Jerry Tello: Recovering Your Sacredness
This keynote talk was delivered at the 2019 Bioneers Conference.
Our society is experiencing profound levels of stress and anxiety, a public health crisis that’s triggering unresolved traumas in many people, resulting in widespread uneasiness, poor public health, social dysfunction, and alienation, as well as high levels of violence, suicide, and substance abuse. Through traditional stories and personal reflections, Jerry Tello, raised in South Central Los Angeles, co-founder of the Healing Generations Institute, a celebrated leader in the field of the transformational healing of traumatized men and boys of color, shares his approach to generating the “medicine” necessary to shield ourselves from this toxic energy, and offers us pathways to discover, uncover and recover our sacredness and return to health and wellbeing.
Read the full verbatim transcript of this keynote talk below.
Introduction by Héctor Sánchez-Flores, Executive Director, National Compadres Network.
Buenos días. Good morning and afternoon, as we get started here. My name is Héctor Sánchez-Flores and I represent the National Compadres Network. I’m humbled to be here to introduce your next speaker, a man that I have known for nearly 25 years but whose work is approaching over 40 years of dedication to community.
Maestro Jerry Tello. If you’ve never met him, I’ll share with you a few items that I think that rarely get highlighted about his work, who he’s connected to, and what drives his passion and his mission as I’ve observed over 25 years.
He’s connected to a wonderful partner, Susie Armijo, and together they cultivate and support work about healing across this country. Together, if you ever have the chance to see them work together, you will see magic happen as they help us uncover, help me uncover, those things that I’ve overlooked, the medicine that I carry.
But the other parts of Maestro Jerry Tello that are critical to understand is that he is a father to Marcos, Renee, Emilio and grandfather to Amara, Naiya, Greyson and Harrison. And if you ever want to see him light up, hear him tell the stories of how those grandchildren truly manipulate the best of him. [LAUGHTER]
What he’s reminded many of us along the way is that within us we carry medicine. And his stories and the narratives that he creates are powerful reminders of the things that we overlook about ourselves. And I always am grateful of the things that he discovers about himself through his stories because it usually illuminates those corners of our lives that remain dark and sometimes unseen.
I’m grateful for everything he does for the community to remind us that our culture here’s La Cultura Cura, and I look forward to hearing his words today as I have for the last 25 years because every time I hear him I am slightly different and walk away with a new understanding of the teachings and lessons.
Without further ado, I’d like to introduce Maestro Jerry Tello. [APPLAUSE]
Ometeotl, Noxtin, Nomecayetzin. Good morning, relatives. [AUDIENCE RESPONDS] I want to begin by thanking Creator, another day of life. Thank our native relatives of this land for the privilege, the blessing of us being here. I want to thank you all for showing up, for choosing to bless us with your presence this morning. Thank you, Hector, who in himself is a wonderful teacher.
My people, I come from—My father’s name is Jorge Perez-Tello. He’s Tampilan Coahuiltecan from Yanaguana, commonly known today as San Antonio. [LAUGHTER] Our people have been there for many generations, and my daddy was the oldest at 15. My mom comes from Chihuahua. She’s Mexican Tarahumara, and she came from a smaller family, not as big as my dad, and she was the oldest of 14. [LAUGHTER] That’s not like we didn’t believe in family planning, we just plan big. Right? [LAUGHTER] My grandma said every kid’s a blessing. We had a lot of blessings. You know? [LAUGHTER]
But we ended up, after all the travel back and forth, I was ended up—even though I was born in those areas, I ended up being raised in Compton, so I’m straight out of Compton. [LAUGHTER] I grew up in a barrio neighborhood, black/brown neighborhood. And I guess they would consider it high risk, delinquent, impoverished. But in that neighborhood, in that neighborhood, the one I grew up in, that I didn’t know we were poor, because my mama never said we were poor. She just said eat those beans. Right? [LAUGHTER] And I would complain, “Why do we gotta eat beans again, Mom? Why can’t you make something else?” “Ah, be quiet, just eat the beans.” “But why can’t you make something else? …those beans…” “Ah, you ought to be glad you have beans. People in other countries don’t have nothing but…Kneel down.” “Why?” “Ask for forgiveness for…” “I’m sorry, God, for complaining about beans.” [LAUGHTER]
You know, my mom’s crossed over a number of years ago, and I miss my mama’s beans. [AUDIENCE RESPONDS] Didn’t realize it when she was making those beans. She got those beans, and she had us sit with her, and take out the little rocks in those beans, and she’d say, “You’ve got to pray. You’ve got to pray when you take out those beans, because that’s part of what you’ve got to do in your life. You’ve got to take out those parts that are not going to feed you.” She’d get those beans and put them in the water, and put the onion, and the garlic, and all of that, and she’d say a little prayer. I didn’t realize that that was a recipe that her mama gave her, that her mama gave her, that her mama gave her. I didn’t realize in that little bowl of beans that she gave me were generations of medicine.
