Indigenous lateral oppression is not decolonization
Sadly, the latest online trend within the “latinx” community is to relentlessly attack Chicanas and Chicanos who identify as Indigenous. Given the fact that being Indigenous is a cornerstone of Chicana-Chicano identity (and is manifested in our culture, language, traditions, and blood), I find such attacks…curious to say the least.
The basic argument goes something like this: Chicanas, Chicanos, and Chicanx folks did not grow up in traditional Indigenous communities, and therefore can only call themselves “Indigenous descendants” and not “Indigenous people.” Apparently, there is only one “authentic” Indigenous lived experience, regardless of how history has played out for the Mesoamerican diaspora. This bizarre bit of wordplay ignores the entirety of Chicana-Chicano history and reeks of identity policing at its worst. Interestingly, this assault on Chicana-Chicano Indigenous identity is identical to right-wing talking points that seek to deny Chicana-Chicanos our Indigenous cultural inheritance.
It is certainly unfortunate that a handful of “latinxers” and Indigenous gatekeepers have taken it upon themselves to police Indigenous identity. In doing so, they are sowing deep divisions among people who should be working together. And quite frankly, I think their argument just isn’t very well thought out.
Here are five reasons why:
1. It completely ignores the fact that the Chicana-Chicano experience is unique to the United States, and that the historical racism and colonialist oppression experienced by Chicana-Chicanos has been directly in response to our being Indigenous.
The Mexican American experience in the United States has been largely characterized by our status as a colonized people. Ever since the United States absorbed a large portion of the Mexican Republic as a result of the U.S.-Mexico war, Mexican Americans have been marginalized and ostracized within U.S. society. More often than not, our Indigenous roots have motivated this racism.
Don’t believe me? Let’s take a quick look at the historical record.
In trying to come up with a solution to the “Mexican Problem” in the years following the U.S.-Mexico war, Mexican Americans were referred to as “half-breeds” and “mongrels” by a press that viewed us as the enemy. As Mark Reisler pointed out, the perception of Mexican-Americans in the American mindset stressed a dual theme: “the Mexican’s Indian blood would pollute the nation’s genetic purity, and his biologically determined degenerate character traits would sap the country’s moral fiber and corrupt its institutions.”
“the Mexican’s Indian blood would pollute the nation’s genetic purity, and his biologically determined degenerate character traits would sap the country’s moral fiber and corrupt its institutions.”
When discussing the “Mexican problem” in 1929, Glenn Hoover said the following: “More Indians have crossed the southern border in one year than lived in the entire territory of New England at the time of the Plymouth settlement. This movement is the greatest Indian migration of all time.”
And lest we think that such racist contempt was simply driven by xenophobia against Mexican nationals, let us remember the words of a Texas congressman, who noted in the 1920s that “the word Mexican is used to indicate race, not a citizen or subject of the country. There are probably 250,000 Mexicans in Texas who were born in the state but they are ‘Mexicans’ just as all blacks are Negroes though they may have five generations of American ancestors.”
During the infamous Sleepy Lagoon trial of the poorly named “Zoot Suit Riots,” a special commission reported the following to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department: “Mexican Americans are essentially Indians and therefore Orientals or Asians. Throughout history, the Orientals have shown less regard for human life than have the Europeans. Further, Mexican Americans had inherited their “naturally violent” tendencies from the Aztecs of Mexico.” The report went on to state that “the Mexican would forever retain his wild and violent tendencies no matter how much education or training he might receive.”
We should note that the very name “Zoot Suit Riots” is a racist misnomer, used to distract from the true nature of the riots. Chicano historian and Scholar Dr. Ruben Arellano has observed that “The Zoot Suit Riots were actually the ‘Sailor Riots,’ because it was they who instigated them and targeted Pachucos (Mexican American zoot suiters).”
Mexican Americans had inherited their “naturally violent” tendencies from the Aztecs of Mexico.
These are just a handful of examples, clearly showing that our Indigenous roots shaped racist American attitudes towards Mexican-Americans.
2. It legitimizes the racial caste system by perpetuating a racist/colonialist mindset in which people are divided by degrees of whiteness.
When the Spaniards invaded Mexico, they established a social program known as the “Sistema de Castas,” a racial caste system that measures a person’s social value in degrees of whiteness. This system placed Spaniards on the top, Africans and Indigenous people on the bottom, and “mestizos” (half-breeds) in between. An entire system was established to determine social class by calculating how mixed you were. The idea is disgusting and racist and sadly, still holds a place in Mexican society.
Proponents of the “Indigenous descendant” argument maintain that mestizos cannot assert an Indigenous identity because they did not grow up in traditional communities and are racially mixed. However, this argument ignores the nature of U.S. colonialism and attempts to transfer social norms relating to race and class from Mexico to the United States. While mixed-blood natives certainly experience a level of privilege in Mexico, such concessions are not given in the U.S. to Chicana-Chicanos. The Sistema de Castas, with its rigid racial hierarchy, associated privileges, and notions of “mestizaje” don’t work within the confines of U.S. racial institutions.
It is worth noting that the “Indigenous descent” folks lean hard into the “mestizo” concept, and appear to use it exclusively to describe Chicana-Chicanos. I can’t help but wonder if they also cling to other hopelessly outdated racist terms such as “mulato,” “lobo,” “morisco,” or “chino?” Do they think that African Americans should continue to be identified as mulattos, octaroons, or quadroons? Or is this aggression confined solely to Chicana-Chicanos whom they maintain should only ever be considered “half-breeds” and never Indigenous?
