Macedonio Arteaga looks past an erected teepee. / Photo by Jakob McWhinney
Macedonio Arteaga (right) looks past an erected teepee. / Photo by Jakob McWhinney

Macedonio Arteaga, executive director of Izcalli, an indigenous educational and support network for adolescents, describes the organization’s annual men’s gathering, Círculo De Hombres, as a rite of passage. But for as long as he’s been doing this work, he said he’s never had a young man know what a rite of passage is. When they start to understand the concept, they often associate it with negative experiences – the first time they got arrested or were sent to prison, their first alcoholic drink, or the day their father left.  

So, Arteaga asks them to imagine a bridge. “You’re on one side of the bridge and you’re going to cross over and when you come to the other side there’ll be men there to guide you, to support you, to teach you something different,” he said. “Like ‘it’s okay to cry, it’s okay to talk about your feelings, it’s okay to go to therapy,’” he continued.  

For nearly 30 years, Izcalli has worked to educate largely indigenous, immigrant and Chicano at-risk youth about their cultural heritage and help them deal with trauma by finding new ways to express themselves. But it’s turned out to be an incubator for a new generation of educators. 

A photo of Marcelino Robles, a Huichol medicine man, lays among altar items. / Photo by Jakob McWhinney

Izcalli started as a Saturday school for students in San Diego County but has since run restorative justice and healing circles in schools throughout the region. The organization also formed Teatro Izcalli, a nationally recognized comedy troupe meant to educate people about issues affecting the community through comedy. But over the years they’ve developed new traditions, like the annual gathering for male-identifying people. Many of their events in schools are coed, and in the past, they’ve done gatherings specifically for women as well.  

The three-day ceremony during which attendees camped out on Kumeyaay land about an hour east of San Diego, consisted of activities like a healing circle and a sweat lodge. Arteaga stressed that the ceremony isn’t something he and the other founders of Izcalli created, but rather traditions passed down to them from their elders, who came from several different tribes and traditions. It’s something of an amalgam, weaving together practices from tribes originating from both sides of the border. 

The attendees reflect that mix. Some are Mexican immigrants, some Chicanos and others are members of specific tribes.  

“You look at the crowd and there are folks in here who have been to jail, folks in here who have been to college,” said German Gurrola, a teacher in Los Angeles, who attended this year’s gathering. “Some folks have Ph.D.s, some are educators … some folks are working class, some are coming from middle class or affluent backgrounds. Some folks are new to the movement, some folks are third-generation activists. But you can’t tell who’s who just by looking at them.” 

But one of the most striking things about the gathering is how many members of the group work in or around education. Arteaga does restorative justice work in schools, for example. And many of them grew up with Izcalli in their lives, like Gurrola, 41, who’s been attending the organization’s events since he was 17. 

Gurrola grew up in Tijuana but crossed the border each day to attend school. Growing up, he was angry at the world, at the injustice he saw and at the system that had created it. Despite knowing it wasn’t necessarily in him, he wanted to be a gangster, he said, “because I felt like the outlaw was the only way to really destroy (the system).”  

When he was a sophomore at Sweetwater High he took a Chicano studies class with Joe Lara, another educator and founder of Izcalli, and one day Arteaga was a guest speaker. His talk about indigenous ways, culture and healing intrigued Gurrola, who approached the pair after class and said he was interested in learning more. A year later he attended his first sweat. 

Gurrola said his introduction to Izcalli, indigenous practices and Chicano studies focused the trajectory of his life. These new outlets were political and addressed the inequities he’d seen crossing the border each day, but also spiritual, and not in the indoctrinating way of his Catholic upbringing. 

A teenager looks for the men carrying the next teepee pole to be added to the frame, while Guillermo Aranda surveys the group’s progress. / Photo by Jakob McWhinney

“This provided an alternative … and it was a path that critiques this system,” he said. “A lot of us, because of our exposure to these ways, tend to gravitate to roles of healers of the mind, healers of the heart – counseling, teaching, education, mentorship,’ he continued. 

