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Decolonizing Identity: US Latinos Rediscover Native Roots

Indigenous groups from South of the US constructed border are joining with Natives of the North to challenge colonialism.

A young man from Michoacan, Mexico, who we did not know sat amongst 18 of us in our sweat lodge in Gilroy, California. His uncle, who wanted to introduce him to our sweat lodge ceremony turned to say, “This is my nephew. He’s come for the American Dream.” We all laughed. Fred Vasquez, a Mexica (Aztec) elder, pointed to the steaming rocks and said, “This is the real American Dream, sitting together, praying, and healing.”

This is what was missing in my life. My parents, who migrated from Guadalajara, Mexico, dreamt that their children would get a formal Western education, and so I, like many other children of migrants did. Although, I’ve attended elite universities, the impact of colonialism was everywhere. I was one of the many immigrants who came to Fred Vasquez to learn about our ancestral Native ways and to understand what was missing in this “American Dream” that many immigrants envision. Three years later, I sat there in our sweat lodge and thought about what stood outside our sweat lodge.

Outside the sweat lodge was an American nightmare, where 11 million migrants like the young man from Michoacan live in fear that they will join the 3 million Native migrants torn from their families by President Barack Obama. In this world, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump demonizes those who cross US borders and threatens to build a giant wall to keep Indigenous people out.

April 24 is World Anti-Colonialism Day, it marks the struggle against colonialism that took place among African and Asian countries after the end of the Bandung Conference in 1955. However, in the Americas, both in North America and “Latin America,” Natives are continuing the struggle against colonialism.

The English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese colonizers attempted to wipe out Natives in the Americas, and 500 years later of struggling to maintain our Native cultures we are left with the European colonizers’ languages and imaginary borders dividing Natives between those of the South and the North.

In the Americas, people are shamed for being Indigenous because we don’t speak the European colonizers’ languages, but we believe we are all Native whether we speak English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, or our own indigenous languages. The colonizers’ governments, like the United States of America, refuse to recognize many tribes for this reason.

While the US government classifies us as “Latinos” or “Hispanics,” migrants from Mexico and Central America are Mexica, Mayan, Purhepecha, Haustec, Yaqui, and are part of the countless tribes from the South of the US constructed border. Sadly, some no longer know what tribe they came from, but we’ve all come to sit and pray with our northern relatives: Lakota, Paiute, Cherokee, Ohlone, Dine, Seminole, Comanche, Mohawk, and Choctaw, and many more in an effort to break the dividing borders after centuries of European domination.

Tecpatl Torres, a Mexica, and carrier of our sacred drum, speaks of the prophecy of the “Condor of the South” and the “Eagle of the North” coming together, “The Condor nation and the Eagle nation would come together at a time that mankind needed these ways the most. That time is now.”

This union of tribes is a necessary part of decolonization and anti-colonialism.

“The European colonizers would torture our ancestors for praying in our native ways,” said a medicine man of Yaqui and Mexican blood living in California, “they were torn apart by dogs for praying with any of our sacred medicines.”

Today, things haven’t changed much, Native ceremonies were still illegal in the United States until the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978. We are still not free. The US government won’t stop interfering.

“The tragedy,” as Tommy Barron, a young Cherokee elder who works with at risk youth in San Francisco, says, “is that the government still controls us. The government issues tax numbers and licenses to restrict our sacred medicines. It thinks it has the right to say who can and cannot pray with our sacred medicine. If the US thinks you’re Native, then you get a tribal identification card, but you have to prove what Native blood you carry.”

For us Natives who come from the south of the border, we’ve prayed for thousands of years as our ancestors taught us, but the US government believes it has the right to tell us if we can pray because of where they drew their national borders.

Today anti-colonialism struggles are much more than just marches and protests. It’s the work we do with our families, and our communities to preserve our ways for future generations.

Sadly, many are lost and no longer remember our ancestral ways.

One hundred years ago Fred Vasquez’ grandparents migrated from Mexico to Gilroy, California; his parents were babies at the time, but colonization had already tore out the memory of our ceremonial ways. Fred Vasquez, a 76-year-old grandfather and elder of this community is attempting to reunite these communities with their Native traditions.

Rediscovering Indigenous Traditions

During the ceremonies, Vasquez always makes time to thank his 102-year-old mother, and his father, because without them we would have no community.

He recalls Henry Tyler, an Arapaho man from California, who taught him the ways of the Native American Church (NAC). The NAC is new to Meso-American people, but the peyotl, and the Half-Moon ceremonies of the NAC are not. We’ve been praying in these traditional ways for thousands of years. But, some ways are new.

At our ceremonial grounds in Gilroy, stand two large buffalo skulls, and a photo of the great Lakota Chief and medicine man, Leonard Crow Dog and his wife. Vasquez thanks the Chief for opening up Lakota ceremonies to Spanish-speaking Natives at a time in the 1970s when we were not seen as Indigenous by some Native Americans because of the US government’s artificial borders.

Chief Crowdog, however, recognized our Indigenous roots, and opened their ceremonies, Sun Dance and Hanbleceya (Vision Quest) to “Latinos” like Fred Vasquez.

Since then Vasquez has sun danced for thirty years. Vasquez has sat upon a mountain in Indian Canyon, California, at every change of the season, in solitude, and fasted in ceremony. He now runs our sweat lodges, and Hanbleceya ceremonies, teaching us to pray with tobacco, and peyotl. He has shown Natives in the US from South of the border how to give thanks for the foods we eat and the water we drink and to give thanks to the migrant farm workers who harvest our foods. This is how we decolonize our way of life, how we return to our ancient ways.

US Borders as Violent Colonialism

For us Natives, borders aren’t just imaginary lines on maps. The borders cut across our ceremonies. The artificial borders cut across our lands. They criminalize our way of life. Tribal lands are seized and mined for gold, uranium, and other metals, and when they poison the land, then little help is offered.

Miles Harry, a Lakota Paiute man from a blue-collar background, has been entrusted with our sacred fires for over twenty years. He emphasizes that decolonizing ourselves and our communities is to fight for our lives:

“Decolonization is erasing 500 years of settler government policies designed to exterminate and assimilate Native people. It’s all encompassing: government, language, education, economies, agriculture, health, diet, and even geographical in reclaiming original sites and names of rivers, mountains, and landmarks,” he said.

Miles reminds us that “Indigenous peoples don’t share the same values as contemporary society. We value communities, land, and water. We honor our original instructions.”

The US government and politicians on the other hand, shows they do not. We fight for the right to live our lives in the way of our ancestors, to live as our grandparents.

In the recent race for the White House, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton often panders to voters of color, telling “Latinos” that she is one of us, an “abuelita,” or a grandmother. She has been silent though on the deportations that have affected thousands of us under the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, which would not have been possible without her husband Bill Clinton’s signing of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996.

Without former President Bill Clinton’s policies, there would have been no racist “Secure Communities,” or Obama’s Priority Enforcement Program, which differs in name only. Native communities from the South and North do not trust politicians. In our intertribal native community we have a saying, “There are elders, and then there are old people.” Hillary does not carry our native ways, and she certainly is not an “abuelita.”

Some 74,000 “Native” children, crossed the US border last year fleeing violence created by the US Drug War in the Americas, and the US backed Honduran military coup.

But things need not be this way. Four generations of Natives gather and pray together in Gilroy because one hundred years ago two families migrated, like their ancestors had for thousands of year before them, and created a home.

Thirty-seven years ago I was brought to these lands as an infant, just like those Fred’s parents a century ago. We’re lucky, because Fred Vasquez, their child, welcomes us home with Native ceremonies.

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