Welcome to Mis Recuerdos (translates to, “my memories” or “my souvenirs“), a series inspired by the daily stories and anecdotes that we hold close to our hearts because they remind us of our culture and past travel experiences. When I launched Recuerdos it was that burning desire I had to create a space where we can all immerse ourselves in the culture of travel by making it part of our daily lives. But more than just travel, Recuerdos celebrates heritage and traditions that are passed on from generation to generation and makes our lives that much richer.
Today we are speaking with Ash Cornejo, an herbalist of Yoeme and Mexican descent who shares with us where her love for the land and medicine comes from. In the past two years, she has been working with Flamingo Estate as an in-house herbalist bringing us powerful medicine through their beautiful products. In this interview, she speaks to us about her heritage, her favorite spots in LA, and where she’s off to next!
Where are you connecting with us from?
I currently live in Berkeley, California. I recently moved here to attend UC Berkeley, but prior to that, I was living in Los Angeles for the last almost ten years.
What’s your story?
I was born in Santa Barbara, California, a small beach town known for its proximity to boundless natural beauty: ocean, mountains, hot springs, caves–lots and lots of wild landscapes. I am half Mexican and half European (mostly Swiss) and spent my youth immersed in both worlds, but found a deep connection and identity in my indigenous Mexican heritage from a young age. My Abuela was an early source of artistic inspiration for me. Her homemade tortillas and posole were my first deep connections with food, my first experiences of love manifest in the kitchen. My grandmother’s mother was a proud Yoeme woman, an indigenous woman who ran her own farm until hardship forced her and the rest of my grandmother’s family to leave behind the land they loved and live as migrant farmworkers on other people’s land. My grandmother and father both were raised in this industry, picking lemons in California in the winter, and moving through the midwest and south with the crops the rest of the year. Despite the loss of their own piece of land, my great grandmother and grandmother never stopped dreaming that one day they would have their own lands to tend once more. When I was a child, my grandmother did have that small piece she had dreamed of- a well-loved two-bedroom home in Santa Barbara, with a tiny but bursting garden, the first place I learned to identify yerba santa, where I greedily drank spiced chocolate, and sat at my Abuela’s feet, observing her strong, capable hands as they turned the earth, turned tortillas on the comal, turned the pages of the Bible she loved so much.
What inspired you to become an herbalist?
Much of my youth was spent in the mountains and hillsides of Santa Barbara with my dad, who had, as a teen, run away from home and lived in a teepee in the backcountry with only his pet spider monkey and a palomino horse. He had a girlfriend named Starshine who lived one hill over, in her own teepee. Because of his teens and twenties spent in these mountains, he knows them better than anyone I have ever met. As a child, he took my family and me on lots of hikes and weeks-long camping trips, exploring the backcountry and identifying plants for food, medicine, and entertainment. These experiences, along with the wild, glorious stories of his youth in the backcountry inspired me in my connection with nature and with plants. This connection happened quite naturally and effortlessly; I one day found that I could not live without the plants: tending to them, harvesting them, watching and existing with them. My dad taught me to bring offerings to my favorite gift-bearing plants like my favorite rose bush bursting with sweet hips or the old elder tree, heavy with berries. He taught me to experience symbiosis with these plants, to give as much as I would take. It was this relationship, this symbiosis that lit a fire in me that can’t be put out. Becoming an herbalist also followed sort of naturally– I knew the plants and I knew their offerings, edible, medicinal, spiritual. Advising and consulting for friends and friends of friends just happened. After about ten years, I stopped, looked around, and realized that I was, I suppose, an herbalist. I was making herbal medicines, teaching workshops, and offering consultations. Around this time, I began to question whether my true calling was selling this relationship as I had been, or if, perhaps, there was another way to be an herbalist. I enrolled in school and am now pursuing a medical ethnobotany degree, in hopes of redirecting my plant medicine path. I am observing indigenous healers and herbalists, and learning how to facilitate preserving their traditional ecological knowledge and redirect resource allocation to their plant medicine practices, in efforts to support and sustain indigenous communities.
How are you using the power of herbs to bring forth your indigenous roots?
I am using my plant knowledge and the power of plant medicine to uplift and highlight indigenous voices. The main reason I stepped away from being a practicing herbalist was to allow space for those traditional practitioners and to direct my energy to advocate for them.
I loved reading the story about your Dad and his connection to the land. What are some recuerdos (souvenirs, mementos) that serve as a recuerdo from your heritage and childhood memories?
As a child, every night at bedtime my dad would tell my brother and me a story from his wild youth living in the mountains. Afterward, he would play his acoustic guitar and sing songs until we fell asleep. One of the songs that stand out in my memories is Las Mananitas, a popular song from Mexico. One of the lyrics is sung:
Ya los pajaritos cantan
La luna ya se metió
And the little birds sing
The moon has set.
