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Remember Why You're Here Episode 7

Episode 7 Transcript

Re-membering as Liberation, Grieving as Practice ft. Ramona Beltrán

Episode Show Notes


Ramona Beltrán:
There really is nothing we can do to take grief or pain away from others, except to witness.

Aimee Hanna:
Welcome to Remember Why You're Here, a podcast created by the Center for Innovation and Resources, where we host conversations with experts in the field about what started their journey to do work around abuse and healing. CIR is a small nonprofit with big goals. We organize events aimed to fulfill our vision that all professionals who serve children, families, and communities will have the knowledge, skills, and training to act in a holistic and culturally responsive manner. To see more of what we do, visit

Joining us today for our very first episode of 2024 is Ramona Beltran. Ramona is an associate professor, a dancer, an academic director, a producer, and a mother. In her 20 years of professional experience, spanning the United States to New Zealand, she has worked alongside institutions, Indigenous and LatinX communities, spotlighting solutions that are present in our creative and culturally driven modalities.

Her contributions have been invited by distinguished institutions, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the White House Office of the Vice President, and Harvard University, as well as prominent cultural institutions, including the Denver Art Museum, History Colorado, and the Latino Cultural Arts Center.

Her research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health, National Institutes of Mental Health, the National Libraries of Medicine, and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Dr. Beltran is a fiercely loving mother of three and is a multiracial Chicana of Indigenous descent. She acknowledges that all the Earth has an Indigenous name and a community meant to steward it.

Aimee Hanna:
Ramona, last we spoke you were going through a transition. I'd love to hear how that's been going for you.

Ramona Beltrán:
So I'm an associate professor here at the Graduate School of Social Work at University of Denver. And I was recently appointed as the interim associate Dean for research and faculty development. Now, it doesn't sound very sexy. But it's actually a really exciting opportunity. And it comes with a lot of leadership and responsibility related to supporting faculty in their research agendas, and making sure there is support and guidance for them in how to navigate the systems.

It's a big deal for me because I'm a first generation college student. I really think of myself as just an emerging scholar, even though I've been doing this for quite some time. But I feel this sense of I'm trying to honor my ancestors by stepping into something that's making me very uncomfortable. Because of the higher level of leadership and responsibility, and all the ways that I'm learning about these colonial systems, and how it is that we can navigate them, sometimes it really feels like survive them, but use some of the tools within them to thrive and move our agendas for our communities toward liberation forward.

What tools and methods you're using to kind of navigate this colonial space while having a decolonial mindset?

The primary tool, the first thing that comes to my mind is relationship. I mean, building relationships with people who are also in it has been crucial. Building upon relationships that I've had previously has been also invaluable. And then, for me, really wanting to ground myself in the fact that that's my greatest tool.

When I was talking with my dean recently I said what I'm doing to get through this interim period is to think of myself as a tree. And when I think of tree, I think of deep roots, and the rooted systems, how underground they are communicating and creating a strong base and support to withstand all of the elements that come throughout the year and the changing seasons.

And what's beautiful about our tree relatives is they can teach us so much about flexibility, about adaptability, about silence and stillness, and about responding to the environment in the way that's needed.

Aimee Hanna:
I think it's so beautiful to use Earth as a model for that. And so I want to ask, what was the reason you decided to pursue social work?

Ramona Beltrán:
In my early childhood years we were system involved. We received public assistance. And reflecting back, I can see how the surveillance of system involvement really impacted my understanding of myself and my family in the world.

I really thought there was something wrong with us. And so that's when I thought of social work and social workers were the people who watched over you to make sure you were behaving, to make sure you were following the rules, and spending the money correctly, that kind of thing.

But I want to also give some context to that. My mom, when I was young, she was really sick, and actually all of her life. And now, looking back, we've come to understand that a lot of her illnesses were likely caused or exacerbated by her mental health, which was a result of trauma.

But when you're small, and you don't understand these things, and you make sense in your mind through simplicity, you take the conditions of your life for what you see them to be. And I remember always feeling like we were outsiders, like we didn't belong, there was something wrong with us, and ultimately that it was my mom's fault that she was sick and that we were poor. So that's a part of it.

