Reclaiming Indigineity

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post called Deeply Rooted and shared my story about my identity. Although I was raised with a deep and thorough understanding of my ancestors, our cultures and traditions, I had a tough time navigating society’s perception of who I am and what my cultural background means. After writing and sharing this particular post, I had a lot of people reach out to me, sharing their stories and similar experience. It was really great for me to see that my personal experience is so relatable with others, many of whom I did not know personally before. But it also showed me how our historical narratives are often confined to be very narrow and limited.

Shortly after writing that piece, I had a conversation with my dear friend Bethany Yellowtail. We were speaking, as we often do, about women of color empowerment, future plans and the continued struggle to dismantle systems of colonization that have oppressed indigenous people all over the world. It was at this moment that Bethany said something to me that shed some new light on my own identity and struggle:

“Indigenous people of the Southwest and California have had a particularly brutal past that has contributed to the loss of their languages and customs – they were colonized three times. Not only by the Spanish, but also by the Mexican and United States governments.”

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It was as if all of a sudden, my identity made a bit more sense to me. Now, don’t get me wrong, I had always been aware of the history of colonization my people endured – especially my Juaneño (Acjachemen) ancestors who suffered tremendously at the hands of the Spanish and are considered part of the brutal history of Mission Indians – a system of forced indentured servitude where indigenous peoples were taken by the Catholic missionaries to build churches and forcibly convert to Catholicism. But I had never really considered my Mexican identity as part of my colonized history. To me, my Mexican heritage was a source of pride, a testimony to the longevity of my familiar ties to my homeland, and also the often misunderstood history of the border.

However, it is an important aspect to understand. After the Spanish had forced my ancestors, and many others, into indentured servitude, and forced the loss of language and culture teachings, they were once again colonized by the Mexican government, which continued acts of genocide and an oppressive regime of denying indigenous communities their way of life. When the US annexed much of the southwest through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, much of their way of life was already lost.

Throughout my life, it has been hard for me to really own and claim my indigenous ancestry, and this is primarily due to two institutional practices put in place by the US government. The first is reservations and tribal recognition. Although the Juaneño ban of California Mission Indians is recognized by the state of California, they are in fact not recognized the the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Many individuals often do not realize that while their are currently 573 tribes recognized by the federal government – meaning they have formal status and agreements with the United States Government – there are hundreds of others who do not.

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The lack of my people’s (Ajachamen/Juaneño) recognition by the federal government is a direct result of their brutal history of colonization – their population and history was already decimated by the Spanish and Mexican governments. When their homelands within Orange County, CA became part of the United States, their numbers were so small and there was difficulty organizing.

This is an immediate barrier when explaining my indigeneity and roots to individuals. For many people there is an assumption that is a tribe is not federally recognized, then that tribe must not exist. The legitimacy of tribal claim is so closely tied to federal recognition, and this is again a direct result of a history of colonization and genocide.

The other issue for me is my lack of a Certificate of Indian Blood (CIB). For those of you who are unaware of what a CIB is, it is a document issued by the BIA to establish legitimacy to claims of Indian Heritage and monitor the population. Realistically, it is a blood quorum document, meant to document what the federal government hoped would be the eventual erasure and extinction of indigenous Americans.

Given that a CIB is based on a blood quorum, an individual has to meet specific requirements based off of enrollment within a federally recognized tribe. Although my father is an enrolled member of the Juaneño band of California Mission Indians, as I mentioned early, the lack of federal recognition means that we do not qualify. Additionally, while my mother is also of indigenous decent – Kambiwa in Brazil – the United States and the BIA fail to recognized indigenous people in other parts of the America’s.

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When I was growing up, all of these issues presented obstacles when explaining my ancestry and identity, especially considering that many text books fail to accurately inform the reader on how colonization affected indigenous people throughout the Americas; even the fact that indigenous Americans still exist is a surprise to some people.  As a child it was simply easer to say Mexican-American, or Latina, because it better fits with people’s understanding of historical narratives.

However, as I’ve grown older I have developed a deeper understanding of how history, colonization and shifting borders have shaped my own identity. To me, reclaiming my indigeneity is a direct testimony to my ancestors and their survival in the face of genocide. Although so many forces tried to eliminate my people – our culture, language and traditional ways of life – I stand here, surviving and thriving in my ancestral homeland.

I no longer try to explain my way around my identity, rather I proudly proclaim it – I am many things: Indigena, Xicana, Mexica, Mestiza, Brasiliera, Americana – all of which are a testimony to survival and resilience. I wear and say my history proudly.

Con Mucho Amor,

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Location: Vasquez Rocks, California

Photography: Vanessa Acosta – @fromabolivian

Outfit: Brave Woman Set by B.Yellowtail – @byellowtail

Earrings: Carmen Creations

Further Reading: “How to Honor the Native American Population While Traveling America” – Tazbah Rose Chavez



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