The 2020 Census and the Re-Indigenization of America

(Image: Lauren Walker / Truthout)(Image: Lauren Walker / Truthout)

As the 2020 US census looms, this arcane ritual will once again result in the painting of a false picture of the demographic makeup of the United States. While the nation has been getting “browner” for many decades, the US Census Bureau has actually been complicit in obfuscating this change, which I have long described as demographic genocide. Yet this time around, due to a long-overdue change in the census, rather than being corralled against their will into the “white” category, many Mexican, Central American, Andean and Caribbean peoples will no longer be checking the white racial box.

Countering the delusions of previous generations, we know that simply checking the white box has never meant being treated as white anyway. This time around, per this change, many of us will instead (again) be checking the American Indian box, while rejecting the bureaucratically imposed Hispanic/Latino box. Others will check and affirm both.

This change however, will not alter the historic de-Indigenization schemes of this society, including those of the Census Bureau, which has always been an ideological instrument of empire. The census does not just count people, but actually helps to shape the nation’s self-image, character and national narrative. It helps tell the world “who we are” — who the United States is.

And just precisely who or what is the United States supposed to be? God’s chosen people?

The bureau estimates that by 2044, the United States will cease being a majority white nation. This “browning” is very disconcerting for those who support the fact that this country, since its beginnings, has been driven by the belief in Providence, Manifest Destiny and American exceptionalism. Deeply embedded within this nation’s psyche is the idea that God gave white people this country and continent … and the prospects that it will soon be returning to the natives — to brown “savages” — upsets this vision. Many actually believe that God gave them the world, as part of a divine mission to create Heaven on Earth.

This narrative is the fuel for many of the modern schemes to keep this nation white, which involve driving people of color out of the country, as well as imprisoning, assimilating or defining us out of existence. In eras past, genocide, land theft, slavery, lynchings, forced removals and mass repatriations were also a very real part of this formula.

Throughout the nation’s history, a primary objective of US society (and particularly of its schools) was “Americanization.” This was hardly an educational endeavor but rather a violent and forced assimilation process that demanded that people leave their culture back home, or at least behind closed doors. This was done in part to create a compliant and docile workforce.

The US Census Bureau

From the inception of the Census Bureau, coloniality, a racial supremacist ideology and forced assimilation have been part of its core. Perhaps for different reasons, the US census is approximating Spain’s colonial racial caste system, an intricate system with countless categories that collapsed due to the hyper-emphasis on ascribing difference and ensuring dominance by the ruling criollo or white elite.

In discussing imposed racial identities, we must also discuss the modern lethal consequences that result from racial supremacy, especially when dealing with issues of life and death. For example, as a result of the misidentification (as white) and the resultant invisibilization of Indigenous/Brown peoples, they/we are completely absent and silenced in national conversations regarding law enforcement violence and abuse. This is occurring in the context of a nation that discusses everything in black and white, despite the fact that this nation and continent have never been black and white.

Before discussing the historic and contemporary role of the bureau in these de-Indigenization and Americanization schemes, several stipulations first need to be made:

– Virtually all terms and concepts used in this essay relative to census issues are contentious. That said, there are terms that are organic, that have arisen from people’s lived experiences, as opposed to being imposed by governments, bureaucrats or corporations.

– The bureau freely admits on its forms that the racial/ethnic categories it works with are unscientific, though most of the other government agencies, schools and the corporate sector operate as if otherwise. At the same time, one is supposed to be free to choose whichever category one self-identifies with, and yet, this has rarely been the case, particularly for those corralled into the “Hispanic” category, an artificial US ethnic category first created by Nixon bureaucrats for the 1970 Census.

We cannot be foreigners on our own continent.

– With many thousands of years of Indigenous roots on this continent, Mexico has never identified itself as a white or Caucasian nation. Despite this, the US government, on census forms, and on birth and death certificates, inexplicably identifies Mexicans as white or Caucasian.

– Despite the above, the United States has never treated Mexicans socially, culturally or politically as whites and even more importantly, as full human beings with full corresponding human rights. The history of land theft, mass lynchings, segregation and discrimination proves this assertion.

