Facing our Wounds: A New Narrative for a Time of Awakening

Bioneers’ Polina Smith interviews one of the most beloved wisdom teachers and brilliant storytellers we know, Jerry Tello. Jerry, of Mexican, Texan and Coahuiltecan roots, was raised in the South Central/Compton areas of Los Angeles and has dedicated himself for four decades to transformational healing, to the mentoring of men and boys of color, to racial justice, and to community peace and mobilization. Co-founder of the National Compadres Network, Jerry has, among many other achievements, authored many articles, videos and curricula addressing fatherhood, youth “rites of passage” and culturally based family strengthening. He is the author of: Recovering Your Sacredness, A Father’s Love; a series of children’s books, and co-edited Family Violence and Men of Color.

Jerry discusses how we can begin to address the imbalances and injustices in our society by taking a deep look at the false narratives that have dominated our culture for far too long, and how we can begin to reclaim our understanding of the sacredness and interconnectedness of all things.

Polina Smith: Jerry, as a storyteller, a community leader and spiritual mentor to many young people, what are your thoughts about how to navigate our way through this incredibly challenging time of pandemic and social crisis?

Jerry Tello: It’s a time of reflection, a time for prayer, and a time of truth. Many people seem to believe that human beings are in control of everything that goes on, and that as long as you become successful according to Western ways, i.e. getting an education, making money, having material things and then getting power, then you can control your life, you can control your destiny, you can control your world, you can control your environment.

But our ancestors’ teachings tell us that we’re a very small part of this universe. We’re a sacred part of it as well (even though we don’t act that way most of the time), but we are beholden to Mother Earth, Grandfather Sun, the beautiful wind spirit, and Grandmother Moon. And if you look at our history, we have disrespected all those elements of the universe and nature. We’ve disrespected the trees that we cut down just to make money, and those trees and the plants are the ones that give us oxygen, so now we get a disease that makes us unable to breathe, right?

We have killed animals for our pleasure and for our comfort and destroyed their habitats without recognizing the interconnectedness of everything in the universe. Those animals have a part to play in the balance of all life. Once a species is not there anymore or its life is disrupted, the part of nature that those animals were a key piece of starts to fall apart, and viruses and bacteria that had been under control in their bodies escape and enter into us who weren’t designed to handle them.

So, we are seeing some of the results of our great disrespect, our tremendous ego and the false notion that we are, because of our borders and because of our governments, separate peoples and separate from nature. This virus is saying: “No you’re not! You’re all connected.”

Polina: What is your perspective on the incredibly dynamic global anti-racist movement that has arisen in the past few weeks since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis?

Jerry: The overall mentality that sees some people as worth less than others, that fails to see some groups of us in all our complexity, our beauty, our medicine and our blessings, is often based on the woundedness of the people in power. Many of our laws and systems, including our educational system, are steeped in that false story.

Many of us have, for many generations, have said: “Wait a minute! That’s not the true story.” But the folks in positions of power and a lot of those who have seen themselves as the dominant group have, for the longest time, been unwilling to face their own wounds. They’re addicted to their false story, and like any addiction, you’ll never get to heal it if you don’t acknowledge it first. We all know that if you have an alcohol problem, but you say no, I’m not an alcoholic, you’re not yet on a path to change.

When you take our breath away, when you stop us from breathing without any contemplation or thought, the ancestors begin to cry. It reawakens the pain of centuries. When Mr. Floyd said: “I can’t breathe,” we’ve heard that before too many times. If we can’t breathe yet again, people say: “I’m going to use the breath I still have in me now to speak truths and to express the anger and the hurt we feel when we are not being seen. We will make all kinds of noise to make sure we’re not forgotten.” And sometimes when we feel uncontrollable hurt, we all do things that are not logical, that are not reasonable, but when the spirit shouts out “I can’t take this anymore,” it goes beyond the level of the logical mind.

So, right now we’re in a time of tremendous grief, tremendous pain, but tremendous opportunity. If we can honor each other’s breath, each other’s medicine, each other’s stories, maybe all of our stories will be able to be told, and a collective story that is not dominated by one people, one narrative or one point of view can be born. Unless all people’s stories are told, this world will never be healthy.

Polina: I’m moved when you say that to heal, we need to first acknowledge our wounds, but how do you think that false story, the thinking that one group is better than another begins?  How do you think this disconnection from the sacred gets started?

Jerry: I think it starts with what we believe has value. We modern humans have created a hierarchy of value that tells us humans are more valuable than nature and the animals and then, after that, that certain humans are more valuable than the others. So that’s where it begins.