But I want to also talk about the strength of my family. I don't just want this to be a narrative of trauma. Because I know, and our communities know that we are so much more than that, right? Our stories are bigger than our trauma, always have been. And that those things can simultaneously coexist. And from there we can really create incredible beauty.

So what I want to also emphasize is really important to me is part of how I got to social work is that my mom also had a strong sense of justice. She was complicated. But she was an advocate for survivors of abuse and interpersonal violence, particularly women, because she experienced that herself.

And growing up in the '50s and '60s, her formative years were really during the civil rights movement. And in her own way, she told us about these things in the world, about racism, about sexism, about homophobia.

Now, of course, she didn't use those words. But what she did was try and tell us and teach us how to live in the right way in relationship to those things. She wanted us to understand slavery. She wanted us to understand segregation and violence. And she also wanted us to know it was part of our job as human beings on the planet to make the world a better place.

So those two things, witnessing and experiencing the impacts of generational trauma, along with this very deep instilled sense of justice, and the responsibility to improve the world really was what set my path. And I didn't really understand it until much later. And social work was like, oh, well, yeah, of course. The focus on social justice, right? The clear disciplinary values for human rights and equity, and liberation, those things just made sense within that context.

Aimee Hanna:
And since you've been in this field of social work, have there been moments where you're like, I just cannot do this?

Ramona Beltrán:
Oh, yes.


All the time. All the time. In fact, even recently, I feel like we're just in such a time of division. We're in such a time of unrest. And I think as a society and probably globally, right, we have not healed from the collective trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic. We had this wonderful opportunity to slow down that I really believe the Earth was giving us.

She was like, hey, everybody has to stop. Now, you have an opportunity to sit there and think about it. It was like our best mama, right? Just wanting the best for us.

Aimee Hanna:

Ramona Beltrán:
And we had this opportunity because the systems, capitalism, and settler colonialism, those deeply ingrained systems are so embedded. I don't think we used that opportunity as we should. And as things began to open back up, there was this pressure. We have to catch up to what we lost. And we need to make up for lost time. We need to make up for lost productivity. That's what I felt and feel.

And I know everybody that I speak with here in the university setting, but also out in other practice places in the world everybody is overworked and under-resourced. And that has been a historical trajectory for social work in general. There is not the value that there should be for people who dedicate their lives to service, who dedicate their lives to education, and healing, and support other fellow humans.

But it seems like it's really just been amplified in more recent years because of all of the things and the disruptions that we've been through. And people are tired, and they're hurting, and overwhelmed. And I'm one of those people.

Aimee Hanna:
When it gets really hard for you, what do you do to sustain and care for yourself in those moments?

Ramona Beltrán:
So first and foremost, my children. I have three small children. And they are my saving grace. They are what keeps things in perspective. They are what reminds me that what I'm doing is actually for them.

So being able to unplug and to be with them, and to put on fairy costumes, and create make believe worlds, or to toss a ball in the backyard, or to have dance parties in our living room, that, for me, is such a release, and a reminder that I'm actually here doing these things for them, for our future generations, just as our ancestors did for us.

So that's the foundation. Here is my landing place is always with my children and my love for them, and my hope for the ancestors to come. Secondly, I have to do things to be well. I have to exercise regularly. I also engage in therapy and try and do ceremony as much as I can.

And think about these things really as my medicine. So I tell my kids even mama needs to go work out. Mama needs to go to the gym. Mama needs to go to a yoga class. Because that's how I stay well. That's how I keep myself feeling OK.

And I really think about it as a priority. So that's my treatment plan, my children, exercise, therapy, and ceremony, and trying to engage with my cultural community.

Aimee Hanna:
We work with a lot of social workers that deal with child abuse, child homicide, just a lot of really dark things. And I'm curious to know if you have any advice or ideas on how to navigate that grief?

Ramona Beltrán:
I remember, I was in my internship in an outpatient setting in a health clinic. And I was assigned a woman who was probably middle aged. And she had just lost her husband very suddenly. And so she was assigned to my caseload.

And she came into our first session. And I did the usual assessment. And I was so uncomfortable, because her grief was just so profound. And she was crying, and angry. And she was saying things like, don't tell me about another book. I've got stacks of books to read about grief and loss. None of them can bring back my love.

