Tuesday, November 11, 2020 marks one of the saddest days of my life. On this day, we—the Mexican people on both sides of la frontera and our allies—lost a legend: the one and only, Dr. Juan Gómez-Quiñones (JGQ).
We lost one of the greatest intellectuals not only in the Americas, but also the world. The fact that JGQ was born a Mexican in el sur (Parral, Chihuahua, Mexico) and died a proud Mexican/Chicano in el norte (Los Angeles, California) in a time when the Mexican continues to be otherized, marginalized and pejoratized serves as a grim reminder of this great loss for la raza.
For over 50 years, JGQ dedicated his life to uplift the people of the sun through his superior scholarship, dedicated mentorship, political actions and eloquent words. While his contributions are many, for the sake of space, here go a few: wrote classic books and articles on Chicana/o history, labor, politics and culture; helped establish the theoretical foundations of Chicana and Chicano studies, along with the living legend, Rodolfo “Rudy” Acuña, whom JGQ fondly admired; taught and mentored thousands of students who became leaders in their own right; supported and participated in countless political actions for social, economic and racial justice; lead co-author of El Plan de Santa Bárbara: A Chicano Plan for Higher Education; co-founded UCLA’s Chicano Studies Research Center (CSRC); co-founded CSRC’s Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies; NACCS (National Association of Chicana and Chicano Studies) Scholar Recipient, 1990; and wrote eloquent prose—something that escapes most academics.
Did I mention that he also wrote beautiful poetry?
“My father’s land / is crossed / ribbon like / by stone fences / the wither in the sun / White stones that glisten in the sun, / Stones that ballast a sea of brown hills. / My father whip laid them, / My mother’s tribe fed them.”
—Dr. Juan Gómez-Quiñones, 5th and GRANDE VISTA (Poems, 1960-1973), Colección Mensaje, New York, 1973, p. 61.
One word: brilliant!
Like in the case of another brilliant Mexican in el norte, Gloria Anzaldúa, JGQ provided us with a powerful voice against a racist American system that has attempted (and failed!) to erase our history. JGQ took the ashes of our once burnt history by the European colonists (and their inheritors) and created scholarly books, peer-reviewed articles, essays and eloquent poems in elite spaces limited to the best and the brightest Western Civilization has to offer. He has done so—and continues to do so—through his publications, speeches and memories without succumbing to fear or forgetting where he came from.
Dr. Álvaro Huerta and Dr. Juan Gómez-Quiñones (circa 2015).
As I reflect on JGQ, there are no words that I can conjure to heal the immense pain that I’m feeling. I cried when I first heard the terrible news on Tuesday morning and have been struggling to maintain my East Los Angeles composure ever since. I think I lost my street cred! I’m sad because I won’t be getting random calls from JGQ at odd hours when he has something on his mind. I’m sad because I won’t be receiving mail packets of his latest manuscripts for me to review or help get published.
“No worries, Juan, I’ll make sure that the last two manuscripts you sent me will see the light of day!”
Given all that he has done for me, I’ve always heeded his friendly and warm requests. That’s what familia is all about.
I first met JGQ in 1985, when I started UCLA as a freshman, majoring in mathematics, from East Los Angeles—a place where JGQ also hails from. I must say that I was originally shocked to see a Chicano professor at an elite university. Since most of my K-12 teachers were White, I never knew that Chicana/o professors even existed. I was equally shocked when JGQ assigned us books written by brown scholars. Many moons later, I’m following the example of the great Chicana and Chicano authors that I read in JGQ’s classes, especially his fine works.
Speaking of historians, I’ve always wondered why history professors assign at least 5-6 books—300+ pages per book without pictures!—to read in a quarter or semester? I only read one book—John Steinbeck’s The Pearl—throughout my dysfunctional K-12 education! While JGQ practiced this norm, he made it clear to us that the study of history represents a serious subject. When he walked around North Campus at UCLA, he was always carrying several books on one hand and numerous student papers to grade on his other hand.
Constantly thinking, reading and writing, he was oblivious and impervious of his surroundings. One day, for instance, while taking a small seminar on historiography with JGQ, I, along with my classmates, waited for him to teach and lead us in discussion/dialogue for about 30 minutes after class started. We then formed a posse to rescue him from his office, where we found him in a deep state of writing.
As I’ve said before, while JGQ was stoic, like my late Mexican father, once you scratched beneath the surface, he was a sweet and caring teddy bear. That said, during my initial encounters with JGQ, I was intimidated. Over 30 years later, I can still recall knocking on his office door on the 6th floor of Bunche Hall, where he would gruffly say, “Yes!” My response? “Hello, Mr. Quiñones…I mean, Professor Quiñones, I want to talk to you about my paper. I’ve never written a 10-page paper and don’t know how to start. Heck, I’ve only written one 2-page paper, triple spaced, in my entire life!”
Once I got to know him, I learned to announce myself. “Hello, Quiñones, this is Álvaro. I need to ask you some questions about the readings.” Often, I would go with my fellow student activists or MEChistas, where we minored in “JGQ Studies,” just to hang out and talk about politics or sports. He wasn’t fond of small talk or chisme. Also, he rarely talked about himself or how he grew up, especially as one of the first Chicanas/os to pursue higher education when he first entered the university. He never took credit for all of his accomplishments. Instead, he would always credit the collective efforts of the committed educators, youth, activists and other agents of social change throughout the Chicana/o movement and beyond.
In terms of MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/o de Aztlán) at UCLA during the mid-1980s, whenever we organized a protest on campus or in the community, we could always count on JGQ for his unconditional support. For example, when we organized a hunger strike at UCLA—one of the first, if not the first at UCLA and at any UC campus—in defense of undocumented immigrants (November 11-19, 1987), we knew that JGQ had our back. When we didn’t show up to class, he didn’t scold or hector us. He encouraged us, teaching us a key lesson that I pass on to my students and colleagues: knowledge comes from practice!
Later, when several of us, as former UCLA students, became community activists and organized Latino gardeners against the City of Los Angeles’s draconian leaf blower ban during the mid-1990s. (City penalties for Latino gardeners caught using a leaf blower? Misdemeanor charge, $1,000 fine and up to 6 months in jail). To challenge this racist law, we sought help from JGQ to lobby Council Members—like Mark Ridley Thomas, Jackie Goldberg and others—who voted for the ban on December 3, 1996.
On a more personal level, when I got married to Antonia Montes—fellow MEChista, educator, activist—in 1992, I invited JGQ. To my surprise, he showed up. Since then, we became homeboys (and later colleagues), where he counseled me throughout my graduate studies at UCLA (M.A.) and UC Berkeley (Ph.D.). He supported me without reservations when I was on the academic job market. Whenever I experienced racial micro-aggressions or academic hazing or pinche bullying by senior faculty, I never flinched since I knew that I could count on my academic homeboy, JGQ, like in the case of the late Dr. Leo Estrada.
In short, JGQ was/is my professor, mentor, homeboy, fellow activist and colleague. He taught me/us that we, as Chicanas and Chicanos, also have history—a proud history that must be taught in K-12, higher education and our communities.
“The point of learning about Indigenous past is not to relive past practices, or to propose one essentialization over another, or to be immobilized by history. The first stone to demolish the old presidio is our own consciousness.”
—Dr. Juan Gómez-Quiñones, Indigenous Quotient/Stalking Words: American Indian History as Future, Aztlan Libre Press, San Antonio, Texas, 2012, p. 39.
Left to Right: Adrián Álvarez, Juan Gómez-Quiñones, Antonia Montes, Álvaro Huerta, Ruben Lizardo and Leonor Lizardo; wedding of Antonia and Álvaro (March 28, 1992)
Despite our generational divide, we shared many similarities: Mexican roots; native sons of East Los Angeles; doctorates from the University of California; veteran activists; practitioners of respect and confianza (something absent in the academy); lovers of music (e.g., oldies), art (e.g., Mexican/Chicana/o art), food (anything Mexican), drink (e.g., mezcal), culture (our own) and sports (e.g., boxing); readers of poetry; educators and mentors; and, our defense of los de abajo, where he paved the road for me and countless others to emulate…
“Human issues can be resolved with humanistic solutions. Immigrants are not strangers; they are family.” --Dr. Juan Gómez-Quiñones (Reframing the Latino Immigration Debate Towards a Humanistic Paradigm 2013, foreword, p. 14)
Moving forward, while I’ll humbly do my part to maintain and expand his shining legacy through my lectures, writings and musings, I only wish that I was able to tell him in person four magic words before his passing: “I love you, Juan!”
It would seem that the fevered Earth in her delirium has generated antibodies in the form of a crowned virus to cure herself of the cancer that humankind has become upon her body. Forest fires rage on the Amazon, in Australia, in Siberia, in California, everywhere. More frequent and ever more disastrous hurricanes and floods wreak death in all the continents. The poles warm and glaciers melt. The oceans rise. Each day more and more of our relations the other animals, the plants become extinct. Humankind’s hubris has created the tragedy of the Anthropocene.
The Anthropocene is the Age of Man (humanity) the current geological age “viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.” It is a young age by any measure given that the Earth is about 5 billion years old. Shall it be measured from the time of the first appearance of Homo Sapiens in Africa 300,000 years ago? Or from the rise of agriculture and the Neolithic Revolution some 12,000 to 15,000 years ago? Or since 3100 BCE with the institution of the patriarchy in the ancient Near East? Or since patriarchal monotheism with the Babylonian captivity of the Jews in the 6th century BCE? Some argue much more recent dates such as the industrial revolution about 1780, or even closer and more exactly, July 16, 1945, seventy-five years ago with the first test of the atomic bomb when I was ten years old. There is no consensus as to the beginning of the Anthropocene.
I would date the Anthropocene precisely: October 12, 1492, almost five hundred twenty eight years ago when the Europeans who looking for a short route to the wealth of India stumbled upon a portion of the Earth unknown to them.
