When I was a child growing up in a basement apartment in Queens, New York City, I was surrounded by plenty of things that continue to be a part of my daily life. I can easily remember watching shows like Cowboy Bebop and Hey Arnold! while drinking mate the coca and generally having a good time. Even as an adult, I still enjoy watching animation and cartoons, but this time mate de coca always stirs nostalgic childhood memories for me.
It is honestly a miracle that any knowledge was passed on to me at all especially when my two Quechua awichas (abuelitas) tried to make sure their children assimilated into mestizaje. My maternal side has mostly assimilated, but since my mother grew up around Aymara communities, she was able to learn how to practice hybrid Catholic/Andean spirituality. My paternal Quechua awicha was spiritually “Catholic”, but culturally she lived out her life as Quechua womxn and had immense knowledge on medicinal plants and herbs. Despite her efforts to make sure my father and his siblings assimilated into mestizaje, they grew up surrounded by their Quechua relatives and he learned how to live off the land.
Despite all those contradictions, I was taught at a young age that coca is sacred and must always be treated with respect. Whenever we did ch’alla (ceremonies) or k’oa (smudging), we chewed or drank coca with the intention of connecting ourselves to pachamama and expressing our gratitude for all the things that pachamama has given us. Coca is also used as medicine for altitude sickness, asthma, wounds, broken bones, chronic joint pain, headaches, fatigue and hunger. Coca was always an essential part of my life and just by having the coca tea bags in my home brings me so much peace.
That is why it was quite a shock to me, as I was growing up, to hear that coca was the butt of most jokes in any conversation about Latin America and the Caribbean because of the stigma created by the cocaine wars during 1970’s to 1990’s. It did not help that most people thought that coca in its natural form was as dangerous as cocaine so often times I had to educate others that coca was nothing like that at all. Whether it was with white folks, white latines or mestizes, I was always in a position where I had explain the importance of coca over and over again, that it eventually got emotionally exhausting for me so I do not engage with that conversation anymore. The narrative about coca in relation to cocaine has not changed and I would argue it has gotten worse since there are a lot of restrictions for cocaleros (coca farmers) on how much coca they can grow both for the state and for their own livelihoods.
These days, when I drink mate de coca, it often reminds me of “home” whether that is the Andes surrounding the home cities of my parents in Bolivia or the basement apartment in New York City. Even though there are still misconceptions about coca, in the end of the day, both my communities and me will continue understand the importance of coca and no one can take away the joy it gives us.
ThatNerdyBoliviane was originally born in New York City and essentially lived there until the age of 17 when they had to move to Toronto for reasons. They are currently struggling to survive in this weird-ass world that does not celebrate awesomeness enough. They self identify as Queer Quechua (Mestize) Bolivian-American and are involved with social justice work of all kinds. Aside from that, they are an avid lover of anime, manga, cartoons, (on rare occasion live-action TV shows if it’s good), and having amazing discussions with other folks about nerdy things. You can visit their blog Home to my Bitter Thoughts or follow them on Twitter @LizzieVisitante.
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