And I remember just feeling helpless, just completely out of my element, and out of my range of skills. And what I realized in that moment-- well, afterwards, was that there was nothing I could do. There was nothing I could offer her that would take away the pain that she was feeling.

Had I been trained, had I lived in a world that openly accepted grief as part of the human process, I probably would have known to sit there, and witness, and observe her in her grief, manifested through tears, through rage, through yelling, whatever it was. Because there really is nothing we can do to take grief or pain away from others, except to witness, except to understand that when someone cries in front of you, when someone offers their tears in your presence, the way that I understand it now is that that's an offering.

And that's a sacred gift. And the most humble and healing thing we can do is to silently and with our whole body presence to accept that gift, and observe, and witness from that place of love and care. So I say that because that's what I learned about how to be in relationship to other people's grief.

Now, in my own grief I have felt that same way. I have felt that. Like don't tell me at least you got to live this long with your mother. Don't tell me here's a website you can look at to process your grief. Don't give me resources, nothing. I'm just feeling really angry at the universe, and at the systems that created a context in which my mother's life and people like her are cut short, right, due to the lack of resources, and education, and all of the other things that are a part of the ongoing colonial structure.

There's nothing you can do that's going to make me feel any better except sit with me, or bring me cookies. Those kinds of simple things that are really the technology of humanity-- technology of humanity is story, is relationship, is connection, and nurturing through food, through presence.

Aimee Hanna:

Ramona Beltrán:

Aimee Hanna:
Well, Ramona, I want to switch gears to talk about how OSOMA, Our Medicine, Our Stories Archive, an incredible project that you co-created with the community and fellow researchers, a project that not only centers the individual's history and seeks to formulate ways of communal healing to address diseases that have disproportionately affected the native community, but in the same breath it's documenting and archiving collective histories, which is so revolutionary when these stories have been violently stolen from Native communities everywhere. So with that said, will you engage us on how OSOMA methods have empowered communities who are invited into the archive?

Ramona Beltrán:
So OSOMA is about Our Stories Our Medicine Archive. And it's basically a two part project in which we're conducting research to articulate and understand what are some of the traditional Indigenous health practices that keep us well, or heal us.

And then the other part is developing and building a digital archive infrastructure so that our communities can document and preserve their family, cultural, and tribal histories, as well as the traditional health knowledge. This was something that our communities over many different projects over many years said we really want our own space to tell our own stories in our own way, because we're so much more than our trauma. And we are creative and innovative. And we want to document that. And we want our future generations to be able to look back, and to learn the things that we had to relearn, that we had to connect to and find, or rebuild, or piece together, even if we had some of the knowledge, so that they don't have to do that.

We also want to have a space where other people who have experienced displacement, colonization, disruptions to their culture, we want them to be able to come and see themselves represented in some way, and to engage with the story that reflects their experience. Because we know from our other projects and this project as well that the act of being seen and seeing is empowering, is healing.

Because what it does is you see yourself in another person's story, in another people's story. And you see you're not alone, right? So you transcend that intentional isolation that colonization has imposed upon us.

So those are the reasons that we have this project. And I am so grateful to all of the community who continues to steward the project, and to make sure that we are doing things in a good way.

Our methodology we call a witnessing methodology. And what that means is we really invoke ceremony in the research. We really consider when people are willing to tell us their stories that that, like I said earlier, is a sacred gift. It's an offering. And we have to enter into that relationship with humility and respect.

So we try and recreate aspects of talking circle or ceremonial platica. So we have three different people. So the witnessing is-- the storyteller is a witness to their own testimony. And as they tell, they might see something different. They might reorganize things from the past into the present.

Then we have the first level, or the second witness, who is the person doing the interview and really listening to the story, and a witness to that testimony. And then we have a third level witness who's observing the witnessing, is witnessing the witnessing. And we have this performative, dialogic notebook or notepad that we use. And folks write down what they see, what they feel, poetry, words, images to sort of invoke some of that other non logic, right? Non logical way of thinking about story, and a more embodied and experiential understanding that's really beautiful.

And then at the end, we always make sure that we reflect on everybody's role and experience. And it's been really powerful to do research that does feel like ceremony. I understand that my story is meeting their story. And the witness to the witness, their story is a part of the story. And it changes.

