My Grandmother’s Braids 

The Pedagogy of Ancestral Memory in Faith and Resistance

Growing up I was fascinated with my grandmother’s long hair. Her hair was not only an extension of herself but the physical manifestation of her thoughts and the strong connection of care and resistance. If someone asked why she has long hair, she always answered, “Women are beautiful with our long black hair; we need to take care of ourselves.” I have memories of my grandmother braiding early in the morning and every night before she went to bed. She braided her hair while she prayed and, other times, sang. Her long braids transmitted to me her womanism while at the same time showing the ancestral roots to a traditional way of living for native women in Abya Yala.

My grandmother Candelaria was born between mountains, a generation of native people in the land for millennials. She was born in February, the month of rain and the time for carnival. Her face was beautiful; wrinkled, long hair and small eyes, her face always filled me with magic. She was proud of her gray hair because she said it resulted from age and wisdom. She was a weaver and farmer, so her hands were rough, cracked, and deep. She works with her hand, which were connected to the land; our ancestral motherland took care of her.

My grandmother raised seven children; she became a widow a month after her seventh child was born. She faced challenges and efforts to raise her children and feed them. Grandma was grateful for life; although hard and painful, she knew how to survive and thrive. As part of the native population, with no access to education, the church was one of the few places she was welcomed and encouraged to learn. At the age of 30, through the church she learned how to read and read her Bible daily for everyone to hear. She sincerely believed in God, who brought her freedom and renovated her spirit. 

But who taught my grandmother how to braid her hair? When did it begin? My grandmother must have learned from her mother and grandmothers. Recognizing the story of their lives and care from one generation to the next is our great value. This is perhaps the school of life, full of memories and affection for learning from one age to the next. But seeing firsthand is one way to learn by example. For this reason, I feel very connected to my grandmother in the magical and ancestral relationship between us—a legacy of how to take care of each other.

I wanted to learn more because I remember stories from elders that mentioned that all native women and men were not allowed to have long hair. Interested in digging into this past I read more about the history of colonization and the cruel consequences to the native population.

During the invasion and subsequent colonization, oppressors cut native men and women’s hair. That tragedy, even for centuries, broke that harmonious relationship in Abya Yala. In our native land, my ancestors suffered genocide, slavery, and rape of their bodies and hair. Colonization was a rupture between mothers to daughters, fathers to sons, and entire communities were destroyed. The hair of men and women was cut as a sign of enslavement, powerlessness, and humiliation. To look more like the colonizer, look like a “human being,” something that the oppressor perceived as “civilized.” This was a tragic event for us. It took many centuries for the native population to regain the right to bodily autonomy. Resistance was a way of living.

For this reason, in native communities still present today, the tradition of women having long hair is very much present. Through hair, native women show power in self-care and practicing ancestral traditions. Tying hair into braids has become a symbol of resistance against colonization in the last centuries.

Braid is the intertwining of three strands of hair, crossing them alternately with each other and tightening them; it is linked to the life of humanity. That’s how my grandmother combed her long hair and braids. It was a form of identity, ancestral memory, protection, and resistance. This is why she braids her hair, to make them strong.

Between my grandmother and me, there is more than a century of history. How can I continue my grandmother’s ancestral memory and pedagogy?

In the last years, my hair has grown, and I comb and braid it daily. Her presence draws close to me every time I braid my hair. I remember my grandmother with joy every day. As we can read in the Bible: “Your testimonies are my heritage forever, for they are the joy of my heart. (Psalm 119:111)

The last time I talked with my grandmother was a week before she passed away at 90. When we spoke, she recited several passages from the Bible, and I sang several songs together. I listened to her happily from a distance (we were in the midst of the first wave of COVID-19); I could hear her on the phone. I learned from my grandmother about our family history, which has prepared me to understand my life, faith, and courage to speak up and write about womanism, decolonization and the importance of ancestral memory. Her story and strength are passed from generation to generation. Still, DNA carries its entire history; that main story of survival, care, and resistance we learn seeing our grandmothers practicing is a better example of faith. 

I remember my grandmother as a womanist, elder and healer. Her faith and memories accompanies in my daily walk, reflections and every night as I braid my hair grandma ancestral memory is alive.

Published by

Yenny Delgado

Psychologist and Theologian. Director of Publica and convener of Women Doing Theology in Abya Yala. Ordinate ruling elder in the PCUSA. She writes about the intersections between ancestral memory, decolonization, womanism, and public faith. Currently, she is a doctoral candidate in Psychology of Religion at the University of Lausanne. Twitter @Publicayenny