Grandmothers, do you know my name?
Mothers–do you remember who I am?
Sisters, I can’t see you– darkness has descended.
There is no shadow to keep me company.

Angelique Arroyo

Ever since I was a young girl, I’ve had a deep longing for connection to the old ways of wise women. My mother is one. But she became lost in trying to make a living and putting food on the table with my Dad. She was told that she had to measure up to the standards of a society that sought to neutralize ethnic groups.

She tried to connect to the old ways, but she herself had not been handed her legacy. She even moved my sister and me to Puerto Rico to give us a place to belong! Her own struggles with identity had taken a toll on her and she wanted to prevent the same from happening to us. And yet, even there, in our country of origin, our stories were being put away to make new ones with an American way of life.

Because I longed to give myself and my children this sense of identity, I sought out stories–not my own, but those of people who still had theirs intact. When I was looking for wisdom on building a home and legacy, there was no one to go to! I had to make my own way, not really knowing how. I longed for stories, and a history that was my own. The stories, history and customs of a people lie with their elders, their wise men and women.

The food, music, and way of life individual to every ethnic group is precious and worthy of ensuring its ongoing legacy. The unjust system at work has caused us to internalize messages of self-deprecation in order to fit in and to have access. We need to begin the work of identity reclamation.

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Assimilation, which is the process by which a person or persons acquire the social and psychological characteristics of a majority group, has been especially emotionally expensive for many women of color, so much so, that generations of younger women are suffering. They do not know the songs of their ancestors, the way of their people.

An example of some of the ways in which we’ve assimilated can be seen in how we hold the commodity of time in America. Ethnic cultures tend to come from a cyclical relationship to time. Rising with the sun, stopping at midday for rest, festivities that go on all night. The emphasis of value is placed on relationship and not on time bound obligations. This is in stark contrast to the American approach: be punctual. End punctually. This leaves no space for a natural flow.

As a Puerto Rican, I can’t tell you how many jokes I’ve heard about “Puerto Rican time”. Always late, always going over. But this value judgment comes because time is being measured against another cultural standard. I’ve realized the gift in the way my ethnic culture moves, and the danger of it being measured against a American standard. As women, there was a time when we worked together, birthed together, cried together and bled together. The fields are filled with stories; quilts speak of the times when we were one.

The more I look around, from family to friends and from the talks I give in my community, the more I notice that there is an epidemic of grandmother-less, Mother-less and sister-less among many women and girls. They are hungry for connection to something they can identify with. A story and history, that is their own. As I work with women of all ages, I see many who struggle with the absence of ethnic identity. I hear it when I speak with young people who are looking to gangs, friendships, music and mainstream culture for a sense of belonging, because they have no connection or sense of belonging.

I see the look on their faces when I call them my sisters, when they are affirmed as young women when I tell them about the beauty of our ethnic heritage. I hear it from adult women who are seeking out their heritage, but are feeling alienated because they weren’t raised with the customs of their culture.

The pain is acute, the chasm wide.

Many of our girls are hungry for conversations that are transparent about womanhood, heritage and identity. They long to hear both the challenges and the victories of our journey in this life. They are each unique, but they don’t know it! Many young women today are constantly being herded into lines to be signed up for the latest program of self-improvement–whether it be education, or self-help. We have programs on how to be “professional”, how to advance academically, how to be _________ (you can fill in the blank). But what is challenging to find is self-KNOWING. The knowing that comes from being connected to all that makes us who we are. That is not dependent on external achievements to define our value and worth.

As we, the collective community of advocates, activists, mothers and fathers continue to do the work of social justice on a large scale, we must equally hold the individual piece of internalized assimilation that needs healing. Just as importantly as making certain that we are not affirming the use of stereotypes spoken of about people of color among each other, it is time to reject the identity assigned to us by those who do not know us. We need to acknowledge that even though our young women are owning their power, by engaging in careers they are passionate about and making life choices that work for them, many don’t know the stories of the heritage they came from.

One of the ways I’ve embodied this work is by continually having the conversation about identity, in circles of women–whether it’s in The Red Tent, or a girls’ circle I hold at the local youth detention center. In these circles, I see the blooming of self-acceptance as women are embraced for who they are. I hear about the sense of connection they have gained because transparent conversations have taken place. And ultimately they feel safe, understood and affirmed.

Another tool for healing that I find powerful is creating circles where the spirit is not one of improvement, but one of ownership and knowing; where we are affirmed in our trusting and our stories. In knowing the past, the present is honored; the stories are tapped into. And the pieces of our identity and movement are acknowledged.

Circles are a space in which we can honor the multi-generational wisdom of women. I equally believe that for women of color, there is a great need to create circles that affirm the beautiful movement of different ethnicities. We are in need of sacred safe spaces, to address the pain of assimilation, to address the story which has been internalized, but which is not ours.

I believe that circles are an essential piece to strengthening our sisterhood, world-wide, and to putting an end to the internal identity crisis so many are struggling with. There has been a traumatic fracture in the souls of women of all ages, and especially in those of young women. Our example is needed in such a huge way–we must, we must stand and reclaim ourselves–for the sustainability of all women!
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Angelique Arroyo of