Thinking they had reached India, they called the native people they encountered “Indians” and called the western hemisphere a “new” world, a virgin land, and immediately set out to possess it in every sense of the word, to steal, violate and rape it, to enslave and kill its people, the “Indians” they called savages. The Europeans came with two ideas quite strange to this “new” world, Abya Yala, Turtle Island, later called “America:” 1) that they held the one and single truth of divinity and 2) that the Earth belonged to humankind — and so they took the land with sword and cross forcing the native people they did not kill to convert to Christianity, most ironically in the name of the invaders’ one, abstract god’s avatar, a young revolutionary rabbi, Yeshua (from whose birth they reckoned time,) who had taught love and compassion, justice and peace.
The European invaders took the land, murdering “Indians” with the gun and the horse but mostly decimating them through the great pandemics the Europeans unwittingly brought with them killing between 10 million and 100 million people, up to 95% of the indigenous population of Abya Yala, the Americas.
Very soon following the invasion of Abya Yala and coinciding with colonization, the economics of Europe was mercantilism that held that wealth was in profitable trade regulated by the crown. With most of the native population decimated by disease and murder, the need for labor in mining, clearing forests, and large-scale farming was needed. Much of the wealth of the Americas was in labor-intensive crops: sugar cane, coffee, cocoa, hemp, tobacco, cotton and the need for cheap labor was met by the importation of slaves from Africa in the beginning of the 17th century. African people, traded for or captured by slave traders, were brought to the Americas and slave trade, its greatest cost being the intense suffering and great death toll of the enslaved Africans, arguably became the most profitable trade of the time.
Two fundamental premises of European belief were 1) that mankind was created in the image of their one patriarchal god and 2) that their god had given mankind mastery over the other creatures (including woman) and had charged him to subdue the Earth. For the European to justify the enslavement of other humans and treat them as cattle, as a commodity, they had to be made “other,” closer to the other animals decreed by their god to be mastered. So subsequently with the growth of capitalism, and especially the Atlantic slave trade, the concept of racism (the belief that some groups of humans are superior to others, that the fair-skinned are superior to the dark-skinned group) arose in the late 18th century.
Mercantilism morphed into capitalism, private ownership of production and trade independent from control by the crown. In practical terms, it means private ownership and unbridled rape of the Earth as merely a source of raw material to be extracted and made into consumable products by cheap labor, slavery in whatever form, for the profit of the capitalist (the owner.) It is the economics of empire. Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations was published in 1776. Thirteen of Britain’s wealthiest colonies in North America declared independence from Britain and the crown that same year claiming Enlightenment ideals of liberty undermined by private greed and the possession of slaves as if of cattle. The reasons for breaking from Britain were more economic than moral.
Thomas Jefferson, writer of the Declaration of Independence, son of the Enlightenment, exemplifies the conflicted consciousness of many a European-American. In Jefferson’s “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” there is an echo of John Locke’s, one of the chief thinkers behind what was to be called capitalism, “life, liberty, and property.” But Jefferson did felicitously write “happiness,” a state not necessarily dependent on property and wealth. And in his original draft, he accused the British king of waging “cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisp[h]ere.” A colleague, Benjamin Franklin, so as not to alienate the slave-holding colonies, struck it from the declaration.
Jefferson owned slaves all his life, and slavery remained intact. The liberty lauded in the Declaration of Independence was limited to white males of certain wealth, not for women, nor “colored” men, nor the poor, and certainly not for the slave. From its beginning, the United States of America was patriarchal, imperialist, racist, capitalist, and governed by a plutocracy. The conflict between human and property rights plagues us to this day.
The Industrial Revolution, begun in England about 1760 with the mechanization of production and intensified with the invention of the cotton gin and the development of the steam engine and then the internal combustion engine for use in mining, the manufacture of cloth and other products, and transportation, and with slavery in the southern U.S. and labor at slave wages in England created great wealth for the owners of land and means of production who would pool their resources in corporations to maximize their wealth and their power — and went about ravaging of the Earth, clearing forests, damming rivers, leveling mountains for minerals, plundering prehistoric forests in the form of coal and oil harbored in Earth’s bowels to fuel wars and more plundering. The burning of the remains of the primeval forests blackened the cities like Manchester and London combining its famous fog with its infamous smoke into smog poisoning the air and warming the atmosphere. And lung diseases and others ran rampant. This they called “Progress.”
Eighty-eight years after the Declaration of Independence, the conflicted consciousness of the young country came to a head with a bloody civil war over the issue of slavery that threatened to sunder the union. The northern states won the war over the slave-owning southern states, the union was preserved, and the slaves were freed (though their citizenship and civil rights were mostly nominal.)
I have spoken of the U.S. and England only because they epitomize the modern empire. But other European nations powered by the industrial revolution also invaded, conquered, plundered, and colonized the Americas, Africa, Asia, Polynesia, Australia. It is a history of the murder and displacement of indigenous peoples and the taking of their lands, of war, and the degradation of the Earth.
Much has been made of the “American Dream” popularly understood as the dream that anyone in the U.S. could achieve, especially by working hard and becoming successful (attained wealth) thereby, it was assumed, attaining happiness. Ironically, the term (by which he meant something very different) was coined by an American historian in 1931 at the height of the Great Depression, product of the “Robber Baron” era of the late 1800s, the reckless speculation of capitalists, and the degradation of the mid-west prairies by mechanized agribusiness creating the “dust bowl” making great poverty and waves of migration of workers. The depression was dealt with aptly by one of the most sagacious presidents of the U.S., Franklin D. Roosevelt, with radical policies that remedied the excesses of capitalism and ended with a disastrous Second World War marked by a policy of genocide of the Jewish population by Nazi Germany and the criminal act of unnecessarily dropping two atomic bombs by the U.S. on Japan seventy-five years ago.
The world war that followed was called “The Cold War” because U.S. wars were not officially declared though wars continued. The need of industry to produce for war had created a powerful economic and political interest group, Military-Industrial Complex, which the Republican Pres. Eisenhower, a general and hero, warned was detrimental to democracy. Since the beginning of the nation, capitalism had been conflated with democracy and dissidents who questioned it were called treasonous, repressed and persecuted. One U.S. undeclared war was on a little south Asian country, Viet-Nam whose people were killed, forests were defoliated, rivers poisoned by bombs and chemicals. So unjustified, wasteful, and cruel was the hopeless U.S. war that a great majority of U.S. citizens rose in opposition and the war came to an end. There was hope of change but the reactionary element of the country came to power. The U.S. intervened in other countries, notably in Central and South America, subverted democratically elected governments that questioned predatory capitalism, and propped bloody dictatorships that in the name of fighting communism jailed, tortured, killed their people, and some, as in Guatemala, committed genocide of our indigenous people. Wars, for fossil oil, all justified as “self defense,” were waged in the Middle East destroying people and degrading the environment greatly increasing pollution and heating the atmosphere.
Such is the history that brought us to now and Globalization, the development of an increasingly integrated global economy marked especially by free trade, free flow of capital, and the tapping of cheaper foreign labor markets. There is where we are and the ultimate result is slavery in its modern form and the devastation of the Earth. Even a profoundly ignorant man, one who does not believe in science or even truth, one who cannot speak without lying will sometimes tell a truth. Trump, the fascistic 45th President of the United States, celebrating the 241st anniversary of U.S. Independence Day, said that “. . . we will protect and preserve [the] American way of life, which began in 1492 when Columbus discovered America.”
That date, I maintain, marks the beginning of the Anthropocene. It is the beginning of the imposition globally of the metaphysical myth of a patriarchal monotheism that posits humankind’s mastery of the Earth, its obligation to populate it, subdue it, master all other of its living creatures.
When the Europeans conquered us of Abya Yala, the Americas, our conquerors were not only the soldiers but also the missionaries. We were forced to convert to their beliefs, our cultures, our traditions were denigrated and the new cosmology so strange to us was imposed upon us. Our myths and ideas of the divine were male and female, our cosmologies did not reduce the Earth and its creatures to mere commodities for the use of us humans. Many of our creator deities were female, most of them if not all, personifications of the Earth. We recognized our relationship to the other animals, and to the plants, and to inanimate beings, as our kindred and helpers, our teachers. Mountains and lakes and springs were holy. The Earth was sacred, our Mother, Pachamama, Tonantzin. As one of our elders, Chief Seattle, told the invaders, “The Earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the Earth.”
Many of our indigenous cultures were destroyed, our languages lost, our wisdom denied or unheard. Our indigenous peoples have lived for millenniums in harmony with the Earth, with our fellow creatures, our relations, the other animals and plants, and we disturbed little the natural order of things. There is much that they have to teach us. And we must learn to listen.
Myths are important; our myths set the metaphysics by which we relate to the Earth and one another. They form our reality. Even if we do not know our myths, even if we may repudiate them, they still have formed the matrix of our culture and our society and they form more-often-than-not the unconscious premises of our values and institutions that determine how we live our lives, relate to one another, to the Earth.
The greatest power of conquest of the new world may not have been the soldier but the missionary who replaced our myths, our beliefs, with those of Europe, telling us that what mattered was an imagined existence beyond death. The Earth was but a valley of tears through which we passed on our way to the beyond. And, as a friend who was related to the royal family of Hawai’i said to me of the missionaries: “They said, these wooden figures are not gods, pointed up to the sky and said, there is your god, we fools looked up, and they took all our land.”
