The home of the Sacred Circles Center in Whittier is in a small white structure with blue trim. The building doesn’t have a sign out front, but co-founder Jerry Tello says, “the people who need to be here will be here.”
The center was created to be a place where people can come together and heal through presentations by indigenous elders, culturally based healing and meditation circles, life coaching and family counseling.
The intimate space has been unused since the start of the pandemic, but that hasn’t stopped Tello and co-founder Susanna Armijo from continuing their mission to help their community virtually by conducting sessions via Zoom.
It’s a calling that runs in Tello’s family, which has Mexican, Coahuiltecan, and Texan roots.
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Tello, 70, grew up in Compton and said he remembers his mother and grandmother helping their neighbors and friends in the oven (Indigenous massage) or traditional herbal remedies. He also remembers his mother telling him not to talk to teachers about her healing work because it was not seen as part of Western medicine.
This act of wanting to help others, but facing the limitations of what is acceptable in medical and mental health practices were a turning point in Tello’s service as an adult.
He attended Cal State Dominguez Hills, received his bachelor’s degree in psychology, and worked in community mental health clinics, including the now-closed El Centro Mental Health. Even though he was able to help people, he felt that following an assessment and diagnosis protocol was not enough to meet the needs of his community.
Tello and fellow therapists and community health professionals, including a psychiatrist, began getting together to explore traditional Indigenous methods of helping the Chicano and Latino communities; the group called itself Calmecac.
“We started to explore that within our own culture we had volumes written about healing, constructs, methodologies, philosophies, remedies and traditions that we didn’t know our grandmothers were using, but were not validated,” he said.
This research, his university background, his clinical work, and his experience with the Chicano and civil rights movements in Los Angeles forced him to “explore effective ways [for] really heal, not just treat, not just intervene, not just drug and diagnose, but really heal our people.”
In 1988, Tello was part of a group of 90 men who came together to found the National Compadres Network – and its sister organization, the National Comadres Network. Their goal was to empower and re-root individuals, families and communities to honor, rebalance and redevelop the authentic tradition and Indigenous practices of Chicano, Latino, Native and other communities of color by integrating these cultural practices with western mental health practices.
Since the organization’s inception, Tello has delivered keynote speeches, received awards (including the 2015 White House Champions of Change award), authored children’s books, and the book “Recovering Your Sacredness,” a guide to embracing tradition and wisdom – found in many cultures – that can help people return to their ‘sacred purpose’. “
He considers himself a healer, but the community has given Tello the title “el maestro” (the teacher).
In the dimly lit Sacred Circles Center, surrounded by drums used in healing circles, Tello sat down with The Times to discuss the place traditional indigenous healing practices are taking in mental health.
This interview has been edited and abbreviated for clarity.
What does “whole person healing” mean in relation to mental health?
There is a word in my native Nahuatl language, Tloque Nahuaque,
which, loosely translated, means interconnected holiness. In indigenous thinking, our sense of wholeness or well-being is a sense that we are physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually balanced and harmoniously connected to ourselves and all our relationships.
In fact, Western society only looks at the physical aspects of a person that can manifest mentally with certain symptoms. Their job is to deal with the symptoms – to get rid of the pain or discomfort.
In our traditional way [healing practitioners] do not separate the physical from the emotional, mental and spiritual. It’s all connected. So, from a healer’s point of view, we begin to look at all the relationships and influences in your life… It may not be just in your current life, but the spirit of what you take with you from your life journey… what we call we now have generational trauma. And from the spiritual point of view, we are talking about your meaning in life – how valuable do you feel as a man, woman or teenager? What is your role?
Western society and its practitioners categorize people [so] they can determine a treatment regimen to address the symptoms that, when added to the system’s racial disparities, can cause other problems. Not that western health or mental health is not necessary [sometimes]but it is more focused on treatment than cure.
