Native Breastfeeding Week: Restoring Indigenous Breastfeeding In My Family Lineage
Mireya Gonzalez, Los Angeles, California
Editor’s Note: Native Breastfeeding Week is celebrated during August, beginning with the second Sunday of the month. This year Native Breastfeeding Week occurs August 9-15. According to the Native Breastfeeding Week Facebook page, “Native Breastfeeding Week is to highlight the Native Breastfeeding experience in all forms through the visibility of personal testimonies, partner experiences, research, articles, barriers, and/or success.” For more information, go to www.facebook.com/NativeBreastfeedingWeek/.
As I tandem nurse my young children, Hoshea at 22 months, and Hadassah at six years old, next to our community’s milpa (rows of corn crops) at our community’s Zapotepec Indigenous Cultural Research Center for Self Sustainability in the urban city of Los Angeles, I can’t help but feel a strong connection to my Indigenous Nahuatl and P’repecha ancestors. My children growing with my chichihualli (breast) milk alongside the centli (corn) etl (beans), and huautli (amaranth) that we planted during our Spring planting ceremony is a reaffirmation that my children are also seeds, my milk is a sacred offering, and my body is like Tonantzin (our sacred Mother Earth) that gives of herself in order to provide life. It’s not just breastfeeding, it’s providing vitality and a cultural identity alongside much more of our heritage. It’s also raising my children in the way that my grandmothers and great-grandmothers raised theirs, through breastfeeding, agriculture, and an introduction to life through sacred first foods.
My grandmother, Pompeya, was P’repecha and Indigenous to Michoacán Mexico. I remember often playing in our milpas in the ranches, and in rooms filled with corn kernels ready to be ground for making masa (a corn dough). If it wasn’t for her neighbors keeping up with her land and house during her migration journey to the United States she would’ve never been able to reclaim her home several years later and I wouldn’t have the childhood memories of Michoacán that I do today. Migrating to the U.S affected our family in so many ways. Due to poverty, my grandfather enlisted in the Bracero guest worker program. Consequently he abandoned my grandmother with eight children, and as a result my grandmother had to find any work and cease breastfeeding altogether. Eventually my grandmother arranged for herself and all eight of her children, including my mother, to immigrate to the U.S separately, to where my grandfather was in Los Angeles. Some of her children made it to the U.S, some were detained and deported along the way, and others were left behind in Mexico.
Due to poverty and forced migration, my grandmother’s younger children, who included my mother, were never breastfed like their older siblings were. Rapid life changes were occurring that disrupted so much of my grandparents’ way of life. When my mother gave birth to me and my siblings at Martin Luther King Hospital in Los Angeles, she wasn’t able to breastfeed either because she didn’t know how, didn’t receive any support by the hospital staff, and was not able to speak or understand English. My grandmother had not only abruptly ceased breastfeeding against her wishes, but she was also no longer able to pass breastfeeding down to her daughters as a tradition, which left my mother vulnerable to Western hospital policies and practices. None of my aunts breastfed in the U.S either, and all of them also said that they just didn’t know how and never had any support in the hospitals. The longer they were in the U.S, becoming more assimilated, the less likely they were to maintain any Indigenous traditions with regard to infant feeding and identity. Many eventually became influenced by Western culture and developed a different type of relationship with their breasts: one that would sexualize the breasts and perceive them to be for the pleasure of man only. My mother and many of my aunts eventually returned to Mexico to undergo affordable breast implant surgery in an attempt to look more like the women in the soap operas and news channels on Spanish television programming which represented more light skinned women from Latin America. Traditionally, it’s during puberty that we are told about our growing bodies, the function behind our body parts, and our ancestral tradition of breastfeeding and milk sharing. However, neither my mother nor my aunts were able to teach their daughters about these topics during this time.
When my oldest sister turned 18, my mother encouraged her to get her own set of breast implants. The view and relationship with our breasts were dramatically influenced by Western culture, and that’s what was being passed down to my generation. When my older cousins had their children, none breastfed my nieces or nephews. Again, they expressed the similar notions as my mother and aunts; that they just didn’t know how to and felt unsupported. But they also added a third reason, which was that they felt breasts were more for sex and to win over a man.
I am the youngest daughter of all my grandmother’s grandchildren and the most recent to have given birth. Two generations later, I am the first in my family to breastfeed and reclaim it as a family tradition, as well as reclaim an Indigenous identity and world view. My six-year-old daughter, who still hasn’t weaned, and breastfeeds her dolls, will have many memories of her being breastfed. If she chooses to become a mother one day, she’s already said that she will breastfeed. For me, there is no real normalization and reclaiming of breastfeeding if I am not able to pass it down to the next generation.
I now breastfeed my children in our community and in public with great pride of our Indigenous identity and recognize that restoring breastfeeding alongside so much of our rich culture and heritage, which includes foods, ceremony and language, is cultural survival and historical resilience. I enjoy interviewing and asking my mother about what she remembers about breastfeeding in her early childhood years in Michoacán. She tells me about the women that she remembers and witnessing milk sharing. I also enjoy teaching her about the importance of breastfeeding, and she enjoys watching me breastfeed her grandchildren. Occasionally, I hear her proudly tell her sisters that her grandchildren are breastfed and rarely get sick. We are slowly bringing breastfeeding back into our family lineage.
Reclaiming my Indigenous identity has become a lifelong journey, and breastfeeding is not only one crucial piece to all of this, it’s also the foundation. Especially during a pandemic, I recognize my breastfeeding and our community’s research center for self-sustainability as a solution to lost identities due to forced migration, acculturation, poverty and food insecurity. Breastfeeding for us is a form of self-sustainability and also a sacred first food. Breastfeeding is Indigenous food sovereignty, dignity, and resilience. This is why, not only during the first six months post birth, but throughout my parenting, I am committed to reclaiming breastfeeding and helping other Indigenous people who’ve migrated to the U.S and lost so much along the way, do the same. I’ve also committed to giving of myself the way that my ancestors did, and the way that Tonantzin constantly and abundantly gives of herself in order to bring forth sacred nourishment, nurturing, and vitality, hence why I’ve given my children the opportunity to self wean whenever they feel ready to. To me, Native Breastfeeding Week is a time to celebrate my narrative, family story, and Indigenous perspective on breastfeeding. This week is for celebrating myself, my family lineage, Mother Earth, and all Native nations and Indigenous people around the world. Happy Native Breastfeeding Week!
- The Bracero Program www.labor.ucla.edu/what-we-do/research-tools/the-bracero-program/
- Zapotepec Cultural Research Center for Self Sustainability www.facebook.com/anahuac.ccss
- The Influence of Acculturation on Breastfeeding Initiation and Duration for Mexican-Americans www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3053569/
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