Laurita Dianita

Reflections and art on the topics of public health, social justice, and love

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A different telling of Rio’s birth

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I know I already wrote Rio’s birth story and shared it here. I wrote it as clearly and honestly as I could, with all of the relevant factual details, the small collection of photos that my globally-published photojournalist friend Ash was able to get me right away, and an attempt to be even-handed in its telling even though I felt heartbroken.

This is a different telling of it. 

I am telling it differently now because I now have all of Ash’s photos from which to choose, and I also now have license to share that the reason for my heartbreak was Oscar and the end of our marriage. We are going through a dissolution of marriage currently (in as collaborative and child-development-focused a way as possible). Though our relationship had been troubled for a long time, the night before the birth was particularly difficult. This was why I birthed through an ocean of grief.

In this version, then, I am visually telling the story (thanks to the gift of Ash’s photo-documentation) with a focus on what really matters to me from the birth. I am telling it with a focus on the narrative that strengthens me, the memory of it that reminds of me of my own fierce will. Most of all, I am telling it with a focus on what provided me the resilience I needed to cross that ocean of grief to meet my baby: the women in my life, the women in that room. They are the fountain from which I drew my resilience. When I had no tranquility and peace inside myself, I absorbed theirs. When I felt defeated, I concentrated on their love and belief. The faces and hands and voices of my mom and Jen are the way I want to remember this birth. Suki hugging me, Deb pressing the hot pack to my back, the quiet presence of Ash and of my sister, the sunlight from the window, the calm female voice singing “Ra Ma Da Sa” from Jen’s phone, the colors of my robe, the blue and purple of Jen’s hair, the tickly feeling of my mom’s gentle fingers, the love I spoke to Rio as I pushed him out, the way I reached down to feel him crown and to pull him to my chest, the sweet way Ida greeted her baby brother with a kiss. These are the things I want to remember. These are the elements that I am choosing to carry with me from this birth, to sustain me in this hard road ahead.

What I have learned in the last six months is that resilience is an active process. It requires choices in every moment to draw on the strengths around us, and it requires that there is something good around us and inside us that we can draw on. These women were my pillars and my lifeboats, and I wanted to tell the birth story again, with a dedication to them.

The collection of photos does begin and end with Oscar, though, because this pregnancy did begin with him, and because the birth ended with him. That is, we will be co-parenting together for the rest of our lives. The kids are ours. The moment of birth is brief; the process of parenting is life-long, and he will always be there, dedicated to our children alongside me, even as we craft separate lives.

But the birth, the birth I want to remember, is not about him at all. This is the story I want to tell.

[Please note that some photos are NSFW…unless you work in the birthing field, that is.]




























All photos by Ash Adams

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December 3rd, 2016 at 10:17 pm

Rio Esteban’s Birth: Crossing an Ocean

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(All photos by Ash Adams)


I’ve been struggling with how to tell my birth story because it contains some personal emotional details that I don’t feel like broadcasting. But I find myself feeling blocked up from not having written it, not having cast it into narrative form, externalized it and made sense of it in writing. So this is my best attempt to tell the emotional truth of it and share it with all of you.

Before labor

Ida had come 3 days early, and my friends and my husband, Oscar, thought I was going to deliver even earlier this time, a prediction which I didn’t totally agree with, but his positon so low on my cervix made seem plausible. I was not expecting Rio to come so late. His due date was Friday, July 22nd, and my labor didn’t begin until the morning of Tuesday, July 26th. Although I had told myself that I would go back to work on Monday the 25th if I were still pregnant, I sensed that I just needed to take some time to myself and he would come, so I spent Monday getting a massage and a pedicure and meeting with my doula to work on pressure points in my foot and talk through things that were weighing on my heart. That seems to have worked.

Early labor

Early on Tuesday morning, after a poor night of sleep, I went to snuggle with my two and a half-year-old, Ida Luna, in her room, and fell asleep on her crib mattress on the floor. I then awoke around 7:00 with my first contraction. They came every 15 minutes after that, so I figured this was early labor, and I was hoping it would continue and advance. Oscar and I got Ida ready and after he left to take her to school, I slept for another hour and a half, waking every 15 minutes with pain in my pelvis and back. I recognized the contractions, but this felt markedly different than last time, mainly in that they were not accelerating and I was not diving into that deep, private, mental space of Laborland as I had in early labor with Ida.


Later that morning at home, Oscar pushed on my sacrum as I sat in extended child’s pose, and this felt good, as all of the pain was concentrating in my back. My back, afflicted with spondololysis for the majority of my life, had hurt terribly throughout pregnancy, and I was expecting it to hurt during labor. Around 10-something I threw on a sports bra, a dress, and sneakers while Oscar grabbed the birth bag, and we headed out to go on a walk, to which I invited a few sister-friends. Before the walk, my mom (Geneva Woods Birth Center/Geneva Woods Midwifery owner and Certified Nurse Midwife, Barbara Norton) asked if I’d like to get checked, so I came in. I was 3 cm. dilated, 80% effaced, and my cervix was mostly soft but a little bit firm. She suggested that we not walk so far away at Kincaid Park, as we had been planning, but stay closer by the birth center, so we headed to the trails near Alaska Pacific University, texting friends to update them. In retrospect, all this texting and coordinating was not helping my labor at all, but I really wanted some sister-friend presence. Oscar and I walked for close to a mile, with me leaning on his shoulders and moving my hips and him swatting mosquitoes away from my legs during contractions, and then circled back to the car for a snack and water. I found it odd that I could eat during early labor, since last time I was vomiting at this point. When my friend Suki and my friend and birth photographer Ash arrived, we walked a few more loops with them, me laboring through contractions with the support of Suki or Oscar’s shoulders, Ash snapping photos, and some talking and laughing as we made our way over dirt trails through the beautiful birch forest. My contractions were about 3 – 4 minutes apart at this point, and closer on uphills, so, thinking I had progressed, we headed to the birth center. Oscar had turned the seat heaters on high, which felt amazing on my low back. I had a particularly uncomfortable contraction as we arrived at the birth center, which I got through in the parking lot, leaning against the car.


