Landing on Our Feet: Documentation as a Form of Resisting Intergenerational Trauma
One of our Hardcover Hotties admin shares why they find documentation a powerful tool to combat the reproduction of trauma.
ID: A red outline of a peaceful woman in front of a background of newspaper clippings. She is framed by dried flowers.
Text reads “ Landing on Our Feet: Documentation as a Form of Resisting Intergenerational Trauma by Stephanie Herrera.”
“I’m left to return to these things and places, over and over, to draw strength from them to see the world more clearly, to think of them not as facts of biography but as tools to dismantle walls, tools to fling open doors, and beckon people in, gentle hands to guide butterflies on their way.”
Alejandra Oliva, Rivermouth: A Chronicle of Language, Faith, and Migration
A strong source of familial pride I hold stems from the matriarchal roots embedded in the Salvadoran side of my family - quite literally expressed through the passing down of my grandmother’s maiden name to most of her children before Salvadoran law would enforce the use of the father’s surname, regardless of marital status. While my grandfather tended to crops, my grandmother sought other avenues to generate income including poultry farming and turning her home into a community market. Soon it became clear that life in El Salvador wouldn’t be sustainable for them & their four growing children, so when the opportunity came for a family friend to connect one parent with the opportunity to migrate to the United States, they knew it was one they couldn’t afford to miss. My mother, being the oldest, was asked to decide which parent would be best suited to make this journey. For a varying number of reasons, (some surely branching from the cautionary tales of fathers who left their families with the intention of caring for them financially abroad, then deciding it would be easier to begin again with a family of their own in the United States) my mother settled on having my grandmother lead this transition. In turn, she would take on the newly vacant role as head of the household to care for her father and siblings, the youngest less than a year old. I was in awe of the valiant efforts of both my mother and grandmother as I learned of the lengths they went to carry out their roles. What I then idealized as defiant acts of feminism truly originated from reactions to the burns of tyrannical systems. They balanced the physical and emotional labor of these decisions not despite the closely bound relationship between capitalism and patriarchy, but because of it.
My efforts to hold onto this feminist interpretation may have been in part fueled by the desire to overlook the contradictory forces that rule through the omission of how these experiences truly impacted them. Styled by the promise of shared intimacy, many BIPOC families uphold the belief that emotionally-charged experiences are meant to be kept to oneself. Households deem reexaminations of the past unimportant, and at their worst, intrusive. To maintain respect means to mind one’s business, avoid sharing any deeply personal information, and to never ask questions. Deviation from these norms is marked as suspect and potentially dangerous to the nurturing of a lasting connection with their tradition-centering kin. Growing up in a working-class Southern Black Christian home, scholar bell hooks spent much of her career speaking candidly about the effects that such markers might have on the “rogue inquirer”. In her essay on the class and politics of confessional writing she shares, “neither of my parents attended college. They have not had the experience of writing about their lives, or even speaking much about their lives in any unfamiliar setting… At times I fear that my parents will read something I have written about our family and excommunicate me forever.” Their anticipated reaction serves as a reflection of the history of carceral punishments placed on BIPOC individuals “caught” for behaving in ways deemed shameful or immoral by larger society. The rightfully placed distrust in anything holding detectable markers of surveillance capitalism has harmed the BIPOC family’s relationship to documentation, which, if not actively circumvented, can lead to proliferation of intergenerational trauma and distancing from a future where generations can heal and can instead channel their mental energies towards breaking down the systems where the conflict first emerged. Generations are built in the United States, expected to thrive off a foundation of secrecy that can only hold so much before they - or we - crumble along with it. We need to reclaim the power of documenting as narratives of resistance, where mistakes are named as such and acts of communicable healing are embraced by both story-teller and scribe.
Long before documentation was made accessible through writing, film, pictures, audio recording, and advanced word-to-text features, oral stories ruled the domain of genealogy. Characterized by their personal and flexible nature, oral stories offer an avenue for illiterate members of societies to partake in creative expression. As an illiterate elder, my grandfather stands apart from the rest of my family by welcoming interest in his past & story-telling abilities. His expressive nature and dismissal for the status quo allows him to hold a vital role in the creation of our family archive. I learned the most about my family on summer afternoons where I took notes as my grandfather narrated the epics of his past. He took me on nostalgic waves where he jeered at his own naivety, lost himself in a bliss of peace, and flinched at the unexpected tenderness of an event that took place decades earlier. Afterwards, I’d sit with my mother and share the highlights of his adventurous stories, to which she’d reply, “No… No es cierto,” fully confident she had a more accurate interpretation of things. Her hesitancy to believe him represented much wider criticisms surrounding the apparent “mischief” of unreliable narrators. Always the first to start sharing a story, always the first to be caught stretching the truth. However, the Latin
American genre of testimonio accepts the potential manipulation of information for its ability to convey the narrator’s stream-of-consciousness and personal takeaways. Testimonios make the story-teller the key
sponsor in the creation of this account, the record-keeper and listeners are turned mere witnesses of the story-teller’s ability to give narrative form to complex situations and oppressive experiences. So I believed my grandfather when he described living through the Salvadoran Civil War, seeing beating hearts while on a walk, and unable to sleep because of la llorona’s distant wails. Taking an investigative approach, my thirst for more information gave him the confidence needed for these stories to breakaway from traditional expectations and flourish.
One of my favorite words in Spanish is desahogar, which serves to explain the process of venting out one’s emotions. The literal translation of desahogar is “undrown”, an interpretation that I prefer due to the portrait of interdependent salvation it conjures in my mind. Someone drowning out in the depth of the sea then noticing another person, laid on their back, and being encouraged to follow suit so they can finally take a breath. This is how I view conversations with my older family members, and what motivates me to ask for these conversations to take place more often. Each exchange becomes an instrument of illumination that can guide me towards a path that doesn’t perpetuate harm. I work with the raw material of their stories to make sense of my own life. After revisiting a recording of a conversation, my own practice of reflection takes place. Sometimes in the form of confessional writing that searches for reconciliation of past events, or in a note where I thank them for their vulnerability and the peace their story has given me. I’m left feeling closer not only with my elders, but with the rising generation that will come into the picture with even more questions. This chance to share an affinity with your life-long allies emboldens me to preach for others - especially my BIPOC first gen peers - to do the same.
In times where stories are extracted to be sent off to university review boards, all too willing to decry the amount of “sob” they receive, and easily placed in a list titled rejection, it becomes increasingly important to reclaim the power of documentation. Document to learn. Document to understand. Document to survive. Document to desahogar, and lift our kin out of the pull of waves, and onto shore where we can finally land on our feet.
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