Running Past PTSD (Or My Susto Profundo)

November 7 marks 30 years since I won my first police brutality trial in East L.A. in 1979. After all these years, I have now come to understand the meaning of resilience. Equally important, I now have come to understand something that always eluded me; the knowledge that the attempt to silence me – was an act of political violence.

I’m not sure why this knowledge eluded me. Perhaps it was because all these years, people would always ask me if my skull had been cracked by Sheriff’s deputies during the 1970 protest against the war in East L.A. No, I would always reply, with a sense of guilt; it happened while covering cruising on Whittier Blvd. on the opening night of the movie Boulevard Nights.

It became political when while photographing the beating of a young Mexican man – the officers then turned on me. They then charged me with attempting to kill 4 officers – with my camera. All told, my life was threatened and I was subsequently arrested, detained or harassed some 60 times.

About 5 years ago, I was invited to be a part of a group of survivors of torture and political violence. It was the most powerful and healing thing I’ve ever done. And yet, I felt I didn’t belong because all the other members were from outside of the country.

“What they did to you is what they to do to us in our countries.” That was the consensus of the survivors, insisting that I did belong there. That perhaps is when I began to contextualize what happens in the inner city, barrios and reservations in this country:  political violence, corruption and lawlessness happens “out there,” in Third World countries, never here. That’s conventional wisdom. But it doesn’t explain why this nation operates the largest prison system in the world, filled primarily with people of color. It doesn’t explain why the vast majority of victims of law enforcement abuse are people of color.

Not coincidentally, I am celebrating Nov 7, as opposed to that earlier date in March, because that’s what I want to commemorate; my victory, not my near-death nor trauma.

This journey can be best appreciated by survivors of traumatic brain injury, and Post Trauamatic Stress Disorder, or as I refer to it: susto profundo. It can also be appreciated by those who have dedicated their lives to treating those like me – whether they come from Asia, Africa or East L.A. – or anywhere else where human beings are routinely dehumanized.

I could recount the chilling details of what happened to me 30 years ago, but what I have finally learned is that it is both unnecessary and harmful to the spirit; survivors of torture or political violence generally, should give political analysis, not excruciating details. Instead, I choose to offer a few stories. One has to do with how running prepared me for my 1986 lawsuit. Every day I ran up and down hills in L.A. Each day I would run further so I could be stronger than my enemies. By the time my trial rolled around several months later, I had become invincible: nothing or no one could defeat me. With the courageous representation of my attorney, Antonio Rodriguez, we won. It was an unprecedented victory primarily because I am alive (He also represented me again six years later when we again triumphed in a lawsuit trial in 1986).

This running came back full circle this year when around 50 young people – including myself – ran from Tucson to Phoenix because legislators were threatening to eliminate the teaching of ethnic studies in Arizona. We were supported enthusiastically by our communities and joined by the Yoeme and Otham nations.  When we reached the state capitol, the legislators were amazed that we had run through the merciless desert in 115 degree heat. The bill was dropped, though they promised to eliminate Raza Studies next year.

Afterwards, one of the runners commented: “We came to fight this bill, but in the end, we came to know ourselves…” That too is what happens when survivors fight to create a better humanity.

In all these years, one of the most rewarding things for me was helping to heal other survivors of political violence. It took place in Washington D.C. several years ago. I had written a column in which I described the healing of Sister Diana Ortiz – who had been tortured in Guatemala – with roses. While I read this column in public, my wife, with the assistance of children of survivors, not only placed those roses upon her body, but also, upon all those survivors who had come to urge the U.S. government to abolish torture. Later, we also gave the White House a spiritual limpia (cleansing) at 3 am, though little good that did.

A psychologist in the field of trauma, Bessle Van der Kert, made an observation several years ago; he noted that survivors heal when they find a greater passion for something other than their trauma. For me, this is my research on Centeotzintli or sacred maiz. It is a many-years story, but it involves the search for origins and migrations. At a certain point, I was told by elders from throughout the continent: “If you want to know who you are, follow the maiz.” That’s what I do now. In the process, I learned that the stories I had been looking for were right in my own home… from my own parents who are 86 and 81… the stories they had told me when I was growing up that became the basis for my dissertation: Centeotzintli: Sacred maize – a 7,000-year ceremonial discourse.

To be beaten is dehumanizing. To be treated as a suspect population and to be told to go back to where you came from is violating. To be denied one’s human rights makes us less than human. To fight for one’s rights is rehumanizing. To find one’s roots – one’s connections to that which is most sacred on this continent – to that which is many thousands of years old and part of one’s daily life – is affirming and it is to find one’s humanity.

ROBERTO RODRIGUEZ, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona, can be reached at