Violent Before the Moon (Para Huitzilopochtli)

There was no light on the inside of mi madre,
just the blades I kept coiled in my arms, my legs,
bent, escondi ojos en mis manos.
Imagined what I’d say to the faces I would meet,

what the air felt like, dreamed about people
wanting to touch the sun at my command,
who sacrificed so much to see. But I let the stain
of foul words press against my ears. Inside

I wanted to replace the amniotic fluid that coursed from her,
from the center of her earth, con el toque de luz.
She let me know what they had said about her,
lo que pensaban de mí, of how quickly I had grown in

her belly, and I wrestled within every floating thought,
every swimming reflex. Esperé en la matriz, tenso
hasta que mi madre me dejó salir, let me finally face
the audience, fierce, with ignorance, pursed lips,

with eyes ready to carve me. But I remembered —
mother had said “Huitz, querido, mi’jito, vistete. Hold
tight to me. I need you to be ready. Ponte tu mejor traje;
even blood makes gashes, cuts.” I remembered my sister

yelling in obsidian obscenities, lashing out, about
how mother was too old to have four hundred and
two mouths to feed. She called my mother a puta. Ella,
ni siquiera levanto un dedo para apuntar a la tierra madre.

She, who fooled around with the warriors en el templo.
She, who laughed at her own magic tricks. She killed mother.
She turned everyone against this moment we shared.
There was no light left inside of mi madre, just the blades.

I unfurled in my arms, my legs, pounced at my sister, cutting
her, de sus brazos, su cuerpo, threw her beautiful face. Her,
the night lighting Moon, turned to my brothers, my sisters,
who looked so vast and made them look at our mother.

Rindieron culto a ella con un centelleo, con luminancia,
made them the stars. I hid my eyes in the end, felt the air on my face,
dripping in blood, the feel of cool water, and dreamt about people
who touched the sun, now the moon, every night, at my command.

People, shades of the earth, color the silent truth

By Vivian García López

Because I am Brown, I am oppressed. When I speak this, I know it is not enough. The knowledge of racism is not enough. Because, if I am still bound by my own self-hatred, I am the oppressor [of] myself.
I ask myself, “How does a Brown sister, a Black sister, free herself?”
Knowing I am oppressed, I must also know that I participate in this oppression. I must realize that I and all my darker sisters take the instruments of oppression and use them on ourselves. Our tools come in many forms. We take from the oppressor the instrument of hatred and sharpen it on our bodies and souls. The internalization of “spic” and “nigger” begins at birth. Only Consciousness must follow—or death. (Tijerina 1990, p. 170).

The testimonios and vignettes in Roberto “Dr. Cintli” Rodriguez’ article, “Smiling Brown: Gente de Bronce—People the Color of the Earth,” share experiences relating to their skin color, which are heartbreaking and painful. For some readers these testimonies and vignettes will be similar to their own personal experiences of violence, healing, and/or liberation; while for others, there may be a sense of impatience or critique to dismiss these stories as obsolete, victimizing, insignificant, emotional, and/or trifling. It is not unusual for individuals to believe the post-civil rights era in the United States is harmonious, peaceful, and a country where equity dwells within all levels of society. On the contrary, symptoms of colonization1 continue to seep into the veins and breaths of individuals, ultimately infiltrating their minds and souls. In the end, these forces leach into the larger society and prolong injustices, racism2, and oppression. The testimonios and vignettes are not just people’s stories; they offer perspectives, ways of knowing through their experiences, opportunities to critically conscienticize3 ideologies and insight to relationships. Lastly, the authors who shared their experiences offer opportunities for transformative action(s) to take place, consciously making an effort to cease dehumanizing practices, reproduction and continued subjugation.

The individual authors’ narratives are also a means to counter the dehumanization that people of color face, specifically individuals who are of a non-white phenotype. It is by sharing the experienced realities, by exposing the complexities and discrepancies within historical and current contexts, by revealing white supremacy and fear amongst people, and by interrupting, learning, and teaching, that these authors take action(s) to end the participation in the processes and systems of colonization (Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995; Delgado & Stefanic 2001; Mutua & Swadener, 2004; Solórzano, 1997). The action to name the racism within the authors’ families is the beginning of transformation within communities.

Oppression, a product of colonization, has been utilized to build countries dominated by Eurocentric notions of cultural and racial superiority. These narratives and stories will not and should not be dismissed or silenced. For generations, oppressors have continued to promote a facetious and superficial discourse to avoid accountability and evade the tensions from daily and generational violence to people of color. It is acknowledged that the authors who shared their experiences within Rodriguez’ article represent a mechanism of countering colonization through identification of the symptoms, validation, addressing racial hostility and oppression, and recognition of the powerful and negative effects on the psyche of individuals. It is important to note that the dialogues initiated through these testimonios and vignettes have engaged persons to analyze herstoricities/historicities and the effects of xenophobia leading them to identify transformative action(s) to confront and eradicate internal racism and oppression. In addition, through the authors’ illustrating their incidents with colorism4, they have also subjugated their silenced truth.

The voices in this project, courageously provided by the authors, are not utilized to create a discourse to intellectualize colonization and its effects (Leonardo & Porter, 2010), but rather to (re)awaken the individual’s consciousness and to distinguish the deep racializing practices that supply the contagious poisonous roots that infect individuals and communities. Secondly, the authors’ stories generate a critical consciousness for transformational changes to take place by identifying, naming, confronting, stopping or avoiding being used as an instrument or agent of the oppressor and challenging the status quo (Freire, 1974). Lastly, it is through the individuals’ stories, testimonios and voices, a method commonly utilized by Tribal, Latina/Latino critical race theorists (Brayboy, 2005; Delgado & Stefanic, 2001; Solórzano & Delgado Bernal, 2001) to confront and cease hegemonic conditions, ideologies, actions, policies, structures and/or systems, that the authors’ testimonios provide examples of their family members’ behaviors, how their lives have become entrenched in colonizing practices that reproduce white supremacy, specifically related to phenotype, to conscientize individuals of family norms that may exist.

The realities provided in these testimonios and vignettes are imperative, especially when people of color continue to (re)experience dehumanizing acts to kill their Spirit of Being. Spirit of Being is an understanding that I was taught as a child5 that includes all that makes an individual live, not exist, but live within one’s spirit, mind, body, collectively with all living beings. One part of a human’s Being cannot exist without the other; that is, the Spirit of Being is all that makes one be. When one human element has been harmed, damaged, or destroyed, there is an imbalance or a wound that may never be healed; thus there are times when individuals exist in their lives with a disharmony. This understanding is not religious, but rather how I understand life, similar to what John Trudell (nd forum) and Stewart-Harawira (2005) have also described. The effects of westernization for some individuals have already caused the death of their Spirit, while others continue to survive with their pain and wounds through daily overt and subtle racism; accordingly, the poison running within the individuals and communities calls for a re-wakening of consciousness and action to take place.

Through the authors’ exposed intimacies with racism, specifically within their Being or relationships with their families, they provide interpretations and depictions of their realities to better understand the deconstruction of the process and effects of colonization. Ruben Botello’s testimonio, “Washing Away,” illustrates his childhood pressures to assimilate into a European American dominant society and become accepted by his school community. After his transformations to learn English and attempts to be treated as an equal to his peers, he shared his tribulations that became life-long impressions. His stressors as an elementary student were heavily dependent upon acceptance by his peers, which he referred to as a death march.

Botello shared that his stressors of being dark-skinned and the repercussions of racism he experienced changed him forever. He explained by the time he reached junior high, he not only hated school but also wanted to die. His Spirit of Being had been wounded while his feelings of desperation moved him to vigorously scour and scrub his skin with Clorox bleach or use Brillo pads to lighten up his skin color as a means to become accepted in school and by society in general. Botello’s early years of life were filled with painful experiences that imposed a sense of worthlessness, self-hate, and low self-esteem on him. His testimonio may help explain why so many children with dark skin have experienced thoughts of suicide, taken steps to end their life, or tend to exist (not live) with a wounded Spirit of Being that has internalized life-long influences in their psyche and/or well-being.

The testimonios shared in Rodriguez’ article offer the authors’ personal experiences of racism, colorism and oppressive practices by communities and larger society like Botello’s; however, they also offer a rare and more intimate view of the internal oppression that exists within their own families. It is essential to note that the authors’ courage to defy what may be taboo—that is to publicly expose family members or community members’ internal oppression—are not offered to judge the individuals but rather identify the silence about racism and colorism within their own families. As a colonizers’ tool to systematically control families’ actions to terminate vestiges of white supremacy, there is a learned code of silence that exists, allowing for the growth of white supremacy to remain and persist within families and ultimately in society like a malignant tumor. Families often times learned to keep their “dirty laundry” out of the public eye, continue to exist in silence through a code that persuades individuals to never question authority (grandparents, parents, etc.) and allow racism to flourish with a dismissive attitude. Family members who have become the oppressors, therefore, become key in the reproduction of ideologies and practices of white supremacy within the core of communities, specifically one’s own family.

Colorism within families, identified as a colonizer’s tool, is another learned mindset to participate as an oppressor by ways of behavior, and/or actions that have been exercised within learned survival skills. The stories are interconnected through the authors’ continued love for their family members, even though the family members were responsible for the reproduction of white supremacist ideologies and had influenced their feelings of little or no self-worth. The majority of the authors offered their experiences with family members’ generational understandings and practices, while pondering what their family members’ experiences may have entailed. As Vine Deloria (2001) stated, “We sometimes forget that life is exceedingly hard and that none of us accomplishes everything we could possibly do, or even many of the things we intended to do. The elder exemplifies both the good and the bad experiences of life, and in witnessing their failures as much as their successes we are cushioned in our despair of disappointment and bolstered in our exuberance of success” (45).

For instance, Olga Vianey González’ reflections about internalized oppression began when she was born. She explained that her grandmother questioned her father’s paternity, stating González could not possibly be her father’s child because she was too dark. As she continued her life, she remembered ongoing comments and preference for family members who were white complexioned, those referred to as the pretty ones, while she and the other dark complexioned family members were viewed as undesirable and repulsive. Not only did her grandmother lead González to believe she was not beautiful, she also took action to trigger Olga to take extreme measures to change her natural self. For instance, as a graduation gift from her grandmother, González received a jar of bleaching cream, which moved her to accept her grandmother’s internalized oppression as the result of colonization.

As a result, these stories and vignettes are what bell hooks (1994) identifies as teachable moments and are employed to critically analyze xenophobia and how it integrates into individuals’ ideals and (in)actions. The vignette by Norma Gonzales, an educator in Tucson, Arizona, examined how the majority of her five and six year old students portrayed themselves in an altered self-portrait. The kindergarten children re-created their images by including blonde hair and blue-eyes, instead of brown, black, or various shades of brown that would reflect authentic colors representing their authentic shades of skin or hair color. After speaking with the children about the choice in color used to represent themselves in their self-portraits, Gonzales learned that children believe blonde hair and blue eyes are pretty and beautiful, while black and brown are ugly. Gonzales utilizes this exercise with students as a teachable moment to counter the learned white supremacy notions with the children and also begins to deflect the inferiority ideologies for individuals with dark skin or dark hair.

Colonization is prevailing; from it breeds racism, white supremacy, colorism, and other “isms” into an individual’s psyche and their (in)actions within the larger society. As noted in the stories and vignettes, there are individuals who will stand by and watch oppressive acts take place while others play active roles in repressing an individual or community actions. Although bystanders are not directly involved in the act, the unrecognized repressive actions of individuals make them active participants in racism and other “isms” that are linked to an individual’s cultural, linguistic, and socio-political identities. As a result, people learn to accommodate the white Eurocentric norms, silence individuals, and subjugate those who question or defy the dominant’s composition of social order, who thus choose to be silent.

Power is interlinked within ideologies, language, inequities produced by the colonizing structures, which became normalized by society and exercised without a consciousness, as if living in a state of anesthesia or paralysis. Anesthetic conditions, as noted by Fals-Borda and Rahman (1991), transpire from oppression and will continue to reinforce the power of whiteness, creating a whitestream society as argued by Urrieta (2009). Freire (2002) further claims there is a “cultural invasion” that happens in which the oppressed begin to regard the oppressors’ values and ways of life as superior, thus disregarding her/his own cultural values while looking for acceptance into the dominant society, a space where cultural capital can be acquired. In addition, Foucault (1979, 2000) proposed that different forms of power exist from the diverse relationships and structures in society; structures that create a sophisticated mechanism that transforms, elaborates, organizes and adjusts according to the circumstances, which may help explain why individuals who have been marginalized or dehumanized in society have historically altered themselves in ways to become accepted by that community, including adopting the role of an oppressor (López, 2010).

In Anabel Aguayo’s testimonio, “Morena, color de llanta,” she describes her family experiences as a dark-skinned child versus a child with a light-skinned complexion. Her dark skin was referred to as inferior, while her light-skinned sister was treated as being superior. In her testimonio, Aguayo shared her understanding of cultural capital. She learned at an early age that she was inferior to white complexioned individuals, or those who had European ancestry, specifically families with lineage to Spain. Unlike her sister who had light skin, she was compared to the color of a black tire, made to feel dirty and second-class. Her feelings about her skin color were infected by the imposed ideologies that light skin color was better than dark skin color. The power of xenophobic language by family members helped shape her beliefs about cultural capital and reproduced colorism so impressively that she scrubbed her body with a “piedra pomex-pumice stone” to erase her dark brown color and become light-skinned. Her early understandings about light vs. dark skin and cultural capital were extremely influential, creating a yearning to be referred to as a beautiful white dove, like her sister, instead of dark like a tire. She yearned to experience living with cultural capital.

There are many forms of cultural capital and supremacy that are correlated to the privileges for white communities in this country, explaining the dominant social, political, and spiritual structures in the United States and constructing a social order that is subjugated by whitestream America (Delgado & Stefanic, 2001, Urrieta, 2009). Hence, westernized behaviors and practices have been reproduced for generations and have become an unconscious norm accepted within communities, denying their natural human rights, that is to be.

The perceptions of dark-skinned individuals pressured to change all aspects of their selves to prove they have been “Americanized” or demonstrate they have quickly assimilated into society, otherwise are ostracized. As a result, birth names of individuals change from Ricardo to Rick, Francisca to Frances, Consuelo to Connie or Guillermo to Bill. In addition, individuals will make tremendous efforts, including costly sacrifices or more significant modifications to their being in an attempt to fit in to society. For instance, one can find classes to lose one’s accent or disengage in their heritage, culture or traditional understandings altogether. In addition, today’s storefronts will market bleaching creams to whiten skin, hair straightening products, long hair-extensions, colored contacts to make brown eyes blue, or plastic surgery to modify one’s facial features such as narrowing the nose, indulging in western celebrity double eye-lid surgery, chiseling and sharpening one’s natural jaw bone, or bleaching hair to become blonde, etc.

A hidden curriculum of epistemological consequence in the Americas, strongly persuades people of color to eradicate their identities, especially for those who are not white. This form of colonization explicitly destroys people’s identities, precepts and ultimately strips people of their spirit, dignity and essence. The deculturalization practices implemented to destroy communities and particular populations have not only been imposed through physical violence, but have also included psychological and emotional venues, via racism (Adams, 1995; Mihesuah, 2003; Mohanty, 2003). Leonardo (2004) explains, “whites as a racial group secure supremacy in almost all facets of social life…race is an organizing principle that cuts across class, gender, and other imaginable social identities. This condition does not come about through an innocent process, let alone the innocence of whiteness” (140).

