Culture and IdentityGender and SexualitySpotlight

Claudia De la Cruz: Motherhood As a Part of Her Revolutionary Process

Enid Alvarez/ New York Daily News

Claudia was recently postpartum when she shared last year how supportive her community had been as she became a mother. She made mention of the remedios her mother and elders gave her that kept her healthy and well in a world where postpartum mothers often feel unsupported. I had known her as a powerful revolutionary woman in the movement and became deeply interested in listening to the most recent part of her evolution. I invited her this past May to elaborate on her experience. It was fitting then that I waited for her at Mothers On the Move (MOM) in the South Bronx, a social justice community organization that prioritizes four issue areas for base-building, local campaigns, and policy work: Housing Justice, Environmental Justice, Youth Organizing & Education Justice. Rebel Diaz shares a space with them so it is a space Claudia is familiar with; the Rebel Diaz Arts Collective is an important part of her community.

She showed up wearing her son Roque and she began to share about her motherhood journey. Claudia is a Bronx native (born at 139th and St. Ann’s in the South Bronx and raised in the University Heights neighborhood) whose parents immigrated from the Dominican Republic. She is a graduate from Theodore Roosevelt High School, and a graduate with a BA (2001) in forensic psychology from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and two Master’s degrees; one in social work from Columbia University and the other in divinity from Union Theological Seminary (both in 2007). “I’ve always identified myself as a Black Dominican or Afro-Caribbean. I’m an educator and pastor.” Claudia has served as the pastor of Iglesia San Romero De Las Americas but currently does not have a church. “I will always be pasturing in whatever capacity or space I am in. I’m a mom now, you know. I think it’s a part of my revolutionary work. I see [Roque’s] life as something that is not solely mine individually or his individually but as part of the collective,” she said.

– Claudia speaking about being a black afro Caribbean woman

“I called him Roque in honor of Roque Dalton. I went upstate [one] weekend with my family and one of my nieces learned one of the most famous poems that talks about ‘la sangre unánime de los que lucha’ y ‘el pan, como la poesía es de todos.’” Claudia chose to name her son after the Salvadorian revolutionary and poet. “The reason that I choose this name is because of that man, who was able to articulate a working class struggle, more than anything. And the beauty of our culture, being accessible and being for everyone. As someone who’s an educator, I think a lot of the times there are languages that are created to leave people out and academia is definitely good at that. When you read Roque Dalton and he talks about la poesia igual que el pan es de todos…there’s no better way for me to be reminded of a collective struggle and name my son Roque and know that’s the reason that I named him that. Because we’re still in the struggle.”

She stayed active in her organizing work through her pregnancy. “Although I was quite healthy for most of my pregnancy, there were decisions in terms of my day to day that I needed to make. So as an organizer, you go to protests, you organize…and I kept on doing that to the extent that I decided when I was 7 months pregnant to go to Ferguson because of everything that was happening around Mike Brown. And I remember my mom saying something like, “Tu ere’ loca.”

Her mother was concerned with the tear gas that was being thrown, telling her daughter it was dangerous for the baby and asking why she was going. “Well, because it’s a reproductive [health] issue too. They are killing [our] babies out there. They are killing other women’s babies and there are a lot of women out there, I’m imagining, that are also pregnant. So I’m gonna go.” Claudia describes her journey to Ferguson with the 17-hour ride going and coming back as spiritual for her. Regardless of what was happening, she saw that the protesting was grounded in family. She also went to the protest in support of Palestine with Roque still in her womb. “I think I found strength in another way. It has a certain level of more strength for me as a person of color, as a woman, as someone who thinks of herself as part of a Black radical tradition to say, I’m a mom. To me, that’s also part of a revolutionary process and I shouldn’t exclude myself or exclude him from spaces that are about transformation, and so I kept on doing all this work while I still was pregnant, and I couldn’t have done it if I didn’t have community, those women, but also my partner. As un hombre consciente, he doesn’t say, “No, you can’t go,” but instead, “let’s have this conversation, okay? Why do you want to go?”

Claudia took a different role after midnight and continued her work. “The folks that I work with are mainly men in the collective, in the Ñ Don’t Stop project. You see all these men like, “Okay you gotta do this interview? Let me carry him.” Everybody assumes the responsibility that he is not only mine or his father’s but he’s part of the collective and we’re all responsible for him. It takes a village.” That village and community is and was of the utmost importance to her through her pregnancy and now in the postpartum. Being pregnant reminded her once again of the severe lack of quality in healthcare. She knew the hospitals in the South Bronx were not a good idea. “I also know what our reality is so…I went to New York Presbyterian, which isn’t the greatest either but they offered the combination of a midwife and doctor. I felt comfortable there.”

