1. How did you first come to working with plants?
My journey with plants begins as a young child, playing outside pretending I was a farmer. I would pick grasses and throw them at my imaginary cows and goats. I grew up in a family where plant medicine has always been used and where respect for the earth was at the core of all decisions that were made. Whenever my brother and I were sick our mom would make us teas or give us homeopathic remedies and flower essences. Every year when we returned to Chile to visit our family there I would have long conversations with my grandmother about her favorite plants and her relationship to them. She would tell me stories of her childhood growing up on a farm and the different farming techniques that they used. These experiences framed my inspiration and my mission to work with the earth. I would say that as far back as I can remember I have felt committed and inspired to do environmental work My philosophy around environmentalism has of course evolved throughout the years and has found a way to merge with my herbalism passion. It is in fact inextricably linked.
As herbalism grows in popularity as an option for healing, the demand of plant material needed will increase. I do not think there are currently enough farms or gardens growing herbal medicine to meet the demand. My concern is that if we do not understand the link between earth healing and people healing, we will create more damage than we intend. We need more folks growing herbs and care-taking the forests that people harvest from. Wildcrafting can become an abusive relationship, if we are not aware of what that ecosystem is needing. If we only take and do not give back, for example propagating the plants that we are harvesting, or inoculating those woods with some really nice old growth soil, then we fall into an extractive relationship with the earth once again. Of course, we cannot all own land or grow our own herbs, but I think that this gives us a chance to envision growing collectives of herbalists and farmers. I think we are at a crucial point of imagining things that perhaps do not yet exist.
2. What kinds of lenses and frameworks do you bring to the way you work with herbs and offer them to your communities?
As first generation I often think about what home and roots mean. This experience has inspired me to dig deeper within myself and my history to gain a sense of how I arrived here (in this moment in time and in this place in the world). I am passionate about learning world history, as it helps me to situate the multiplicity of perspectives, and weaving of stories. I find that you can come to many of the same conclusions of our time by tracing different timelines. I often find tracing food tells a powerful story of people and their relationship to land and other people. This is a one of my main perspectives I take with me when I am sharing about plant medicine. I think that we can all learn more about ourselves through working with the plants of our ancestors and tracing the roots of those plants. It is also important to learn the plants that are growing within our own ecosystem in order to better understand the place we are living in and also to ground us in a sense of home. I think that when we feel a sense of home, it has the power of growing our responsibility and love for a place. The goal would be that we all feel that the earth is our home and our body and that through this consciousness we could become more aware of the decisions we make.
I have had the chance to travel to many parts of the world and learn a little bit of the plants there, this has opened my eyes to the biodiversity and beauty of this earth. The magic is RIGHT HERE. We are magic, this earth is magic. In my opportunities meeting different plant and energy workers on these travels I have also learned how many practices overlap at their roots. No matter where in the world you go, indigenous people are working with the elements. This was a big AHA moment for me, of course, the elements exist within us and exist outside of us as well. If we learn to use the elements, then we can bring balance, balance on many levels.
3. Knowing that mainstream "western" herbalism has roots in many indigenous traditions and practices, often stripped from BIPOC folks through colonialism, slavery, erasure, and cultural appropriation, how have you found yourself needing something different? Have you needed to dismantle or disentangle oppressive systems in your work?
My work is rooted in our decolonization process. Our survival as BIPOC folks has often rested on knowing the plants as food and medicine. But also our fragmentation and our loss of knowledge has been due to the process of erasing our relationship to the plants and an abusive relationship to the land. I believe that as we learn more about the anatomy of our body and the power of plants we can begin to empower ourselves, and ultimately become autonomous from a system that does not care for our survival. This medical system specifically makes money from our sickness, in fact our whole modern lifestyle is making us sick from the food we eat, clothes we wear, water we are drinking etc. We are often felt to believe that we do not know how to heal ourselves and that we need to go to the doctor or an expert to understand what is wrong with us. I think that doctors absolutely have their place and allopathic medicine has contributed incredible things for our healing, but I do think that it can be overused in moments when it is perhaps not necessary. I look at how herbs can be used as preventative medicine. We only have this body for the rest of our life, we need to take care of it if we want our organs to continue working well as we age. I want us to love our bodies and our being, our power and potential to be happy and create beautiful harmonious systems in order to heal the oppressive systems currently in place. It is happening, there are many people working towards undoing racism in the food system, providing affordable alternative medicine, working towards abolishing prisons etc.