Since the middle of the last century, the term “decolonization” has gained much currency. What it refers to is the breaking away of the colonies of the empires and the forming of independent states. But as it is being used more and more, it refers to the “decolonization” of the mind, liberation of our indigenous minds from the brain-washing of colonialism. I, of both Mexican Indian and Spanish blood (and for all I know, African) born into a traditional Mexican Catholic family, can attest to the difficulty of the task. But be assured that the conquest of Abya Yala has by no means been completed; the five hundred twenty eight years of conquest has also been five hundred twenty eight years of resistance. We have not gone away. By the same token, in this United States, the war to abolish slavery has not yet been completely won either. Our brothers and sisters of African ancestry to this day are discriminated against and murdered at the hands of the police. The virulence of racism is much ingrained in the culture of the nation, inherited from colonialism and the economics of empire. It is a sickness that, like patriarchy, must be overcome.
I have painted with a broad and select brush a history complex and nuanced. (I will leave it to a Howard Zinn to tell the history that I have not touched upon.) I have focused on the United States of America because that is where I was born and live and because it is the foremost modern empire. I recognize that many of our European brothers and sisters who came to these shores and many of their descendants have been and are of good consciousness and have struggled and do struggle to create a world that is compassionate and just and honors the Earth that holds it. It has always been so since the “discovery of a new World” with such as Fray Bartolomé de las Casas and gains have gradually been made to make democracy in the Americas. In the U.S. in my mother’s lifetime women gained the right to vote. In my lifetime our brothers and sisters of African descent gained their civil rights even in the former “slave states” of the South where racism has been most virulent. The right of labor to organize has been a continual struggle with gains to be counted. Gains, too, have been made by our brothers/sisters who differ from the traditional norms in sexuality and gender. Much of those gains have been at great cost of struggle and pain to be sure and we have our martyrs, foremost among them the great visionary and prophet Martin Luther King Jr. (whose dream, by the way, shares many of the elements of “The American Dream” of the historian who coined the term.) Martin Luther King Jr. was a man of the cloth who understood and followed the teachings of Yeshua of Nazareth. His was very much a theology of liberation.
I write in the isolation forced upon me by the threat of a deadly disease made even more deadly by the policies of a government headed by men who have dropped all pretense of democracy or justice or compassion, indeed of decency — the poisonous bloom of unbridled capitalism, fascists. The policies of capitalist empire have torn the world with continuous war and concentrated the wealth in the hands of a few creating famine and violence for the many. The effects of reckless violation of the Earth has caused her to become feverish and changed her climate. Great numbers of our brothers and sisters are displaced fleeing violence and poverty and homes devastated by the effects of that climate change. They come to seek asylum to the borders of the wealthy nations whose policies are the very cause of their fleeing only to be jailed and their children caged. My heart is often heavy and I struggle with sadness. (Yes, and with rage.)
But also there is great awakening and my brothers and sisters of good heart and consciousness flood the streets at great risk of infection to demand justice for our African American brothers and sisters and for everyone and for protection of the Earth. They are met with violence, guns and tear gas and clubs by the military sent by the fascist POTUS Trump — day after day. And my brothers and sisters protesting make my heart glad and hopeful and proud. And we make our revolution of mind and of heart for justice rooted in compassion, for peace, for the Earth, for life. But the violence directed against them by federal military and by local police promises a repressive police state and makes me sick with fear as POTUS 45 and his party openly undermine the coming elections. We must continue to take to the streets in protest.
On occasion I don my mask and walk in the ‘hood. It makes me sad to see my neighbors masked and careful to keep their distance, see their smiles only in their eyes. To us human mammals accustomed to the pack, for whom the first communication is the touch, to be denied the kiss, the embrace, even the shaking of hands is a violation of our nature. I wonder what effect it will have on those of us who survive, on our children, our species. But it is summer and the sun is bright, the flowers a riot of color and of scent, and the bees go about their business, butterflies flit about, the birds fly and sing. The Earth and the life she bears are beautiful and precious beyond measure — our revolution is of fierce love that must at all costs prevail. Now.
To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places – and there are so many – where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.
~ Howard Zinn
Rafael Jesús González, Prof. Emeritus of literature and creative writing, was born and raised biculturally/bilingually in El Paso, Texas/Cd. Juárez, Chihuahua, and taught at University of Oregon, Western State College of Colorado, Central Washington State University, University of Texas El Paso (Visiting Professor of Philosophy), and Laney College, Oakland, California where he founded the Dept. of Mexican & Latin-American Studies. Also visual artist, he has exhibited in the Oakland Museum of California, the Mexican Museum of San Francisco, and others in the U.S. and Mexico. Nominated thrice for a Pushcart prize, he was honored by the National Council of Teachers of English and Annenberg CPB for his writing in 2003. In 2013 he received a César E. Chávez Lifetime Award and was honored by the City of Berkeley with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 13th Annual Berkeley Poetry Festival 2015. He was named the first Poet Laureate of Berkeley in 2017. Visit <http://rjgonzalez.blogspot.com/>
Members of Native American contingent arriving at the first United Nations meeting that brought together Indigenous peoples of the world, the International NGO Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas, held in Geneva, Switzerland, in September 1977. L to R: Phillip Deer, Larry Red Shirt, Bill Means, He Crow, Greg Zephyr, Clyde Bellecourt and Oren Lyons. Photo courtesy of AIM-West.
The Somos en Escrito Staff, in support of the international campaign for the United Nations to enact “A Convention on the Rights of the World’s Indigenous Peoples,” publishes this report on a recent UN-sponsored event.
On April 25, 2020, the United Nations Association of the USA, San Francisco Chapter (UNA-SF) hosted the UN75 Global Consultation with Indigenous Peoples in San Francisco to include and amplify indigenous voices as the world celebrates the 75th Anniversary of the United Nations(UN).
As we were preparing for this consultation, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States and Indigenous Peoples were disproportionately affected by it. We have contacted several leaders of Indigenous communities and organizations that are local to our region or have historic relationships with our chapter. Antonio Gonzales, Executive Director of the American Indian Movement-West, honored us with the statement presented below.
Timea Soos who served as Head of Reporting for this consultation prepared this statement for publication and submitted a report with key actionable recommendations to the National Office of the United Nations Association of the United States of America in Washington DC. This report will be combined with reports from other consultations and shared with the UN and members of the United States Congress. In addition to that, the UNA-SF is using its own advocacy channels to amplify this message. In the meantime, we would very much welcome feedback, suggestions, and requests from Indigenous Peoples, especially Ohlone tribes that are native to the land where our chapter has been set to serve as a link between local communities and the UN.
Statement by Antonio Gonzales, Director American Movement-West Introduction
Greetings, All My Relations! My name is Antonio Gonzales (Comca’Ac/Chicano). I am the Director of the American Indian Movement-West (AIM-West). We are an intertribal, human rights organization based in San Francisco. We are credentialed in the United Nations as a Civil Society Organization. I would like to extend my friendship to the Muwekma Ohlone peoples of the Greater San Francisco Bay Area. On this occasion, I extend my hand in friendship to the United Nations Association of the USA, San Francisco Chapter for their good work as we gather to consider a vision for the future on this 75th anniversary of the United Nations
Tony Gonzales, Director of AIM-West
Indigenous Peoples within the United Nations
Over the years, beginning in 1923, when Chief Deskaheh (Cayuga) Chief of the Iroquois League, representing the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, approached the League of Nations in Geneva, many Indigenous peoples have made their way to the United Nations. The first United Nations meeting that brought together Indigenous peoples of the world was the International NGO Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas, held in Geneva, Switzerland in September 1977.
Prior to this historic meeting, in 1973, the United Nations mandated a study on the Indigenous peoples of the world. This was a ground-breaking study that culminated in a report by the UN Special Rapporteur, Jose Martinez Cobo (Ecuador). Martinez Cobo submitted multiple reports to the United Nations stating that Indigenous peoples are, indeed, the most studied people in the world, but also the least understood. Further, the Martinez Cobo final report also recommended that there should eventually be a Convention on the Rights of the World's Indigenous Peoples, which is the point where we are at today. Beginning in 1982, the first Working Group on Indigenous Populations (WGIP) was held in Geneva to serve as the beginning of the implementation of the various Martinez Cobo recommendations.
In 1993 the UN General Assembly proclaimed the International Year of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, and in the same year, proclaimed the International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, starting December 10, 1994. Not to be overlooked was the significant contribution by the Special Rapporteur, Dr. Miguel Alfonso Martinez (Cuba), whose Study on Treaties, Agreements and Other Constructive Arrangements between States and Indigenous Issues finally reported to the UN in 1997 set the course for establishing Sovereignty of Indigenous peoples as the central organizing principle of the future Declaration.
On September 13, 2007, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Declaration is the current framework within which Indigenous peoples operate within the United Nations system today. Annually, thousands of Indigenous peoples from across the four directions, gather at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples. Over the years, Indigenous peoples have represented themselves and participated in the United Nations system providing and sharing their traditional knowledge that has long been devalued, ignored and disrespected. This traditional knowledge is what Indigenous peoples have offered and still offer to the world community using the forum of today’s UN Sustainable Development Goals.
A Convention on the Rights of the World’s Indigenous Peoples
Indian peoples of the world have managed to maintain an indigenous intelligentsia and knowledge of the environment and our surroundings. This is what we continue to offer to the world community. We say that we are the original EPA. We are the original Environmental Protection Agency and we should be seen as such rather than a forgotten and voiceless people especially in this time of COVID-19. The Indian peoples of the world have been in the process of changing the narrative from 1492 onwards and we kicked off that campaign beginning in 1992 although we are still not receiving the respect we deserve.
Indigenous peoples of the world are not currently recognized as Sovereign nations within the United Nations system. Rather, we are considered non-governmental organizations (NGOs), much like other civil society groups active at the UN. Our goal is to be accepted as equals among nations within the General Assembly. Indigenous peoples are the only peoples that are not yet represented at the United Nations. The United Nations will not be complete until the Red Nations are recognized.
