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The Pain We Carry

Much of the Latine identity today comes from past trauma. History reminds us of the colonization of the land belonging to Indigenous peoples in North, Central, and South America and the Caribbean, along with the Atlantic Slave Trade that eventually culminated in much of the Latine identity. My ancestors are a mix of Spaniard, African, and Taíno in Borikén. I come from a family of curanderas (spiritual healers) inspired by the African Yoruba tradition. Most have abandoned the practice due to its misassociation with evil.

For so long, I’ve had a thirst for connection to spiritual healing. You probably know this feeling too, robbed and disconnected from the healing practices of ancestors. They were said to be devil’s work by White missionaries or settlers or slave traders. Many of our empowering and peaceful ancestral practices have been colonized and demonized. We have internalized messages that reject the very healing work curated by elders and ancestors. It’s a privilege to even know your ancestors, as folks with lineages of genocide and enslavement have been disconnected from knowledge of their ancestry. That alone carries deep pain and grief. If this is your truth, even with the loss of your family’s history, your ancestors live within you and aren’t lost. It’s possible to begin creating an ancestral practice, even from scratch—feeling for what intuitively comes up for you and trusting yourself as a guide.

I chose to do trauma work and trauma work also chose me. For over a decade, I’ve held many painful stories of Black and Brown bodies in my therapy office. The more years that passed, the clearer it became that suffering is tied to racialized trauma and systemic issues beyond my patients’ control. Many would numb out the grief, rage, anxiety, and hurt they experienced daily from microaggressions, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism—depending on their intersectional identities. So much of how we define ourselves was learned from racist institutions. The mental health field wasn’t doing enough to understand this, and was actually quicker to pathologize patients like mine—for example referring to deep fears as paranoid or delusional. But here’s what I was noticing:

Of course you feel afraid and distrustful when you live in a Black body and are approached by police. Your visceral bodily reactions happen because history shows implicit bias in a police state that has led to present-day lynching of Black bodies.

Of course you struggle with internalized racism and find it hard to feel self-acceptance. You’ve been taught to criticize who you are, how you look, how much space you take up, ways you show up. Even the way you speak is policed. You survive by remaining very aware of how you might be perceived by folks of dominant groups, because being othered or seen as dangerous due to racism and implicit bias is life-threatening when you’re existing in a Black and Brown body.

Of course you feel anger, anxiety, and grief after so many generations experiencing racial trauma in your family. You have legacy wounds from genocide, enslavement, war, and colonization.

Your pain makes sense. You make sense.

I want to take a moment to appreciate the work of Dr. Joy Degruy. In her book Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, she writes a deep history of how the era of enslavement has gravely impacted Black bodies, and how centuries of enslavement continue to impact Black folks today. I also want to honor the work of Resmaa Menakem, whose book My Grandmother’s Hands has also illuminated the somatic impact of racialized trauma. They’ve helped inspire my own learning, growth, and humility. If these works are unfamiliar to you, please seek them on your healing journey.

For quite some time, my rage was how I protected myself from the world and how I learned to communicate my needs through intimidation and aggression. Seeing violence in my home taught me to resolve conflict through fighting and to get my needs met through yelling or hitting. I also learned to anticipate violence, gauging the moods of my parents and others so that I could know how to avoid confrontation—whether through shrinking myself and playing small, people pleasing, or fighting back—all to emotionally and physically survive. And then I grew to become a teenager who was raging and angry with the world, feeling a fiery anger inside that sometimes turned to outward expressions of explosive anger. All while the world told me to exile my rightful rage. I had so many reasons to be rageful. I now know my rage was trying to call out for help. It needed a witness. My rage wanted the hurt to stop, from the world and in my home.

You might know what growing up seeing violence in the home as a child feels like, with your hurt and anger unwitnessed, shamed, and invalidated. Your anger may have kept people away as a form of protection and anticipatory self-defense. Your anger may feel responsible and burdened to keep you safe in a world that has hurt you and your ancestors. Today I make a conscious effort to continue getting to know my rage and unburdening the parts of me that carry it, and try to take a risk being vulnerable with others.

Vulnerability hasn’t come easy for me, and I’m sure you can relate to that. When you’re trying to take a risk and be vulnerable, you might find yourself feeling tense and anticipating that bad things will happen. When you’ve lived through childhood trauma and betrayal, your brain reminds you that vulnerability can lead to more pain, so we tend to create all kinds of armor against it.

Many of us often perceive threat in our environments, exacerbated by living in a structurally racist and violent society that repeatedly oppresses non-White groups. We tend to struggle trusting others, including people in our own communities, and even ourselves. We might even unconsciously become our own oppressors and continue mistreating ourselves and others, including our friends, partners, and children.

We can find ourselves perpetuating the very systems of oppression and abuse in our own homes, within our own minds and bodies, families, and communities, taught to us by White supremacy. This might look like screaming at our loved ones and hitting or shaming our children. This might look like invalidating and shaming the vulnerability in others. We can no longer hide behind our wounds if we are to foster healing within and in our communities. We cannot dismiss or minimize violence in the home or toward our communities as “normal” or believe that we are fine despite being physically hurt by our caregivers or anybody. I assure you we are not fine.

We’ve struggled in relationships, with setting boundaries, and with our own self-worth. Somewhere within us exists rage, insecurity, and resentment—deeply rooted. I can admit to you that growing up in a household where I was often hit produced the rage I still carry today. It has been flamed by the many other times I experienced traumatic stress and betrayal as a child by adults I trusted. Yet I chose to do my healing work to end the pattern for future generations. Every day I choose to still take this healing journey, the ancestors aren’t done with me yet.

Natalie Y. Gutierrez is founder of Mindful Journeys Marriage and Family Therapy and a licensed marriage and family therapist. She works primarily with BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) survivors of complex trauma. Her book, The Pain We Carry: Healing From Complex PTSD for People of Color (New Harbinger Publications, Inc) was released in 2022.

Photo credit: Krin Van Tatenhove via Midjourney AI

1 Comment

Yes, Natalie, yes!!! Love that you are naming the rage and doing the work to break the cycle! And as a fellow counselor, I totally dig this essay!!

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