These nighttime stories and songs are perhaps my most special memory from childhood, and memories that spur on others. Fresh tortillas on the comal. Learning to surf before I could walk, as dad pushed me off into the gentle waves on his nine-foot-longboard. Full, ten-hour days spent at the beach with my mom, dad, and brother, surfing, singing, making bonfires until la luna ya se metió. Hiding in the avocado orchards with friends while we played hide and seek, later we told hushed secrets through awkwardly painted lips in the same orchards. Memories of my grandma lovingly patting the horses my tio tends to, and the smell of the freshly cut hay.
My dad taught me to make small sage bundles as offerings to leave to the plants that sustain us. Sometimes, I will be hiking alone in the backcountry, and see the bright pink fishing string he uses to tie his sage bundles, gently swinging from an old oak branch. This is how I know my father was here, at some point and time, perhaps years ago, in this same spot, communing with this same tree. These are the recuerdos we share with the land, symbolized with that bright pink fishing string.
You recently moved to Northern Cali to continue studying at UC Berkeley! What are you hoping to gain from that experience?
I am hoping to bring elements of an academic experience to my lived experience in relation to plants and plant medicine. I am studying Medical Ethnobotany, or the study of the relationships between people and plant medicine, with a specific focus on Chicanx communities. I am interested in the ways that traditional medicine is integrated with modern western biomedicine among Chicanx and Latinx diaspora communities here in the U.S. At UC Berkeley I am given the opportunity to have access to resources and to communities that help further this research.
We love traveling with intention and taking our time to experience people, places, and the food we eat. What does an intentional travel itinerary look like for LA.
How would you start the morning in LA?
I love mornings in LA when it is still cool out, and you can catch the marine layer in Malibu. A perfect summer day in LA would begin with a hike through the Santa Monica mountains in Malibu, hunting for mariposa lilies and munching wild mustard flowers. Finishing up the hike early, I’d make time to leap into the still freezing morning ocean at my favorite beach in Malibu, floating on my back as the sun begins to break through the fog.
Where would you go for coffee/tea?
After leaving the west side, I’d head to Civil Coffee in Highland Park and take my steaming mug to go, for a leisurely stroll along the LA River. Hopefully, I remembered my binoculars, so I can birdwatch in the amazing natural space that is the river.
Favorite Lunch Spot?
Cena Vegan! An all-vegan Mexican food truck, Cena is my absolute favorite food in LA. I opt for the carne asada tacos, with extra guac.
I’d head to Little Tokyo in downtown LA. In the old mall, there are karaoke bars, an arcade, and my favorite vegan Japanese restaurant, Shojin. I’d order sushi rolls, ramen, gyoza, and anything else I can manage. The vibe here is so cute, and all the staff is so kind and attentive. A plus- after finishing your beautiful and well-curated meal, you can head over to the arcade for a rousing round of skeeball!
Where would you go to spend time with nature?
My very favorite park in LA- Vista Hermosa Park. When I first moved to LA I lived in HiFi (Historic Filipinotown) for years, and this park was just a couple of blocks from me. It is managed by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, and the first time I stumbled upon the park, I cried. It is so beautiful. The staff works tirelessly to make the park one of the most incredible examples of native California flora in the state. My first time there I counted five varieties of native sage. The park is very close to downtown LA, and you can see the city skyline from areas of the park, highlighting the incredible fact that you are in one of the most bustling places in the world, yet surrounded by natural beauty. Vista Hermosa brings peace and access to nature to so many Angelenos who don’t have a lot of other options to be immersed in nature. Vista Hermosa is one of the most special pieces of LA, in my opinion.
What are some recuerdos we can bring home from LA that connects us to the city?
My favorite part of living in Los Angeles was the amazing, inspiring people I met. In terms of material culture, a trip home to LA is never complete unless I return with a bar of soap made by my friend Jeff Hutchison, the horticulturist at Flamingo Estate, the garden where I worked as the in-house herbalist. Jeff makes botanically infused soaps from the herbs he grows at Flamingo, and these bars, made by hand in a traditional style, are truly special and elicit in me memories of early morning at Flamingo, feeding the chickens and harvesting lavender, indigo, and marigolds to dye soap. Equally important is a jar of mole from my friend April Valencia of Masa Memory. Her homemade, vegan mole is treasured in my household and instantly transports me to sunny afternoons on the porch in Eagle Rock in Los Angeles, sipping tea (or maybe a locally made wine) and snacking on freshly made tortillas topped with April’s incredible mole and fresh chopped veggies from the garden. Lastly, I’d make sure I have a small, amber-colored bottle of Aphrodisiac Elixir, made in the apothecary garden at Flamingo Estate over the summer. Bursting with rosehips, cayenne, hibiscus, and more, this elixir reminds me of hot, dusty summer days spent tincturing and bottling this elixir to bring to you, and the crew at Flamingo Estate. This elixir was my last project at Flamingo before relocating to the Bay Area full time, to commit to my research at UC Berkeley, and it symbolizes both the end of an era and the beginning of the new.
Where can we follow your journey?
@Ash.Cornejo on IG and paintedcaveapothecary.com