In December, I sat down with Enjolie Lafaurie, one of the founding members of the Cihuapactli Collective. Cihuapactli (pronounced: see-wa-pac-tli) means “women’s medicine” in Nahuatl, a language Indigenous to now-Mexico. The organization is run by and for urban Indigenous families in Phoenix, Arizona with four key areas of focus: cultural revitalization and education; birth equity and reproductive justice; food justice and land restoration; and advocacy and consultation.
In this final iteration of our Birth Justice Year in Review, I share Enjolie and my conversation with one another. We discuss her journey to make Phoenix home, the development of the work of the Collective, and their plans for the coming years, most especially a 7-acre land development project to restore a place where birth, death, the land, and their roots are honored and intertwined. The Cihuapactli Collective is a beautiful example of innovative, entrepreneurial, and systems-shifting birth justice work grounded deeply in whole-family and community care, and it is an honor to share this conversation and uplift their work.
(This text was edited for clarity and length.)
Part III: When Birth and Death Kiss
Theresa Nelson (she/her/ella): For our readers, may you please introduce yourself?
Enjolie Lafaurie (she/her/ella): Yes, my name is Enjolie Lafurie. I am a co-founder and the co-executive director for the Cihuapactli Collective. I’m originally from Southern California. My mom is Mayan from Guatemala, and my dad was Afrocubano, so we’re Taino and Arawak. I’m a mom and a recent grandma. Those are some of my most important titles, but some of the other ones might come up.
Theresa: Awesome. Thank you for sharing that and for introducing yourself as a whole person, not just in relation to the work. So, how would you describe Phoenix and the places where you all live, work and raise your families?
Enjolie: I came here as an adult. Graduate school is what brought me to the valley. I’m a psychologist, among many other hats.
One of the biggest things that was different for me in the move is that, here in Phoenix, each neighborhood – literally, each block – shifts very rapidly. That was always surprising to me how you could have one block that was maybe more what you would call “hood,” maybe more underdeveloped, and then next you have another area that was, you know, “nicer” in quotations, or more developed, whiter, you know, and seem to be of a higher socioeconomic status.
As I’ve learned, there’s deep history in that, and that depends on at what point in history you’re hitting. So, if we think about maybe one or two generations back, what I understand is that south of the river or just below the mountain base: that used to be essentially the Black area. And then in the kind of middle space, what is Phoenix, used to be the white area. Then north: that used to be the Hispanic area. But then, if you go deeper, all the canals, all the water systems, and these mountain ranges: those are all Indigenous. The canals are literally built by Indigenous communities, specifically ancestors of the Akimel O’odham & Pee Posh Indian Communities. So, there’s just all these layers of Phoenix.
Theresa: Can you tell me a little bit about what it’s been like to move there as an adult and put roots down, and then raise your family there?
Enjolie: Oh, gosh, where do I begin? Like seriously, where do I begin? Which decade? Okay. So, like I said, I came for graduate school. But you know, I had privilege. I know most people say they’re starving students. I was not. In fact, for me, being a graduate student gave me finances that I had never had before, because the way that I was raised I had lived with my parents all the way up until I moved out of state. I had funds from my stipend from working on my PhD. I had funds from financial aid. So, I was probably the most autonomous I had ever been, and although I didn’t have a lot of money, or it was borrowed money, all that money was mine, and all I had to do was take care of my little apartment and me.
What ended up happening was for the first 3 years or so I would go home every weekend because home was a six-hour drive or a one-hour plane ride away. It wasn’t until about Year 3 or so that I said to myself, “You have to do things here because you’re gonna have lived in this space and you’re truly not going to be able to speak to what Arizona and Phoenix is.” So I got out into the desert. I had a boyfriend then who eventually became my husband, so we went out into the desert, and I went ATVing, and literally, literally had the time of my life.
What I say now about Arizona and my relationship to the land is that the land recognized me, and I recognized it, and the land probably was just waiting for me to, like, get in there. Desert is my element, and I didn’t know that living in California.