My mom had mentioned earlier that if my pain is concentrated in my back, it may be that baby is in a funny position, and I needed to lay on my side with my knee close to my chest in order to get him to turn. By the time I arrived at the birth center again, however, the pain radiated from my pelvis out and into my back and hips, so we were less concerned about position. We settled into the birthing room I had chosen – the bright “Hummingbid Room” lit by sunlight from the large windows and my doula Jen Allison arrived. I got my dose of antibiotics (I had tested positive for GBS) and had a few contractions on the bed in extended child’s pose, with Oscar pressing on my back. Then I tried putting on my calming birth mix on my phone, and getting in the shower, but nothing was quite clicking, and my contractions slowed down significantly. I got out and Jen rubbed my feet and pushed on my labor pressure points, and asked me about the morning and the previous night, I believe trying to tease out from me what might be getting in the way of progressing.


My mom came in with Deb Schneider, who is a certified direct-entry midwife (CDM), as well as a nurse and paramedic, who works in their office as a nurse and birth assistant. Geneva Woods is a CNM-only practice (that is, all births are attended and managed by CNMs), but Deb is able to offer her insight from her own CDM practice, which she maintains outside of her hours at Geneva Woods. For that reason, my mom wanted her help with my birth because she did not want to be the only midwife for her daughter’s labor/grandson’s birth, and the other CNM, Dana, was seeing patients all day. Deb checked me and I was still only 3 cm. dilated, 80% effaced, and a little bit firm. No progress at all. All that walking, all those contractions, some of them increasingly hard, and nothing. This felt defeating. I knew that there was emotional stuff getting in the way. It had been a hard few weeks before the birth, and a hard night, and there was a lot of heavy stuff floating around in my head and heart.


Active labor

This was about 2:30 pm. My mom and Deb suggested I could go home, or I could try sleeping here since I had not slept well the night before, and see if that helps. They also said if I like, in a little while they could try breaking my water to speed things up. I didn’t want to be stuck forever, so I considered the idea, but I was hopeful I could get into active labor without it — and it turned out that way.  A change of environment and focus was all I needed. Jen, Ash, my mom, and Deb, all left the room as I lay down with one of Jen’s rice-filled hot pads on my eyes, the rain sound from the white noise app on my phone, pillows between my knees, and Oscar next to me. I may have slept a few minutes before the first contraction hit. They then started to speed up and intensify some as I lay with my eyes covered and just the (artificial) sound of rain. In fact, they intensified so much that I vomited, just as I had at the beginning of active labor with Ida.


This certainly felt like progress, but it was also so hard, because I found I could not land on the right coping mechanism, could not decide on visualization or non-focused awareness or concentrating on the parts of my body that did not hurt, or thinking of sweet sleeping Ida that morning, or repeating “open” or thinking of a flower blooming. None of it quite clicked, and I was frustrated. Sadness seemed to be getting in the way of the peaceful, accepting space I wanted to create for me and my son, and sadness made the contractions really hurt. (Obviously, labor hurts, but it hurt more because of the sadness.) In fact, this pain and this sense that I was meandering around trying to cope with it (which was so different than last labor, when my coping strategies had fallen perfectly into place) and the lack of progress at my last check had me think, “Geez, I see why people get epidurals…maybe I should just…no, I know that epidurals increase the risk of c-sections and I do not want to recover from major abdominal surgery, and baby needs my flora. Plus, I know I wouldn’t feel as good and powerful about my birth if I did it that way and what if baby didn’t latch well, and ug, then I’d have to hang out afterwards in the hospital. Plus, I birthed without meds before and I can do it again, just as all of our ancestors have done.” Clearly I won the little argument in my head, but it was there, this little internal struggle.


After a little while, Jen came in and asked Oscar to go to the store to get Natural Calm to help soothe my back muscles, and candles to light for the grief and pain and sadness that was getting in the way (this was, in part, an idea proposed by a fellow Mount Holyoke College alum and mama, Maya, who suggested I could invite in whatever is hard but set good boundaries with those feelings and relegate them to an appropriate place in the room). After Oscar left, Jen laid with me a while, and provided gentle reassurance and presence the way she always does. She also, upon my request, put “Ra Ma Da Sa” on repeat on her phone, and I let the song’s loving kindness pour over me. Then my mom laid down to talk with me briefly and I asked her to stay, and keep scratching my back as she had begun to do.


When I was a child, I was energetic and always wired, so it was hard to get me to fall asleep. My mom would gently trace her fingertips along my back until I fell asleep. This is what she did now, and it brought me such a beautiful calm – because, physiologically, that’s what gentle touches do, but also because it was my mom, and she was so loving and kind and tranquil and calm herself. At this point, my contractions really picked up and intensified. Jen (and sometimes Deb) made sure I had cool rags on my forehead and over my eyes and hot packs pressed against my back. I switched positions from my right to my left side, and got up to pee once, but otherwise just lay on my side with no visual input the entire time. I just let labor happen. I squeezed Jen’s hand during contractions and moaned, her soft voice reminding me to moan low, my mom’s calm voice assuring me through the hardest pains.


