Felipe S. Molina believes the days of storytelling, of friends and family gathering together and benefiting from the wisdom of their elders, are gone. To think of the modern culture glorifying witty quips and sound bites, it’s hard not to agree. But some still know these stories hold wisdom and truth, and many would say Felipe is one of our most important connections to that storied past.
For most of us, it’s difficult to imagine the world in which Felipe grew up, and even more so the world his grandparents were forced to escape. Fleeing Sonora Mexico during the Mexican Revolution, a time when Porfirio Diaz was seizing indigenous lands and selling the Yoeme/Yaqui people into slavery for 60 pesos a head, they settled in Tucson in 1916 and started their family. The son of their third daughter, when Felipe was five his mother remarried, he made the choice to stay with his grandparents, who were now living in a Yoeme village in Marana, honoring the customs of their people.
“Those were good years.”
Felipe describes the “good years” as a time with no electricity, where the village had one water source, and he and his brother would haul buckets in wagons to their house for cooking, washing, and watering the gardens his grandmother kept. To Felipe, this life was a joy. What wasn’t a joy for him was school, and its attempts to overwrite these ways. While Felipe wanted to write about or even discuss his culture and native language Yoem Noki, most of his teachers chastised him, saying it was “too old-fashioned.” One exception was his third-grade teacher, Mrs. Maxwell, who tasked him and others from his village with a new assignment. Take these vocabulary words home and translate them into your native language. And with the help of his grandparents, Felipe began what would become one of his greatest contributions to the preservation of his culture, creating his own dictionary of the Yoeme language.
In Felipe’s community, lessons were learned through story, dance, and song. When not in school, Felipe and his brother would travel with their grandfather, who was a ceremonial dancer, to surrounding areas and observe the rituals of their people, most notably the Deer and Coyote Songs. Felipe began to learn these songs and dances, and their messages of respect for the natural world, and eventually recorded these songs. This work caught the eye of Dr. Larry Evers, Professor of Literature at the University of Arizona, who was doing his own work to preserve the culture of the indigenous people of the southwest. Dr. Evers asked Felipe for assistance with translations, and their work together would culminate in 1987 with the writing of Yaqui Deer Songs/Maso Bwikam, a book many agree is still the shining example of the benefits of collaboration between academics and indigenous peoples.
Felipe’s family, especially his aunt, also instilled in him the importance of the indigenous plant life, and the ways in which they should or should not be used. “Everything we do is total respect, where we’re going to talk to the tree before we cut it down, we’re going to talk to the plants for medicinal purposes, and we bring offerings. We don’t just chop down and take.” This understanding of the natural world led Felipe to Native Seeds Search, a non-profit seed conservation organization. Through this work, Felipe met with other native groups, learning about diabetes prevention through the use of traditional foods, and eventually passing on this knowledge as their Diabetes Project Coordinator for Native American Communities.
Felipe has written many books and helped several people chronicle the traditions of his people. In 1998, with the assistance of linguist David Shaul and Herminia Valenzuela, he published the book he had been writing since the third grade, a true Yoeme-English English-Yoeme dictionary. In 2015, he began teaching a culture class with The Center for Employment Training, which has given him an opportunity to weave his work into traditional storytelling. His students come from similar backgrounds to Felipe, but often do not have family or elders who have retained the culture in the same way. The program comes as a blessing for many thirsting for that connection to their past. Felipe has hopes that these types of classes will become widespread in the future.
At a recent family gathering, Felipe asked his five-year-old grandnephew what he was studying in school. To his surprise, the boy replied Animam Mikwa, (the Yoeme tradition one might compare to All Souls Day). “He’s singing in our language the songs that they’re teaching him, so he’s the one in our family that’s really into it and picking it up. When I see him, I speak to him in our language. So hopefully he’ll be the one that’s going to retain it in our family.”
While this boy of five may be growing up in a different world than the one Felipe did, it’s hard not to see the reflection of another five-year-old boy who chose to stay with his grandparents and live their traditional life. And in the same way that Felipe continued his grandparents’ legacy, perhaps this child can do the same. Fortunately for us, through the work Felipe has done, that possibility is still open.