The media has been another tool used to effectively reproduce misperceptions about people of color, creating fear and reproducing white supremacist ideologies. As technology continues to intensify within social mediums, specifically when ideologies about phenotype or dark-skin versus light skin are (re)produced there are increased tensions between people of color and white communities. Visible ethnic characteristics of dark-skinned individuals continue to be profiled and viewed as criminal, savage, sexual, less-than human and promoted as so within the media. Dulce Maria Juarez Aguilar’s vignette, “mujer con piel bronce,” expresses her displeasure with the media’s imposed stereotypes in film, advertisements, and television shows. She acknowledges the power of media and how children learned from cartoons, television and other media. When Walt Disney’s cartoon of Pocahontas was released, her life changed. At the time of the release of Pocahontas, she had long flowing black hair, oval-shaped eyes and dark brown skin. The cartoon character created an image of imagination, an image of dis-belief (cartoonish), and promoted stereotypes of Indigenous females. As she lived within whitestream America, she remembers at first being called Pocahontas on occasion, but then became known as Pocahontas for years. This new name was not selected by her, it was not viewed as a compliment, but instead was used with malice and in a derogatory context. Juarez discussed her obstacles in defending herself from the daily racist statements and behaviors; however, after Pocahontas aired, she began battling the additional stereotypes and sexist attitudes about brown females. This cartoon character added to her identity crisis, which promoted overcompensation in using blue, green, purple eye contacts and wearing clothing that covered all of her skin, cutting her hair and dying it with blonde streaks. She expresses that her combats were already stressful within her daily routines, but emphasizes that media was destructive as a much more influential resource, creating a massive medium to influence the minds of children and adults.

This powerful source of communication continues to sub-culture individuals who are not esteemed as a people or are not viewed as contributing members of society; moreover, their humanness is altogether amputated from their existence and demonized for their non-whiteness. These types of power relationships frequently internalize white supremacist ideologies, actions and practices, which commonly create separate social spaces and locations, unexamined behaviors, and ultimately elitist hierarchies, a form of othering (López, 2010).

The impact of dehumanizing practices within systematic structures that lead people to believe they are the Other is influential in transforming individuals and in framing how persons are viewed as knowledgeable or imbeciles, as human or non-human, or simply as Rodriguez has stated, the enemy. One of the vignettes in Rodriguez’s article by Georgie Noguera expresses concern about learning how to “Other” a group of individuals from the Maya community. In her testimonio, Noguera illustrates her grandfather’s understandings of superiority, based on phenotype. She describes her grandmother with dark pigmentation, black wavy hair and her grandfather as a proud Guatemalteco with European heritage. She stressed that her grandfather was very proud of having European ancestry and would do everything to prevent her skin color from getting darker. She was taught that she should not be an Indian, and it was clear to her that there was a social class or hierarchy that existed which included the Indians to be the least respected, appreciated, and recognized as human beings. Noguera learned early in her life that she should not extend humanizing gestures to Mayan or Indigenous peoples, such as her experience in stepping off the side walk for a pregnant Maya woman who held an infant in her arms. As a child, her grandfather chastised her for rendering kindness and humanizing behaviors to a Maya family and made it very clear to her that she should not extend any courteous or valued sentiments to Indians. She was informed that she is not an Indian and should not act like an Indian by giving up her cultural capital. In addition, her grandparents made a conscientious effort to prevent her skin color from becoming darker by being kept out of the sun. She was not allowed to play with her friends outdoors, which were extra measures to ensure she would not get darker. Noguera also shared there was a period in her life when she wished her hair was blond, her eyes were blue, and that she would someday have children with European characteristics and features. She wished to change her brown shades of color to de-Indigenize herself and increase the likelihood of her grandfather’s acceptance.

In addition, Stewart-Harawira (2005) declares there is a social construction of “Other” that is similar to the identity of a terrorist, that is non-White and non-Christian, and, by definition, non-civilized and barbaric. She further explains there is a “hierarchization of difference,” where the rhetoric of terrorism operates to create new constructions of difference, the Other, and has the legal obligation to obey it (154).

According to Cornell West (1999), Othering has taken place for people of color, such as Africans and Indigenous communities, whose humanity has been questioned legally and socially in the United States. It is not uncommon to find people of color whose humanity is questioned, wearing orange jumpsuits with their ankles shackled with chains linked to their waist and their wrists and connected with chains to others of a similar phenotype, an image noted by an African American group, as dejavú for images of the slaves (un)boarding the ships at the ports—this in reference to Tucson’s Operation Streamline. Through existing social structures, individuals’ political and economic capital, their resources and social position in society will be granted or taken away. This form of terrorism is an example of colonization that continues today. Profiling for “aliens,” “illegals,” “terrorists,” or “suspicious” people is typically a legal system that aggressively pursues individuals with a dark complexion. Othering is another permissible function of the law, created under the auspice of racism, to dehumanize individuals. West claims humanity and power are interconnected and when people lose their understanding and appreciation of their existence, their ability to critically analyze their condition is unsatisfactory in their “freedom fight” (p. 222). The feelings of hopelessness and helplessness among the marginalized may suggest that the loss of “freedom fight,” is the result of losing one’s dignity, humanity, and value in life. The relationship between hegemony and humanity in herstoricities/historicities is illustrated throughout cultural imperialism and colonization periods, particularly with slavery, and the creation of public policy where peoples’ forced migration and objectification occurred and where people were dehumanized by abolishing their Spirit of Being and ultimately stripping their dignity (López 2010).

These shared stories and vignettes by Botello, Noguera, and Aguayo illustrate the integrated strategies to effectively divide and conquer non-white communities via embedded internalized oppressive ideologies, specifically the promotion of whiteness utilized to destroy an individual’s self-worth and dominate communities’ relationships and self-determination. The added implications of xenophobia within communities of color are life threatening to individuals, along with the survival of people of color’s communities. Hegemony and its correlation to culture in relationship to societal structures that include white supremacist values and ideologies have been instrumental in cultural genocide. Individuals from non-European communities were tortured, imprisoned, punished, and killed by governing officials and bounty hunters if found to be practicing the use of their heritage, language, spiritual beliefs, cultural traditions, or simply because they were viewed as the Other.

The psychological impact of racism has been inter-generational and resumes full strength. Assertions suggest people of color inadvertently develop what De La Torre-Mac Neil (2011) describes as cultural schizophrenia or what Williams (2013) and Yellow Horse Brave Heart (2010) maintain is the cause of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, both causing internal oppression and self-destruction due to the dehumanization faced on a regular basis. Yaotl Mazahua’s testimonio in Rodriguez’ article, offers an example of how xenophobia became part of his life through the intergenerational transference of white supremacy through his mother’s behaviors toward his father. Although he explains that his mother and father were both dark complexioned and both from the same Pueblo, he describes his mother’s conduct comprised of an oppressor’s dehumanizing and emasculating tactics with his father. He shared that when his mother would become angry with his father, she would shout, “pinche cara de Papago!!!! … Indio Feo” and would dishonor him by calling him, “Indio Cambujo” (Cambujo is a term in Spanish that refers to a person of Indian-Black heritage). He states his mother would emasculate his father instantly when she focused on the color of his skin and on his Indigenous features, characteristics, and heritage, ultimately destroying his Spirit of Being. Mazahua discusses the painful and demoralizing experiences that his father would undergo when his mother dehumanized him. He explains that his father would lose self-control and eventually his body language and his actions illustrated defeat when he would get to a point of sobbing, whimpering, quivering, grimacing, and eventually crying. As in Mazahua’s testimonio, it is recognized that integrated strategies to effectively divide and conquer non-European-American communities via embedded internalized oppressive ideologies and practices, specifically in the authors’ vignettes within Rodriguez’ article, have been utilized to promote whiteness and colorism by destroying individuals’ self-worth, dehumanizing individuals, committing cultural genocide and dominating communities.

Furthermore, xenophobia has been included in policies, practices, and laws, such as English-Only, Racial Profiling, Arizona’s anti-immigrant SB1070 and the anti-Ethnic Studies HB 2281, discrepancies in school policies for students of color that include short-term and indefinite suspensions, the disproportionate number of students of color in special education, the common practices by teachers and educators that include low expectations for children of color, the incongruities in the number of prisoners that are people of color and the inconsistencies for sentences that exist for the same conviction, environmental rights, etc., to force the amputation of one’s being; history, culture, language and the make-up of one’s identity is severed so that people can exist among the living-dead and for some, an imposed identity of self-hatred is a result of xenophobia (Russell, 2002).

As consciousness (re)awakens, these stories and vignettes offer examples of xenophobic acts, how oppression has created tensions within families, communities and society, thus affirming a need for transformative action to take place. These actions require individuals to begin with critical reflections of their own language, behaviors, and a re-awakening of conscientious critical acts. Individuals have the power to change systems and white supremacist ideologies within themselves, family and community social structures. There are often discussions about the structures and systems of racism or institutional racism that cause oppressive conditions; however, it is recognized that people are the structures and systems that move within borders that proceed in its survival, subsistence, and (re)production. A social system or structure cannot survive without individuals believing, reproducing and strengthening colonialism.

The healing, reflections and conscientious naming of the destructive act(s) improves individuals’ lives and promotes the individual’s self-identity, self-determination, and Being, so that they may live as a whole human being, inclusive of mind, body, and spirit. These vignettes and stories shared in this article illustrate diverse forms of racism that have placed whiteness at the center of their lives. Whiteness, as an inner theme of the experiences noted, is what Pyke (2010) defines as a symptom of the disease (colonization) and is clearly not the disease itself. Individuals who demonstrate racism within their language or behaviors are only a result of the historical, systemic, and ideological manifestations of power to serve, maintain, and protect white supremacy, as noted by Haynes-Writer (2004).

Finally, in these vignettes and stories, the shared-experiences commonly took place when the authors were in their most vulnerable state, a time that is classically safeguarded by loved ones and is also the most poignant time of their lives. The majority of these shared stories took place as young children, a moment in life when individuals’ identity and spirit is killed or strengthened. Children are the most susceptible to power and domination. It is through school policies and practices that children learn to become the oppressed and the colonizers. We must never forget the missions for boarding schools in the United States: “kill the Indian, and save the man,”6 teach the students to obey, follow orders, indoctrinate children into a rewards and punishment system that honors behaviors regulated by whitestream America; another was to subjugate children to a form of indentured slavery. Often, schools have been recognized as a corporate industry to conform and domesticate children into the Westernized Eurocentric-dominant society, structures, and systems. The schools’ mission to civilize “them,” create an acculturation process for which the European culture, morals, values, and ideologies could be instilled is contended by Grande (2004), Leonardo (2002), Urrieta (2009) and others. Adams (1995) adds that institutional hegemony works toward extinction, and MariJo Moore’s 2003 anthology demonstrates schooling experiences have committed genocide of the mind, further illustrating that the institution of schooling is another system to de-harmonize, de-humanize, and de-Indianize—or kill the Indians.

To conscientiously learn what is being transmitted in and through schools, we need to ask several questions: Who are the teachers in the classrooms? What theoretical frameworks guide their teaching and practices? Do curricula, materials, educators and schools mirror the students and their communities? What languages, ideologies, and ideals leak into teaching practices, presentations, and student-teacher relationships? What have children learned in school about their skin color, their families, community, and history? How does schooling shape students’ understandings, practices, identities, life experiences with privilege, class, citizenship and racism and more importantly, their everyday being? What are children’s home environments, communities, and larger society constructs doing to positively or negatively shape their identities, relationships, and being? How are children learning about colorism, racism, and supremacy within their families and communities? And lastly, how many hours of children’s lives have been influenced by television and other social mediums to gain the tools to become an oppressor or dogma of the oppressed?

Through the authors voiced in Rodriguez’ article, there is a collected reality of racism and colorism. There is a notion that within the day-to-day routines of individuals, and within the larger society, colonialism takes place as the oppressed continue to oppress. The intentional dehumanizing denunciation of particular groups is a common historical reality in which socio-political hierarchies were, and still are, designed to negatively differentiate the perceived “savage,” the pagan, and the non-European American communities—specifically anyone different or non-white. The core of whiteness is power. Effects of white supremacy and racism can no longer be dismissed; there have been too many generations that have had their Spirit of Being destroyed, disharmonized, or killed by the enslavement of oppressors. As Harris & Ordoña (1990) suggest,

racism seeps into our systems like poison, kills off pieces of our selves as we build a tolerance for it. We have learned to survive with our insides, our essential selves, rotting away. We build protective walls to ward off the poison and the “protection” becomes a prison. The prison limits our choices to be and we live only as others have determined. The poison of oppression becomes our food, food that nourishes the prison but not the self…our psyches build a tolerance for the pain inflicted by oppression. (p. 305)

By listening and hearing these stories, we can distinguish that self-hate and other effects of colonialism are reversible. Healing can take place. The authors’ actions to share their stories not only offer an opportunity to heal, but also includes an act to identify and name the effects of colonialism within their families, schools, and community. The narratives and vignettes address the pain, the disharmony, the wounds, and also alerts individuals of the significant impacts colonization is responsible for. In addition, the authors’ actions to voice their stories promotes self-reflection for transformational changes to occur, thus, preventing any further dehumanization of self or agency of dehumanizing others; they have taken actions to (re)awaken individual’s critical literacy skills and consciousness by questioning, challenging, and/or creating opportunities for individuals’ herstoricities/historicities to be shared. The authors have also re-established a sense of sociopolitical responsibility as they unveiled their truths, resiliency, and risk-taking action to denounce xenophobia and blatant and/or normalized racism, while ultimately offering a message for hope.

The authors were courageous to illustrate their painful experiences with internal oppression, racism, and colorism. One apparent correlation that existed amongst a majority of authors, from several countries and demographic locations, was the distressing and dehumanizing experiences with xenophobia and racism during their childhood years. The innocence of children’s spirits and psyches being wounded, stifled, or killed creates a sense of indignation. We can no longer speak about liberation, freedom, or democracy to children when children themselves are the innocent being preyed upon by the colonizer. Learning to be an oppressor or the oppressed begins early in life and children must be conscious from becoming complicit with dehumanizing acts, hegemony, and xenophobia.

This is the time to heal, deconstruct, and de-colonize oneself. This is the time to confront and eradicate the hostility and violence that colonialism multiplies within individuals, communities, societies and the world. This is the time to actively engage children in significant (re)awakenings of one’s consciousness, partner with them to deconstruct their realities in schools, in communities, and to critically reflect on their racialized understandings and experiences. This is the time to build and strengthen children’s resiliency to prevent life-long effects and/or involvement in dominating another person. This is the time to intervene by teaching children to think critically, question, problem solve, dream, plan, create, learn her/his herstory/history, culture, traditions, and to strengthen her/his identity. This is the time to (re)connect with ancestors’ ways of knowing, ways of being, and to respect oneself, our families, our communities, and our mother earth.


1. Defined by Ruiz (2002) as cultural, intellectual genocide and territorial theft that has displaced individuals in society by Europeans, resulting in “Anglocentric” [Eurocentric] hegemonic relationships, structures and discourses.

