Ancestor Project part 10: “Authenticity”

I’ve been thinking a lot on the concept of authenticity, as well as the viability of reconstructionism itself. This started with a Angelos Naisos debacle on Twitter after he was accused by some youtuber of being folkish. (I mean really, yawn.) Angelos had some interesting things to say. I do believe inherited trauma, intelligence, and experience can and does influence how the practitioner interacts with divinity, and how divinity interacts with the practitioner. But (and I don’t keep up enough to know if anyone was actually saying this in that particular conversation) it’s laughable to me to think that bloodlines can make that experience categorically superior. It’s laughable that any authentic religious experience can be deemed categorically superior.

So I just used the word authentic. (He said the title of the movie!) But I used it to describe a plural.

There are many authenticities.

What we should be worrying about, if we’re bothering ourselves with worrying about it at all, is disclosing what they are authentic to. And this, mind, is a human courtesy more than anything. The gods don’t care what color your skin is or what mortal language you speak. Worship is worship is worship. But.

I should remind those following along what my ancestors would have done with someone like me: capital punishment. My blood wouldn’t even have been fit to spill for the gods. No, my fate would have been to be swiftly sent back to Teotl in the hopes that a baby fitter for obedient civic participation would come out next time. And it would have been done with extreme prejudice. In Aguascalientes, where my grandfather was from, it’s still not legal for a trans person to change their gender marker or use the bathroom that aligns with their identity, and all across Mexico, trans people (trans women especially) are murdered with impunity.

That’s one kind of authenticity.

Another kind is nepantla.

I finally got my hands on the first of my Gloria Anzaldua books. She’s an important piece of the puzzle because her writings on mestizaje are going to do a lot for me and this project. As I understand it, Gloria Anzaldua explores the concept of nepantla, or “in-betweenness”, “reconciling opposites”, “a middle way”, as a kind of liminality of identity. But it’s an idea with an ancient pedigree. A native informant once famously said to a Spanish missionary after being asked how well Christianity was being incorporated into the culture, “Do not worry, for we are still nepantla.”

500 years on, we are still nepantla.

COVID has had me thinking on why I am so nervous around groups of people, and especially around people who do what I do, whatever thing happens to be relevant. (Polytheism, painting, comics, essay-writing, being Chicano, etc.) It’s ironic that being socially isolated outside of work had had me not only pondering groups, but why I hate them so much. I should be relieved, right?

But somehow, I miss in-person socializing terribly. And online, I run groups. I own 4 Discord servers: one was the first of its kind way back in the beginning days of Slack; another is for Huehuemexicayotl, and the associated 101 website project I’m working on for the community; and the last two are both for local, IRL trans community spaces, one of which I founded entirely and have sunk a lot of real money into.

So what is this feeling, then? If I like people, why does it seem like I also hate them? Is it the nature of groups themselves I don’t like, rather than the individuals that comprise them? Or is it something else? It has to be.

I know for a fact that I am not neurotypical, and as I get older, as my life gains complexity year after year, the more I’m beginning to understand the ways in which my brain deviates from the invisible norm. Things that are enormously hard for others are sometimes very easy for me, but more often it is the other way around.

At points in my life, since around the time I first discovered paganism somewhere in the 7th grade, I was occasionally struck by my tendency to gravitate toward under-acknowledged, under-valued, and just plain unpopular kinds of things. I listened to unpopular music, wore unpopular clothes, liked unpopular characters in my media. I kept unpopular hobbies and read unpopular books. I was an unpopular person, and I couldn’t fathom being any other way. Being accepted and valued in a group was so unthinkable to me that I seemed actively averse to the idea. The closest I ever seem to get is when I fall in with other “misfits”, a demographic defined entirely by a lack of acceptance. And through it all, I continue to bristle, like an automatic reaction, like blinking when an object gets too close to one’s eye, at the idea of being relatable.