– For more than 100 years, the Mexican government has pushed the notion that the vast majority of Mexicans are “mestizos” or peoples of mixed heritage, primarily Indigenous and Spanish/European. Yet key to note is that few Spaniards and relatively few women came to Mexico during the entire 300-year colonial period. Despite this, the US Census Bureau has never offered “mestizo” as an option, thus resulting in the quandary of being directed by government bureaucrats to choose “white,” not American Indian — or the “some other race” option. Incidentally, through the work of Gonzalo Aguirre Beltran, author of La Poblacion Negra en Mexico, we also know that more Africans came to Mexico than Europeans during the colonial era.

– Through Guillermo Bonfil Batalla’s Mexico Profundo, we find that at its root, Mexico and the majority of Mexicans remain Indigenous, albeit “de-Indigenized” (despite having Indigenous roots and physically looking Indigenous, culturally much has been stripped away and has been replaced by European/Spanish culture). However, despite colonization, their roots remain Indigenous. In Mexico, it is generally believed that at least 90 percent of the population is either Indigenous, de-Indigenized or Indigenous-based “mestizos.”

– In the 1930s, the Census Bureau actually recognized and created a “Mexican” category, for people born (or their parents) in Mexico, coding their race as “Mex.” This designation lasted only for that particular census.

– As of 2010, the census definition for American Indian/Alaska Native changed to this: “According to OMB (Office of Management and Budget) ‘American Indian or Alaska Native’ refers to a person having origins in any of the original peoples of North and South America (including Central America) and who maintains tribal affiliation or community attachment.” That year resulted in 175,000 people of Mexican descent choosing this option. Previously, peoples from Mexico and points south were excluded.

– Throughout the 20th century, the vast majority of Indigenous-based peoples in this country, not counted as American Indians, were Mexicans. Today that continues to be the case; in the US, about 2/3 of the 55 million people under the “Hispanic/Latino” category are of Mexican origin. A 2014 Census report estimates that Mexicans and Central Americans together constitute approximately ¾ of that category. Add peoples from the Andean countries, many whose countries have even higher rates of Indigenous peoples than Mexico, and Caribbean peoples who have greater amounts of African ancestry, and it is clear that the “Hispanic/Latino” category, is inappropriate.

– The Nixon-era “Hispanic” category has nowadays morphed from being an erroneous, umbrella term into its own artificial, government-constructed identity. For example, as part of this US-created “ethnicity,” many people nowadays born of Mexican parents identify as Hispanic but not Mexican. This category and phenomenon generally does not socially exist anywhere else in the Americas.

– The bureau and other US government agencies cannot be the arbiters of who is Indigenous, as this is a category (Amerindian) that corresponds to the entire continent, not one country.

Whether intentionally or not, the bureau continues to be part and parcel to de-Indigenization and Americanization schemes, the objective of which appears to be eventual “disappearance.”

This truly is an additional reason why many oppose immigration from Mexico and Central America … People in the US oppose these migrants not only because they are not white but also because their color represents indigeneity. They bring with them a thousands-of-years connection to this continent, a connection that is much deeper and more profound than anything produced by immigrant pilgrim culture.

The truth is, these lands have never ceased being Indigenous, and Indigenous-based peoples have actually never been “immigrants” anywhere on this continent. As has been proclaimed at a number of recent gatherings over the past several years by the original peoples of this continent (2007 Guatemala and 2009 Peru): “We cannot be foreigners on our own continent.”

Per that change to the 2020 census, it appears that the census will now combine the racial and [Hispanic/Latino] ethnic (origin) questions. Through tests, they have eliminated the Hispanic/Latino box as a separate ethnic question and have included it as one of five choices for race/origin. Traditionally, the four racial categories have been: Black, white, Asian and American Indian. The fifth category will now be Hispanic/Latino (all who fill out the census in 2020 will be able to choose multiple categories). Doing this generally eliminates Hispanics/Latinos choosing the white category. Julie Dowling in Mexican Americans and the question of Race (2014) reports that in 2010 tests, less than 1 percent of Hispanics/Latinos chose the “some other race” category whereas 9-16 percent chose white. The 16 percent figure is perhaps a bit high, however, it is much closer to reality than the close to 50 percent that had previously chosen that category (often times directed by census takers to do so).

