Jerry Tello on Toxic Masculinity, Sacred Manhood, and Supporting Men to Uplift Society

Of Mexican, Texan and Coahuiltecan ancestry, Jerry Tello was raised in South Central Los Angeles and has worked for 40+ years as a leading expert in transformational healing for men and boys of color; racial justice; peaceful community mobilization; and providing domestic violence awareness, healing and support services to war veterans and their spouses.

Bioneers spoke with Tello about the hot-button issue of “toxic masculinity” and how society can effectively raise and work with men and boys to improve their lives and the lives of those who depend on and love them.

Jerry Tello spoke about his important work at the 2019 Bioneers Conference. View his talk here.

BIONEERS: Tell us about what the term “sacred manhood” means to you.

Jerry Tello

JERRY: I think when we begin to think about sacred manhood, it’s important to base it on the sacredness of all humanity. And if we don’t start from the rooted place, what is balanced, what is whole, what is interconnected, then we give energy to what is imbalanced. We can talk about what people call “toxic masculinity” all you want, but if you don’t know what you’re supposed to heal from, what you are supposed to detoxify from, where you’re supposed to go, what you are supposed to be, then you’re really just searching. It’s like saying no to something, but what do you say yes to. So sacred masculinity really starts with the premise that we’re all sacred. All nature is sacred – men, women, children, elders, and all those in between. However you identify, you’re sacred. Children, when they come into this world, are sacred in their essence.

The real challenge is what happens on that journey. When little boys are born, they’re sacred. What happens in that journey that takes them to a place where they are disconnected, where they’re no longer acting in a sacred way, where they’re no longer treating their relationships in a sacred way, where they’re no longer treating themselves in a sacred way?

When we talk about sacred manhood, it’s really about that understanding that interconnected premise. In our society, we have come to a place where we don’t trust men, where many times men are seen as the perpetrators, as the manipulators, as the ones that are violent, the ones that are misogynistic, that are patriarchal. And it’s not that we don’t have those characteristics. We do. We carry those wounds. We carry those issues. We carry those false teachings. But rarely do we talk about the sacred part of who we are.

My work over the last 40-some years has been working with a lot of wounded boys, a lot of wounded men, a lot of men that have been incarcerated or accused of domestic violence or child abuse or youngsters that are gang banging or into drugs and violence. On the other hand, a lot of people that are so-called professionals are very toxic.

Those young men and men that are referred to me for all these violent and negative things know their woundedness. There’s a whole other group of men that think because they have material or professional or intellectual success, that they don’t have imbalance, that they don’t have toxicity. I’m more afraid of them because they don’t recognize and they don’t acknowledge it, which means they don’t work on it; they think it’s the norm. I think that’s what’s happened in our society.

I see little boys at 4 already angry. And how do you become so angry at 4? What are you angry at? A lot of times anger is really a manifestation of shame, a manifestation of being stuck, a manifestation of being unclear, of not knowing what to do, so you react. When you’re only focused on that which is imbalanced, then when do we get to the balanced? When do we get to the rootedness? When do we get to re-rooting, to cleansing? When do we get to honoring and acknowledging?

I grew up in Compton, South Central LA. There is a lot of woundedness in those communities, based on the poverty and on the racism and on the oppression and all those things that go on in those very stressed out communities. Because of having to live based on survival sometimes, you have to reorient your life.

There are men that I’ve talked with who say, “I’m willing and want to be connected to my heart and to my feelings, but when I walk out my door, I can’t. I can’t survive because society sees me in a negative way; I’m always being attacked for nothing else than my skin color. So if I open my heart and keep my heart open, I will die. I cannot go on. I will not get to work. If I keep my heart open while working and seeing the looks and the gestures and the way that people treat me, I cannot finish my day of work. In coming home, in going in stores or anyplace in the society, in watching the news, if I keep my heart open, I can’t survive because it penetrates me at a very deep level and it triggers generations of hurt. Because I remember my father and my grandfather being treated in a very similar way. So I have to close my heart. When, for the majority of the day, I have to close my heart in order to survive, then when is it safe to open it?”