I have CPTSD, and it comes from a constellation of unrelated experiences and sheer bad luck in life. But my aversion to participating in groups seems to be more than that. The aversion is visceral and intense. I want so badly to belong, but am incapable of ever fully immersing myself, of ever getting completely comfortable. I remembered the term Impostor Syndrome. Then I wondered if it had anything to do with trauma from participating in groups.

Approval was The Dream.  Acceptance, on the other hand, felt attainable.  If your efforts passed muster, then you were found to be acceptable.  Tolerable.  Adequate.  Lacking in interest, and that was a very good thing because if you weren’t of interest, then you weren’t open to criticism and a potential target for abuse or terroristic threats.  These new experiences with social rejection felt eerily similar.  Suddenly, approval was off the table as was a chance at intimacy and connection.  Social acceptance and invitation became the options.  Not inclusion.

Out of the Mire

Searching for writing on this was tricky because search options kept wanting to give me results about collective trauma. But I was trying to find information on the fruits of suffering and witnessing abuse as a child and teenager. There was abuse at home, in both parents’ households; there was abuse at school, from students and teachers alike; there was verbal, financial, domestic, and sexual abuse along the way. I could be invisible when it suited me, and when I wanted to be noticed I knew the easiest way was to say or do or possess something incendiary, even just a book. There was never any interest in me as a person from those closest to me, and simply navigating day-to-day life became a tightly choreographed performance. If I barely had the room to be authentic at home, how could I possibly ever be authentic anywhere else? I had to break myself into bite-sized pieces and put them all in different places for safekeeping.

And I mean, the cost was severe. I acutely felt this “way” of living taking its toll as early as my freshman year of high school. But the cost of not doing so was even more so: possessions stolen or vandalized, boundaries crossed, thoughts and ideas disparaged, achievements ignored. I got used to living on the edge of nowhere, of never being whole.

Growing up, I also didn’t have a sense of being an ethnic minority, let alone the strong feelings that usually come with it, for better or for worse. The town my parents insisted on raising me in was one they chose for the lauded school district, not for its history: it was a prominent white-flight neighborhood, and in the 30’s it was a haven for Nazi sympathizers.

One of the rallies held by the Bund in La Crescenta, CA.

We knew of the small town’s existence due to some cousins living there, having bought a house on a working class salary in a neighborhood now festooned with multi-million-dollar mansions. But being one of only a small handful of Latino families in the area, along with being surrounded by a pretty equal mix of white folks and Korean and Armenian immigrant families. It was easier to find kimchi or dolmadaki than carne asada. There were kids I could practice my long-lapsed Spanish with – not that I did – but the homemade tamales and mariachi music weren’t on the radar. They were just quirks of the family that weren’t even worth mentioning to anyone.

And the family itself had other quirks. Organized into loose “clans”, which contingent of the vast Castellano empire one associated with depended entirely on where you lived. We could be as little as half an hour from a cluster of relatives, but the cousins on the other side of town, the ones who babysat your kids in the summer or hosted your 30th birthday party because they had the pool were the ones you got petho with and knew most intimately. You were allowed to rummage through their fridge, no questions asked.

In many ways I have always been accepted by my broader family, and getting to know a different group of cousins over a few short years before coming to Canada helped a lot, another group of outcasts standing apart from partying and drug use in their younger years. With them, I’ve managed to come eerily close to being candid.

But I continue to be plagued with questions. Who really am I? Who am I allowed to be, and where, with whom? Why do the rules and strictures of orthopraxic group hegemony fucking trigger me so badly? Even when I want to like them and abide and can’t?

Could this just be run-of-the-mill shame, too? Because shame is a long thread in my bloodline, and its a theme I revisit over and over again as I chip away at this project. Acknowledging my family’s legacy as one taking place in diaspora has been healing for me, though I would never be able to get any of my relatives to agree.

