Last summer, if you had told me that I was going on a ten-day life changing trip to El Salvador, I would have assumed you drank too many pilsners. I hadn’t traveled to El Salvador in 22 years; I was so disconnected from the Salvadoran community; and, my mother, a refugee who migrated to New York in the ’80s during the Salvadoran Civil War, had begged me not to go because she worried the delegation would not be able to keep me safe (re: alive). Every time El Salvador comes up in the mainstream news, it’s never good. It’s always about death, violence and suffering. Tourists do not travel there. Many Salvadorans don’t even travel there. As a child, I had spent many summers in El Salvador and only had fond memories of my time there. Despite my beautiful Salvadoran memories, I was terrified to return after two decades.
Now, if you had also told me that I would take part in a Blood Moon Healing Circle Ceremony with 14 other Salvadorans one fateful July night in San Salvador, I would have surely told you, “Puchica vos, what you smokin’? Pass me some.”
I didn’t know what to expect in El Salvador. To be honest, I only traveled there in July 2018 because my friend was an organizer of the delegation and she told me, “Maria Jose, you have to come on this trip. Trust me.” So, I did. The delegation would be made up of all Salvadorans, and we would meet with leaders and activists in El Salvador’s current social movements. I had no idea what a delegation was and didn’t know anyone there except my college friend. Most of the delegates were born in el exterior, in the states, and a few of us had migrated as children or teens. We had come together in El Salvador from Los Angeles, San Diego, Oakland, Chicago, Boston, Washington, D.C. and New York City. Like me, some of us hadn’t stepped foot in El Salvador in years, or ever, and were also terrified.
When I arrived at our hotel in San Salvador, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that about 75% of the delegates were also queer Salvis. Most of us identified as women and/or non-binary. I had never been around so many Salvadorans my age, let alone so many queer ones. We even dubbed ourselves “The Queer Salvi Delegation.” It wasn’t long before we started asking each other our zodiac signs and discussing astrology. Queers love astrology; they go together like pupusas and curtido.
I still didn’t expect us to create a Blood Moon Healing Circle Ceremony. A healing circle wasn’t on the emailed itinerary. I had never participated in a healing circle nor was I even aware such a thing exists. Much less a thing Salvadorans did. We did dance circles at parties, sure, but a healing circle? With un monton de queer Salvis in a hotel backyard in El Salvador? Que? That was beyond my wildest expectations. Why did we even feel the need to create a healing circle?
Two words: intergenerational trauma.
Psychologists have said that Salvis are drawn to trauma bonding. The Salvadoran Civil War (1980-1992) and concentration camps at the US-Mexico border has triggered a lot of our shared intergenerational trauma. I quickly recognized my own intergenerational trauma in my mother’s voice when she had told me weeks before my trip, “Por favor, don’t go. Stay here. It’s too dangerous over there,” even though she also hadn’t returned to El Salvador in two decades.
Two weeks before my flight, I felt acute anxiety and began to secretly panic about my trip. I know now that I was feeling my mother’s trauma in my own body. I felt paralyzing fear and could barely eat the day of my flight. The fear squashed all the memories I had of El Salvador as a child — of eating mangoes verdes with alguashte with the neighborhood kids in Mejicanos, waking up every morning to a beautiful view of a volcano, ripping off and eating fruit with my cousins on our walk to school every morning, running on the beach with my family. Instead, I began to believe that there was a high probability I would die on this trip. That I would die in El Salvador. Until the delegation, I told no one about my inherited, crushing fear.
How do you begin to heal trauma and let go of fear?
Salvadoran Healing Circle Ceremony
Setting: Outdoors at night, preferably in El Salvador.
The four elements — water (rainwater or tap), earth (soil), air (feather or alternatively, burning sage), fire (lit candle)
Object that has special meaning to you
3 cups (2 glass,1 ceramic or fireproof)
Pens or pencils
Lighter or matches
Table and chairs (optional)
San Salvador, July 28, 2018
“Do we need blood?” Evette asked.
“Blood?” I chuckled.
“It is the blood moon, after all,” Gabby grinned.
“Only men’s blood,” Alejandra quipped, and the 14 of us break out in risas.
“Or menstrual,” Janel offered.
“I don’t have my period right now,” Grecia informed us.
“Me neither,” Julia shrugged.
We laughed and looked at each other, our smiles wide and shiny in the moonlight.