Within 25 years we look forward to replacing the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples with a Convention on the Rights of the World's Indigenous Peoples. While President Obama adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in December 2010, any meaningful implementation of this transparent agreement has not been achieved. Indigenous communities must consistently seek to apply the articles of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in adjudicatory bodies so that we can educate the courts and other appropriate venues of its meaning and, more importantly, establish case law, recognize its significance and ultimately pave the way for a Convention on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
We seek a Convention that builds on the Declaration and establishes laws and enforcement mechanisms that will provide accountability and redress. While the Declaration provides the essential elements of a future Convention, it does have limits. Even if fully and effectively implemented the current Declaration does not provide for enforcement, it provides for cooperation, transparency and partnership—and we have seen that this is not enough. As should be evident, there is a marked difference between a Declaration and a Convention in the United Nations. The Declaration establishes transparency and partnership, while the Convention is about standard setting based on international laws. Standard setting begins to establish the legal basis for holding governments accountable.
After all, the Declaration did emanate from a Proclamation. This has been the procedural democratic process within the UN system to achieve the level of a Convention. We are currently in consultations with the United Nations General Assembly as we seek to secure a place at the table in the United Nations. We are in the process of participating in meetings to explore the modalities of representation within the United Nations. Clearly, Indigenous peoples have made substantial progress.
Indigenous peoples of the world have survived and thrived despite global colonization—initiated and justified by the infamous Doctrine of Discovery. We are still here! Indigenous peoples have maintained a spiritual relationship to the land and protected and preserved indigenous intelligentsia and traditional knowledge of the environment based on natural laws and our cultural and sacred sites. The Indigenous peoples of the world have been changing the narrative that began in 1492. Resetting the agenda in 1992 that marked 500 years of Indigenous resistance to colonization throughout the western hemisphere, Indigenous peoples have assumed leadership, raised their voices and increasingly are being heard on the critical issues facing the world today.
Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions: Sustainable Development Goals
For now, the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) established in 2000 following dissolution of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations, 19th Session has been postponed due to COVID 19. The themes for this forum, formulated throughout the year were to review Sustainable Development Goal #16—Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions. We are striving for peace, respect, and meaningful Self-Determination. Indigenous peoples seek affirmative action to eliminate systemic racism in all institutions, especially in the justice system.
At the same time protection of Mother Earth, and the resistance to exploitation of the land and resources through extractive industries, including the sacredness of water, remain top priorities for Indigenous communities across the globe. Ultimately we strongly support pursuit of legally binding sustainable solutions. Respect for Indigenous culture, spirituality and our way of life, and the rightful return of our lands and territories will always be central to Indigenous values.
We are especially concerned about the thousands of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (many times attributed to extractive industry “man” camps) whose lives must be protected for survival of our peoples. We seek restorative justice, a form of Indigenous people’s justice, acknowledging our form of justice in our Indian communities. We are calling for a strong adoption of these ways of Indigenous peoples for the coming generations.
We must require governments of the world to respect the Treaties, Agreements and other Constructive Arrangements, which were signed. Thank you for including my voice here as we have been doing a lot of work at the United Nations since 1982 on the rights of Indigenous peoples. We have been developing and cultivating the non-Indian community and now we are beginning to form more meaningful alliances to better understand the serious business of living.
Life under COVID-19 and the mass incarceration of indigenous peoples
This is a particularly critical time for Indigenous peoples in light of COVID-19, the Coronavirus pandemic. If the virus seeps into our communities, as it has exponentially in the Navajo Nation, it has the potential to wipe out many of our nations and peoples. Our Elders, in particular, are especially susceptible to this virus and they carry the knowledge, history and culture of our communities.
History has shown us that the arrival of the White man onto our western and eastern shores brought diseases which did not originate from our land. This “original'' trauma remains real to us today as we grapple with the serious impact of this virus, brought to our communities once again by non-Indigenous people.
As COVID 19 spreads across Indian lands, we are calling upon governments, including the United States (which has Treaty obligations for the health, education and well-being of Indian peoples) to provide more financial and material support for Indigenous communities so that they can effectively fight this virus.
Today there is a disproportionate rate of incarceration of Indigenous peoples throughout the world and this is a global concern. There is a historical context to this. Whether in Australia, Canada, or the United States, access to justice has failed Indigenous peoples. The incarceration rate of our youth threatens our future. Why are the rates of incarceration disproportionately higher for Indigenous peoples? The rates of incarcerating indigenous women are also on the rise! In all these instances the numbers are disproportionate to the general country population and unacceptable. Many Indigenous peoples are in jails and prisons without representation and receive harsher sentences. Leonard Peltier, for example, in the United States has been in prison over 44 years for a crime he did not commit!
Finally, I want to thank you for listening to me. We are now in the process of urgently immediately wanting to "Indianize" 7 billion peoples of the world to live more sustainably, respectfully and spiritually in order to save our Mother Earth and our future generations.
Rebranding Chicanismo into collective thought and a cultural paradigm
By Armando Arias If it is the task of the scholar to truly make an original contribution to the existing scientific knowledge in one’s respective field, Ernesto Mireles has done so in a most eloquent way in his book, Insurgent Aztlán, an elusive quality for most academic writers, but which we can clearly recognize through his own insurgent writing and analyses of selected anti-colonial works. He sheds new light on the other side of American society today, the side we call “Aztlán.”
You may even call what he does a “rebranding” of the Chicano discourse into a new vernacular that causes one literally to think differently. As a metaphor for heaven on earth, Insurgent Aztlán as suggested by Mireles is almost too directive a heavenly place to be for change agents. In short, his book recasts the value of real knowledge through a confident insurgence of its very own.
His forging of ideas only makes for newer ideas thought of before but never quite so articulated. This is what is so essential about this work; perhaps it should have been titled “Essential Writing for an Insurgent Aztlán.”
Mireles’s writings should not be taken lightly as it causes a cognitive shift not only in the manner in which we translate words into new emotions and feelings, but also how it is that we come to new cultural interpretations of what we already know. His work has the capability of causing a revolution, a scientific literary revolution, because his ideas, whether you agree with him or not, are inarguably accurate. During an era in which the truth is attacked as “fake news,” there is nothing fake about his presentation. Mireles’ work, coupled with current efforts to draft a Blueprint for social action for the next 50 years, has already begun to generate progressive thoughts: We want to build a think tank, virtual in nature (for now) to enable a population to organize its cultural and intellectual needs to survive into the next half century—the first cycle of a long dynasty. It is important for this population to survive and flourish, because it holds the future of western civilization, however we define it, in its DNA, that is, as a mestizo people, in it is embedded the necessary genetic elements necessary for survival of the human race and it is also a cultural resource unlike any other (more vibrant than already decaying cultural and genetic populations).
From a social psychological perspective, what Mireles’s work does is cause a fundamentally different consciousness for everyone, not just those with a proclivity for social change. He is a restless thinker that will make you restless, too. Xicano resistance writing is as powerful an idea as the might of the pen; be aware, however, that you run the risk of becoming fixated and lose your objectivity the way newly created knowledge causes us to do. He clearly knows that within a historical context, the different spelling of politically charged words like “Chicano Power” alter reality, and are “…indicative of distinct past and present politico-cultural periods for Meso-Americans in the United States.”
Simply stated, his words will raise the self-esteem and consciousness of those who engage them and may very well also contribute to forming and affirming a national identity that is sorely needed at this time and cause a collective search for Latinos everywhere. We should consciously intend to change the consciousness of Mexicamerica from being virtually frozen in time intellectually to a nation focused on the future as the motivation for change today. One way to interpret the 52 year Azteca cycle of life is that it was intended to compress time for those in that time zone, you might say, and force introspection, creativity, united effort and action. In much the same way, looking forward 50 years impels collective thought; as it may in fact provoke collective action and necessarily, collective searches for identity, as the very nature of the collaboration is itself a means continually to alter the paradigm, to take action with intent, concientizados.
As an insurgent himself, Mireles is asking “How do we preserve a way of life and an outlook on life with those odds facing us?” He refers, of course, to our own culture and history. Another 50 year anniversary celebration was the one commemorating the Chicano Moratorium, which first took place August 29, 1970. Ruben Salazar died that day. Events like these should be held with the future in mind, redirecting our energy and our purpose to prepare for the next 50 years. It’s important to remember people and events after some years have passed—Ruben would have been 90 years old were he still alive, and I truly believe he would be championing the Blueprint intent and writing in its behalf as well.
In this book, Mireles reminds us of the importance to document how we managed to make it this far, but I truly believe that right now we are called to remember the future, that which lies ahead of us and that which only we can engage. Unless we do, whatever it was that the past 50 years accomplished or whatever events marked a turning point in Chicanan consciousness, the impulse—like surges of power which can cause a blackout or sudden spurts of action—must be understood as impelling us forward, not standing still.
Mireles clearly understands as does Paolo Freire that in order to create a pedagogy of the oppressed one must speak the same language as the oppressed, and, he adds, change it by making it stronger. He recognizes the weak form of oppression as weak language and the stronger much more effective form to transform oppression is by improving upon the sparkling interchange of new ideas. He is never lost in time, but he does well in reaching a new theoretical dimension—this is what is essential about his paradigm for looking virtually to the past and future simultaneously.
How do you write such a treatise unless you call it more than a stroke of genius? It is a companion book not only to the Chicano bible by Armando Rendón, Chicano Manifesto, it is more so the combination to unlocking the potency of Rendón’s Blueprint for the Next 50 Years, and beyond into future 50-year cycles. Even idle millennials will get excited about learning new truths in Mireles’s voice; he is one of them, but with a conscious connection to a soul born of social change.
Where did he come from? How did he come to know to design such a tool in this work so as to uplift the under-educated by drawing on their deprivations? It seems we are all under-educated, because we have to learn to think and speak within the new paradigm that Mireles has fashioned. This can lead to a core curriculum for training organizers and organizing trainers, that both provides a new language and new ideas as a product of collective effort, even of thought born from the pain of past Latino/Chicano generations. Through it people are trained as distributors of the new thought; they’re organizers really and will be spread around to create other centers of training of organizers.