The political mobilization of Mexicans as a minority has not arisen from their recognition of themselves as members of a diaspora. For most United States citizens of Mexican origin, there was no foundational uprooting, no forced expulsion from the promised land, nor did an awareness of a “scattered people” precede the formation of the nation-state that we know today as Mexico. Consequently, the ideological work done inside the community to maintain a supposed diasporic identity is practically nonexistent.

The “pursuit of a better life” does not readily lend itself to the creation of a typical diaspora. In fact, it almost echoes a kind of opportunism, and when that “better life” is sought after in the US, that opportunism usually involves bootstraps. If not outwardly, as with immigrant families who make educational and career demands of their children for the sake of escaping poverty, then it occurs inwardly, in the long, sleepless stretches of night.

Until very recently Mexico did not cultivate the consciousness of a “dispersed people” among its emigrants. After the 1847 war, Mexican nationalism, based largely on the trauma of losing half the country’s territory, was defensive and anti-American. Thus, despite the massive exodus to the country to the north, Mexico’s national culture was not very sensitive to the situation of the emigrants. Some Mexican authors have said that in Mexico, “for decades, as a country and as a government, we forgot our emigrants, with the shameful attitude of a mother who abandoned her children and does not want to know about them.” That attitude caused resentment against Mexico in the children and grandchildren of the immigrants, who felt they were victims not only of discrimination by Anglo-Saxon society in the United States but also of the disdain of their parents’ compatriots. Instead of promoting the image of the emigrant who goes abroad to make good for his family and homeland, a Mexican national culture dominated by collective guilt feelings made assimilation or multiculturalism synonyms for disloyalty and treason.

Who knows what happened in the crop fields being worked by migrant laborers like my grandfather, dusted with Zyklon-B as they crossed the border. Who knows what happened in the hand-built house on Del Monte Street where my grandmother was raised. All I do know is that Spanish was withheld from her, as if simply having the knowledge of another language was thoughtcrime. Which, in a way, it was in those days. But what it did more than anything else was close a door.

…since the forties most Mexican movies have represented the experience of emigration to the United States negatively. In the films, Mexican American characters have lost their identity in the attempt to assimilate into American society; the only hope of recovery for them is to return to the motherland. The possibility of staying productively in the United States without simultaneously losing the culture of origin is practically inconceivable. […] To the question “What is your opinion of Mexicans who go to work in the United States?” 47 percent of those polled answered, “bad” or “very bad.”

Fostering Identities: Mexico’s Relations with It’s Diaspora

The new is incompatible with the old, then. The there with the here. The them with the us. It’s existential exile: we have left and can never properly return. The vase cannot be un-broken.

I remember once being drunkenly told by a great-uncle at a party that my life was essentially not worth living because I was childless. I suppose a thin sliver of the frequent relief I feel from having made the choice to not be a parent is spite. If I’m to be told that not having kids is some kind of affront, then I might as well get a little satisfaction out of it.

Reminder: Sufficiently Powerful Optimization Of Any Known Target Destroys All Value

Don’t Worry About The Vase

We’re optimization machines. That is, we have goals, passions, interests, preferences, and we are always trying to move toward them with every decision we make. It’s how sufficiently powerful optimization of the self results in sociopathic greed, or sufficiently powerful optimization of a nation-state results in horrific authoritarianism, or sufficiently powerful optimization of “historical authenticity” results in abandoning people, and reality, they are now.

I got into my first heated debate on r/Anahuac last week in a thread where someone was asking if white people were allowed to worship the Teteo. A white practitioner made the mistake of describing the relationship they had with Quetzalcoatl, in which they felt as if they’d been getting messages from the Feathered Serpent for many years. Another user jumped in to claim that such a relationship is inauthentic to tradition. No one was claiming that it was traditional, is the thing. No one was saying “I’m 1/16th Mixtec so you can’t tell me I’m wrong”. The implication of the detractor’s message was more insidious than that, though. It was that this experience was lesser because it didn’t fit the historical paradigm, the experience was incorrect and therefore didn’t have a right to exist.