Being Named by Outsiders

As far as the bureau is concerned, this should solve the problem of “Hispanics/Latinos” mis-identifying or being misidentified as white or having to choose “some other race.”

Yet it keeps an equally or bigger problem intact: the existence of the bureaucratically imposed Hispanic/Latino category itself. If Nixon bureaucrats had chosen the equally erroneous name: Iberoamericans that would be the name in use today. In Metis (2014), Chris Anderson refers to this as “outsider naming.” In this case, it rewards the colonizing European [Spanish] minority, while generally invisibilizing the majority Indigenous roots, as well as the African roots of many who might fall under the “Hispanic/Latino” category.

While the 2010 change in the census now permits/acknowledges the existence of Indigenous peoples south of the US-Mexico border, for 2020, there are no current plans to acknowledge the indigeneity of peoples who identify themselves as “mestizos,” generally in the same way that Canada and its census bureau recognizes and has accommodated the metis population. Canada generally recognizes the metis population as Indigenous people.

The truth is, the historic misidentification of Brown peoples in this country is arguably part of something much more profound, a 500-year de-Indigenization scheme that resembles a project the early missionaries introduced: reducciones. That was a massive conversion campaign that sought to spiritually and culturally eradicate the original peoples of the continent and replacing them with Christians. In history, this has been referred to as La Otra Conquista (Carrasco and Domingo Films, 1999).

In this historic 500-year process, “ownership” of an entire continent has, in effect, been transferred, from the continent’s original peoples, to literal invaders. What apparently remains is the seeming task of eliminating any reminders of their presence.

Admittedly, not forcing peoples to choose a white identity is huge progress. There is, however, that unfinished business of assigning the imposed Hispanic/Latino category to them.

To intentionally or even unintentionally misidentify peoples actually goes against several international human rights accords, including the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the 2007 UN Declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples. But beyond issues of rights, names are sacred, and this is something that apparently has never been understood by bureaucrats.

If all people of Mexican, Mexican American and Chicano/Chicana heritage, plus people from Central and South America had been aware that they were eligible to check the American Indian category, per the bureau’s 2010 definition, more accurate would have been a number closer to between 30-40 million. This represents the number of Mexicans, Central Americans and peoples from the Andes that live in this country and could have claimed their indigeneity. But due to its ideological orientation, the census is not prepared for such a number.

The census definition of who constitutes an Indigenous person is still governed by both US-centric and Eurocentric views. Those views, in effect, generally do not recognize de-Indigenized peoples as Indigenous peoples, unless they are directly connected to a tribe.

Those views have also been internalized, thus the Native expression: “Pareces que tienes el nopal en la frente (y el elote entre los dientes),” which translates as “It looks like you have a cactus on your forehead (and corn stuck between your teeth).” The expression exists because historically, due to colonial forces, “Hispanic” values and worldview have been imposed to the extent that people deny their obvious indigeneity — i.e. the cactus on the forehead and eating of corn, which are signifiers of indigeneity in Mexico. Beyond self-hate, it has also produced a vicious hate against Indigenous peoples. And yet, the distinctions between de-Indigenized, “mestizo” and Indigenous are not as sharp as one might assume, even within families.

Admittedly, if perceptions of the indigeneity of “mestizos” or de-Indigenized Indigenous peoples were based on how they treat or relate to recognized Indigenous peoples (often badly), there would be no need for this essay. That is, many mestizos would be disqualified from classification as Indigenous precisely because of their attitudes and treatment of recognized Indigenous peoples. However, the census question is supposed to measure race/origin as opposed to behavior. At the same time, arguably, the recent turn to an even nastier form of US politics, with an emphasis on anti-immigration, may in fact be altering how de-Indigenized people and mestizos are coming to see themselves: as Indigenous. It affirms what anthropologist Renato Rosaldo once noted, that many Mexicans are not Indigenous until they cross the US-Mexico border. He said that their brown skin color is normal in Mexico, but that the intense racism in the United States, including the racial profiling by law enforcement and the “migra” makes them hyper-conscious of their skin color here. This experience reminds them of their own (hidden) indigeneity.