I have synesthesia, a cognitive condition in which all graphemes (letters and numbers and words) and many sounds and touches have a color – an absolute color assigned to them, not something I consciously decide. I don’t recall what color my pain was, but I do recall the color of the peace that my mom and Jen and the song brought to me – the red and yellow of the song’s words, the light pink and light blue of my mom’s back scratches, the brown and purple of squeezing Jen’s hand, all this bathed with the gentle window light from the overcast day. At every contraction, I concentrated on the peace and love and calm and colors I was being gifted by these women in my life, and that peace helped override the pain. That peace helped Rio know he was welcome in the world outside, helped me know that I could bring him here.



From the time I had laid down to “sleep,” it had been just over an hour and a half before my contractions got incredibly intense and were more difficult to breathe through. Listening to and reading my labor, my mom asked, “Laura, do you feel like pushing?” I answered, “Uhm, I don’t know” for two more contractions because I wanted to be sure, and on the third, I said, “Yes, I do.” So she said, “Okay, we don’t need to check you; I can tell you’re ready.” And indeed I was. My sister, Claire Norton-Cruz, had been called in as the birth assistant to take over the job of listening to baby heart tones and other vitals, and to prepare things for the midwives. I still had a cold washcloth over my eyes, so I didn’t see her, but I was grateful she was there. Oscar also had come back from his errand and was able to video some of the pushing and birth, which is such a gift.


With both births, pushing felt strange and difficult in the beginning because I wasn’t sure if I was making any progress. But this time, after a few contractions, I gave a push and my water broke suddenly and with great force, splashing all over Deb. We all laughed, even me. It felt like a giant water balloon popping! A few more pushes — this time pulling my own leg up during contractions — and it was clear the head was coming down — I could feel it. From that point on, all I could think was, “I love you, baby Rio. I love you so much, baby Rio.” This was what I concentrated on as he crowned, as he pushed through the “ring of fire,” and as he sat there while my mom told me to wait before pushing him out so my perineum could stretch (this was very hard to do but I was very grateful for the instruction, as it kept me from tearing). I thought of how I loved him and how excited I was to meet him as I then pushed out his head and pushed out his shoulders (which were difficult to get out!) and then pushed out his big chest and his long long body. I was expecting his body to just slide right out after his head, so I recall being confused and yelling, “Get him out!” (my one rude behavior of birth, as far as I can recall). In total, pushing took about 15 minutes. He was born at 4:34 pm.


Baby is born!

My mom said, “Take your baby, Laura,” and she put his slippery body on my chest as he cried loudly. In fact, he started crying before he was fully born. Hearing his cry, knowing his lungs worked and he could breathe, feeling his hefty little body on my chest, seeing his beautiful face, and knowing I was done – done giving birth to him, done giving birth forever — I felt such a rush of both relief and love. My sister and mom and Deb all toweled him off and got a warm blanket to cover him as he laid on my chest. Oscar came over to look at him and cried and cried. I just kissed Rio’s messy little head and asked Oscar over and over, “Isn’t he beautiful?”


Meanwhile, the hemorrhage prevention plan we had put in place got implemented – Pitocin in the leg before the placenta is delivered, and once I pushed that out (which was easy, thank goodness), IV Pitocin and plenty of bi-manual compression. I am small and very sensitive to blood loss, so after bleeding last birth and feeling very faint afterwards, I wanted to prevent it this time. Plus, there is new evidence supporting this Pitocin-before-placenta approach. It was nice to feel like myself this time, and not weak or faint.


Rio latched on quickly and with great positioning, and began to feed vigorously. This came as a great relief, as Ida had dithered at the breast for a long time when I had really hoped for her help getting my uterus to clamp down, and she was not the most vigorous nurser as a newborn, which contributed to low(ish) supply issues. It looked from this first feed like things with Rio would be different, as indeed they have turned out to be – he has remained a voracious eater, and has grown so much since birth.


Rio and I cuddled and nursed on the bed for a while as I inspected the burst capillaries all over my face and chest (oh well, I still haven’t perfected my pushing technique) and Oscar went to go pick up Ida from my dad’s house. When he carried her into the room, her face lit up so brightly to finally see “baby Zio” on the outside. She cautiously crawled across the bed to see him and touch him, and gently kissed his head. I had prepared her thoroughly to understand pregnancy and birth and babies, but still wasn’t sure how much she would understand that this baby is the same one who was inside, who she kissed and talked to through my belly each day. But she clearly did, and was quite in love.


Ida was also fiercely protective, such that she cried intensly and was very difficult to comfort when my mom gave Rio his Vitamin K shot. After that, she mistrusted my mom and whimpered on my shoulder as my mom measured Rio’s head and chest and length, and weighed him. Ash had proposed we all wager bets on Rio’s weight, and her bet turned out to be right: 8 lbs., 3 oz. He was 21 in. long, his head measured 13.25 in., and his chest measured 14 in. People joked, “Where do you hide these big babies?” because even at 40 weeks I was measuring something like 35 or 36 cm., and looked small. (I think I hide them on my organs, because I sure felt squished at the end.)  Oscar then dressed baby and Ash went and picked up pho for us, which we ate in the kitchen area before heading home to manage that awkward first night of sleep with a newborn and a toddler.



This story ends well, with a natural birth, healthy mama, and healthy baby.  However, it is a much harder story to tell than that of my first birth. Even though the active labor was so quick (about an hour and forty minutes) and pushing was surprisingly quick (15 minutes), and even though I am proud of having given birth powerfully and naturally, and even though I am so intensely grateful for the support I received, I do still remember this birth as hard.


