Caro Acuña is a dear old friend of mine. We met while working at a nonprofit in Berkeley. I was 22 and pretty confused about life. She was 30 something, and she struck me as having more wisdom and heart than just about anyone I’d met.
One afternoon I asked for her help with a troublesome relationship. She sat down with me in the shade of a tree, and taught me the concept of emotional boundaries. It was a revelation.
I couldn’t get enough of her. Still can’t.
And over the years, she has come to embody for me the dance between personal healing and personal responsibility, and compassion and truth. So I wanted to hear her thoughts on social change and activism.
What arose from our conversation was her journey from trauma to healing and strength, and passion for social change -- all grounded in unconditional love. Below is a transcript of our conversation, which I edited for clarity and flow.*
This is a long post, more than 4000 words. But it’s well worth the read.
We spoke about:
Her work with incarcerated youth
The tragic police murder of her Goddaughter, which fed her passion for restorative justice
Her pilgrimage that traced the roots of violence and domination in Europe and the Americas
How our unconscious intentions, locked in place by traumas big and small, can trip up our work for social justice
How being a ceremonial dancer informs her activism
Caro begins by talking, very briefly, about her traumatic youth. Skip the next paragraph if you want to avoid reading about it.
**Trigger warning starts**
Caro: I was basically raped and molested by my mother's husband for about eight years of my childhood.
**End of trigger warning**
And I had to go back into my subconscious and understand, and remember what happened, and dig to those forgotten places of, "oh, shit, that happened too?!" And recognize the truth of all that I had endured all those years.
And unraveling all of that allowed me to have compassion for myself. And then that organically unfolded into me having compassion for the man who did this to me for eight years. And to have compassion for my mother and understanding why she couldn't protect me. You know, why she didn't see it happen, why she just blindly allowed it to happen. Or why she betrayed me once she knew what had happened.
And so to see both of these people who brought great trauma into my life, and to have compassion for them, meant that I had to dig deep a few layers down, like digging in my archaeological site. To have compassion for myself first. And then that allowed me to come to an organic realization of compassion for them. And to come to a place of, “wow...
“...I could see why my mother made this decision.”
And I could see why he turned out to be the kind of man that he was.
I had to go to that place of recognizing the trauma. To recognize it, and to unravel it.
Me: I'm wondering if there's a connection between your compassion for your mom and stepfather, and your passion for restorative justice.
Caro: Yeah. I mean, it all starts with the self. It starts with the self.
You know, we can all get caught up in all kinds of obsessions about anything. I'm obsessing about police brutality, and obsessing, obsessing, obsessing, and I'm a big part of this movement, and I'm going to go to that march, and I'm gonna do this, I'm gonna do that.
“Well, you know, what about you felt that you were brutalized?”
Or was there brutality in your life? Is there brutality in your life? Is there inner brutality? Did you witness brutality?
You know? Not to say, “don’t do the police brutality work,” but to also use that as an opportunity to look at myself. Asking, "What's driving my life?"
What's driving why I wake up every day and do this, that, and the other? And how do I use that driving force not only for work against police brutality, for example, but how do I use a lot of that energy to dig into myself? To undo myself about that.
Even with a lot of the youth that I worked with on the streets [in Albuquerque, NM], I really came to this place of --
“I would do anything for them, and I did.”
You know, "you need money, I'll give you money. You need this, I'll do that."
And I had to think about, what is driving me with this work? What is it? Am I driven by trauma? And I had to dig past that to go to a place of deeper intention with that work. Especially with that particular age group, you know?
Me: Can you give a little context about that work?
Caro: So I was hired through the New Mexico Jazz Workshop to teach songwriting, song composition and beat making to incarcerated youth. So I had them write about their stories, or put it into a rap or put it into a song, and then how to build a song, how to use drum beats, how to layer music.
Anyway, I met a lot of young men and women in that program, and then there was a program for them once they got out, and I would go teach there too.
And so when a lot of these kids got released, they contacted me, you know? To help them with, whatever. You know, I think they saw me as a role model. And I in turn saw that I have a gift for working with this particular population of youth.
So through song-writing, there's a lot of conversation about what has happened to them. And you're seeing them on a weekly basis, "yeah, I'm going to get out this day, and I'm going to be going to a group home... or I'm going to be doing this... I'm going to be doing that...." And they were able to contact me once they were released.
And so, you know, I organically started mentoring and helping out a good handful of them. I would say there were about six of them that I was in contact with after they got out. And I had shown up in and out of their lives for quite a long time.