This othering of mixed-blood natives is both counterproductive and quite frankly, rooted in colonialist thinking. By embracing “mestizo” as a legitimate term, we validate a racist system. Now, do mixed-blood natives in Mexico hold positions of social privilege? Of course they do. The entire Mexican social system was set up to work that way. That’s the problem with colonialism: it’s super shitty. But this isn’t Mexico, and believe me when I say that U.S. racist institutions don’t care “how much” Indigenous blood you carry or whether you grew up traditional. As we can see from the examples I gave earlier, mixed-blood or full-blooded, an Indian is an Indian. And Indians are the enemy.
I don’t think that promoting a racial caste system implemented by the Spanish is the best way to go about decolonization. Rather, I agree with Indigenous scholar Jack Forbes, who said: “to be a mestizo is to cop-out. It is to accept the Spaniard’s colonialist-racist ideology. It is to fall supine before the European’s racial grading system instead of struggling for psychological liberation. It is to deny one’s own people’s history in order to have a masochistic, obscene relationship with the invaders and conquerors.”
3. It suggests that there is only one “authentic” Indigenous experience in the Americas, despite colonialist oppression taking many forms.
The simple fact is that there is no singular Indigenous experience. The violence endured by Indigenous people across the American continents has taken many forms, as have our lived experiences under such violence. Using Indigenous identity as a weapon to attack and silence native people who are struggling to reclaim their own identities, usually by claiming they are “less than” or “unworthy” of being Indigenous simply because they have experienced colonialism differently is a dead-end strategy.
In reality, some full-blooded Natives cannot speak their language. There are adopted Natives with no way to reconnect with their traditions. There are Mixed-Blood Natives who are looking for a way to reconnect with their culture. Some Natives are born-again Christians, Atheists, Muslims, and those who keep traditional ways. Natives who grew up in well-off families. Natives who grew up broke. Natives who go to college. Natives who drop out of high school. There are some Natives who have communities to go home to, and some Natives who have no idea where they belong. We all have different lived experiences as Indigenous people, and all of these experiences are valid. To suggest otherwise is surrendering to colonialism.
We all have different lived experiences as Indigenous people, and all of these experiences are valid. To suggest otherwise is surrendering to colonialism.
In a recent blog post attacking Chicana-Chicano indigeneity, author Jessica Hernandez stated: “It is as though everyone wants some indigeneity to claim, without having to face the threats and violence that comes from it.”
First, claiming that Chicana-Chicanos have not experienced threats and violence due to our Indigeneity is not only ahistorical, it is so tone-deaf that I wonder if the author knows anything about Chicana-Chicano history at all. Second, making suffering a prerequisite of Indigenous identity is a bit too sadistic for my taste. Shouldn’t we be working together to end the suffering of Indigenous people as a whole, rather than making it a defining characteristic of indigeneity?
4. It conflates asserting an Indigenous identity with laying claim to membership in a specific community.
Look, there is a huge difference between identifying as “Indigenous” and claiming to be Hopi, Zuni, Navajo, etc. My ancestors were Nawas from the states of Mexico and Puebla, but I did not grow up in a traditional Nawa community. Does this mean that I can claim membership in a Nawa community? No, of course not. Not unless that community recognizes me as a member. But does this mean that I am not Indigenous? I find the question itself to be absurd because of course I am Indigenous. I am an Indigenous man of Nawa descent.
This reality may not resonate with those who argue against Chicana-Chicano Indigeneity, and that is fine. But just know this: we do not need anyone’s permission to be who we are. In fact if anything, these misguided attacks on Chicana-Chicano identity have led to a resurgence in Chicana-Chicano pride.
5. It perpetuates Indigenous lateral oppression.
Ultimately, the idea that some native people are “authentically indigenous” while others are merely “of Indigenous descent” is fundamentally flawed. It suggests that colonialism is both permanent and irreversible and that any effort to reclaim what has been lost due to colonization is pointless and futile. It is a misguided idea that denies Indigenous people the agency to determine their own identities in a way that is meaningful and empowering. When we accept the “authentically Indigenous” versus “of Indigenous descent” argument, we actively participate in the very program of Indigenous extermination that began with Spanish colonization. And even worse, we are doing it to each other.
As Gerald Taiaiake Alfred and Jeff Corntassel have so eloquently observed: “This disconnection from our lands, cultures and communities has led to social suffering and the destruction of families and yet …the real deprivation is the erosion of an ethic of universal respect and responsibility that used to be the hallmark of indigenous societies.”
Indigenous lateral oppression is when Native people exhibit toxic, harmful, and hostile behavior towards one another. As long as proponents of the “Indigenous descendant” argument continue to dismiss the lived experiences of Chicana-Chicanos by writing us off as mere “mestizos” (half-breeds), and refuse to recognize our right to determine our own identities, they are perpetuating Indigenous lateral oppression.
I can’t bring myself to participate in such self-destructive behavior.
My enemies are not my own people.
I remain defiantly Indigenous.
Further suggested reading:
What does the future hold for a growing mixed-blood population? by Dr. Christina M. Castro
The Probelm with Indigeneity by Tlakatekatl
The Mestizo Concept: A Product of European Imperialism
by UC Davis Professor Jack D. Forbes