Tlahtolli: Interview with Roberto “Dr. Cintli” Rodriguez, elder, activist scholar and author
TLAHTOLLI is a new series on Xica Nation featuring exclusive interviews with community leaders, spiritual elders, thinkers and artists that participate actively in community work and empowerment within the greater Xican@ nation.
Roberto “Dr. Cintli” Rodriguez is an assistant professor in Mexican-American studies at the University of Arizona, is the author of several books, including, Justice: A Question of Race and Our Sacred Maiz Is Our Mother. In 2013, he received the Ella Baker/Septima Clark Human Rights Award from the American Educational Research Association for his work supporting the Mexican American Studies Program in the Tucson Unified School District, which has been ground zero for the attack on Mexican American Studies by the State of Arizona.
Hello and welcome to Xica Nation. Could you tell us your name, title, and how you identify? Where are you from?
My name is Roberto Rodriguez. I go by Dr. Cintli, a name bestowed upon me by an elder when I received my PhD. I am an assistant professor at the University of Arizona. I was born in Aguascalientes, Mexico and I have always identified as Mexicano. My parents were born in Mexico City. I have family in the state of Morelos and also in Jalisco. At the age of 4, my parents moved us to the border and we stayed there for a year and a half and then moved on to LA – East LA specifically. I’m not very different from most brown Mexicanos. I have a little bit of everything, but of course, my roots are indigenous. I have been taught to identify myself as macehual (which means common person) or simply as hombre de maiz. I do not have a need to identify as part of a nation-state…. None deserve our citizenship.
Could you tell us a little bit about your background? Were you raised in the tradition?
As I mentioned, I am not very different from most Mexicans. I don’t really have memories of where I was born, but I very much remember when I lived in Tijuana, before crossing the border at age five. That was a huge cultural shock. Our family crossed in 1960. It was a time when Mexicans were hated openly in this country, though generally, it was after the era of dejure segregation, though it still existed defacto. It was kind of the way Arizona is today. But it was even worse because in those days, people that looked like us, people who are today called Mexican Americans, hated us too, viciously. There was identity conflict in our midst. I know that I was called a wetback virtually everyday, either that, or a mojado. Of course it was bothersome, but the one thing I can say is that both my parents raised us on stories about our ancestors and whenever anyone ever called us a wetback, they, but especially my father, would always remind us that we had not swam across the ocean.
You have to remember that as a child, and of course to this day, I was brown, very brown. So I didn’t understand the hate around me. I understood I was hated due to my color, because of the language I spoke and just because we had come from Mexico. But I didn’t understand why. So much of what my father would tell me was to reassure me that there was nothing wrong with me or us… that we were peoples that had been here for thousands and thousands of years. I knew that even as a five year old … as a 6 year old. As to whether I was raised traditionally, I know that I was raised on stories. Society told me one thing and my parents told me another. I think psychologists refer to this as cognitive dissonance. That is, there were conflicting messages, but the more powerful messages came from within the home. So I always heard the messages of: “go back to where you came from” or “go back to Mexico,” but my parents also used to tell me that where we lived also used to be Mexico. Despite all the hate messages, I was raised on stories of indigenous peoples, including of our own ancestors. I always felt that it was not I who was an outsider, but rather, it was everyone else who did not know who they were.
I felt that everyone else did not know who they were, or that it was those that insulted us who had identity issues…. that they were in denial that they were Mexican or Indigenous. So that’s the great thing about how I was raised. If I had been born in this country and perhaps if I had been light-skinned, no doubt my whole worldview would probably have been very different. So that’s how I was raised knowing that I was Indigenous. We did not do ceremonies, but we were raised on stories and those stories created a fire within me, that is, a thirst for knowledge of knowing who I was and who had come before us. And so even as a little kid I learned and I was always searching for things ancient, but I very much lived in the present. In one sense, I was raised by my parents and raised by the streets of East LA and the Chicano Movement. I believed we lived in the center of the universe… on Whittier Blvd in an alley in East LA.