2. Lorde (1992) describes racism one group’s belief that they are superior over all others and have a right to dominate.

3. The Brazilian Educator and Critical Theorist, Paulo Freire (1974, 2002) coined the term conscientizacão,creating a profound theoretical critical consciousness that includes critical literacies to include socio-political understandings and inquiries leading to action against oppression and social justice.

4. The darkness or lightness of one’s skin provides a disadvantage or privilege. Colorism typically favors lighter skin over darker skin as described by Bonilla-Silva (2009), Burke (2008), and Hall (2005).

5. I am a Yoeme hamut and citizen of the Pascua Yaqui nation whose family is from Barrio Libre and the City of South Tucson. In my rich multicultural environment, tribal members from the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, Tohono O’odham Nation, Chicanas/Chicanos and Mexicans all contributed to my ontological and epistemological understandings.

6. Richard Pratt (1892) is associated with the creation of boarding schools for American Indian children in the United States and with the intention of using those schools to “kill the Indian to save the man.”


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Ruiz, D.D. 2002. “Teki lenguas del vollotzín (cut tongues from the heart): Colonialism, borders, and the politics of space. In A.J. Aldama and N.H. Qui&tilden;onez (Eds.), Decolonial voice: Chicana and Chicano cultural studies in the 21st century. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, p. 355-65.

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Writing Greater Indigenous Mexico: Mid-Century American Indians Look South for Revolutionary Possibilty

Review by Crystal M. Kurzen

The Red Land to the South: American Indian Writers and Indigenous Mexico
James H. Cox
Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-8166-7598-2
288 pages, 14 b&w photos

In his recent text, The Red Land to the South: American Indian Writers and Indigenous Mexico, James H. Cox focuses his analysis on American Indian writers engaging with Mexico or indigenous Mexican peoples, cultures, and histories during the middle decades of the twentieth century, 1920-1960, the interwar and early contemporary era. Although several American Indian scholars have pointed to these years as a period of dormancy for Native writing and intellectualism, Cox joins this conversation hoping to “define with precision and clarity the American Indian literary history of this era” (2). The decades Cox uses to narrow his study remain, in large part, underexamined by scholars in the field of American Indian Studies, and Cox’s contribution is significant. While he organizes his chapters around the various works of Todd Downing (Choctaw), Lynn Riggs (Cherokee), and D’Arcy McNickle (Confederated Salish and Kootenai), who all invoke indigenous Mexico in some way during this forty year period under investigation, Cox ultimately puts these authors in dialogue with contemporary, American Indian Literary Renaissance writers Gerald Vizenor (Anishinabe) and Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna Pueblo) who similarly reference indigenous Mexico much later in the twentieth century on the occasion of the Columbian Quincentennial.

Cox begins his study by emphasizing how Mexico figures into the works of the major authors he includes, though he also draws on examples from the writings of John Joseph Mathews (Osage), John Milton Oskison (Cherokee), and Will Rogers (Cherokee), among others. Articulating the importance of Mexico for these writers, he mentions, with regard to Downing, Riggs, and McNickle in particular, that “the settler-colonial nation on the other side of the United States’ almost two-thousand-mile-long southern border […] is a landscape resonant with exciting anticolonial possibilities that were to them much less visible, or nonexistent, in the United States” at the time (2-3). Drawing from a variety of historical and anthropological sources to help his reader understand how indigeneity gets defined in the US and Mexico during this time, Cox articulates why indigenous Mexico figures so prominently in the works of the authors in his study as this imagined community offers “indigenous strength, cultural cohesion, and potentially transformative political power” that these writers could not access within the US (5). He even goes so far as to say that the authors he studies “optimistically, but at times inaccurately, represented this overflow of indigeneity to a U.S. audience as a powerful cultural and political force in Mexico. This lack of correspondence among textual and lived Mexicos, however, did not diminish the potential political value of these representations and narratives of revolution” (8). Arguing that narratives of indigenous Mexico already existed in some American Indian tribal histories, such as the Cherokees, Choctaw, and Mexicas, Cox expands Américo Paredes’s concept of Greater Mexico, “‘all the areas inhabited by people of Mexican culture—not only within the present limits of the Republic of Mexico but in the United States as well—in a cultural rather than a political sense,’” to name both the geographical and metaphorical spaces of Greater Indigenous Mexico and a Greater Indian Territory (19). Regardless of the setting of borders by settler-colonial nations like the US and Mexico, Cox contends that many indigenous peoples in the US see Mexico as part of a shared homeland, and with their works, the authors in this study therefore produce “an indigenous American transnational or transborder imaginary” that ultimately speaks to specific tribal-nation contexts (19).

In Chapter 1, Cox takes Todd Downing as his subject in order to examine how his novels critique both the colonial presence and neocolonial invasion of Mexico by “U.S. tourists, academics, journalists, smugglers, drug addicts, kidnappers, and criminal venture capitalists” (27). Through careful and thorough close readings, Cox argues that Downing imagines a space for indigenous Mexican resistance to these forces, and ultimately depicts indigenous autonomy in his detective novel The Cat Screams (1934). In Chapter 2, Cox discusses Lynn Riggs, specifically his Mexican plays A World Elsewhere (ca. 1934-37) and The Year of Pilár (ca. 1935-38) within the context of “loud and unequivocal” indigenous revolution and resistance to colonial occupation (65). Chapter 3 allows Cox a return to Downing with an analysis of his nonfiction, historical account in The Mexican Earth (1940). Cox asserts that with this text, Downing “practices a diplomacy that foregrounds an indigenous-to-indigenous transnational relationship [that] promotes an antiracist, anticolonial transindigenous American politics” (109). This work, like those discussed in earlier chapters, highly anticipates the works of the American Indian Literary Renaissance usually thought to be initiated by N. Scott Momaday’s publication of A House Made of Dawn in 1968. In Chapter 4, Cox considers indigenous kinship between indigenous peoples of the US Southwest and Mesoamerica in D’Arcy McNickle’s Runner in the Sun (1954) and names McNickle a literary bridge “between the progressive era, in which he was born in 1904, and the American Indian civil rights era, in which he died in 1977” (151). Cox examines Gerald Vizenor’s The Heirs of Columbus (1991) and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead (1991) in Chapter 5, arguing that the texts discussed earlier in the book ask similar questions about the potential for revolution in indigenous Mexico that these two texts do as they wrestle with the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s “discovery” of the Americas.

Ultimately in The Red Land to the South, Cox offers evidence that the period between 1920-1960 belongs in discussions about American Indian literary history and outlines a number of important political and cultural interventions that align American Indians in the US with indigenous Mexico. In the Conclusion, Cox describes his study as one that “identifies, defines, and contextualizes a mid-twentieth-century transnational American Indian literary politics that coheres with the renaissance and Red Power and repudiates the invented border between the two eras” (197). At the same time, Cox issues a call to scholars of various disciplines to recuperate and critically examine texts and authors of this era. Although he tells very particularized stories about American Indians writing in the mid-twentieth century, he acknowledges additional avenues of inquiry for those who come after him. Recognizing that a forty year period cannot be defined by only “a few male members of a privileged educated and socioeconomic class,” Cox offers compelling evidence about the importance of the works of the authors he explores and asks scholars to reconsider this period as one that is rich for transnational inquiry and kinship possibilities between indigenous peoples (203).

This text contributes to a multitude of larger conversations going on in American Indian Studies, Chican@ Studies, American Studies, History, Anthropology, and Cultural Studies. Drawing on methodology from all of these disciplines, Cox convinces readers to give this era more careful study and encourages them to think much more widely about transnational indigenous politics in the Americas. The Red Land to the South fills an important gap for scholars of contemporary American literatures.

Smiling Brown: Gente de Bronce—People the Color of the Earth

By Roberto “Dr. Cintli” Rodriguez

I begin this essay on brown skin color and color consciousness with memories of my early childhood when I would sit on the porch step of my house in an alley on Whittier Boulevard in East LA and absorb the rays of the blazing hot sun. When I did this, I was constantly warned to stay out of the sun lest I get darker. I never paid any heed because I was already dark, and my body craved the rays of the sun. It was the heat I wanted; it made me feel good. It brought comfort to me, and sitting out in the hot sun (or when I grew older, playing basketball shirtless for hours on end) had nothing to do with my skin color, or so I thought. In one sense, whoever was giving me those admonitions was preoccupied not so much with the sun, but with my skin color—this in a society that has always favored light-skin.

New Mexico poet Demetria Martinez once described me in a poem on racial profiling, “Driving While Brown,” as unable to hide my Indian blood. “He is as dark as chocolate,” she writes (2005, 122). I always felt that was my skin color, except in Arizona where I feel it changes to red-brown.

I remember many years ago, an elder, Ernie Longwalker Peters, told me that when you mix the colors of maíz: red, white, yellow and blue—which represent all the peoples of the world—you get the color brown. I wish I had heard those words when I was growing up because most of my early memories in regards to skin color are negative. For example, I remember walking home from junior high school in the 1960s and one of my friends telling me: “Mexicans are the color of dirt!” I remember not knowing how to respond because he meant it as an insult, and at that time, I didn’t relate dirt with the Earth. That’s where the subtitle for this essay comes from, Gente de Bronce: People the Color of the Earth. Society taught me at a very young age that dirt was a bad thing and that it was an ugly color.

The issue of color isn’t simply something external; color, even when unstated, is also an internal issue among Mexicans and other people of the Americas.1 This is true even in the home. Whether verbalized or not, color consciousness is omnipresent and is directly linked to issues of indigeneity. In other words, these communities tend to show a preference for light skin that is not necessarily related to the black-white racial paradigm in the United States. It actually goes back to the era of Spanish colonization when deep anti-Indigenous attitudes first developed.

This work is part of an ongoing long-term project exploring colonially inflected color consciousness and bias. The preliminary thoughts here are based on work that I have undertaken the past several years, and they. This work compels me to acknowledge that the issue of skin color requires more than collecting data and research in cultural, sociological, and psychological studies or otherwise. Instinctively, most people know that in this society being white or light-skinned generally affords one privileges, and the reverse is true if one is dark—and in this case, brown. The objective of this work is to expose people to powerful narratives which have been suppressed for perhaps some 500 years. In one sense, this is an issue that cannot be resolved simply in the public arena because, often, a large component of it involves issues within families or among close friends, neighbors, and schoolmates. This has to be resolved in peoples’ homes, in their kitchens, dining rooms, or living rooms.2 They are difficult conversations to have. Conversations about the dehumanizing effects of light-skin preference are akin to conversations about incest; it is not something that is spoken about openly and publicly. The primary reason is that those who engage in such bias appear to be clueless that it constitutes a specifically racial bias and instead perpetuates destructive effects. Just as they are unaware of their prejudice, they are seemingly oblivious of the damage done to those who are closest to them. Because of this oppressive normalization of light-skin preference, speaking out against it has long-been taboo (perhaps because no one wants to admit to those biases and inferiority complexes).

That being the case, the approach here is to bring the conversations out into the open via testimonios as unfiltered and as unedited as possible. The testimonios are raw and, for many, still very painful. For the reader, I hope these views are insightful. They are painful and penetrating because these conversations have, in effect, not yet taken place as light-skin preference continues to be normalized among peoples of Mexican/Central American/Indigenous heritage. For many, the pain is so intense that, even after fifty years in some cases, the negative associations with these memories have not gone away. Some of the people who provided their testimonios here did so on condition of not being identified. What could be so painful that, even after all these years, there is trauma associated with these memories? Of those who have responded thus far, beyond recognizing that it is a time to finally be heard, they recognize this to be a long-awaited, cathartic, healing opportunity. It isn’t that brown skin color is special (all colors are special), but that it represents a silenced color and silenced, often invisibilized, peoples.

This color is repeatedly associated not simply with Mexicans and Central and South Americans here in the United States, but with Indigenous peoples of this continent, which constitutes a large part of this story. This experience can be told in different ways, but after years of dealing with this topic, including reading academic literature, I believe that testimonio is the best-suited method for bringing these long suppressed narratives to the foreground. Relative to African Americans, there are fewer studies on this topic in regards to brown peoples in the United States. However, enough have been undertaken for most people to know the obvious; light-skin preference is favored in these communities with many negative consequences. Yet, what is missing from these studies is not the theoretical voice on this topic, but rather the actual voices of those who are subjected to these biases, voices that go to the root of what I deem to be anti-Indigenous attitudes. This is the reason for choosing testimonios and personal narratives to bring this issue into the light.

The Question

This project seeks to examine issues of memory and voice. While there is a myriad of issues associated with this topic, what is unique in this undertaking is that I give primacy to the voices of those who have lived these experiences, particularly to their childhood memories. Providing these testimonios liberates those subsumed or suppressed voices. The primary voices I have collected are from people with identifiably red-brown skin, but the voices of family members are also a part of this project, not all of whom have “dark” skin. What I have collected thus far affirms that these kinds of stories have rarely made it into the public consciousness, something that needs to happen even before a healing can take place.

What the voices reveal is a rich, deep and often traumatic narrative, in effect, the open veins—or flayed skin—of the narrators’ cultures. It is an incredible hidden narrative that has probably existed since the arrival of Europeans to this continent.

The thesis of this project is simply that, culturally, these voices have historically been suppressed, both intentionally and unintentionally. It is my hope that merely airing these voices will contribute to understanding a larger narrative of this continent, one which I believe is a suppressed Indigenous narrative, perhaps a de-colonial narrative.

While some people might think that the issue of color is no longer relevant in these “post-racial” times, for those who are brown or who visually appear to be “Mexican” or Indigenous of different shades of brown, these issues do not reside in the past. Among those within the Mexican American community who adhere to the idea that color has ceased to be an issue is former assistant superintendent, Lupita Cavazos Garcia. Facing high school students who had walked out of school due to the dismantling of the Mexican American Studies (MAS) program, Garcia asserted that racism is not related to color, stating:

But I’m an exact example of the fact that racism as much as you want to say is about your color. It’s not now. It’s about the level of your education. That’s where a lot of the prejudice is coming. It doesn’t matter if you’re Black, Hispanic, Asian… if you’re highly educated you’re going to be highly respected. (“TUSD’s Lupita Garcia” 2012)

As a light-skinned, blonde, Latina, that may be her experience and/or perception; however, virtually all the students rejected her and her message that if they wanted to learn about Mexican history, Mexico is where they could learn it, not the United States.3 Her statement at minimum shows a huge disconnect in terms of racial perceptions between herself and the Mexican American students she was addressing. Perhaps she was not discriminated against in her life—because of her light skin—but the students she was addressing felt not simply discriminated against, but, in this situation, attacked by her.

I first became interested in this topic when a friend of mine asked me in the 1970s why I obsessed over my skin color. I was taken aback by her question. “It’s not me that obsesses over my skin color; it’s the world that obsesses over it,” I responded. I was very familiar with the concept of “breathing while brown,” though all through the 1960s, I probably identified it simply with anti-Mexicanism. In those days, I used to be called a mojado, wetback or dirty Mexican seemingly every day.

My friend is a light-skinned Chicana, but her sister also had chocolate brown skin. She told me that she and her family had not grown up thinking about skin color and that if I didn’t believe her, to ask her sister. Shortly thereafter, I did.

