The Trauma of Your Ancestors
I listened today to a seminar on transgenerational trauma. The theory of such trauma boils down to a couple of basic things. Number one, someone in your lineage suffered trauma of some sort. Number two, they displayed that trauma and their children followed suit. Number three, you also display that trauma because that is how you’ve been raised. Essentially, what happened to your ancestors some generations back is having a strong influence on your health and wellbeing — especially your mental health — today.
In the United States, this kind of trauma can be seen in members of groups of people whose ancestors have been traumatized by forces bigger than them. In Native Americans, the legacy of conquest, colonization, relocations, forced assimilation and outright inequitable treatment continues until now. And what can we say of slavery? Those effects can be seen every day in how Black people, especially young Black men, interact with authorities who see them as inherently violent.
This all got me wondering if I am experiencing this kind of trauma in any way, and it also made me wonder if it compares in any way to the trauma others feel. My identity is one of an immigrant, born in Mexico, coming to the United States as a child. I’ve experienced racism from people telling me to go back to my country or to not speak Spanish in front of them. I’ve experienced hardship from not having any family wealth to help me begin my own financial history. I’ve been stopped at the border or at airports at the border on numerous occasions to be “randomly checked.” I’ve been pulled over by police who later send me on my way with not even a warning after they check my name and personal details against their databases.
But I also have a doctoral degree, a master’s degree, and a bachelor’s degree. I live in a nice development and in a beautiful home. I drive a good car. I have a great job that has afforded me the luxury of not being jobless during economic slowdowns and during this pandemic. And I have great friends who are phenomenal sources of support.
And what can I say of my wife and daughter, my siblings, and my mom and dad? They’re all alive and healthy, and there for me, if I ever need them. So, in many ways, I’m okay, and I’ve been okay awhile.
However, my ancestors were not that lucky. Mom had to make the hard choice to buck family and societal pressures and go to college, all while being a single mother at age 17. Dad worked from sun up to sun down at all sorts of jobs in all sorts of places to help me financially while I was in college. My paternal grandfather was a political activist in Mexico during “the perfect dictatorship,” and that brought with it many challenges. My maternal grandfather was a mailman, a musician, and died an early death from cancer.
The women in my extended family have had to endure a lot of hardship from abusive relationships, misogynist work policies, and the realities of having to work to make ends meet while also having to raise children. Some of those children, my cousins, have had horrible things happen to them because of the color of their skin, the place where they lived, and/or their gender. Female cousins of mine have repeated the missteps of abusive relationships, forced marriages and forgone educations and professions because tradition or society dictated other paths for them.
So, here I am. I am the product of over 40 years of my history and probably hundreds of years of the history of men and women who’ve done things that set the reality I live in into motion. At some point, the Najeras left Spain and arrived in Mexico. So did the Padillas. And the Herreras, the Armendariz. Others came from other places in Europe, and others have lineages that have been in the Americas for centuries. They all did stuff, lived stuff, suffered through stuff that is echoing in me today.
The question is what to do about it all? I choose not to be a victim of all those past lives, but to learn from them, grow, be better. I choose to stop the transmission of trauma at me, as good as I can, to keep it from traveling further down to my toddler. The Toddler Ren has things to do, man, and they can’t be bothered with trauma. I’d rather that Toddler Ren be bothered with wisdom, from learning of all those things that happened then so that the wisdom can prevent things now and in the future.
You see, I am painfully aware of the association between how girls are treated by their fathers (or how they see their fathers treat their mothers) and the behavior that those girls-turned-women will exhibit. I’m also aware that this kind of influence is not exclusive to girls and their dads. Boys also follow the lead of their fathers. As a father, I need to make sure that the trauma of past generations stops with me in both my behavior from it and my behavior toward it.
It’s hard, though. Some things have more control over us than we think. Some cop can wake up tomorrow with a grumpy mood and pull me over and end my day in quite the literal sense. Same for an alcoholic who gets behind the wheel of a car and drives straight at me. Or some weirdo politician convinced enough people that my toddler is not enough of a human being for their life to matter… Or someone eats a bat in some other part of the world and a pandemic with 30% mortality rate rolls around. (That would be an extinction-level event, by the way.)
Nevertheless, there are things that I can control, and things that I cannot, and that is what I learned from the seminar. There is a lot of that trauma going around, and people are still being hurt by the institutions put in place by the majority to grab and keep power or to keep the “others” held down in what is, honestly, indentured servitude. Yet, there are things we can do. We can stand up, help others stand up as well, and make a change. We can ourselves be the lights that shine on the darkness and end the trauma, especially if we realize that we are not alone.