Whereas my memories of Ida’s birth are hazy and suffused with peace and joy, the story of this birth is more one of struggle, of overcoming adversity, of pushing through sadness and grief towards peace and power. I did experience peace and tranquility, and I did give birth with determination and power and a great welling of love for my son and belief in my body. I did it, and as I look back on it with more distance, it will serve as a story of my own resilience that will help me get through hard times; I know that. It will remind me of how I can push through any kind of despair that comes upon me because of the love I have for my family. I will remember being a warrior, and I will keep going. It’s just that those stories that strengthen us in the long run aren’t quite so heart-warming to remember and tell in the period afterwards. In fact, even if they have happy endings, as this one does, we tell these stories with some grief too. We wish we could tell simpler stories.


The story of this birth will serve as a reminder that resilience is a quality not just generated by an individual, but is something that is made possible with the support of others. Sure, I was resilient, and, as my doula said, I “crossed an ocean” by myself in the process. But my resilience was the determination to find what was good around me and concentrate on that – and I was surrounded by good. I was surrounded by love and peace and strong, caring women and all I had to do was to visualize that, to focus on it and let it fall over me — and then, with great effort and great joy and loving encouragement, to push my baby out.


And although I don’t believe in gender essentialism, and I know that not all people with uteruses who labor and birth or who assist labors and births identify as women, I did feel in this birth the particular comfort of women. I was reminded of why labor and delivery has been, for most of human existence (and even primate existence) supported primarily by other women/females. Whether by design or by socialization, there was a particular ambiance created by these women – all but one of whom had pushed their own babies out in the same way, all of whom had overcome adversities particular to being female in a patriarchal world, an ambiance that I needed to feel at peace.


I also knew that I was safe and that baby was safe. I felt absolutely no fear because I had confronted my fears while pregnant with the help of the midwives at Geneva Woods and my friends and Jen and my Blessingway Ceremony, and had let go of them. I felt no fear because I knew from her record of outcomes that my midwife mama, Barbara Norton, was safe and the staff she had helping her were safe and competent (that Deb was a paramedic for decades and that my doula was a nurse were both extra bonus sources of reassurance). It is easier to practice resilience and to find peace amid turmoil when you can be confident in the physical safety of you and your children.


There is sadness in telling this story, as well as a sense of pride and power, and most of all a sense of gratitude. I am so grateful for the support I had from my birth team and the care I received from Geneva Woods Birth Center. I wish for everyone the kind of preparation for birth that Jen Allison provided for both me and Oscar, and the kind of loving, empowering, and evidence-based care I got from the staff.


Rio Esteban – this long, heavy child of ours; our sweet, sleepy, strong son, is waking up from his resting spot on my belly now, so I best change his diaper and engage with him. I am so grateful that this beautiful little soul has joined our family, and so grateful for the experience of labor and birth, however hard it was, that brought him out into the world.







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August 17th, 2016 at 9:41 am

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Mama’s in the Mountains

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My article with Oscar‘s photo a month ago in The Anchorage Press:

Mama’s in the Mountains

For this Mother’s Day, we celebrated my mama the way we celebrate all holidays as a family: with a hike in the Chugach Mountains. We trudged for five miles up and down the steep, muddy trails, looking out over Anchorage and the Cook Inlet through bare birch trunks and last year’s cow parsnip stalks.
This is what we do on holidays. This is how we prepare, in the morning, for a Thanksgiving Feast, and how we give thanks. This is how we recover from Christmas breakfast. This is how we celebrate anything: with nature and sweat. So of course this is the most natural way to celebrate my mama on the occasion of Mother’s Day. She wouldn’t have it any other way.

She is, after all, the mother who broke her ankle at age 48 while bouldering on the South Side of Flattop, but didn’t want to cancel the glacier camping trip we had planned soon after. So while we skied up the glacier’s slope, not wanting to be left out of the fun, she got out of the sled in which she was being towed and crawled up the slope. This is the same mother who subconsciously knew when I was hungover as a teenager and would drag me out on 16-mile runs to the Williwaw Lakes or up Wolverine Peak. She is the mother with whom, at the age of 54, I had a harrowing camping trip in the Chugach in which we got lost and hypothermic, but made it out okay after climbing about 7,000 feet of peaks with wet backpacks on. She is the mother who broke her humeral head 6 weeks ago skiing from Arctic Valley to Indian, and had to hike uphill for an hour holding her broken shoulder—this at the age of 59. Of course, arm in sling, she was back to hiking a few weeks later.

I’ve been thinking of my mother’s tenacity, strength and wisdom leading up to this day that is meant to honor mothers. Quite different from its current, highly commercialized face, Mother’s Day’s has its origins in an 1870 declaration by Julia Warde Howe in response to the loss of so many husbands, sons and fathers in the Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War. In Howe’s declaration, she called for mothers to have a role in shaping sane public policy and promoting peace, and asked that people listen to women’s wisdom. I find this a very appropriate way to honor mothers, and so I found myself reflecting, as we hiked past the spring shoots and ice-splintered mud of the Bicentennial Park, on the wisdom that my mama’s relentless desire to be in the mountains teaches me.
She teaches me, and everyone who knows her, that aging is not that land of maladies and lost opportunities our culture so often portrays it as — that no-mans-land of kitsch and irrelevance that is the stuff of comedic stereotypes. In a youth-centric, media-driven society such as ours, aging is seen as undesirable, as something to avoid at all costs. This is especially true for women, who don’t get lauded as being “distinguished” looking as they age, the way that men like Sean Connery or George Clooney do, and they certainly don’t play action heroes into their middle age. Just as I hear people my age afraid to get old, I also so often hear people much younger than my mom limit their outdoor activities or use of the stairs, saying—“Oh, my knees; I’m too old for that.”
Now, I know that there are many reasons—genetics, environment, structural inequalities, etc.—that contribute to people having disabilities that truly can limit physical activity. But I’ve always been puzzled when I hear people name age as the culprit for those limitations. It doesn’t make sense to me after I’ve spent so many years watching my mama, whose wisdom has been to eschew the notion that aging is weakness and serious limitations are inevitable, and who has just kept playing. This is, perhaps, a later-in-life version of the way she ignored her father’s admonitions that college education was a waste of time for women, and went anyway. As a result of her resolution, my mama’s broken ankle healed far beyond any of the grim predictions offered by the doctors. She and my dad can still enjoy long excursions into the mountains together, and she has remained tough, fast, and lean as she approaches 60.