One girl, for instance, wanted me to be there when her baby was born. And I would check in to see how she’s doing. And I tried to get her some jobs, and hook her up with the right people.
So I did that a lot, and just hung out with them. And there was a way in which they trusted me. And I felt really honored that they even trusted me, or allowed me into their lives. So that's the group that I was working with.
“And Mary was one of them.”
You know, they don't always want to accept homes when you offer them. They often don't want to bother people.
So Mary was homeless off and on, sometimes she stayed with me, sometimes she didn't. Anyways, that relationship is a story in of itself.
But she was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and she was murdered by the Albuquerque Police Department. And they had said that she had a gun and therefore they pulled out their weapons and they shot her six times. **
“And when that happened that really just broke me.”
You know, I've been through a lot of different losses. My mother and my grandmother were two big ones in my life. And I have definitely been transformed by all of those. And those were expected losses, and I knew that they were dying.
But when Mary was murdered, I was just thrown. I was just a mess, just like a mess. I would say to some degree, I lost -- it’s the only time that I lost some sort of faith. My spirituality. And I wouldn't say like completely, obviously. But something happened….
I was the only person that spoke about her and for her when she was murdered. Her adoptive family… she wasn't in contact with them, with the exception of her sister.
And I did not want her to go down in the media as a throwaway kid.
Somebody with no life, no face. I wanted people to know that the police officer murdered a child who had a life, who had graduated from high school, who was intelligent, who was loving.
And so that was my job. That was what I needed to do in the first month or so of her murder. And I went through a grieving process as well. And still do. Still.
And of course, people were like, you know, "He needs to be murdered! The man who killed her needs to be murdered. He needs this, he needs that."
“I definitely didn't want to sign up for that.”
I wanted there to be more of a process…. In a good world or a world that I would like to see, I would have liked for the officer to have been summoned, to be put in a room with all of her community. And for all of her community to voice their loss to him. And for his son to be present for that. And for the other officers to be present for that.
And that he had to do that. And he had to hear who she was, no matter how many days it took. To hopefully strike some break in his heart, and some kind of remorse. For who this young child was that he murdered.
And to me, that would have felt like restorative justice.
To me, he is a very sick individual who -- I have some compassion for people in the world who believe the things that he believes. That he feels it's OK to walk around the streets and harass young girls. And he has a deep suffering in the world as a human being that I would never want to have.
“So I also have compassion for him. Because this world has made some very ugly people.”
And this world does not offer a way out, or a different kind of way for people to live.
So in a good world, I would have wanted that process to happen. But I think for a lot of different reasons, that's kind of impossible.
I tried to make a restorative justice process happen with some interfaith groups. And I kept coming up against walls because I have no normal legal relationship with Mary.
There was nothing I could do as her Godmother, or a person that knew her, or a person that loved her. There were no legal rights that I had for any of that. Which devastated me even more.
All of my options at the time were to keep acknowledging who she was, and to keep her voice and who she was alive. And to honor her life in a way that I think she would like to be honored.
But my frustration is about this whole thing that we on planet Earth, we haven't figured out how to look at restorative justice or authentic justice or true deep justice. We throw people in jail, or we have killed them, or we put them on death row or...
“...we do all these things that don’t really help the human species move forward more and to heal more.”
And I know that it has been done before on the planet.
**Trigger warning starts
I know I have been in a place to forgive the man who raped me for so many years. To sit across from him, be his friend again, to be in a family with him again, to forgive him, to have compassion for him, that I believe that it's possible.
**Trigger warning ends
And we haven't given any kind of truth and reconciliation institutions or processes like these a chance. And I felt very frustrated by that in her death. You know it's like, where do we go for this? There's no place to go for this. What do we do for this, you know?
How do we not dehumanize him? How do we bring him into a room, so he can understand on a deeper level what he really did to this woman? And how it affected her community? Where is that?
Me: So that’s what led you to make the Truth and Reclamation Pilgrimage?
Caro: Well 24 years ago when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, there were all these women going to all these different parts of the world and walking to the top of Mt Fuji for breast cancer and this and that, and I just couldn't ever in no way afford anything like that.
But I always wanted to walk in something like that. I've always been drawn to just walking the planet. In that way of intention and prayer and activism. So that's always been there.
I think the thing that happened with Mary, and the fact that I had no legal rights to anything…. kind of fed into the fact that I was already going to go to Spain. And this vision came to me about walking.