Her sister was also taken aback by my question. She relayed to me that as a child, she was constantly referred to as a “nigger,” and that she was demeaned precisely because of her skin color. I never brought up the issue with them again, but it gave me food for thought. They had lived under the same roof their entire lives, and yet, the lighter-skinned sister was apparently unaware of her sister’s daily reality. For me, that’s how long this idea for this essay and project has germinated.4 Their reality is very revealing. Many of those who do not wear brown skin appear to be unaware of what it is to live in a society that racially profiles brown peoples as illegal, views them as less than human, and views whiteness as the standard of beauty.

In the testimonios below, the reader will see many such related issues. But for this project, none is more important than the topic of indigeneity, de-Indigenization and the de-colonization of that de-indigenized identity. At the root of this complex and multilayered issue is its relationship to Indigenous consciousness or the lack thereof, including the need to address those deep-seated anti-Indigenous attitudes within Mexican, Latin American, Latina/o, and other Amerindigenous communities.

One example of the pervasiveness and early education in such attitudes comes from Tucson educator Norma Gonzalez, who explains here an exercise she does with her kindergarten students:

As an identity pre-assessment…I will invite students in the creation of a self -portrait…. About ten minutes into the activity, I will start to see them add hair and eye color. Sadly most of the brown female students will add yellow hair color even though they have dark brown hair color. They will color blue eyes instead of their multiple shades of brown and black colored eyes. As I inquire about their choice of hair and eye color, I find out through our conversations that yellow (blonde) and blue are beautiful and pretty; brown and black are ugly:

Gonzalez: “why did you color your hair yellow? You have beautiful brown hair?” “And why did you color your eyes blue? You have beautiful brown eyes.”

Female student: “That’s because blonde is prettier and the people on TV have blonde hair and blue eyes.”

These children appear to have already normalized these attitudes before their pre-K school years. Gonzalez’s work with children on these topics is reminiscent of the Clark Doll Experiment in which Black children prefer the white dolls, a phenomenon that the researchers labeled as stigmatic injury (Clark and Clark, 1950).

The testimonios I have gathered demonstrate that the kinds of admonitions I received for bathing in the sun and, more importantly, the sentiments behind them, are endemic in our cultures. Their effects continue to be felt among our youth, affecting their public lives, even though we typically only tell these stories in private. Because these issues are so widespread, entire communities may in fact be suffering from what some scholars, such as M.Y.H. Brave Heart, refer to as historical trauma (1998: 287-305).

The association between brown skin color and indigeneity is key to this understanding. The connection seems obvious, but it is not necessarily because most Mexicans and other brown peoples of the Americas are either de-Indigenized or Indigenous-based “mestizos” (racially mixed). Part of de-Indigenization often involves shame and denial related to things Indigenous, which includes skin color, and an acceptance of those sometimes complex identities which in the United States can also involve other mixtures.5 What is often unspoken is that the rejection of brown skin color is part of a colonial residue or imprint, a rejection of things Indigenous. This internalized oppression seems to be the subtext for virtually all the stories I have gathered (Padilla 2001).6


In terms of my academic identity, I am a life-long journalist/columnist, though writer/storyteller also could describe me just as well. For this project, the methodology is story or more precisely, testimonio. This is the method that I have chosen to elicit stories—in peoples’ own words—from those who have lived or still live the reality of color bias. When this issue has previously been addressed, it has been addressed primarily as a media or beauty issue (Johnson and Huey-Ohlisson 2003: 167), usually ignoring issues of indigeneity. When the voices of those affected are present, they are usually subsumed (Hunter 2002) or reflect the researcher’s emphasis as opposed to the memories of the respondents, resulting in little or no discussion of indigeneity (Stephens and Fernandez 2012). This is not to suggest that the work of other researchers is less valid, rather, that most seek explanations as to why light skin offers privileges or confirmation that the privilege does exist. In this work, by contrast, I seek the origins of such privilege, and, equally as important, the voices of those who live the negative consequences of that bias and privilege. In the work here, light-skin preference is treated as part of a more totalizing cultural trait, arguably traced to the era of Spanish colonialism.

In conducting this initial work, I contacted friends, colleagues and acquaintances through various means to request testimonies/vignettes regarding their memories and experiences of skin color bias or privilege.7 In this essay, I have integrated excerpts from their testimonios. Initially, I was more interested in vignettes from peoples’ formative years to see how those memories continue to affect attitudes in later life. But as I began to have conversations, I realized that this issue is not something that goes away during childhood. In fact, for many of us, it is the reverse. As adults, many of us live it harshly and brutally in relationship to encounters with law enforcement, including the migra.8

This brings us to the backstory behind this project: that there is a perception by some/many with brown skin that there are others who do not want this subject broached, or want to make sure the views of peoples with light skin are also included (which they are). There is not just one concept of what constitutes brown skin or people the color of the earth, or what that means. For instance, some scholars correctly note that “dark brown” can have a different meaning to African Americans as compared to Mexican Americans and Indigenous peoples (Hunter 2002: 188). Similarly, Latinas/os can be racialized as brown by their language, accent, even by their surname regardless of their actual self-image or skin color.

A survey of Raza literature reveals that there is a plethora of works related to culture, history, identity, language, education, politics, race, ethnicity, nationality, immigration status, and even indigeneity, yet relatively little emphasis on skin color, particularly its internal dimension. What I am positing here is that these other discussions tend to substitute for discussions on skin color. Better yet, discussions on skin color are silenced or subsumed in the public sphere. This project does not assume that the concepts—skin color and the cultural traits traditionally emphasized in Chicana/o studies—are synonymous. This may sound counter-intuitive as the color brown in this country was/is associated with Chicanos/Chicanas. In reality, the association, too, is with indigeneity, though usually unstated. But “Brown Power” and “Brown is beautiful” are powerful political slogans that emanated from el movimiento chicano. They were liberating, unifying and even de-colonial, but one rarely hears much about those concepts today—though it is not uncommon to hear or read about the “browning of America” or the Hispanicization or Latinization of the nation.9 While many of these references associate the “browning of America” with culture, the testimonios below reveal the cultural, familial, and political/de-colonial implications of skin color consciousness.

Obsessing Over Color

Here is a story from a friend, a First Nations woman from Canada, Martha Many Grey Horses, shedding light on the internal nature of this reality, invoking the black/dark skin is bad narrative. After having worked in the orchards in the United States, she describes coming back with a tan:

…an older male cousin said to me “you burned dark like a black woman” in our Blackfoot language. Years later, as I got older and more consciously aware of the forces of internalized racism, I mentioned not only what he did to me but what happens to people who are oppressed and how they themselves become the oppressor. . . . He listened and he apologized.

As part of her testimonio, she also sent in another powerful vignette about what children observe and what they feel, when exposed to such hate:

Breathing brown! Powerful words that trigger memories of my childhood in a Canadian residential school! As a child I didn’t speak English—Blackfoot was my own language. Breathing brown at this young age in that situation meant that I was afraid! Breathing and holding my breath as I—a brown girl—would silently watch the kindergarten teacher—an elderly white woman—while my stomach quivered. . . . During those frightening moments I experienced in the residential school, I didn’t listen for English words but I listened—watchfully—to the teacher’s breath, her body movement, her face, her facial expressions, her hands, and her pace! If there was the slightest quickness of her breath, movement, pace and especially tension on her face, she scared me…. All of these signs and actions suggested she didn’t like us brown babies especially those of us who were more brown…. She was kinder to the light-skinned children. . . . Breathing brown—two appropriate words, long last found, words of liberation . . .

Common sense informs us that young children are probably not conscious of the deep racial implications of light-skin preference and prejudice, but here, Many Grey Horses shows otherwise. I would tend to agree that very young children may not understand complex theories, but they can easily pick up on hate and prejudice, regardless of the source.

“Breathing While Brown”

The issue of “breathing while brown,” when one becomes older, is closely related to “driving while brown.” However, the issue of color goes deeper than issues of societal discrimination. Often, home, where children should feel the most welcome and the safest, is not sanctuary. Light skin generally has been favored within Mexican/Mexican American and so-called U.S.-Latino/Hispanic cultures where it is generally associated with beauty. Long-time El Paso columnist, Joe Olvera, recalls a memory that illustrates this:

When I was in the 7th grade, at La Jeff, we held a contest to select the most beautiful girl in our class. It was a tossup between Cruz, who was a light-skinned girl, and Gloria, who was very dark-skinned. Both girls were beautiful, but, we all felt that Gloria was slightly more beautiful than Cruz. One student, however, didn’t agree with us. He ranted and raved, saying that Cruz should have won merely because of her skin color, but we shot him down…[thereafter] this guy Joe X—who was also very light-skinned, started calling me Shadow.

One sees these attitudes that Olvera recounts most clearly in Spanish-language media where blondes predominate; however, this project is not focused on the media. My interest is in peoples’ first memories of color consciousness, as opposed to quantitative data regarding the effects of color prejudice. I have this interest because I suspect that when these encounters first took place during our formative years, they were probably confusing and traumatic. Here is a vignette from a friend, Alfonso Morales, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, describing his memory regarding his mother who was descended from a European émigré. He describes himself as having inherited his father’s river soaked earth color:

…The first moment I recall was when we lived in Albuquerque. I was five or six and we were at the public swimming pool. I climbed from the pool, walked to my mother laying on a towel and put my dark hand on her pale skin. With the simple innocence of youth, I asked her why I was so dark. I remember her eyes and the complexity of emotions expressed there. While not clearly something I could perceive, I saw concern, sadness, wonder, admiration, ay dios, a tangle of emotions that I still cannot fully express.

Such experiences during the early years no doubt contribute to how attitudes are shaped regarding issues of color, race, ethnicity, identity and especially indigeneity. No doubt these memories are stored away deep in the subconscious because society has not generally permitted their full expression. During the “Brown Power” era of the 1960s and 1970s, this form of expression flowered in political, artistic and poetic realms, but the full airing of this topic by those from within these communities was short-lived. The topic seemingly continues to be taboo.

As a child, I remember hearing Mexican Americans claiming to be Spanish, always insulting dark-skinned Mexicans. Yet, some of them were themselves dark and most of the insults were anti-Indigenous in nature.10 In this project, I am interested in bringing those childhood memories to the fore,11 as part of a healing process both for those sharing their suppressed memories and experiences and hopefully for those being exposed to them. Some of those who have shared their memories and experiences have done so in tears. Others simply relayed that it was too painful to recall them. One friend, Joaquin Galvan of Sacramento, California, sent me some of his early memories, but none involved color. When I informed him of this, he replied: “I think I blocked out the early memories of not being white. I might need therapy to bring them out, so I’ll have to pass for now.” He subsequently relayed that he was not kidding about this topic. Other friends also declined because they still have unresolved issues between and among family members or close friends.

Of those who have responded to this call for testimonios, not surprisingly, not everyone’s perceptions or recollections are the same. Even what and who is dark is relative to one’s own upbringing. For example, author Luis Rodriguez writes that his light-skinned brother Rano had a difficult time growing up in South Central L.A., which was majority African-American. He says,

In the summer, I darkened pretty well, kind of blending in. But not Rano. While most of our black neighbors were friendly, a few kids beat Rano up. He took a lot of his hurt out on me—physically abusing me, throwing me off rooftops, tying a rope around my neck and pulling me around the yard. Rano was three years older. I was a prickly haired sensitive prietito (dark kid)

Luis related that when his family moved to the San Fernando Valley, it was he with dark brown skin who was now being chased and beat up in that white part of L.A.

What all the testimonios share in common is that the memories are powerful. Here, a friend and colleague, Karen Mary Davalos, recounts her earliest memory. She tells her story of being in kindergarten to her classes at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles as part of an icebreaker. She speaks of sitting down to watch a movie on a rug, next to two girls with blonde hair and white skin. Turning to each other, one whispered:

“You touch her skin.”
“No, you touch it.”
“No, you do it. I bet you it feels like a snake.”

Eventually one of them reached over . . . and touched my skin, you know, like they were petting a dog for the first time. . . .

She said that in the fifteen years she has told the story, only once has she not cried:

I…don’t know where it comes from. It’s obviously really, really deep…because my mother taught me to love my skin color…. I really like myself…. But it still pains me, that story. I don’t think I will ever figure it out.

This is precisely the purpose of this project: to figure it out.

People the Color of the Earth

Olga Vianey González (Otomí/Yaqui), from Denver, relates a story on this topic, of having her heart broken, though not her spirit. Similar to Davalos’ story, González speaks of deep scars, which is very common in these testimonios, though in her case, the intergenerational scars originate with her grandmother:

On my father’s side, my grandmother (Otomi/Yaqui), who had struggled with her identity and internalized oppression all of her life, took one look at me when I was born and stated, “She can’t possibly be Jaime’s daughter. She’s too dark….” I would also hear her make comments about my cousins and how pretty they were because they were so blanquitas (white). It was clear to her that lighter skin was better, more desirable and more beautiful. Many years later, when I graduated from college, her “gift” to me was a jar of bleaching cream.

Olga relayed that she felt a deep hurt for her own grandmother, knowing that when she sent her that gift, that she still lived in that place of shame, a place Olga had left behind many years ago, when she began to understand her own Indigenous identity.

As evidenced here and in all the testimonios, those presenting their testimonios generally do not speak ill of those who created those traumas because, more often than not, they are family members. Sara Haskie Mendoza, who identifies as Indigenous, relates several painful memories, including from her light-skinned grandfather in Mexico City:

So I’m walking home . . . and my grandfather, when he saw me, he starts . . . kind of, like, asking for a hug . . . and he starts yelling: “Chapopotito. Ay estas. Chapopotito.” He was calling me tar . . . I knew it wasn’t out of malice. But it was so embarrassing. . . .

She shares another memory:

I noticed how the family always used the word beautiful, for any woman that was light-skinned . . . “Oh how beautiful. She is pretty.” . . . I was told that my aunt was wishing and hoping to have a child that was blonde and blue-eyed. And when she did have this child, she felt really accomplished. . . . Oh they embraced this blond, blue-eyed child; so fantastic.

Georgie Noguera also invokes painful memories of her grandparents, who raised her in Guatemala:

My grandmother was a dark skinned woman with very curly, black, wavy hair. My grandfather would tout his European heritage and brag about it to anyone within earshot. . . . As a young child, I cursed (whatever higher power I believed in at that time) for letting my skin attain that unattractive bronze shade in the summer sun that I loathed. My grandparents tried to keep me out of the sun and wouldn’t let me play with the other little kids in the neighborhood for that reason. I would stare at my face in the little mirror I had and wished my hair would be blond and that I had blue eyes. Maybe that would enable me to gain the elusive acceptance I longed for and increase my stock in the eyes of my grandfather.

This was the same grandfather who once yanked her arm and yelled: “Don’t be an Indian!” because she was going to step aside for a pregnant Maya woman, holding an infant, walking towards them on the same side of the street. It was an experience that traumatized Georgie. Georgie, who is dark, learned from her own grandfather how she was supposed to treat Indigenous peoples. In effect, this is not an atypical story of the continent. Attitudes such as these have been transmitted across the generations, literally, for some 500 years.

Mujer con Piel Bronce

Here’s the story and testimony of another friend, Dulce Maria Juarez Aguilar, from Phoenix, Arizona. They are about how she grew up ashamed of herself. It was her story and video that was sent out as a prototype to many of those who are sharing their memories here:12

It is empowering to me to even say it, color bronce, as it is a beautiful color, but I did not always feel this way about the color of my skin.

