SALINAS, Calif.—On a recent Friday, Israel Villa had a lesson to share with the young adults at his office downtown: the meaning of the word palabra. It’s a core concept of la cultura cura, which is Spanish for “culture cures”—the principle that there’s a modern need to teach traditions indigenous to Latin America. Palabra, which translates to “word,” stands for integrity and connection.
And for speaking up for yourself, Villa added, looking to the youthful black and brown faces looking back at him. “It’s a tool that is needed. We should not be suppressed. In village cultures, where community was concerned, everyone was sacred,” he went on. “Everyone was approached like they had power.”
Villa, age 39, is a program assistant at MILPA, a nonprofit group designed, in part, for at-risk youth that’s run by formerly incarcerated staff members. Its four-year-old program is rooted in teachings from the Aztec and the Maya, as well as peoples from the U.S.-Mexico borderlands—before there actually was a border. The participants meet at MILPA’s office several times a week to share their achievements, vent about stressors, and learn from la cultura cura.
Through these sessions, staff members try to bring a sense of close community to the teens and 20-somethings, and help them steer clear of making choices that could jeopardize their futures. “We introduce cultural heritage and a political education. Some folks might be weary around their identity because they’re ashamed of it, or removed from it, or unaware of it for a long time,” said Juan Gomez, a co-founder of MILPA and its resident evangelist of la cultura cura. “We’re going back to family values, to neighborhood. It takes a village to raise a child. What happens if the village is absent, is wounded, is hurting, is fragmented? We’re trying to create the village again.”