That’s kind of the notion embedded in the think-tank being proposed in the Blueprint, a university for creating organizers that can bring people together to infuse them with a sensitivity, even passion, for fashioning the future of the Americas, at the very least. We are envisioning a core which we call organizing (pedagogically) as the stem along which concerns are assigned for mobilizing. Instead of “teachers” we are training (mobilizing) organizers who would use the training to "organize" more people as trainers, and so on. Get it? The paradigm is structured around the re-definition of organizing and mobilizing.
This work will spark new transformative cultural interpretations and will act as a manual for turning all that we thought we knew on its head – by design. We look forward to new incarnations of past Western written works in the form of Tomas Sawyer, Brave New Mundo, Alicia in Wonderland, or a series of Aztlán based books like: The Wizard of Aztlán, Democracy in Aztlán, Ideology and Utopia in Aztlán, Occupied Aztlán. Aztlán may live in people’s heads, but with Mireles’ work we can move it to the center ring and guarantee that the center will hold well into the future, for instance, contributing to new versions of the #MeToo movement.
Let this be a corrective pathway for us all to learn from and apply at all levels of American society today. In this Aztlán we will respect all ideas; we will fall into alignment, that is, Guillermo Bonfil-Batalla’s concept of permanent confrontation, now that is “heaven on earth.” Mireles says “Aztlán has always been an articulation of cultural reinforcement that – by establishing indigenous origins – allows Xicano/as to press colonial oppressors for civil rights and equal treatment under the prevailing laws.”
We must make this book available to all to a point where no one can graduate from high school without full knowledge of this work and its author. It is clear from Mireles’ writing that anti-colonial insurgencies are also capable of organizing, have charismatic characters and can lead a vast and major charge in a symbolic crusade. Lastly, we have to think beyond the present; we have to break the box down, not just think outside it. The sense that many others around the country also feel the impulse to look to the future is shared by the small cohort of Chicanans who have begun meeting regularly to build on the Blueprint concept and evolve a core of ideas and strategies on the organization and mobilization of our gente forward. Yes, let’s celebrate looking ahead 50 years. This is part of our mission, to spread the concept and make Mexican Americans as a people and a nation commit to creating new memories and achievements moving forward.
Armando Arias, Ph.D., is a professor and founding faculty member in the division of Social and Behavioral Sciences and Global Studies at CSU Monterey Bay. He often writes for Somos en escrito Magazine in his column, Chicano Confidential.
Yalitza Aparicio as "Cleo" in Alfonso Cuarón film, "Roma"
In “Roma,” Cuarón returns to “Y tu mamá indígena también”
Two guest reviews of the Alfonso Cuarón film, “Roma”
First Review, by Álvaro Ramirez
There is a scene in Alfonso Cuarón's film “Y tu mamá También” where the protagonists, Tenoch, Julio, and Luisa are traveling through the Mexican countryside, oblivious to the campesino world passing outside their car window. Suddenly, the narrating voice interrupts the endless flirtations between the characters, as Tenoch looks at the town where his indigenous nanny comes from. Her name is Leo, and he called her “mother” until the age of four. In his mesmerizing new film, “Roma,” Cuarón returns to “Y tu mamá también” to pick up the story of these others, the indigenous mothers who raise the children of the middle class and rich Mexicans, a story that has yet to be fully explored in Mexican cinema. (Warning: MANY spoilers for “Roma” ahead!) Cuarón sets his story in 1970-1971 in the neighborhood of Mexico City called La Roma, and paints in black and white the parallel, everyday lives of a middle-class family and their indigenous servants. What is refreshing is that the director presents the story from the point of view of one of the maids, Cleo. As we follow her daily routine behind the scenes of family life, Cuarón takes us into the bilingual spaces where these invisible people forge the urban sustenance enjoyed by their white employers. Through great acting, directing, and camera work, Cuarón intricately weaves the lives of domestic workers with that of the family they serve, showing the class differences between them. At the same time, we note that they have much in common, especially Cleo and Sofía, the lady of the house: both women's lives begin to unravel after the men they love abandon them. Sofía is left with a family of unruly children and little money, and Cleo with an unwanted pregnancy. At first, a social distance that causes friction between them separates mistress and servant, but their trials and tribulations as abandoned women soon begin to bring them together. The personal struggles of the two women are subtly and symbolically set against scenes of the political and social upheaval that Mexico is also going through. “Siempre estamos solas” (we women are always on our own), says Sofía to Cleo in a pivotal scene, which emphasizes that sense of disruption, vulnerability, and violence present for all women in Mexico regardless of class or ethnicity, as depicted in this film. Cleo's situation, however, is further compounded by her indigenous background and uprooted existence; far from her village in the countryside, she is at the mercy of men and of her mistress as well. Forced by the circumstances, Cleo must choose whether to return to her native town, also beset by political turmoil, or confront her new urban reality and try to convince the father of her unborn child to marry her, but soon finds his more sinister side, which leads to a horrible experience and leaves her traumatized. Sofía and the children convince Cleo to make a trip with them to the beach in Veracruz, where she will have to confront once more a hard decision which will either redeem her or end disastrously. “Roma” goes beyond “Y tu mamá También” and is also far ahead of all the falsified female representations in telenovelas. It is a beautiful film that gives us a view of the social texture of a country in which the indigenous female strands are embedded and recognized for the important role they play in everyday life of the city. They are represented fully with an inner and outer existence, at work and at play, and with a complex intimate life. However, the success of “Roma” ultimately rests on Cuarón’s skillful film narrative, in which he shows that, despite class, social, or ethnic differences, indigenous and white Mexican women suffer similar fates at the hands of men; and that the survival of the family is not only dependent on the resilience and strength of females, but on their understanding of the human bonds that unify them.
Álvaro Ramírez, a native of Michoacán of Purépecha ancestry, has taught Spanish Golden Age and 20th Century Latin American Literature in the Department of Modern Languages at Saint Mary’s College of California, since 1993. At present he is also director of the Ethnic Studies Program. A scholar on the writings of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, essayist on Mexican culture and film and Chicano studies, he recently published a collection of short stories titled, Los Norteados (Ediciones Alfeízar, 2016) a couple of them first published in Somos en escrito.
Alfonso Cuarón and Yalitza Aparicio on the set of "Roma" Photo by Carlos Somonte
Cuarón’s “Roma,” a world of astounding diversity of indigenous stories
Second review, by David Martínez
Insofar as “Roma” is inspired by someone, Libo Rodriguez, who meant a great deal to the director, Alfonso Cuarón—she was the maid who raised him during his childhood in Mexico City—it is not surprising that the story of “Cleodegaria Gutiérrez,” who is affectionately called “Cleo,” and is played by the incredible Yalitza Aparicio, feels more like an act of veneration than merely a movie. Cuarón obviously wanted to honor the life of this woman in a way that did justice to both her character and her struggle by remembering cinematically her humanity in a world that largely overlooked people like herself.
As a Nahua-speaking indigenous person, Cleo is a part of the underclass of “Indios,” the poor, the peasants, whose ancient civilization has been appropriated into the national image of Mexico—such as the eagle and snake emblem of the Mexican flag—yet, whose modern descendants are accorded little more than second class citizenship.
Cleo, who has migrated from her unnamed village, where her people’s land is being seized by the Mexican federal government, works for a doctor and his family in the Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City. The doctor’s family is not only wealthy but also “criollo,” meaning of European descent. In spite of the significant class differences, Cleo is regarded as a part of the family. Even compared to “Adela,” played by Nancy Garcia, who is the other maid in this household, Cleo has a more affectionate relationship with her employers, especially their four children. Having said that, there is no doubt that Cleo, and Adela, not to mention others in the family’s employ, are treated as servants. The mother, for example, “Sofia,” played by Marina de Tavira, does not hesitate to be direct, oftentimes terse, in her directions to her staff. More to the point, Cleo’s interaction with the doctor’s family affirms the normality of the class relations between the petit bourgeoise criollos and their indio servants.
As for the story that Cuarón tells about Cleo, ultimately it is a narrative of hardship and endurance, especially in the lives of women in Mexico. Occurring during the late 1960s—the 1968 Olympics is mentioned—Cleo’s personal ordeals, including a tragedy, are rendered against a backdrop of political upheaval in Mexican history.
Not many remember outside of Mexico the massacre that took place on October 2, 1968, when government troops surrounded a mass student protest at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, in the Tlatelolco neighborhood, in which dozens were gunned down indiscriminately. The massacre is referenced to in frightening detail during a scene in which Cleo is shopping for a baby crib. She is pregnant, alone, and afraid.
Indeed, it is while the shooting occurs and some students run into the furniture store for safety that Cleo sees “Fermín,” played by Jorge Antonio Guerrero, her former boyfriend, who simply glares at her, gun in hand, before disappearing back into the chaos of the streets below. As I watched this scene unfold, I thought about what I had read about this terrible event. More specifically, I thought about Elena Poniatowska’s monumental 1971 book La noche de Tlatelolco, which was translated into Massacre in Mexico by Helen R. Lane (1975).
More to the point, I thought about the hundreds of testimonies that Poniatowska recorded in the pages of her book. Yet, there was neither any mention of the rights of indigenous people, their land disputes with the Mexican federal government, or, for that matter, of women’s rights. The student movement was mostly a middle-class movement, people who would become like the family that Cleo worked for, and who were fed up with their authoritarian government, led by President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz. In light of which, I realized sadly that there was no one protesting on behalf of people like Cleo, be they indios or women. She had to persevere on her own.
At this point, it is important to observe that in spite of the layers of discrimination that Cleo encounters on a day-to-day basis, Cuarón is consistently respectful of her struggle. Despite her flaws, such as not returning home upon hearing that her mother’s land has been seized or choosing a boyish fool like Fermín for her lover, Cuarón is never judgmental or condescending toward Cleo or the community she represents.
