When are we Mexican … indigenous?
Recently I’ve witnessed two spirited debates. One revolved around terminology, that is, what do we call ourselves? The other one revolved around the question of indigeneity, that is, are we Indian or not, or who is Indian and who isn’t? From where I sit, the two matters are, as the lawyers are wont to say, res judicata, that is they are already settled. At the risk of being boringly repetitious (I’ve written on this subject before, as have many others more qualified than me) here are my thoughts on these two questions.
In last month’s blog I posited that the Chicano Generation’s greatest contribution was that we instilled a deep and irrevocable sense of pride in our community, especially in our youth. We did this by many means, a—perhaps the—major one being adopting the term Chicano/Chicana to describe ourselves. We determined that no longer would we allow others (academics, bureaucrats, etc.) to tell us what we should call ourselves, to define us by assigning cultural and character traits to us. This is the most basic manifestation of self-determination.
Chicano/Chicana: an existential vehicle…
The term Chicano/Chicana was a vehicle for some very important existential concepts. When our generation was growing up, American society considered us foreigners in spite of the fact that (1) we were born and raised here in the U.S. and (2) our people had been in this land way before any white folk came along. This anti-Mexican attitude had existed for a long time, but it became very pronounced and prevalent in the period after World War II—the late 1940s and 1950s. In reaction to the virulent racism and discrimination to which our people were subjected during that period, the term “Mexican” was often avoided altogether, giving rise to terms such as “Spanish-American,” “Latin-American” and other “polite terms.” Anything but Mexican.
The Chicano Generation went in the opposite direction. We reacted against that anti-Mexican attitude by shouting our heritage from the rooftops, as it were. We made it a point to use the Mexican versions of our names. Those of us who were fluent in Spanish kept on using it and those who weren’t learned it. We got in the face of the language teachers and social scientists who asserted that we spoke “Spanglish,” that we were linguistically confused. We not only spoke in both Spanish and English, we wrote bilingually—poetry, short stories and plays, etc. We brought home the point that being bilingual is a sophisticated marker of intelligence.
We demolished the racist concept that we were “culturally deprived,” as the anthropologists and educators said we were. We produced outstanding art—murals, paintings, sculptures, posters, etc. We wrote plays and poetry. We wrote and sang songs. We studied our history and built curricula around our history and other dimensions of our lives and put them in place in colleges and universities. We started writing about our history and culture. We demolished stereotype after stereotype such as that we were lazy, shiftless, unambitious, that we were not an intellectual people, that we were not capable of organizing politically, etc.
All of these and more were passengers in the vehicle of Chicanismo.
We reached into our history…
To be clear: we didn’t invent the term Chicano/Chicana. In adopting Chicano/Chicana, we reached into our history. We grew up hearing and using that term. As documented by scholars such as Carey McWilliams, Manuel Gamio, Américo Paredes, Ernesto Galarza, and others, the term Chicano/Chicana has been used within our community since the early 1900s. At first, Chicano/Chicana denoted Mexicans who had recently arrived in the U.S. and later came to describe the everyday working-class person of Mexican descent.
To know that you have a rich history and a rich culture is immensely empowering existentially, and knowing that you carry that history and culture in what you call yourself—for, what you call yourself is what your ancestors called themselves—is even more empowering. It surely was for our generation.
We asserted our indigeneity, our Indian roots…
Not only did the Chicano Generation claim and proudly assert our Mexican-ness, we also claimed and asserted our indigeneity, that is, our Indian roots. The notion of indigeneity was not novel to us. Many (most?) of us knew of our indigenous heritage from family lore. But during the Chicano Movement era, we embraced our indigeneity openly, loudly, and proudly. Our art, particularly the murals we produced, is rife with indigenous images. Indigenous imagery and references also permeate the poetry of the Chicano era. Alurista’s “Floricanto en Aztlán” (1971), for example, is an eclectic mixture of Spanish and English, with allusions to Nahuatl and other indigenous languages of Mexico.
Ditto for Chicano Movement-era songs. El Teatro Campesino (Farm Worker Theater) was an educational arm of the National Farm Worker Association (now the United Farm Workers-CIO union). El Teatro Campesino wrote and produced Actos (short plays) and songs to motivate farm workers, and the community in general, to engage in social change. The dramatic and comedic skits the Teatro members performed and the songs they sang at rallies and meetings played an important role in the farmworker movement as well as in the Chicano Movement. El Teatro Campesino gave us two prolific and influential musicians, Daniel Valdez and Augustín Lira.
In 1976, Valdez produced an LP album, “Mestizo,” in which he sings his own compositions and puts Chicano poems to music. A song in this album is “América De Los Indios” (America of the Indians), reflecting the Chicano Movement’s sense of indigeneity. Augustín Lira released an LP album, “Augustín Lira: from the fields to a new beginning,” that contains movement songs that were written and used to generate pride in Mexicans/Chicanos(as) and to inspire them to get involved in the movement. Two of the album’s songs, “Indio” and “¡Quihubo Raza!,” celebrate the indigenous roots of our community.
The Chicano Generation got support regarding its embrace of indigenismo from Native American scholar Jack Forbes. In “Aztecas del norte; the Chicanos of Aztlan” (1973), citing the many indigenous tribes in Mexico, Forbes basically posits the notion that if one is Mexican or of Mexican descent, he/she has to have indigenous blood. Forbes goes on to assert that Chicanos—the Aztecas del norte—are the largest Indian “tribe” or “nation” in the United States. Whether one accepts the latter Forbes assertion or not, the former one is surely credible.
As noted above, the matters at hand are res judicata. c/s
Copyright 2019 by Salomon Baldenegro. To contact Sal write: firstname.lastname@example.org