But what happens sometimes when you live in this world, you don’t appreciate those things. We don’t recognize in those traditions, those ways. And I lived in Compton, in a crazy neighborhood, a lot of things going on. I guess you consider a lot of risk factors. My house, a lot of kids, always a baby crying [MIMICS BABY CRYING] all the time. [LAUGHTER] I would trip when the teacher says go home and find a quiet place to study. I’m like, where? [LAUGHTER] If you’re really motivated, you’ll find—Like where? [LAUGHTER] If you really want to do well in school…Like where? [LAUGHTER] And I guess that’s why my daddy talked loud.
I had a loud talking dad. [MIMICS FATHER YELLING] My friends go, “Is your dad mad?” I said, “No, dude, that’s the way he talks all the time.” [LAUGHTER] Kind of a trip for a social worker to come to my house. You better send them to—anger management’s developmentally inappropriate for these kids. No. [LAUGHTER] That’s when my dad was fine when he talked loud. He especially talked loud when he saw relatives come over. When people came to him that saw him, embraced him, and honored him.
I also saw what happened to my dad when he was in places where people did not honor him. And as a little boy, it confused me, because we were taught to honor everyone. I was taught by my grandma. And in that house I lived with grandmas. My mom’s mom and my dad’s mom, not both at the same time. You don’t put two grandmas together, I don’t care how old they are. [LAUGHTER] No, no, no, no. They got their ways and they want you to be their favorite.
But my little grandma, my mama’s mama, she was about that tall, and I thought she was kind of crazy because she did strange things to me. One of the strange things she did, she’d get up every morning at 4:00 in the morning. To me that’s crazy, grandma. Why don’t you sleep later? You don’t got to go to school. You don’t got to go to work. Why don’t you sleep? No, she would get up at 4:00 and I didn’t understand. She’d go out and talk to her plants. “Good morning. How you doing? Buenos días.” And then she would give them water. “I’m going to feed you water. Please, I’m going to take a little bit of you.” She would talk to these plants, ask for permission. She says, “I need to take a little bit of you, because my grandson is sick. Will you help me heal him.” I thought my grandma was crazy. Why do you talk to plants? Why do you ask for permission, just take it. [LAUGHTER] And then she’d take it and make this yukky tea and give it to us, and…[LAUGHTER] And it’d make us better. I didn’t understand. I thought my grandma was crazy. She got up at 4 in the morning. Didn’t understand at that time, but that’s a sacred time, that at 4 in the morning is when grandmother moon and grandfather sun comes together. They sing that song together, that rhythm, their vibrations together. That’s where creation happens again. That’s regardless what happened the day before, we have another day.