If anything, “Roma” reveals that hardship in Mexican society is not limited to the poor, but goes all the way up the social ladder, including Sofia, whose story of misery parallels Cleo’s. On this level, the relationship between Cleo and Sofia, if Cuarón condemns anything explicitly in his film it is the way that Mexican society, especially its machismo culture, berates women.
Consequently, when “Roma” explores the coinciding lives of Cleo and Sofia, the film becomes a compliment to “Y Tu Mamá También” (2001), in which another woman’s tragic life unfurls in subtle yet dramatic tones, complete with a life-changing journey to the ocean. With this in mind, I am reluctant to join the chorus of critics who have faulted “Roma” for not being more aware of Cleo’s indigenous culture, either in terms of the villages that Mexico’s indigenous peoples inhabit or the urban subculture they maintain allover North America (including the immigrant community that certain US politicians love to demonize).
I am also reticent about criticizing Cuarón for not being more ideological or didactic about the colonization, racism, and globalization that created Cleo’s world in the first place. On the contrary, Cleo’s story is all the more profound for the way it shows how historical and inter-generational trauma, not to mention political and economic exploitation, come to dominate the lives of their victims without any banners, slogans, or lectures attached. One often has to go through much before one accesses the perspective that enables one to understand what has really happened and why.
As I watched Cleo’s epic tale unfold with each black and white scene, I thought about the many women in my life—I grew up poor and with very few advantages—whose generous yet vibrant spirits shaped me into what I am today, and how my memories of them have been nurtured by age and experience. Cuarón and I are of the same generation, and like him many of my memories were captured in countless black and white photos, which influenced the way that I remember people and events.
At the same time, this is not to say that the people I remember from long ago are without life and vitality. Aesthetically, Roma’s cinematography evokes the photographs of Manuel Álvarez Bravo and Graciela Iturbide. As such, Cuarón’s black and white images illustrate the mythology, the oral tradition, the Creation Story of the world that Cleo inhabits. For me, that is what “Roma” accomplishes when it recreates the world-building power of word and image.
In this sense, Cleo is a culture hero, like the icons portrayed in retablos, which express an adulation for the lives of saints. However, Cleo—Is she Catholic? Probably. Who knows?—does not affirm the teachings of the Church, but rather of the generations of migrants who have endured the travails of an indigenous world that has survived the Spanish Conquest, the Mexican Revolution, NAFTA, and now the threat of Donald Trump.
In the end, if I have any criticism of “Roma” it is that it was a bitter reminder of how infrequently stories like Cleo’s have been told, be it in film or novel. Gregorio Lopez y Fuentes’s El indio (1935) comes to mind, as does Carlos Fuentes’s La región más transparente (1958). In terms of film, only Gregory Nava’s “El norte” (1983) arises for immediate comparison.
My paltry list, however, does not mean that this is all that there is about this type of story, namely the indigenous class struggle. It only indicates how irregularly such stories appear in film and literature. On the other hand, there is a significant number of movies and novels about the Mexican, sometimes Central American, immigrant experience, not necessarily indigenous, such as Tony Richardson’s The Border (1982), Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “Babel” (2006), Cary Joji Fukunaga’s “Sin Nombre” (2009), and Jonás Cuaròn’s “Desierto” (2015).
With respect to literature, aside from the titles mentioned above, there is Gloria E Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera (1987), Victor Villaseñor’s Rain of Gold (1991), and Ron Arias’s The Wetback and Other Stories (2016), to name but a few. In the case of the indigenous experience, more than a subgenre of film and literature, the lives and stories of the peoples and nations of the Western Hemisphere constitute an expansive chronicle of communities whose roots go millennia beyond the arrival of the European settlers during the late 15th century.
As such, there is a connection to land, language, and kinship that informs the modern effects of globalization and transborder migration. Cleo’s story, if anything, is a story of how even when the Mexica homeland appears to be buried underneath layers and layers of colonial history and society, the indigenous claim to this place interjects itself into the contemporary lives of the people around them, reminding them of who really owns the land and how their days in this place may be numbered after all.
While there are undoubtedly many ways of telling Cleo’s story, including from the point of view of an indigenous writer and director—which we will hopefully see sometime soon—Cuarón’s “Roma”and Aparicio’s “Cleo” nevertheless transformed me. More specifically, as an indigenous person myself, I genuinely felt inspired to learn more about this world and the astounding diversity of indigenous stories and experiences that it holds.
David Martínez (Akimel O’odham/Mexican) is an associate professor of American Indian Studies at Arizona State University, Tempe Campus. He is the author of Dakota Philosopher: Charles Eastman and American Indian Thought (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2009); editor of The American Indian Intellectual Tradition: An Anthology of Writings from 1772 to 1972 (Cornell University Press, 2011) and author of the forthcoming Life of the Indigenous Mind: Vine Deloria Jr and the Birth of the Red Power Movement (University of Nebraska Press, 2019).
Fragments of Tales and the Bonemeal of Humankind Two excerpts from Feathered Serpent Dark Heart Of Sky Myths of Mexico
By David Bowles
Five hundred years ago, Mexico was quite different. The Triple Alliance of Anahuac—what we now call the Aztec Empire—dominated an area that stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific coast. Arrayed all around them were dozens of other nations: the Maya, the Purepecha, Zapotecs, Yaqui, Huichol, Huastec, and Tarahumara, among many others. All of these peoples had different languages, gods, and traditions. Over the centuries, though, migration, trade and conflict had spread certain common cultural traits widely. Twenty million people lived in this land when the Spanish arrived in 1519. But the conquistadores were not interested in the cultural richness of Mexico. In their single-minded hunger for glory and gold, in their zealous drive to see the “Indians” kneel to the Christian god, the Spanish swept across the landscape with their steel swords, their guns, their armored horses. They also brought with them diseases that devastated the indigenous population. It was genocide. Seventy-five years later, only one million people remained. Most of these survivors converted to Catholicism. Many blended with the Spanish colonists who came to occupy lands emptied by conquest. That fusion of races and ethnicities is called mestizaje. In time, a caste system was created to carefully separate this new hybrid population into special groups. Spaniards—both those born in Spain, peninsulares, and those born in Mexico, criollos—had the greatest rights and privileges. Below them others were ranked by how much Spanish blood ran through their veins: castizos (75%, with 25% indigenous), moriscos (75%, with 25% black), mestizos (50%, with 50% indigenous), mulattoes (50%, with 50% black). Pure indigenous and black individuals were at the very bottom of this social hierarchy. As a result of this caste system, the sort of life a person had was essentially determined by the number of Spanish ancestors they laid claim to. Light skin and eyes, European features—such attributes brought advancement and opportunity. As a result, those who were products of mestizaje often turned away from their own native heritage and sought to be more like the Spanish conquerors, even oppressing people with less Spanish blood than they had. Even after the caste system broke down and Mexico won its independence from Spain, traces of this old prejudice stubbornly survived. A fledgling Mexican identity was arising, however. The late 19th century saw a renewed interest in the pre- Colombian glories of the nation. But much had been lost. The few traditions that survived were diluted and fractured. And so they have remained, even down to my own generation. By the time my grandfather Manuel Garza was born, his family’s indigenous past had been wiped away. They were Spanish-speaking Mexicans, then Mexican- American Texans, heirs to traditions from across the sea. Ranches and cattle were the lifeblood of their community in northern Mexico and deep South Texas. Their norteño music and weekly mass were also European, if flavored with native spice. One of the worst insults was indio. Everyone swore their ancestors were pure Spanish. Even though the stories my grandparents, aunts and uncles told me when I was child were thick with local lore—strange boogeymen and wailing women—no trace remained of the old gods, the ancient priests, the vaunted heroes of Mexico’s pre- Colombian past. In school, I was taught—like my father—the myths of the Norse, the Egyptians, the Romans, and especially the Greeks. I devoured the Odyssey, hungry for those Bronze-Age sensibilities, that interweaving of human and divine. On my own I read other great epics of Western mythology: the Iliad, the Aeneid. I widened my net, plunged into India and its Ramayana, sought out the Sunjata of West Africa. But it wasn’t until I took a world literature class in college that I read a single Aztec or Maya myth. Amazing. I had attended schools just miles from the Mexican border, but not one of my teachers had spoken of Quetzalcoatl or Itzamna, of Cihuacoatl or Ixchel. My family also knew nothing of these Mesocamerican gods. Something important had been kept from me and other Mexican-American students. At first I was shocked and a bit angry. Yet who could I blame for five centuries of syncretism and erasure? Rather than lash out in response to the loss I felt, I began to scour the local libraries for every book I could find about pre-Colombian Mexican myths. In the end, I realized, it was my responsibility—knowing of this lack on my part—to reconnect with that forgotten past. That duty to the history of one’s people has never been better expressed than in one of the few remaining poems of the Maya, from the colonial-era manuscript Songs of Dzitbalché:
It’s vital we never lose count Of how many long generations Have passed since the faraway age When here in this land lived Great and powerful men Who lifted the walls of those cities— The ancient, awesome ruins, Pyramids rising like hills. We try to determine their meaning Here in our humbler towns, A meaning that matters today, One we draw from the signs Those men of the Golden Age-- Men of this land, our forefathers— Urged us to seek in the sky.
Consecrated to this task, We turn our faces upward As darkness slowly falls From zenith to horizon And fills the sky with stars In which we scry our fate.
