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Are Mexicans Indigenous?

Indigeneity applies to the present, not just to the past.

A dancer in Aztec clothing dances in Los Angeles, California, July 19, 2009. (Photo: Jorge Gonzalez)

As many US states and municipalities have begun to eschew the colonial tradition of “Columbus Day” in favor of adopting Monday’s holiday as “Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” one might wonder where people of Mexican heritage fit in.

For some, this is a controversial question due to hundreds of years of mestizaje, or mixture, and also due to hundreds of years of colonialism and colonized thinking. For others, this is not controversial at all, because with few European women brought to this continent, the mixture was not co-equal and consensual, and thus, most Mexicans essentially remain Indigenous or are de-Indigenized peoples as a result of colonization.

All answers are complex because the category of mestizo/mestiza is actually a non-scientific term born of a racial caste system of exploitation, designed primarily not as a racial descriptor, but to deprive people of their full human rights. If it were simply a racial designation, in all likelihood, most Mexicans would be considered mestizo or Indigenous; in Canada, a metis or person of “mixed-blood” is considered a First Nations person. In Mexico, very few Mexicans are considered “white.”

To read more articles by Roberto Rodriguez and other authors in the Public Intellectual Project, click here.

One of the primary answers also gives us a clue as to why Mexicans have always been exploited in the United States.

The Mexican American Identity Throughout History

In the US, Mexicans represent memory; a reminder of land theft and unjust war. Yet what is commonly expressed by omission is that they are the antithesis of idealized, blonde and blue-eyed Americans. Mexicans are viewed as utter outsiders, as enemy “others.” This has to do with the unfinished business of Manifest Destiny: Blacks were to be enslaved and Native peoples were supposed to have been eradicated from these “promised lands” of North America.

Mexicans have been viewed by white Americans as inferior peoples and convenient scapegoats. This thinking was behind the periodic, massive and inhumane deportation campaigns throughout US history, from the lynching campaigns of the 1840s-1920s, to the Trump administration’s current immigration policy.

During the height of the Chicano Movement, activists asserted a radical pride: they were mestizo/mestiza (mixed-peoples) and part of a bronze continent that did not recognize any “capricious borders.” This was the origin of “Brown is Beautiful” and “Brown Power,” and such ideas were embedded within El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán, one of the foundational documents of this movement.

Many in the movement also proclaimed Indigeneity. This was contrary to how previous generations of Mexican Americans had identified, insistent upon a white identity, in particular, for waging legal desegregation battles. However, as University of Texas scholar Martha Menchaca has demonstrated in “Chicano Indianism,” Mexican Americans were never actually treated by society and its institutions as white, especially in the courtroom.

Almost 50 years after the height of the movement, the question now being posed is whether Mexicans/Chicanos/Chicanas are Native peoples, especially since the population has skyrocketed and is no longer confined to the US Southwest. They have also been joined by many more millions of peoples from Mexico and Central America, who often share a common Mesoamerican root, and who increasingly come from living Indigenous pueblos.

Shifting Identities

Communities of Zapotec, Mixtec, Purépecha, Otomi, Nahua and Maya peoples, to name a few, identify as Indigenous, as do some Mexican peoples that have mixed with Native Americans throughout the United States.

The question of Indigeneity, then, is largely about de-Indigenized Mexicans and Central Americans: Are they Native? That question should be restricted to de-Indigenized peoples, but even Yaquis (who generally live in the Southwestern US, as well as northern Mexico), for example, are viewed by some as Mexican, as opposed to Native. Adding to this complexity, some consider O’odham peoples who live in Sonora also as Mexicans and not O’odham.

During the Chicano movement, Mexicans/Chicanos/Chicanas generally spoke of descending from Indigenous peoples — Aztec and Maya, primarily. They never identified when they themselves stopped being Indigenous. That is the key — Indigeneity is not simply the past, but also the present.

Given that we are speaking of perhaps 30-40 million people, is a shift toward identifying as Indigenous, among a population that is itself historically anti-Indigenous, possible? Who decides? Does white America — including the US government — have a say in this matter? The government can define US citizenship, but arguably has no standing when it comes to defining a historical identity that precedes the formation of the United States and, in effect, involves the entire continent, as opposed to just the US.

It is a conversation that needs to be had, especially within a society that is hell-bent on erecting a massive wall — the consummate symbol of white supremacy — to keep the “Brown hordes” out.

The people who would have a say in this matter would be the AmerIndigenous peoples — the original peoples of this continent — especially within the United States. This may not be an easy question to answer. Due to colonialism and extreme racism, many Mexicans over the centuries have been trained or raised to reject their own ancestry, and many have done so and continue to do so. Given this reality, many original peoples would never “accept them back.” Others have and do, and many do so with open arms, wondering why it has taken them so long “to return.”

I suspect that if there ever comes a time of full acceptance, it will come about as a result of much dialogue. And yet, it will be these de-Indigenized communities that will ultimately have to decide upon not simply their identity, but also their future.

However Mexicans ultimately choose to identify, what is certain is that unless something radical happens, chances are very likely that they will not be accepted as full human beings by this society in the foreseeable future. Thus, will Mexicans acknowledge their future as intertwined with the recognized original peoples of this continent, or will they choose a different course?

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