So my grandma would get up at 4:00 in the morning. And she’d go in that crowded house where all of us lived. And there’s a little hole in the wall, and in that little hole in the wall, my grandma had her sacreds, had her candles. And she had all kinds of things from her sacred natives to her Catholic—she put them all there. She used anything that would get her closer to that sacred. The little pillow on the ground and she’d kneel down right there on that pillow. And you could almost tell how many problems we had because the more problems we had, the longer she’d stay right there. [LAUGHTER]
But after she finished, after she finished praying, sometimes an hour, and hour and a half, sometimes two hours, she’d come to the room where all of us kids were sleeping. And my grandma would bless us up. She’d bless us all up.
And I used to hate it. 5:30 in the morning, “Grandma, why are you waking me so early? I was having a good dream.” [LAUGHTER] “You messed up my dream, Grandma. Why? You blessed me last night before going to sleep. Is it still good for now?” [LAUGHTER] “And you’ve got to bless me when I go to school? Why do you always got to bless me? Do I got the devil in me or what?” [LAUGHTER]
I didn’t understand. I didn’t understand the significance of blessing. I didn’t understand the significance of someone that was connected to the sacred saying to you every day, “You’re a blessing. You’re a blessing. You’re a blessing. You’re a blessing.” My grandma would bless up the kids that were good in school, the ones that weren’t good in school, the skinny kids, the fat kids, the stinky kids. She didn’t care. She’d bless us all up.
And I didn’t understand why my grandma needed to inoculate me with the spirit of our ancestors, with the message of great, great ancestors that says Creator doesn’t make junk. Creator only makes blessings. And so she would inoculate me and bless me up before I left.
My grandma knew something that I didn’t know. She knew that I would go in the world that was not going to see me as a blessing. That many times just because of the color of my skin or how I was dressed or my hair, or how I looked, they already had a plan to lock me up or deport me or put me out of—take me out. That when I went in classrooms, they were already going to put me in the back of the room and expel me and suspend me. My grandma knew that this world was wounded and didn’t appreciate what we call in my language In Tloque Nahuaque which means interconnected sacredness. My grandma knew that just a look of people I could feel their energy. So she blessed me up. And she blessed me every day and as many times as she could.
And so I want to take a moment here, because we’ve got a lot of work to do, but we can’t do the work unless we’re grounded. We can do the work but it may not be sacred work, it may be angry work. And it may be work that divides us and doesn’t bring us into that In Tloque Nahuaque. We have to be grounded. So I want to just take a moment, and I want to invite your ancestors in the room.
I can’t imagine what my great-great grandmothers, great-great grandfathers did, what they had to go through, what they had to deal with, what they had to put up with, and they didn’t give up. And your ancestors did the same thing. All of your ancestors struggled, they had difficulty, and they didn’t give up. But like your grandmother and my grandmother, they all had a dream. And I’m a grandfather now. My dream for my grandkids is that they’re going to have a better world, they’re going to have more blessings and less pain, and less struggle.
So inviting your ancestors in the room, and maybe you didn’t have a grandma like my grandma, maybe you didn’t even know your grandma, maybe your grandma or grandpa were wounded, they were so wounded they could barely just survive and just live another day where they didn’t have the energy to reach back to those traditions and pull them out. Or maybe they were so ashamed of who they were that they left those traditions behind, and so they didn’t give you that blessing tradition. Maybe your grandparents were separated from you because of racism and discrimination and deportation, and all of those things, so you didn’t even know them. Maybe you never got the blessing.
So I want to stop for a moment. And I want to say to you on behalf of your ancestors, on behalf of your great grandmothers, on behalf of your great grandfathers, that you are a blessing just the way you are, as you sit there today. You don’t have to know any more, you’ve got to lose weight, you’ve got to color your hair, you’ve got to do none of those things. The sacredness lies within all of us.
And my grandma would show that in her food. She would cook. And I lived in Compton so I had friends. My best friend was Tyrone Mosley, and he would come over usually right around when my grandma was cooking. [LAUGHTER] Say, “Jerry, you want to play?” [LAUGHTER] “Oh, I know why you want to play right now, because my grandma’s going to cook, huh?” “No, I just want to play.” And then my grandma would come out and say Quien Quiere comer which means who wants to eat. Tyrone would raise his hand like that. I don’t know where he learned Spanish from. [LAUGHTER] She would say Pasale mojo which means come in my son, and he walked in. Where did he learn Spanish? There were no spanish classes back then, no ESL classes. [LAUGHTER] And she called him mijo, which means my son. My grandma called the same thing to Tyrone as she called to me, because in our traditional way, all the children are your children.
