Talking about our primos in prison is taboo. If you ever had a family member in prison, you may avoid talking about it outside your family circle. The incarcerated family member then becomes a ghost, a cautionary tale, or a source of shame. We forget how they arrived in this situation and hesitate to offer support. Looking closely at issues that contribute to mass incarceration in this country can offer insights into the matter. It’s time we take a new approach to incarcerated family, and offer help in ways the correctional system refuses. It’s time to humanize our imprisoned primos and primas, showing love and empathy that we would want to see if we were behind bars.
However, looking at social issues that plague the Latinx community, it is no surprise that low levels of education, poverty, and structural discrimination lead to incarceration. With the latest instances of aggression toward the Latinx community at the presidential level, it will be no surprise if acts of discrimination and targeting of Latinos continues to rise.
What other factors contribute to the incarceration of Latinos?
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The Pew Research Center reports that in 1991, 60 percent of Latinos were sentenced in federal court for drug-related offenses, and 20 percent for immigration crimes. Yet, these figures changed dramatically, with 48 percent of sentences for immigration crimes, and 37 percent of sentences for drug-related crimes in 2007.
The incarceration of Latinos is feeding into the conversation around the school to prison pipeline.
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What is the prison experience really like? Netflix series like Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us,” and “Orange is the New Black” help pull back the curtain on the harsh realities of prison life. More than just TV shows, these depictions exposed micro and macro ways the U.S., home to the largest prison population in the world, focuses not on prisoner rehabilitation, but recidivism instead.
When we think about our family members in prison, we need to remember that they could be facing sexual violence, lack of access to mental health services, solitary confinement, and denial of their reproductive rights.
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It may be the case that an incarcerated family member’s situation is shrouded in mystery and whispers, but this need not be the case. It is not only time to confront these matters at the family level, but to address them at the social level as well. The first step may begin with actually accepting that inmate call. Ask what your family member is going through and share that with the family if he or she permits. You may feel a sense of hopelessness, but there is so much you can do to help not only your own family members but the greater incarcerated Latino community too.
Moving beyond thoughts and prayers—although they’re good too—here are substantive ways you can help incarcerated family members.
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Visit if you can. Even if it is only a few times a year, the impact of human contact cannot be overstated. Ensure you are on the approved visitor’s list before you go. Bring identification and arrive early. Be a good listener and most importantly, show that family love.
The experience of visiting prison can be inconvenient or even traumatic, so if you feel you cannot commit this fully then try a virtual visit. Apps like JPay offer inmate services like email, video visitation, and secure payment transfers. Send pictures of the family or a video of a holiday gathering.
If apps prove to be intimidating, try sending a letter. Have picture printed out—old school style—and include them in your letters. Families are full of births, marriages, and so many other beautiful life events. Share them with your primos and primas who can’t be there with you. If you feel like you simply don’t want to communicate with your incarcerated family member, but you still want to contribute to the cause in some way, join a prison pen pal organization and bring a sense of human connection to others.
Another way to help the family behind bars is to send books. The organization, NYC books through bars, understands how much books can help with the rehabilitation and the education process in prison.
Another act of solidarity with your incarcerated family member is to donate to the ACLU Prisons Project. “Through litigation, advocacy, and public education, we work to ensure that conditions of confinement are consistent with health, safety, and human dignity and that prisoners retain all rights of free persons that are not inconsistent with incarceration.”
If you have a family member in prison, it is important to their own recovery and reformation to know they have people who love and support them.
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With an array of opportunities to help our family members in prison, it is important to note that reintroduction to society can pose a major challenge for former inmates. These are areas where you can help too. Our imprisoned family members may have been victims of the system, they may have survived the only way they know how, or maybe they just made a mistake. Whatever the circumstance, the key is to remember they are human, and most importantly, they are familia. So ask yourself, for their sake and the sake of our community, what can you do to help?
If you were lucky enough to have a loving, doting abuela who looked after you while your parents worked overtime, you may have faint memories of her doing strange things around the house. She may have placed a cup of water behind the door, propped a broom upside down in a corner, or shooed everyone out the house so she could clean. No ordinary cleaning, it could be that on those Sunday mornings full of loud music and earthy aromas, your abuela was cleansing the house of negative energy. Feelings of unending exhaustion, illness, frustration, stress, or worry are signs that your home could use a limpieza too.
