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Op-Ed: 500 years after Cortés’ conquest of the Aztecs, Mexico’s Indigenous roots live on

A bust of Aztec emperor Cuauhtemoc in Mexico City's main square with images of Aztec god Quetzalcoatl on nearby buildings.
A bust of the Aztec emperor Cuauhtemoc in Mexico City’s main square, the Zocalo, with images of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl on the surrounding buildings, in commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the fall of the city of Tenochtitlán to the Spanish.
(Eduardo Verdugo / Associated Press)

This month marks 500 years since the fall of Tenochtitlán, the grand city of the Mexicas, what the Aztecs called themselves. Historians and other scholars have yet to agree fully on the devastating impact on the people and the land that Hernán Cortés’ defeat of the Aztecs wrought.

Yet, there is a simplistic story line that’s been woven about this legacy: Cortes and the Spanish conquest happened, it was terrible, but now that’s who Mexicans are — Spanish/Indigenous mestizos. Get over it.

But this too readily glides over the fact that Mexico still has the largest number of Indigenous peoples in the Western Hemisphere. In 2015, around 25.7 million Mexicans self-identified as being Indigenous of various tribal groups, making up 21.5% of Mexico’s population, according to the National Institute of Indigenous Peoples.

Although Spanish is the dominant spoken language, the country has 68 official languages, 63 of which are Indigenous from some 350 variants and dialects. Over the past decades, Indigenous peoples from Mexico such as Mixtecos, Zapotecos, Rarámuri, Yaqui and Purépecha, among others, have migrated to the United States.

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They are called “immigrants” though they have linguistic and other connections with U.S.-based Indigenous peoples that span tens of thousands of years. They are called “Hispanics” or “Latinos,” which implies they are from Spain or mestizos with no native roots. Worse still, these peoples are treated as “strangers” or “foreigners” despite having ties to these lands as deep as anyone on this continent.

My mother’s family is from the Chihuahuan Desert, the largest desert in North America, which cuts through swaths of Mexico and the United States. My mother has Rarámuri ancestry. The Spanish called them Tarahumara when they couldn’t quite pronounce what the natives told them. The Rarámuri are recognized as world-class long-distance runners. Their name means “fleet-footed people.”

However, my mother did not grow up in a traditional Indigenous household. She grew up “Mexican,” in the Catholic Church with the vaquero songs and cultural hybridity of Chihuahua. But she never failed to remind me I am descended from these peoples.

In 1954, the year I was born, we lived in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. But when it was time for my birth, my mother walked across the International Bridge to El Paso, Texas, to have me. Even though there’s a 173-year-old border there, we went from “our land to our land.”

In 1999, a Diné (Navajo) friend and I visited the Sierra Tarahumara, home to the Copper Canyon, which is really six canyons, a canyon system deeper and larger than the Grand Canyon. At the time, some 80,000 people lived in caves, among the last cave-dwellers in the world. They had no electricity or potable water. They spoke their own idioms. They pretty much lived as they had for 400 years when the Rarámuri ended up there after the Spanish crushed several rebellions.

My friend and I stayed in a dirt-and-mud village called Cusarare, “a place of eagles.” At first, the people were reluctant to talk to me. I was a chabochi, someone not from there. But when I told them I was reclaiming my heritage, they brightened. One of them explained why: “When people leave, nobody comes back.” Instead of turning me away, they invited me into their homes, some in caves, and to learn more about their culture.

I was given a chapareque, a Rarámuri musical instrument made of maguey wood and cat-gut strings. I learned a few words like “Kwira Va,” the greeting and goodbye that really means “we are one.” By the end of my visit, the local mayor (who also owned the only radio and drove the only bulldozer) offered me a piece of ejido land (which I could not own) to build a house. Tempted, I nonetheless returned to the United States. I’ve never forgotten my relatives in the Copper Canyon.

Even though I’m “mixed” when it comes to my lineage, I don’t use the word mestizo. The term comes from the Spanish-imposed caste system of determining a person’s value based on how much Spanish, Indigenous or African blood they had (the darker one was, the lesser value one had). Besides, so-called mestizos are often non-mixed people who no longer identify as native.

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My recent DNA test indicates I’m half Native American (from northern Mexico), around 40% from the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal), and the rest from other Europeans except for close to 5% from west and south Africa. That sounds about right. But I gravitate to the deepest root, the Indigenous. I belong on this land, regardless of the barriers and definitions imposed by the nation state.

Over the past 40 years or so, I’ve visited with Zapotecos of Juchitan and Oaxaca and Nahuatl-speakers in Puebla. I’ve been in ceremonies with the Pibil in Izalco, El Salvador, and among the Maya in southern Mexico and Guatemala. I’ve also had teachers from the Quechua of Peru. For over 25 years, I’ve spent time with the Lakota of the Pine Ridge Reservation and the Diné in Arizona, as well as other Indigenous peoples in this country. I’m active in my northeast San Fernando Valley community with original peoples, including the Fernandeño Tataviam. I have a Nahuatl name given to me in ceremony by the Kalpulli Tlonque Nahuaque of Pacoima.

I may not have a tribal card, but I don’t need a government to tell me who I am or how I practice my art, carry on my work or engage spiritually. I understand why Indigenous peoples in the U.S. demand recognition and sovereignty. I support their struggles. But I, too, am part of the Indigenous people, as is true for millions in Mexico, which has never been a place with a homogenized identity. Mexicans can be of any background, including African, European, Asian or Middle Eastern ancestry.

I understand the past can’t be changed. The arrival of the Spanish to the so-called New World was not a “meeting” or “encounter” of cultures. It was a terrible clash — destructive and genocidal. Yet the Indigenous in us lives on and rises up. That’s why the history and stories we tell must be full and complete. That’s why we must continue to painstakingly build a truly just, reconciled and peaceful world for all.

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After 500 years, that should be what guides our aims, our hopes, our actions.

Luis J. Rodriguez (Mixcoatl Itztlacuiloh) is the author most recently of “From Our Land to Our Land: Essays, Journeys & Imaginings of a Native Xicanx Writer.” He and his wife, Trini, host the podcast “The Hummingbird Cricket Hour.”


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