Monday, October 08, 2007

Discovering The New World, Parte Dos

...continued from part one
"Do you know there is no word for that in my language, sir? - To own the earth?"

-paraphrased from dialog in the screen adaptation of the book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.
To the present time, a line dividing Native Americans and Mexicans has existed in the United States from within and without the various groups. Although the roots of all are indigenous in nature, the treatment by the power wielders in D.C. have only varied according to the degree of genocide and usurpation experienced. Centuries of this treatment has created something that is referred to as the mestizaje.
In order to think about ideas about ethnicity, we also have to talk about ideas about race. From the biological point of view, races simply do not exist. From the cultural and political point of view, however, the concept of "race" is extremely important.

Mexican national identity has been constructed in terms of the idea that Mexicans are the product of a creative mixing of Indians and Europeans. In theory this is an argument about a fusing together of cultures but in practice it gets conflated with the idea of mixing of races, mestizaje in Spanish. This is an official doctrine of the state, formulated after the Mexican Revolution of 1910. It is expressed in official rhetoric, mythology and public ceremonial. It is particularly powerfully expressed in Mexico’s famous National Museum of Anthropology.

The Museum celebrates the glories of pre-Hispanic Mexican civilisations like the Aztecs, Mayas and Zapotecs on the ground floor. On the first floor, it exhibits the contemporary indigenous peoples of Mexico, set out like a collection of butterflies with lifesize models of people wearing the appropriate dress for their group. This great museum was set up by a group of anthropologists who saw Mexico’s future in terms of the assimilation of what remained of indigenous culture into a new national culture. Their objective was to memorialise something that they wanted to leave in the past.

The Revolution was supposed to deliver material progress and social justice to the Indians: they would get back the lands that had been stolen from them by the great estates; they would get schools and clinics, roads and electricity; they would get development projects; they would get treated fairly by the courts, enjoy civil rights, and be freed from the tyranny of local bosses who exploited them and robbed them of their dignity as citizens. In return for this, they would give up their old customs, speak Spanish and join the mainstream of national life. In Mexico, that mainstream is defined as mestizo.
As described above, the mestizaje is supposed to be a cultural term, but often is experienced as ethnic and racial. That hard truth lives even within the confines of my own family, where I am among the darkest skinned. Chiding and ridicule, even though done in playful ways, have undoubtedly reacted with my heart in such a way that I have learned to be ultra-proud of the morenito that stares me in the face while gazing in a mirror; pushing me to rediscover the traditions of the ancestors that my features mimic imperfectly.

Culturally speaking, however, the synergy of centuries of mixed customs and environmental influences have created a situation north of the current U.S./Mexico border line where entire groups of people are sharing the same space of land while understanding their relationship to it in completely different, sometimes diametrically opposed, ways.

From an Anglo-centric point of view, the cultural mestizaje is an unwanted intrusion upon their sovereignty. The preferred remedy in the present era to this blight is summed up with one word: assimilation. That term, that very foundation of treatment towards indigenous peoples, has replaced the former form: seizure of lands and creation of boundaries. Of course, there are present day exceptions where the imperial conquests of Washington are still being exercised.

Look at the different reactions we are seeing to the mass migration of humanity from countries around this earth to the United States. The hardliners, who range from overt white supremacists to nativists holding elected positions, all see the influx of workers as a threat to their way of life. While it's difficult for them to openly advocate for the removal of groups based on skin color (if it were politically expedient for them to do so, they would), they have found other ways to attack - including removal of educational benefits, putting landlords on notice that they should deny shelter, raiding workplaces without a plan to deal with family unity, interring workers and families without due process, and among the favorite means of putting undesirables on notice - tightening the noose on the diversity of languages spoken by the populace.

The combination of all of these things, including the ambivalence toward the increased numbers of dead bodies in the desert southwest that has directly resulted from U.S. border policy, highlights the importance of reading voices that are outside the "dominant culture" that is part of the assimilation equation. It involves a rejection of the Conquistador Mentality and a willingness to recognize the dark history that has been experienced by indigenous people.

Today's targeting of migrant peoples is seen as an extension of a society that exalts leaders of genocide, not some new thing that is somehow different from past tyranny. Once that is realized by the "dominant culture", we may get to a place that moves beyond the celebration of mass extinctions of people and their cultures.
Denver police on Saturday arrested dozens of Columbus Day protesters who said they were determined to stop this year's parade in downtown Denver.


He poured fake blood with doll parts into the street to represent the genocide of indigenous people. Many believe the holiday celebrates a slave trader and the wholesale slaughter of Native Americans.

Who's right?

The protesters or the celebrators?

The answer, I believe, is the difference between assimilation and the mestizaje, irregardless of who finds themselves as the target of oppression or which century it is occurring.

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