By Roberto Dr. Cintli Rodriguez
Note: This is the full version of an article originally published on Truthout on June 6, 2016.
As the 2020 U.S. Census looms, this arcane ritual will once again result in the painting of a false picture of the demographic makeup of the United States. While the nation has been getting “browner,” for many decades, the U.S. Census Bureau has actually been complicit in obfuscating this change, what I have long-termed: demographic genocide. Yet, this time around, rather than being corralled against their will into the White category, due to a long-overdue change in the census, a lot less Mexican, Central American, Andean and Caribbean peoples will be checking the White racial box.
Countering the delusions of previous generations, we know that simply checking the White box has never meant being treated as White anyway. More importantly, it has never permitted Mexicans to be treated as full human beings with full corresponding human rights. This time around, per this change, many of us will instead [again] be checking the American Indian box, while rejecting the bureaucratically imposed Hispanic/Latino box. Others will check and affirm both.
This change however, will not alter the historic de-Indigenization schemes of this society, including those of the bureau because it has always been an ideological instrument of empire. It does not just count people, but actually helps to shape the self-image, character and its national narrative. It helps tell the world: this is “who we are “ – that is, who the United States is.
And just precisely, who or what is the United States supposed to be? God’s chosen people?
The bureau estimates that by 2044, the United States will cease being a majority White nation. Long before that, the nation’s schools will have ceased being majority White (rationale for defunding U.S. public schools). This is very disconcerting for those who believe, even if but at a subconscious level, that the history of this country is bound by the tenets of Providence, Manifest Destiny and its modern and secular equivalent: American exceptionalism. The truth is, deeply embedded within the psyche of this nation is that God gave White people this country and continent… and the prospects that it will soon be returning to the natives – to savages, to Brown peoples – has had many U.S. politicians beside themselves for quite some time now. The truth is, many believe that God gave them the entire world, as part of a divine mission to create Heaven on Earth.
This pretext is the fuel for many of the modern schemes to keep this nation White; either drive people of color out of the country, imprison them, completely assimilate them, or define them out of existence. In eras past, genocide, land theft, lynchings, forced removals and mass repatriations were also part of this formula.
Throughout the history of this country, a primary objective of U.S. society and all its institutions was that if you couldn’t eliminate people of color, then the idea was to get all the nation’s inhabitants, especially its immigrants, to buy into this dream, even if this narrative did not actually apply to them. The term for this was called “Americanization” and all of society’s institutions took part in this, especially the schools. And yet, it was hardly an educational endeavor, but rather a very violent and forced assimilation process that demanded that people leave their culture in their home countries, or at least behind closed doors.
THE U.S. CENSUS BUREAU
Nations have been taking census for eons but not every census has been as sophisticated as is conducted in the United States. But sophistication should not be confused with accuracy. There is something untoward regarding the U.S. Census Bureau; from its inception, coloniality, a racial supremacist ideology and forced assimilation have been part of its core. Perhaps for different reasons, the U.S. Census is approximating Spain’s colonial racial caste system, an intricate system with countless categories that collapsed under its own weight due to the hyper-emphasis on ascribing difference and inferiority of non-whites and ensuring superiority of the ruling white (peninsular or criollo) elite.
,, To be sure, this is not an essay simply about the nation’s racial origins. It isn’t even only about Indigenous termination policies and imposed racial identities – often being miscounted as White, but also about the modern lethal consequences as a result, especially when dealing with life and death issues. For example, as a result of the misidentification and the resultant invisibilization of Indigenous (Red-Brown) peoples, they/we are completely absent and silenced in national conversations regarding law enforcement violence and abuse. This of course translates into at best neglect and actually applies to virtually every national public policy issue, this in a nation that discusses everything in black and white, in a nation and continent that have never been black and white.