“Are we ready?” Scarlett asked once we all caught our breath. She held a sage stick in one hand and a lighter in the other.
We nodded. We were ready.
Protect and Cleanse the Circle With Sage
The 14 of us walked onto the grass of our hotel’s backyard. We stood in silence and watched Scarlett flick the lighter and hold the flame to the sage. One by one, we outstretched our arms when it was our turn for Scarlett to sage us. She traced the outlines of our brown arms, legs and heads in small circles. The burning sage’s fumes cleansed us, and we needed to be cleansed before entering the healing circle. When Scarlett got to me, I watched as the grey smoke swirled and danced around my body. It looked mystical. Suddenly, I felt mystical too.
After saging, we formed a circle counter-clockwise around a plastic table near the pool. The 14 plastic chairs were still slick with rain that fell the hour before. Two hours before, we had done yoga in the grass together. It felt like poetry come to life as I lay in the grass and glimpsed the lightning cut across the night sky, signaling more rain. There was no thunder, just the sound of my breathing, the breathing of my compas and the Salvadoran breeze. It was all so beautiful, I felt ashamed for ever feeling like this place wanted to kill me. I wiped the rain droplets from my chair and took my place in the healing circle.
Gather The Four Elements – Water, Earth, Air, Fire
For the element of water, Melli brought a glass full of rainwater. She had left the glass cup outside to collect rain water when it had started to rain after yoga. A pink flower floated at the top, one she had picked with love from the backyard’s garden.
For the element of earth, Balmore kneeled down and filled the second tall glass with tierra also from the backyard, his fingers softly patted down the soil into the cup.
For the element of air, we couldn’t find a feather so we burned more sage. The fumes would suffice for air.
For the element of fire, Melli placed a long, white candle in the glass cup full of earth. We would light the candle at the end of the ceremony.
We put the four elements at the center of the table. Then we arranged ten long, white candles, face down in a circle around the elements, the wick of each candle pointed to the center. Finally, we placed our special objects on the table, bordering the candles. Our altar was complete.
Call In Your Ancestors
“We are here together on our ancestral land. We call our ancestors to the circle,” Scarlett said as we all held hands. “We call you in, and we call in your ancestral knowledge. Let us take a moment to pay respect to our ancestors and ancestral land.”
I wondered if our ancestors were floating around us, spirited to us through our call. An indigenous man we had met in Tacuba, El Salvador had told us “Cada Salvadorenx tiene una madre indigena” (Every Salvadoran has an indigenous mother). I imagined generations of my indigenous foremothers around us, in endless rows. I couldn’t see them, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t present that night. At least, I hoped they were there with the 14 of us. Looking back, I wonder how many Salvadorans were really there that night, in that hotel backyard, healing together under the moonlight.
Speak The Significance Of The Blood Moon
Gabby knew a lot about astrology, so she explained the significance of the blood moon:
“Four planets aligned with the moon last night. This moon comes at a of rebirth in Aquarius, at a time for transformation. This Aquarian full moon is also a lunar eclipse, the longest of this century, and a blood moon. The blood moon occurs when the moon passes into earth’s shadow and appears red in color. The Aquarius full moon combined with a lunar eclipse signifies an emotional peak. This moon reminds us that we are part of a larger community, of something bigger than our individual parts. This blood moon is telling us to complete a cycle, to direct ourselves to the past and reset our emotions by releasing what we no longer want to carry.”
I instantly knew what I wanted to let go of and release.
“But before we can release what no longer serves us, we must share something that is special to each of us,” Scarlett said.
Share What Is Special To You
We each shared about the object we had chosen and its special significance to us. I looked at all the objects against the tablecloth, which was a deep, vivid blue like the blue of El Salvador’s flag. There were necklaces, rings, crystals and stones, an original poem, a postcard showing a drawing of the former mural at the People’s Cathedral, tigre de ojo, lavender oil and diluted tea tree oil Bessie had shared with us to soothe our mosquito bites.
Melli began, “I put my tigre de ojo in the circle because they are my healing stones. My mama was really unsupportive of me going on the delegation because she still has a lot of trauma about violence in El Salvador. For me, the tigre de ojo is my way of appeasing her spiritually and also reassuring myself that it was the right decision to come here. Being here with all of you right now… I know I made the right decision.”