I think it is easy to romanticize herbalism and people who are doing this work, as if they are healed and they have the answers to alternative healing. This is obviously not true, we are all on our own healing journey. Herbalism is not apolitical— it is absolutely political. I think many white herbalists have not done much work in looking at their internalized racism and privilege, I see this in the way that they speak about their work and the framework that they use to talk about plants and the people that they are serving. Their overall intentions continue to exist within an extractive mentality. We need to be aware of how there is a strand of herbalism that is fancy, exclusive, white washed and straight up appropriative. The fact that white folks have been the face of herbalism speaks to the appropriation of knowledge that has taken place and those who have not been given the spotlight or value to share their knowledge. Plants are as diverse as people and so the range of herbalism is much farther than just western herbalism. A lot of so called “Western Herbalism” has its origins in Northern African, Eastern European and Native American herbalism. Herbalism itself is a word that many plant workers in the past did not use, it was just part of their survival. For example my grandmother who worked with plants, nutrition and the body would not call herself a healer or an herbalist, but her work fell under that category. I ultimately think what our work is, is to bring people into a deeper connection to themselves and the earth. We need to have a grasp of the injustices that exist around us in our work if we want to really dismantle these systems. Herbalism can be social justice work, but ask yourself what communities are you working with and for what purpose are you doing this work? If part of your work is not serving working class and poor people then there needs to be some reframing. Of course we need to make money and value our work, but I do not think that needs to be exclusive. Organize a free clinic 1 x a month for example and unify your herbalist community.
4. There has been a lot of harm and abuse of power coming to light in the herbal community (and all over). How and why do you continue to do the work that you do?
I continue to do this work because I truly believe that we can change and heal. I want to see more BIPOC herbalists sharing their abuelita knowledge.
5. Wanna tell us about some of your favorite plants and why?
I have really been loving rose lately. My grandmother Rosa Brunilda Estela transitioned on her birthday this past August the 21 on her 101 birthday. Up until her passing I was not really into roses, but in the past month roses have been a huge part of my life. Everything has been rose, rose tea, rose honey, rose flower essence, rose toner, rose tinctures etc. I love it, I feel that the rose has been helping to go deeper into my emotions in a loving and patient way. I like to work with plants in this way in order to get to know them. I have also been connecting with my grandmother more in dream time.
6. What are ways that you take care of yourself doing this work?
This can often be a difficult thing for me. I have chronic lyme and can easily get inflamed if I pass my threshold. I need to stay pretty stress free, go to sleep early, get at least 8 hours of sleep, take a bath at least once a week and STRETCH and dance. If I don’t give myself the time to check in with my body, I start getting so stiff and the pain in my body becomes unbearable. I often “push through the pain,” meaning I continue to do all the things I do, until I can’t move anymore and I need to lay on the floor for a while to release the tension in my body. I am learning to be more gentle with myself and listen to the language of my body. It has been a really beautiful journey to love myself so hard and give myself the treatments that I often suggest to others. The past year has really been about living my truth and love fully.
7. What does "healing" look like, for you, in times on ongoing crisis and violence?
Being with friends and giving each other the space to share our emotions, giving each other foot rubs or massages, sending sweet loving messages, remembering to laugh and feel joy.
8. Who do you look to as guides and accomplices in this work?
I love seeing more BIPOC urban herbalists and gardeners in NYC. I think it is important that we have folks working with plants here.
9. How have herbs supported your relationship with your body?
I am not sure what I would do without them. They keep me in balance, they help guide me into deeper connection. Every plant has a different message, sometimes similar, they are such great teachers. They teach me about my body and emotions. The other day I was sick with a fever that felt like a terrible headache and I couldn’t move, I remembered yarrow, I drank lots of yarrow tea and then started sweating. In a few hours had no more headache and my fever was gone, the next day I was back to having energy. That is Magic.
Antonia Estela Pérez was born in NYC. Her connection to the urban world and culture is strong. This same love inspired her curiosity to learn the city's ecological and human history.
It is through understanding of the plant's history of origin and migration that she has also been able to more fully understand herself and guide herself to a life of creative and collaborative service. Through observing the responses and shifts in the earth due to patriarchal and capitalist paradigms, Antonia centers her work in re-imagining new systems that hold foundations in land based wisdom. Antonia comes from a family of farmers and educators where plant medicine has always been used. Antonia is a certified permaculturist, sivananda yoga instructor, environmental and social justice educator, reiki practitioner, visual artist and is currently enrolled at the Arborvitae School for Traditional Herbalism (she has studied with several herbalists and healers in the North East and in Chile).
You can follow Antonia on Instagram at @antonita_la_brujita and learn more about Antonia’s work here, here, here, and here.