So fast forward, and I got married in the time that I was here. I met my husband in graduate school and we were together for a total of 5 years, although we were only married for 7 months. He actually passed away. As did my father. Both my husband and my father passed away a day apart from one another, which is a big part of my grief story. And when we talk about in the Collective, that we work for urban Indigenous families from womb to tomb, I’m also a death doula and hypnotherapist, and so I sit in multiple spaces. I certainly am very comfortable sitting in the death space.
After that I had to make some decisions, including whether or not I was going to stay in Arizona. They passed away in the summer, so I had the whole summer to figure out where I was going to live, and I would go back and forth across that desert. Now, thinking about it is making me sad, but not only in a tearful way, in a connection to the land way, and for a bit my heart was homeless. I drove through that desert so many times trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life because it had just been flipped upside down at the age of 30.
I remember one day I went hiking and I was praying. I remember my prayer was, “I want community again. I haven’t had community for a long time.” And then I just really kind of got the message about the land. I heard it and I realized, I wanted to be in Arizona. This place was converted into my home. Even though some of the things that would technically root me like schooling and marriage were no longer there, and I had no idea what was going to root me again, I had a sense that this had become my adult home.
Immediately after that is when I would say that Indigenous ceremonial ways of living opened up for me, and that absolutely became my way. And I just committed, and I picked it, and it picked me, and I rocked with it.
More recently during the pandemic I thought about this again in a meditative way, how we have these imaginary roots that seep into the earth, and I could feel my root system then and they just dropped deeper – I don’t know if it was 500 meters 5 miles. I just remember knowing that I am planted here even more. And so, I honor that; I listen to that. I’ve always been open to moving because I’ve been a single person for a long time and my daughter’s an adult. I could go anywhere, but no, this is home. I have no idea what would take me out of here. I don’t think it would be of my own accord, you know? Whatever makes me leave, I think it would be something just as equally strong and forceful as that which that which keeps me here.
Theresa: Thank you so much for sharing; that is all beautiful. My next question is about your recent Non-Profit Quarterly article, where you write about the foundations of your organizing, including why the Collective’s founders first came together as friends and comadres and how rekindling your community’s relationship to the land shaped the philosophy of your work. You write that “conversations with [your] community helped [you] to weave together a narrative in which postpartum care, food, and land restoration are inextricably linked.” You also talk about how you also work as a death doula, and about justice and death complete that cycle. So, I’m curious how you see birth justice fitting into your work, even though you’re working sometimes on what could be seen as the opposite end of a life spectrum.
Enjolie: Let me tell that story because I love sharing it. So colonial and Western ideas make us think of time in a linear fashion. We’re all used to a birth and death timeline. It’s a straight line, right?
Personally, spiritually, and even outside of concepts of life and death, I have been served very well by remembering that time it’s just not linear. It overlaps. Moments overlap. History overlaps. Even in all the ways that I’m talking to you, you can hear like there’s moments in my life that overlap. Very few things went in a straight line.
As it relates to birth equity, birth justice, and as it relates to death – I don’t think that death justice is a term, but it should be – any good birth worker knows that life and death are always touching, brushing up against one another, because any moment that we’re taking a breath can be our last. Because birth is a natural process – not because birth is a dangerous process, but because birth is a natural process – and because there is a miracle of things that have to go right to maintain life, the possibility of death for either the birther or the baby is always there, and you’re always trying to do things just to navigate life. Every breath reminds you of that all the time.
We’re in a society where we don’t like to face the idea of death. We don’t like to face the idea that every time you breathe you could die if you don’t breathe again. Weaving that back to birth and death, it’s just always around. There’s never a time that it isn’t. What is arbitrary is our sense that we can kind of fully be in one camp and not in the other. It is arbitrary that we think that there’s such thing as a “good birth,” a “safe birth.” The medical industrial complex and the medicalization of birth, this idea that birth in a hospital is what makes it safe, does it make it safe? No, as humans we’ve only been birthing in medical settings for 100 years. So, all the other times that there have been humans, we’ve accepted natural risk and knew that death was a natural part of birth.
