Reconstruction Artists Q&A: featuring JJJJJerome Ellis & Milta Vega-Cardona
In the sixth episode of our Reconstruction Artists Q&A series, JJJJJJerome Ellis chats with our Process Chaplain Milta Vega-Cardona about her life, her connection to the ancestors, and her unique role in the Reconstruction room.
To turn on video captions, click the button marked “CC.” For the full interview transcript please read below.
JJJJJerome: Oh, Milta! Oh my gosh. You look so… oh, you look so just luminous.
Milta: Thank you. And it’s so good to see you. I miss you all so much. And you’re always on my heart. And I know that you’re doing great. I love all your emails. I’m so excited about the work that you’re doing. I’m so excited.
JJJJJerome: Thank you.
Milta: Yeah. So it’s good to be here with you.
JJJJJerome: I feel the same, Milta. You’re always on my heart. And yeah, I mean, I feel very honored that I get to ask you some questions about who you are in your wide-ranging life. I mean, I’ve had the privilege of learning about your life at different points over the last few years. And I’m honored to learn more.
Milta: Thank you.
JJJJJerome: So yeah. I just want to start with your name. I wonder if you could say your name. I always remember the first moment I heard your full name.
Milta: Okay. So my full name is Milta Zoraida Maria Katalina Vega Cardona. Milta Zoraida Maria Katalina Vega Cardona, which makes sense. Six divided by two is three, which is Ellegua number. He takes care of the crossroads. He is the child and the old man. Appears in times of need and resides in the background. And I feel like that’s been my life. Like that’s been my life. Yeah, and for every one of those names, as you’ve heard me say before, there is a connection to an ancestor, to a ritual, to a process that speaks to Jerome. Not just who I am, but who’s I am. And that’s kind of a cool feeling, right? Like I buy one seat on a plane, but I get five, six. Just people don’t know it.
JJJJJerome: I love that. That image. Oh my gosh. It’s funny. You remind me of… I once was in Brazil, in Salvador, where as you know, there’s a very strong African presence still, and especially in the spiritual and musical life there. And I lived there for nine months. And I remember on the flight back, it just happened to be that it wasn’t a very full flight. And so nearly everybody had the entire row to themselves. And I slept. I lay out the whole row and the flight attendants were very nice about it. It was an overnight flight. So you’re just reminding of the experience of having more seats on the plane. I mean, as you said that, you said every name connects you with an ancestor. I’m wondering if you could speak about even just one of your names, and the way in which it is who’s you are through that.
Milta: Yeah. So I guess the easiest one would be my first name. It is the feminine to Milton, Milta. And it is… the story behind it is that my mother’s oldest brother, Milton, was also her favorite brother. And when she became pregnant, I was not her first pregnancy, but her first brought-to-term pregnancy because she had lost two other pregnancies. And she vowed that she would name this child Milton in connection to her connection to her brother and the Island and our history. And lo and behold, here I am, I’m a girl.
And so, she tells the nurse, at that time, it was the nurse that would fill out this certificate of birth. And so the nurse comes in and asked her, “Well, what are you going to name the child?” And she says, Milta.” And the nurse says, “No, no, no, it’s a girl.” And my mother says, “Yes, Milta.” She writes it out for her, M-I-L-T-A. And the nurse goes, “No, no, no, it’s a girl.”
And then I guess something happened. They just had some kind of discussion and nurse walks away. And my birth certificate comes back with, Girl Vega. So my official name was Girl. And that talks to the incredible power of naming something. We get our spiritual names, right. And then we have to have these official names that conform to structure of the society that we are being brought into. And so for years I had no idea that that was my name. I think I was 13 or 14 that I asked my mom for my birth certificate. And when I looked at it I said, “But I don’t have a name. It says girl.” And my mother was like, “You have a name. You’ve got five names.”
Yeah, no. And I never really had it officially changed except for that… because everything is connected big. Brother’s watching. As I grew older and became more known to the systems, then my name was actually officially changed on my birth certificate. So it’s very interesting. I still have that black and white copy. That funny-looking copy that says, Girl Vega. And thought about the tremendous amount of connection that that created to the life that I was going to have, and the sanctions that I received from my ancestors. My uncle is ibaé, and so is my mother, which means, they’ve transitioned. They’re ibaé. And I got to meet my uncle who also became my favorite uncle, and was an amazing, amazing, incredible man who had-
Milta: Milton. Yeah.
JJJJJerome: Go on.
Milta: He had a lot of glow about him. And my mother just… you could see the love in her face for him. So yeah, that’s a good story for me. It fills me.
