“When we forget”: I am Indigenous and I didn’t know

I write this post with mixed emotions regarding my Indigenous identity. I’m angry for the stolen heritage, a consequence of colonization in my birth territory. I’m embarrassed about not knowing my native ancestry, and I’m self-conscious about what other people, especially those who identify as Indigenous would think about my claims, particularly from my country, México. Thus, this blog gives voice the thoughts, feelings, and conversations in my head as part of a healing process. Since I started this PhD journey a few years back, I started using decolonising methodologies to approach Indigenous artisanal textiles, and my sense of self has been challenged and my identities shaken.

Before I continue, I want to give context to the title of this blog. During my last field research, I spoke to elders from pueblos originarios in Chiapas about Indigenous identity, to learn from people from my birth territory’s perspective. Considering mestizos and recognised Indigenous people share ancestry from Mesoamerican cultures such as Aztec, Mayan, Zapotec, Olmec, to mention some, I asked them “when do we stop being Indigenous?” One of them responded ever so frankly: “when we forget”. We MUST remember. Now I wonder, is it possible for mestizos to reclaim our Indigenous identity, to remember our Indigenous heritage but without reproducing mestizo dominance and privilege? It’s time for us to remember.

The colonization in Cemanáhuac[1] started in 1492, and with the arrival of Hernán Cortés onto my country around 1519 to what is currently known as Veracruz despite other versions that say he arrived earlier in Cozumel from Cuba. As explained by Linda Tuhiwai Smith on imperialism, the subjugation and systematic eradication of Indigenous people has evolved, taking different forms through time, according to the situation and ideology of each period since the establishment of the colonial project.

The Spanish colonial project set the agenda of taking land and the exploitation of resources and people, and they imposed a caste system placing themselves at the top. This complex classification created a hierarchy based on ethnic inequality, discrimination and blood quantum to maintain power, social status and wealth. Like other colonised nations, the Indigenous identity in México was doomed to disappear in a few generations as part of the Spanish colonial agenda.

Perhaps the most known of this caste system is the mestizo, the “breeding” of a Spaniard with an Indigenous person. However, after some generations, the mestizo identity was reclaimed and re-signified in order to promote a new identity as an independent nation where the colonisers, Spaniards or criollos (people born in the colonies from Spaniard parents), were no longer at the top. The modernist project used mestizaje or the mixing of people as the creation of a new race to be proud of, la raza cósmica. The cosmic race was coined and elaborated by the Mexican philosopher and secretary of education, José Vasconcelos, pivoting on the idea of a “fifth race” in the Americas that transcended race and nationality. At that time, it was believed that “Latin” Americans had the blood of all the races in the world: European, native Americans, Asians and Africans, surpassing the peoples of the “Old World” [2].

As good as it may sound for some, this homogenous (and nationalistic “Mexican”) identity of mestizo is problematic for Indigenous people (pueblos originarios), migrants, and African descendants. I grew up knowing I am a mestiza, the result of unknown Spanish and Indigenous ancestors. Many of us do, due to the education system. I didn’t know much about my ancestors more than being Mexicans and there is no incentive to acknowledge the origin of our ancestors… unless they are European.

Living in Aotearoa, learning about tangata whenua, attending MAI Ki Aronui, as well as researching in Indigenous spaces has inevitably provoked many questions in me, most of all, am I Indigenous? I’ve always known I have Indigenous blood, but from who and from where? I wanted to look for answers, to know more about my own ancestry, heritages and culture beyond Mexican folklore. I was inspired by whakapapa and pepeha. I wanted to have a deeper connection to my mother and father’s territories and cultural heritage, as well as my birth territory. I searched for family stories, took a DNA test, listened to elders, visited spaces… and the journey continues. It has been an emotional and spiritual process, full of tears and healing. I couldn’t stop crying the first time I introduced myself naming the Indigenous groups I link through whakapapa, P’urhépecha from my father side and Nahua from my mother side. The latter are direct descendants from Aztec-Mexica people. I have become even more interested regarding our Mesoamerican civilizations in México, considering current pueblos originarios as guardians of this ancestral knowledge, different to the colonized narrative that disappeared centuries ago.

My research also made me realise Indigenous identity has been recognised and denied by systems that gain advantage for the extermination of Indigenous people and knowledge. Whether by genocide, “washing” the blood, assimilation or disconnection to territory and languages, the erasure of Indigenous communities would allow the exploitation of land, resources and knowledges all around the world. This is likely why the Mexican government recognise Indigenous people, only through language, thinking that forces assimilation, mestizaje, coloniality and modernity. These processes decrease the number of native language speakers. In the US, the Indigenous or Native identity is attached to blood quantum, which varies between the tribes, and it is recognised by an ID card. If we use their 25% blood quantum rule, 80% of the Mexican population would be considered Native Americans[3].[

Another factor to consider is the stereotypical image of “how an Indigenous person should look” according to location. There are advantages or disadvantages. For example, when I wear one of my huipiles[4]  in México I am considered “cool or trendy” but if my Indigenous sisters with darker skin do the same, they are discriminated against. However, as a woman of colour outside my territory, the perception changes. I have been perceived as “native or ethnic” and I am consistently treated differently.

I have many more questions than answers, and I guess this is desirable throughout the PhD journey, but I didn´t imagine how transformative it would be. At this point and similarly to Rivera Cusicanqui, I would like to talk about identification instead of identity, where the former is not something fixed, but it changes based on our own experiences. Therefore, I “identify” as a “mestiza in search of the decolonization of my own subjectivities”[5] and choose to remember, to make deeper connections to my Indigenous roots and communities. I have Indigenous blood, I have Indigenous ancestry and heritage, I am an Indigenous woman.

Diana Albarrán Gonzales is an experienced industrial designer, lecturer and is in her final year of her PhD in Te Ara Poutama. She is a much loved and respected Indigenous whanaunga of MAI-ki-Aronui who – amongst our many other whāngai – helps put the “I” in MAI.

[1] Cēmānāhuac is the name given by the Aztec people to the continent known as America. The Aztec, and the Mexica (the Aztecs who stayed in central México) are one of the most important civilisations in the continent. This náhuatl word is derived from “cē” as one/whole and “Ānāhuac“, deriving from “atl” as water and “nahuac”, a locative meaning “circumvented or surrounded”. Therefore, this name has been translated as “land surrounded by water”.

[2] Vasconcelos, J. (1997). The cosmic race/La raza cósmica. JHU Press.

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=osLl6x9JpKY&list=PLH6fw6YSMWQ0NJTGfXaZDGv0x5DlOrPcA&index=15

[4] https://theculturetrip.com/north-america/mexico/articles/a-brief-history-of-the-huipil-in-one-minute/

[5] https://latinta.com.ar/2016/09/seguir-mirando-a-europa-es-apostar-por-un-suicidio-colectivo/ [[[[[

6 comments

  1. Beautiful blog. You have put to words what many of us “Mestizos” looking to re-discover our native roots have tried to explain to our friends and family. I have called myself Native for the better part of 40 years now, always proudly.

    Like

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