As an athlete, a nature-lover, a midwife, a vocal advocate for women’s healthcare, and someone actively engaged in politics, my mama demonstrates that people don’t have to lose their passions, their relevance, their power, or their ability to have fun as they age. So in honor of Mother’s Day and Julia Warde Howe’s 1870 cry to elevate women’s wisdom, I offer you the wisdom of my mother: keep playing, keep yourself connected to nature, and keep on keepin’ on, no matter what people might say.

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June 10th, 2012 at 3:59 pm

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Toward Global Justice: La Casa de la Mujer Rosario Castellanos and Transcultural Feminist Dialogue

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I took this photo in 2002 in the market of Juchitan, Oaxaca.

I took this photo in 2002 in the Zócalo of Oaxaca City. I spent a lot of time with these sisters who sold scarves in the streets and didn't attend school.

I was reminded recently of why I should share my undergraduate thesis. Janie, the intern at the Alaska Native Epidemiology Center, where I work, found online a Master’s Thesis about the very little researched topic of Iñupiaq women’s pregnancy and birthing beliefs and experience. This was very useful for the work we were doing. I felt  grateful that this young student researcher shared his work publicly online. I told Janie about my student research and thesis, and she suggested I share it too. So here it is.

Despite having written this thesis 8 years ago and it containing some errors, and perhaps there being moments of naïeveté in my theory, I decided I should make it available because it is useful. It is original research that has not been published anywhere else, as far as I know. It brings together original research with feminists in Oaxaca and global human rights theory to make an argument about the need for dialogue about justice and gender justice across cultures. It makes an argument that I still stand strongly by and practice in my daily life and work, in ways beyond what I would have imagined when I wrote this as a 21-year-old.

This is my honor’s thesis from my senior year of college at Mount Holyoke College (2004), based on interviews I had conducted in the summer of 2003 in Oaxaca, México and a lot of immersion in history, feminist theory, sociology, political discourse, etc. Unfortunately, I have lost the cover page, which had a wood block print I made of downtown Oaxaca City, and I’ve lost the table of contents.

So, to give you a brief preview:

The introduction explains how I came to this topic and why it matters, and the theories behind it. It introduces why I think we need transcultural feminist dialogue in order to arrive at globally-valid concepts of justice and human rights.

The 1st chapter provides a history of feminism in México and its ties to other social justice movements there.

The 2nd chapter covers what I learned from the feminists at La Casa de la Mujer Rosario Castellanos, a feminist organization based in Oaxaca City. (Oaxaca City is the capital city of the state in México that has more ethnic diversity, in terms of indigenous groups, than any other state in the country.) This chapter discusses the organization’s work, how each woman became a feminist, how each woman conceives of the concept of justice,  and how that translates into the feminist work she does.

The 3rd chapter uses the themes about feminism, gender justice, and justice that the women from La Casa de la Mujer brought up to make the argument that feminism arises organically out of everywhere. Because feminism arises out of different environments, it is necessarily different across cultures, countries, etc. At the same time, there is an “hilo conductor,” that is, a wire that connects all feminisms everywhere. This hilo conductor is the idea that we should be able to live lives with dignity and free of violence. Because feminism is both universal and grounded in the local, we need democratic, equitable, transcultural feminist dialogue in order to establish what about gender justice–and justice in general–is universal and what isn’t. That way, we can create human rights standards that people all over can buy into and feel a part of.

I sent this thesis to La Casa de la Mujer Rosario Castellanos in 2004. When I visited in 2005, they were almost done translating it into Spanish, so I got to assist with some of the translation.  I have not returned to Oaxaca since, but when I do, I hope to find that is has been useful. And I hope that is is useful for you. If you do use it, here is a suggested citation (although when I wrote it, my last name was Norton-Cruz…):

Avellaneda-Cruz, Laura. (2004). Toward Global Justice: La Casa de la Mujer Rosario Castellanos and Transcultural Feminist Dialogue. Undergraduate Thesis, Mount Holyoke College. Retrieved online at author’s website:

Thesis_Global_Feminism_Oaxaca_2004_L. Avellaneda-Cruz_p

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June 3rd, 2012 at 12:31 pm

To Heal is to Become Ourselves: Teachings from Rita Blumenstein

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Rita Pitka Blumenstein

When I met Rita Pitka Blumenstein for the first time last winter and she hugged me, I thought, “Oh. This is what I’ve been waiting for. This is the hug I’ve been thinking about and needing for years.” And I knew that she knew that.


For those of you who do not yet know her, Rita Pitka Blumenstein is a traditional healer, the first tribal doctor in the Alaska Native Health System, a midwife, an esteemed elder, a spiritual leader, and founding member of the 13 Indigenous Grandmothers. She is Yup’ik primarily, from Nelson Island, Alaska, but also part Athabscan, Aleut, Russian, and a smattering of other European backgrounds. She speaks, sings, and prays in Yup’ik, in the complex and deep understanding of the Yup’ik language that I am told only the elders still have. She is called around the world to pray for people, to lead ceremonies and songs, to heal people from diseases and injuries in the body, the mind and the soul. To heal, she uses her hands, plant medicines, talking and prayer.