With some of the people I’ve started speaking to and building community with, the term ‘LARPer’ gets used a lot. And it refers to two different types of people to be found in Mexicayotl, usually on the ends of a kind of spectrum: woo-woo new age archetypalists on the one hand, and hypertraditional exclusionists on the other. The one type hardly needs any introduction or explanation, but the other is a bit more difficult to pin down.

Most of the time it’s acknowledged that Mexico is a country of mixed races and ethnicities. Sometimes the acknowledgement is a grudging footnote to whatever other axe is being ground, but oftentimes it’s explicit and sometimes even celebrated. The modern Mexicayotl movement wouldn’t be what it is without outside influence – without the inspiration from North American pow-wow culture, which in itself is “historically inauthentic”. Not even the famously “ancient” Ayahuasca ceremony is older than the colonial period, if we’re to go by linguistic evidence. But it’s a nice thought. There is an

odd affectation of European colonialism that indigenous people are without history—that, unlike Europeans, they are unchanging in their isolation and innocence. It then follows that the practices of present-day indigenous peoples must reproduce the practices of thousands of years ago. Both reasons, I believe, malign the creativity, adaptability, and ingenuity of indigenous cultures.

Singing to the Plants

Mexicayotl and Huehuemexicayotl are both attempts at reclaiming and honoring history through the lens of the now. White folks and non-Mexicans are more than welcome to participate in this project. But the kind of reconciliation that we mestizos must undergo, displaced or not, is our burden alone.

That task is central to our performance of authenticity, and it is an authenticity that only has one foot in the past, one foot in the Smoking Mirror.

What they might consider the defense of ‘authenticity’, someone of a more generalist disposition like myself would consider to be petty word-games employed to defend the [recontructionist polytheist’s] fragile sense of religious uniqueness. Funny enough, ‘uniqueness’ in a religious context is an explicitly Abrahamic trait (this might suggest quite a bit of unresolved post-Christian baggage on the part of RPs). Actual historical polytheists the world over were usually quite pluralistic and open to syncretism when done in a pious and symbolically-appropriate manner.

This blog post taking the piss out of reconstructionism was fun to read, and I daresay that it was also cathartic. But it lays out in pretty concise (and grumpy) language the kind of authenticity that historical sticklers are actually concerned with, the target that they are actually optimized for. Culture and heritage and authenticity and all this shit I’m trying to unpack here is not a family tree, it will not look like a linear progression when plotted. It’s a spider diagram.

Sets move and grow and shrink and break off and merge with others or pieces of others and mutate and change.

And in my metaphysics, the only true nature of existence is change itself. There is no ideal form from which to derive authenticity, no appeal to an unchanging aesthetic authority that can order actions and beliefs and people into an hierarchy that devolves into meaninglessness the further from “pure” you get.

My metaphysics is nepantla, the weaving of irreconcilables into the cloth from which reality is cut.

OK, now I’m going to talk about Buddhism for a second. Specifically, I want to show you David Chapman’s epistemological explorations of enlightenment:

Supposedly, only an enlightened person can say if someone else is enlightened. They have special magic insight. Ordinary people can’t tell. So how does that work?

A skeptical view is that a supposed enlightenment expert (such as a Zen master) will declare you to be enlightened if:

– You have been practicing hard enough for long enough to get enlightened, according to the sect’s traditions
– You can recite the sect’s dogmas as needed
– You conform to the social norms of the sect
– You show conspicuous loyalty to the sect vs. competing ones
– You have some sort of odd experience which you describe using the sect’s jargon

This is cynical, but seems to account for most of what actually happens.

I want to take this opportunity to compare ‘enlightenment’ with ‘belonging’. Think about this for a moment.

Now, hear me when I say that wholly participating in “culture”, “ethnicity”, “community” feels a lot like trying to reach enlightenment. No one will tell you how because no one knows how. You either do or you don’t, there is no bridging that gap, not even for the most inclusive, “woke” outreach organization. If you do not act in accordance with the group, you are not part of the group. That’s because The Group isn’t a thing, but a process, like a school of fish is a process.