But it’s not until you’re able to open your heart and know how to work that are you able then to heal your wounds.

When do men of color have a space, have a time, have a place to heal their wounds, so that they can recover, uncover, and discover again the sacredness of who they really are? It’s this dichotomy that you have to play between.

My father’s side is Coahuiltecan Native. In our traditional Indigenous belief, we believe that everything is sacred. All our children are sacred. My grandma said every kid was a blessing — the fat ones, the skinny ones, the stinky ones, the ones that get good grades in school, the ones that didn’t — it didn’t matter. They’re all blessings. And she reminded us every day by blessing us that way. Symbolically but very directly as well, it was a reminder that in spite of your wounds, in spite of your transgressions, in spite of your issues, you still can come back to that sacredness.

That’s the message for men — your sacredness is waiting; are you willing to take the journey?

BIONEERS: How has your community responded to discussions about sacred manhood?

JERRY: About 30 years ago, there were a number of colleagues of mine — psychologists, social workers, teachers, lawyers, advocates, and most of us were Latino, Chicano, Mexican, Native — and we were very frustrated, because even though we had so-called “made it” (we were professionals in the field and working in our communities), we found that there were no resources coming into our communities that really met the cultural and spiritual norms of what we believe. We were offered therapy, but it wasn’t therapy that was in line with the way we heal. So to some extent, it wasn’t helpful. They were offering us programs, but the programs they were offering communities were trying to assimilate us, trying to really take out our true indigenous and cultural processes, and making us believe that the woundedness that we had was because of our culture.

We became very frustrated with that and decided we would develop some of our own programs. A couple of us decided to call out to other men who were in the profession to come together for a weekend to begin some program planning.

The other part that really bothered us was that we men were causing the woundedness. As much as we were saying systems and colonization and 500 years of the conquests were causing the issues, in our own homes and in our own families, many times we men were domestically violent or unfaithful. So there was this dual feeling of being upset with the system and being upset with the history, but at the same time recognizing that we’re doing this.

We called men together. We knew that one of the main problems was self-medication — alcohol and drugs in our communities. At our gathering, 19 men that showed up. Many of us didn’t know each other, but were professionals in the field. Some were advocates. We started with prayer, because all of us knew that in the worst of times, when we have nothing, our grandmothers would make us pray. We all knew in our Indigenous sense that we needed to call to something bigger because this problem was something bigger.

And then we went around that circle, and everybody began to introduce themselves. The third guy that shared said, “I’m here to do what the other guys said, but my real issue right now is that I was abused when I was a kid. I saw my father abused, and I saw my mother abused, and I saw the system. And it broke me. It broke me when I was 3. Even though I’m a professional, I still don’t know how to love my wife. I still don’t know how to connect with my kids. So I work all the time. I advocate, and I’m at rallies, and I’m trying to do good for my community. But the real reason why I’m doing all of that is because I don’t know how to connect. I need to heal myself.”

And he began to cry.

Thirty years ago, seeing an Indigenous Chicano man cry was like, ‘Whoa, what are you doing?’ He’s exposing himself. He’s crying. It penetrated all of us. It touched our hearts, and it resonated because we knew that he was telling truth. When he shifted that narrative to talk about what was really going on with him, the rest of us went around and shared that too. By the time we ended that circle, we realized we were all wounded, and that we had never done our own work. Even though we were professionals and so-called “successful,” we had generational wounds and woundedness in us.

We realized after those three days that the most revolutionary thing we could do was to heal ourselves. Before we went out and tried to work and talk about teachings, we needed to heal ourselves so that we could be the best men that we could be. We realized that we had been given a false sense of shame and made to feel negative about ourselves as men. The sacred men in our communities are hard workers. They’re loyal. They’re providers.

We realized that there was a sacredness that was never taught to us, and that this society was going to attempt to continue to give us a false narrative that we were negative, that we were only patriarchal, and that we were toxic. That in order to be good men, we had to abandon our culture, abandon our spirituality, and be like the Western European men. We had to be like them, talk like them, act like them, and get degrees like them in order to be whole.

We later found out that many of those so-called “successful” men are not any better fathers than we are.