In this piece regarding the historic and contemporary role of the bureau in these de-Indigenizing and Americanization schemes, several stipulations need to be made before continuing this discussion and before some recommendations can be made:
• Virtually every term and concept used in this essay relative to issues of the census are contentious and often have multiple meanings, depending on context and whom is using them. That said, there are terms that are organic, that have arisen from peoples themselves, their histories and lived experiences, as opposed to terms and categories imposed by governments, bureaucrats or corporations, or borne of racism and shame, etc.
• The racial/ethnic categories the bureau works with are unscientific. While their forms clearly state this, and despite most scientists asserting that there are no such things as “races,” other government agencies, schools and employers often treat these categories as scientific fact. At the same time, one is supposed to be free to choose whichever category one self-identifies with, and yet, this has not always been the case, particularly for those corralled into the “Hispanic” category, an artificial and wholly U.S. ethnic category, first created by Nixon bureaucrats for the 1970 Census. The historical presumption, for example, is that regardless of how one answers the racial question, if one is part of this “Hispanic/Latino” category, then by default, with a few exceptions, one’s racial category is assumed to be White, especially those who chose the “some other race” category. That partly explains the ubiquitous and ridiculous “non-Hispanic White” category that nowadays permeates the world of U.S. demographics. In this country, nowadays, there are appear to be two kinds of Whites: Hispanic Whites and Non-Hispanic Whites (Play that funky music, Non-Hispanic White Boy?).
• With many thousands-of-years roots in this hemisphere, Mexico has never described or identified itself as a White or Caucasian nation in its entire history. Despite this, the U.S. government, on census forms, inexplicably identifies Mexicans as White or Caucasian. This is also done on birth certificates and death certificates. The reality is that at most, perhaps 10% of Mexicans may be considered criollos or White, and truly, even that is a stretch as Spaniards themselves are racially mixed peoples also.
• As scholar Martha Menchaca has argued, as far back as 1993, that despite the above, the United States has never treated Mexicans socially, culturally or politically as Whites or Caucasians, and even more importantly, as full human beings with full corresponding human rights. (Indianism, C. Chicano Indianism: a historical account of racial repression in the United States).
• For more than 100 years, the Mexican government has pushed the notion that the vast majority of Mexicans are “mestizos” or peoples of mixed heritage; primarily Indigenous, mixed with Spanish/European. Central to this semi-erroneous idea was the work of La Raza Cosmica or the Cosmic Race (1925), by Jose Vasconcellos, who posited that Mexicans were a combination of all the races of the world. Over the years, most Mexicans have accepted the government designation and identify as “mestizos,” even if they are actually Indigenous. Despite this, in the United States, the bureau has never made this choice an option, thus resulting in the quandary of being directed by government bureaucrats to choose “White,” or people on their own choosing the “some other race” racial option as a result. Not incidentally, in 2010, of the 19 million people in the country that chose the “some other race” option, 18.5 million came from the “Hispanic/Latino” category. That also was the 3rd largest racial option that year. Historically, the bureau has always considered it a “wrong answer.” Translation: census bureaucrats have been miffed by this phenomenon, wondering why nearly half of “Hispanics/Latinos” do not know they are White? Perhaps because about half of them are aware of their actual roots to this continent?
• Through the work of Guillermo Bonfil Batalla in Mexico Profundo (1996), we find that at its root, Mexico and the majority of Mexicans remain Indigenous, albeit de-Indigenized. It has been generally believed that some 90% of the population is either Indigenous or Indigenous-based mestizos. Proportionate to the original or Indigenous populations of Mexico, since the 1500s, very few Europeans, especially women, have come to Mexican shores. In fact, through the work of Gonzalo Aguirre Beltran, we know that more Africans came to Mexico than Europeans during the 300-year colonial era (La Poblacion Negra en Mexico, 1946). Thus, the vast majority of Mexicans are much more likely to be de-Indigenized Indigenous peoples, with European and African admixtures, not “half-Indigenous and half-European.” This holds true for most peoples from Central America also. Despite this, the bureau, until 2010, essentially did not recognize this and did not make the Indigenous option available to the peoples here in question.
