What You Can Call Me
I’m Italia and I’m first-generation American to Mexico-born parents. You might categorize me as Hispanic or Latina, but I avoid calling myself that because it implies a collective identity tied to Spain or the Latin language (hence the name Latin America). I actively try to decolonize the way I define myself and to reclaim my identity as an Indigenous person. So instead you can categorize me as Indigenous. I am Chichimeca and Tlaxcalteca.
There’s no homogenous Native out there, but somehow people often lump Natives together.
When seeing colorful beaded jewelry on my neck or wrists and/or braids, my looks automatically trigger questions and assumptions about my heritage. I’ve gotten comments like “Are you an Indian?”, “hot Pocahontas”, “You’re so brown. You must be South American.”
Firstly, “Indian” is not considered a slur for the Native population as a whole, but still…India is on the other side of the world. Who gave us that name? The White man. No thanks. I prefer “Native” or “Indigenous”. Secondly, Pocahontas’s story (who’s real name is Matoaka) is really that of kidnapping and forced assimilation. It’s a tale of tragedy. She represents the rape, murder, and colonization not accurately represented (how surprising) by mainstream history and least by the Disney cartoon. Thirdly, as for calling me South American, I mean, c’mon, being brown can mean from anywhere and I don’t fuck with those assumptions. I guess it’s because the majority of travelers from Latin American countries are from Chile, Argentina, or Colombia. But it’s like the rest of Latin America is ignored.
Connecting With My Roots
That being said, there’s a lot of mysticism surrounding us. And I was ignorant myself about many things involving the history of my own people, my countries (the U.S. and Mexico), and our ongoing struggles.
I remember during that first trip to Mexico, my tia (aunt) invited me to sacred Mexica and Lakota ceremonies with drums, dancing, and a sweat lodge called inípi in Lakota and temazcalli in Nahuatl. We awoke at 5 am to head to the mountains on an acre of land owned by her friend Lance, a man of the Lakotas. My tia and tio (uncle) wore their ivory colored outfits with a brightly colored belt on their waist. On the side, with a view of the valley below, they formed a circle with me. On the ground waiting to be played were their handmade drums, sonajas (maracas) and a conch shell. The dance was focused on the four directions as represented by the medicine wheel. The four directions are a fundamental part of Indigenous spirituality. We ended the ceremony with a loud united, “Ometeotl”, the word for the complicated concept that is the cosmic supreme force.
The second ceremony was the sweat lodge. It was a domed building bound with branches and rope and covered in hide. Next to that was a fire heating the volcanic rocks. And next to that was an altar of offerings each person made. Once everyone was ready Lance carefully placed the hot rocks in the hole dug in the center of the inípi. Then all 15 of us (mostly strangers) lined up inside to form a seated circle. The leaders of the group, Lance, my tia and tio began to sing in what I assume was the Lakota language and hum and rock back and forth to the rhythm. This continued for about 5 hours but that was all a blur. By that time I was in a trance like state. I had an indescribable sense of euphoria, light-headedness and fulfillment.
We all had something in common now, us strangers. We all experienced an incredible celebration together at a turning point in each of our lives. Some of them were there because they were about to marry, birth children, or any other life changing event. That’s why Lance invited us…for the purpose of healing, cleansing, celebration. We marked the conclusion of it with a big feast to break our fast. My celebration? I was finally meeting my family and embracing what Indigeneity and Mexicanidad meant to me. I never felt so connected to my ancestors and my culture.
Mexico is full of thriving Indigenous peoples of different dialects, customs, beliefs. Let me tell you about a few:
- The Chichimecas were a semi-nomadic peoples in northern Central Mexico in what is now Zacatecas, San Luis Potosí, and a few neighboring states. There are 4 principal Chichimeca groups: Guachichiles (my ancestors), Pames, Zacatecos, Guamares. They had a reputation of being fiercely independent and self sustaining by hunting. (Gradie, 1994)
- The Tlaxcaltecas were relatives to the Mexica. They were notorious for helping the Spanish take down the Mexica empire because they felt jealous and overshadowed by them. In 1521 the empire collapsed. Later on, the Tlaxcaltecas were taken up north to work for the Spanish, up to Chichimeca territory. (Schmal, 2002) They mixed, made babies and voila! That’s the story of my ancestors.
