This month marks 500 years since the fall of Tenochtitlán, the great city of Mexico, what the Aztecs called themselves. Historians and other scholars do not yet fully agree on the devastating impact on the people and the land that Hernán Cortés’ defeat against the Aztecs had.
Yet there is a simplistic story that has been woven about this legacy: Cortes and the Spanish Conquest took place, it was terrible, but now it’s who the Mexicans are – Spanish / Indigenous metis. To move on.
But that slips too easily from the fact that Mexico still has the largest number of indigenous peoples in the Western Hemisphere. In 2015, around 25.7 million Mexicans identified themselves as indigenous from various tribal groups, representing 21.5% of Mexico’s population, according to the National Institute of Indigenous Peoples.
Although Spanish is the dominant spoken language, the country has 68 official languages, of which 63 are indigenous among some 350 variants and dialects. In recent decades, indigenous peoples of Mexico such as the Mixtecs, Zapotecs, Rarámuri, Yaqui, and Purépecha, among others, have migrated to the United States.
They are referred to as “immigrants” although they have linguistic and other ties to the Indigenous peoples based in the United States that span tens of thousands of years. They are called “Hispanic” or “Latino”, implying that they come from Spain or from mixed race without indigenous roots. Worse yet, these peoples are treated as “outsiders” or “outsiders” despite their ties to these lands as deep as anyone on this continent.
My mother’s family is from the Chihuahuan Desert, the largest desert in North America, which crosses parts of Mexico and the United States. My mother has Rarámuri ancestors. The Spaniards called them Tarahumara when they couldn’t quite pronounce what the natives said to them. The Rarámuri are recognized as world-class long-distance runners. Their name means “people at the foot of the fleet”.
However, my mother did not grow up in a traditional Aboriginal home. She grew up “Mexican”, in the Catholic Church with the vaquero songs and cultural hybridity of Chihuahua. But she never failed to remind me that I am descended from these peoples.
In 1954, the year I was born, we lived in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. But when I was born, my mom crossed the international bridge to El Paso, Texas to get me. Even though there is a 173 year old border there, we have moved from “our land to our land”.
In 1999, a friend Diné (Navajo) and I visited the Sierra Tarahumara, home to the Copper Canyon, which is actually six canyons, a system of canyons deeper and larger than the Grand Canyon. At the time, some 80,000 people lived in caves, among the last troglodytes in the world. They had neither electricity nor drinking water. They spoke their own idioms. They were living pretty much as they had for 400 years when the Rarámuri found themselves there after the Spaniards crushed several rebellions.
My friend and I stayed in a dirt and mud village called Cusarare, “a place of eagles”. At first, people were reluctant to talk to me. I was a chabochi, someone who is not from there. But when I told them I was claiming my inheritance, they brightened up. One of them explained why: “When people leave, no one comes back. Instead of refusing me, they invited me to their home, some to caves, and to learn more about their culture.
I was given a chaparque, a Rarámuri musical instrument made of maguey wood and cat gut strings. I learned a few words like “Kwira Va”, the greeting and goodbye which really means “we are one”. At the end of my visit, the local mayor (who also owned the only radio and drove the only bulldozer) offered me a piece of ejido land (which I couldn’t own) to build a house. Tempted, I still returned to the United States. I have never forgotten my loved ones in the Copper Canyon.
Even though I am “mixed race” as far as my lineage is concerned, I do not use the word Métis. The term comes from the caste system imposed by the Spanish to determine a person’s worth based on the amount of Spanish, native, or African blood they had (the darker the value, the lesser value). In addition, the so-called half-breeds are often non-mixed people who no longer identify as indigenous.
My recent DNA test indicates that I am half Native American (from northern Mexico), around 40% from the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) and the rest of other Europeans except almost 5% from Africa. from the West and the South. It seems fair. But I revolve around the deepest root, the native. I belong to this land, regardless of the barriers and definitions imposed by the nation-state.
For the past 40 years, I have visited Zapotecs in Juchitan and Oaxaca and Nahuatl speakers in Puebla. I participated in ceremonies with the Pibil in Izalco, El Salvador, and among the Mayans of southern Mexico and Guatemala. I also had Quechua teachers from Peru. For over 25 years, I have rubbed shoulders with the Lakota of the Pine Ridge Reservation and the Diné in Arizona, as well as other indigenous peoples of this country. I am active in my community in the northeast of the San Fernando Valley with the original peoples, including the Fernandeño Tataviams. I have a Nahuatl name that was given to me in a ceremony by the Kalpulli Tlonque Nahuaque of Pacoima.
I might not have a tribal card, but I don’t need a government to tell me who I am or how I practice my art, continue my work, or engage spiritually. I understand why the indigenous peoples of the United States demand recognition and sovereignty. I support their struggles. But I too am part of the indigenous people, as is the case with millions of people in Mexico, which has never been a place with a homogenized identity. Mexicans can be of all origins, including African, European, Asian, or Middle Eastern descent.
I understand that the past cannot be changed. The arrival of the Spaniards in the so-called New World was not a “meeting” or a “meeting” of cultures. It was a terrible, destructive and genocidal confrontation. Yet the native in us lives and rises. That is why the story and the stories we tell must be full and complete. That is why we must continue to patiently build a truly just, reconciled and peaceful world for all.
After 500 years, this should be what guides our goals, our hopes, our actions.
Luis J. Rodriguez (Mixcoatl Itztlacuiloh) is the most recent author of “From Our Land to Our Land: Essays, Journeys & Imaginings of a Native Xicanx Writer”. He and his wife, Trini, host the podcast “The Hummingbird Cricket Hour”.