Photo by Imani Vidal of Instye Photography

Her pregnancy was awesome. The first three months were challenging because of the morning sickness but it never felt like pregnancy was a deficit. The men around her were protective of her and didn’t want her to lift or do certain things. “I’m pregnant. I’m not sick. It’s not an illness, it’s a condition. I’m pregnant, it happens and I’m going to continue to do the work that I do.” Claudia’s labor was hard for her due to laboring for three days and acknowledging the difficulty of being so hormonal and experiencing so many changes. Becoming a mother changed the relationship with her own mother completely. She has much more value and a bigger sense of her mother’s wisdom. Their relationship has been strengthened and has moved into a space of sisterhood. “I had to get a C-section because his heart rate dropped when I was in the hospital but my mom had three C-sections.” She was in a lot of pain and mused that she was whining about it. “My mom is like, ‘I did that shit three times!’ That gave me strength to be able to get up and walk around cause I’m like, ‘you did it, I could do it.’ Let’s get this popping.”

The wisdom of her mother and community has been incredibly nourishing. “I understand that the reason my mom was able to provide for me some of that counsel is because she got it from her mom. And her mom got it from her mom, and that’s the case for a lot of the women that are around me. Unfortunately in the larger scale, in our community there’s so many levels of disconnect.” Claudia spoke about the reality that the immigrant experience includes sometimes being separated from mothers. Women have sometimes left because of socioeconomic or political reasons, leaving entire families behind while they’re here on their own. That separation can cut them off from old school wisdom during their pregnancies. “There’s a level of also just assuming or thinking that conventional medicine is the way to go and that ancestral medicine has no strength or depth or value. And then there are the folks that choose not to listen to ancestral guidance. For me, as someone who believes in liberation and transformation, ancestral wisdom has a very big place in my life.”

There was no way for Claudia to receive the fullness of her life’s work without that connection to her elders. Her mother stayed on top of her daughter’s diet during her gestation period, “que si una sopa de esto, que si una sopa de lo otro…” and has continued to nourish her and Roque to this day. “As soon as I gave birth, she came and she brought me té de tres anis to help with the gases and the release of water.” This knowledge of what and how to care for women is part of the Black indigenous tradition that is lost, unfortunately, in a country where there’s no value for blackness or indigenous cultures. “In terms of that community, I feel like it’s always been there and it’s always led me. My pregnancy and my birth were not gonna be the first time for me not to value it; if anything, es donde yo mas he asumido mi negritud y ese tipo de sabiduría ancestral.”

Photo by Kerbie Joseph

The same way her son became a part of her life’s work while she was pregnant, he continues to be present. As Claudia mentioned how it takes a village to raise a child, she spoke about motherhood and the ideas about it. The society in which we live has a bad idea that children are bothersome. “You go to a meeting, you don’t take your child because va a molestar. For me it’s like, if it bothers you, then you have a problem. Because, my child goes where I go. Y eso es muy de nuestra tradiciones. No necesariamente para las sociedades que se han creado ahora, en estos siglos, pero antes del colonialismo, antes de todo eso, andaban las madres con sus niños cargaditos.” She knows there is strength in that and the council of women in the meetings affirms her. “[They] go, ‘Roque!!!!’ and they carry him around and they play with him, and we carry on with business; he’s not alien or he’s not isolated or he’s not seen as an impediment. Whereas we live in a society or country where there are spaces like meeting spaces or working spaces where they see a child and it’s like ‘oh, there’s a baby.’ And the feeling is like, ‘why is he here?’”

Claudia thinks many women have felt excluded or have been excluded from spaces because these are not created for children. “No se crean espacios para que un niño pueda participar en eventos. Now that I’m in a new phase as a mom, even though I was more conscious about it before with my work with women, now I’m even more conscious of it. We have a speaking engagement? Oh, I’m bringing my son. And if you don’t want me to speak with him on the podium, then I’m gonna have to bring somebody else who’s gonna take care of him. I’m not excluding myself from the work that I’ve always done because I am mom. He’s part of it.” One of her practices that merges her sociopolitical views and motherhood are her letters to Roque. “His life is a project. It’s a social political project because he is part of something that is larger, something that I may not be able to see someday but he will, and maybe he won’t be able to see it. There’s hope that something will change in this society. I’ve always thought of him as part of that hope.”

Though, it is not lost on her that Roque is both a part of the collective and her responsibility. “I never thought about him as like, my child. My kid, my boy, right? So it wasn’t until he was born and the nurse came and gave me my son. ‘Here’s your son,’ that I was like ‘oh shit, he’s my son!’” Claudia knows he is not solely a socio-political project. She has most of the responsibility of guiding him and facilitating a process by which he understands himself as part of a collective. “And so I started writing to him con esa noción. He probably won’t even pay attention to those letters until he’s in college. But I wanted him to know the social, political, economic, spiritual space in which he was born.” For Claudia, giving her son the context in which she is raising him is important. “A lot of the times we don’t know why our parents migrated, what was happening in the countries where we’re from or we don’t know why our parents were forced to live in the conditions that they live here.” She shares about her own life and parent’s history: “I was born in the South Bronx and my parents had to make the choice when I was five and my oldest brother was eight to send us back to the Dominican Republic to be raised by our grandmother because where they were living, the social conditions of the space when they were on 149th and St. Anne’s…we’re talking about the 80s. It was a neglected community, they’re immigrants. They’re like, ‘wait a minute, they don’t need to be here where they could be in open land with their grandma’…living more of a quality life and I was able to understand their choice when I first learned history. What was happening at that moment in time historically that made my parents make the decision that they made.”