This movement began when I was in middle school and things were happening fast and all around us. I don’t know that I understood everything at the time when it was happening but I knew something big was happening because those that used to call us wetbacks all of a sudden were no longer calling themselves Spanish or even Mexican American but instead were now calling themselves Chicanos. I really couldn’t identify myself that way because it generally referred to people that were born here, that were Mexican Americans. Yet I liked the fact that they weren’t calling me those names anymore and that they were seemingly now proud of who they were. So I got into this movement too even if I didn’t call myself that, but it was exciting and eventually I did begin to call myself a Chicano. One of the things I did notice is the at that time, people did not simply become proud of being Mexican or Chicano, but also began to be proud of being indigenous.
In those days most Chicanos saw themselves as being descended from Aztec Indians. It was different in those days. Probably most were not Aztec but it was progress from when they used to see themselves as being Spanish.
Was there a defining moment in your life when you felt a calling to research and learn more indigenous Xicano roots?
From what I have explained, most of my life was a search for my indigenous roots. But I can say that because I’ve been a writer most of my life, something radical happened I would say in the mid-1990s that was different then how I had lived my life since the 1970s. Going back to the mid 1970s, I had been part of a number of groups including Four Directions in Los Angeles and other groups that had created an indigenous consciousness amongst Chicanos. It was different than the idea that everyone was Aztec Indian. That earlier era had been characterized by that idea. In the mid-1970s through groups such as Four Directions, Chicanos began to have relationships with many other indigenous people from throughout the continent. It was not about a romantic notion of being Indian and it was not about coming from Aztlan. Rather, it was about relationships, specifically relationships with other peoples of the continent. As a writer, I documented that change. It was a break from the 1960s and early ‘70s. I imagine it would take a long time to explain what I did for 20 years after that, but in the 1990s, as a writer, I was given a map that set me off on the search for origins and migrations. I didn’t do this by myself, but rather both my wife and I engaged in a research project that involved the 1847 Disturnell map. This map was attached to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. On this map showed that the Hopi had been independent since 1680 and that the Aztecs lived north of the Hopi. I was fascinated by the map and other similar and older maps. I was fascinated with how the notations ended up on those maps. Because I was familiar with the story, or rather the Aztec migration story, I thought that this might be alluding to this idea on this map(s), but I did not proceed with that assumption. Instead I simply wanted to verify the origin of that information.
It is for that reason that everyone thought I was is looking for Aztlan. I proceeded to go to many archives, libraries, special collections, including the Library of Congress. Of the thousands of maps that I went through, I found close to 200 older maps that showed information pointing to the Great Salt Lake as the point of origin of Mexican Indians, not necessarily Aztecs, but probably including Aztecs. That search also took me to many ancient sites and it also took me to meet many elders from throughout the continent. It was at that point where I was told by several elders that it appeared that what I was looking for, was not so much where the Aztecs had come from, but rather, where I was from. At that point, I was told that if that was my objective, to follow the maiz. As such, I dropped my research on maps and instead began to focus on maiz. The search for maps was exhilarating, however the search for maiz was nothing that I could have expected. You could say that I found my roots in a kernel of corn. The thing about maíz is that it is not something glorious, but something humble, something that has kept us alive for many thousands of years. Maiz is not simply important to the peoples of Mexico, but to virtually all peoples on this continent. All cultures are unique and distinct, there’s no question about that, but what is awesome is that most people have a relationship to that humble maiz.
Why is it important that Xican@s reclaim their indigenous roots? Why is the struggle for Mexican American Studies important?
The question about Chicanos reclaiming their indigenous roots sounds awkward. Most Mexicans, most Mexican Americans are indigenous to this continent, however most are de-indigenized and I would say, not by choice, but by the forces of history. That is called colonialism. I would also say that many if not most have also been dehumanized. And so for the past generation there has been a process where people are or have been exposed to that culture that they were separated from many generations ago. It’s an incredibly dynamic process to reconnect to those cultures and to that knowledge, primarily via elders, though some do it via the study of codices. What is always important to remember is that the culture never went away. The knowledge remained and the stories remained; most of us were simply disconnected from it.
In one sense, one can say that that Raza or Mexican American Studies has helped to bring that knowledge to light. And precisely because this knowledge is indigenous to this continent, is why many bureaucrats oppose its teaching. The best example has been Tucson, the state of Arizona, where legislators passed a measure the banned ethnic studies. Opposition to it had to do with the fact that what was taught in MAS was considered to be outside of Western civilization. And of course that translated to and translates to indigenous knowledge or maíz -based knowledge.