Recently, she was invited to attend our Domestic Violence/Sexual Assault training for rural Behavioral Health Aides held in Fairbanks in order to provide prayers, songs, stories and guidance. Since I work with Rita and have had the honor of learning from her in the past, I had the even greater honor of spending nearly every waking hour of that week with her walking to restaurants, attending the training, preparing salad in her hotel room, making sure that the baggage handlers treat her drum well, etc. I feel bless to have learned so much from her in our time together and want to share with you, dear readers, some of the wisdom Rita offered me. I think I  also share this story of Rita because in writing it I reinforce what it meant to me on a deeply personal level in my own growth and becoming.

Two important notes

1.)  I asked Rita if I was allowed to share her teachings with others on my blog and she said yes. She said she’s publishing them all into a book anyway, so they will become public soon. Furthermore, she sees it as her duty—as a spiritual person, as an elder, as a member of the 13 Grandmothers, and in her job at ANTHC, to teach—directly and through others, including non-Alaska Native others. She also consented to me using this photo that I took of her. If I have misunderstood or missquoted her, however, I apologize and will make changes if they come to my attention.

2.)  I am sharing her teachings because I think she has great insight into the world. It’s not because I claim she is speaking directly for God or Truth. I won’t join any religion because I can’t just believe whatever it is that its leaders or books tell me. But I am inspired and moved by what Rita has observed about the world, which is different than believing that it is the one and only truth. In fact, I don’t think Rita claims to have the one and only truth either. She works to heal the world; that is her priority.

Rita’s Teachings

The traditional word for creator in Yup’ik is ellam yua, which sounds something like “Chhhhamyua” though with a more g sound and throaty sound to the first consonant. As Rita explains it, the word means means “awareness of the universe.” The “yua” part refers to the person being aware, the Chhham part the universe—the dust that makes up life. It can be awareness of pain, awareness of all that is around us, awareness of that which can’t be seen, presence.

Rita begins prayers with a call to ellam yua and to agayuun. This is the idea of creator that is more the Christian idea–a creator or king that rules. Yuun means ownership, so all is owned by the creator.

She also calls out to the ancestors. As Rita explains, our ancestors are our bone marrow, our parents our bones. We are made up of them. As she wrote in a poem:

We are free to be who we are—
to create our own life
out of the past and out of the present.
We are our ancestors.
When we can heal ourselves,
we also heal our ancestors,
our grandmothers, our
grandfathers and our children.
When we heal ourselves, we heal mother earth.

Rita also includes “Mother Earth” in her prayers at times, both praying to the Earth and for the Earth. What it seems she is teaching us is that that we ask agayun—kin, ancestors—to be a part of our healing and blessing, and the healing we do affects them. Likewise, we pray to  the creator/awareness of the universe and to Mother Earth for wisdom and healing, and in healing ourselves we share that healing with the Earth and universe—perhaps because, as healed people, we take better care of the Earth.

Rita tells me a lot about her life story, of going from a rural village on Nelson Island to Montessori School in Seattle and staying there long enough so she could make sure to be able to write her dreams and visions (yes, she was having spiritual visions as a young child). She was then raised in Catholic schools and in a community with Russian Orthodoxy and Catholicism all around her. But her grandparents never converted and always practiced the old ways, and I imagine this is part of what made Rita’s connection to the faith traditions of her land and people so strong. She quotes her grandmother—and this is one of the best articulations I’ve ever heard of what I believe—who said, “I don’t understand why we would need to go worship God inside a building, facing only one direction, when there is the land and ocean and the four directions all around us.”

In conversation, Rita teaches me bits and pieces about the medicine wheel and the four directions. She tells me how the colors (gold, red, black and white) relate to the elements and how some believe that they relate to the continents of people. She told me that all journeys start in the East. The gift of the East is the ability to concentrate fully on what one is doing, the way that children can concentrate so fully on the object in their hands, the way that our mouse sister concentrates on her work. It is the gift of presence, of not being distracted by the past and the future. I tell her that I struggle with being present. She smiles with understanding.

To heal, Rita says, is to become ourselves, to become the light within. It is to accept ourselves and what we feel, and in doing so accept others. It is to be a real person.

Rita tells me that she loves me and trusts me to learn about healing, and that I have a good Native spirit. This is because I am a real person, she says, because I am not pretending, not fake, not closed, but selfless and real and open.  I tell her thank you, and that I don’t know how to be anything but open and anyone other than myself, but that I do struggle with accepting myself fully. She says that struggle is okay, and quotes the elders who mentored her, who said that it is okay that things are not okay, that I should just feel what I feel. What I suppose this means is that to be a real person, to be someone good for the world, you have to be open and giving, but you do not have to be perfect, you do not have to have arrived. Rita says she is always learning more about herself, always becoming herself more and more. And if Rita, at 78, is still in that process, that must mean that I’m okay.

I ask Rita what is the importance of faith, because it is not something I always have in abundance. She tells me:

“If you believe in yourself, you have faith.  Faith provides the courage to face the present with confidence and the future with expectancy.”

Rita also reminds me that faith and acceptance are not about accepting all behaviors or accepting injustices. Rita, like me, has always had a big mouth and has spoken up to people when they are being racist or cruel or unfair to women. She has always been unafraid to express her opinion and disagree. This is not antithetical to loving acceptance. In fact, it is crucial to creating a better, more healed world. This is why I can learn from this woman.

