The Island: Recovering Self, Culture and Place Through Plant Medicine

This post originally appeared on Chacruna.net.

Top Image: Coast of Arecibo, Puerto Rico. Photo credit: Gerard Artesona

I am a US Citizen of Puerto Rican descent, and have bloodlines tracing back to Cuba. I mainly identify as Puerto Rican, and I first set my feet upon this earth on the Fort Bragg Army Base in North Carolina.

My family and I relocated to another outpost in Germany where we lived for 4 years. We found ourselves in Delaware after that, where I, to date, have lived out most of my life. I left at the age of 24.

As a youth, I did not have a strong sense of connection to my ancestry, and nor did I feel much connection with others around me. I experienced overt and subtle racism on a daily basis and, due to being easily mistaken for Middle Eastern or Southern Asian, I did not readily find acceptance among other Puerto Ricans that I met.

We gathered with family throughout the year, though our language, food, and customs were quite different from those in my peer group. They, in effect, furthered my sense of alienation.

The different challenges I faced in the home and community shaped the way I saw myself and the world.

My parents still carried wounds from their upbringings, and such was true for their parents, leaving me with an inheritance of internal and external dysfunction. As a result, I developed an internalized sense of exclusion, along with severe depression and social anxiety. 

I began to intensely abuse cannabis, which only made things much worse. Understandably so, these formative years have left me with plenty of knots to untie and, so it seemed, few resources to do so.

It seemed unlikely that anything like ayahuasca would have ever played a role in my life. It was completely unknown in Delaware. My own family had a history of alcoholism and drug addiction and held overall conservative views regarding substances and spirituality.

History of Santeria and Espiritismo

Though not much talked about, there exists a history of Santeria and Espiritismo in my family as recent as my grandparent’s generation.  This, though, has been looked down upon by the rest of my family, as it was perceived as frightening and strange, and as something which could endanger the spirit.

I first encountered the sacred vine within the pages of Terence McKenna’s Food of the Gods. This text was completely transformative for me, as it offered a novel view of substances in addition to a context for understanding entheogenic experiences, of which I was still naïve to at the time.

The descriptions of ayahuasca in the book fascinated me. I intuited at the time that it would be the one that would “take me where I want to go.”

At the age of 19, I had my first glimpse of the healing potential of entheogens. Through what seemed to be a chance connection, I stumbled upon 5-MEO-MIPT; an obscure and powerful research chemical. Under its influence, I found that my sense of guardedness towards others dropped and that my own internal dialogue was less self-critical.

I observed changes in my self-opinion and view of the world afterward. On one occasion, I traversed into a realm that was more shamanic than anything else.

It seeded within me an interest in traditional healing and spirituality and impacted the way I understood the human psyche, ultimately propelling me to pursue graduate studies in transpersonal psychology.

I relocated to California to seek my master’s degree and life radically different from what I had previously known­. It was here that I had my first experience with ayahuasca at the age of 25 when I met a woman with an indescribably distinct energy. I spoke to her the second time I saw her and I shared a little about my studies and interest in traditional healing.

The air stood still when she asked me if I had heard of ayahuasca. I listened attentively as she detailed her experiences with a shaman from Ecuador, mentioning that he was currently visiting the area.

My interest grew with every word, and she extended an invitation to a ceremony happening that weekend. I was much too excited to be nervous.

The ceremony itself was both profound and gentle and confirmed my previous intuition. I became a regular drinker shortly thereafter, and its presence in my life has helped me to facilitate a deep and ongoing healing process.

Act of Taking Ayahuasca

It hasn’t simply been the act of taking ayahuasca that has helped me to resolve some personal issues; it has rather been following through with the suggestions received in the ceremony that have led me to change my lifestyle and views.

My post-ceremony “homework” has included healing relations with my family, quitting my excessive cannabis habit, challenging personal fears, and taking more responsibility in my life.

In my late 20s, part of it included a visit to Puerto Rico with the purpose of reconnecting to my ancestry.  My time there was precious. While there, I reacquainted myself with a grandmother who I had not seen for 14 years, made new friends, and eventually encountered a proper ayahuasquero.