Melli went on to tell us how her mother was a survivor of the student massacre at the University of El Salvador (UES) on July 30, 1975. The military opened machine gun fire and tear gas bombs on the more than 2,000 students peacefully protesting the military occupation of their campus and state violence. No one knows exactly how many students were killed, but some estimates are in the hundreds. Other students were disappeared. Thankfully, Melli’s mama made it out alive that day. UES commemorates that day every year with a march to pay respect to the fallen students and to continue the resistance against government repression. July 30 is widely recognized as a turning point in Salvadoran history, an omen of the civil war to come.
Days after our healing circle ceremony, we would take part in the annual commemoration march of the student massacre. The march is like no protest march I have ever seen or been a part of. The march begins with a loud bomb-like sound, which is supposed to imitate the tear gas bombs that the students heard on July 30, 1975. Then, everyone in the march starts running for about a minute. And this is no light jog. More than a thousand of us sprinted down the street, protest signs and all in hand. This happens several times throughout the march’s procession. UES conducts the march this way so that we don’t forget the trauma and atrocity of that day. So that we can put ourselves in the shoes of the students that day, which is something a history book cannot teach you.
It cannot teach you the feeling of your feet desperately thumping down on the pavement, of adrenaline surging throughout your body, of you struggling to breathe. While sprinting, I kept thinking about how Melli’s mother must have felt as she ran for her life. Even thinking about it now brings me to tears. That was an emotional day for my compa, Melli, and I am grateful we were all together to process our feelings afterwards.
After Melli shared, the remaining 13 of us shared about our objects too. I had put a gold plated necklace in the circle. It was a circle and had ridges and curves in it, resembling a vagina. I called it my “pussy necklace.” I am not one to worship cis pussy-centered images, but I do like the necklace and wear it often because it reminds me of my birth. Most of us come into this world out of our mother’s pussy. The necklace is an homage to all the women who gave birth to the generations of my family, from before the Mayans to present day. To me, the necklace is a symbol of birth and survival. It’s survival that caused the mass exodus from El Salvador to the states during the civil war, resulting in Salvadorans being the second-largest Latin American group to immigrate to the U.S. (Mexicans are the largest). It’s survival that is causing the current mass exodus of so many Central American migrants to the border.
“I am happy I get to share what this necklace means to me with you all. Because we are all testaments to our families’ survival,” I said, feeling the gold ridges on the necklace with my thumb. We were together and surviving through generations of violence and trauma.
Burn And Release What No Longer Serves You And Manifest The Moon’s Energy
“On a piece of paper, write down what you want to release and let go of, like a communication to the Universe,” Scarlett told us. “This is the paper you will burn.”
I wrote the word “Fear.”
“On a second piece of paper,” Scarlett continued, “write down what you want to use the moon’s energy for, of what you want to manifest into your life. Keep this paper.”
I wrote the word “Love.”
I remember thinking how basic my answers were: Fear, which I wanted to let go of, and Love, which I wanted to manifest. What else is there, though, really, besides fear and love? My people knew both very well. I put my love papelito (little piece of paper) in my pocket and hoped the scales between fear and love would tip toward love for all Salvadorans.
We passed around the candle that stood in the glass cup of tierra, which we would use to burn these papers — to burn our traumas into ash. Each of us held the candle in our hands, some of us holding it to our chests and hearts before passing it to the next compa. Once the candle made its way back to the first person, Melli returned it to the cup. She placed it upright and softly patted down the dark brown tierra around the base of the candle, ensuring it would stand tall.
Scarlett lit the candle. One by one, we stood up and held our paper over the candle’s flame. Once it caught fire, we dropped it into a ceramic mug and collectively watched it burn. I felt the heat of the growing flame as my fingers held onto my burning piece of paper. I dropped it in the mug and we all bared witness as my “fear” papelito transformed into ash. Inside that small mug laid a pile of our ashes, of everything the 14 of us were letting go of that night. Afterward, Scarlett scattered the ashes on the ground.
End The Ceremony — Cleanse Yourself With The Water Of The Full Moon And Use The Water To Put Out The Fire
We each passed the glass full of rainwater and dipped our fingers in it. We spread the sacred full moon water on our foreheads, cheeks, chins, necks and chests. The water felt refreshing on my face, nothing like the shower of fear I had taken the night before my flight.