- The largest and most famous Mesoamerican empire to date were the Mexica (Aztecs). Maybe you’ve heard of them? Originally from a mystery place called Aztlán, the Nahuatl name for “place of herons”, they migrated south. To this day the location of Aztlán is debated but evidence traces their Uto-Aztecan language up north from Idaho down to the southwestern U.S. They established themselves at Lake Texcoco and called it Tenochtitlán, “place of the cactus fruit”, now México City. According to a prophecy by Huitzilopochtli they were to settle down there because the legend of the eagle perched on the cactus in the middle of a lake came true at exactly that spot. That symbol is so representative of México that it became the center of our flag.
Speaking of México City, if you want to learn about the Indigeneity of my country you should do yourself a favor and take a trip to México City.
Among the thousands and thousands of places with Indigenous architecture and art, México City is a great place to start. It is overwhelming and beautiful and sensory overload! If you’re looking for a glance into Indigenous culture here are some key places to visit:
- Obviously, I recommend visiting Teotihuacán. There are no words to describe the magnificence of these ruins and the sight of the Pyramid of the Sun and Pyramid of the Moon. They’re basically the postcard image of the city.
- Templo Mayor- the Mexica’s main temple dedicated to Huitzilopochtli (god of sun and war) and Tlaloc (god of rain) which are said to represent life and death. The temple was semi destroyed by the Spanish in 1521 and built on top of it was the Catedral Metropolitana and other buildings. The temple was only recently rediscovered just 40 years ago.
- The Museo Nacional de Antropología- the most fascinating collection of art and history (I’m biased)
- Xochimilco- the magical “garden of flowers” where you can find brightly painted trajineras floating down ancient water canals surrounded by riverbeds called chinampas.
History is cool, compelling, disturbing, and devastating.
But I want to stress that Native Americans are not a peoples of the past.
We’re still here. And we continue to suffer the effects of colonialism since 1492. About ⅔ of Mexicans are like myself a mix of Indigenous and European ancestry. With almost ⅓ are predominantly Native. As of 2012 though, México doesn’t collect census data on ethnicity. Still, there’s plenty of discrimination and prejudice linked with being Indigenous.
Issues concerning Natives go widely unrecognized. From genocide to stolen lands to broken treaties to forced assimilation our history is lengthy. Our history is more than one-sided textbook teachings. Americans are somewhat oblivious to the consequences of colonialism and government policies that affect us today.
The marginalization and neglect of Indigenous communities had made it crucial for everyone to stay connected to their roots. Besides always being Native by blood, it’s been very new to me these past few years. It started with visiting the Motherland and the process of speaking with my elders, in particular my grandmother, about our past. I began to seek out and listen to Indigenous voices, then I became active in the movements of decolonization, Indigenous liberation, and literally raise my own voice at marches and protests. Everyday I am learning more. I really hope more Indigenous peoples and their descendants take time to learn about their ancestry if they don’t already know, and pass that sacred knowledge down.
What You Can Do
For allies it’s important to stay woke. I’m usually open minded and glad to tell anyone about myself when I travel. But when they come at me with ignorance, I always debate whether to give a quick history lesson or to save my breath. So do research about the true past and present regarding Natives so that you don’t put me through the emotional labor of explaining. For starters, I recommend the book “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States” by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz.
It is also critical we support Indigenous leaders, artists, activists, educators, entrepreneurs and stay active politically to ensure we bring attention to issues that involve Indigenous communities everywhere. Within those settler and non-Indigenous communities, it’s important to respect and stand in solidarity with Indigenous peoples (whose land you’re probably occupying) so that together we can strengthen decolonization movements and dismantle the oppressive institutions in place. We can’t make progress as a society in the name of equality and change without including our Indigenous people in the movement.
Tlazocamati! (Thank you in Nahuatl)
Schmal, John. P. (2002). THE HISTORY OF THE TLAXCALANS. http://www.houstonculture.org/mexico/tlaxcala.html
Gradie, Charlotte. M. (1994, July). DISCOVERING THE CHICHIMECAS. http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/aztecs/Chichimecas.pdf
Russell, Philip. (2015). The Essential History of Mexico: from Pre-Conquest to Present. Abingdon, U.
About The Author
Italia is an Indigenous woman, an artist, and a traveler. She got the inspiration to travel from a young age thanks to her mom whose adventurous, artistic spirit led her to perform professional Mexican folklorico and danza Azteca abroad. Italia now also performs domestically. She loves to create and the freedom/connection that comes with backpacking around the world. So catch her following her passions on her social media pages below: