|Running…past PTSD or my susto profundo
November 7th marked 30 years since I won my first police brutality trial
in East L.A. in 1979. After all these years, I have now come to
understand the meaning of resilience. Equally important, I now have
come to understand something that always eluded me; the knowledge that
the attempt to silence me – was an act of political violence.
I’m not sure why this knowledge eluded me. Perhaps it was because all
these years, people would always ask me if my skull had been cracked
by Sheriff’s deputies during the 1970 protest against the war in East
L.A. No, I would always reply, with a sense of guilt; it happened
while covering cruising on Whittier Blvd. on the opening night of the
movie Boulevard Nights.
It became political when while photographing the beating of a young
Mexican man – the officers then turned on me. They then charged me
with attempting to kill 4 officers – with my camera. All told, my life
was threatened and I was subsequently arrested, detained or harassed
some 60 times.
About 5 years ago, I was invited to be a part of a group of survivors
of torture and political violence. It was the most powerful and
healing thing I’ve ever done. And yet, I felt I didn’t belong because
all the other members were from outside of the country.
“What they did to you is what they to do to us in our countries.” That
was the consensus of the survivors, insisting that I did belong there.
That perhaps is when I began to contextualize what happens in the
inner city, barrios and reservations in this country: political
violence, corruption and lawlessness happens “out there,” in Third
World countries, never here. That’s conventional wisdom. But it
doesn’t explain why this nation operates the largest prison system in
the world, filled primarily with people of color. It doesn’t explain
why the vast majority of victims of law enforcement abuse are people
Not coincidentally, I am celebrating Nov 7, as opposed to that earlier
date in March, because that’s what I want to commemorate; my victory,
not my near-death nor trauma.
This journey can be best appreciated by survivors of traumatic brain
injury, and Post Trauamatic Stress Disorder, or as I refer to it:
susto profundo. It can also be appreciated by those who have dedicated
their lives to treating those like me – whether they come from Asia,
Africa or East L.A. – or anywhere else where human beings are
I could recount the chilling details of what happened to me 30 years
ago, but what I have finally learned is that it is both unnecessary
and harmful to the spirit; survivors of torture or political violence
generally, should give political analysis, not excruciating details.
Instead, I choose to offer a few stories. One has to do with how
running prepared me for my 1986 lawsuit. Every day I ran up and down
hills in L.A. Each day I would run further so I could be stronger than
my enemies. By the time my trial rolled around several months later, I
had become invincible: nothing or no one could defeat me. With the
courageous representation of my attorney, Antonio Rodríguez, we won.
It was an unprecedented victory primarily because I am alive (He also
represented me again six years later when we again triumphed in a
lawsuit trial in 1986).
This running came back full circle this year when around 50 young
people – including myself – ran from Tucson to Phoenix because
legislators were threatening to eliminate the teaching of ethnic
studies in Arizona. We were supported enthusiastically by our
communities and joined by the Yoeme and Otham nations. When we
reached the state capitol, the legislators were amazed that we had run
through the merciless desert in 115 degree heat. The bill was dropped,
though they promised to eliminate Raza Studies next year.
Afterwards, one of the runners commented: “We came to fight this bill,
but in the end, we came to know ourselves…” That too is what happens
when survivors fight to create a better humanity.
In all these years, one of the most rewarding things for me was
helping to heal other survivors of political violence. It took place
in Washington D.C. several years ago. I had written a column in which
I described the healing of Sister Diana Ortíz – who had been tortured
in Guatemala – with roses. While I read this column in public, my
wife, with the assistance of children of survivors, not only placed
those roses upon her body, but also, upon all those survivors who had
come to urge the U.S. government to abolish torture. Later, we also
gave the White House a spiritual limpia (cleansing) at 3 am, though
little good that did.
A psychologist in the field of trauma, Bessle Van der Kert, made an
observation several years ago; he noted that survivors heal when they
find a greater passion for something other than their trauma. For me,
this is my research on Centeotzintli or sacred maiz. It is a
many-years story, but it involves the search for origins and
migrations. At a certain point, I was told by elders from throughout
the continent: “If you want to know who you are, follow the maiz.”
That’s what I do now. In the process, I learned that the stories I had
been looking for were right in my own home… from my own parents who
are 86 and 81… the stories they had told me when I was growing up that
became the basis for my dissertation: Centeotzintli: Sacred maiz – a
7,000-year ceremonial discourse.
To be beaten is dehumanizing. To be treated as a suspect population
and to be told to go back to where you came from is violating. To be
denied one’s human rights makes us less than human. To fight for one's
rights is rehumanizing. To find one’s roots – one’s connections to
that which is most sacred on this continent – to that which is many
thousands of years old and part of one’s daily life – is affirming and
it is to find one’s humanity.
Roberto ‘Dr. Cintli’ Rodríguez, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona, can be reached at XColumn@gmail.com.