Young woman and old woman from the Codex Mendoza.
I’ve been thinking about generation gaps lately. Not just because I have a teenaged granddaughter who rolls her eyes at her parents (fortunately, not at me) but because I've been thinking about political work and where I fit as an aging, lesbian academic. I feel in my twenties on the inside; I still feel the same passions about fighting injustice. I still feel the tremendous sense of hope and potential. I still feel fierce. My external self belies my age. Fibromyalgia keeps me in pain much of the time. Chronic fatigue keeps me tired even when I've slept. My obesity makes it difficult to move sometimes. When I look in the mirror, I cringe-- I have the beginnings of a turkey neck. My memory increasingly fails me. A series of tumors has destroyed my hearing and my sense of balance. It's like they say, aging is not for sissies.
I've watched women around me age. It is shocking to go through it. I will never forget the image of my mother standing in front of a mirror in her late seventies, trying to comprehend the changes in her body. She was always a beautiful woman and she was proud of it. That day as I watched her observing herself, she began to weep. She couldn't understand how life had changed so much. How her body had changed so much. She was old. She kept saying, "Qué es esto? Qué es esto?" Aging is incomprehensible even as we go through it.
My dear friend who passed away at 95 often told me, "Don't get old, honey." My tia in her 90s often said the same thing. Was death preferable to aging I wondered?
A while back I had a conversation with an activist from another city who was telling me about a "sell-out" in their community. The sell-out sounded horrible. When I asked who it was, I was horrified to find that the activist was discussing someone I had known for forty years, someone I had seen organize in low-income communities for decades and whom I admired and respected. Yet, here was this young person dismissing her and her decades of work and sacrifice. It shocked me and it hurt me.
In my work as a professor, I am surrounded by young people. I often think how fortunate I am to teach in a community where Mexican culture, with its respect for elders and for maestras, is still vibrant. Since my early fifties, students have told me that I remind them of their abuelitas. And I always took that as a compliment. In my spiritual community, I am called abuela and I am grateful for that sign of respect. Yet, increasingly I see small signs that this cultural understanding is breaking down and it worries me, especially around political work where the generations need each other so much.
If the power structure can keep us divided generationally (and along a multitude of other lines) we will be weakened. During Spanish colonialization, one way the colonizers tried to undermine and destroy Indigenous societies was by separating the young and the old. “You don’t need those old people,” they told the young. “You have the power.” By building up the young and diminishing the old, the balance inherent in society fell apart. But the young did (and do) need the elders just as the elders need the young. We complement each other with our gifts. We each bring different gifts.
This interconnection between generations is evident in our traditions. You see it reflected in the spatial/temporal understanding of space and time. When my maestras and maestros in Mexico taught me to all int he directions, it was a lesson about the complementarity of relations. The east with its energy of beginnings and masculinity is called in with the west with its energy of completion and female power. When we call in the north, mictlampa, we acknowledge ancestral knowledge and our elders followed by calling in huitzlampa, the south, where we acknowledge the importance of youth and the creativity. Together, we move forward. Separated, we don’t. It is that balance that keeps the universe whole.
The four directions that complement each other from the Borgia Codex.
A couple of times recently, I’ve heard younger people talk about “their generation” as compared to mine. I am 61 and I came of age in the 1970s. They came of age in the early 2000s. “Our generation fights white supremacy,” they’ve said. That leaves me wondering what they think about the long history of fighting white supremacy that goes back centuries. Sometimes I want to say, “I was fighting white supremacy before you were even born!” and I remember confronting the KKK on the streets of Houston 40 years ago this year. And the generations before me fought white supremacy.
Each generation is led to believe that they have invented something new, something better than the generation before. Separating us from our longer history may stroke our egos (we are doing something better) but ultimately, it leaves us functioning in a vacuum. Taking away our history makes us spend energy and time reinventing the wheel. We don’t have the gift of seeing what worked and what didn’t work in the past. Rejecting the older generation is rejecting an important living history.
When I teach Mexican American history, I organize the class generationally. (Drawing on the work of Dr. Mario T. Garcia and others. You can see one of his books here.) A generational approach allows students to relate in a more intimate way to the historical content—they can often identify family members who represent some of the generations. It also allows them to see how each generation built upon the previous ones, even while each generation claimed to be different and separate from previous ones. The Mexican American generation gave birth to the Chicano generation, for example. The relationship between the two generations is complex and contentious but the Chicano generation emerged from the Mexican American generation none-the-less.
An old photo album with a photo (lower right) that I took during a confrontation with the KKK, 1977. They punched this compañera in the face. The police let them walk away.
As I grow older, I need the younger generation. I want to work with the younger generation. They can accomplish what no longer can. It is a joke among my students, but I really do go to bed at 8 p.m. I just don’t have the energy I had even ten years ago. But it is not simply energy that the younger generation brings. They are bright, creative, innovative. Eighty-nine year old Antonia, a community leader in the barrio, often says that she didn’t have children but now she is surrounded by her “children,” the young people of the group. “Son inteligentes y tienen computadoras,” she often brags about them. I understand that pride of how the young people are and what they know and think. I come away from meetings often in awe of their brilliance.
And sometimes, I come away feeling dismissed and judged. I want the younger generation to know that I have worked in community for years and that if I am less active for a month or two, it doesn’t mean I no longer care or that am only worthy of disdain. It means that I can only do what I can do and I can’t do it all. But I do what I can with all my energy and heart. And with decades of commitment behind me.
To the young generation, I promise to do my part to listen to you and your dreams and fears. I commit to doing my part to remain non-judgmental of you and to understand your point of view. I promise to show you respect and to remain self-reflective about my own shortcomings. Know, too, that I have a commitment to myself to take care of my own self. I love myself enough to know that I will only work with those who show respect. Respect is the basis for loving across the generational divide.
If we work together, the young and old, we are strong. We are in balance. We are unstoppable. This is my great hope.