Theresa: I am curious about how you see this view of birth and death alongside lots of contemporary conversations about birth justice and birth equity that are looking at mortality: birthing person mortality, infant mortality. A lot of times, the primary measure for how, say, the CDC, would measure birthing inequities or birthing injustice is by death. You’re inviting us to look at birth and death as not mutually exclusive. So how do you have those conversations? How do you couple those inequities with the nature of being human?
Enjolie: I think it’s walking in two worlds, which we talk about that a lot within the Collective. Is it real that we have Black, Brown and Indigenous birthers dying more, Black and Indigenous babies passing more through the birth process, or in early postpartum phases? Absolutely. That’s me walking in the world that statistics are real, that those numbers are real. They should be calculated and quantified and tabulated, and we should be doing something about that, period.
And then there’s the other part, which is part of the Collective’s sacred birth worker curriculum where – we trained on this last week actually – we talk about pregnancy release. Somebody’s going to hear that and think I’m only referring to abortion. No, we release our pregnancies all the time. Fifty per cent of pregnancies. Sometimes people, whether you know you’re pregnant or not, are going to miscarry in what is called spontaneous abortion. Abortion is a medical term, then we give it value. But abortion just means that the body releases the embryo.
When I taught that class, I was trying to center death in birth. Not the opposite way. To live is to face death. To birth is to face death. There are so many parallels with the end-of-life and the beginning of life. And if you think about that idea of when the soul animates the body and comes into a baby, it’s the same conversation about when a soul leaves a body.
That’s that other world conversation, and that should not be separate. We should be able to have both conversations, and as I go back to this pregnancy release class that we held, I was teaching all these things just I’m talking about now then. We also had a physician who is a dear, dear friend of ours there. She has an abortion clinic, and I don’t feel like squeamish saying that because that’s what she does, and abortion is legal here up until 15 weeks. She delivered the medical half of the training, and she said this is exactly how this conversation of pregnancy, release, just birth, and death should be talked about, meaning: it’s a natural occurrence, and all the medical scenarios need to be talked about. We try to separate them too much, so then, that makes us criminalize certain things, that makes us respond too strongly to certain things that are natural processes. And then, because we’re tired and we’re numbed down, we’re not appropriately responding to things we should, which are these high rates of mortality and morbidity among communities of color and dealing with systemic oppression.
Theresa: And how does land fit into this conversation, the way that you see birth and death and the Collective’s work?
Enjolie: For many years – I would say, for the first 4 years – our work was very birth and postpartum related. That’s absolutely our bread and butter.
Then came the pandemic, and Maria [the co-founder of Chiuapactli Collective] is an ancestral food chef. She had a for-profit food truck business, but when the pandemic came, her business was directly impacted because her food truck didn’t have any place to go. At the same time, the pandemic resulted in folks not having enough food and not having access to food, especially if they were homebound. So, we received a grant that allowed us to create food distribution packages and allowed us to share meals that were already made with local folks.
At that time, we also got land for the first time: we got an office – before that, we always were working out of Maria’s house. We had a small garden in our office space, and it allowed us to realize that everything that we were growing in that garden had some use for birth support, postpartum support, or support for those who had had experience some pregnancy release, intended or not. That got us going with the narrative that we were deepening our relationship with the land because we’re actually working it to produce food for all these birthing phases, and we could not separate access to food from birth justice. The work has become reciprocal. The land will give us all the things that we need to address and support families, so then we must heal the land as well.
We had to live it to understand that all these things we know weave together. For a long time, folks, including us, thought that our work was either birth work or food work, and then it finally came together and I’m able to tell this story now. But I had to watch it. I had to sit in the garden.
So now, 7 years since our start, we’re about to acquire 7 acres of land. And we’re just applying to it all of the components of how we serve families. It continues to often start with birth as we try to heal individuals and as we try to heal families, but
In addition, there’s the idea of sovereignty: being able to define your life yourself and live it out in alignment with your value system. A little plot of land is often the basis for being able to do that. If I connect this back to birth, there’s also the idea of having the foods that are germane to your body, constitution to your DNA and to your land, what is it like to have a baby be in utero, in a space that’s supportive, in a space that’s calm? That DNA is being reworked, and that allows for an ancestral awakening and ancestral renewal through basic things like food and the land that you’re on. That to me is what this circle of sovereignty is about.