• In the 1930s, the bureau actually recognized and created a “Mexican” category. Its own website reports that it did so primarily because it recognized that they did not fit in either the Black or White categories. If they or their parents had been born in Mexico, census takers coded their race as “Mex.” But fearing that it would abet segregation and discrimination, the Mexican government and civic organizations successfully got the bureau to eliminate that category for the next census. At no time did the Mexican government ever believe that their expatriates were White; they simply did this to attempt to avert further discrimination.
• In a racial sense, the bureau has never actually set out to count Indigenous peoples in this country, except, somewhat in 2010. What it has always done in the past is attempt to count American Indians or peoples belonging to or enrolled in American Indian tribes. In effect, this has always left out Indigenous peoples from the rest of the hemisphere who live in the United States. As of 2010, the definition for American Indian/Alaska Native is this: “According to OMB (Office of Management and Budget) ‘American Indian or Alaska Native’ refers to a person having origins in any of the original peoples of North and South America (including Central America) and who maintains tribal affiliation or community attachment.” This change permitted peoples from Mexico and points south, who knew their tribes or nations, the opportunity to write it in within the American Indian category. This resulted in 175,000 people of Mexican descent choosing this option. However, for those whom are de-Indigenized or who consider themselves “mestizo,” this option was technically not available to them that year, primarily because there was virtually no educational campaign informing anyone of this option. Under this definition, virtually every person of Mexican/Central American and Andean heritage could qualify, depending on the OMB interpretation.
• That Nixon-era category of “Hispanic,” has nowadays morphed from being an erroneous, imprecise and offensive umbrella term into its own substitute and artificial identity. For example, as part of this U.S.-created “ethnicity,” many people nowadays born of Mexican, Guatemalan or Bolivian parents, etc., claim to be Hispanic, but not Mexican, Guatemalan or Bolivian, etc. This category and phenomenon generally does not socially exist anywhere else in the Americas.
• The term/identity of “Mexican” in this country – long-associated with discrimination and segregation – today continues to produce shame and embarrassment to the point that people of that heritage continue to run from it. The negative association to it caused Chicano scholar, Rudy Acuna to write the book: Anything But Mexican (1996). A perfect example of this phenomenon is Donald Trump recently referring to Gonzalo Curiel as a “Mexican.” Even Curiel’s defenders, who took it as a slur, ran away from the term, insisting he is an “American.” And of course, he did mean it as a slur. That running away from the term probably at its core is the attempt to run away from their Indigenous heritage, who many internalize as something negative.
• Historically, the vast majority of Indigenous or Indigenous-based peoples in this country, not counted as American Indians, were Mexicans. Today that continues to be the case; about 2/3 of the 55 million under the “Hispanic/Latino” category are of Mexican origin. Combined with Central Americans (emanating from the same Meso-American or maiz-based cultures), a 2014 Census report estimates that they constitute approximately ¾ of all the peoples in that category. Add peoples from the Andean countries, many whose countries have even higher rates of Indigenous peoples than Mexico and Central America, and it is clear that the “Hispanic/Latino” category is inappropriate. At best, it is a misnomer that gives preference to a word or identity that connotes a colonial relationship [of being owned by Spain] – which is where the small percentage of Whiteness comes in – while subsuming and invisibilizing the primarily Indigenous-based peoples that constitute the vast majority of the peoples within this category. With many Caribbean peoples as part of the remaining 20%, many with greater amounts of African ancestry, and it is not certain how the bureau ever counter-intuitively thought “Hispanics/Latinos” were White. It’s called ideology.
• While we live in the United States, the bureau and other U.S. government agencies cannot be the arbiters of who is, or who is not Indigenous is as this is a category (Amerindian) that corresponds to the entire continent. Some nation-states use the narrowest definitions possible, producing the smallest number of Indigenous peoples possible… until extinction? Other nation-states may broaden their definitions to acknowledge the indigeneity of “metis,” or “mixed-race” peoples, thus creating a greater number of Indigenous peoples. Unless and until there is consensus on the continent as to who is or who is not Indigenous, there will continue to be discord on this issue into the foreseeable future. The UN has not adopted a definition precisely because of the diversity of definitions. But suffice to say, self-determination, a connection to the land and not being part of the dominant society is very much a part of this UN understanding.