Anzaldua, in the book I’ve recently cracked open, seems to call this pursuit of homeless homecoming her “Coyolxauhqui Imperative”. Coyolxauhqui, Painted with Bells, is brought to life in the myth of her brother’s birth as the sun. Her mother, Coatlicue, is made pregnant with Huitzilopochtli through miraculous means, and Coyolxauhqui as the moon and her 400 brothers, the southern stars, are enraged at the scandal and plot to kill her. At the last minute, Huitzilopochtli is born, fully armed and defending their mother, the earth. He dismembers his sister before killing most of the Huitznahua.

To me, general Mexicayotl explanations for this myth border on the patronizing. I’ve seen Huitzilopochtli represent the “wisdom” of daylight triumphing over “ignorance and fear” as symbolized by night, which is a weak interpretation to me. Politically, the Mexica evidently linked Coyolxauhqui to conquered peoples and territories. This is much more interesting theme. This goes much deeper than pedestrian allegory.

This myth won’t leave me alone, to be honest. It dogs me. And I think in seeing it as not (just) the birth of the sun, but rather the birth of shame makes it more real and poignant to me. In Coyolxauqui’s death I can begin to understand the mythic underpinnings of shame, what it does to a people, and how to heal.

Scholarship seems to be undecided as to what Huitzilopochtli is the god of. He is one of several Teteo of the sun, and one of many Teteo of war. In fact, when Tlatoani went to war, it was often that they dressed as a different god entirely. Maybe most importantly, though, is that Huitzilopochtli was the tutelary god of the Mexica, guiding them through the desert to a new promised land. Huitzilopochtli, then, might be more a Teotl of the raw determination of a people to not just survive, but dominate and flourish, to lay claim. As another redditor said, he might actually be a god of will.

When we re-frame the myth in more generic terms using this interpretation, something interesting happens. A mother becomes pregnant under mysterious conditions, and her family turns on her out of fear. This is the initial injection of shame into the narrative: the bastard child heralds it. The family, led by the preeminent symbol of night, dreams, and the shadow self, responds negatively, knee-jerk.

“I know what to do,” Huitzilopochtli reassures his mother from the womb. Even before being born, before springing into the world, he knows what to do. His mind is made up, his strategy planned. He is already geared for a confrontation, already winning it in his mind.

And like willpower turned into action, he manifests with sword in hand, swinging. The will to make the shame go away rather than heal it results in an utter defeat of the interior self, the moon, Coyolxauhqui. The self is fragmented and cast aside. All that is left is will. Painted with Bells and Hummingbird on the Left are brother and sister, and therefore inseparable in Nahua thought. They make what James Maffie calls an ‘agonistic inamic pair’:

Teotl’s ceaseless changing and self-transforming are characterized by what I call agonistic inamic unity. “Inamic” is the Nahuatl term for matched polarities such as male~female, life~death, dry~wet, being~non-being, and order~disorder. (The Aztecs however did not include good and evil among these!) Agonistic inamics represent dual aspects of teotl – not two, metaphysically distinct substances or kinds of stuff. Inamics are mutually arising, interdependent, and complementary as well as mutually competitive.

Maffie on Mexicolore

But Coyolxauhqui is a goddess, and doesn’t die. She simply remains: in pieces. Anzaldua’s Coyolxauhqui Imperative is about putting those pieces back together, or at least the pursuit and process of doing so. Because, like the moon, wholeness is temporary, especially if there is shame. Some of us are fated to spend our lives putting things back together. Coyolxuahqui might help oversee that process along with Tlazolteotl.

There is no roadmap for people wanting to learn how to trust groups, community-think, and authority. Usually, the advice given is to learn how to trust them less.