Theresa: You talked about how over the pandemic your relationships with other partners and with the city government allowed you all to start taking these steps towards the acquisition of this land and connecting it to your work. And we’ve talked together in this conversation and others about our work across sectors, and how that has helped support you all’s advancement in the Collective. Can we talk about multi-sector collaboration and what you would like that to look like?
Enjolie: Yeah! We have a long-term relationship with the city of Phoenix through the Vice Mayor because he knew the work we do serving families from womb to tomb. This space of land that we’re going to acquire has a cemetery on it, and the current owner is a housing development company. They could not work that land because of the cemetery, so then came the Vice Mayor, who thought to connect us. We were just doing our job of serving urban Indigenous families from womb to tomb, and then we got to build a relationship with the company, and they eventually said, “We appreciate this organization, and we do think that they’d be good stewards.”
I think something in them woke up because of their interactions with us, and whatever work they’ve been doing themselves of seeing that they don’t always have to operate in a capitalistic way of selling something or making a profit allowed them to be willing to engage in this trade. This time, it was mutually beneficial, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. They didn’t have to necessarily get a little bit extra out of it; the extra is our relationship. And then people get creative because they’re out of that strictly capitalist mindset and they can see a bigger community picture. It’s not because we’re doing anything special. We’ve always told ourselves, “Just be yourselves and build relationships.”
It is not possible for multi-sector collaborations to occur if organizations are convinced that they need to operate in the way that is only most beneficial to them. Multi-sector work invites us to not operate in the status quo fashion, and to consider how different sectors and different fields can support one another and benefit from one another. That 7-acres example is probably one of the best versions of that because a lot of people were out of their egos, and they weren’t only thinking about making more money.
Theresa: Looking ahead, what’s next for you all? What do you need to be able to take these next steps? And where do you want people to find you to be supportive of that work?
Enjolie: We’re grateful to be receiving this raw land, but it’s raw land, which means we have to build the wellness center, the food forest, the teaching kitchen, the storefront, and more. So we need support, and we’ll take it how it comes. The easiest way for some of us to provide support is to consider it in dollars and capital, but absolutely if folks, I don’t know, know somebody who wants to give us a tractor, cool! We’ll take it! We need it!
There’s knowledge people can share; one of the best ways that people can support us is to put our work out there because we all know somebody who maybe has a connection to the work or a desire to support our work. We need a lot of dollars, but, like, $1 from 20 million people is cool, too, you know! What I see for us in the next few years will be a strong emphasis on building out the 7 Acres Project.
We are also looking towards quite a bit of exponential growth. Currently, we’re a staff of 11, and I can’t wrap my mind around what our staff size will be a year or two from now. That requires unrestricted funds for us to be able to pay salaries, because grants don’t offer those kinds of dollars very well.
Social media and our newsletters are some of the best ways to connect with us. We’re on Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, all the regular things as the Cihuapactli Collective.
Theresa: Amazing, thank you so much for all that you’ve shared with us, Enjolie, and I am looking forward to watching your work continue to bloom.
Enjolie: Thanks, Theresa. One more thing about what’s next for us. You know, we started [organizing] because Maria’s second daughter had just been born. That second daughter is now 7. She’s got a sister that’s 9. So, all those babies are coming into their coming of age. And we’ll just continue to follow families and move with their developmental shifts, and we’ll let their needs continue to guide the emphasis of our work.
This concludes our three-part blog series “Babies, Aunties, Doulas: Our 2022 Birth Justice Year in Review.” Previously, we shared an overview of our team’s perspective on this space as well as a preview of efforts in the data and policy world to advance community voice around birthing and birth work.
To get involved or to continue to learn more about the Birth Justice and Healthy Youth Development work at the Institute, email Theresa Nelson or Kaila Pedersen at: email@example.com.