Growing up in the U.S. watching TV shows, movies or all other media-outlets, where all the kids and characters did not look like me, made me feel that I was different and not beautiful enough, because I was not light-skinned, blue eyed, and blonde.

. . . When Disney’s 1995 movie Pocahontas came out, most of my family members and some friends called me La Pocahontas! As I had long black hair, almond shaped eyes, native facial features and of course brown skin…Pocahontas was not a nickname of endearment, but rather a term of ridicule. In my nine-year-old, U.S. white-male dominated colonized mind, being brown, meant being ugly…. I hated being called Pocahontas. 

At the age of 13, my best friend had green eyes, was light skinned, and she was the most beautiful and popular girl in school. I wanted to look like her, and like many kids in the U.S., I went through an identity crisis. So I bought blue, green and even purple colored eye contacts to change my eye color, and would also, wear long-sleeved and pants or clothing that covered my skin color.

In high school . . . I had forgotten about my culture and did not want to look “brown” or be considered “Mexican.” I wanted to look white so that I would be accepted. So I wore lots of make-up, the light-toned foundation make-up, cut my hair short, and dyed it with blonde streaks. . . .”

Juarez also shared her thoughts of transformation with my students at the University of Arizona, who were enthralled by the power of her story:

All of this changed when I met Gaby, in college. She was a naturally beautiful indigenous hermana (sister), who lived her life as a ceremony…. Gaby and another indigenous sister Rosela who I love, were the first women that had ever told me how beautiful I looked without makeup on . . . They validated me and they always reminded me of how beautiful my brown skin was.

Gaby was also, a mentor to my best friend Silvia. Silvia and I spent endless hours discussing, not being good enough, not belonging because we did not have a “legal” immigration status. We talked about identity, capitalism, Chicanismo, language, race, conspiracies, and politics. Until finally I was full of rage….

On Saturdays, Gaby invited many students from our university to a local community indigenous center, where one of the elders shared stories and guidance about who we are, where we come from. . . . Attending ceremonies such as Temascales (sweat lodges), and continuing to learn about my indigenous part of my ancestry, connected me to Mother Earth, allowing for me to embrace my identity, my color, and understand myself. After my first temascal, I looked myself in the mirror and for once my skin color was now beautiful in my eyes.

When Juarez first shared her story, one student raised her hand to acknowledge that she still had feelings of inferiority regarding her skin color. It became an instantaneously transformative moment. That’s what gave rise to the idea that speaking publicly about these memories and presenting these testimonies would inspire others to want to do the same, and more than that, that it could perhaps also trigger a healing process.

The Role of the Media

Here, educator Nacho Quiñones of Las Cruces, New Mexico, ponders both the origins, and the role of the media in creating the kinds of discriminatory preferences evidenced in these powerful stories:

. . . the Spaniards implemented their caste system and, perhaps, this was the initiation for whiteness “being better than” brownness among many of our people—to this day. Certainly, this was later reinforced by the massive propaganda by Hollywood and Mexican movies, magazines, etc., portraying almost 100% of its positive characters as white and “others” as darker skinned.

As Quiñones notes, the correlation between white skin color and beauty continues to be prevalent amongst Mexicans and other brown peoples of the Americas. While the correlation between brown skin and ugliness is not stated, an anti-Indigenous message nonetheless is explicitly communicated.

Nevertheless, in this day and age, beautiful young children still feel ashamed and embarrassed of their skin color. Here are words from a beautiful young woman, Evelyne Santiago, who developed an inferiority complex as a child in Southern California:

I never felt comfortable in my skin when I was growing up. During elementary school, I always wished I could trade places with one of the white girls in my classes for a day. . . . As I grew older, I adopted a different mentality. If I couldn’t change my skin tone, then I would change everything else. . . . By the time I was fifteen, my hair was lighter; I had blue contacts; and I was smothering on layers of a lotion that guaranteed I would get lighter in just two weeks! . . . I spent high school being called a coconut—I was brown on the outside and white on the inside. I was still brown. I was tempted to call and write angry letters to the manufacturers of the lotion for their false advertisement.

This attempt at trying “to be white” or “passing” is not an uncommon phenomenon in the United States among peoples from Mexico and points south. She eventually did overcome her sense of inferiority when she went to college on the East coast:

I didn’t see a single brown face in any of my classes. Suddenly I didn’t long to be like them. . . . I started looking at myself in the mirror and admiring my own features. . . . Here, I was naturally bronze and beautiful, while white girls lined up outside of the tanning salons. . . . They could pay all they wanted, but they would never have the color that I was blessed enough to inherit from my ancestors.

Santiago’s transformation shows that shame indeed is reversible. In the United States, the government-and-media-imposed black/white paradigm generally disappears brown skin color from the critical discussion on race and color.13 This is especially important because the U.S. Census Bureau to this day appears to be clueless regarding the brown skin color of peoples from the Americas that reside within the United States. Mexicans and peoples from Central and South America are categorized by the government as Hispanics/Latinos. The government has long-presumed that when peoples from this group are discriminated against, it is because of their nationality, as opposed to their color or [Indigenous or African] race. Despite leaving it up to each individual to determine her/his own race or ethnicity, for decades the Bureau has steered Mexican peoples (and Latinos/Hispanics) into the white racial category. Rather than “state-enforced” shame, this is arguably “state-enforced” de-Indigenization14 or attempts to force-fit Mexicans into a black-white Census schema.15

Views on race in Mexico and points south are very different. Prior to the Zapatista uprising of 1994, race issues were rarely discussed; the media and popular culture always assigned issues of discrimination to class, not race or color. Such denial constitutes another form of de-Indigenization, and there, de-Indigenization is not a new phenomenon but rather the story of the continent (Bonfil Batalla 1996).

While Mexicans and peoples from Central and South America live unique experiences in the United States, it is undeniable that they often carry over attitudes, including shame, from their home countries. This is why the project can proceed with the premise that many of them have previously been unable to express their voices confidently, without being demeaned, misinterpreted or silenced.

With the airing of these voices, I believe a new narrative is rising to the fore in this country, Mexico and points south. One of the most powerful stories, for instance, comes from a friend, Estela Roman, from Cuernavaca, Mexico. She relates that she has a sister who is a little bit lighter than she is; when her daughter was born, she was born also a little light, but still dark. However, the baby was the toast of the town because she was seen as a guerita, or a light-skinned baby girl. Neighbors would come by to praise the baby. The family noticed that one particular neighbor, who was pregnant, would come by every day and rub the baby’s tummy. She was hoping that if she rubbed the baby’s tummy, perhaps her baby would also come out light.

This is part of the tragicomic legacy that has been imposed upon this continent. While the experiences are varied, the one experience shared almost universally is that of family or friends who generally associate light-skinned babies and children with beauty. For instance, despite the pervasive anti-Mexican attitudes I experienced throughout my childhood, the issue of color was most pronounced within my own home and at school. There were nine of us in my family. My father and one brother were also dark; all the rest were lighter, most with green or blue eyes. I don’t ever recall hearing anyone in my family, who all generally do “look Mexican,” comment, or refer to me derisively about my skin color. Instead, what I constantly heard was effusive praise of my lighter-skinned brothers and sister, either by my family, neighbors, or friends.

I cannot remember me ever responding to that praise publicly, but I always did respond, silently. I was keenly aware of my skin color because, being that I was always out in the sun, I learned early on that dark skin was not highly prized in this society. Sometimes, such memories are not necessarily negative, but awkward or even disorienting. But with me, they were negative.

Similarly, Sara Haskie Mendoza also shares one such story about her little sister, at her grandmother’s shoe store in Mexico City, where she was continually praised:

. . . people would always look at my sister and say, “Oh my God! She’s so pretty,” which she is; and then look at me and say: “you too.” . . . . Most of the time when the people would compliment my sister, it would never fail; they would compliment her skin color. My sister was born blond . . . with milky white skin that made me feel very self-conscious about my skin color.

Morena Color de Llanta

Other light-skinned friends told me similar stories of the intense awareness of their own skin color in relation to their siblings’. Here, Anabel Aguayo sent in stories about the environment that led her to attempt to lighten her dark skin:

. . . No matter how hard I tried to hide my culture outside of my home, I always had this one thing that hindered me: my dark skin. I thought, “If I was as light-skinned as my sister, I could even lie and say I was white, or I could claim my family was from Spain. Why was she the lucky one?” I often felt inferior. My dark skin was a reminder that I was not good enough. My dark skin even made me feel dirty at times. Maybe if I just took a good enough shower, I could wash the color off. Needless to say that didn’t work, even after scrubbing my arms over and over with a piedra pomex (pumice stone). I was still brown.

Growing up, Anabel received mixed messages. Her mom would refer to her as morenita linda (beautiful young brown girl), but also would tell her that she could still lighten up in adulthood.

I took this as there being hope for me. I also remember being upset when one of my uncles would call me morena color de llanta and called my sister paloma blanca. I was a dark-colored tire while she was a white dove.

Things changed once she understood her indigeneity:

I relearned my culture through different eyes. I learned that I came from a beautiful and strong people. They were intellectuals and had a rich culture. Yet, my ancestors and their culture are not mythical beings from the past. My ancestry and my culture live through me, through the indigenous blood that runs through my veins and through my beautiful brown skin.

That Anabel came to know and reconnect with her Indigenous roots and culture is instructive in the realm of how to overcome imposed feelings of inferiority. That’s precisely what they are: imposed feelings, not truth.

Washing Away

Ruben Botello’s childhood experiences at trying to fit in are similar to Anabel’s and extremely traumatic.

I thought learning English and assimilating into the Anglo-American way of life would gain me acceptance. I worked so hard to fit in. As a last resort, I tried to make my skin white by scrubbing it with Clorox bleach and Brillo pads so my classmates would accept me.

His experiences are reminiscent of Joaquin Galvan’s admonition of the need for therapy by recalling such memories. Witness the effect of Botello’s desperate attempt to lighten up and assimilate: “The next three years of my elementary education were like a death march. . . . By junior high I not only hated school, I wanted to die.” This perhaps is not understood—that these traumas suffered in childhood haunt our children creating inferiority complexes which stay with them through adulthood, also creating feelings of worthlessness, self-hate and perhaps suicidal thoughts for some. I am not aware of studies that are specific to issues of color, low self-esteem and suicide among these populations. What is known is that since the 1990s, Latina teens have had a much higher rate of suicide attempts than whites and African Americans (Kuhlberg, Peña, and Zayas 2010). Studies would have to be done to see if there is a correlation (No data was provided for American Indians rates).

Like others, I remember taking showers or baths, washing extra hard, eyes closed, and being disappointed when I opened my eyes to discover that the soap had done no good. It seems pretty cruel that children would resort to doing this. Sadly, this is a common experience. Although this was the early 1960s, such experiences were not limited to that era.

So the advent of the Chicano Movement and the era of “brown and proud” could not have come soon enough. As a child, I did have pride in being Mexican, in being Indian, in my skin color, while developing an inferiority complex at the same time. Precisely because of that, I developed a rebelliousness. My father, who was dark, taught me early on that we were Indigenous, though I do not know whether or not that offered protection from issues of color because ,as noted, some of that hate was internal. That preference for white skin, blue/green eyes, and blonde hair was omnipresent in my East Side schools when I was growing up.

Yet, one day, when I was perhaps seven or eight years old, my nurse commented, “What a beautiful tan you have.” I remember looking at her and responding: “This is not a tan. I’m Mexican.” I knew she was giving me a compliment, but I wanted and needed her to know that it was my natural skin color and not a tan.

Over the decades, as “Brown and Proud” discourse began to fade, I recognized more of the old internalized racism. I recall, for instance, a powerful memory—not of words but of a look, or mirada in the expression of a friend—not as a child, but as an adult in the 1990s. This look is one that many will relate to. As I was talking to a friend—a light-skinned Latina—in Washington DC on a hot summer afternoon, another friend came by on her bike. Her beautiful dark brown skin was shining in the blazing sun. My other friend looked on in horror as if she were contagious. I know this because she used to tell me that her family was horrified when her milky white skin would slightly tan. They thought she was “becoming Indigenous.”

The testimonios below demonstrate the common misconceptions around what “brown” and “Indigenous” mean both externally and within our communities. Like the stories above, these last testimonios reveal a recursion between internalized oppression and an embrace of indigeneity. I have categorized these stories accordingly in addition to including the authors’ original titles.

Piel Canela

What color is the color brown? I thought I knew the answer, but as I began to do this project, I found out that the answer is relative. The testimonio from Anna Nieto Gomez best illustrates this:

I grew up believing everyone’s skin color was some color brown. Perhaps that is because I am brown, and people in my family were either lighter or darker than I. . . . I don’t even describe what color of brown I am. I think it is because it changes from season to season, and it seems to be a different color now that I am older. But when I see a picture of myself, it is a smiling brown . . . not the color of a brown crayon.

If I were to have described her color prior to receiving her stories, I would have said chocolate brown. But now I agree with her: smiling brown.

Xicana in the South

Strangely, it seems the color brown can change even regionally within the United States. Here is a description by Monseratt Alvarez ,who grew up in the South. Though prior to her life there, she had been raised in Oxnard, California.

Growing up I always knew my skin color was different to those around me, even within my Mexican family. My mother has beautiful brown skin, black curly hair, and illuminating black eyes. My father has pale white skin, light brown hair, and brown eyes. In my family, I was known as Negra (black) or Prieta (dark) as a way of emphasizing my skin color. . . . The first memory I have as a child where my skin made me feel uncomfortable did not happen until I moved to North Carolina. I attended a majority white school [there] and that is when I realized how different my skin was.


Self-hate is what many of us develop when we are subjected to vicious hate. Here is a powerful memory by Yaotl Mazahua from the group, Aztlan Underground, regarding his parents:

My mom would get mad at my dad when he would come home drunk. . . . Although she had the same complexion as my father, she would rip into my father about how dark he was. She would yell at him and say “pinche cara de Papago!!” “Indio feo!!!” And she would crush him with the following words: “Indio Cambujo!!”16 My dad would lose his composure and begin to tremble, pout, and whimper and ultimately begin to cry in a kind of despair and self-hate. It was a sight to see him become instantly emasculated by my mother over the color of his skin . . .

On the Color Black

Luckily, Yaotl did not inherit this self-hate. Because most people here are of Indigenous origin, the focus of most of this essay addresses the relationship between the color brown and indigeneity. However, a few of those that have contributed vignettes also share African blood. Here are the words of contributor Dionisio de la Viña from Nicaragua, though raised in San Francisco:

Recently, I was looking at a family picture I hadn’t seen before. The photo was 55 years old. I was stunned when I recognized myself as a very dark, skinny, nine-year-old boy . . . when I look at myself in the mirror, I don’t recognize that dark little boy. I’m still a brown man, but I’m not as dark as the “me” in the photo . . . My family back in the fifties called me el negro— “Blackie” in English. . . . In the house in Managua where I grew up, I lived with 25 other relatives—from very dark (me) to very light (my father). . . . The family photo I saw recently brought back some feelings I must’ve repressed. I thought it was a term of endearment because no one called me el negro with malice. But, was it really a term of endearment?