In my family, we were all related. In second grade they told me to draw my family, I’d draw six grandmothers. “How do you have six grandmothers?” “I don’t know, I just call them all nana.” [LAUGHTER] I said, “All the great people are my grandparents.” [LAUGHTER] Anybody my parents’ age, my uncle and aunt, anybody my age was my cousin. And that was cool, except I have a fine cousin named Monica at 13. I wish she wasn’t my cousin, but she was my cousin. [LAUGHTER]
And the thing is, when people are related to you, you treat them different. My daughter goes to a school, my granddaughter goes to a school in Hawaii. Her native Hawaiian relatives. And they start the day when the elder comes and brings them into a circle all together and sings a chant and brings all their spirit together. And my granddaughters call their teachers auntie. Those traditions of us being related.
So my grandmother would take Tyrone and sit us together and bless him up too. Blessed him in that way too. And then, as in every family, there are kids that sometimes cooperate and some that don’t, some that cry a lot, and I had responsibility, you take care of your nephew. And one of my nephews, Ronnie[ph], was a crybaby. I don’t know if you had cry—you might have been the crybaby, I don’t know, but he cried for everything. And I was supposed to be watching him. He’s in his crib. I can hear him. [MIMICS BABY CRYING] And my grandma says, “What’s wrong with Ronnie?” “Nothing, it’s just Ronnie.” [LAUGHTER] “Well, go see.” “Grandma, it’s just Ronnie, it’s nothing.” And how many times do we play off when people are hurting? Do we just want to diagnose them and medicate them?
We work with a lot of kids that get expelled and suspended because they’re acting out their pain. A lot of what we’re seeing today is children younger and younger with more anxiety, more depression, suicidal. Elementary school kids. The work we do. Who’s healing the children?
And so my grandma gets mad at me because I’m not going to see Ronnie. And she comes and says, “Why don’t you—” “Grandma, it’s just Ronnie.” And she grabs me by the ear, “Come on, come on! You’re going to go help me.” And my cousins laugh, “Grandma’s got you, grandma’s got you.” And we go in the room, and as soon as we go in the room, I know why Ronnie’s crying. We walk in, I said, “Grandma, he’s got caca, he’s got poo poo. That’s why he’s crying.” And she goes up, “Come here my pretty baby.” I go, “He’s not pretty, he’s stinky, Grandma. He’s stinky.” “Come here my pretty. Come here, come here.” And she’d grab him. “Don’t grab him, Grandma. You’re going to get the caca all over you.” “Come here. No, no, no, come here, mijo, come here.” “Don’t pat him, you’re going to squeeze it out! It’s going to get on your dress, Grandma, it’s getting on your dress!” [LAUGHTER] And she gets—she says, “Come here, come here, mijo, come on, my pretty baby.” “He’s not pretty, he’s stinky—“ “Come here, my pretty baby. Mi precioso.” “Grandma, you’re squeezing it out!” Roo, roo, roo, roo, heya, heya… And Ronnie calmed down.
She’s never been to a parenting class in her life. Doesn’t know about self-esteem, about bonding, about ages and stages of development, doesn’t know about developmental…[LAUGHTER] But my grandma knows what you do with somebody that is disconnected. You don’t throw them away. You don’t disconnect them. You don’t ostracize them. You don’t minimize them.
My grandma also knows when someone’s hurting. I mean, Ronnie knew he was stinky. You didn’t need to remind him. [LAUGHTER] What he’s wondering is, Will somebody hold me in my stinkiness; will you embrace me; will you remind me of my sacredness when I’m not in balance, when I’m not good, when I’m hurting; will somebody embrace me?