What does corn have to do with our identity as indigenous Xican@ people? Could you tell us a little about why you chose to write the book “Our Sacred Maiz is Our Mother?”
Re the importance of maiz. In one sense it is a complex answer and at the same time, it is the most simplest of answers. Maiz is who we are. It is what we are made of. It is where we come from. It is what connects us to the other peoples of this continent. Prior to understanding this, like many from the previous generation, I gravitated towards the idea of Aztlan. When you study this story/idea of Aztlan, one comes to understand that it is a story of one people. But when you examine the story of maiz, one comes to understand that it is something bigger, much bigger. It is, in effect, the story of most of the peoples of this continent — that is, from Mexico, Central, South and North America, including the islands in the Caribbean – which is where the word maíz comes from. Of course, this predates the very concept of America by many, many thousands of years. The importance is it also leads to the idea that we are no better or no worse than any other people and that we are connected and related. Some people withn our own culture find that idea unacceptable. But it is not contradictory. Some continue to look for the idea of home or a homeland, whereas I look for connections and relationships. For me, the whole continent is home. Often, this opposition to being connected and related often comes from another quarter; from mainstream anthropology but I don’t mean to single out anthropology because many of the disciplines think the same way. It stems from post-modern thinking. On this topic, post-modernists stress the opposite… that all cultures are different and unique and are opposed to universalization or the blending of all cultures or the suggestion that we are all related, etc. But of course. All cultures are unique. That is not contradictory, but that other thinking leads to atomization in which people come to believe that no one is related or connected. It actually lends itself to colonial thinking that created the false belief of an empty and wild continent – that it was there for the taking, just waiting to be civilized. What’s important about maiz and maiz culture, is that it is not older or it did not replace other cultures such as those based on salmon or buffalo. Yet what is important about maiz culture is that it radically transformed this continent. In that sense Chicanos come from that same process, a process that is many, many thousands of years old and a process that produced most of the cultures on this continent.
I chose to write the book Our Sacred Maiz is our Mother because in my work, I was given a very powerful message by elders from throughout the continent. The story of maiz rivals that of the story of wheat and rice across the oceans. They don’t actually rival each other, rather, they are what produced the three great civilizations on this earth. What can be said is that maíz is unique to this continent, created some seven thousand years ago and virtually spread overnight in all directions, eventually reaching the coldest regions both to the North and South. What is unique about maiz is that it cannot grow by itself. That is why we know we are all related. One of the things that is amazing about maiz is that it documents itself. It is its own archive, but even beyond that, it is part of the germinational seed, born many thousands and thousands of years ago, and we are part of that. What is also amazing is that after having been created some seven thousand years ago, it went viral. It spread everywhere so that at least 4,000 years ago, it reached what is today the U.S. Southwest. It probably arrived many years before that, but there is no evidence yet found, except in the stories. So for us in Arizona, for example where people worry about brown hordes streaming across the border, they are at least 4,000 years too late. Brown people have been streaming forth in all directions for thousands and thousands of years, and that’s the point. In ancient times that’s how culture spread. There were no one-way highways. People spread and came back and forth in all directions. What Europeans did some 500 years ago is introduce artificial borders, psychological ones and political ones and forever changed the continent. But the borders are not real. They are contrary to nature. Of course they did so on the basis of the doctrine of discovery, their papal bulls (1453 and 1493) and El Requerimiento (1514). Those are worthless documents, yet, they have never been revoked, though that is with what purportedly gave Europeans the right to the lands here on this continent. That is what established their “legality.” That is what Ethnic and Mexican American Studies teaches: the truth. That is why MAS is opposed. Rather than teach the stories of the glory of Columbus, the Pilgrims and the Puritans, MAS teaches their actual role in the plunder of this continent and its peoples. Through this prism, that is how we know that this country is founded, not upon slavery, but upon genocide, land theft… and slavery.