Even though there's a couple goals to this, to document, and preserve, and to make meaning, that probably more important than anything is the process. The process allows them to do memory work, being able to remember, put things back together--

Aimee Hanna:
Re (dash) member.

Ramona Beltrán:
Re (dash) member. That's right.


And that the witnessing makes them feel like they're not alone. They are-- so not only in the sense of their story joins with somebody else's story. But in having multiple people there holding that space in that particular way, it feels to them also like a really powerful experience.

And I want to go back to that idea of memory work, and the re dash membering, the putting back together, the excavating. And this is where I feel like the re dash membering work is a futurism process, right? It's what we do.

We have to recall to recreate, and make things new, imagine something new. But the way that we've adapted this from Metis scholar, Judy Isaac, who documented witnessing as a methodology, and she talks about it as a process which may include acts of remembrance in which a survivor of trauma and colonization looks back to reinterpret and recreate a relationship to the past in order to understand the future. And I just love that description because it's what we see happening. It's what people tell us happens.

Aimee Hanna:
That is a perfect example of how you are using completely decolonial methods within the system to disrupt the system and promote healing. That's incredible. As a mixed race Chicana of Yaqui and Mexican descent, I'm curious to know how your experience shows up in your creativity?

Ramona Beltrán:
I identify as a mixed race, Indigenous Chicana. My family on my mother's side is originally from Northern Mexico, from Guaymas, and Empalme, and a couple other places. And they first settled in Arizona around Guadalupe, but moved around to do mining work before they ended up in California, longer story. That's my mother's side.

And my father's side I actually just learned also, because my kiddos were like, mom, we're part white, right? What kind of white are we? And I was like, I don't know. So I wasn't raised with that side of my family.

So my sister and I, we were like, OK, we've been avoiding this for a really long time. But let's get some DNA testing. And we found out that our family on his side is originally from Northern Ireland.

And despite the complexities of ancestry, of the way white supremacy makes us see beauty-- we are beautiful-- the power of art, it's always an invitation to the observer to interpret and make meaning. So rather than being a voice of authority, it's an invitation.

It also is a place where some of our most kind of cutting edge and radical ideas first get birthed, right? The artists manifest these movements long before disciplines do, or even academia does. And I also think about the accessibility of art and creativity. It's a way to convey really deep, really complex and nuanced information in a way that is digestible and accessible to communities.

I write poetry a lot. That feels like a way for me to transcend some of those complexities, to assert beauty, to assert belonging, and to hopefully share that with not only my own children, but other children in community who may have a similar experience. And as diasporic people, we know we are not alone.

Aimee Hanna:
Thank you so much, Ramona. And I just want to open up the space for you if there's anything else that you want to leave our listeners with.

Ramona Beltrán:
First, I just want to say, thank you so much for this opportunity and for this conversation. I feel like it was also welcome and needed gift. What I'll close with is that we live in a time of such division, a time when nuance and context is cast aside for outrage, condemnation, and even cancellation for not being on the right side of an issue, or moments, or even learning errors.

We're seeing processes of exclusion and violent targeting continuing to unfold within our communities, within communities that we care about. Things like social media and the pressure to create for consumption, and the pace of productivity, like I was talking about earlier, those things just reinforce and amplify those processes of exclusion and targeting.

There is room for all kinds of resistance. I truly believe that. I don't believe there is one way to organize. I don't believe there is one way to reach liberation. But I think we could build and grow if we allowed ourselves to slow down, to sit face to face in circle, in ceremony over a sacred fire, talk story, truly listen, and to be humble enough to be changed, to learn and to grow, a lot like I think this conversation has been for me.

And one of my friends posted something recently on social media, which can also be a force for good. Let me just add that. And it said, to refuse to harden your heart is a radical act.

And I've been sitting with that. And I see it as a reminder. But I also see it as an invitation. So I'll just say it one more time. To refuse to harden your heart is a radical act.

And with that, I'll just say . Thank you.

Aimee Hanna:
Thank you so much for listening to another episode of Remember Why You're Here. To access the transcript for this episode and to learn more about what we do at CIR, please visit our website at Until next time.


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