March 04, 2010

Hispanics have Native roots

Masking Identities or Counting the Indigenous?

The Politics of the Census

By Roberto RodriguezUpon my return to the United States, I received a message from a colleague regarding the U.S. Census Bureau. My mouth soured; another decade and another story about how the bureau paradoxically insists that Mexicans are Caucasian. I will have to explain to them again that Mexicans are the descendants of those who built the pyramids at Teotihuacan and Chichen Itza–that it was not Caucasians who built them.

The genesis of this nonsensical “misconception” goes back to the era when the United States militarily took half of Mexico in 1848. At that time, the Mexican government attempted to protect its former citizens by insisting that the U.S. government treat them legally as “white,” so they would not be enslaved or subjected to legal segregation. That strategy only partially worked, because most Mexicans in this country have never been treated as “white,” or as full human beings with full human rights.

That era is long over, yet the fear, shame, denial, and semi-legal fiction of being “white” remains, perpetrated primarily by government bureaucrats.

Despite the bureau policy of racial categorization, the Indigenous Cultures Institute in Texas, a Census 2010 partner, has advanced an alternative: It asserts that Hispanics, Mexican Americans, and Indigenous people of Mexico are native or American Indian. After answering Question 8, regarding whether one is Hispanic or not, the institute suggests: “If you are a descendant of native people, you can identify yourself (in Question 9) as an American Indian in the 2010 Census… If you don’t know your tribe, enter “unknown” or “detribalized native.” If tribe or identity is known, fill it in, i.e., Macehual, Maya, Quechua, etc.
Comment:  Officially, Latinos can be of any race, so "Latino" isn't a racial category. Unofficially, says Rodriguez, 75% of the people Mexican and Central American descent identify themselves as "mestizo," or part Native.

So yes, it isn't correct to automatically classify these people as brown-skinned Natives. But it also isn't correct to pretend they're equally likely to be of any race.

Census takers and everyone else should be aware of this. That's why I don't get too annoyed when Latinos get Native roles in movies and TV shows.

I gather many Latinos prefer to consider themselves "white" or "European" because it's more socially acceptable. If I were them, I'd embrace my Native roots.

For more on the subject, see Latinos Told to Anglicize Names and "Hate the Mexicans (and Indians)."

Below:  Robert Beltran as Chakotay.


m. said...

Mexicans aren't "the descendants of those who built the pyramids at Teotihuacan and Chicen Itza" - Mexican INDIANS are, and not all of them are descendants of those people! I take it Roberto Rodriguez is not only mestizo, but definitely needs to do a little (lot) more research on the history and diversity of Indians in Mexico, as well as the invaders/immigrants...and that Aztec and Mayan descendancy is their equivalent of the wannabe Cherokee or Choctaw. LOL.

Rob said...

I think it's clear what Rodriguez meant. When he referred to "Mexicans," he was generalizing. The whole article was about the majority of Mexicans who have Native blood--75% of the total, according to him. It was not about the minority of Mexicans who lack such blood.

When he said these Mexicans are descended from the Aztec and Maya people, he was speaking figuratively. Similarly, Americans often say they're descended from people who crossed the ocean in search of freedom. Greeks often say they're descended from poets and philosophers. By focusing on the highlights of their history, they hope to encourage pride in their ancestry.

People say such things whether they're true or not. In reality, most Mexicans--like most Americans and Greeks--are probably descended from peasants, laborers, and other common people. But if you want them to note their ancestry, you don't tell them that. No one wants to hear they come from the nameless masses who slaved for the ruling elite.

I'm guessing Rodriguez knows as well as we do that Mexico has hundreds of indigenous tribes. That most Mexicans with Native blood come from these tribes rather than the Aztec and Maya civilizations. He was using a rhetorical flourish to make a point, and I for one understood it.