Luis Gomez, another of Izcalli’s founding members, is also an educator and a former vice principal. He describes education as his version of “walking the red road,” a phrase that broadly means to move through life in a spiritual way, with purpose and an intent to grow. 

Gomez said that he’ll keep coming to the circles until he’s physically unable to. “But until then I will always be supporting, teaching, sharing,” he said 

“It’s not a coincidence that a lot of people that you see here are educators,” Gomez said. Knowing less than 50 years ago people could be persecuted for practicing some indigenous traditions makes Gomez feel an even deeper need to share what he’s learned from his elders, many of whom have already passed on. “I’m going to be gone and what I know has to continue, whether that be through my children or my godson, or my relatives,” he said. 

That commitment to guiding was present throughout the weekend. On the first day, renowned muralist Guillermo “Yerma” Aranda, whose work adorns some of the freeway supports of Chicano Park, guided attendees in erecting a teepee. As men added poles one by one, a teenager ran in circles around the teepee’s frame, whipping the securing rope upward to keep it tight as it secured each new piece of wood to the last. Aranda checked in on his work frequently. 

“Each teepee is an individual,” Aranda said. “You get to know them and what they need.” 

In the healing circle, and throughout the weekend, the leaders and adults sought to teach by example, sharing their trauma, their pain, their weaknesses, all to show the next generation that it’s not only okay to do so, but necessary to thrive and grow and move forward. 

“We live in a society that has taught us that as males, we shouldn’t tap into those feelings because it’s just wrong,” Gomez said. “A lot of these kids come here and for the first time they see their fathers, they see their cousins, older brothers or uncle’s and go ‘wow, they’re talking, they’re sharing, they’re crying,’” he said.  

In Arteaga’s view, decolonization, which to him means reintegrating indigenous knowledge into people’s lives, is a key teaching of the gathering. He believes that knowledge, long buried by colonization, can help alleviate much of the undue gendered pressures and expectations put on men, and that unwillingness to freely share their emotions. “When we’re challenging toxic masculinity we’re not reinventing ourselves,” he said. “We’re going back to our original selves.” 

The men gather around the fire to sing and pray. / Photo by Jakob McWhinney

During breakfast, over a plate of nopales con huevos, Arteaga told me a story. “There was a time evil spirits came to a nation, and they said they were going to take happiness away from men,” Arteaga said. For months the men searched for happiness. They asked the animals, looked in the rivers and lakes, in the caves and on the tops of trees but they simply couldn’t find it. And the men were sad.  

In desperation, the nation’s medicine men went to the evil spirits and told them “we sent our strongest warriors to find happiness, but we cannot find it. Please, tell us where it is” Arteaga said. The evil spirits told the medicine men “we hid happiness in the one place we knew man would never find it,” Arteaga said, “the heart.” 

We sat there quietly for a moment. Chewing. Thinking. “So, is that what all of this is?” I asked Arteaga. “A way to teach men how to look into their hearts?” 

“Exactly, bro,” he said. 

The Content Bouncing Around My Mind Palace  

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  • The Democrat in the race, Cody Petterson, is a longtime environmental activist and an educator who views schools as the last, best chance to prepare future generations to “pick up the pieces and build a new world.” Read more about Petterson here
  • The Republican in the race, Becca Williams, is the co-founder of a Texas-based network of charter schools and a self-declared outsider candidate who wants to push back on some school board policies. Her opposition to SDUSD’s pandemic response has endeared her to anti-mask and vaccine mandate activists. Read more about Williams here

Jakob McWhinney

Jakob McWhinney is Voice of San Diego's education reporter.

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1 Comment

  1. Excellent!

    I think this is something that could benefit the Black community as well. Since their forced relocation to the Americas destroyed their culture, they have not handled their time in the US well.

    Perhaps being reintroduced to their own ancient culture would help?

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