Conference empowers immigrant youth through healing

Vassar’s local Immigrant Youth Empowerment Conference presented workshops on mental health, identity and liberation among communities for immigrant youth. Yvette Hu/The Miscellany News

Her ancestors were murdered, enslaved and robbed of their native tongue and spiritual practices. One by one, those not slaughtered endured the bodily terrorism of foreign illnesses. Deprived of food and water, they were either forced off their land or into menial labor for the Spanish Empire’s glory.

Now, 500 years later, Anita Montero Campion and other descendants of the colonized have been liberated, many still residing in what is now Mesoamerica and Latin America. Many others, such as Campion, have migrated to other lands, much to the disdain and abhorrence of political administrations, including that of the United States.

Campion, who was born and educated in Mexico City, was deprived of this history for most of her formative years. She now spends her life educating others on indigenous peoples’ teachings and ways of life. On Saturday, Oct. 12 in Rockefeller 200, she addressed an audience of immigrant youth and their friends and families at the 2nd Annual Immigrant Youth Empowerment Conference. As the keynote speaker, her speech focused on how the fruits of colonialism have manifested today.

“Historical trauma, as it is known, took the form of illness, poverty, malnutrition, discommunity, violence, laws of land and resources and unequal access to education,” she explained. “The healing of these ills is long overdue.”

With the current state of U.S. immigration reform and the increased visibility and threat of xenophobia, immigrant communities live with their own modern-day traumas. President Donald Trump ordered a series of raids in July—called Operation Border Resolve— that targeted roughly 2,000 people in more than a dozen cities. All had final deportation orders but did not report to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers (The New York Times, “More Than 2,000 Migrants Were Targeted in Raids. 35 Were Arrested.,” 08.23.2019).

In this hostile climate, the theme of this year’s conference, “Healing & Liberation: Building Self-Healing Communities,” centered around how immigrants and their loved ones can heal as a form of liberation. “This conference is an act of resistance,” Assistant Professor of Education Jaime Del Razo, part of the conference’s planning committee, claimed. “We unapologetically claim our right to exist.”

The second annual Immigrant Youth Empowerment Conference, hosted in Rockefeller Hall, allowed undocumented students, their friends and their families to connect in spite of ongoing political hostilities. Yvette Hu/The Miscellany News

The conference consisted of workshops in two sessions. In the first block, “Black Immigrants in the US” focused on the experiences of Black immigrants, particularly Afro-Caribbean immigrants. Assistant Professor of Education Kimberly Williams Brown, a native of Jamaica, led the session by drawing from her dissertation, which partly addressed how Afro-Caribbean immigrants have differing conceptions of race from African-Americans. She explained that Afro-Caribbeans come from majority-Black countries where racial inferiority does not exist to the extent it does in the United States. “When they come to the U.S., they think that racism doesn’t affect them,” she elaborated.

The workshops “Undocumented Healing” and “Overcoming” centered the undocumented immigrant family experience. One attendee recounted the day they said goodnight to an uncle, not knowing their uncle would be deported the very next day. Another expressed the pain of writing essays about an ICE officer pointing a rifle at their mother’s head during a 3 a.m. raid. “Imagine me writing this down several times to achieve a scholarship,” they shared. “We constantly have to live in a state of reliving our traumas.”

Ivette Pineda, who works at the undocumented youth resources organization ADELANTE Student Voices and led the “Undocumented Healing” workshop, highlighted that undocumented students are at high risk of developing mental illnesses due to their past traumas. Many resort to substance abuse to cope with their stress.

She also recognized that the process of institutional recognition forces students to exploit their trauma to obtain material resources (such as scholarships), but offers limited resources for students to process this trauma. That is where healing begins. “You have to start processing what happened to you,” she urged. “Healing is an act of resistance in that you’ve demonstrated that you’ll come out on the other side.”

But before immigrants, specifically those who hail from Meso and Latin America, immigrate to the United States, Spanish colonialism’s corruption of racial identity and cultural traditions creates identity crises. Temachtiani—or teacher—of the Toltekatl Sciences Akaxe Yotzin believes that many people who come from Mexico already feel a sense of worthlessness in their national identity. “When families migrate here to the U.S., they already have this sense of invisibility,” he explained. “They already come from a place that didn’t recognize them—a place that told them, ‘You’re a Mestizo [mixed].’”

Yotzin elaborated that it is vital for the descendants of the colonized to recognize the indigenous identity present within them. But Campion urges these descendants to go further: Learn and implement the teachings of the ancestors in their everyday lives. To her, this is the ultimate form of healing.

“Through education, studying, and embodying values and using the tools of human development used by our ancestral nations, we can free ourselves of the burden of our cultural amnesia,” Campion proclaimed. “We can heal the effects of historical trauma. We can release the burden of enslavement and oppression.”

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