It’s not that I don’t trust persons; what I don’t trust is people. And why should I? I have every reason not to. And yet ethnicists insist that Group is the arbiter of ethnicity and identity, that Group is Authority. I suppose, at the end of all this, my real question is: what is culture for the exiled? What is culture in a world of ethnic scarcity thinking, where you either have it or you don’t, and once you lose it you can never get it back? What of culture on the small, immediate scale? How do you identify as X when your personal experience of X is nothing but pain and mistreatment? How do you go back to the roots when you’re told you’re not allowed to? That they’re a commodity and their futures belong to someone else?

Why does this all start to sound like trying to get back to Eden after eating the fruit of knowledge? Moreover, why is there an Eden cognate at all? There was never a paradise, there was never a pure, pristine Culture, and there was never a Fall. All there ever was was History. And People. And persons, making choices, trying to get by in a world they didn’t make.

Or need I remind you of the Viking Buddhas?

Sufficiently powerful optimization of group cohesion destroys all value.

Who can we judge to be reputable, rather than just go by who’s loud and quick with a Tweet? Blue checkmarks only mean someone is who they say they are. Not what they say they are.

Accredited experts may disagree. In that case, which ones do you believe?

Worse, entire technical disciplines can go off into outer space for decades at a stretch, completely losing touch with reality. In the mid–20th century, psychoanalytic theory was widely accepted as providing reliable insight into the workings of healthy minds (as well as ill ones). It became, for many, a powerful framework for understanding ethics, life, and meaning. Nowadays, orthodox psychoanalysis seems like a creepy delusion; you can only ask “what on earth were they thinking?”

A current example might be nutrition. Supposed experts endlessly hammer on the message that it is frightfully important to eat what they tell us to. However, their recommendations change dramatically every eight years or so. Not long ago, vitamin E was the key to preventing cancer; now that’s false, and moreover it causes heart disease and stroke. Soy was good for you, because it contains isoflavones, which prevented cancer; now it is bad for you, because isoflavones screw up your endocrine system. Food is mainly fat, carbohydrate, and protein; each repeatedly cycles in and out as “good” or “bad” relative to the others. Clearly, whatever method nutritionists are using to produce their “knowledge” does not work at all.

Beyond these problems, there are many aspects of life where there are no “experts” with wide credibility.


“Be yourself” is a double-edged sword, an airbag in the crashing car. It’s only something we tell to people who do not actually know how to be themselves.

With the history of my family, the only thing I can ever truly trust from my elders is their pain, and the things they do to live with it. I do not know my great-uncle is gay because of the men he’s been with, but because he’s chosen loneliness for 40 years. I know I have two relatives who died of cirrhosis. Another who stepped in front of a truck barreling down the highway. A cousin who refused to take his diabetes medication and killed a pedestrian as he blacked out from hypoglycemia while driving. I have another cousin who makes fun of his daughter for being dark-skinned while her sister is blond-haired and blue-eyed. I have a lot of cousins. I love them terribly. But holes make shapes, too, and we can read them.

I am authentic to myself, because I have nothing else to be authentic by. I am a product of the intersection of my environment and body, a gloss which includes mind and soul(s), and no longer do I pretend to be anything else. I am authentic in my mistrust and skepticism. A fellow practitioner who does activist and academic work with indigenous folks in North America told me that my approach would not be understood or welcome by the elders he knows. I told him that I know no other way – without elders, all I have is paper and the spirits themselves. He’s been mulling it over for a while. We agree that there has to be a better way for others like me.

What I’m doing is a lot harder than just ritual. I’m doing intensive palliative care on myself. There is no recovering from this terminal condition of neurodivergence and isolation, it’s all a slow fade to black now. But I will continue to try and find meaning and build relationship on the way out. I am determined to be a better ancestor someday. Indirectly, and nameless before too long after my death, but an ancestor still. Reconstructing the past is more for my neurotic self-satisfaction than the gods’ benefit anyways. The covenant is broken, we have no choice but to find a new way.

I think this sixth sun is Nepantla.

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