Language, Essay

Asking for Permission/Listening for Consent

Anthony Romero

Dec 18, 2023

The first lesson is consent. Once, when I was a small child, my mother asked me to harvest rosemary for her in preparation for a cleansing ceremony. There are four rosemary plants that encircle my childhood home. “Remember to ask for permission before you take a cut,” she said. The rosemary she pointed me toward was planted beneath the tree in our front yard. My mother stood at the front door and watched as I approached.

My mother, like her mother and her mother’s mother, is a Curandera (a traditional healer in the borderlands), and from an early age many of my experiences were defined by the rituals, stories, practices, and ceremonies that my mother, her family, and our larger community shared. At the onset of the pandemic, with health and healing on my mind and a desire to connect with and support my mother’s mental health while in lockdown, I asked her if we could archive all the plants, stories, prayers, and rituals that she knew, those she learned from others in our community, and what she could remember from my grandmother and great-grandmother.

A desert landscape with a blue sky and mountains in the background.

West Texas sky. Courtesy the author.

For me, this process of remembering—not necessarily of reestablishing connection, but of recommitting myself to our medicine and traditions—led me, by way of a virtual powwow, to Abuelita/Grandmother. Marika Alvarado (Abuelita), who is a Lipan Mescalero Apache Medicine Woman and founder of Of The Earth Institute of Indigenous Cultures and Teachings, has dedicated herself to providing Native and Indigenous folks in Texas and beyond with the opportunity to learn and relearn our traditional medicine and worldviews, while providing a space for community and self-healing. I have had the honor of building on my mother and grandmother’s teachings by sitting with and learning from Abuelita over these last few years, including asking her to look over this piece of writing to ensure that I was not misunderstanding or misrepresenting our teachings. It was with her blessing and consent that I wrote this.

Abuelita’s generosity, tireless dedication, and teachings are especially important at this time, as many of our communities in Texas are facing unpredictable weather patterns; water loss from overdevelopment; land loss and displacement by Tesla, SpaceX, and other corporate encroachments; and the desecration of sacred sites by extractive industries such as the Enbridge pipeline. I grew up in the Texas Hill Country, where my family has lived between South-Central Texas and Northern Mexico for as long as we’ve been in this world. Our homelands span prairies, coastlines, and desert mountain ranges. It is a landscape shared by Lipan Apaches, Coahuiltecans (Tap Pilam), E’stok Gna (Comecrudo), Karanka, Comanches, and many more tribal groups and familial bands.

I often think of this region as a space of intercultural exchange, a crossroads of trade routes, migratory paths, and Indigenous diplomacy. It is a land that knows each of us, that has cradled our interdependence in the best of times and our conflicts in the worst. Our experiences in this place are defined by the intimate, consensual, and reciprocal relationships with the land that are degraded and disregarded in the face of gross settler expansion and extractivism that puts human, kin, and land at risk, while erasing and paving over the teachings and knowledge held by the land. Abuelita has noted how many of our medicines are being lost because of these extractive impulses and industries. Tesla alone is responsible for the loss of thousands of acres of land that held countless medicines. It should come as no surprise that as we lose our medicines, we also lose our health and culture.

In early November, I had the opportunity to visit with Miguel R. Acosta, Director of Tāp Pīlam Lē (People of This Land Speak), a language revitalization project of the Coahuiltecan Tāp Pīlam Nation, whose traditional lands stretch from South-Central Texas to Northern Mexico. A graduate of the Native American Master of Arts in Linguistic and Language Program at the University of Arizona, Acosta is a kind and rigorous researcher who has dedicated himself to understanding, revitalizing, and sharing Pajalate, the Coahuiltecan language.

During our conversation, Acosta shared a question that guides his work: “How could these people living amongst the mesquite, the nopal, the animals, and mountains have developed such a complex language?” Pajalate, he explained, is an isolate and has no demonstrable relationship to any other language. We both smiled in excitement. What I appreciated about the way that Acosta framed his research question is that it places the development of language in relation to the land and its relatives and perhaps, in this way, the question answers itself. Could the language really be isolated if it is already in relationship to others? Furthermore, could the language have been born out of necessity to communicate with the land and other living beings? Without those words, how else could Tāp Pīlam ancestors have asked for permission? How else could they have expressed their gratitude and made their offerings?

Acosta calls Pajalate the “heart of culture” for his people, and when I asked how language revitalization has shifted his understanding of his history, culture, and landscape, he replied, “The revitalization of our heritage language has sparked a better appreciation of our history and given us a glimpse into our ancestors’ worldview.”

