Alfonso Perez Espindola Tenoch, a holy man of the Lakota nation spiritual tradition who lives in Laredo, Texas, languishes in a Mexican jail. His "crime" was having helped lead a "Peace and Dignity" prayer run across the Americas in 1992.
On Oct. 11th of that year, thousands of runners from hundreds of Indian nations from North and South America met in the ancient pyramid city of Teotihuacan Mexico to promote indigenous consciousness. They denounced 500 years of abuses against the indigenous (otherwise known as Indian) peoples of the Americas.
A year later, Perez was arrested in Michoacan, Mexico, for possessing peyote that he was taking to ceremonies with Huichol Indians. He was accused of possessing and trafficking drugs authorized only for use in religious ceremonies by Native Americans.
The government ceded that indigenous people have the right to perform peyote ceremonies, but determined that the Mexican-born Perez was not "indigenous", and sentenced him to 10 years in prison.
Many governments define "Indians" as people who live in native communities and speak only a native tongue. When an Indian moves to a city and learns Spanish or another language, he or she is no longer considered "indigenous", but "mestizo."
Government sources estimate that there are 40 million Indians in North and South America. Non-governmental sources put the figure at closer to 100 million. The discrepancy in numbers is attributed to the large amount of "mestizos," or racially mixed people, who consider themselves or can be considered Indian, yet are not recognized as such by their governments.
While human rights groups throughout the Americas call for Perez's release, the issue of who is and who isn't "Indian" remains a familiar topic to Chicanos and other Latinos.
Tupac Enrique, a Chicano from Phoenix, who is part of an international alliance fighting for Perez's release, says that governments can determine who is a citizen, but cannot determine people's identities.
Enrique, who is of the Mexica spiritual tradition, says that people around the world determine identity differently from Western governments. For many he says, "It's not racial. We, not government, have been keeping indigenous identity alive for 500 years."
Most Chicanos and Latinos are at least part Native American and descend from such nations as Mexica, Nahua, Chichimeca, Tarahumara, Pueblo, Kikapu, Tarascan, Tlaxcalan, Mixtec, Zapotec, Maya, Quechua, Mapuche or any one of hundreds of other Indian peoples.
Many of our own friends can trace their ancestry. Jose Barreiro, born in Cuba and editor of the Native American journal "Akwe:kon Press" at Cornell University, is Guajiro. Although Cuba and other Caribbean governments claim that there are no Indians in their countries, Barreiro says they do in fact live in the countryside, where Taino traditions are upheld by Guajiros -- the rural population.
Vivian Lopez, a counselor in Las Cruces, NM, who is originally from Tucson, is both Yaqui and Apache, and considers herself Chicana. "To be Chicana is be indigenous," she says, adding that she was raised among people who, as a form of cultural resistance, took pride in not being registered as Indians with the government. "I don't need to be on a Federal (Bureau of Indian Affairs) list to know who I am."
And El Paso, Texas-born Arturo Flores, a high-school vice principal in Washington, D.C., is Huichol. His sense of identity was not forged simply by his physical features, but by ancient traditions which his family has upheld "I've been nurtured by the same food my ancestors were nurtured by for thousands of years."
Like us, other friends can trace some, but not all of their ancestry. The reason, in part, is the role the Catholic church and missions played during the colonial era in "reducing," or culturally obliterating the Indian. The objective was to create a "Christian," and that meant to spiritually and culturally stamp out the Indian.
One result was that Indians and mestizos developed a hatred towards all things Indian--thus a hatred of themselves, which led to a denial of their ancestry. In this atmosphere, "Hispanicized Indians" became "mestizos" and mestizos became "Spanish." If you could claim one drop of European blood, you did. To this day, many Latinos or Hispanics claim they are "pure" white.
Many Latino college students, aware of their history, have long identified with their indigenous roots. Chicano students at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, for example, recently staged a hunger strike. They demanded that the university eliminate the "Hispanic" classification. The term, they maintain, is a negation of their indigenous ancestry.
As Barreiro says, "Every mestizo is one less Indian -- or one more Indian waiting to reemerge."
"You're late. The rooster crowed all morning. I knew you were coming." Trini, a curandera, or healer, opens the screen door to her old farm. She lives not far from Hillsboro, Texas, where around 1919, a black man was burned at the stake by a mob.
We met Trini a few years ago, while driving down a country road that's no more than a scratch in the earth. A handwritten sign that read "TAMALES" caught our eye. And that's how we ended up talking about the message of the rooster's crow, finding miracles in candles and, of course, her famous tamales.
Trini's tamales have been known to attract people from as far away as Dallas to these black lands where sweet corn grows tall. "Tierra caliente," Mexicans call it--or "hot earth."
Ever since she was a child she's also had the gift for divining. She once found Spanish gold buried under a stick. These days, white farmers sometimes ask her to show them where gold is buried on their land. They say they've seen lights dancing on the earth at night--a sign of buried treasure. But Trini refuses--for reasons rooted deep in American history--"because of what the white man did to the black man, and for taking the land from Mexico."
Trini's people have been here since before there were six flags flying over Texas. Her grandparents were Cherokee and Mexican Indians who liked to eat on the floor and asked to be buried in a mountain when they died--the Indian way.
Trini's skin is as brown and red as the earth. She looks like she's always been here. And at age 72, she can't remember a time when her relatives weren't here. Though she was born in these parts, she doesn't speak English well, and cannot read nor write.
In other words, Trini would be a prime suspect for la migra--border patrol agents who constantly search for "illegal aliens"--even hundreds of miles from any border. If Congress has its way and adopts a national ID card for everyone, it is people like Trini who will be constantly asked to produce it.