Mugre India Fea, el negro de tu padre, el güero

Several of those that sent in their testimonios report the same thing . . . of being called derogatory names as “terms of endearment,” yet not feeling very endeared by such terms. Here is a vignette by Erica Padilla Saiz on the color black and brown, “My Grandma Jovita often recounts the times her mother would call her India fea or mugre India fea.” Growing up being labeled dirty Indian by her own mother was very traumatic, Erica relays:

. . . I have witnessed my grandmother’s internal turmoil over looking Indian. She hates it when anybody calls her India or tells her she looks India. But she knows who she is. My father is one of four, and he is the darkest of them all. That’s why she calls him el negro. I remember as a child, my brother and I often heard my father being called el negro, and, because he was significantly darker, my brother used to think my dad was black. He would ask me, “How come my dad’s black and we’re not? Are we black?” I knew we weren’t black; we are brown. We had el nopal en la mera frente (cactus on the forehead and signifier of being Indian).

Vignettes of the Brown-Black Experience

Dina Barajas is both Hopi and Mexican. Here, she describes her rude awakening on the topic of color at the hands of “white blonde kids” at her elementary school that reveled at calling her nigger:

The first time I was called this, I didn’t know how to react. I thought, “I’m not black. Why are they saying that?” . . . On one occasion, a young white boy called me a nigger as I took my seat on the bus. I immediately got up from my seat and headed straight to the principal’s office. . . . In tears I told the principal what the boy had called me. The principal banned the boy from riding the bus for two weeks.

After that, it never happened again. What is not clear in this case, and in similar situations, is whether Barajas had been insulted because it was a racial epithet, or because it was a racial epithet usually reserved for African Americans and directed at her.

When I was growing up in East LA, the dynamic in the realm of race or skin color was more between whites and Mexicans than with African Americans. At the age of six or seven, I remember a neighbor shouting at us that Mexicans were “dirty like niggers” without knowing what or who they were referring to. I remember thinking that if these hateful people despised Mexicans and compared us with this other group, then this other group must be ok. I am not sure what I perceived about the world at that time, though hatred is easily understood by children of any age.

Anything but Mexican

Writing on this topic more than fifty years later, I am only able to recall that ferocious hatred against Mexicans (akin to the current animosity against Mexicans in Arizona), but also a personal repugnance because of my skin color. In so many of the stories I’ve gathered, the memories shared convey a similar derogatory linkage between darkness and indigeneity. In the following vignettes by Emilia Garcia, the effects of this linkage are both powerful and painful:

Both my mother and sister were very light in color with somewhat blonde, reddish-brown hair. I remember feeling we were as different as night and day. As for my father, he was brown with dark hair, yet I surpassed him in color, especially in the summer. I would turn chocolate brown, and my sister and cousins would tell me to smile so they could find me in the dark. My uncle would call me Brownie, never by my name. Others would call me Prieta or Darkie. My mother would say, “Te pareces Yaqui”—that I was dark like the Indians of Mexico. I would just stand there, quietly, feeling bad for reasons I did not understand.

As I grew older, I was always asked, “Are you Indian?” I would quickly say, “No, I am Mexican.” The way in which people would say “Indian” always felt derogatory. . . . Now when I am asked I smile and answer, “I am Chicana.”

Her Secret

Here is one story from the 1950s of a hidden Indigenous narrative by Huitzmaitl:

In the 1950s, the make-up of our East LA community was very different than it is today. There were white people from the mid-west, Armenians, Japanese, and Mexicans. . . . It didn’t matter where you and your family came from. If you were clearly brown, you were called a Mexican. We were called Mexican. . . . My parents were both born in the United States. My mother was so proud of this. Looking back at this time, I can see that this pride in being a U.S citizen was usually brought on by someone calling her a Mexican. Perhaps she thought that being a U.S. citizen was something you could see.

About seven years ago my mother told me for the first time that her mother was Native American. This was her deepest, darkest secret. . . . I believe her parents made her keep that secret, possibly for her own protection. She is troubled by what she is and disturbed by what she isn’t.

If someone from this generation might think that this is an exaggeration, it is true that in the history of this continent, hiding or suppressing “the Indian” was always the objective, lest they be subjected to worse forms of discrimination, including genocide, enslavement, land theft, lynching and being burned at the stake. The cultural, spiritual and political expression of Indigeneity was greatly discouraged during the Spanish colonial era of the 1500s-1800s (Bonfil Batalla, 1996). In this country, Indigenous peoples “became Mexican” to avoid forced land removals.

“Abo” in Australia

Maya Jupiter is a performing artist in Los Angeles. Her mother is Turkish and her father is Mexican. Although she was raised in Australia, her memories are similar to the testimonios found here:

I remember coming home from Primary school, probably 8 years old and crying to my older (lighter-skinned) sister. “I wish I was your colour. I hate being this colour . . .” I had been called “Abo,” a derogatory term used to describe Aboriginal people in Australia. Later, ironically, kids would ask me, “Where were you born?” After I replied “Mexico.” I was told to “go back to where I came from.”

. . . I can’t speak for my father (who denied being Indigenous), but I can imagine what he’s gone through to be someone who only identifies as being Spanish.

The Color of My Skin

Devora Gonzalez is Salvadoreña and Guatemalteca and grew up in Los Angeles. Her experiences are virtually identical to many of the other experiences shared above.

I LOVE THE COLOR OF MY SKIN. It is the most beautiful thing about me, but I did not always feel this way. In elementary, I did not feel pride about my skin tone. I wanted to look like my friends who had a light skin-tone and light-brown hair. But me on the other hand, “look at me. I would be so beautiful if my skin was just a bit lighter.” . . . I remember thinking that if I could change one thing about me, it would be my skin tone. In my imagination I would be “white.”

Like the others, Devora too went through a positive transformation:

Then sometime during my middle school years, I saw Michael Jackson. His skin had magically turned white. I did not want to look like that. Soon enough, I was getting ready to attend my high school prom. And after so much saving, I went to get my make-up done at a place in the nicer, much more expensive part of Los Angeles. There, the make-up artist that was to do my make-up greets me and says “Oooohhhh, I love your tan.” I didn’t know what to say. No one before had told me they loved my skin tone. I felt good about myself that night. If people paid to look like me, it was because there was something beautiful about me.

An even greater transformation took place when she studied Central American Studies in college and learned about her Maya ancestry: “There I found all of what is beautiful about who I am, about why I look the way I do. So I repeat, I LOVE MY SKIN TONE, and I am proud to be Mujer de Bronce.


These initial stories have convinced me that this project can contribute to our communities addressing this issue of light-skin preference head on, including the deeply-held, anti-Indigenous attitudes prevalent in our communities. This can only lead in a good direction. Permit me to end with a few thoughts from Anaheim teacher Carolyn Torres, then Evita Carrasco:

I come from a family of brown skin. Dark if you are comparing us to snow; even and everywhere if you are comparing our skin to the earth’s skin. We have high cheek bones and a slant to our dark eyes. I can pass for most any brown-skinned peoples from any continent, but I am from this continent. I am Chicana, Mexican, Yaqui. My people come from this land regardless of what nationality or race anyone wants to call us this decade, this century, this millennium.

Torres states that while her family is clear on who they are, it is the government that attempts to change their identity, seemingly every 10 years. Here, Carrasco leaves us with both, a most powerful story, and then a lesson:

My paternal grandmother was not pleased about my father having married a Mexican woman, and she made it obvious. I noticed at Christmas time the difference in gifts to my white cousins and what my siblings and I received. My white cousins got beautiful dresses from my grandma, and I got socks. I asked her why and she responded, “Because they have beautiful porcelain skin and aren’t tarnished with brown like you.” I didn’t understand.

It took the birth of Evita’s blind son, who was very brown, for her grandmother to understand, “If everyone would see the world as my son does, we would be so much better off.” Indeed, if everyone were blind—or if everyone could see.

Finally, here the essay concludes with a young warrior woman, Leilani Clark, who is both a Pueblo woman and African American. Her words capture the essence of this essay:

Our colors are not our own, but the colors of the landscapes, regions and territories our ancestors stepped on before us—where they were created, where the mountains laughed life into our bodies and where the waters breathed being into our souls. We carry that map all in our skin—dark as the earth, reflecting off golden rays of kissed sunlight; complimenting our tones quite well. Quite naturally.

For me, my color is my lifeline,
my medicine, my map,
my treasure, my stories,
my voice, my words.
My greatest strength of all.

Kun’da wo-ha,
Leilani Clark


1. In the United States, the dynamic regarding skin color is generally discussed within a black-white paradigm. For this project, while the initial focus of this work is on brown peoples, of Mexican/Central American/Indigenous heritage, I also have gathered the views of other peoples of color.

2. Although conversations need to begin in the home and within the community, both schools and the media should actively participate in doing away with light-skin bias as well.

3. In an unrelated case, a plaintiff in a California 2012 lawsuit alleges that an educator constantly referred to Mexican students as “brown faces”—students that the educator purportedly wanted ousted from the school to improve the school’s standing (Fastman, 2012).

4. In getting permission to use their story, the darker sister recently noted that she was also called “blackie” and “sambo” as a child.

5. Guillermo Bonfil Batalla’s México Profundo (1996) is a classic treatise on this topic. Also, the concept of mestizaje or racial mixture, espoused by Mexican writer, Jose Vasconcelos, in La Raza Cósmica (1925), essentially became part of state ideology in 20th century Mexico.

6. Padilla credits Kellogg Fellow trainer, Roberto Chene, with introducing the concept of internalized oppression to her in 1998, that is, when people turn on or against themselves, particularly in colonial situations.

7. For this initial phase, almost all the people I contacted I know personally. This is intentional as I wanted most of these testimonios to come from people that are or should be well-adjusted regarding this topic of childhood memories of color and color consciousness. Most are college graduates or college students or people in social or human rights movements.

8. The migra has long-used racial profiling of Indigenous phenotypes, such as brown skin, black hair, language, and accent, in their search for migrants, including mass deportation raids and campaigns.

9. In addition to numerous articles and news stories on U.S. demographic shifts favoring “Hispanic” population growth, particularly after the 2010 Census, see also Juan Gonzalez’ film and newly revised book, The Harvest of Empire (2011).

10. I’ve heard people refer to dark-skinned Mexicans as “stereotypical Mexicans.” Implicit about stereotypes is that they are false, and in this case, part of the past.

11. I envision this as an ongoing collaborative project that will result in a book, videologues, a play, and dialogue.

12. An earlier draft of this essay, featuring Juarez’ story, was posted in my regular column here.

13. The George Zimmerman trial especially complicated discussions on race because, due to his assertions that he is half-Peruvian, he was/is portrayed as a white Hispanic in the black-white media.

14. The issue of race and Mexican peoples (and now “Latinos”) has always been complex. Since the 1930s, the Census continues to change its definitions. The only constant is its silence on the concepts of mestizaje and de-Indigenization.

15. Martha Menchaca in Recovering History, Constructing Race (2002), argues that the attempts to “whiten” Mexicans goes back to the era of Spanish colonialism, not with the U.S. government and its theft/annexation of what is now the U.S. Southwest.

16. Papago is the name Spaniards imposed on the O’odham peoples of Northwest Mexico-Southwest United States. Cambujo is a Spanish colonial term for a person of mixed Indian-Black heritage.

Indigenous Adaptations to a Changing Social Environment in the El Paso Borderlands and the Tigua of Ysleta del Sur

Review by Scott Comar

Extinction or Survival?: The Remarkable Story of the Tigua, an Urban American Indian Tribe
S.K. Adam
Paradigm Publishers, 2009
220 pages

Examining cultural continuity, sovereignty, agency, and identity, S.K. Adam’s Extinction or Survival?: The Remarkable Story of the Tigua, an Urban American Indian Tribe reveals how the Tigua Indians of Ysleta, Texas negotiated their cultural perseverance amidst dominant American notions of indigeneity. Beginning with an overview of Tigua culture, Adam interconnects the Tigua experience with American expansion, national policies, and contemporary issues, such as Indian gaming and the right to sovereignty and self-determination. Posing that essentialist representations of indigeneity are a prerequisite for social and legal acceptance as being a real Indian, Adam argues that “contemporary Tigua culture is a product of particular cultural responses to various and changing majority rules.”

Using a circular approach that chronologically advances throughout each chapter, Adam concludes with the current debate over Ysleta’s Speaking Rock Casino. As an anthropologist, he blends an eclectic of secondary works into a multidisciplinary synthesis that involves history, cultural theory, anthropology, sociology, and political science. The scholars he draws from include James Axtell, James, James A. Clifton, Vine Deloria Jr., and Nicholas Houser, to name a few. His ethnographic methodology falls into the category of ethnohistory and contributes to Tigua historiography as the most recent scholarly work to discuss tribal identity, history, and contemporary issues in micro and macro perspectives which connect the local with the national. Moreover, Adam connects the past with the present by addressing the extinction dilemma facing the Tigua because of the one-eighth blood quantum criterion for tribal membership. Including an historical overview of Federal Indian policies and explications of American dominant society’s stereotypes of indigeneity, Extinction offers a comparative analysis of local realities and national expectations. For example, Adam contrasts federal and Tigua identity norms by writing that being Tigua “is not tied to legal descriptions or degrees of blood or what outsiders may or may not think about Indian authenticity.” Instead, it is tied to traditional ways of knowing that are passed on to tribal members and descendants, whether or not they are official tribal members.

Adam informs scholars about the benefits of translation, interpretation, and comparison between and within the polemics of identity politics, indigeneity, and historical memory. He also illuminates how primary sources hold multiple meanings in different cultural arenas, i.e. legal, tribal and political. By considering how indigenous identities are cultural responses to majority perceptions of Indianness, Adam suggests that ceremonial Indian performances serve dual purposes: they maintain indigenous cultural continuity and negotiate public acceptance of the performing group as Indian. In this way, Adam effectively deconstructs Tigua identity politics. Although Adam discussed New Deal Indian policy at the national level, he missed the bus to the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition, where the Tigua made President Franklin Delano Roosevelt an honorary cacique. Yet Adam does mention the trip to Dallas when discussing the tribe’s adaption of special uniforms for public ceremonies. Revealing that the Tigua dressed one way for public ceremonial performance and another for private, shows how the tribe adapted to public perceptions of Indianness.

Ultimately, Extinction or Survival elucidates that historians need to consider the power dynamics of indigenous identity formation when examining their primary source materials. As such, public historical stereotypes of Indianness, anachronistic expectations, and romanticized notions of historical memory should all be considered in relation to the competing policy agendas that exist behind the curtains of indigenous ceremonial performances. In closing, Adam informs scholars of the need to consider multiple views and comparatively assess primary sources, imploring them to look beyond the source and into the socio-political context within which it was written. Thus, Extinction or Survival is a must read for historians and anthropologists alike, and is a great addition to any Americanist’s library.

The Deeper Truth About Spanish Colonization

Review by Scott Comar

Indian Conquistadors: Indigenous Allies in the Conquest of Mesoamerica
Laura E. Matthew and Michael R. Oudijk, Eds.
University of Oklahoma Press, 2007
349 pages

This anthology elucidates how colonial Spain’s conquest of Mexico and Central America would have been impossible without alliances with indigenous peoples. From 1519 to 1620, the Tlaxcalteca, Mexica, Zapotec, Maya, and various other indigenous groups enabled Spanish conquest and colonization from Honduras to Saltillo as “indios conquistadores,” who served as coerced laborers and conscripted soldiers, as volunteer auxiliaries, as warriors and colonial settlers, and as role models of exemplary behavior for un-colonized indigenous peoples. Illustrating that these categories often overlapped, Indian Conquistadors is comprised of the work from an array of historians and anthropologists who deconstruct the myth of Spanish conquest and reveal that colonial expansion was contingent upon the armies of Spain’s indigenous allies.