JJJJJerome: Oh, that’s-
Oh, thank you for sharing it with me. It’s so beautiful. My mother has four brothers and six sisters. I think I’ve showed. All right, as I think I’ve told you. And she’s the second youngest of the 11. And my uncle, Jeffrey, who is my godfather, he’s the youngest of all the 11. And I don’t think she has any favorites, but they have a very special relationship as the two youngest and him as my godfather. And so when you’re talking about Milton, I was thinking about him too and the godfather, as the family member responsible for the spiritual life of the child, he has… I’ve told him many times he has completely fulfilled that role.
He’s who introduced me to books. He gave me my first book, which I still have when I was six months old. And he introduced me to classical music. He played the saxophone, he went to Columbia and I followed in his footsteps. So that uncle connection is so… and the maternal uncle I feel is so powerful.
Milta: Yes. Yeah. I mean, we’re maternal. Our lineage is maternal. The United States development of codification of power for those that became white thinks that they created something. And actually, they were just following the essence of who we were by moving from paternal lineage to maternal lineage here, for inheritance. In the United States, that’s like a 16-40 law. They would just… they didn’t know. They thought they were doing something. But we came through that lineage. And the universe has developed through that lineage. You guys had 2000 years. You didn’t do so well. So we’re shifting again.
JJJJJerome: That’s right.
Milta: So we’re shifting again.
JJJJJerome: That’s right.
Milta: And you’re right, Jerome. The maternal lineage does create a level of spirituality that… and I believe that that’s where the responsibility lies for all of us. How do we continue to move through the process of lifting, not just who we are, but who’s we are? I don’t leave out my paternal lineage because my father’s mother, Leo the Herb woman, Leo, the Herb woman Librada, ibaé, and which my third sister’s named after was the medicine woman, was the healer, was the priest, was the counselor, was the marriage provider, she brought people together. So yeah. That’s also… I’m very clear that that’s also important.
JJJJJerome: I mean, you use the word spirituality and I’m curious to learn more about your spirituality and your spiritual life. When I talk to you, it pervades every conversation we have. I feel we are both… we both have very, very rich spiritual lives. I’m curious to learn more about that. And I think perhaps through the lens of where are you from? Where were you born? And I’m curious about early experiences of the spirit in your life.
Milta: Yeah. So I’m a Nuyorican. First-generation, born in the projects on 100th Street in Columbia, in Manhattan. I always say that the night two people got drunk that night and they just dropped these buildings in this community that was so rich. I mean, I was born and raised between Columbia University and The Museum of Natural History between Central Park and Riverside. And we used to call the co-ops on 100th Street. We would point to them and say those were the rich buildings because that’s where the white people lived.
And we were, of course, the Latinx people. We weren’t Latinx then, we were Puerto Ricans. Everybody was Puerto Rican. It didn’t matter whether you were Mexican, Ecuadorian, you were Puerto Rican. And our black brothers and sisters, Mrs. Martinbro, ibaé, who kept the community together. She didn’t play. She was like 80 when I met her. And I think that when she transitioned, she was still 80 because she never changed. And early on, I had the great blessings of living in a household that was clear about our spirituality and that was different from the religion that we followed. So we followed the religion of Roman Catholicness, and that came straight through our heritage.
My great grandmother knew that the priest had to be honored that meant paying him off so that he wouldn’t call her a witch. But they worked together because he would come and he would say, “Milta, this is going on. What do we do?” because measles, the Syria, marriage. So they were in deep connection spiritually. In my home, we practiced Espiritismo, which is a space that encompasses our ancestors. It is the spirits of our ancestors that we are honoring. And that space is very sacred in all of the other processes like Santería or Ifa or Lucumí.
The ancestors come first. Nothing happens before the ancestors. They have to say, yes, they have to say no. Okay. And then from there, comes the Gods the OCHA. The first God of the Ocha that opens every ceremony, and that really, you want to pay attention to is Ellegua, right? So although they seem like they’re different, and they each do have their domain, one does not function without the other. It’s very cyclical. It is very intertwined. And I grew up in the 60s and 70s. And we still had to keep our practice underground. It was not something that was sanctioned. It’s still not sanctioned. There are all kinds of rumors about what it is that we do. And the ideology behind it, right. The isms that were created about it were consistent straight through since our ancestors came. Not came were brought. Shackled and enslaved.
