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Like a Phoenix, Bread, and Dust–Womanhood on Ash Wednesday

By Sarah Estrada

This March as we make our way into the Lenten season, we hear from Sarah, a FJV and current JVC staff member; and we invite you to read #JVStories and reflect during this Ash Wednesday on sin, reawakening and womanhood.


Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the holiest season of the Catholic tradition. This day calls Christians to reflect on their sins and failures, and to seek forgiveness from God to be in union with God once again. Through the drawing of ashes in the shape of a cross on the forehead, these ashes symbolize the desire for deeper connection to God through penance, and the need for forgiveness by taking on one’s own personal cross.


A prominent image that stands out to me on this holy day is the drawing of a cross with dark, burned ashes onto the skin of another person. These ashes on Ash Wednesday, burned from palms blessed on Palm Sunday, and this action of drawing, to me, signify the cycle of sadness and joy; a cycle we reflect on in the prayer of St. Francis.



For me, the call to be an instrument of peace means the ability to hold serenity equal to justice. We cannot achieve this balance without the recognition of inequality. Hence, I find it fitting that the idea of “being marked by sin” calls me to think about moments where individuals label others as “sinful,” “wrong,” or “unfit” without recognizing their own faults and biases.


Recently, I watched the film, Hidden Figures. In the film, Katherine Goble, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan work in a predominantly white, male environment at NASA. The women are unable to move up in the workplace and utilize their intellect due to their gender expression and skin color. Amidst their profound experience, their white colleagues project notions of unworthiness based on how they look. The assumptions made by co-workers determined their identities at work and shaped both interactions and treatment.


Watching the film made me realize how I paint a false notion of self. This notion is often based on the internalized misogyny and racism that surround me. Sometimes I wonder if my skin color was white, if I would have more respect at the store. Or, if my last name was different on paper, would I be considered for certain opportunities. I rely on my value to be based on those in power and influence, and a burden when I can’t “keep up” with white counterparts around me.


hidden-figures-womanhoodWatching Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson, and Janelle Monae’s characters on screen reminds me that my experience and the color of my skin holds power. These women carried themselves in a way that held true and shined a light to their experience. In the end, they persisted in being able to advocate for their needs and bring awareness to the discrimination they faced at work. Ultimately, they were recognized for their work and contribution to NASA, which then made me realize that the true burden lies in failing to acknowledge difference, especially my own difference, in society and the workplace.


Ashes on Ash Wednesday not only symbolize penance, but also grief and responsibility. The temporary mark of ashes, in the sign of the cross, on the forehead, challenges us to not only demonstrate to others that we are sinners, but to acknowledge how we too, continue to paint and bear the image of sin and wrongdoing through prejudices and  fear. At times, this looks like projecting onto others, who look and act different from ourselves.

This Lent, I intend to continue to grow into the pain, the difference, and the ashes, and from the burn, live my life, like a phoenix that rises.

The ashes I wear, on the color of my skin, on Ash Wednesday, reinforce the continuous sadness and joy I carry as a woman of color in today’s society. The cross drawn will represent the self-inflicted pain of my personal shortcomings, and the pain of insignificance that continues to be drawn onto me by society. Although the ashes on my forehead will get washed off at the end of the day, the color of my skin, the language that I speak, the gender I express, the culture I live, and the way I am seen and treated cannot. And this is the cross I choose to carry not only for myself, but for all those who continue to remain hidden, unheard, and unconsidered in today’s society.


This Lent, I intend to continue to grow into the pain, the difference, and the ashes, and from the burn, live my life, like a phoenix that rises. In the words of Maya Angelou:

You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you? Why are you beset with gloom? ‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns, With the certainty of tides, Just like hopes springing high, Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken? Bowed head and lowered eyes? Shoulders falling down like teardrops, Weakened by my soulful cries?

Does my haughtiness offend you?

Don’t you take it awful hard

‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines Diggin’ in my own backyard.

You may shoot me with your words, You may cut me with your eyes,

You may kill me with your hatefulness, But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you? Does it come as a surprise

That I dance like I’ve got diamonds At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame I rise

Up from a past that’s rooted in pain I rise

I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide, Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear I rise

Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear I rise

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,

I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

I rise

I rise I rise.

Still I Rise by Maya Angelou, 1928 – 2014


After graduating from the University of San Francisco in 2014, Sarah Estrada served as a Jesuit Volunteer in Syracuse during the 2014-2015 program year. While a JV she volunteered at the Refugee Youth Worker, Northside CYO. She now works on the Program Staff at JVC from its Santa Clara office in sunny California.