From an indigenous point of view, everything is a teacher, a spirit, if you will. So we ask [about] what the “so-called” depression or anxiety tells us and where it comes from. From an indigenous point of view, those “ghosts” can attach to you and become that overwhelming feeling. It can also be due to the “mold” bad energy that someone [has] projected on you and things that people have said about you that you believe.
That may seem strange or mystical, but we’ve all been in a good mood, walked into someone’s office who was in a bad mood and then walked out feeling completely confused…. It can be a clean cleansing or clearing those taxing thoughts or energy.
Humans have the ability to heal and let go. Healers help you do that – helping and supporting you to restore your balance and reconnect with the sanctity of who you are. But then it’s your job to maintain that. We can also re-ground you, bless you (remind you that you are a blessing) through rituals, share healing stories, use healing songs [and] chants and give you something tips [counsel or advice] of which herbs you can use and which practices you can incorporate into your life. Then [we] burden yourself with the responsibility of staying on the healing path.
How do you apply your clinical background in your traditional medicine work?
We must recognize that this society is sick. The pandemic has shown this. The racism, colonization, injustice and systemic inequality that exist in communities cause stress and trauma [and] frighten and literally kill people. So, while individual intervention and treatment is important, community and societal level healing is imperative.
That is the work we do at the National Compadres Network. We have a great initiative [connected with the Sacred Circles Center] called on the Healing Generations Institute to address the generational wounds that have been aggravated by society among black, brown, Asian, indigenous and other oppressed populations by lifting and integrating the generational medicine, teachings and healers that our communities have.
What would you say to people who know they need mental health care but are afraid to use the system?
Many of our people don’t trust the western system – and for good reason. All kinds of horrible medical experiments were done on people of color [like] the harmful eugenics movement. There have been experiments with many indigenous people and people of color. Their bodies [were] mutilated and [they were] medication and treatments given….Later, [we] find that there are serious long-term side effects.
Research will show you that black and brown boys are four to five times more likely to be prescribed drugs for so-called ADHD than white boys. Why is that? This has been going on for generations and hopefully it will get better, but then the pandemic will come and the inequalities will resurface.
There are also drug companies that monitor what kind of drugs are out there and how much they charge, so we have capitalism that affects western health and mental health. So of course there’s no trust – but I’m not saying there isn’t a place for it.
Western medicine and conventional mental health care have their place, for emergencies and crisis situations. There are imbalances and illnesses that are so deep that the symptoms interrupt the functioning of the individual himself and cause immense discomfort. You need [that] medications or certain clinical interventions to treat the problems.
And there are certain people with very deep generational trauma [and] they may need to continue taking medications. But even then, it is important to understand the role of community healers and indigenous practices and treatments, herbs, in the oven, cleansweat lodges and healing circles to continue the healing process.
How can our mental health care help more people?
Once you’ve diagnosed someone, it’s almost like putting a spell on them. [If someone says,] “[You have] attention deficit,” [you think]: “Oh, shoot, that’s me.” No you’re not. That is your injury, for you are much more than that. Western science will label and categorize people according to their injury. In [our] traditional medicine, we see their wholeness.
Maybe one of your wounds or… loads (your burden, or what you have with you) is alcohol. The alcohol can take over your mind and we [as healers] understand that. With regard to alcohol… it’s no coincidence that they call alcohol a ghost. We know that the substance or spirit of alcohol changes you. And the more it becomes a part of who you are and what you do, that “ghost” can begin to control you.
It is important in the most serious cases to recognize that … you have invited that spirit to take over your life. Many people have “lost touch” with who they really are, but even in those cases, in order to truly heal, we must “call their minds back” to the sanctity of who they really are and at the same time the spirit of the substance that gives them each day continues to challenge.
Unfortunately, Western treatment reverses the order and makes the disease their identity, as if they are nothing without the disease. A central part of indigenous thinking and healing is that the Creator and our ancestors are always present and our holiness is always within us, just waiting to be healed, blessed and released to do His sacred purpose.