The Breath of Life 

Written by

Laura Yohualtlahuiz Rios-Ramirez

“Nahui Kuauhtli, Nahui Kuauhtli, Nahui Kuauhtli, Opactlan In Aztlan,

Kuauhtli Nopalli, Kuauhtli Nopalli, Kuauhtli Nopalli In Tenochtitlan, 

Atlachinolli, Atlachinolli, Atlachinolli Teo Tenochtitlan, 

Ometeotl, Ometeotl, Nexmaca Chicahuac In Tepolcayotl

Cuatro Águilas, Cuatro Aguilas, Cuatro Águilas Volaron En Aztlan,

Aguila Nopal, Aguila Nopal, Aguila Nopal en Tenochtitlan, 

Agua Fuego, Agua Fuego, Agua Fuego en Mi Tenochtitlan,

Ometeotl, Ometeotl, Ometeotl Dale Fuerza a la Juventud”

I was trusted to carry this song when I was rekindling the dormant fires of my Indigenous identity. It was a time in my life when the white veil of colonization was being lifted, and the journey inward left me tracing my steps back to the Red Road, a term our Lakota relatives use to define a path of spiritual inclination, a path that lends us strength and renewal1. The song is a contemporary Nahuatl attempt to summarize the Nahua-Mexica tale of four eagles flying over Aztlan that land on the nopal cactus holding firewater in their beak over the land of Tenochtitlan, indicating the fulfillment of a Chichimeca prophecy. The song ends by petitioning the Great Spirit to give strength to our youth. While the song isn’t an old rendition of In Xochitl In Cuicatl, the Nahua philosophical and spiritual concept of utilizing the spoken word or song as a beacon of inspiration, it does reflect the blossoming beauty of the life around us. This song affirmed for me that I needed the security and comfort of my ancestors, the Red Road called me back to the legacy I inherited, whether I knew it or not. My legacy was pieced together by a deep spiritual practice that existed before missionization. My legacy was partially dismembered by colonialism, but the ingenuous syncretism of our ancestors created a pathway through science and math that allowed us to decipher fragments of our spirituality hidden in our dances, songs, and stories. 500 years later, we continue to weave our narratives into society to keep our legacies alive. I am part of that legacy! 

I define legacy as something intangible that gets passed down through teachings and values, like an invisible heirloom, something so precious that it transcends the material world while permeating it beyond time and space. I don’t know why, but for a brief moment, I didn’t value that legacy as I should have. Assimilation and cultural shaming as a first-generation migrant coerced me to conceal that Indigenous blood in me out of survival. The four elements had something else in mind for me, my true survival as a carrier of this legacy.

It wasn’t just the four natural elements of water, earth, wind, and fire but also the elements of rhymes, dj’ing, graffiti, and breakdancing. Through Hip-Hop, I found my way back from the delusion of mestizaje and the preferential narrative of blanquitud that was pepetuated by our experience with family separation, incarceration, displacement, racism, and marginalization. At that time, I felt like I had gone through so much in those short 27 years of my life, and the discipline I learned as a B-girl, allowed me to BE who I needed to BE and who my ancestors always knew I was. The rhythm called me back first, then our ancestral lands, then the traditional dances, and finally the ceremonial songs. When I learned this song, it felt like I recovered a part of my existence, Atlachinolli, Atlachinolli, Atlachinolli Teo Tenochtitlan

Atlachinolli represents the undulating movement of the source of life depicted by the coalescence of fire and water. I’ve learned Nahuatlaka people originated from Chicomoztoc (seven caves) which represented 7 tribal nations, among them the Chichimeca, who journeyed for 200 years in search of a homeland, in search of an eagle perched on a nopal cactus in the middle of a lake with a serpent in its beak. Through the teachings of Nahua Danza elders, I learned that it WASN’T  a serpent in the beak that they were looking for. The creation story was a metaphor for the alignment of the sun (the eagle) at its zenith, creating the fire water over the land to signal to the Chichimeca that this is where they would find new life, a place that no one else wanted because it was surrounded by a lake and deemed uninhabitable. So much of who we are is erased by colonization, missionization, and mestizaje, including these stories, but these stories found their way to me de boca a oido – from the mouth to the ear – the traditional way in which knowledge is passed on. Learning about history in this way, through song, dance, and land-based kinship building, I knew that the land itself was allowing me to journey back to the legacy that had always been a part of my DNA. I was rekindling a legacy that somehow stayed intact despite all that tried to tear it apart.      

By living into the fire that was rekindled through ceremony and ritual, I found that there were always remnants of Atlachinolli teachings in my own family legacy. As a detribalized person of Indigenous origins, one of the ways Atlachinolli “brought me home” was through the Temazcal. In front of the fireplaces that heated up lava stones, the womb of Mother Earth, I learned the value of the breath and how this fire-water reminds us to patiently burn that which doesn’t serve us –fire, clearing our path and water, bringing clarity and fluidity. 

