When the 2020 Census comes around in 4 years, I will declare myself American Indian. I will do so both as an act of affirmation, but also as an act of rebellion against a government that sees me both as alien and as less than human.
Artwork by Tanya Alvarez
I have actually done this since 1980, when I was first eligible to do so because I have never recognized the right of a U.S. agency to impose their definitions upon an entire continent, especially when people like myself in this country have historically been funneled into the White category. Incidentally, neither Mexico nor Central American or Andean countries have ever considered themselves White countries. Despite this, in this country, a White identity has also historically been imposed on such peoples on their birth and death certificates.
This time around, after checking American Indian, I will write in Macehual, a Nahuatl and Maya designation for a common person. Others who know their lineage, will write in Zapotec, Maya, Taino, etc.
While I will not subsequently make a claim to resources whatsoever, I will check that box because the Census Bureau in 2010 accepted the Office of Management and Budget’s 1997 definition of American Indians as peoples from North, Central and South America that “maintain tribal or community attachment.” That would include most Mexicans, Central Americans, Chicanos/as and peoples from the Andes that live in this country. In 2010, without a census educational campaign, some 175,000 people of Mexican origin chose this previously unavailable option.
While many of us have always known that we are rooted to this continent, it is the bureau that has always attempted to impose a White identity upon us. However, in 2020, four racial categories (Black, White, Asian, and American Indian) and one ethnic (Hispanic/Latino) category will be combined under an origin question, permitting respondents to choose whichever categories or combination of categories apply. Of the five options, I will only be choosing American Indian, even if the bureau changes its definition again.
I will choose this option because, at about 5 to 6 years old, my parents reassured me that I was part of the original peoples of this continent when I asked them why people referred to us as “wetbacks.” They responded: “Tell them we didn’t swim across the ocean to get here.”
Never for one second thereafter did I ever doubt them. Their profound answer is what guided me through life, and even through my Ph.D. studies a generation later, when I studied the relationship between de-Indigenized Mexicans and Central Americans and maíz culture. Yes, their de-indigenization was not accidental, which is why most peoples in question cannot be specific as to which nation/tribe they descend from. That was part of the colonial project: theft of land, bodies and souls. Despite this, a reconnection is still possible, because, while most no longer plant corn or are involved in ceremonies or know their stories, regardless maíz remains a part of their daily diet.
The first elder I remember reaffirming this message was a Hopi elder, at UCLA in the early 1970s. A few years later, a Lakota elder assured me that we were related. Later, during a generation of writing on origins and migrations, I also came across those same beliefs by elders from throughout the continent, including the assertion that every square inch of this continent remains Indian Country.
When I returned for my Ph.D. studies, I also came across American Indian scholars such as Jack Forbes (Aztecas del Norte) who also posited the same thing. So, too, Mexican scholars such as Domingo Martinez Paredez (Un Continente y una Cultura) Guillermo Bonfil Batalla (Mexico Profundo) and Enrique Florescano (National Narratives of Mexico). All posit(ed) that while most Mexicans/Central Americans are de-indigenized, their roots remain indigenous, regardless of where they live.
Despite this, the bureau, via unscientific means, has historically contributed to their de-indigenization, perhaps with the idea in mind to complete this nation’s historic Indian Removal project. In this project, Mexicans-Native peoples were supposed to have been extinguished long ago as they project us, at best, as from the past and in the way.
This view was on full display during the 2016 presidential elections — of Mexicans not being welcome, and Native peoples at Standing Rock as literally being in the way.
This dehumanization is not what is motivating us for 2020. But it certainly affirms the belief of many that we officially are being given the middle finger as we are being shown the door by peoples whose roots are clearly from across the ocean.
For peoples like myself, we can either choose to leave the country or we can affirm that we are part of the original peoples of this continent. I propose this latter option, a re-indigenization census option that will initially require a massive four-year education campaign for 2020.
While some may view this as subverting this nation’s view of itself, to which, in the brink of another massive Indian removal, I would affirm: Yes!
Dr. Roberto Rodriguez is an associate professor in Mexican American studies at the University of Arizona.
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