NEW YORK — Salvador Bolivar puffs smoke through a long wooden pipe. Two braids hang just past his shoulders. Bear totems perch on the piano, a bundle of dried sage pinned to the wall. Resting beside him is a small drum; he’s just sung four songs in Taino, a lost language of the Caribbean islands, to calm his nerves.
Bolivar doesn’t like to talk about what happened to him without first calling in the spirits of his ancestors to give him courage. It was an encounter with these spirits, he said, that compelled him to break his silence.
They came to him 11 years ago, in a sweat lodge in the Colombian mountains.
“My heart was blown open,” he said. He cried for days. “It was the beginning of the process of letting it go.”
He returned to New York and, for the first time, told his mother and father that the dean of his Catholic high school had sexually abused him.
The experience in the mountains set him on his spiritual path and altered the course of his life. The spirits told him, “You’re going through what you’re going through to have compassion and empathy or someone else, so you’ll be able to help others,” Bolivar said. He clings to this belief. It gets him through his most difficult days.
Bolivar, 48, was born and raised in New York City, the son of immigrants from Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic. He spent his teen years drunk, angry, reckless, prone to outbursts, quick to jump into the middle of any brawl.
His life changed in his early 20s, when his first baby arrived. Fatherhood steadied him, he said. It still does. He now has six children, ranging in age from 3 to 25, and their faces beam from framed photographs hanging on every wall.
Bolivar is a filmmaker, director and cinematographer, working on a documentary about his trauma and relationship to his ancestors. He’s an educator, teaching film courses to high school students. And, ever since those days in Colombia, he’s a guide for others searching for direction, leading them in ceremonies across the United States.
He was raised Christian on his mom’s side and Catholic on his dad’s, but reluctantly, he said. His strongest connection was through parochial school. He was always spiritual, never religious.
His practice now is rooted in ritual: A collection of customs inspired by those of indigenous cultures of the Americas, meant to draw power from the spirit world and pay homage to the elements of this one. Earth, fire, water, wind.
His journey has always centered around healing, but from which wounds he did not know. Clarity came four years ago, when an article about his abuser unexpectedly conjured a darkness he hadn’t felt since he tried to take his own life 30 years before.
“I didn’t know the reason why I had such dark teenage years, the reason why I was so angry,” he said. “I didn’t know it was because I hated myself for letting it happen.”
Since then Bolivar’s path has become more focused.
Earlier this year Bolivar filed a lawsuit against the church after the state of New York extended the statute of limitations for pursuing child sex abuse cases.
But his efforts aren’t purely personal, he says. To address his own wounds is to work toward holding the Catholic Church accountable not only for the sex abuse scandal, but generations of injustices against indigenous cultures.
“It’s about accountability for what happened to me and all the other people like me, but also my people,” he said.
Bolivar’s faith in the spirits and the ancestors they represent connects him to his culture, and his trust in their message allows him to believe that his pain is part of a greater plan.
“There’s got to be a reason,” he said.
Still, the effects of his abuse ripple through Bolivar’s life in ways both subtle and overt. He doesn’t drink anymore — he stopped after his first time in the sweat lodge, he said. But his moods are unpredictable and his trail of failed relationships, most notably with the three mothers of his children, is testament to his inability to trust. He’s working on it, he said. The rituals help.
“I have to do these rituals to fortify myself, to continue to believe,” he said. “It allows me to hold space for other people. It gives me strength to go on to the next day.”
The Associated Press produced this project with support from the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund For Women Journalists.
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