As a kid I remember that when we would go visit people, my dad would scold us and tell us: “Remember when you go visit your aunt, before you go and play, you have to hug everybody.” We had to acknowledge everybody, whether we liked them or not, wanted to or not. We were taught that you just did that. You had to acknowledge people, to see their spirit and acknowledge their worth. That is coming back to the belief that we will not be whole, balanced or healed unless all people’s medicine is valued in the same way, all people’s stories are valued in the same way. Then you’re acknowledging their sacredness and the sacredness of the whole world.

But if you’re not willing to face your wounds, you can’t get to sacredness. We have to start by wanting to change our narrative to a narrative based on interconnected sacredness, a deep understanding that we are sacredly interconnected to all things. That’s why my grandma talked to the plants, she’d say: “Good morning, how beautiful you look!” And she wasn’t crazy; she knew how those plants could heal us!” So she was acknowledging their medicine and asking for their permission to take a piece of them. This is what we need to do with each other as well.

Polina:  One of your main messages in the talk you gave at Bioneers was to see the sacredness in everyone.. How we do that with people in power who are doing so much harm?

Jerry: We had a dog when we were younger. I loved that dog, but a car hit him one day, and he was in a lot of pain. We wanted to go help the dog, but we were told: “No, no, no, be very careful; he’s going to bite you.” He was in a lot of pain and was reacting to the pain, so he couldn’t accept our love in that moment. We have to be aware that people in deep pain and in denial and who are deep down ashamed, even if they’re not aware of it or are trying to cover it up, can be very dangerous.

And you can see, for example, that this man in the White House isn’t right; he’s damaged in many ways. You have to always pray for everyone to be able to heal, but it’s a more complicated problem because there are so many people around him who just want to stay in positions of power, who don’t speak truth and don’t acknowledge the wounds and won’t acknowledge what is wounding the world, let alone have any desire to change it for the better. That doesn’t mean that there is no potential for healing in those people, that there’s no sacredness there because there is always potential for sacredness everywhere, but when the woundedness is so deep among so many people in power, that creates a very dangerous situation for all the rest of us.

“Indigenous teachings tell us that you can’t have night without day, day without night.”

Polina: So, what do we citizens do?

Jerry: We have to change our narrative, but to be real we’ve also got to vote, and we have got to get active in a lot of different ways in the world in order to change the systematic ways of doing things that are broken. We have to get out there and change the systems, change the priorities, change the funding structure, and we also have to pray a lot and do our own healing.

Indigenous teachings tell us that you can’t have night without day, day without night. We all have our sacredness, but we also all have our own woundedness, and it’s not a shameful thing. It doesn’t mean you’re not functional; it just means you’re human, but there are many humans who don’t want to acknowledge their woundedness. And when powerful politicians don’t want to acknowledge their wounds and don’t want to acknowledge that our wounded politics and systems need big changes, that’s a big problem we have to face and try to deal with, with all the tools at our disposal.

So, we must all individually and together do what we have to do in our communities. We have to stand up and demand that this society and this system take accountability and shift the narrative so that the next generations might have fewer wounds.

Polina: Do you think artists and storytellers have a special role during this Time?

Jerry: Well, we are all artists. We all have our flower and song; we all create beauty. Even if it’s just combing our hair, or putting our makeup on, we create beauty. We are beauty; our voice is its song; our walk is a movement. The artist has the ability to take some things that seem simple and make them profound, things that seem valueless and make them valuable, things that don’t seem attractive and make them beautiful.

Storytelling is a feminine art form, and unfortunately in our culture it has not been given the validation and the worth that it deserves. But telling the right story can help transform ugliness into beauty, and pain, struggle and inequity into blessing and interconnectedness. We must call to all those skillful storytellers right now, and they are out there! They are speaking truth! They are marching in the streets right now! But we must tell the whole story, and we must challenge the news media to tell the whole story.

We also must have those wisdom keepers who can vision beyond the present—the storyteller dreamers, is what I call them, so they can tell what is going to happen in a beautiful way. We storytellers are responsible for transforming shame and the blame into understanding, so that the next generation doesn’t have to carry the same baggage, but has the ability to give more blessings and create more stories of possibility and of beauty.

Polina: Thank you so much, Jerry, for sharing your words and wisdom with us today. May your work forever be blessed.

Learn more about Jerry’s work.

Listen to Jerry’s podcast, Healing Generations, on Spotify.

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