the years I have realized that this container is much larger than me, and I felt a calling to bring it out into the world, sharing it with many others so they might experience and partake in its mystery. I’m so grateful to be a steward of this sacred work for all of these years, and I believe it to be an ancient practice that is not unique to me, but one that we all have agency to discover.

Learn more about Veronica Ramirez at:

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