“It was a vision that came to me on one of those red moons.”
So all these things happened at the same time. I was going to Europe for many reasons. One which included Mary, just getting out of Albuquerque, taking some space and time for myself. And I was in my 49th year, and I wanted to do my 49th year in this specific kind of way.
So it all came together where I hit so many walls with trying create a restorative justice process in Mary’s name. And all of the murders that happened with police in general, for black men in this country, and for black people, and just one thing after another.
It's just, it's a lot, you know? And I've always been very drawn to the truth and reconciliation process. And as part of my 49th year, I was like, “OK, what is the next thing, and how am I going to do this next thing in my life?”
So this has always been there, and so has walking. It all kind of came to this pilgrimage.
And the first time I went to Spain, I saw there were a lot of monuments to Christopher Columbus.
And I wanted to look at the violence here in the US, and go back to the roots of the violence in my own life, and how colonialism, how all of that has affected all of our lives in countless ways.
And because I understand the possibilities and healing that can come from a truth and reconciliation process, a reclamation process, around the history of violence in this country. So this pilgrimage is about going back to the roots of mass violence in the United States of America, and in the Americas in general.
“How did we become this way? Where did it come from?”
And I'm not saying that indigenous tribes were peaceful with each other either. I'm not saying that. But the grandiosity of violence that came with the Columbus voyages, and forward. It wasn't seen in this part of the world on that scale.
And how do we begin to have a truth and reconciliation process to heal that? Because I don't think it’s been given enough weight and attention because it's a very feminine way of dealing with conflict. And I'm not saying it's a very female way. It's a very feminine way of dealing with conflict.
Of having compassion for the person who has hurt you the most, you know? To have a place for those stories to be told.
And what an apology actually does to every cell in your body. What it sounds like when somebody says, “I recognize that I have completely destroyed your spirit by this act.” What an acknowledgment and an "I'm sorry" can do to an individual person and to groups of people.
Because what it does to me is it lets the guard down. You know? It lets the guard down to a place of "oh shit, they're not coming at us. They're actually going to acknowledge me. They're going to acknowledge that these barbaric acts have happened for generations.”
That is different than, "you did this thing wrong. You're going to pay for it. We want you to die in equal numbers as we have." That is not that place I want to go to.
I want to go where there is healing in it for everybody involved. Whether it's, you know, the Catholic priests, however that healing happens.
Where are the forums for us to have that kind of justice in the world and for our children to witness this very effeminate act of,
“'Let's just talk about the shit that happened.'”
Let's acknowledge it and let's figure out where to go to from there.
And let's stop praising barbarism. And putting up monuments of people who have brought terrible things to different parts of the world. Start with those things.
If in my lifetime, we can start to see this start to happen, on an international level, that we have a place to go for all the people who lost their Marys.
For a sense of, "I got to say the thing to you that I needed to say to you, because you murdered my son, and you murdered my daughter.”
That's the reason for this pilgrimage. And it has to do with Mary.
Me: Given the way you give your whole self, physically, emotionally and spiritually, to everything you do -- What do you think about how we tend to frame social justice work as sacrifice and struggle? Especially within the larger American culture of work.
Caro: That is definitely tied to the ways we tend to think about spirituality and religion. You know what I mean? To sacrifice myself, to give totally of myself, for something bigger than myself. For something larger.
And I have done that myself. I'm a ceremonial dancer. So I've definitely put myself in a position where I haven't eaten.
I don't eat for four days, I dance in the sun in the middle of the dessert, and drink no water for all the four days we're dancing. I give of myself and pray in that way, in that particular ceremony, for that specific purpose, right?
And that way of giving of yourself needs to be held in something.
“We call it ‘holding the form.’”
You know, we tend to think, "There are other people struggling in the world, so I'm going to struggle too. I'm not going to eat until everybody eats."
And that can really drain you and burn you out, if it's not held with intention. And you might forget the reason you are doing what you're doing.
And I'm not saying that can't happen, because I've definitely prayed in that way. My prayers of being a ceremonial dancer and whatever I bring into that ceremony is about all of these things that we're trying to change and move in the world, and in myself.
But it’s also about continuing to learn the self-care piece.
“Because you can use anything, including spirituality and activism, to run from yourself. Anything.”
Religion, work, alcohol, you can use anything to run from yourself.
Me: And self-care means not running from yourself, but being honest with yourself. With compassion.