Whether consciously or unconsciously, the bureau has and continues to be part and parcel to these de-Indigenization and Americanization schemes. So too the government, the schools, the media and the corporate sector. The attempt to thwart or slow down the “browning of the nation,” is very much alive today.
This truly is an additional reason why many oppose immigration from Mexico and Central America and the Andes… precisely because the people coming in are Brown and not White and precisely because they represent something different other than “American culture.” Because of this, they fear something fundamental is changing about “their” country. It is not a new racial fear. It is what created this nation’s Americanization movements. For White immigrants, they work. But they don’t work for non-Whites, especially for those who have deep roots on this continent. That was the rationale for the boarding schools for American Indians. They were designed to separate American Indian children from their elders, their families, from their memories, homes and cultures. It was an extermination scheme. That movement also created the rationale for Americanization schools for Mexicans (segregation) and the same rationale for English-Only movements today (Even today’s immigration reform proposals have an English-language requirement).
When one digs deeper, one can see that immigration from these countries is opposed not simply because they are visually brown, but rather because their color represents indigeneity. They bring with them not simply their color, but also, their culture and memory and a thousands-of-years connection to these lands, to this continent; in other words, unassimilable. Unassimilable because that connection is much deeper and much more profound than anything produced by immigrant pilgrim culture. In a sense, their very existence and presence in the United States represents a reversal of the colonization process. Indigenous peoples – viewed as less than human – were supposed to have been eliminated or driven away as opposed to them overrunning Heaven on Earth.
The only way they are or would be acceptable in this country is if indeed, they could be thoroughly assimilated and Americanized, and in the process, also be given the violating practice of receiving “honorary white” status. Lightening their skin would also help.
The truth is, that the forced assimilation process – thanks primarily to the virulent anti-immigrant movement – has now been halted and arguably, is reversing (proof is in the booming Trump piñata business where we can see children, their parents and elders engaging in conversations about “El Idiota.”). These lands have never ceased being Indigenous, and Indigenous-based peoples have actually never been immigrants anywhere on this continent. As has been proclaimed at a number of recent gatherings over the past several years by the original peoples of this continent (2007 Guatemala and 2009 Peru:: “We cannot be foreigners on our own continent.” Once again, people are coming to recognize this, and the timing is remarkable.
First, to avoid slavery and then to avoid segregation and discrimination, at times, Mexicans were somewhat given legal cover as “Whites” in the 19th and early parts of the 20th centuries, yet, that at best was illusory because socially, culturally and politically, Mexicans were never actually viewed or treated as Whites (Menchaca, 1993). The history of land theft, mass lynchings, segregation and discrimination are a testament to her assertion.
After the uproar regarding the 1930 census, ever since then, the bureau has officially adhered to that segregation-era fiction that Mexicans are White. Combined with bureau polices and we get that continued illusion that there are more Whites in the country than there actually are. It’s a form of identity theft on the grandest of scales.
The change to the 2020 census alluded to here earlier, is that at the moment, it appears that it will combine the racial and [Hispanic/Latino] ethnic questions. Through tests, they have eliminated the Hispanic/Latino box as a separate question and have included it as one of 5 choices for race/origin. Traditionally, the four racial categories have been: Black, White, Asian and American Indian. The 5th category becomes Hispanic/Latino. Doing this generally eliminates Hispanics/Latinos choosing the White category. Doing this generally eliminates Hispanics/Latinos choosing the white category. Julie Dowling in Mexican Americans and the
question of Race (2014) reports that in 2010 tests, less than 1 percent of Hispanics/Latinos chose
the “some other race” category whereas 9-16 percent chose white. The 16 percent figure is
perhaps a bit high, however, it is much closer to reality than the close to 50 percent that had previously chose that category (often times directed by census takers to do so. About 40% chose the “some other race” category in 2010). In Mexico and Central America, barely 10% of the population is considered criollo or White/European, and that’s even a stretch because they themselves are generally mixed.