So at that circle 30 years ago, we made a commitment to share with other men that we need to go on a path to heal ourselves, and to reclaim our sacredness as men.

The second thing that we needed to do was recover the sacred teaching that our ancestors had taught us, that the first step on the rights of passage bridge to manhood is honoring women. If you don’t honor women, the sacredness of the feminine, you cannot be a whole man.

The third thing that we needed to do was to be committed to guide the next generation. The organization called the National Compadres Network has been around for 30 years, and we’ve been doing this all over the world. We develop and guide men, and we have healing and support circles all over. We also do teachings on rights of passage, on fatherhood, on teen fatherhood, on recovery. We talk to men coming out from institutions and give them a place where they can heal and detoxify from their wounds in the system

A major part of what we do is prepare young men and boys, and mothers who are raising boys, on how to reclaim and reroute themselves in the sacredness, and how to deal with a toxic environment that wants to take that from you. How can you shift when you go into this racist, oppressist society and not lose the essence of who you are? Sometimes you have to close your heart. Sometimes you have to front up. Sometimes you do have to pretend. Sometimes you need to have a shield. But it’s important to make sure you know that that’s not who you really are.

The true aspect of healing is being able to be flexible in your movement. We deal with people in the inner city, and some of these youngsters have got to be strong and hard in order to survive. But when you walk into your mama’s house, you need to be able to take that mask off. That’s what healing is really about.

BIONEERS: How does the idea of femininity play into the work you do?

JERRY: In our traditional Indigenous culture, we don’t categorize masculine or feminine. You just are. You’re part of the trees, you’re part of the universe, you’re part of the sun, part of the moon. And when we pray, we pray in honoring those four directions. We honor the masculine, the feminine, the child, and the elder.

In our traditional way, we have all of those elements in us. And one that is healed can go and move and sit in any direction and be comfortable. Sometimes we have to sit in the feminine direction.

Our prophecies say that right now, we as men need to sit in the women’s direction and be quiet and listen, and let them lead. Now is the time in which the feminist is going to guide. If we do not allow the feminine to guide, which is really the basis of healing, of listening, of paying attention, of being present, then this world is going to continue to be toxic.

BIONEERS: How can women who are raising boys be mindful of sacred masculinity?

Jerry: There are a lot of women that are not with a partner because it wasn’t a good relationship. There have been wounds, and there has been abuse. With the women that have not done their work, sometimes they carry those wounds. Sometimes they carry that anger. And sometimes they carry that toxicity too. Then they deal with their boys, and they don’t want their boys to be like their dad. They’re saying, “You’re just like your dad.” That really does fuel the toxicity, the hurt and the disconnection, because boys don’t know how we want them to be. “Well, just behave!” What does that mean?

With mothers, part of the work is having them do their work so their woundedness and their unresolved issues with the father does not spill out on their children. There are many boys that don’t have fathers. The traditional way is that you don’t have to have a biological father, but you do need someone to support you.

My dad died when I was 13. And you don’t know what to do. And you don’t want to ask anybody. And you don’t want to make your mom feel bad, so you just make it up. Sometimes when you make it up, you don’t make it up in a good way. Then you look for examples, and if the examples aren’t good, you’re just going to follow those anyway, because it’s better to do something than to be stuck.

We have a lot of young boys that are ashamed. And mothers need to recognize that and say, “Son, I know your dad’s not here. So let’s look for a coach.” Or even if you’re walking around, you have to make a point of looking to good examples. “Look at that man over there with his kids. Look at how he picks them up. Look how he’s hugging and kissing his daughters.” You’ve got to point out those things.

And then we men have to step up too. We men have to step up and offer to say, “We’re here.”

I think part of what it’s important for you to share with your sons is that “I’m not sure what to do, but I’m going to walk with you.” It’s a journey.

BIONEERS: How does participating in the armed forces and PTSD that is often a result of that relate to the concept of toxic masculinity?

