A Journey to Her Past in Four Months, Two Wheels

Jill Contreras, winner of a scholarship from the Chicana Latina Foundation, is about to embark on a bicycle ride that will retrace her parents’ journeys from their native countries of Guatemala and El Salvador. As a youth educator and professional cyclist, Contreras decided to use the bicycle as a way to rediscover herself.

With seven others, she created a collective called Raíces/Roots to organize the journey. Starting Aug. 29, the eight members will travel by bike from Los Angeles to Guatemala, stopping along the way to collaborate with and give back to the communities and organizations that host them, sharing knowledge, culture and histories.

At a recent fundraiser organized by the Chicana Latina Foundation, Mission Local asked Contreras about her plans.

Mission Local: So, how did you come up with the idea for your project?

Jill Contreras: My dream originated when I was eight years old. I’ve always wanted to be at my parents’ home(s) in Guatemala and El Salvador. And I wanted to see Central America, to see where my parents are from. Every year they promised me to go, but they are afraid of the violence, everything that’s going on there. And finally, three years ago, my dad said, “I can’t take you, I’m not going back. I’m done.”

The experience for them was very traumatic. My dad said I had to find my own way to go and I felt in a way I was given permission by my parents to go.

I already had bike training, so I thought the best way to do this, for me, was to literally retrace my parents’ journey through the land.

ML: How did your parents get here?

JC: My mom walked through the desert with coyotes. She was in her mid-20s. She got caught by the Migra and was put in jail and deported. I didn’t have my mom for like six months since I was four years old. So it’s always been a mystery land to me, since I was a child.

I do this to honor my mom’s experience, to come with a richer and more powerful experience to every community that I go to. So I can give back whatever I can.

ML: What’s your experience with bicycling?

JC: I’ve been a cyclist for 10 years and I’ve been doing a lot of bicycle youth programs. I’ve really been involved with the biking community nationally, locally, regionally and statewide.

ML: Who else is participating in the journey to Guatemala?

JC: There are eight of us as of now. We plan to leave Aug. 29, and Dec. 2 is kind of the endish. But it will be a four-month trip. We are doing this as a group, a collective that may continue later on.

ML: What’s your connection to the Chicana Latina Foundation?

JC: Olga [Talamante] has supported me a lot, and Leonor Palacios and everyone, really, at CLF. I think CLF has allowed me to have my dream. To go for it, not be afraid and understand that the community will support you if you really prepare yourself for it. It’s been a big resource for me to know that you just really have to go after your dream, particularly because I’m Latina; to know that it’s not that common to have a brown Latina woman riding — and actually a lot of the riders are brown women — just like it’s not common for brown women to go to college. The CLF supports us through college, and I want to do the same thing with biking, because you learn so much about yourself and that is very transformative. So, I’m inspired by the CLF movement to get more brown women to do what generally doesn’t happen in our communities.

From left to right: Jill Contreras, Leonor Palacios, Olga Talamante, Laurie Coyle

ML: How did you hear about the CLF?

JC: Through a friend of Mónica Enríquez Enríquez. I was getting my master’s and she told me to check this place out. And I wasn’t sure about it, but it turned out to be one of the best decisions and resources out of my master’s program. I learned that amongst organizing we are also building family. It’s not just organizing and a bunch of coworkers or coactivists, but we are actually family.

ML: What does Maya Pedal have to do with your journey to Guatemala? [Maya Pedal is a Guatemala-based nonprofit group that turns bicycles into pedal-powered machines and generators.]

JC: Maya Pedal has inspired me because when I first rode a Maya Pedal I saw other Guatemaltecos really thinking way more advanced about bicycles [than] I had ever seen. I only use [a bike] to move myself around, but to run machines, appliances at home — that’s amazing. So it inspired me, and it’s a point of interest to stop [there]. Along with other groups, like the Peace and Dignity Journey, who are honoring water and people, [running] from Alaska and La Patagonia — they are all going to converge in Tikal, Guatemala, for the end of the Mayan calendar year.

They will have a big indigenous ceremony. So there are many other organizations along the journey, and we want to honor the work and learn and share what we can, from physical labor to knowledge that we can give.

ML: Why is this pedal-powered technology — the Maya Pedal — important in today’s world?

JC: We need to get to a point where we are not relying on oil or electricity, because they are exploitative on the Earth. It seems like a new concept, but we are actually returning to our roots/raíces. Not only it means returning to our parents’ homes, but to our own human roots, which is using sun energy, not petroleum or energies that damage the environment. We want to return to the ways our ancestors used, that work effectively and more in line with the Earth’s needs.

ML: You’re a CLF awardee, what does that mean? What responsibilities come with the award?

JC: First, I had to get my master’ program done. And that was great because I earned institutional capital, and what I mean is that I want to be able to defend the right of my youth.

I’m very much a youth educator. I love working with young folks and I know that their voice is often cut out — especially black and brown. So I wanted to make sure that when I work with them not only would I be Jill the teacher — an afterschool teacher — but also a person who has a master’s degree. So I can use that as an access tool to get my students what they need. And I’m very youth-driven; I wanted to get them as much as they need, and I have found that through my master’s it’s been easier for people to listen to my ideas.

ML: What kind of advice do you have for youth in the Mission who want to achieve their dreams?

JC: What I would say to other raza, brown and black women that have gone through some of the struggles, is to look at how other women have come along, but also it’s definitely shamelessly asking for help. I grew up with a lot of shame in asking for help because I didn’t want to be seen as a brown female who still needs help.

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