What’s Next?

Several related questions remain. Will de-Indigenized peoples or “mestizos” be able to check the American Indian category for 2020? Will the bureau encourage or discourage this option? And finally, can they or will they opt for this option, while foregoing the Hispanic/Latino category?

To the first question: will de-Indigenized or “mestizos” be able to affirm their Indigenous roots — roots that are responsible for the creation of thousands-of-years-old civilizations, ranging from Tenochtitlan, to Teotihuacan and from Tikal to Tihuanaco? More importantly, will they be able to affirm that they are generally part of the thousands-of-years-old living maíz-based cultures? If they choose this option, it is not clear how the bureau will respond. What is known is that one does not have to prove pedigree, nor is there a litmus test to be part of the other recognized races/origin categories. Of note, all people will be given the option of choosing multiple categories.

Yet, whether they choose the American Indian option will not be subject to approval by the bureau. The question is what will the bureau do with the data if the number of American Indians greatly increases due to de-Indigenized or mestizo people choosing this category? The related question is whether the bureau will inform them that they have this option. But the even trickier question will be whether these same peoples, after checking the American Indian option, will also choose or forgo the Hispanic/Latino category?

That is a question of self-identity. At the same time, it is akin to the now standard practice of labeling Mexican/Indigenous foods in supermarkets as “Hispanic” foods. It is jarring and equally incomprehensible. To reject the category of “Hispanic” is a decolonial act and also goes to what novelist Rudy Anaya refers to as “the ceremony of naming,” arguing that there is nothing more sacred than the act of naming oneself.

Checking the American Indian/Alaska Native Option

Yet the question remains: how will the aforementioned peoples know that they have a right to self-identify as American Indians? It will necessarily involve grassroots campaigns, including the media, and especially social media.

It is important that Indigenous peoples from Mexico, Central and South America come to know that they have that right. If people choose it, they then simply have to specify the nation or tribe one identifies with. For example, if someone is Zapotec, then the person can write that in. For someone who is de-Indigenized or who identifies as mestizo/mestiza, but who still wants to recognize and assert their indigeneity, they can. One can check the American Indian box and write in perhaps “mestizo” or “mestiza.” Others may choose names such as gente de maiz (people of maize) or macehual (regular people) — which is what many Indigenous peoples in Mexico choose as their primary identity.

If the bureau wanted to facilitate this process, they could do so by simply adding one word: American Indian/Alaska Native/Indigenous. Doing so would probably see a much greater increase than the previous census. If they added the term “Amerindian” or “mestizo/mestiza” as “Metis” is added in Canada, the numbers would probably go through the roof.

The question, however, is, can the bureau collect data in regards to American Indian tribes and American Indian tribal members… and Indigenous racial data? As noted previously, this already happens in Canada. A factor to be considered is that changing such a focus has and will continue to create opposition from many tribes and tribal members, because of the perceived competition.

Yet, this does not have to be a conflictive process, but for various reasons, many tribal representatives may see this as encroachment and possibly as a competition for resources. Yet, as conceived, the two do not have to conflict. And they shouldn’t.

Choosing the American Indian racial option would not make people eligible for entitlements, resources or treaty rights due tribes and tribal members, etc. (Arguably, people of Mexican descent may be due treaty rights also, via the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, which is a whole different argument). There may still be objection; however, the important thing is to make sure that indeed, this affirmation of one’s roots is not a pathway to competition with already recognized American Indians for resources of any kind.

One has to remember that, particularly prior to the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico, in the early 1990s, enforced racism has prevented people from throughout the continent from admitting their indigeneity, especially in public. However, we are starting to move beyond those days, and people are now stepping forward and are no longer denying the obvious.

This is a message that US politicians should also take heed because the notion that the nation is becoming browner actually means that it is becoming more Native.

And lastly, the day may soon come when Mexican Americans petition the Census Bureau to be moved as a group, not simply as individuals, from the Hispanic category to an American Indian/Indigenous category.

As the Mexican saying goes, “They tried to bury us, but they did not know we were seeds.”

Author’s note: This column is offered in the spirit of dialogue. Please send thoughts and reactions to