When I was a child, I would accompany my gold-toothed grandmother to Newark Avenue on Saturday afternoons. She would put curtains on layaway at Woolworth’s, and stop by the meat market and the fish market. Some Saturdays, our last stop before heading home was at la botanica. More than a magic shop, this was a place to procure spiritual elements from statues of Catholic saints to potions guaranteeing love and money. My grandmother would move nimbly about the shop selecting Indian Spirit money spray, incense, frankincense, and myrrh. Pretty biblical, right? I recall watching Sunday morning cartoons as she cleaned the apartment from back to front, windows open, a ritual concluding with her swinging her tiny cast iron cauldron, resin smoldering inside, while wearing an iconic bata. You know the one!
If you asked Abuela, she wouldn’t say this was Santería or Brujería of any sort.
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Latinidad is abstract in the way it allows a constellation of diaspora to take cultural practices from here and there, creating our own interpretations according to our needs and resources.
While energy-cleansing rituals can be extremely complicated; like the one where you buy a coconut, bathe it in Florida Water, and gently kick it around your entire home while smudging sage then kicking the coconut of your house, picking it up with your left hand, walking far away from your house and throwing the coconut over your head, making sure it splits, otherwise you will need to start the ritual again with a new coconut.
If you’re short on coconuts and time, but would like to try simple ways of cleansing your home of negative energy, here are a few simple suggestions inspired by Abuela.
It all begins by cleaning your home.
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De-clutter, organize, and arrange items neatly. The science behind cleaning shows your space is a reflection of your mind. Marie Kondo your situation to clear away bad energy, calling forth peace of mind and calming spirit. A real-deal abuela would advise you to clean your floors with La Bomba, a spiritual floor cleaner. Mop from the back of your home to the front door, and throw away the mop head. You probably won’t find La Bomba in Target. Check online botanica retailers, and look for all-purpose La Bomba solutions that can be used to clean your car and other spaces where you may have experienced a bout of bad luck.
Channel the elements: earth, air, fire, and water in your energy cleansing enterprise, like Earth.
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Boasting benefits like curing insomnia, boosting your mood, and neutralizing ions, smudging sage has been widely attributed to Native American tradition. Sage sticks, and smudge kits are widely available, but if you are into drying your own sage, consider adding dried roses, lavender, palo santo, and rosemary. If nothing else, it looks pretty and your home will smell lovely.
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Open the window. It’s as simple as that. Release stale air to remove negative energy, and in the spirit of my own abuela, take down your curtains, give them a wash while you put up beautiful new curtains. Maybe you don’t believe in negative energy, but you can’t deny the uplifting effect of getting some fresh air.
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Burn bay leaves. Also known as laurel, the practice of burning bay leaves dates back to Ancient Greece. Write down all the things you want to release directly on the leaves, burn the leaves in a fireproof bowl, and safely discard the ashes.
Lighting candles is a large part of the cleansing process for abuelas too. Light candles of your favorite saint, or cruise your botanica for some highly specific candles promising to banish the evil eye—if that’s your thing.
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Like my abuela, place a glass of water behind a door, or place a glass of water under your bed, which is said to absorb negative energy.
Bathing, a literal cleansing, can also serve to clear bad energy. Abuela would advise you to bathe in your favorite flowers, perfume, milk, and honey, an ancient tradition found around the world. Light a candle, turn the lights down and ask for the things you want to receive as you luxuriate in your bath.
Last, but not least—Florida Water! Wipe some across your forehead when you have a headache. Add it to your La Bomba floor cleaner. Pour some in your bath. Use it to wipe down your altars, doorways, and wash your hands with it after meeting with people who harbor negative energy. Or, quite simply, dab it on mosquito bites.
Finding peace in your home is imperative to your wellbeing.
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Experimenting with energy cleansing practices can take you down a winding cultural, and traditional path that can prove to be effective in your life. It can also bring a sense of closeness with an abuela who is no longer with you. Even if energy cleansing is not your thing, actively taking steps toward peace of mind is great thing, and I’m sure your abuela would love nothing more than to see you at peace.