As far as the bureau is concerned, this should solve the problem of “Hispanics/Latinos” mis-identifying or being mis-identified as White or having to choose “some other race.” Which technically becomes the sixth category.
While this generally solves one problem [of misidentification, historically promoted and abetted by the bureau], it keeps an equally or bigger problem intact: the existence of the artificially and bureaucratically imposed Hispanic/Latino category itself. Bureaucrats of all stripes do not appreciate the gravity of this matter. In Metis (2014) Chris Anderson refers to this as “outsider naming.” In this case, it is an imposed category that privileges [rewards, actually] the colonizing European [Spanish] minority, at the expense of, and while generally subsuming and invisibilizing the majority Indigenous and Indigenous-based “mestizo” roots of the peoples alluded to above. It also does the same for peoples with African roots from the Americas, who today live in the United States.
While the 2010 change in the Census now permits/acknowledges the existence of Indigenous peoples south of the U.S.-Mexico border, it has not acknowledged or made space for the indigeneity of peoples who identify themselves as “mestizos,” generally in the same way that Canada and its census bureau recognizes and has accommodated the metis population.
The truth is, the historic misidentification of Indigenous-based peoples from the south in this country, is arguably part of something much more profound and something even much older. It is arguably part of a continuance of a 500-year de-Indigenization scheme or termination process on this continent. It is part of what Columbus, Cortez and Pizarro first initiated, though it more resembles a massive project the early missionaries introduced: reducciones. That was a massive “re-education” or conversion campaign that sought to spiritually and culturally eradicate the original peoples of the continent and replacing them as Christians. In history, this has been referred to as La Otra Conquista or The other Conquest (Carrasco and Domingo Films, 1999). Yes, virtually identical to Indian boarding schools.
This project, so to speak, has its modern component throughout this continent. In this country, it can aptly be described as demographic genocide or outright ethnic cleansing. Whether that is the current intent is irrelevant; what we do know, is that until 2010, the bureau, in effect, denied peoples with clear Indigenous backgrounds from the south, the right to affirm their indigeneity on Census forms.
In this historic 500-year process, “ownership” of an entire continent has, in effect, been transferred, from the original peoples of the continent, to literal invaders. For reasons of morality and conscience, what apparently remains is the seeming task of eliminating any reminders of the original peoples of this continent. Historically, these have been very violent processes, yet the modern manifestations include the continued encroachment and exploitation of the lands that remain in Indigenous hands, and also the continued treatment of the original peoples of this continent as less than human. One other way has been to simply define peoples out of existence. No Indigenous people left equals no one left to make claims on the country or continent. Enter the U.S. Census Bureau.
To name the past work of the bureau as demographic genocide admittedly is radical, yet, to facilitate it, is more so, especially considering that termination of Indigenous peoples in this country and continent have historically been normalized.
Admittedly, not forcing peoples to choose a White identity is huge progress, however, there is that unfinished business of assigning an imposed category (Hispanics/Latinos) upon them.
To intentionally or even unintentionally misidentify peoples is to misname them and it actually goes contrary to several international human rights accords, including the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the 2007 UN Declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples. Even simply mispronouncing a person’s name is considered violating to the spirit. Yet in this case, imposing names and placing peoples into artificial categories that conjure up the era of colonialism – when peoples were the property of Spain or Portugal, or other European countries – goes beyond violating. Names are sacred and this is something that apparently has never been understood by Census bureaucrats.
For all intents and purposes, this Census process – that takes place every 10 years in the United States – has historically resembled a ritualized and government-inspired mass suicide. One can also view it as a government-sponsored cultural firing squad. Unless countered, the 2020 Census will continue to accelerate the de-Indigenization process of these same peoples.