Rita tells me that childhood is the time for children to learn from the legends and stories of elders, and from the plants and animals and rocks and air, from all of life. Rita tells me about the wild vegetables they harvest:the lovage and Eskimo potatoes, the grass and horsetail roots. She tells me about the knikinik (labrador tea) they use for smudging and that the shamans (herself included) smoke in order to ground themselves after spiritual travelling. She tells me how to brine, dry and smoke salmon strips and how to boil down fireweed syrup. She tells me about plant medicines made from Devil’s Club and raspberry bushes and yarrow and birch. As I learn all this like a child, I think, “Yes, this should be in every child’s education. If it were, we would see so much less environmental devastation.”

We talk about childrearing and potty training (Rita potty trained her children after a few months by keeping them on her body and putting them on a little pot whenever they squirmed around like they needed to go). Rita tells me she is very excited for me to be a mother, that I will be a great one. I tell her I’ll be calling her up for advice on this potty-training-in-the-first-few-months practice.

Rita talks about race, cultural difference and colonization comfortably, neither shying away from its ugly history nor writing off all white people (after all, she was happily married to a Jewish man from New York for over half her life, until he passed). This is a good example for me of how to bring these conversations into groups where they don’t currently happen without triggering people’s defensiveness.

Moving Forward

If any of this resonates with you, you can follow the 13 Indigenous Grandmothers online (, read Rita’s book when she publishes it, or look for other opportunities around Alaska to learn from her or from other teachers of indigenous worldviews. If you have the chance, I highly recommend attending a presentation by my Cup’ik colleague, Uyuriukaraq Ulran, who speaks beautifully about Cup’ik worldview and ethics.  And certainly pay a visit to the Alaska Native Heritage Center.

Regardless of your faith tradition, I think it’s okay to be open to Rita’s teachings and to Alaska Native worldviews.  Rita’s idea of becoming yourself, of knowing yourself, is something heard in Buddhism and parts of most other world faiths. Her idea of thanking the universe for what we have and asking for blessings from the universe, kin, the Earth and the directions, is not unlike thanking God or Allah, in that it is an act of appreciation of all that is larger than us.  It is an act of prayer and thanks that is grounded in the land, water, air and fire, an act grounded in the preservation of this planet. In that way, it is particularly salient for our rapidly-changing world.

On a personal level, one powerful thing I take away from my week with Rita and from knowing her is a more firm sense of who I am. If I fail, if I feel desparate or sad or find myself making mistakes, I am now more likely to say, “I am a real person. And this is a struggle” rather than doubting my integrity and worth. This is a gift from Rita, as well as a gift from my best friend Jessica Laura who always helps reinforce to me who I am. It is a gift from my husband, Oscar, who always reminds me of why I am worth love, and a gift from my parents and friends who know me and believe in me. And we have to believe in ourselves (in a deep way, not in the way of the popular self-esteem movement) in order to move forward and do the work we must for the world.

I will end with Rita’s words  (paraphrased because I could not write fast enough for the exact quote):

“Some people dwell on their past lives to look for answers. But all we need to learn will be placed before us. Our job is to move forward.”

Post-script, December 6: Rita just gave me the proper spellings of ellam yua and agayuun, and a bit more clarification of those concepts, so now I have added this to the original post. The old version had my phonetic versions only, and a mishearing/misunderstanding about agayuun.

Rita Pitka Blumenstein

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September 4th, 2011 at 4:06 pm

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Women of Alaska Series: Introduction

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Last Fall, I decided to undertake a series of photographic portraits and narratives of women in Alaska. I wrote about the idea in the early life of this blog: I am finally beginning.

I am interested in sharing the stories of the women that make Alaska the unique place that it is. I am interested in showing the different forms that women’s strength can take: from fixing snowmachines and putting up firewood and hunting to bringing your family across the ocean as a refugee and resettling in this strange, cold land to fighting with wisdom and compassion for the well-being of your people who have lived here for many thousands of years.

For those who are not from here, such stories can provide a much-needed humanity to Alaska; they can provide a portrait of our state apart from the we-all-live-in-igloos misconceptions or Sarah Palin’s mama grizzlies.  For those from here, we all, I think, deserve to stop and celebrate the women who are our neighbors, coworkers, family members, forbearers, tribal leaders, legislators, and inspirations. In a state with mostly male legislators and the highest rates of sexual violence in the country, a state where the mayor of the largest city can veto equal rights for LBGT folks, we need to celebrate and promote the places where we are forward-thinking in terms of gender: we have some tough-as-nails women up here doing good things.

I am interested in telling the stories, through photographs and interviews, of what strong and compassionate women do and who they are. Most important to me, however, is the question of how they came to be. How does strength and passion develop? How does someone develop a sense of justice? Where did each woman find her inspirations and role models and which lessons and oppressions did she have to reject? This is important to explore because it gives us clues into how we can raise and educate children to be strong, just and compassionate leaders in the world. And in particular, it guides us in this process for raising our daughters.

Very soon I will have the first installment, featuring Tiffany Zulkosky. You can get a sneak peek of the photo on Flickr.

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August 25th, 2010 at 8:32 am

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Let’s Get Some Women in the House!

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Please join me and many wonderful co-hosts…

I’ve been working hard on organizing this fundraiser for my mom and Lupe, getting a bunch of co-hosts who are cyclists, athletes, promoters of bike transportation, etc. This event will be a fundraiser, meaning people come and eat tasty appetizers and drink wine, write a check to support the candidates with their campaigns, visit with their friends and colleagues and have fun. But it will also be a forum to discuss parks issues, transportation and bike planning, etc. Both these candidates are advocates for planning that includes bike transport and public transportation, and both, as parks users, support our municipal, state and federal parks. Please come with questions and comments, concerns, friends…and money, even if it’s just a little bit.