I wrote the book because this knowledge has been generally suppressed and censored for some 500 years. But what is actually taught in MAS is not the war or the invasion, but the creation; that’s the story of maíz … something that created many civilizations with advanced agriculture, math, astronomy, architecture, etc. Who would have thought all that history and all that culture could be contained in a simple kernel of corn. What is to be remembered is that the concept of past, present and future all fuse. That is, we don’t live in the past, but we know it and understand it. In one sense this is not about the past, especially a romantic past. This is about peoples’ daily connection to their daily diet. Most Mexican people, most Chicanos and most people from Central America and the Andes have a daily connection to maíz, including those of us that live in the United States. Many if not most of us have a connection to the three sisters maíz, beans and squash…and chile. That is why many of us feel a sense of responsibility on protecting them against genetic modification. These are the foods that permitted and permit millions upon millions of people to live and to survive for millennia. What is important about maiz is that it has always been part of our culture and when the Mexican Independence movement took hold, as well as the Mexican Revolution, as well as the Chicano Movement, it was always there, but in the background. I think the time was right and is right for it to no longer stay in the background, but in the foreground. That’s why the title of the book. That is why it is easy for someone like myself to identify myself as hombre de maiz or macehual. It is also important to remember that from maiz also come values or ethos. The MAS program taught two of these concepts: in lak ech – you are my other me, and panche be – to seek the root of the truth. They are maíz –based concepts that come to us compliments of the Maya-Nahua culture, in this case, from the Maya scholar, Domingo Martinez Paredes. At the University of Arizona, I teach 7 of these values or ethos and are included in my book. This includes the first two, plus Hunab Ku, Men, K’ochil, Et p’iz and Yaxche-baalche. All of these are ethos that help guide people in becoming human or in becoming better human beings. All of these are values that are found in other cultures… which is the point. Some people object to that, thinking that the values that make us human come strictly from Greco-Roman culture, etc.
When I was studying for my masters and phd, I was already studying maiz, but when I moved to Arizona, I saw its centrality in relationship to the battle that was being waged against Mexican American Studies. Politicians in Arizona inhabit a different universe and absolutely a different time/space. Think not McCarthyism, but the Inquisition and the “dark ages.” And that is not an exaggeration. I have been in the courtroom where books and pieces of artwork were scrutinized to determine whether they contain permissible or impermissible knowledge. That is what lead to the banning, not simply of books and the curriculum, but more importantly, a worldview. In that sense, that’s what I contribute with this book. We have a story (stories) on this continent, just like people around the world have a story. Our story here is ancient, and it should be taught on this continent. This should be taught to the world. It seems pretty bizarre that anyone would want to suppress the teaching of maíz culture especially on this continent. Especially when you consider that maíz is Indigenous to this continent.
In the documentary “Amoxtli San Ce Tojuan: We are one – Nosotros somos uno” (2005), produced by you and your wife, elder, professor and author Patrisia Gonzales, you explore the stories, evidence and connections between indigenous tribes and of Xican@s through the story of Aztlan and the linguistic family connections of Nahuatl (Uto-Aztecan) language throughout the Americas. The film is in English, Spanish and Nahuatl and is woven through short interviews and oral histories by indigenous peoples of many nations. Why did you take this approach?
The idea of the Amoxtli San Ce Tojuan documentary, which preceded this book, is pretty radical. That is, you can look at it two ways; the method or style in which the different voices are presented and the message or messages within it. In terms of the style, what’s radical is that indigenous peoples speak for themselves; there is no narrator or arbiters of knowledge. There is nobody to interpret. Basically the story follows the narrative of Mexicans and Chicanos searching for their point of origin and in effect being told by elders throughout the continent to follow the maiz. Some people of course question whether Mexicans and Chicanos/Chicanas are native or indigenous peoples and, in effect, that is why this documentary was made. Incidentally, I don’t argue the obvious – that they are Indigenous people. Instead, what I argue is that we are part of a maíz –based culture(s) that came to be, not as a result of war (1846-48) or invasion (1492-1519) but via the creation of maíz. The research was done both by Patricia Gonzalez and myself. Her work resulted in another book called Red Medicine (University of Arizona Press). I pretty much made the documentary, meaning that if she had made the documentary it would have been different because much of her work is about traditional plants, traditional medicine and Indigenous women’s knowledge etc. For me, it’s probably true that I was looking for my own origins and having been raised in Los Angeles, I believe I was predisposed to think in terms of the 1960s-70s. But once the research journey began, that changed. What makes the documentary very unique is that that story of Aztlan, it is not that it becomes secondary, but rather, it becomes a gateway of sorts in understanding something bigger. So the issue is not whether we found Aztlan or not, or whether we were even looking for it in the first place, but rather, what we found was our connection to the entire continent… and to the other Indigenous peoples of the continent. For some, that is not as exciting as finding a point of origin or Aztlan itself. But I think that we did find our point of origin: that humble maiz. It has nothing to do with a nation or nation-state, but understanding that we are part of something bigger. Again I understand that some people think along the lines of peoplehood and nations and nation-states, but that’s not really where I, or we, went with this, primarily because we were guided by elders, and the ones we spoke to, you might say, welcomed us back into a much larger family. It was a journey of respect, relationships and reciprocity, where we learned that we too have stories and we too are part of that same ancient and historic process on this continent.