The spirituality that was held on to, it was held on through adopting whatever region religion was predominant. So I mean, you’ve been to New Orleans so you know what happens in New Orleans. And you know that when those drums are played, everybody comes. We’re called. We’re called to the drums. We’re called to the chanting, we’re called to the singing, we’re called to the vibrantness of it. So yeah, nothing happens without that. The sad part about the truth of racism overall, is that when those that have come to be known as white and those of us that are confused about who we are, when we get cut off at our neck, we’re getting cut off from our spiritual connections, from those things that have saved us, that have taught us.
The DNA knowledge. Not DNA like in your cellular, but in your cellular. Yeah. And when you find that, that’s why people get so excited. Oh my god it feels so good. They’re jumping up and down, and they don’t know what they’re doing, but that’s spirit. That’s spirit. And it happens in the Baptist Church, it happens in the Roman Catholic church, it happens in the Muslim mosque, it happens in the temple. It’s not the ism that’s important in regard to the dogma of religion. It is the connection that we can all make. And having had the opportunity to have experienced every one of those that I spoken to, I find me everywhere. I find me everywhere. Where I am seated is in Santería. And that is my home, that’s my eon, that’s my calling. But listen to your calling, whatever it is. Come on down, come on down. All roads lead home.
JJJJJerome: That’s right. Well, I mean, speaking of many things, speaking of home, speaking of ancestors, speaking of connections, speaking of racism, these are all things that we talk about ongoing in Reconstruction. And you have, I feel like I can speak for myself. You have guided me through those conversations so much. And I’m curious about… I’m curious what you… well, I eventually want to ask what you see your role as in Reconstruction. But first, I’ll ask simply how did you get involved with Reconstruction? How did you intersect with it?
Milta: Yeah, actually it was an email I received, I believe it was from Allie inviting me to come and do a one-day training on racism. And our first conversation, her and I, was, “Yeah, you’re white. And I need to know who’s going to be in the room because I don’t train with just white people. It’s not a healthy thing to do. And I can get into all that, about what does that mean? Because we also don’t throw anyone away. And she assured me that this whole endeavor was predominantly people of Color. But it was white-top. It was iceberg on the top.
And I was referred to Reconstruction overall, by another group that had asked me to come in and do some work. Because that’s how my work gets done. I don’t advertise. I don’t have billboards. It’s by word of mouth. And that has been, I think, the healthiest way of doing this work. And so I came in and you all were together, and you had just had a morning session and you were going to have like a couple of hours with me. And we went through what we went through and I learned about you. And I was enthralled because there were people there from 16 to 96. And I was like, “Yes, this is it.”
And Jerome, as you well know, I have a bias. And that bias is nationally known, my reputation. I tell on myself all the time, so people don’t have to write shit about me. And I say it that it is my total and committed belief that when the artists get it, when the culture makers get it, which is you all, that that’s when you’re singing it, when you’re dancing it, when you are speaking it, when your saxophone is playing it, when the ivory is doing it. I mean, when that is happening, then the veil is lifted and we are moving towards equity, which is liberation. And it’s got to be the culture makers because you create the vision towards the culture that we’re moving towards.
And I think that that’s why it’s so stifling as well. Because whether people know this consciously or they just know, artists have always been the most dangerous people in any society. They’ve been the ones that have always been attacked. Look at what happened here with the McCarthy era. It was the artists that were attacked prior to anybody else. Okay. And still we have red diaper babies because you can’t stop a movement. Not really. You can stifle it, you can hold it back. It can seem like it’s been… but the movement for equity is what anti-racist work is about.
So I entered the room. I met you all, I fell in love. I left, I got a call, some months later, would I joined the TEAM? And I was like, “Join the TEAM? What does that mean?” And the rest is history. I mean, after the residency, oh my God, it’s already more than a year ago in BAM. There was just such… that was just such an amazing space. And how I see myself, as part of the team, is as your curator around racism. I curate the incredible intelligentsia and help to put words out that may be words that we can then use as our diction for the conversations that you all are having. But what happens in that room. And I have walked away in tears and cracking up and feeling like I need to go away to spend some time holding onto it, has been so deeply moving for me and so enriching.
So you all, have just given me so much, so much, and have lifted me so much in regards to continuing to see. Continue to see how far we can go, how much we can push, and how extraordinary the idea of bringing so many different people into one space and watch you, watching how all the socialization begins to drop off and people begin to learn how to truly be gentle with each other. How to truly be present, how to tell on themselves, and how to allow themselves to get called in. You know. It is magic. Magic. Magic.
JJJJJerome: Yeah, it is magic. Yeah. I mean, I feel so grateful that we are all together. And that you are with us and we are with you. And yeah, I have learned… It has taught me about gratitude because when you feel a new form of gratitude, then my understanding of what gratitude even is, it has expanded around you, and around this whole room.