There are moments in my life when I was humbled by the medicine of Atlachinolli. The first time being my birth on my nascent lands of the Torreon, Coahuila where my familia settled after migrating from San Luis Potosi, Aguascalientes, and El Salto, Durango. I was born to Ernestina Ramirez Garcia and Guillermo Rios Salas and even though I don’t remember the details of my first breath, I know my body remembers. I’ve had the privilege to witness those very first breaths of life as a birth doula and birthing person myself, and it all comes back in these moments. In the presence of the breath of life, we share gasps, tears, cries, smiles, and everything in between; that moment is the purest form of love. It’s humbling and grandiose to think that we all share a different variation of that breath, but we share it nonetheless. We share this breath from the moment we arrive to the moment we depart. 

The second time my lungs filled with water near the dams of the Blue Hole, a spring near the town my familia moved to after my parents divorced. I was displaced to what I now know as Somi Se’k territory, occupied Texas. The waters here claimed me. I was about nine years old when my water-filled lungs emptied onto the bank. Chalchihuitlicue, the feminine water guardian, almost drowned me. I remember the sky, clouds floating like water above me; I couldn’t tell where my body was. Susto. Soul loss, I coughed and took the deepest breath I’ve ever taken, and my soul came back. 

I had asthma after that. I’m not sure if it was related to that riverside incident, but I wonder. Trauma-triggered gasps – I often felt I was dying to breathe throughout my teenage years. I now understand I struggled with my breath because of my pent-up emotions; the tears, the anger, and the silence I held in my chest caused by having to leave Mexico because my parents were human, and they made mistakes that at that time I found hard to forgive. Eventually, my mama and my abuelita taught me how to breathe again. The camphor freshness in my nose of having Vaporu rubbed on my chest, was a cool contrast to the pot of boiling hierbas that my abuelita would prepare. My mom showed me how to carefully cover the top of my head with a toalla so I could inhale the Atlachinolli. They were teaching me to heal myself with the movement of fire/water (steam). This medicine would stay with me all my life, just like it stayed with them. 

Even though I didn’t receive the sweatlodge our family cares for from my own bloodline of abuelas, the legacy of healing myself and my lineage with the medicine of Atlachinolli has been a part of me before I stepped in a sweat for the first time. This was a pivotal moment in which the Atlachinolli medicine changed my life once again. My ears were bright red like the lava stone that was in front of me. The red glow of Mother Earth’s heart and the life-giving source of the Atlachinolli helped me live, heal, and return to my sacredness. It helped me reconcile with the sacredness of my family, mistakes and all. We all could breathe again, at least for a while. In hindsight, the medicine of the Temazcal and the Atlachinolli my family, community, and ancestors shared helped me hold the melancholy realization that breathing is a privilege and that every breath is a gift. The global Covid pandemic robbed us of that gift at every turn and will continue doing so despite our wish for it to disappear.

I lost two beloved people in my life to Covid, a Danza jefe in our Mexica Danza community and my Jefito (my dad). The first waves of Covid crushed my heart. My ceremonial sister cleared the way for us to have the ceremony immediately when my dad was hospitalized. On the altar, I propped my favorite picture of my dad with his grandkids on the northeast corner decorated with bright flowers, a candle, stones, and water. I fasted in preparation for our petition to Creator, but it was already decided it was time for him to go. I was hoping this would be a time when the Atlachinolli medicine would grant my dad another day, but instead, his passing taught me to connect with his breath through my own. My heart has never weighed heavier, but I know their breath keeps going through the Atlachinolli we activate in our Temazcal. The manifestation of this Atlachinolli legacy that will get passed down to my family and community is now complete and serves the purpose of keeping us protected and cared for into the uncertain future. I am learning alongside our Kalpulli (Inter-tribal Mexican Indigenous group of families) and community how to preserve the traditional adobe Temazcal – from building them to running them. Sometimes our traditional knowledge has to be pieced together across generations and among inter-tribal people who are putting fragments together to make the whole. I am thankful that through my family’s traditional healing practices and the sound cultural and traditional preservation work of my elders and teachers, I carry the medicine of the Atlachinolli in its wholeness by way of the Temazcal for generations to come. 

There is a lot to learn from detribalized Indigenous folks who are reconfiguring their connection to their ancestors. When nurtured, guided, and held accountable to community, we co-exist and learn from each other in astonishing ways – we travel, we protest, we trade, we sing, we dance, and more importantly, we pray around our ceremonial fires, just like we always have. As a surviving member of migratory Indigenous people of this continent, I’m a testament to the timelessness of inter-tribal kinships that the Atlachinolli nurtures among Dine, Mexica, Wirrarika, Purepecha, Chichimeca, Tepehuan, Yoeme, Lakota, Tlaxcalan, Mixe, Mixteco, Pueblo, Carrizo Comecrudo, Coahuilteco, Apache, Xicanx people, and many others.