Caro: Yeah. I'm such a ritualist, and I'm a person who puts pretty deep intention into most things that I do in my life. I'm not saying everything, but most things that have that importance to my body, myself, my family, my community, in the world.
And if I am going to be in that place of fasting, in that place of giving of myself totally in my body…. For instance, with the pilgrimage, I had to really ask myself several times, and be honest with myself, if part of this is about the ego. “Is there ego involved? How much is it involved?”
You know, I'm always doing that. I'm always asking myself that question. Because if I’m going to give of myself in that way, then there is a form in which it needs to be held in. You know? Rather than, "this is the way I live daily."
Me: And with ceremony, there is a chief, and a community and a place in which that kind of giving of yourself is being held. And there are many of you, holding the intention of that ceremony.
Caro: Yeah. Because if I'm a ceremonial dancer, the form is being held by the chief, I already know it. It's a ceremony, a very old ceremony, so I know that there are many different chiefs, that a chief is holding the fire, is in charge of the water, another chief is in charge of the dancers, and those people are there specifically for that purpose. To hold the form of the different elements of nature.
If I'm by myself, holding the form for myself, I often have a place of altar. And if I don't, then I'm always making friends with a tree in the neighborhood or a body of water or something. And I go to that place and I lay down a prayer by making offerings to these elements of nature -- whether it be flowers, whether libation of water, whether it be... whatever. Whatever kind of offering you want to bring to that.
It's like holding that you have an intention, and you put a space down that helps you to stay in concentration, and helps you to stay in enthusiasm and in harmony with what it is you're doing.
So how am I going to get myself to that deeper, deeper, deeper, deeper, deeper place, where I can be alone in a room by myself, just with myself, and ask myself the really difficult questions.
“What is my intention? What’s driving me?”
So I can come out of the cave, and really have a different kind of mindfulness when I am doing this work out in the world for social justice and social transformation. Does that make sense?
And not use that kind of sacrifice as a daily practice: "I'm giving of myself every day, every day, every day, all the time, and I'm going to work myself to death, and I'm going to…”
“That energy needs to be held. Held in a way that's sacred. And not as a lifestyle.”
Holding the form is, first of all, understanding yourself as a part of something bigger.
And to tap into that deeper intelligence that we all carry that is not only something that priests carry, or monks carry, sages carry, or rabbi's carry, or Mother Teresa carries. We all have that.
That place of truth, that place of a deeper knowing your spirit self, of your soul. It doesn't mean you have to go somewhere to get there.
To get there means to disassemble yourself. To let yourself go, to look in the mirror to let illusions fall from yourself. To ask yourself the really difficult questions about how you are in the world and who you are in the world. To ask yourself to look at the roots of your behavior, your actions with your family, with your partners, your community and in the world.
And to unmask yourself, to undo yourself, to go back to that place of finding that wisdom. Where you find all those gems. It's like, "oh, there it is." There's that thing. We all have that ability in us to know what that feels like. To get to this wisdom inside that we're not listening to.
That's the first place to hold the form. To sign up to hold the form for yourself.
To undo those things, and to not be afraid to go to those places within yourself, that has come from trauma, or hate crimes, or whatever it may be, to go back in that memory place, and to understand what the seeds are of our behavior.
Because everything we do out here as adults, and our emotional reactions have a kind of umbilical cord, and it's seeded in very young behavior. And how do we take that out of the ground, and dust it off. And dig, and dust off and realize who we are?
Me: And then act from a place that's really grounded in intention.
Caro: That's right. You're not even walking into something being like, "ok I'm going to be really grounded." You know?
“Because it's not a mind thing. It's just what you become. You start to become this.”
Because you go to your archeological site, as a metaphor, and you're always dusting off things. And there is so much vastness in our lands, in our bodies, that we keep finding things, and we keep understanding how to have self-love.
You think you've come to self-love, and then you’re like, "Oh god! There's more I need to be gentle with about myself.” There's always going to be more.
And it's not really about whether there's going to be more or not.
It's just, do you have your intention, and your practice, and your discipline in yourself to keep going to this archaeological site.
Does this resonate with you, and how you view work for social change? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
* My interview process: I record the conversation (in this case, 2 hours), then transcribe the best parts. Because most of us don’t talk the way we write, I find that straight transcriptions can be difficult to follow. So I edit them for clarity and flow, but am careful to preserve both meaning, and the speaker’s voice. I then send the transcript to the interviewee, who approves the changes to the transcript, or asks for changes.