The thing about the documentary is that yes one of the things that we make public is the connection of peoples that are related through the Uto-Nahuatl language family. That in itself is a very large connection involving many, many peoples. And yet that’s what’s amazing about the maiz connection, that it is even much, much bigger. You see, there’s a tendency in society to see connections and an opposite tendency of atomization. I understand why people don’t like the idea of connections because in the past some peoples projected and some peoples perceived Aztlan as an imperial idea of attempting to subsume everyone else. I understand the hesitancy. But the idea of being connected by a little colonel kernel of maiz is the opposite of dominance and superiority. It is an acknowledgement that we all come from somewhere very special. I find that everywhere I go, few people object to that. I have to admit that in the past I have seen the opposite reaction when the term or the word Aztlan is mentioned amongst native people from the north because what is perceived is that Chicanos are claiming Indigenous lands that are not theirs. But wherever I go, or wherever I have gone, I don’t get that same reaction with the maiz. That is because the maiz in and of itself is both sacred sustenance, ceremony and part of a 7.000-year ceremonial discourse. It truly is an awesome feeling to know that we are part of that. That’s why the extreme right wing hates that. That is why they try to destroy Ethnic Studies, or more specifically, Mexican American Studies… because the students were being exposed to that understanding and to those ancient stories. The irony is that Ethnic/Raza and Indigenous Studies is now being exported and adopted by K-12 schools nationwide. The students in Tucson were learning about maiz culture. Something very special was taking place. Our students began to understand that they had roots, literal roots in what we call Cemanahuac, Pacha Mama, Abya Yala or what others call the Americas. Once that is understood it is difficult to view oneself as a foreigner or alien. And that’s not to say that the students are taught to view Europeans as foreigners. Those are ideas that came to this continent, of peoples belonging and not belonging. Worse, they came with ideas about who was human and who was not and who had souls and who did not. I think when we adopt those ideas and flip them around, we become contaminated and begin to think in the same way. That is, we adopt a sick way of looking at the world. So our students were not taught that way. They are taught to value all peoples as full human beings with full corresponding human rights. Apparently that’s a radical idea in the bad sense. Apparently that’s not something that’s supposed to be taught here… that we are all equal. That’s the message of MAS and it is also the message of my book. But it is important to note that in academe, especially in the critical race theory and similar disciplines, people speak of stories or rather Master stories or Master narratives and counter narratives and counter stories. The master narrative and the stories belong to the dominant sectors and the counter stories and counter narratives belong to those fighting against that. In the story of maiz, that is not a counter story or a counter narrative. It is a narrative unto itself and it is indeed indigenous to this continent. It doesn’t compete, meaning it respects that there are other narratives around the world. This one just happens to be from this continent. That is what raises the ire of those that are opposed to MAS. They don’t like the idea that there could be stories independent of what they refer to as the “old world,” where supposedly everything comes from – from religion to truth, philosophy to culture and knowledge. That’s not to say that it doesn’t come from there. It does. What I am saying is that it also comes from here. And there’s nothing wrong with learning it, along with learning everybody else’s culture, whether it is from Africa, India, China or Europe. What is awesome about maíz culture are the stories. All maíz -based cultures have them. But we do know that there is that common germinational seed, or what some scholars refer to as a civilizational impulse. The idea is so simple. When I teach my students about this topic they don’t understand why it is controversial. Those that have taken Chicnaa/Chicano Studies previously, have been taught that they were either created in 1848 due to a war or 1519 by an invasion. The idea of originating from maiz culture speaks to them because it is part of their living and daily culture. Today, not yesterday. It is what they eat, is what they breathe. It is what is inside of them. It is really awesome to see what Paulo Freire refers to as concientizacion. It is not a stretch to believe that what we eat forms the basis of our culture. It doesn’t require believing in stories that some people refer to as myth or legend. Though I do have to say that once they learn the stories, at least some of them, they make a thousands-of-years connection just by listening to the story and they make them their story. For example, the story of the ants and Quetzalcoatl, which is part of a Nahuatl-based creation story (Codex Chimapopolca), connects them in the same way that the story of the Popol Vuh also connects them to the maiz. Again this is all about connections and relationships, but it is also teaching them a way of life, based primarily on respect.