JERRY: I was drafted myself in the Vietnam era, so I’m very familiar with what that does to you — just the disconnection. Maybe it’s changed somewhat now, but even back in those days, you were yelled at, ridiculed and broken. They wanted to break you down so they could make you into this military man, which was really about being in control and doing what you had to do, regardless if it was killing or maiming, to defend this country, whatever that meant. But what you realize is it wasn’t really about defense. It was really about control and subjugation, and that penetrates you.

Back then in the Vietnam era, one of the biggest wounds that many of my friends and family suffered is they went in and fought in that war and got no recognition. There was no healing for them. I have friends and colleagues and relatives that have lost their families. They’ve been locked up. They’re on drugs. Because trauma turns into physiological issues.

In the recent wars, they allowed soldiers to do two, three, four, five, six tours. They are exposed to such violence and fear. Anyplace you step there can be a bomb, so you’re afraid to walk down a road.

What ends up happening is that becomes the norm. In the cellular nature of your body, that trauma becomes frozen in you. And it comes out at unexpected times. It interrupts your sleep, and it interrupts your ability to feel. It disconnects your body from your spirit. And to some extent, in order to be in a war, you have to disconnect. You have to disconnect your emotions from your action. You have to objectify the enemy. But when you objectify so much, it gets lodged into your cell memory and disconnects you from your heart. You come back, and anybody that then challenges you, you react. But you may be reacting to your wife or your kids.

We now have many generations of men who are very wounded. The homeless problem is increasing because of the wars. And we have women and children that are homeless, too. So it’s interconnected to a whole bunch of things.

I’m not sure if we really understand the price that we’ve had to pay. We try and provide healing. We try to help men call their spirits back. But it’s a lifelong issue. We’ve given men that have gone to war a disease. It’s like giving somebody cancer or diabetes. It’s a disease. And you can’t take it away. You just have to treat it.

It affects many of us. It affects the whole nature of how we are as men, as boys, as family. And the women have suffered tremendously.

When you’re not connected to your heart, you lose your sense of compassion. Then all you’re doing is reacting.

It’s a very complex issue that we as society have to deal with. The military has to deal with it, and we’re not there yet. I think, before men go to any type of situation like that, first of all they have to be rooted in sacred manhood. If you have that sacredness then you know that even in the worst part of your fear, you can’t cross certain boundaries. There are certain things you can’t do.

BIONEERS: There seem to be important differences between what the Western world calls a “warrior” and an Indigenous definition. What do you think about that?

JERRY: The Western framework of a warrior is that conquest and control. It’s that sense of dominance. The traditional Indigenous warrior is different. The warrior is a protector. They’re one who maintains honor. They’re one who maintains spirit and integrity. Sometimes you do have to be forceful, but that’s not your intent.

In our traditional way, when we would get ready to go to war or a dangerous journey, our whole community would encircle us, and they would dance and sing and pray. They would burn sage and copal so that within our spirits, we would remember that heartbeat, we would remember that drum, we would hear the voices of the elders, the women and the children. Then the elders would give us our direction. The intent was never to hurt. It was never to destroy. It was to defend. And sometimes in defending, yes, there was hurt, but that was not the intent.

When the warriors came back, they would enter that same circle. The community would fan them off and cleanse them and take away all that manifestation of who they had to be outside of the circle so that they could return to their sacred role again.

In many communities, that warrior shield is never put down. You have to wear it 24/7. You’re wearing your warrior shield when you’re asleep, so you don’t ever rest. You’re always on. Men of color especially feel like they have to be hypervigilant and constantly watching out. They never get to put that shield down. It affects us in many ways.

Part of the teachings of manhood is recreating our narrative and recapturing the sacred narrative of what it means to be an honorable warrior. It’s not about violence, it’s about protection. It’s not about having sex. It’s about having relationship. It’s not about being in control. It’s about being in a flow. Your success is not based on money and material things, it’s about how well your relations see you.

That’s the true sense of the warrior: one that is has integrity, respect, trust, love, and dignity. Love is a really important part. We have to know how to love ourselves and love others. But we also have to know when we need help — when we need healing ourselves. We need to be able to ask for it.

Keep Your Finger on the Pulse

Our bi-weekly newsletter provides insights into the people, projects, and organizations creating lasting change in the world.