During one of our first conversations, Abuelita told me that “many of our families remember what to do but we don’t remember why we do it.” These last few years, as I have dedicated myself to our teachings and medicine, I have felt how important it is to understand not only what the protocols are, but why they are in place. Returning to this first lesson—building intimate, consensual, and reciprocal relationships with the land—requires that we not only speak but also listen in a good way, with good intentions, and follow our good thoughts with good actions.

A finger and thumb holding a print photograph of an old man with glasses and a younger person sitting on a couch during a Christmas celebration.

Romero's paternal great-grandfather. Courtesy the author.

I am the first in my family to leave and the first to go to college, and these past few years have been defined in part by the waves of grief that wash over me as I sit in community over Zoom with Indigenous healers, organizers, and culture bearers from back home who detail the struggles our communities face. There are many stories to share, perhaps too many for my heart to bear, but it is enough to say that at every turn our communities have faced refusals: Refusals to allow elders to collect medicines and seeds before bulldozers move in to level a field, refusals to relocate sacred trees, refusals to stop building and allow ceremonial access to restricted land. It eases my spirit to hear in these testimonies that with each refusal we recommit ourselves to cultural resurgence, to our teachings, to our ways.

As Abuelita reminds us, “we own nothing, and take care of everything.” For this reason, we have a responsibility to be in good relation with our relatives and the land. We have an obligation to build intimate, reciprocal, and consensual relationships with the land, and the human and non-human relatives that we share with it. I want to be careful here, as I do not want to invite Western interpretations of my language to cloud these teachings. Getting to “know” the land, for example, may suggest to some that I mean the kind of Western colonial knowledge system that insists on building taxonomies for the purpose of estimating value and extractive potential. This way of thinking encourages us to see the landscape purely as a collection of resources to extract from now or in the future. This is not our way.

All are sovereign, including myself, although the “‘self” I am speaking of now is not individual but dispersed and collected across my relationships and the land itself. I am more than entangled in the land and in my relationships. This excessive entanglement exceeds Western linguistic and epistemic capacity. It is an overflow of sensation that bends away from and into the network of relation continually. I am the land and I am a representation of the land—distinguished and indistinguishable. This is why the first lesson is a lesson in consent. Asking for permission and expressing our gratitude is the beginning of a circle that leads us back to the land and me back to my mother and to our people.

A rosemary plant with green leaves and purple flowers with a bee.

Flowering rosemary. Courtesy the author.

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The tree my mother directed me toward is named Baby. My mother had it planted there in view of my childhood bedroom when I was born. The tree stands as a testament to my mother’s strength after a long and difficult pregnancy. Baby held its arms out gray and wide, dappled with green leaves that almost twinkle in the bright Texas sun as they dance against a sky so large it makes you dizzy. It’s a sky best seen from the ground, where the land can hold its hand to your back, giving you the strength to face an ocean in reverse. Shaded by this great tree, my small hands brushed against the leaves of rosemary, another prayer I learned from my mother. I can’t recall if it was my voice or my soul that asked the first time but I know it is with my heart that I listened for an answer. This is how I have come to listen, anyway. Asking for permission is a lesson but listening for consent must be learned in relation.

I never asked my mother, or Abuelita, how I might hear a reply to the question, Would the rosemary speak? Would I feel its voice on the back of my neck? Would its spirit whisper to my heart? As with nearly all of these lessons, there is only enough information to set the student upon their task but it is the student who must answer the questions that arise in practice.

Anthony Romero is a detribalized Indigenous (Coahuiltecan) artist, cultural organizer, educator, and traditional healer currently living in Boston, Massachusetts. His work as an artist is dedicated to documenting and supporting Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities through a collaborative approach to performance, sound, sculpture and the development of socially engaged projects that build sociality through reciprocal acts of care and community building. Romero is a founding member of the artistic research collective Sonic Insurgency Research Group and the housing justice collective The East Boston Spatial Justice Lab. His most recent book, Lastgaspism: Art and Survival in the Age of Pandemic, was published by Soberscove Press in 2022. Recent articles by Sonic Insurgency Research Group, including interviews on Sound and Power, can be found on OpenWork Journal and MARCH International.

See Also

Seed, Criticism

‘A Love Song to Ohlone Culture’

Mary Ladd (We Wai Kai First Nation)

Jun 23, 2023
Co-owners Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino use cooking to foster 'ottoy at Cafe Ohlone outside the Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley.

Language, Essay

Asking for Permission/Listening for Consent

Anthony Romero

Dec 18, 2023
In this personal essay, artist, cultural organizer, and educator Anthony Romero reflects on the people in his community who work to revive the Coahuiltecan language in good relations with the land and its human and nonhuman kin.