Are there any other words of wisdom that you would like to share with the world?
One of the most awesome things I have learned in both my research, my writing and living in Tucson and writing my book is the concept of creation/resistance. It is often said that people of color, and of course I know more about Mexicans and Chicanos, that we have resistance cultures. And true it is. But as we found out in Tucson in Arizona, in the past seven years, there were so many reactionary politicians, that every time they passed regressive legislation or made discriminatory court decisions, etc., we found ourselves always reacting. We would call it resisting, but in effect, what we were doing was reacting. That means that we were being remanded to a culture of reaction. At a certain point we realized this and understood that we were becoming a culture of reaction. And I’m talking about Gov. Jan Brewer, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, former Sen Russell Pearce and former state superintendents Tom Horne and John Huppenthal. That is, we asked what were we doing or creating, independent of these characters? And it seemed like the answer was nothing. At a certain point we came to understand that indeed, we were the ones creating and it is they who were reacting to us. And that was the impetus for continuing to create. For telling everyone to return home and create their own Raza/Ethnic/Indigenous Studies… and we are seeing that now, from LAUSD to San Francisco Unified School District, to El Rancho and Montebello districts, etc… and including a huge movement in Texas. But the key was/is creation-resistance. Not one or the other, but in combination and if anything, leaning towards the creation aspect. Because if one only resists, that means you only react to others. And if one only creates independent of one’s political reality, then one either becomes irrelevant, detached or oblivious. So we had to do both and I think that is an awesome way to be. Creating and resisting and creating. Really I think the creation part is awesome, especially in a state such as Arizona.
Final thoughts: I have been a writer for some 40-plus years. In those years, I have written extensively about immigration and I’ve also written about police brutality. So for a while, in a sense I took a hiatus and took on this project about origins and migrations on this continent that produced my maiz book. But really, they were not radical departures, but part of the journey. Part of a search of who we are as human beings. And yet, after having taken this amazing journey, I feel like I am back to the topic of both immigration and police brutality. That’s part of that creation-resistance. Can we simply create when our peoples are being killed by the hundreds/thousands? And of course, for me the question is, when have peoples of color not been killed? The real question to ask is, when have people of color been treated as full human beings with full corresponding human rights? I think we all know the answer. Our history on this continent since 1492 is that of being dehumanized and that’s why we have the super high rates of incarceration of black and brown peoples, and also high rates of brutality and deaths at the hands of law enforcement, including at the border. So that is part of what I am working on at the moment, a book on law enforcement abuse. The thing is I was actually writing this, about the relationship between state violence and torture and initially, it was going to be a memoir, but with all the killings between 2014-2015, I don’t know that it’s going to be a memoir after all. The title of that book, and it might change, but at the moment is called: Yolqui: a warrior summonsed from the spirit world. In the ancient days on this continent, according to the Nahuatl culture, when necessary, Yolqui warriors were summonsed from the spirit world, to battle in this world. The other project I am working with is called Smiling Brown. This one is about color and color consciousness. It is primarily about the topic within Mexican/Chicana/Chicano and Central American cultures, though included are other cultures of the continent. The most important aspect of the testimonies are when people finally understood that there was never anything wrong with them in the first place. It’s very powerful, practically a taboo topic. It will become a book, play and videologues.
Where can we find your blog, works and books?
Our Sacred Maíz is Our Mother
Smiling Brown: Gente de Bronce—People the Color of the Earth
“Not Counting Mexicans or Indians”: The Many Tentacles of State Violence Against Black-Brown-Indigenous Communities
Indigenous Knowledge on Trial: Defending and Defining Mexican-American Studies