Indian Conquistadors is divided into nine chapters. First, Michel Oudijk and Matthew Restall present how Spanish conquest hinged upon indigenous alliances through intermarriage, preceding conquests, pre-established indigenous trade networks, and indigenous opportunities for social mobility and exemption from tribute through land grants and lordships. Then, Florine G. L. Asselbergs uses indigenous pictographs, such as the lienzo of Quauhquechollan, to show that some indigenous peoples perceived Spaniards as equals and themselves as distinct from others. In chapter three, Laura E. Matthew discusses how various indigenous peoples conquered Guatemala for Spain, received privileges as elites, and then lost them as the colonial order established itself. Next, Robison Herrera discusses how native women acted as “intermediaries” through intermarriage with Spanish elites during early colonization. Yet as colonization progressed, these “strategic alliances” decreased and often compromised their agency. In chapter five, Ida Altman reveals how over 20,000 indigenous people helped Spain conquer Nueva Galicia. Then in chapters six and seven, John Chuchiak and Yanna Yannakakis reveal that although indigenous peoples conquered the Yucatan and Oaxaca, colonial Spain soon forgot them and many lost the privileges they had earned as “indigenous conquistadors.” In chapter eight, Stephanie Wood interprets a series of indigenous paintings to show how Indians co-opted Spanish behaviors for these privileges. Ultimately, Bret Blosser illustrates how indigenous archers received political autonomy until the end of the colonial period for their services to the Crown on the Nueva Galicia frontier. Thus, Indian Conquistadors enriches our understanding of Spanish imperialism by moving the narrative beyond the simplicity of Tlaxcalan aid in helping Cortez conquer Tenochtitlan. Revealing a new complexity of contact relations, this book rearticulates the power dynamics of Spain’s colonial expansion, revealing indigenous agency in the process.

These scholars use various secondary and primary sources which include the Archivo General de Indias in Seville, Spain, the Biblioteca Nacional de Antropología y Historia in Mexico City, and the Archivo General de Centro América in Guatemala City, among others. Their strength is in their new interpretation of old documents, which places indigenous peoples in the narrative as more than passive recipients of imperial dominion. Their weakness in focusing on only certain periods and places is understandable due to the spatial limitations of the project. Yet as a U.S.-Mexico Borderlands historian, I would have appreciated an essay showing these power dynamics in Nueva Vizcaya and Nuevo Mexico. Nevertheless, Indian Conquistadors adds a new dimension to Borderlands history as it illuminates the dynamics of contact, contestation and collusion between indigenous peoples and Spain’s colonists and settlers during the period of colonial expansion on Mesoamerica’s frontiers.

Letter from the Editor: 2012

Our third annual issue of Nakum celebrates the Winter Solstice of 2012, a cosmic event for Indigenous peoples of the Americas as represented in the Mayan calendar. To introduce this issue, I invited Carlos Aceves, who not only shares, through teaching, his vast knowledge of indigenous Mesoamerican knowledge, but who also inspired the creation of Nakum. —LF

There is an old proverb asserting that “to practice science without a conscience is to become a thief rather than a scientist.” One of the seemingly unavoidable sins of academia, is to justify the social structure upon which it relies regardless of principle. Nakum arose out of need for a forum of unheard voices, to present knowledge often judged as primitive, esoteric, or contradicting accepted research. As part of its challenge, Nakum seeks contributors that can explain concepts contemporary western reality dismisses simply because Native thought emerged in “prehistory” or circumstances often referred to as “the wild.”

To the indigenous mind everything is alive, especially knowledge. Words are whispers of Creation, concepts are the long arms of elders stretching across time to guide us, and scientific ideas are dreams ancients wove in their dance with the universe. Discovery is a collaboration not only with those in the present but with generations past and future. Stephen Hawking, for instance, can express such quantum realities as physics, but such an indigenous discourse is automatically classified as mystical or mythic.

When the ancients created calendars that synchronized the motions of the heavens with Earth and human cycles, they were being quite scientific, but not in the “thief” sense. Rather than wrest knowledge out of natural phenomena, they embraced the deeper realities of Creation. But as the year 2012 approached, these tracked cycles have been dismissed by NASA astronomers and reframed as a doomsday by mystics trained in three-day workshops.

What we are experiencing this fateful year is both scientifically and spiritually serious. We have seen how the eight-year Pleiades and Venus alignment cycle is weaved in the Transit of Venus across the sun, and both cycles integrate with the sun’s 5,125 year visit to the dark rift just above the center of the galaxy, where we now know a black hole resides. This cycle is part of a greater cycle in which five different stars take turns, if you will, being the North Star—a cycle that takes 25,625 years. Hence, the now famous 26,000 year cycle. Human beings long ago discovered that celestial events are related to Earth cycles. Knowledge of how Earth and sky are integration provides a model for our own kinship with Creation. —CA

Banning the “Aztec Calendar”: Indigenous, Maiz-based Knowledge at the Heart of Tucson’s Mexican American Studies Curriculum and Conflict

By: Roberto Dr. Cintli Rodriguez and Norma Gonzalez


The banning of the Aztec Calendar in a Tucson classroom in 2012, was the symbolic culmination of a six-year effort to destroy the district’s highly successful Mexican-American Studies (MAS) department. This mind-numbing act gives the public a glimpse into the level of conflict and censorship present during this “debate”; it is a form of censorship that went beyond the banning of books. In effect, this conflict is about civilizational war. And to the chagrin of those promoting this war, this effort has boomeranged; the attack on the MAS program has created an unprecedented interest in Indigenous knowledge, history, and culture. The destruction of Tucson’s MAS program as also created a teaching moment of what is commonly referred to as the Aztec Calendar or the Sun Stone, though more precisely known as the Tonalmachiotl.

The Tonalmachiotl was created over many centuries. The one most people are familiar with was chiseled in the 1400s in Mesoamerica and currently resides in Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology. The interest in learning how to read it, especially in the United States, is very much on the rise.

Exploring this growing phenomenon, Dr. Cintli examines, in the first part of this essay, examines the political context of the efforts to prevent the teaching of Mexican history and culture. In the second part, MAS teacher Norma Gonzalez touches on the contents of the Tonalmachiotl, whose teaching was banned in Tucson schools in 2012.

The Political Context

When the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) governing board voted in January of 2012 to suspend its Mexican-American Studies department, chaos ensued. Contrary to what the board and the district’s superintendent, Dr. John Pedicone, had been telling the community for months, that vote did not suspend the department; rather, it abolished it. This is the same department that was graduating close to 100 percent of its students and sending close to eighty percent of them on to college.1

Perhaps the most underreported aspect of this conflict is that shortly after the department was dismantled, one of the MAS teachers, Norma Gonzalez, co-author of this article, was told that she could not teach the Aztec Calendar to her students. In a symbolic sense, this spoke volumes. Indeed, this prohibition on teaching the Tonalmachiotl confirmed the idea that the debate was a civilizational war—a characterization that was first advanced by former state school superintendent, Tom Horne. When Horne first began this campaign to eliminate Tucson’s MAS department, that is, he advanced the idea that it needed to be done because the MAS curriculum was purportedly outside of Western Civilization. Indeed, there are few symbols more connected to Mexico’s Indigenous roots and history than this Pre-Columbian calendar, a calendar so exact that it continues to be more advanced than the Western Gregorian calendar in use today.2

Despite the significance of this incident involving the censuring of the Aztec Calendar, it has never been widely reported by the mainstream media. In part, this may be due to the fact that after the dismantling, chaos ensued in Tucson schools, primarily because this action took place in the middle of the school year in response to the 2010 anti-ethnic studies HB 2281 legislation. What would happen to the teachers, the students and the curriculum, became not academic questions, but trauma that was played out in real time in Tucson classrooms. Overnight, no one was quite sure what was legal or illegal, or what was permissible inside of the classroom. In one case, after student Nico Dominguez spoke at the previous school board meeting, he was pulled out of his classroom at Tucson High School by TUSD security personnel.3

During this chaotic time, MAS teachers were given nine directives, explaining what they could expect thereafter, including what they could and could not teach.4 The directives had the additional chilling effect that even students were unclear as to how they could interact in class. The first directive is jarring: “assignments can not direct students to apply MAS perspectives.” In the 43-year history of MAS/Raza Studies, there are no known parameters that define or limit “Mexican American Studies perspectives.” That the district would attempt to constrict the teachers was an apparent attempt to also constrict the discipline and its perspectives. The second directive banned MAS books and other teaching materials, including art and posters, from the classroom. Aside from the resulting district-wide walkouts, most of the attention immediately focused on the book banning which included TUSD personnel entering former MAS classrooms—during class time—boxing books and labeling them “banned books” and shipping them off to the district’s warehouse.

One teacher reported that her computer had been wiped clean and she, along with all the MAS teachers, were told to clear up all their MAS books, not just the seven that appeared on a TUSD list.5 The directive involved some additional fifty titles, which constituted the MAS curriculum. To this day, the district and state deny that any books were banned.6 Ironically, despite that denial, one rationale that MAS critics utilized for their removal was that such books—which dealt with such topics as critical race theory—were appropriate for college youths but inappropriate for high school level youths. The critics actually advanced the argument that Ethnic Studies, and Mexican American Studies specifically, were appropriate in college but not high school or younger.7

After the directives were issued, the chaos began as both teachers and students were confounded, not sure of what could be taught or discussed in their classrooms, including what could and could not be written in class. Of the many situations that arose, one, involving MAS teacher, Norma Gonzalez, bears special scrutiny. A few days after the dismantling of MAS, while Gonzalez was teaching the meaning of the Aztec Calendar to her students, the principal instructed her to take down the image. The principal cited the TUSD vote, explaining that because the calendar corresponded to Mexican history and culture, its teaching was now prohibited. One of the great ironies of this situation is that while the calendar apparently could no longer be taught in Mexican American Studies, it could be taught in Native American Studies.8

None of these draconian prohibitions were surprising; another one calls for the regular monitoring and collection (confiscation) of teacher and student work by district and state officials, which has happened. Despite these unprecedented measures, this six-year conflict has actually begun to create a teaching opportunity nationally for Indigenous knowledge. For instance, Gonzalez made the observation that while many Mexican families have an Aztec Calendar in their home, the vast majority don’t know how to read it. Indeed, this observation is true about most Indigenous knowledge in Mexico and Mexican homes. What little is known is viewed as part of the past and function more at the level of artwork or relics, as opposed to living knowledge.

When Horne began his attacks, claiming that MAS was outside of Western civilization and that its roots were not within the Greco–Roman tradition, what he was apparently referencing were the Maya philosophical concepts that anchor the MAS-TUSD department.9 These concepts are In Lak Ech (You are my other Me) and Panche Be (to seek the root of the truth). These concepts teach students to see themselves in each other and to pursue the truth in all that they do. Invariably, this leads students also to fight for social justice. Those concepts are traced not to Europe but to this very continent. However, as Maya scholar Domingo Martinez Paredez explains in Un continente y una cultura (1960), the concepts are actually not Maya, but rather belong to all maiz-based peoples of this continent.

Other elements of the curriculum that can be construed as outside of Western civilization, in addition to the Aztec calendar and these maiz-based philosophies, would be the teaching of other Maya-Nahua or Mesoamerican knowledge. Because of this emphasis on maiz-based knowledge, Horne also alleged that MAS teachers taught the students to see themselves as part of groups (Aztecs or Mayas, apparently), as opposed to individuals.

HB 2281 has precipitated several legal challenges, yet, regardless of how the courts settle this, Mexican-American Studies, particularly with a maiz-based or Indigenous perspective emphasis, is ascendant nationwide.10 Probably at no time since the 1960s has there been this much interest in these studies. The interest nowadays appears to be even more profound because its allure is that Indigenous Knowledge, history, and culture has once again become “forbidden” knowledge.

In this environment, people nationwide, and students in particular, want to know what elements within MAS are considered to be “outside of Western civilization.” Specifically, they want to know about In Lak Ech and Panche Be, the Aztec Calendar, and about the great book of the Maya, the Popol Vuh. Within this book is the creation story of the Maya, how the cosmos was born, and how human beings and maiz were created. This has also sparked interest in other Indigenous (Maya-Mixtec and Aztec-Mexica) codices that contain Indigenous knowledge and history of the continent, including the creation stories of other Indigenous peoples. One such codex, or Amoxtli, is Codex Chimalpopoca, which contains the creation story of the Nahuatl peoples (Legend of the Suns), which is somewhat similar to the Popol Vuh. The knowledge contained within these ancient books is referred to as In Tlilli In Tlapalli—The Red and the Black (Boone 2000). This is the knowledge that students want and are now clamoring for.

The battle to defend MAS-TUSD has created an unprecedented thirst for this knowledge (often found in the few surviving codices), knowledge that has been on this continent for many thousands of years. In these communities, there is also high interest in the Nahuatl (Aztec), Maya, and Quechua (Inca) languages. This also includes a high interest in Mesoamerican mathematical knowledge systems, including the Nepohualtzinzin, and, to a lesser extent, the quipu of the Inca, reputedly 5,000-years old.11 Both of these devices record knowledge; they are not simply counting devices. This also includes interest in the Maya-Nahuatl numbering systems,12 and the culture that has also been preserved in the oral tradition, song, poetry and dance.13

In the United States, in the past, these different kinds of Indigenous knowledge were seen at best as quaint or simply of interest to poets or esoteric and erudite scholars. However, since the advent of the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, with an emphasis on In Xochitl In Cuicatl, or Floricanto—Flower and Song—but even more so, as a result of this Arizona conflict, there is a groundswell of interest in these forms of Indigenous knowledge.

Beginning in the fall of 2012, many communities nationwide are set to recommend to their local school boards that maiz or Indigenous-based Mexican-American Studies—with a social justice emphasis—be introduced and taught in their schools.14 It is safe to assume that this is not what Horne had envisioned.15 Now, no one is certain whether Horne’s successor, John Huppenthal, will next come after MAS at the university level, though he has promised he will do so. If he does, no doubt this will create an even greater interest in Indigenous knowledge and studies.

Cultural Relevancy and Maiz-based Curriculum

For the predominantly brown students that attend Tucson Unified School District schools, a maiz-based (corn-based) curriculum possesses a profound relevancy to their humanity, thus imparting purpose for their existence as planetary citizens, effectively rendering them at once responsible and response-able.

Components of a maiz-based curriculum include: identity, discipline, tlanelhualtiliztli (seeking truth for stability), Nehuan Ti Nehuan (I am you and you am I), and cultural relevancy. As colonized people we struggle with identity, as that is what the colonizers immediately attack. Without knowledge of our culture, history, or roots, we are weak individuals; thus, acquiring an authentic identity is critical as a component to cement a positive identity. Acquiring an authentic identity places students on a path towards self-love. Discipline is presented in the manner in which students are in control of their learning and are expected to have confidence in themselves to move in a positive and progressive manner. As such discipline is understood as the training of self, in all aspects, so that we can positively transform the self and the collective. Seeking truth for stability is a requirement as students become academicians through their devotion to research due to the application of critical thinking. Community is the essence of the classroom environment, so students are expected to conduct themselves with the utmost respect for themselves and everyone around them. This is practiced daily through the application of Nehuan Ti Nehuan.

