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While people across the country took the day off for Columbus Day Monday, Nuestra Casa and several other local community organizations hosted the first ever Indigenous People’s Day celebration in East Palo Alto (EPA), with workshops and speakers centered on reconnecting to indigenous roots. The program ranged from traditional indigenous healing practices to food and environmental justice, and the afternoon closed with a free mole dinner and Aztec dance performance.

Participants in “The gift of the plants” workshop practice indigenous healing methods. Credit: Erica Miner / M-A Chronicle.

Julio Garcia, the program director at Nuestra Casa, explained the purpose behind the event, and the significance for EPA’s majority Latino population: “We want to change the rhetoric and the history… for us, Columbus was a conquistador.”

“Celebrating Columbus Day for us doesn’t make sense, but celebrating Indigenous People’s Day does, because it brings all the communities together, from North America, South America, Central America, from everywhere.”

Marcela Sabin, one of the presenters, agreed that celebrating Columbus Day “is kind of like celebrating colonization.”

Marcela Sabin demonstrates “cerradas,” one way to use rebozos for healing. Credit: Erica Miner / M-A Chronicle.

Sabin is from Argentina but spent years learning from Mayan communities in Yucatán, and now travels between California, Mexico, and Guatemala, promoting and teaching indigenous healing practices. She led two workshops, one on the healing properties of plants, and the other on how to use rebozos, traditional woven blankets from Mexico, for spiritual centering.

“To honor the indigenous ways for me is a way of life,” she remarked, “It’s not a day to remember, or become aware, it’s more about how you embrace those principles every day of your life.”

For Sabin, those principles are essential to healing centuries of brutal colonization and oppression, which stretch back even before the Europeans arrived in America. “The Inquisition destroyed a lot of the communities in Europe,” she explained.

Sergio Netzahualcoyotl, of La Defensa del Maiz, explains his non-genetically modified organism, organic, traditional corn produce. Credit: Erica Miner / M-A Chronicle.

“They started to destroy the good heart of people… we lost that connection with each other, and the respect and the trust, so the ones who came here, they came very wounded.”

It is perhaps this legacy of unresolved pain that caused European colonizers like Columbus to be so violent towards American indigenous people, and Sabin highlighted that this suffering spans generations in both the colonizers and the colonized, with many bearing both in their heritage. “We carry in our blood not only our current history, we carry also our ancestor’s traumas, our ancestor’s wounds, and also gifts,” Sabin added.

“It’s so important to do healing because if not… we keep replicating that oppressiveness into others.”

A woman serves mole at the Ravenswood Family Health Clinic. Credit: Erica Miner / M-A Chronicle.

Other workshops and discussions at the event included healing through sacred sounds, pesticides and environmental racism, and sustainable and traditional farming practices.

After the workshops at the People’s Plaza finished, the event concluded across the street at the Ravenswood Family Health Clinic, with a free dinner of mole, chicken, rice, and tortillas. Aztec dancers who opened the event returned for a closing ceremony performance.

Garcia emphasized the particular importance of the celebration for Latino immigrants. “We leave our roots, we leave our culture, we leave everything that we know to come here,” he said.

Traditional instruments and remedies from Marcela Sabin’s workshop. Credit: Erica Miner / M-A Chronicle.

“We’re in times that the rhetoric of the president is really against Latinos, against immigrants… so I think it’s really important in reclaiming our roots.”

Currently, neither the city of East Palo Alto nor San Mateo County recognize Indigenous People’s Day, but Garcia affirmed that Nuestra Casa plans to change that for next year.

Nuestra Casa’s next big community event will be Gozadas, a celebration a few weeks before Christmas with free food, music, dancing, and a toy drive.

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