You can also sign up to volunteer or donate online.

The candidates’ websites:

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July 19th, 2010 at 12:57 pm

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Becoming an Outdoors Woman & the politics of hunting

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Becoming an Outdoor Woman (BOW) Weekend out in Chickaloon:

I spent the glorious weekend of March 12th-14th with 4 other friends and 200-some other women out in Chickaloon, Alaska at a retreat sponsored by the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game, with support from other corporations and orgs, including the NRA (*chuckle*). As you can see in the picture on the left, I learned to field dress game. My best friend Jessica Laura (picture on top) from Santa Cruz, CA and I learned gun safety, loading, unloading, aiming, etc. She, my roommate and dear friend Tiffany (bottom pic), and I all learned fish filleting skills. Our friends Mel and Kiatcha also did tracking, trapping, snowmachining and other workshops.

It was loads of fun and it was empowering as an Alaskan woman to be equipped with skills that could help me feed my future family. Oscar and I are always talking about the things we want to grow & ways we want to eat as a family once we get a place; this made me think through the logistics of including wild animals into that diet.  It was beautiful to spend a weekend with so many women, many of whom explained that they were learning skills their husbands wouldn’t teach them or that they’d prefer to learn from better teachers. And I soaked in the opportunity to develop and strengthen friendships.

This weekend also exposed me to the politics of hunting in Alaska in a new way. When we first moved to Alaska in 1992, little ten-year-old Californian Laura thought hunting was barbaric. 12 – 15-year-old vegetarian Laura certainly did. But when I started to eat meat again, I figured I should be able to kill it myself, and so I enjoyed fishing and thanking the fish for their lives. I’ve wanted to hunt now for a number of years, a desire especially influenced by knowing more Alaska Native people who tell me about their son learning to duck hunt at age 3 or their experiences growing up and preparing the beaver & moose meat. It has been influenced by reading Velma Wallis’ heartbreakingly honest memoir Raising Ourselves: A Coming of Age Story from the Yukon River, Ernestine Haye’s Blonde Indian: An Alaska Native Memoir, the book Eagle Blue by journalist Michael D’Orso about the Fort Yukon Boys basketball team, and the interviews in Growing up Native in Alaska. The relationship that these books describe people having to the earth and to the animals is one of such respect and necessity that it begins to seem less like a choice and more like part of the life cycle. On a more superficial level, my desire to hunt was also influenced by trying dall sheep meat for the first time years ago, when my dad made an Afghani rice pilaf with sheep koftas after a patient of my mom’s sent her home with a chunk of meat. It was delicious.

Yet, being out there for BOW and learning the skills to be a better fisher and hunter, I was struck by the incongruence between the way I had come to think of hunting through Alaska Native narratives, and the culture of it among some of the folks there. There were, indeed, people who saw it as a means to eat well and eat sustainably, and who strove to preserve and use as much of the animal as they could. Fish and Game promoted this attitude, for the most part. But, as Kiatcha bore witness to in her trapping class, there is also a culture of people who want to wear fox fur hats and lynx stolls and ermine coats–not in the way described in Eagle Blue where the kids must wear beaver hats to get through the -50 degree weather in Fort Yukon and they eat the beaver meat anyway–but in what I perceive as a colonialist way. It strikes me as very 18th and 19th century European colonialist, Russians-forcing-Aleuts-to-trap-Otters-for-fur and very un-self-conscious to, in this day and age, trap animals  just for their fur and not eat them.

I also got the feeling–although the rules of the weekend were that we could not talk politics–that there were hunters there who do not believe in rural preference and giving priority to subsistence and to Alaska Natives. In fact, the entire absence of mention of subsistence rights and Alaska Native approaches to hunting made me uncomfortable. Hunting and fishing may be part of a sustainable life in Alaska, as Elaine Frankenstein argues in her film “Eating Alaska” (which we watched and which I enjoyed thoroughly), but it seems to me that how we do that should be influenced not only by the Dept. of Fish and Game, but by AFN and/or other Native organizations who know what the needs are of people in the villages. As a white person and as an immigrant to this land, I don’t feel comfortable making those decisions without that kind of input.

So…it was odd to be there. On the one hand, I felt RIGHT filleting fish after fish and cleaning clams and unzipping the reindeer, skinning him, removing his front quarter, opening his abdominal cavity, holding his heart. I felt like I was born to do this. It felt spiritually important, like this is the part that has been missing from the 16 years that I’ve been cooking, like I’m supposed to provide food in this way. And I adored the instructors of the filleting and field dressing classes. I also really liked using the guns. But I was also weirded out by the enthusiasm of the gun class instructors about youth shotgun leagues and by the woman in Kiatcha and Mel’s classes who was gleeful and almost sadistic about killing animals, and by the snowmachine instructor with her giant wedding ring who taught us how to put on our helmets so that our hair wouldn’t get messed up, and by the whole idea of a sport that uses two stroke engines (although I do admit, it was fun).

The experience certainly helped me understand the cultures within Alaska that I don’t know as well, part of the electorate who my mother is trying to win over (she’s running for State House in East Anchorage:, and the varied approaches to eating Alaska. And yeah, it made me want to go to the range and learn to shoot, maybe even invest in a .22 someday. But it also left me with a lot of questions, a desire to push that kind of (primarily white) environment to listen to the perspectives of the original inhabitants of this land on how to harvest from it, and a need to learn a lot more about sustainability before I begin hunting.

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March 28th, 2010 at 9:20 am