How courageous are we to embrace those that are looked at as unembraceable? But in order to do that you’ve got to be willing to get it on you. And be willing to stand and sometimes kneel, because the problems sometimes are too big. For our Western mind, for our Western psychology, for our Western ideology, that sometimes we have to look up and say, Ancestors, come help me. We invite you to come in and help bless us up.
And life goes on. And my life went on. And my dad died when I was 13. My dad, that always wore a hat. He didn’t have a good hat like this. He had working hats. But he died. But I’d already been indoctrinated that I wasn’t supposed to cry. Boys don’t cry. Suck it up. The neighborhood, you know? So I didn’t cry. I forgot how to cry. How many of us have forgotten how to cry?
And when you forget how to cry, when you forget how to release, when you forget how to heal in your traditional way, not in the Western way, not in that, in your traditional way, it eats you up. Now I’m a freshman in high school and I’m not doing good in school. I’m trying, I’m trying. I’m going to school every day. I’m trying, but I’ve got an F in algebra, F in history. History I didn’t like because it didn’t say anything about me or my people, and so I wasn’t interested. And the algebra, I just couldn’t get algebra. I don’t know if you like algebra, but I mean they gave me a tutor, and when the tutor was there, I got it, but when she left she like took the knowledge with her or something. I don’t know. [LAUGHTER] So I got two Fs and I didn’t want to take it home to my mom who’s a single mom, who’s trying to raise us and doing everything. And I don’t like to see my mom cry.
So I’m walking home and I’m at the park, and I’m saying what am I going to do. And I think, well, maybe because I’ve gotten these messages that I’m not worth anything, that I’m expendable and all of that, maybe it’s better if I just take myself out. And in my neighborhood I don’t have to do too much. I just[?] walk two blocks over, claim up another neighborhood, they’ll take me out. They’ll call it gang violence. It’s not really gang violence, it’s really that I’m hurting. All I have to do is go to the corner, get some drugs, take a little bit too much.
But at that moment that I was thinking and decide I’m going to take myself out, the weirdest thing happened. I smelled something. I smelled maha. That’s what my grandma wore, that powder. She wore maha. I’m saying, Dude, why am I smelling maha. I’m not high. Whoa. And I smelled my grandma. And I felt her spirit. And I heard her say, “You’re a blessing, that life will be hard, but call to the ancestors. Call to me, I will walk with you. Your grades don’t define you. Your sacredness is defined by your lineage, by your ancestors.”
And I decided to go on, and I walked around the tree, and there was a $20 bill. And I said, “Dang, Grandma, you’re deep, man. Whoa!” [LAUGHTER]
So I challenge you to acknowledge your sacredness. But remember anyone you deal with has a lineage. You must call to that lineage, to our traditions, to our customs, to our spirits. We must recognize that En Lak Ech in the Mayan language means Tu Eres Mi Otro Yo or you are my other me; when you hurt I hurt, but when you heal, I heal. And we must take the opportunity where we can bless each other up.
The work we do is about healing. That’s what my grandma sent me to do, to share the blessing, to share the healing. And I want to acknowledge my companion, Susannah, who really is really the healer. She blessed me up before I left. She gives me the medicine. And what I recognize is that first teaching where healing comes from is the feminine. And if we don’t come back to a place where we honor the feminine in everything that we do, but even in our relationships – this month is domestic violence prevention month – and we work a lot with men, to have them to speak up and stand up, and if you’ve got wounds you’ve got to heal, we’ll be doing a workshop later on on that. But it’s part of that feminine that we all have to heal. And we all have to go forward together in that sacred way.
Again I want to thank you very, very much for who you are and all you do. And remember, if you see somebody, bless them up. Thank you very much. [APPLAUSE]
Our weekly newsletter provides insights into the people, projects, and organizations creating lasting change in the world.
Join us, hear from those who are uncovering Pathways Forward, and be inspired.