I found quite a lot of meaning in those scattered myths. They helped me through some very dark moments in my life. In time I became a school teacher, then a university professor. Though no standards required it, I did my best to share the heritage I had rediscovered with my students. My passion for our lost past drove me even further: I began to study Mayan and Nahuatl, wanting to decipher the original indigenous texts myself without the filter of a translator’s voice. The difficulty was that so much had been destroyed. The Conquest not only decimated the native population of Mexico. It also eviscerated their literature, their history. Conquering soldiers and zealous priests had burned many of the indigenous manuscripts, and converted native minds shrugged off the lore of millennia. Though some Spaniards and mestizos sought to preserve what they could of the venerable old words, setting down songs and sayings using the foreign alphabet, the damage had been done. Today, we cannot just pick up the indigenous equivalent of the Odyssey and read it—beyond the Popol Vuh, a Quiché Maya text from Guatemala, no such work has survived in Mesoamerica. What we have are stories and fragments of stories, preserved piecemeal across multiple codices and colonial histories or passed down word-of-mouth for centuries in remote communities. As a result, the work of a chronicler or teacher is made very difficult: we have no cohesive narrative of Mexico’s mythic identity, no mythological history to rival other classical epics. As I pondered the dilemma, I saw a need for an exciting fusion of the different stories, one that could make Mesoamerican mythology come alive for a Western audience the way William Buck’s abridged take on the Ramayana did for Hindu epics, one that employs engaging, accessible, yet timeless language, much like Robert Fagles’ translations of the Iliad, Odyssey and Aeneid. So I set out to write the book you hold in your hands. Of course, I am hardly the first to retell these tales. The collections I found as a college freshman in different border libraries existed because of wonderful scholars and authors who gathered together written and orally transmitted myths and legends. What makes the present volume different is that—instead of telling the tales separately, discretely—I craft a single chronological narrative. Drawing from a variety of sources (especially Nahuatl and Maya texts such as the Popol Vuh, Cantares Mexicanos, the Codex Chimalpopoca, Primeros Memoriales and the Florentine Codex), this fresh take blurs the line between the legendary and the historical. My intent has been to stitch together myths and legends, organizing the tales so that they trace the mythic past of Mesoamerica from the creation of the world to the arrival of the Spanish. As a Mexican-American author and translator, I see myself as one of many transmitters of tradition down the generations. My renditions treat these stories with respect and intimacy, as though they depict actual events. Because of the state of the existing lore, however, I have used several different techniques to create English- language versions. A few of the pieces are simply translated with some editorial adjustments to fit the larger narrative. Others are looser adaptations of myths and legends with some partial translation. Many are straight-up retellings, often of orally transmitted stories. Quite a few of the myths are themselves syntheses of multiple sources, interwoven into a coherent narrative that I have quilted into the chronological sequence of the book itself. For the most part, I have synthesized several texts together from a single cultural tradition. A few times, however, I have blended Maya and Aztec cosmovisions wherever their overlap suggested an older Mesoamerican mythology from which both may have drawn. In such instances, I am not trying to erase the distinctiveness of the two very different cultures, but to reflect the hybrid mestizaje that has long been a characteristic of the Mexican identity. I have provided notes on my sources and a comprehensive bibliography. My hope is that readers will become intrigued or excited by the mythological history I have woven and feel compelled to dive into the original texts as I once did, seeking to find some part of myself reflected in those ancient, enduring words. David Bowles August 22, 2016
Armando Rendón. Feathered Serpent Head From Teotihuacan.2018. Photograph. Exhibit at de Young Museum, San Francisco
The Creation of Human Beings
The Fourth Age had come to an end. The gods, saddened at the destruction of the earth, gathered in Teotihuacan. “The sea-ringed world emerges. The heavens have been restored. But who will sing us songs? Who will worship us? Who will keep the cosmic wheels turning?” Feathered Serpent turned to the Divine Mother. “We must once more strive to make human beings. Let this new attempt combine all the strengths of the previous.” “To do so,” she told him, “we will need the bones of those who have died.” Hurricane smiled. “Brother, if you want them, you will have to descend to the Land of the Dead and petition the king and queen of that fell demesne.” “So be it,” Feathered Serpent declared, departing. He came to the river at the edge of the Underworld, which the dead can only cross on the back of a hound. Twinning himself so that his nahualli stood before him, he addressed that hairless spirit dog: “Xolotl, double of my heart, bear me across broad Apanohuayan so that on its farther shore I may seek the bones of the dead.” “Gladly, my plumed master. Seize the folds of flesh upon my back, and I will swim you to your destination.” And so all dogs buried with their owners for this purpose are called xoloitzcuintle to honor the nahualli of Feathered Serpent. With Xolotl’s aid, the creator god easily navigated the next eight obstacles and stood before the King and Queen of Death in their eldritch, windowless palace at the heart of the Underworld. “What brings you to our realm now, after so many years, O Feathered Serpent?” asked the king, his eyes like pinpricks of fire in the black orbs of his skull, framed by his owl-plume headdress. The god’s tilma and breechcloth were spattered with blood, and round his neck he wore a chain of human eyeballs. “I am come to take the precious bones that you have guarded with such diligence.” “And what will you do with them, Lord Creator?” asked the queen. “The gods in Tamoanchan need humans to ease their sadness. With these remains, I will fashion a new race of men and women to praise and honor us. They will be mortal, so their bones will return to your hands, as will the bones of their children and their children’s children, for as long as this Fifth Age shall last.” “Very well,” replied the king. “First, however, as a sign of honor, take this my conch and travel four times round my realm, sounding an exultant call as you go.” Feathered Serpent agreed, but as he prepared to sound the shell trumpet, he realized the conch had no hole for blowing. Summoning worms, he had them burrow in at the apex of the spire and smooth its hollow interior. Then he had bees and hornets fly inside, adding their distinctive buzz to the air he sent rushing through the whorls of the conch. The resulting call could be heard in every corner of the Underworld, even in the very throne room of Lord and Lady Death. After his fourth circuit of the Land of the Dead, Feathered Serpent made his way back to its center and stood once more before the sovereigns of that realm. “Very well, take the bones,” growled the King of Death. Once Feathered Serpent had departed the palace to collect the bones, however, the skeletal god called together his council, the lords of that frightful realm. “Go after that plumed snake, my vassals, and tell him that I have changed my mind. He must leave at once without the bones.” The ghastly messengers caught up to the creator god and repeated their sovereign’s command. Feathered Serpent reluctantly agreed. “I will leave then. Tell your king and queen.” The lords of the netherworld watched him fly off, heading out of the Land of the Dead by the eastern route the sun once took to emerge at dawn each day. They themselves traveled back to the eerie castle to inform their masters. But they were deceived. When Feathered Serpent had heard in his heart the command of the King of Death, he had told Xolotl: “I must take these bones, forever. I need you to change shapes with me. Having assumed my form, you will agree to the king’s wishes. Once you and the messengers have gone, I will steal the remains and flee.” So it was that he emerged from a place of hiding in the form of his nahualli, gathered the bones of men and women, wrapped them in a bundle, then rushed like the wind to avoid detection. The god of death became aware of the ruse, however, and he called again to his council: “Lords, Feathered Serpent is at this very moment stealing the precious bones! Use all haste to cut him off before he emerges in the sea-ringed world: dig a pit into which he will fall and be trapped!” Using hidden routes known only to the rulers of the Realm of Fright, the dread lords raced ahead of the Feathered Serpent and fashioned a vast and cunningly disguised pit. The creator god, startled by a covey of quail that swirled about him on the king’s command, tumbled into the trap, smashing the bones into smaller bits. Shooing away the birds, which had begun pecking and nibbling at the fragments, Feathered Serpent gathered up the remains and assumed once more his true form. “Ah, Xolotl, how was I so easily deceived? Not one of them is whole.” The twin of his heart answered from within. “All is as it must be. The bones have been shattered, but they will have to suffice.” Feathered Serpent seized the bundled bones in his canine jaws and ascended to Tamoanchan. He placed the bones in the Protector’s hands, crying out: “Divine Mother, the bones are broken! What can we do?” The Divine Mother smiled. “All must be broken before it is made whole. We will now grind the remains into powder, my sister and I. Then all of us must do the proper penance to moisten the bone flour so it can be kneaded and shaped.” When the Divine Mother and the Protector had used metate and mano to pulverize the bones, Feathered Serpent pierced his flesh and bled into the flour. Then each of the gods in turn did the same. The resulting dough was shaped into men and women who were brought to life by the spirits wending their way down from Omeyocan, sent by our grandparents to inhabit the sturdy new forms. Feathered Serpent bowed his head as the humans opened their eyes. “Thus is our hope born. We did penance to deserve their existence. Now they will do penance to preserve ours.”
David Bowles, has taught English and education courses at the University of Texas since 1997. A product of an ethnically diverse family with Latino roots in the Río Grande Valley of south Texas, his focus is on the study of indigenous philosophy, mythology, and legend through primary sources. He is the award-winning author of several books, including Flower, Song, Dance: Aztec and Mayan Poetry (2013); Shattering and Bricolage (2014); Border Lore: Folktales and Legends of South Texas(2015); and The Smoking Mirror (2015). His translations have appeared in various venues, including Somos en escrito. He may be contacted at:firstname.lastname@example.org or www.davidbowles.us.Feathered Serpent is available from Cinco Puntos Press,www.cincopuntos.com.
Comment from: Rosa MIzerskiMarch 25, 2018 at 11:00 AM Beautiful English rendition of "The Creation of Human Beings." The themes of the underworld, "Prometheus," and dogs as companions in epic journeys resonate with those of the Eurasia, even though it had been at least 10,000 years since the human migration from the old world. Nothing is truly destroyed. It is remembered once again in the imagination. --Rosa Martha Villarreal
Felicitas Peña Morales, Tlaxcatecan, the author’s paternal grandmother
By Rosa Martha Villarreal
When Elena Garro wrote her short story, “La culpa es de los Tlaxcaltecans,” she was drawing from the popular Mexican myths about the fall of Mexico-Tenochititlán, in which the innocent Aztecs were destroyed by the evil Spaniards with the help of Cortés’s treacherous Indian allies. Foremost was Malintzín, the Nahua noblewoman who was sold into slavery by her own mother and step-father and who later became Cortes’s lover-translator and mother of one of the first mestizos, Martín Cortés. Second on the list of villains were the Tlaxcaltecans. A popular Mexican saying goes: How could Cortés with 500 men and 15 horses conquer La Gran Tenochtitlán? Blame the Tlaxcaltecans.
