Shortly after Cuauhtemoc was put to death by Cortez in 1525, the
body of the last "tlatoani," or speaker of the Mexica, was
surreptitiously spirited to his birthplace of Ixcateopan,
Guerrero, Mexico. For more than 400 years, the people of
Ixcateopan held on to this closely guarded secret, finally
revealing it in 1949.
Today, his bones are on display there inside a 17th-century
church, a humble resting place and a site of pilgrimage to
greatest symbol of indigenous resistance. Cuauhtemoc, or
"descending eagle," is to Mexico
what Sitting Bull is to many native peoples of the north, what
Popé is to the
Pueblos of the Southwest, and what
Tupac Amaru is to indigenous peoples of South America.
Archaeologists and anthropologists dispute the authenticity of
the bones. Yet his annual honoring there (and throughout
Mexico and the
on his birth date, Feb.
23, 1500, represents not a battle over authenticity,
but over the right of indigenous peoples to define their own
peoplehood and write their own narratives.
A similar dynamic is playing out across the continent.
Governments traditionally have taken it upon themselves to
define who is native and who isn't. In some countries, it is
left up to anthropologists and archaeologists to answer these
United States, a
similar dynamic has been taking place for decades regarding
people of Mexican, Central and South American heritage. Here,
census officials have simultaneously "converted" these primarily
indigenous populations into Caucasians and aliens.
Yet a movement has arisen here this past generation that
challenges this "demographic genocide." Part of this movement
includes viewing these populations as aboriginal and part of an
indigenous continent. This is not a negation of mixture. Quite
the contrary. It's an affirmation that despite mixture, they and
the continent remain indigenous.
Jack Forbes (http://cougar.ucdavis.edu/nas/faculty/forbes/jfhome.html),
one of the nation's foremost native scholars
(Rappahannock-Powhatan), has long argued that Mexican Americans
are indigenous. In his groundbreaking work "Aztecas del Norte:
The Chicanos of Aztlan," he affirms that mixture does not
disqualify a person from being indigenous. If that were the
case, no one could claim to be anything, as virtually everyone
is mixed, or "mestizo," yet only people from the south are
labeled as such.
Despite this, the census has long insisted that these
populations are not native, but white. At the same time, society
has insisted that they're also alien (as evidenced by the
periodic anti-Mexican and anti-immigrant movements). Both of
these notions have created an unwanted population.
For example, the extreme right wing has recently taken to
picking on MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan),
claiming that the student organization is a hate group (UCLA is
the latest battleground). However, a quick check of the Southern
Poverty Law Center's Web site: (http://www.tolerance.org/maps/hate/group.jsp?map_data_type_id=6),
which tracks hate groups, reveals not MEChA on its list, but
instead the very same anti-immigrant organizations doing the
pointing. Additionally, these organizations question the
indigenous character of people of Mexican/Central American
heritage -- claiming that they've invented their heritage to a
supposed mythical homeland located in today's Southwest.
Yet Chicanos did no such inventing, nor did they invent divisive
Western geography. Hundreds of maps, chronicles and codices
prior to 1848 point in this direction. So do oral traditions, as
well as linguistic (Uto-Azteca) and cultural evidence that
firmly plant people of Mexican/Central American heritage not in
one but all directions. Truthfully, all the evidence points to
maize as the only legitimate "map" needed to prove
indigenousness to this continent or, as Yaqui scholar Vivian
Delgado terms it, to one single Turtle Nation.
For those who question this, Forbes' "Aztecas del Norte" is a
good place to start. Though published in 1973, he had been
writing on this topic since 1961, when he was part of the
Movimiento Nativo Americano -- which recognized people of
Mexican origin as "Anishinabe," or indigenous. Not everyone
accepts this. Some believe the indigenous category should not
apply to peoples of the south. Others invoke some form of blood
quantum purity (which is actually a formula for extermination).
Yet despite these protestations, all peoples have the inherent
right to determine their own identity.
This year, the National Association of Chicana/Chicano Scholars
is joining this movement as an indigenous caucus will be formed
within the organization. They will be joining Mujeres Activas de
Letras y Cambio Social (http://malcs.chicanas.com/)
-- an organization of women scholars -- where a similar caucus
will be forming there. (Incidentally, the legitimacy of the
discipline of Chicana/Chicano Studies itself has always, and
continues to be, under attack.)
Before Cuauhtemoc was executed, he is said to have left a "mandato,"
advising the people to keep their cultural knowledge, teachings
and traditions deep within their hearts ... and that a time
would come to once again reveal that knowledge. Those who are
aware of that mandato say the time is now.
* Though Jack Forbes's classic
Aztecas del Norte is out of print, this is a good time to
encourage the publisher to republish it. More on this in the
near future. Forbes can be reached at: