Vanessa Borjon is Bitch Media’s 2017 Writing Fellow in Reproductive Rights and Justice
When I was younger and my family was in between houses, we lived with my grandparents. There, my grandmother instilled in my sisters and me rituals and practices she learned growing up in Mexico, and then later, as an immigrant to the United States. These ranged from reusing food containers (the Royal Dansk cookie tin that stored sewing supplies, the butter container filled with salsa roja), to mixing the last of a disinfectant soap with water to get more a few more washes. Growing up in her small rancho in Zacatecas, my grandmother did not have access to many modern menstrual products, much less the Midol and Lunapads that are now staples of young women’s coming of age.
One night after I first started my cycle, my grandmother came into the bedroom I shared with my sister holding tortillas she had warmed on the stove. She instructed me to lay down and placed a circular cloth tortilla warmer on my lower abdomen in place of a heating pad. Short on money and access, she and the women before her were inventive, resourceful, and inadvertantly eco-conscious in their use of washable menstrual rags, cramp-soothing concoctions, massage, and more.
Such noncommercialized ways of thinking about and treating ailments are what La Loba Loca refers to as “abuelita knowledge.” The self-described “Queer, Chocolla, Andina, South American migrant, artist, researcher, writer, handpoke tattooist, full spectrum companion/doula, aspiring midwife student, seed-saver, gardener, and yerbetera” is dedicated to preserving and sharing this knowledge as a political and social practice.
Indeed, many black and brown young folks learn through abuelita knowledge passed down generationally well before they’re indoctrinated with the Westernized perspectives and conventional wisdom about reproductive health that are part of the menstruation-industrial complex. These include menstrual products that are expensive, wasteful, and toxic to the body and a Westernized birthing industry that scoffs at and forbids Indigenous birthing practices—to say nothing of a larger culture that shames immigrant communities and their inventive methods of treating illness and pain, like my grandmother’s tortilla technique. Through community activism in their home of Los Angeles and online knowledge shares that reach participants globally, La Loba is making space for people to strengthen communities, and elevating young folks who rely on abuelita knowledge to take care of themselves.
Although there are undoubtedly other yerbeteras, brujas, and healers in communities across the nation who are actively resisting white/Eurocentric ways of healing and treating reproductive health, La Loba Loca is a central figure in making this movement more mainstream and accessible to communities of color displaced by gentrification or other effects of white supremacy, who are often left without access to moon circles or community shares of resources like handsewn menstrual pads or essential oils and teas. La Loba Loca responds to this by offering “Rad Menstruation” webinars, plant and medicine seedlingships (seed swaps), and a radical and conscious mooning knowledge share (“mooning” is another word for a menstrual cycle). Although there are fees to participate, La Loba also offers scholarships on a need basis, and they often travel to other parts of the United States, holding seedling swaps and other service exchanges with black and brown communities to pass on the hand-me-down traditions of immigrant and working-class communities. La Loba’s focus is educating folks who are often left out of reproductive-health conversations.
But in a technology-based age, we can’t survive on abuelita knowledge alone. There have been other avenues for folks to start advocating for their own and each other’s reproductive health that go against the Westernized grain. Buzzfeed’s spin-off channel, Pero Like, has released videos about periods that help normalize conversations around cycles through a Latino lens. Will abuelita knowledge, which a lot of us hold as sacred, become commodified by Buzzfeed? At what cost does representation in media (especially in an industry like Youtube) come? Will the earnest-yet-humble habits of our grandmothers become tropes in the end? How can outlets like Buzzfeed, which align themselves as allies to marginalized communities through culture-specific channels, find a way to make abuelita knowledge accessible without co-opting it?