It is through the implementation of these components that students experience love with high standards, the concretizing of an ethnic and academic identity, the expectation that they must be researchers (as the more knowledge they gather about a topic the more stable they will be as authorities on that topic), and a vision of themselves in others as a basis for their interaction with one another.

Relevancy is when a student finds a significant and logical connection to classroom content and knowledge that provides a bearing on the students’ daily lives. This maiz-based curriculum fosters students’ connections to their essence. Within the Mexican American Studies (MAS) curriculum, culture is defined as a “lens,” figuratively speaking, that we utilize to perceive our world. Culture was created as a necessity for humans who first inhabited the Earth so we could live in harmony with our surroundings. Cultural relevancy is the ability to utilize that “lens” in the classroom as a tool for the students to critique, understand, question, value, perceive, apply, evaluate, and to relate to the content that is being presented. Cultural relevancy is what the maiz-based curriculum provides our students to profoundly impact their lives.

Cultural Symbols and the Aztec Calendar

Culture is expressed through language, values, beliefs, etc. and has various characteristics. One of the characteristics of culture is that it is symbolic. Every culture has a set of symbols that expresses its features. As a Mexican indigenous person, many cultural symbols permeated my home as a young girl, and I accepted them as just that, symbols. Growing up, I was particularly interested in the round shaped plaque with many symbols on it; it is commonly known as the “Aztec calendar.”

Today, as a student of Amerindigenous culture, I have come to deeply appreciate and value the teachings embedded in some of those cultural symbols that made up my home as a child. Indeed, they are symbols that are present in most Mexican indigenous homes. Specifically, I have long been a student of the Aztec Calendar, or properly named by its creators: the Tonalmachiotl. It is this symbol precisely that has enlightened me about indigenous Mexican culture and, more generally, all indigenous cultures of this continent. The Tonalmachiotl represents the keys to the cultures indigenous to this continent and should be a required subject taught in all schools on this continent.

This symbol was the point of reference for the development of the former MAS maiz-based curriculum, that is, until I was prohibited from teaching it by my former administrator at a middle school, when the program was dismantled. Upon returning from an administrators’ meeting, my administrator literally stormed into my classroom the day after TUSD killed the program as a result of HB 2281 and stated in front of my students, most of them Mexican, that I was not to teach anything related to that symbol, pointing to the Tonalmachiotl. She stated that the TUSD directives (and specifically the 1st directive) prohibit the teaching of anything that had to do with “Mexican culture.” Needless to say, I was in shock primarily because this is a cultural symbol that permeates the Mexican indigenous homes, restaurants, bakeries, and murals of her very students. The calendar is more “American” than any Greco-Roman symbol that the state of Arizona would have its teachers teach. In fact, according to my co-author, University of Arizona professor Roberto Rodriguez, “Tucson is home to the oldest cornfield in the nation,” thus establishing maiz-based curricula and culture as more indigenous than “America” itself.

Since this event, interest in maiz-based curricula has skyrocketed as educators nationwide have been intrigued by the prohibited curriculum. What follows, then, are lessons on the Tonalmachiotl and maiz-based perspectives.

The Knowledge in the Tonalmachiotl

Profesor Arturo Meza Gutierrez, a respected teacher of Mexican Indigenous culture in Mexico City, states that the Tonalmachiotl communicates to us that we have the right to live a just and happy life and that we must respect the four life-giving elements. Developing a curriculum centered on these precepts appeals to the students’ humanity and yields tremendous growth, as evidenced by human measures. Human measures are expressed through the students level of engagement in life, that is when they engage positively in life because they have a purpose, they have hope that opportunities exist for them as opposed to being in a state of nihilism where we can find students of color because of colonization. A stable identity that allows them to walk in beauty.

Focusing on growth based on these human measures will positively and drastically foster progress in all academic areas, as evidenced by TUSD’s Raza Studies students’ consistent outperforming all other student groups in AIMS (standardized test) scores. This curricular focus imparts to students the keys to their indigenous identity and their rights as planetary citizens of this continent, thus cementing their purpose in life, their responsibility and their sense of self, their humanity.

According to the teaching of our Mexica elders, caretakers of our indigenous history and knowledge, the Tonalmachiotl is based on at least 30,000 years of research and study conducted on the Earth and the Cosmos; it is a scientific documentation and an astronomical account (Meza-Guitierrez). According to Calpolli Teoxicalli, the twelve-foot diameter stone is the culminating product of research conducted by our indigenous elders.16 Our ancestors’ query was centered on living in harmony with all of creation. This research cultivated the knowledge to understand the Earth and her cycles and to effectively and harmoniously work with her and the Cosmos (Calpolli Teoxicalli). Moreover, this knowledge establishes a connection with our inner-self to live in harmony from within and without.

When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico-Tenochtitlan in 1525, an understanding of these cultural symbols and the knowledge embedded within them was the furthest thing from the Spaniards’ minds; they came to destroy. As colonizers of this region, the Spaniards proceeded to chronicle the history of the Mexica. Purposefully they wrote that the face in the center of the Tonalmachiotl is that of a sun god, but to my understanding, that is a 500-year-old fabricated falsity. Evidence reveals that it is not a sun god as there is no word in Nahuatl to express an idea of a sun god.

According to the teachings of Meza-Gutierrez, the face represents Tlaltecutli, the Earth. Tlaltecutli translates into “our guide”; thus, the Tonalmachiotl is our guide to understanding how to live in harmony with the Earth. The Sun is, however, represented in the form of an Eagle and Butterfly in the center of the Tonalmachiotl, symbolizing an astronomical event that can be witnessed on Earth every year in July.

Among the many documented counts within the Tonalmachiotl, two are of significance and are elaborated in the maiz-based curriculum. The xiuhpohualli (a solar count) represents the solar calendar, which consists of 360 days with 5 days of the nemontemi, a reflection period used to evaluate the previous year with the intent to learn and grow from our lived experiences. The xiuhpohualli consists of eighteen veintenas (20-day cycles) as our ancestors discovered that the climate changes slightly every twenty days. Each twenty-day period that changes in the Earth’s climate is recognized and ceremonial obligations continue to be completed in an effort to assist the Earth or thank the Earth for everything that She provides. This solar count was critical to the survival of our ancestors as it was an agricultural calendar that provided the necessary knowledge for them to grow their sustenance effectively without destroying the Earth. An understanding of this count cements our interdependence with the Earth and establishes our responsibility to respect Her, for ourselves and the many generations hereafter.

The second count, the tonalpohualli (human count), consists of 260 days. The tonalpohualli consists of twenty trecenas (13-day cycles). This count totals 260 days, which is the amount totaling the human gestation period and applies to our development in the womb and the philosophy that the very second we take our first breath we are granted the energies of the day. Additionally, each thirteen-day cycle carries an energy that, when known, can be used. For example, according to the thirteen-day cycle, Ce Tochtli (one rabbit) days carry the energy of completion and maturity, a great time to undertake a project and to complete it.

Knowing the energy of the day on which we were born serves as a guide to realize and develop our potentials and capabilities so that we can fulfill our destiny as human beings to develop our profound potentials and inhabit this Earth and live in harmony with Her. This is what the Tonalmachiotl teaches us. Each day is given the symbol of an animal, a plant, a life-giving element or a symbol of life. For example, the day tochtli (rabbit) carries the energy of fertilization and maturity, and so a person born on the day, rabbit, is granted that energy. As such, that person can be fertile with the creation of ideas and on the completion or maturity of projects. A person born on the day atl, water, has the potential like water to give life, to take the shape of any container that it is housed in. As such, that person will be the giver of life to all things, ideas, and projects and will be well-established in all groups of people just as water conforms to its surroundings.

Each of the twenty days carries a very specific symbol because the elders matched the energy of the day with an animal or element that is representative of the specific energy. The twenty days, which appear counterclockwise in one of the inner circles, are the following: cipactli (crocodile), e’hecatl (wind), calli (house), cuetzpallin (lizard), coatl (serpent), miquitzli (skull), mazatl (deer), tochtli (rabbit), atl (water), itzcuintli (dog), ozomatli (monkey), Malinalli (herb), acatl (reed), Ozelotl (jaguar), cuautli (eagle), cozcacuautli (condor), ollin (movement), tecpatl (flint), qiahuitl ( rain), and xochitl (flower). In a maiz-based curriculum, students are able to find the personal symbols that correspond to their birthday. By knowing these symbols, students have acquired an identity that gives them purpose and direction in life to live in beauty.

Another critical pillar of the maiz-based curriculum is centered on the Nahui-ollin. This way of knowing is extrapolated from the center of the Tonalmachiotl, including the face and the four images in the squares surrounding it. The knowledge reveals a fundamental concept in Aztec-Mexica Cosmology that establishes a guide for everyday life and decisions. Moreover, it guides us in our development towards harmony and balance of the mind, body, and essence that fosters community. This epistemology serves to guide our decision-making in that there is an understanding that as evolutionary beings we grow and become wise through our lived experiences. The cycle consists of the male energies of Tezcatlipoca (reflection), Xipe Totec (transformation), Huitzilopotchtli (our will), and Quetzalcoatl (stability). The Nahui-ollin demonstrates that we must be reflective in our daily actions so that we can learn from them and grow into loving and respectful human beings.

This maiz-based curriculum focuses on the development of identity, purpose, and hope that is appealing to a students’ humanity and not focused on test scores. The focus on human measures is how we can transform the experience of students in the classroom and where we can disrupt the achievement gap.

While some will deny that there is a civilizational war at play here, what is clear is that indigenous knowledge has been demonized. That demonization has backfired as there is a newfound interest among people of Mexican, Central, and South American descent—indigenous peoples on this continent—to learn about the ancestral knowledge that lives in our midst. That the knowledge that is indigenous to this continent would be deemed to be Un-American is mind-numbing. Regardless of how this plays out in the courts, this is why it has become a teaching moment. It is possible that the calendar that has graced homes, schools, and restaurants in both Mexico and the United States for many generations, will no longer be appreciated simply for its artistic value, but for its actual content.


1. A June 2012 study confirms the positive relationship between taking MAS classes and success in school, thus debunking once again the notion that there is no such proof. See this study.

2. For a broader discussion on the topic of whether MAS is outside of Western civilization, go to Truthout.

3. The proper context of this conflict can only be appreciated by knowing that several months before on May 3, 2011, perhaps 200 law enforcement officers converged on the school board meeting, surrounding the entire neighborhood, occupying the building with SWAT officers, snipers, police dogs, a bomb squad and a metal detection unit. At this meeting, seven women were arrested inside for speaking in support of the program, while youths and students were beaten outside. To this day, there has been no accounting as to the reason for the massive show of force.

4. The directives can be found on this website in a column titled TUSD shuts down Dept., bans books, & issues draconian directives as to what can and cannot be taught in schools.

5. The initial seven books that were boxed in Jan 2012 were: Critical Race Theory by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefanic; 500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures edited by Elizabeth Martinez; Message to Aztlan by Rodolfo Corky Gonzales; Chicano! The History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement by F. Arturo Rosales; Occupied America: A History of Chicanos by Rodolfo Acuña; Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire; and Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years by Bill Bigelow.

6. Several of my own books were part of the MAS-TUSD curriculum. Two, The X in La Raza and Codex Tamuanchan: On Becoming Human, were banned by TUSD administrators the year before and were part of the original MAS curriculum since the department’s founding in 1997.

7. The argument that TUSD was not censoring books was also predicated on the idea that the books were not actually banned, but simply placed in district libraries. While books are available to students, they can no longer be taught in MAS classes or by former MAS teachers.

8. Chucho Ruiz, who is part of Calpolli Teoxicalli in Tucson and who teaches for Chicanos Por La Causa in area schools, including TUSD schools, is permitted to teach the Aztec Calendar through Native American Studies.

9. Tom Horne has not attacked the concepts of In lak Ech-Panche Be or Hunab Ku, but these are the most celebrated concepts of the MAS program. His attacks have generally attacked everything outside of Western Civilization. One such attack was Lecture #1023, Heritage Foundation, May 14, 2007

10. One of the legal challenges actually precedes HB 2281. The long-standing Fisher/Mendoza desegregation lawsuit may trump local and state laws. As of Nov. 2012, it seems likely that the courts may order TUSD to reinstate the Raza Studies curriculum. A preliminary report calls on TUSD to greatly expand its Latino-relevant classes.

11. In the United States, people of Mexican origin have a greater interest in the Nepohuatzinzin because it is of Mesoamerican origins, though Lorenzo Boturini Benaduci posited in the 1700s that it is similar to the quipu of the Andes.

12. In a maiz-based curriculum, students are taught things as simple as how to count in Nahuatl. For example, here is 1-13: ce (one), ome (two), yei (three), nahui (four), macuili (five), chicuace (six), chicome (seven), chicueyi (eight), chicnahui (nine), matlactli (ten), matlactli huan ce (eleven), matlactli huan ome( twelve), matlactli huan yei (thirteen).

13. The oral tradition is passed on by both, elders, primarily from Mexico and Central America, but also by traditional dance groups referred to as danza. Several influential elders who have had direct relationships with Mexican American community have included Maya scholar, Domingo Martinez Paredez, Aztec-Mexica elders, Florencio Yescas and Maestra Angelbertha Cobb, conchero elder Andres Segura and Mexicayotl elder, Tlakaele. All are now deceased except Maestra Cobb.

14. In the summer of 2012, educators convened a Raza Studies Now conference in Santa Monica, Calif., with the expressed purpose of spreading Raza Studies at the pre-K–12 levels nationwide. Several of the participants were those that also took part in writing “El Plan de Santa Barbara” in 1969, a blueprint for spreading Chicano Studies at the college and university level nationwide.

15. During the first week of August, Mr. Horne verbally reversed himself on the topic of the Aztec Calendar. At a press conference held to denounce the use of death threats in the debate over MAS, he stated that HB 2281 does not prohibit the teaching of the Aztec calendar, nor does it prohibit the teaching of Mexican-American history or culture. However, he added a disclaimer, saying that he is not responsible for what administrators do in the classrooms. See my Truthout article.

16. Calpolli Teoxicalli is a family of Indigenous families in Tucson, Arizona, who guide their lives according to the Tonalmachiotl or Aztec Calendar.


Boone, H.E. 2000. Stories in Red and Black: Pictorial Histories of the Aztecs and Mixtecs. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Boturini Benaduci, L. 1974. Idea de una historia general de la America Septentrional. Preliminary analysis by Miguel Leon Portilla. Mexico City: Editorial Porrua.

Chimalpopoca Codice: anales de Cuauhtitlan y leyenda de los soles / traduccion directa del nahuatl por Velazquez. (1945). (Velasquez, Primo, Feliciano (ed.). Mexico City: UNAM.

Forbes, J.1973. Aztecas del Norte: The Chicanos of Aztlan. Greenwich, Connecticut: Fawcett.

Martinez Paredez, D.M. 1960. Un Continente y Una Cultura: Unidad Filologica de la America pre-hispanica. Mexico City: Editorial Poesia de America.

Rodriguez, R. 2010. Amoxtli X – The X Codex. Austin: Eagle Feather Research Institute.

— — —. 2012. “Raza Studies: Inside or Outside of Western Civilization?” Truthout: Public Intellectual Project.