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BIPOC reconnecting to cultural birth traditions

Birthing life is a big deal. Traditionally, in cultures all around the world certain people have the gift and responsibility of supporting the birthing experience.

“When someone can be nourished by their ancestral traditions it can create a solid foundation for their desired pregnancy, birth and postpartum experiences,” said

Andrea Henry-Robledo, a BIPOC birth worker in Humboldt County. Midwives provide licensed medical care in a holistic way. Whereas birth workers like parteras and doulas, can provide things like emotional support, womb massages, teas, herbal baths and support at the hospital.

“In Mexico, traditionally, parteras weren’t just midwives, they were herbalists, they were sobadoras, they were bone setters, they were energy workers,” said Michela Hernandez, a BIPOC birthworker in Humboldt County.

The advice of parteras can still be heard saying “don’t go out with your hair wet” and “give yourself enough time to heal after giving birth.”

Revitalizing and Reconnecting

Despite historically being criminalized and colonized, cultural birth traditions are becoming more and more sought out.

Chelsea Trillo, has been practicing herbalism as a way to support BIPOC birthing traditions. | Photo courtesy Chelsea Trillo

There are many people in Humboldt County today creating pathways to expand the support for BIPOC births. Chelsea Trillo, 30, of Mindanao and Visayas descent, is an aspiring herbalist and advocate for trans BIPOC birthers. Trillo got a master’s degree in social work from Humboldt State University in 2018 and has been doing anti-violence work for over a decade.

“The way we bring in the next generation was ruined by the medicalization of Western birth because indigenous cultural ways were criminalized,” said Trillo. “When we take that power back, it’s an act of resistance.”

In March 2021, they co-founded Seeds of Ancestral Renewal, a collective of BIPOC caregivers in Humboldt County. The goal is to eventually have a BIPOC birthing center where people can have a safe and holistic birthing experience.

“For me, herbalism is a part of the revitalization of traditional birthways,” said Trillo.

Michela Hernandez, 32, of Mexican Indigenous and Irish descent, describes herself as a full spectrum birth worker. She has supported pregnant/postpartum people for 13 years and started supporting labor and delivery three years ago.

Hernandez is passionate about birth rights and having support for the whole family unit during birth | Photo courtesy Michela Hernandez

“Im stepping into a state of reclamation of autonomy, not just trying to make someone feel good,” Hernandez said. “And so for me, it’s about learning how to remember, and reclaim the traditions that were inherently ours when I show up with somebody.”

Hernandez has studied Angelina Martinez Miranda, a third generation midwife in Mexico who has attended about 13,000 births.

“Being that representation for a community and making them feel safe is what’s different about being a BIPOC doula in America,” Hernandez said.

Alongside other culturally-rooted medicines, she also uses rebozo. A rebozo is a handwoven cloth that is used as medicine in Indigenous cultures.

“They’re handwoven, and they’re really tenderly made. To me being BIPOC and working with a rebozo means I’m reclaiming my traditions,” said Hernandez. “When I hold those strands and they’re wrapped around my client, those are the arms of my abuelitas, that’s not just a tool or a cloth.”

According to Hernandez, using a rebozo is politically charged in the doula community because of cultural appropriation.

Andrea Henry-Robledo, 26, of Puerto Rican descent, is the other co-founder of Seeds of Ancestral Renewal. They have worked as a birth worker in Humboldt for the last two years. In that time she has noticed some appropriation of cultural traditions on behalf of White birth workers.

Andrea Henry-Robledo has a passion for supporting and expanding the support for BIPOC birthers. | Photo courtesy of Andrea Henry-Robledo

She believes birth work isn’t just business, it’s a labor of love and integrity.

“It’s unfortunate that some people still feel so entitled to keep practicing certain things,” said Henry- Robledo. “There’s all these traditions worldwide, and universally, so people just need to honor their respective lineages.”

Choosing a birth worker

Learning the traditions and knowledge of birth work is a constant work in progress. Indigenous parteras, like one of Hernandez’s teachers, have inherited knowledge from ancient teachings and thousands of births.

In the United States, only Midwives, in particular, have to be licensed. Doulas can sometimes get certified during three day retreats. According to Hernandez, this can lead to dangerous situations because some doulas can feel overconfident in the delivery room after these retreats. It is important to consider a birth worker’s experience before adding them to your team.

People can get in touch with Michela Hernandez for full-spectrum reproductive support on Instagram @sacred.bridges. For support from BIPOC caregivers, Seeds of Ancestral Renewal can be found on Instagram @seedsofancestralrenewal.

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