“Tu tienes hambre, papi?” She took a moment to breastfeed Roque and we continued. She wants her son to hear history from her because what is taught in school is more often than not inaccurate and lacking analysis. In her letters, Claudia shares life lessons that she hopes he’ll share with the world. “That’s his choice because he’s also an individual and he’ll grow into his own man.” She reflected on how in her own journey growing up, she had a period in her life in which she lost sight of the value in her community’s wisdom. “I grew a lot but at the same time I devalued a lot of what I was coming from. A lot of what I was coming from was so popular…tan del pueblo, tan básico. My grandmother used to say, ‘tu no eres mejor que nadie y nadie es mejor que tu. Tu eres única.’ Como cosas sumamente simple, and I was like…new knowledge and new way about doing shit and nobody knew better than I did, right?”

As she continued to grow, Claudia understood that it was the foundation she was given from her family and community the reason she was able to capture many feminist, communist and radical principles.  Particularly, she realized her mom was exactly the type of woman she was trying to save the world for. “This is some straight up colonizing way of dealing with this. I feel a lot of folks in different spaces or just in movement in general, we get so far from the ordinary folks that we’re supposed to be struggling with and for. Luckily I had folks around me that were like, but your mom is great. She cooks great, she raised you three, she’s done this, she’s done that. The idea that everyone, everyone has value.”

Her homegrown values were only heightened by these political ideologies.  “As young people of color, we need to, again, acknowledge that we come from a long Black radical tradition that is prior to enslavement, prior to the process of colonization, prior to imperialism…and we need to look back, like the Sankofa movement.” She believes we must look back to be able to know how to hold the present and the future. This requires research and investigating, reaching out to our elders who are still with us. “Ask those questions. If mom is alive, ask mom. ‘Cual era los consejos que tu mama te daba?’ One of the things that I started telling my mom, and this is just because she has an ability to memorize remedies and stuff, I was like, why don’t you just write a recipe book, like write it down because ultimately my grandmother’s gone, you’re still around but who knows?”

She would want to pass that information to a daughter, should she have one. “I would want to leave her that in the future as something that is a living testament of this is how we carry on. I think that’s important, like have folks write down ese remedio.” She feels the movement of doulas and midwives coming up in contemporary times is a reflection of claiming that ancient knowledge. “I think these women are looking for that ancestral wisdom to share with other women. And that’s something that the system has also broken, you know, the sisterhood. The ability of women sharing with other women.” Claudia cites the way the system pushes for women to compete with each other as a reason we have lost some of our ties. “That’s not what this is about. We’re not here to say, fulanita llego a tal sitio, yo quiero llegar mas lejos que fulanita. It’s about complimenting each other’s strength and also helping each other strengthen our weaknesses. When we’re able to see ourselves in those lenses then we’re able to share more and grow more as a community.”

In concluding my time with Claudia and Roque, she shared some wisdom and words she is gaining from her process. “There’s a need to build with other women and I’m talking based on my experience in a heterosexual relationship because again, there are partnerships where, or relationships where, there are two women about to have a baby, right? When you talk about a heterosexual relationship, the dynamic changes. There’s things that women go through that men will never understand, regardless of how good they are and how supportive they are and how present they are, they’ll never understand. But when you speak to a sister, even if she hasn’t given birth, there’s a certain level of sensitivity you have to say that is there that I think, not only when we’re pregnant we need it but we need it all the time. So I think building that core group of women whom you trust and who are there for you, que estan en solidaridad con el proceso tuyo. I think that that’s highly necessary and probably the most important thing that I would say and it doesn’t go only to the extent of the nine months but it carries through. It should carry through because you’re going to have to find out like, okay if I’m gonna breastfeed him, right, how do I stack breastmilk so that I could be able to have a life? That’s another thing right, I want to be able to take him to different places but there’s also the space of mommy needs time. So when mommy needs time, you need to be able to delegate or share the work with your compañero and compañera if you have one or if you don’t have a compañero or compañera, someone in that core circle needs to step up or needs to be able to say, “okay, I need help.” That only happens in community. That you feel the trust to say, okay I need time for myself and now I have to share him with someone else. Yo creo que la coletividad es sumamente importante, entre mujeres es importante.”


Links to Claudia’s Work:

Claudia de La Cruz’s outreach work helps teens and young women soar like ‘Urban Butterflies’
Latinas Celebrate Their Womanhood In Washington Heights
Statement for Mumia Abu-Jamal from San Romero de Las Américas Church – Pastor Claudia De la Cruz
People Power Movement – Free The Mind – Claudia De La Cruz




Carmen Mojica
Carmen Mojica is an Afro-Dominicana born and raised in the Bronx. She is a midwife, reproductive health activist and writer. She is the co-founder and associate editor of La Galería Magazine.