He knew the island quite well from the perspective of a local, but also from the perspective of a person who has dedicated their life to understanding their ancestral connection to place.

As mixed-race people, most Puerto Ricans carry blood from our indigenous Taino ancestors. Puerto Ricans today recognize this as an important part of their cultural heritage, and some even readily identify as Taino.

This ancestral tie is shared by those from the islands of Cuba, The Bahamas, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and the Lesser Antilles. The Taino settled across these islands after departing from Venezuela and Colombia.

Inspired Travel History Across South America

Their history inspired my friend to travel across South America in the 1970s. He spent time there immersed among different tribes across the Andes and the jungle, stirring the sediment of his unconscious as he learned their languages and cultural practices. Before him, he saw traces of his own ancestry; powerful reflections of dormant ancient memories.

The ingestion of plant medicine in ceremony played a role in the reclamation of his identity as Taino, though he never encountered ayahuasca until it was brought to Puerto Rico by an indigenous elder in the 1990s­­.

His initial experiences with plant medicine were frightening, though he nonetheless showed a great willingness to help the elder each time he visited.

This modest connection led to an apprenticeship role that lasted until the elder one day announced that he would no longer be visiting the island, leaving my friend to fill the gap. He assumed the role reluctantly.

The time I spent with him and his family helped me to renew my relationship with my culture, and the ceremonies added an immeasurable level of depth to this. I participated in them regularly and, bit by bit gained an understanding of my ancestry and identity as a Puerto Rican.

I felt supported in each ceremony by the community and re-encountered myself within my culture in a deep and loving way. My sense of disconnection resolved, and I finally felt recognition and acceptance from my own people.

I felt this too from the very land itself. It knew that I was alive upon it and I knew that it was alive within me.

I had underestimated the importance of having a plant medicine sense of connection to the place. Spending time there, I came to see the island as my predecessors had seen it, and it became deeply endeared to my heart. A huge piece of myself was recovered.

Puerto Rico and Puerto Rican were no longer intellectual conceptions; they have rather felt truths that formed my identity and, at this point, are inextricable from who I am today.

I knew that there were others who held such a profound connection to ancestry and place, and my long-held aspirations to learn and share with them led me to do my own travels to South America.

Since then, I have visited remote places on that continent to do just that. I felt that there was something more I could learn to help me heal and continue cultivating this connection within myself, much as my friend in Puerto Rico had.

My excitement overshadowed my unease once more as I boarded many small aircraft and boats in questionable condition, as such was necessary to reach my intended destinations. Thankfully, my passages have been without incident, though they have nourished me with plenty of interesting moments.

Traveling By River In Peru

On one occasion, while traveling by river in Peru, I was informally made the “punters” of our canoe when the captain’s son literally jumped off as we were leaving. He had suddenly decided to stay in town.

His duty as punters was to warn the person navigating the boat of all obstacles in the water, such as submerged rocks, logs, dangerous currents, and more. To say the least, I never knew that I could correctly read the ripples on the surface of the water until that very moment!

We landed on shore safely a few hours later, though there was still farther to go. It was a bit of a trek from the water’s edge to reach this elder’s encampment, and though I had been there a year prior, I had no guide with me this time.

The trails were in poor condition, leaving me to navigate my way there based on a memory of the encampment’s general direction. Despite getting lost a few times, I managed to arrive there intact, stumbling through a few adjacent properties along the way.

However, the local residents were kind to me, and one even ferried me across a stagnant murky stream.

In a place, this remote, the boundaries between you and the natural world are practically nonexistent. Though many of us have forgotten, nature is our proper origin, and here, little stood between me and my verdant precursor.

The encampment itself lacked the basic amenities that we modern people take for granted. As such, there was little distraction from the vibrant surrounding forest. It set the space for some deep work in ceremony and diet in which I came to understand more about myself and my challenges.

The birds and insects provided a soundtrack to moments that both shook my soul and illuminated it.

In the best way possible, I have not been the same since initiating my journey with ayahuasca. It did indeed take me where I wanted to go, which, in turn, brought me closer to myself and my culture. Ayahuasca took me to its source and its culture, and I am ever grateful for the exchange.

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