“I wish Mirna was here,” Jasmin said. Mirna is a women’s rights activist who, like Melli’s mama, had been at the July 30, 1975 student massacre. To escape the military’s gunfire, she had climbed and jumped off a wall, breaking her leg. She survived with the help of strangers who hid her. Her husband eventually was captured and killed. She fled to Canada and later to Costa Rica and returned to El Salvador. The government had also tortured her and she almost died three times at the hands of the military regime. We had met Mirna during the delegation and I wanted her to be with us during the healing circle too. I wish my mom had been there too, and my tia, my abuela, my brother, my cousins and all our families.
“Thank you, everyone. Thank you, ancestors. I will never forget what we shared tonight,” Scarlett said and we all whispered thanks to each other. “Remember what you want to manifest,” and with that, Scarlett blew out the candle.
After the ceremony, we got our bathing suits and jumped into the pool. Some of us left our crystals by the edge of the pool to charge under the moonlight. We told each other the story of La Siguanaba and other cuentos folklóricos late into the night.
Janel told us a cuento her abuela had told her as a child. It was a cuento with the lesson of don’t be doing random favors without knowing what you’re getting yourself into.
“It begins with a woman en el pueblo who sees a parade,” Janel leaned forward.
“Was it Pride?” Evette asked and we all laughed.
“No, I’m gonna take an educated guess and say it wasn’t Pride,” Janel smiled. “After the parade, a man in a suit knocked on her door and presented the woman with a box. He asked her to keep the box for him and that he’d be back in a year to retrieve it. After he left, she opened it and found a femur — un hueso de la pierna del hombre. It was the man’s femur.
“A bone! What the—,” we were all spooked, imagining a femur in a box.
“When she saw the bone, she realized that the parade had been a parade of dead people! The man had taken off his leg bone and given it to her. Desesperada, she went to her friend and told her what had happened. The friend warned her that the dead man would come back at next year’s parade and take her away with him for opening the box. The woman freaked out.”
“She was probably like, ‘Damn yo, I fucked up,'” Eric laughed about what the metiche woman probably said to her friend.
“Yes!” Janel continued, “So she was like, ‘Shit, help a girl out. What should I do?’ And her friend instructed her, ‘When the dead parade returns next year, you need to disguise yourself, get a newborn baby and lock your door.'”
“Why a newborn baby?” Efra asked.
“I don’t know, but something about how a newborn baby signifies birth and life, and the bone means death,” Janel answered. “So to combat death, she followed her friend’s instructions. When the dead parade came back the next year, the woman disguised herself in men’s clothes and borrowed a newborn baby from the town. Then she hid away in the crowd outside of the parade and stood stiff all plantada sin mover, scared as she watched the dead man look for her, but he couldn’t find her.”
“So, she survived?” Alex asked.
“Yes,” Janel reassured us. “She had to hide to survive… like our ancestors. There is so much history and trauma all in our stories!”
“Oh my god, y’all. Our ancestors are speaking to us right now. We called them in during the ceremony. They want us to tell each other these stories,” Melli smiled.
To which we simultaneously responded with oooh’s and eyyyy’s. To me, this was irrefutable proof that our ancestors had answered our call to join our healing circle. Our ancestors and parents had to hide, fight and migrate to escape death during war and indigenous genocide. Like a guerrillero knocking on your door or a soldado coming after you, many Salvadorans were couldn’t stay out of the conflict or line of fire even if they tried — inevitably, danger will come a-knocking like the femur-less man in the cuento.
The healing circle and delegation trip taught me that even though Salvadorans have a history of suffering and are still suffering, we also have a history of resistance. Today, the people are fighting against neoliberal agendas and to protect the right to water. Salvadorans have a saying that goes, “La lucha is larga” (The struggle is long), and I would like to add that healing is long too. Struggle and healing go hand in hand, across borders, generations and stories passed down to us.
Healing cannot be done alone. It must be done in community. That night, I released my fear with my compas by my side and let El Salvador into my heart again. What we created that night in San Salvador between the 14 of us, queer and straight, would prove to be one of the most powerful, radical and spiritual experiences of my life. A year later, we still talk about that night. None of us will ever forget it. So many people treat healing as an individual endeavor, but healing cannot be done alone. It must be done in community. It cannot be done devoid of politics. All healing and all travel to Central America is political, whether you realize it or not. I’m proud to be part of the Salvadoran community and experience. I’m proud to be Salvadoran.
And I’m not the only one.🗺️
Edited by Heather.