To Cemelli de Aztlan, the U.S.-Mexico border region is not just a line on a map dividing two nations and two cultures, it’s a place of its own, different from the countries whose edges define it; and it has its own culture of transition, of blending, and sometimes of violence.
De Aztlan, graduating this year from Harvard Divinity School (HDS) with a master in divinity degree, is herself a product of the border. She grew up in El Paso, Texas, just a short walk from the Mexican city of Ciudad Juárez. She knows the reality there is complex and that many families straddle the border, refusing to be torn apart. Despite travel advisories by the U.S. State Department, residents of El Paso visit Ciudad Juárez regularly.
A Native American, de Aztlan grew up in the Native American church, which she said allows more freedom for personal vision than the majority of Christian churches nearby. She began theological studies at Concordia University in Texas in 2000 and spent a semester at Oak Hill Theological College in London. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in religion and English in 2004.
But de Aztlan felt out of place at Concordia. She felt that her classmates didn’t believe that a woman could be a pastor or leader of a church. After her first year, she decided to leave. As she was saying goodbye to her professors, one in particular urged her to stay, asking her how things would ever change if she left. He gave her a copy of “A New Religious America” by Harvard Professor Diana Eck, head of the Pluralism Project and professor of comparative religion and Indian studies in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and member of the Faculty of Divinity. After reading it, de Aztlan decided she would stay at Concordia and that she would one day study with Eck at HDS.
It took five years, but she began her studies at HDS in 2006. She took a class with Eck and worked at the Pluralism Project. In 2007, she began examining the unsolved murders of women in Ciudad Juárez, formulating what she describes as a theological response to their impunity. She said the killings are an outgrowth of the traumas of colonization and the effects of globalization in a world that struggles to respect women.
The problem is a personal one to de Aztlan, who had a friend who was murdered in Ciudad Juárez just before de Aztlan entered Harvard. De Aztlan has had her own brushes with the Mexican city’s violence, and told of being chased by five men when she was a teenager, escaping by hiding under a car.
“There’s a lot of impunity and injustice on both sides of the border,” de Aztlan said. “The fear is real. Young women are being raised in this fear, but I think there is hope.”
Throughout her career at HDS, de Aztlan pursued research topics involving women, indigenous peoples, and the borderlands.
De Aztlan incorporated her own spirituality, artistry, and her Native American background into her stay at Harvard, designing and building several “community altars” with classmate Maria Cristina Vlassidis. De Aztlan described the altars as an invitation to the community to create a ceremonial space that acknowledges “our roots, our beginnings, and our ancestors.” Many of the altars were dedicated to the women in Ciudad Juárez whose deaths remain unsolved.
Continuing her research into femicide, de Aztlan met with social activists and scholars in Ciudad Juárez earlier this year, documenting the many ways that women are breaking the cycle of violence. She also presented her research in an event in May with her thesis adviser, Monica Maher, Horace De Y. Lentz Memorial Lecturer at HDS, at a lunchtime seminar at the Center for Government and International Studies. This summer she will travel with professors and researchers to Cali, Colombia, and Quito, Ecuador, to present her work.
Maher, who traveled with de Aztlan to Ciudad Juárez, described the student as one of the most creative she’s worked with, combining strong analytic skills with artistry.
“Her writing, in addition to its scholarly contribution, becomes a vehicle for education and healing of victim-survivors of the Americas,” Maher said. “I am sure that wherever she goes, her presence, courage, and imagination will move others to greater study as well as committed action for justice.”
As for the future, de Aztlan is exploring several possibilities across a broad spectrum that includes policy work and further graduate study. She also plans to train to be a midwife, which incorporates both physical and spiritual care for mothers during pregnancy.
“Being in the Native American church, there are different ways to be a healer,” de Aztlan said. “Many of my classmates will be venturing off into a ministry conducting blessings at baptisms, weddings, and funerals, but I think my ministry is in the birthing rooms, the place where we open our eyes for the first time and invite the light.”