However, history is more complicated than myths, especially those predicated on grievance and victimhood. I bring this up because my paternal grandmother, Felicitas Peña, was a Tlaxcatecan. She was actually a mestiza, descendant also from some of the prominent founding Spanish families of Northern Mexico, but she identified with her indigenous ancestors who made up most of her DNA, the Tlaxcaltecans.
Once, when my father was in grade school, he told Felicitas about what he had learned in school about the conquest of Mexico. Mexico in the 1930s was in its heady days of nationalism and a long-overdue embrace of its indigenous origins. When people thought of Jose Vasconcelos’ “LaRaza Cósmica,” they imagined themselves as Aztecs.
My grandmother listened intently and waited for my father to finish. Then she told him, “The Aztecs were defeated because they were assassins.” Their victims were my grandmother’s people, the Tlaxcaltecans, whom the Aztecs not only wanted to conquer but whose captured warriors were premiere sacrificial victims for their blood-thirsty national god, Huitzilopochtli.
Although all of the Mesoamerican societies, including the Tlaxcaltecans, practiced human sacrifice, none matched the Aztecs in scale. The level of human sacrifice increased during periods of crisis. There was no bigger crisis than the foretold doom of the world in the year of Ce Acatl Topiltzin, 1519 C.E.
Cortés offered the Tlaxcaltecans the opportunity to rid themselves of their nemesis once and for all, which they did with brutal efficiency.
For the last 25 years or so, Mexican historians have begun to re-examine the history of the conquest through the lens of post-nationalism. As with other contemporary historical revisions, different narratives are taken into perspective. For example, the role of Malintzín. Historians now question the traitor label, instead focusing on her as an individual woman.
What could she have done differently given the circumstances? What would anyone of us do if confronted with her situation while disempowered? The name “Malinche,” which means “Malinalli’s captain” in Nahuatl, referred to Cortés. “Here comes Malinche,” the Indian noblemen would say whenever they saw Cortés. Because he always kept his translator at his side, the name incorrectly stuck to her.
But I digress. My grandmother remembered her heritage and history so vividly that she spoke about the enmity between her people and the Aztecs as if she had lived in the times of the conquest, a living memory confirmed in the written records of the learned (surviving) Indian wise men of the era, Catholic Frays, and even in the letters, official decrees, and the church records which at times offer the commentary of the parish priests. These records were ignored, marginalized, or dismissed in favor of the big picture narrative, the binary mythology that was emotionally satisfying but only a partial truth.
Tlaxcatecans in the Parish Records of the Villa de San Esteban de Tlaxcala, 1693 (Saltillo, Coahuila)
When Cortés landed in Vera Cruz in 1519, he conquered one Indian nation after the other. His arrival coincided with the prophecies of the end times for the native peoples. (It was either a coincidence or else some skillful manipulation of space-time and consciousness by the magicians and wise men.) The ambivalence of the people first enabled Cortés essentially to run over the native towns, since they feared he was a god.
All went as planned until he tried to conquer Tlaxcala, a confederation of Nahua-speaking chiefdoms. Tlaxcala was one of many civilizations in Mesoamerica. It had a capital city, located at the archeological ruins of Cacaxtla, replete with its pyramids and ceremonial centers. They practiced the same religion and customs as the Aztecs. (Tlaxcala today has some of the best-preserved Mesoamerican murals.)
However, the Tlaxcaltecans were not an imperial nation like the Aztecs. The latter set out and conquered all of the surrounding civilizations and subjugated the Mixtec, the Olmec, the Tarascan, the Maya, among others. Tlaxcala, nestled high in the mountains east of Tenochtitlán, was another story. The Tlaxcaltecans maintained their independence and freedom from Aztec hegemony through the use of defensive fortifications and an excellent cadre of warriors, among them the legendary warrior, Tlahuicole.
When he was ultimately captured by the Aztecs, he was offered amnesty by Moctezuma II if he helped conquer the Tarascans, which he did. When the emperor asked him to take his sword against his homeland, he instead chose a ceremonial death for his honor and his country. Chained to a stone, he battled one Aztec warrior after another, killing many until exhaustion made him an easy kill. Tlaxcala never forgot. Today, it is Tlahuicole, not Cuauhtémoc, whom the Tlaxcaltecans revere.
When Cortés approached the borders of Tlaxcala, the council of chiefs, headed by Xicotenga the Elder, debated whether to confront the invaders or surrender. Many were fearful because of the horses. The giant “deer,” they said, became a single creature with the man. But Xicotenga’s son, Xicotenga the Younger, was unconvinced. These were mere men, he argued, and the deer were just animals unknown to them. The warrior argued that if a horse could be killed, then it was not some supernatural creature. Although the Tlaxcaltecans suffered large losses in the battle, Xicotenga killed a horse and turned the tide. Cortés sued for peace. His god charade was over.
The Tlaxcaltecans agreed to ally themselves with Spain on certain conditions, mainly retention of their territory and freedom from servitude and tribute. Spain for the most part honored their end of the contract. They did infringe on some territory, but Tlaxcala basically remained intact. The Tlaxcaltecans, unlike other indigenous peoples, were addressed as Don/Doña; they rode horses, wore boots, and given privileges reserved for Spaniards.
In 1591, the Spanish Crown asked the Tlaxcaltecans to colonize the hostile north and help subdue the local nomadic peoples. On July 9th, 1591, four hundred families, my grandmother’s forebears among them, departed northward. Every year, the people of Tlaxcala commemorated this event in the Festival of the Parting of 400 Families.
My grandmother’s people settled in the vicinity of Saltillo, Nueva Extremadura (Coahuila) and founded the town of San Esteban de Tlaxcala, and later she’d say that her family still had ancestral lands there. In 1800, a group of Tlaxcaltecans moved north, to the Villa of San Andres (Nava, Coahuila). The Villa de San Andres was first founded in 1753 but failed to take root and was essentially abandoned. In the waning days of Colonial Mexico, the Spanish crown determined to re-establish the town, most likely as a defensive settlement against the war-like, horse-riding Chichimecas (Apaches and Comanches, et al.).
The Tlaxcatecan forces served as auxiliaries in the War of Conquest. Source: Lienzo de Tlaxcala via Wikipedia
While investigating my family’s genealogy, I’ve recovered some of the names of Felicitas Peña’s Tlaxcatecan ancestors among them Don Ygnacio Ramos and Doña Juana Balbina. (One of Felicita’s Spanish ancestors, Juan Peña was also an early settler of Nava.) Spanish and Tlaxcaltecans settlers, besides land, were given a starter kit of sorts, consisting of a wagon, beast of burden, hardware, seed, and cattle. They were to provide their own weapons and horses and serve in the king’s militias.
Many of the men were killed by Chichimecas in ambushes and pitched battles. I’ve come across pages listing the dead of these battles. Some of the descriptions of the corpses are graphic accounts of mutilations and desecration of the dead. The nomadic Indians were fierce, brutal, and determined warriors, far from helpless victims of contemporary myths. Needless, to say, there was no love lost between the settlers and the Chichimecas. But, unlike others who, remembering the stories of their ancestors’ Indian wars as if they themselves had lived them, Felicitas never hated other Indians.
I always remember her being kind and generous to the Kickapoo whenever they---the Kickapoo--migrated back and forth from their land, Nacimiento, in Múzquiz and their lands in Texas. She was never openly affectionate or given to weeping like my grandfather who would cry if he sang a sad song. She had the taciturn manner of her native ancestors and retreated into her silences.
Sometimes, when she’d hear of another’s suffering, she’d murmur, “Pobre,” and seemed to drift back into the solitude of the forgone centuries of life in the harsh and unforgiving Extremadura, a land where time lost its significance, and all of the past seemed as if it were yesterday. Her own mother died at 28, and shortly thereafter her father was murdered. Shaped by sorrow, she is one of my heroes. From her I learned that despite hardship and violence, our hearts are still capable of love.
This all brings back the popular Mexican narratives. The fallacy of the Mexican (and, by extension, the Chicano) narrative is that it posits that our mestizaje is Aztec based, when it is diverse: Tarascan, Huichol, Tarahumara, Kickapoo, Maya, Otomi, Olmec, Toltec, and so on. The fallacy of all “race” based nationalistic narratives is, in fact, that they ignore the marginalized narratives, histories, and archeological evidence, which confirm that ethnic admixture was the norm.
The Tlaxcaltecans, for example, were a mixture of ancient Tlaxcaltecans, Otomis, and Olmecs. The Spanish were Celtic-Iberians, Phoenicians, Jews, Visigoths, Vandals, Moroccans, Arabs, Basques, Vikings, and Romans. It is fascinating to know our origins and take pride in the accomplishments of our ancestors. However, other peoples, too, are equally enthused and proud of their ancestors.
This factor of the human condition being equal regardless of our origins, we (I hope) are entering into a new era, one that moves away from identity politics. Myself, I identify with classic critical thinkers of all backgrounds who love exploring new ideas and are inclined to deconstruction of conventional constructs. These are my people of choice. As for our biological identity, the empirical data reveals that there’s only one raza cósmica: Homo sapiens. Felicitas Peña understood this from the collective memory and wisdom of her people.
Rosa Martha Villarreal, a retired Adjunct Professor at Consumnes River College in Sacramento, California, is author of several novels important to American literature, including Doctor Magdalena, The Stillness of Love and Exile, and Chronicles of Air and Dreams, and a children's book, The Adventures of Wyglaf the Wyrm. Copyright Rosa Martha Villarreal, 2017.