The Atlachinolli song I shared is among one of the first songs many Xicanx people learn upon weaving into Mexican Indigenous ceremonial community. In Xochitl In Cuicatl (poetry & song) is such an effective way to learn and deepen connections with teachings and cultural legacies while tracing back our roots. I mention Mexican Indigenous roots explicitly because this is my experience, my story, but I know many folks of other Indigenous origins from around the world may find this narrative fits their own because so many of us have been displaced and disconnected from our roots. Of course, not all Mexican people are Indigenous. My late Jefito throughout our healing journey, helped me critically reflect on our Indigenous identity so as not to erase the stories of the Indigenous people of Mexico who don’t identify with Mexican nationalism. As I got older, I would visit him in Ciudad de Mexico (CDMX), and he would accompany me to ceremonies with my teachers. He helped me realize through our customary deep philosophical conversations at the end of the night that the idea of La Raza Cosmica (The Cosmic Race), a common phrase among Xicanx people, centered mestizaje, not Indigeneity. I learned that mestizaje IS assimilation; it is being complicit with oppression through a lens of national pride that erases or minimizes the genocide, pillaging, rape, violence, manipulation, and extensive harm that colonialism brought to this continent and our people. We’re still healing. We’re still rekindling, and even while we’re in this process of piecing our generational legacies together, we’re still Indigenous. 

We carry the Atlachinolli, the breath of life with us everywhere we go and when I connected to that breath through the Temazcal, my family and my lineage healed. My family left me many things, among them, the pain, hurt, and violence enabled & perpetuated by colonialism, patriarchy, and colorism (racism). Yet the most important and powerful thing I inherited from my familial lineages was one of breath, resistance, inquiry, observation, and affirmation. The medicine my mom and abuelita shared with me when they had me hover my head over the warm pot of hierbas in the kitchen of our rented house, is the same medicine that heals our hearts when we welcome red hot lava rocks into the dark Temazcal. The steam I breathed in to heal my asthma in my teens, is the same Atlachinolli I connect with when I need to release the tightness of my chest when the news tells us another BIPOC community has been harmed by police, that brown and black children are ripped from their families or that more murdered and missing Indigenous relatives are taken from their communities. Whether it’s asthma, covid, tragic loss, or a wounded spirit, all of our hearts have been broken. All of our hearts are yearning to be pieced together again. To be healed by this breath of life is to be reminded that this nurturing medicine has always been a part of us. By carrying this medicine and its teachings forward in a respectful, accountable, and traditional way, we build kinships of reciprocity and guidance from our ancestors, elders, teachers & the respective tribal communities that have dedicated their lives to cultivating practices that empower future generations while honoring those who have laid the foundation before us and after us. 

Ometeotl, Ometeotl, Nexmaca Chicahuac In Tepolcayotl

Ometeotl, Ometeotl, Ometeotl Dale Fuerza a la Juventud

Ometeotl, Ometeotl, Ometeotl Give Strength to Our Youth!

**Atlachinolli comes from the Nahuatl language, a Nahua-Mexica language that has been around since at least the 7th century². In 2021, Nahuatl was the most widely spoken indigenous language in Mexico, with 1.7 million speakers³. For context in how widely spoken contemporary Nahuatl is, the overall number of various indigenous languages spoken in the US reached 200,000 in the last census, with Diné Bizaad or Navajo among the most widely spoken, with around 170,000 speakers4.

¹Wambli Sina Win, J.D. (2011) The Red Road is not for Sale.

²Suárez, Jorge A. (1983). The Mesoamerian Indian Languages. Cambridge Language Surveys. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-22834-3. OCLC 8034800.

³(2011) US Census Bureau

4(2021) Statista Research Department

Laura Yohualtlahuiz Rios-Ramirez

Southern Plains

Laura Yohualtlahuiz Rios-Ramirez (she/her/they/them) is a Mexican-born Xicana scholar-practitioner of Tepehuan, Guachichil Chichimeca, French and Spanish descent trained in educational pedagogy, circle keeping, performance art, andcommunity organizing. Currently residing in occupied Somi Se’k Territory of Yanaguana, (San Antonio, TX) she’s recognized for her canon of healing-informed praxis intersecting performance art, ancestral knowledge systems and restorative/transformative justice practices as tools for personal and collective transformation. She is a veteran Bgirl/Hip Hop dancer, a wife, and most importantly,a mami passionate about healing intergenerational/colonial trauma through matriarchal leadership, cultural resilience and folklife preservation. Laura is a Co-Founder and Visionary behind De Corazón Circles, a consulting and capacity building firm that envisions a safe and equitable world where restorative interactions transform individuals, relationships, communities and systems through the prevention, repair and deep healing of harm.