Trauma in Abya Yala: Consequences of Colonization and White Supremacy

Trauma is a loaded word and scary simultaneously because it obscures pains from the past that we wish to forget. However, despite our efforts to forget and move on, history continues to follow us in our lived experiences. How people interact and deal with trauma is unique for each person. Our bodies and psyches reveal who we are, and our behavior shows our deep wounds. When these wounds are systemic across entire groups of people due to discrimination, police brutality, and racism, it is necessary to deal with the trauma and its triggers on both personal and communal levels. Coming to grips with this type of trauma is to sit with the past and mentally reflect and exercise these painful memories for healing, liberation, and ultimately dismantling colonialism, racism, sexism, and other -ism that separate and divide us. 

From the research work of Heijmans published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, it has been shown that traumatic events from famine to war can lead to lasting effects on the epigenome. Essentially the impact of past trauma continues in our DNA and can be manifested in future generations. 

Trauma specialist Resmaa Menakem, a somatic abolitionist, notes that “trauma responses are never reasonable. They are protective and reflexive.” These responses take energy and power away from more constructive pursuits personally and communally; finding pathways to healing is critical for an improved existence. Healing begins by finding the roots of these traumas and seeking to understand and process – them instead of burying them away from the past.

For originals people on Abya Yala*, our collective trauma of being disposed of our land and our ancestors systematically raped, abused, and enslaved still lingers. The loss of culture, identity, and language cause trauma to this day, further heightened by the misappropriation of imagery and names in racist tropes and mascots. From a theological perspective, the pain of being considered “animals” and “Indians without souls” by the Christian Church is still present. How can we process our generational trauma when European descendants in America do not see the native people as part of society? 

The challenge faced in the country with white supremacy ideology rules and attacks on African Americans has a long history of brutal violence. Still, today, as people of color, we demand, as individuals and collectively, to embrace opportunities to remember the suffering and heal the country of all its crimes.

How can we make the pathway to healing our hearts and bodies that suffer discrimination, abuse, and oppression?

Dismantling racism is a step toward seeking healing, although it is a painful process. It is not easy to handle those emotions that come from the inner depths of our being. We develop resilience by learning and nature, which we can use to build and strengthen to confront our pain and past traumas. To achieve this healing, we must begin to speak more freely about them. For those who have suffered centuries of oppression, colonization, slavery, rape, abuse, and other inhume treatment from white supremacy ideologies, it is not easy to leave, but we can transform the rage and pain into societal changes. Moreover, our body also has that capacity; it is a connection between body and mind that leads us to develop new abilities, especially survivorship. On a communal level, there is a need for a broader society to listen, accept and respond to individuals that their ancestors may have harmed.

We start this process by first allowing ourselves empathy, grace, and freedom to go to our inner selves and acknowledge our fears and our stories. Second in the process is reconnecting with our ancestors, grandmothers, and elders. We must listen to their stories, which is our story, so we can better understand the present. By naming our pain and trauma, we become more robust. Knowing and embracing our family histories will lead us to understand the painful scars on our psyche, and that past becomes part of the physical marks that we carry on our bodies. Somehow, we are the product of colonization so unequal and so brutal that our sheer existence is an example of life and hope. Healing is not easy. 

For the Christian message for healing – salvation is not an abstract concept; it is a state of being with deliverance. Dismantling racism is an invitation to consider God amid challenging history and difficult conversations. Let us begin this journey towards healing together, knowing that our faith will lead us to recover. 

It is perhaps risky to affirm that the native population in Abya Yala suffers trauma, but the consequence of experiencing white supremacy is indisputable; our bodies and mind have been affected by colonization.

Our personal experiences reflect our personal stories. Remember that we cannot see that an ideology was created when colonization happened; our collective imagination is not only a single story but an intergenerational history that still affects our bodies and our existence. 

The Constitution of the United States is an example of how white supremacy works. In article one, people of African descent were considered 2/3rds of a person. This is an example of how this ideology regulates political rules and later permits discrimination behaviors against individuals to create a collection that allows them to live like that.

Each of us will find different experiences depending on what part of the land we are coming from, but often the common ground is the same. Original peoples constantly find ourselves excluded, in constant dispossession of the land. These messages have penetrated deeply, and these are our own experiences. 

When someone speaks about black and brown lives matter in the United States, they are speaking of real lives, our own lives full of color. This is an obvious statement but too often forgotten truth. Our lives are in the routes that arrived at a moment in colonial history and the routes of the original people of Abya Yala. For that reason, we must talk more; specifically, we must provide examples and make the pain and trauma visible.

The original peoples continue to resist the supremacist messages perpetuated for centuries. 

At this moment in history, we enter and locate ourselves in the present but with a profound recognition of centuries. We encounter the territories of our body, and it is here where the body and mind react and reacts in a way that perpetuates wounds. We will always have this connection, colonization, privatized and divided with pain. 

The word trauma comes from the Greek, which means “to hurt,” ours is a structure that hurts us and terrifies us simultaneously and perpetuates painful experiences. Discrimination, and rejection, are added to our senses, our very beings. For women, our sex finds ourselves in this doubly violent situation and this trauma, having different reactions in our bodies. 

As we can read in the Bible, trauma or “curse” is passed from generation to generation. We often share with our mothers, grandmothers, and fathers, and grandparents’ bodies pain, passed from generation to generation, caused by manifestations of trauma and pain. Still, it is also genetic that our DNA carries its entire history of trauma, that main story of survival and suffering, so let us bear in mind that we must assume a position of accepting or knowing our traumas. This is the only way we will survive.

To be able to give life from our bodies is fabulous. Women teach us how to bring about and share new life. Their bodies show us how to fight back against ancestral pain by living. Our survival depends on creating a life beyond the pain of the past. 

To become free of trauma and pain and reach liberation, we can see the suffering, violence, and pain many carries inside. We need to break up the silence; it is necessary to be accompanied by others. Still, when you go from generation to generation, we have to start; they are not about living in survival; we do not have, we survive every moment. We must begin to break and let it fall to heal this generation and all future generations.


*Abya Yala comes from the Guna language and means “land in full maturity and land of vital blood.” The Guna people inhabit the meeting points of the north and south geographically, and the use of their language symbolically represents the connectivity of the lands. In the 1970s, the term Abya Yala was adopted by many native activists, farmers, historians, politicians, and theologians as the unified name instead of using North America (primarily English speakers) and Latin America (mainly Spanish and Portuguese speakers), that perpetuate colonial divisions.

Published by

Yenny Delgado

Psychologist and Theologian. Director of PUBLICA and convener of Women Doing Theology in Abya Yala. 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