Original article written for transform. by Karen Muktayani Villanueva in August 2010.
Looking back to go forward, La Plazita’s foundation is traditional Indigenous practices. We may not remember or even know the traditions from which we came, but our connection with them, however tenuous, are inside of us, influencing who we believe ourselves to be and where we’re headed.
La Plazita Institute is a grassroots organization based out of Albuquerque’s South Valley. Their mission is “to strengthen community and enable youth to leave behind a destructive lifestyle by tapping into their own roots to express core traditional values of respect, honor, love, family, and community.”
La Plazita Institute serves New Mexico’s communities through programs for youth and families who “have fallen through the cracks of conventional institutional support.” They serve youth in custody and those previously incarcerated, gang-involved youth, and returning veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. They concern themselves with providing a sense of belonging and familia for the communities they serve and offer opportunities to engage positively with the larger community.
La Cultura Cura (the notion that culture heals) is more than just a theory at La Plazita. Rather, it is a the guiding principal under which they govern, conduct, and organize themselves and their work. They infuse everything with the characteristics of traditional culture that includes traditions, symbols, rituals, languages, rites of passage, values, initiations, and virtues. Drawing from traditional culture guides even how the physical structures that make up La Plazita relate to each other.
This organization models itself on the traditional plazita formation. When you visit La Plazita, you will find a sacred formation of buildings that predates even the word used to describe it today. According to Albino Garcia, Sr., Executive Director of La Plazita Institute, this ancient formation dates back thousands of years and includes a space for all of the important aspects found in society.
At La Plazita, this microcosm includes a space for healing and ceremony which are the sweat lodge, the tipis, and the curandero house; the calmecac, also known as the center for education or school; the place where commerce and business is done is known as the zocalo (or mercado). Here goods are traded, bought, and sold. Finally, in the middle is an arbor, which is currently being built and serves as the large open-air meeting place for the entire community for dances, prayer, and other gatherings.
Not surprisingly, the core of La Plazita’s programming is centered around Community and gatherings. In addition to weekly sweat lodge ceremonies and a monthly gathering of the Community-at-large that includes individuals, families, neighbors, outside institutional representatives, and Spirit, there are weekly talking circles, or councils, for young men involved in the TMAC program (Thugs Making a Change), for young women who are in SMAC (Sisters Making a Change), and for urban Native youth who are in the Wookihi Cultural Program.
The work of La Plazita Institute focuses on meeting universal human needs such as a sense of belonging, a supportive community, a sense of personal identity as well as shared identity, shared purpose, and ways to nurture and cultivate a rich inner life. Garcia says, “Our thing is to take people where they are and where we find the deficits that they may have with regards to traditional culture. We create opportunities for them to engage and identify with their core culture.” La Plazita uses a variety of different indigenous hemispheric traditions that stem from Native teachings.
In addition, there are three open spaces on which La Plazita maintains, farms, and grows sustainable food that feeds the Community and provides a source of income. Produce grown by La Plazita is harvested and sold to Albuquerque public schools and local food markets.
La Plazita Institute leads by example in demonstrating how traditional culture can heal wounds sustained from oppression, assimilation, and mainstream, American dream, capitalist culture.” Their way of of being is certainly a healing force in the world and in the transformative social change movement.