In a great irony of U.S. history, the true natives of this land have become the immigrants. People who can trace their ancestry back the farthest are stopped and questioned because "they look Hispanic"--meaning they look Indian.
Canadian or European immigrants, though, are not hunted down by la migra in this way. To us, then, our nation's immigration policy is simply a continuation of the Indian removal policy of the 1800s, when Indians were removed from their lands and forced into Indian Territory.
During that era, Native Americans were forced to walk the Trail of Tears--some 600 miles without food or shelter--to Oklahoma, which became a deportation center, according to Antonio Bustamante, an historian at the University of Arizona. Many fell along the way. As Bustamante says, "There were many trails of tears for each group that was removed."
Today another trail of tears exists. People indigenous to the Americas are being removed again--through deportation.
Mexicans and Central Americans going north to the United States die in boxcars, car trunks, crawl across mountains, and trust the rivers and deserts with their lives. They must risk this hazardous journey because U.S. laws have made it a crime for them to work here, and have branded them as criminals not worthy of human rights--in a land that was formerly theirs.
And a man can still go free for shooting a Mexican in the back--as U.S. Border Patrol Officer Michael Elmer did in 1994, after killing an immigrant and then burying his body in the desert.
In indigenous culture, migration is part of a people's evolution and spiritual journey. Certain places are deemed sacred because a people once passed through there. In ancient picture books that show the founding of Mexico, migration was depicted symbolically as footprints leaving seven caves, an area which many believe to be the present-day Southwest.
Some Mexican Americans feel they are hated by "gringos" because their Indian faces are reminders that they once owned the land--that they were dispossessed and made illegitimate by an unjust war. Like Trini, Mexicans and Central Americans are not immigrants. They have the land written on their face, the age of the land etched in the deep color of their skin. And the Hopi of the Southwest say, they are just following their right to return home.
And they still leave footprints in the desert.
Our Uncle Joe remembers how Mama Mencha dried tobacco along a river, raising her hands to pray to grandfather sun.
Mama Mencha, our great-great grandmother, was Kikapu Indian. U.S. history books say the Kikapua (as they are known in their own language) were first sighted by the "white man" in the Great Lakes region.
Mama Mencha crossed south at "the pass of the eagle" (now Eagle Pass), giving us roots in two countries. She settled in Nacimiento, Mexico, when our people were pushed into Mexico from the United States while fleeing Indian wars. Our uncle, or "Tio Chema," as we call him, remembers her stories about seeing Santa Anna ride by on his horse. The Kikapu (as they are known in Mexico) were given land by the Mexican government and unrestricted passage between the two countries.
Mama Mencha died at age 115 in 1937. She's buried without a marker in a private family cemetery in Waco, Texas.
Tio Chema, who looks like the Indian head on an old nickel and likes to go to the powwows in Oklahoma, is a keeper of family stories. We are also Comanche from one of our mother's side of the family, but those stories have been lost. A people without stories is a people without memory or history. Sometimes all that remains of a people's history are names on birth certificates, sepia photographs and stone inscriptions that are later misinterpreted by archeologists.
Often we have wondered, when do Indians cease being Indians--when do they lose their memory, their tongue?
In the '40s, as the animals they had hunted for sustenance were killed off in Mexico, the Kikapua (which loosely translates as "the people who keep moving") were forced to follow the migrant stream into the United States. They camped under a bridge in Eagle Pass, Texas, and became known as "the bridge people."
Our relatives, however, disliked the nickname. "We are not bridge people. We are not cardboard people," they'd say, referring to the cardboard homes that some migrants lived in.
But the moniker has new meaning for us nowadays, as we find ourselves bridging nations at indigenous summits. At conferences, we are often asked to translate for Spanish-speaking southern indigenous nations and English-speaking North American Indians.
As writers, we are also translators of cultures, within the Latino communities, between native people and mestizos, and between Latino communities and our mainstream readers. At other times, we bring to our readers knowledge from ethnic scholars that might otherwise remain locked in ivory towers. We often say we are "bridge people" who help to bridge wide cultural gulfs of misunderstanding.
We remember being on a bus in Mexico City when a fair-haired mother screamed at her child, who was slow to board, "Don't be an Indian."
We recall how an instructor friend of ours participating in the mother-daughter program in El Paso, Texas, told the girls they were all beautiful. When one girl asked, "Even if you look like an Indian, Miss?" the instructor replied, "Especially if you look like an Indian."
It reminds us of our own childhoods, of thinking we were ugly because we were dark and Indian, washing our skin furiously, hoping we would wash our color away. A friend of ours remembers going to bed at night and praying she would wake up blond. Another friend says that's why some Latinas dress with garish clothes, makeup and baubles--to cover up the Indian.
We see Chicanos and Latinos as people from four directions because most of us are a mixture of Indian, European, African and Asian. This mixture, however historically has generally been viewed by both Spaniards and indigenous people as contaminated blood.
During the debate over the Columbus Quincentennial in 1992, left out of the discussion were the vast heirs--or rather--the product of the conquest of the Americas, the mestizos. We concluded then that the Americas will heal its racial wounds when mestizos not only stopped hating Indians, but stopped hating themselves. Part of the healing requires that we all start to view mestizos as one group, with multiple identities, cultures and histories, albeit begotten of war and conquest.
Perhaps a better term for mestizos is bridge people who, because of their unique experience of coming to terms with the conflict that created their culture, can be bridges over the walls of prejudice.
On the tree of humanity, there are many leaves and flowers, but to paraphrase Cuban patriot Jose Marti, our trunk will always be indigenous.
Return to Indigenous Peoples' Literature
This site has been accessed 10,000,000
times since February 8, 1996.