This time around, the question is very simple: will these same peoples be able to affirm their Indigenous and/or mixed roots? And will the bureau permit this or make it difficult to do so, considering its own past history in this process?
If all people of Mexican, Mexican American and Chicano/Chicana heritage, plus people from Central and South America had been aware that they were eligible to check the American Indian category, per the bureau’s 2010 definition, more accurate would have been a number perhaps between 30-40 million. This represents the number of Mexicans, Central Americans and peoples from the Andes that live in this country and could have claimed their indigeneity. But due to its ideological orientation, the Census is not prepared for such a number.
The census definition of who constitutes an Indigenous person is still governed by both U.S.-centric and Eurocentric views. Those views, in effect, generally do not recognize “de-Indienized” or “mestizo” peoples as Indigenous peoples, unless they are directly connected to a tribe. It is clear that the bureau has not been counting Indigenous peoples, but rather simply American Indians… until recently. Those views generally come up with the smallest number of Indigenous peoples possible. A view that recognizes de-Indigenized or self-described “mestizos” as Indigenous peoples would produce a much, much larger number, essentially undoing this colonial project.
Those aforementioned definitions have also been internalized, thus the native expression: “Pareces que tienes el nopal en la frente [y el elote entre los dientes] – It looks like you have a cactus on your forehead [and corn stuck between your teeth.]” The expression exists because historically, due to colonial forces, Hispanic values and worldview have been imposed to the extent that people deny their obvious indigeneity, including and namely their color, history, foods, medicines and culture, etc. More than denial, it has produced not just self-hate, but a vicious hate against peoples that have historically been viewed as Indigenous. And truthfully, the distinctions between de-Indigenized and “mestizo” and Indigenous are not as sharp as one might assume, though in some places, they are very sharp.
Admittedly, if the question is about how de-Indigenized Indigenous people or how “mestizos” live, what they believe and how as a group they’ve related to recognized Indigenous peoples, there would be no need for this essay. However, the census is supposed to measure race/origin as opposed to behavior. At the same time, arguably, the recent turn to an even nastier form of U.S. politics, with an emphasis on anti-immigration, may in fact be altering how de-Indigenized and mestizos see themselves: as Indigenous. It affirms what anthropologist Renato Rosaldo once noted, that many Mexicans are not Indigenous until they cross the US-Mexico border. He said that their brown skin color is normal in Mexico, but that the intense racism in the United States, including the racial profiling by law enforcement and the “migra” makes them hyper-conscious of their skin color here. This experience reminds them of their own (hidden)] Indigenous relatives and creates a consciousness that ends up affirming their own indigeneity (Our Sacred Maiz is our Mother, 2014).
WHATS NEXT: HOW TO PROCEED?
Several related questions remain. Can de-Indigenized peoples, often also referred to as “mestizos” be able to check the Indigenous or American Indian category for 2020? Will the bureau encourage or discourage this option? And finally, can they or will they opt for this option, while foregoing the Hispanic/Latino category?
To the 1st question, will de-Indigenized or “mestizo” peoples be able to affirm their undeniable millennial Indigenous roots to this very continent, roots that are responsible for the creation of thousands-of-years-old civilizations, ranging from Tenochtitlan, to Teotihuacan and from Tikal to Tihuanaco. More importantly, will they be able to affirm the obvious; that they are generally part of thousands-of-years-old living maíz–based cultures, cultures that a great majority continue to take part in, virtually on a daily basis?
It seems ridiculous that one would have to invoke the above, and yet, historically, the bureau and other government agencies and the educational system have managed to do what Spanish Conquistadores could not do; completely separate them from their own roots and connection to this continent.
If they choose this option, it is not clear what the bureau will do or how it will react. More than likely, the bureau will not encourage them to choose the American Indian option, unless they are viewed as affiliated with a tribe or a nation. In a sense this becomes complex because for Census purposes, one does not have to prove pedigree to be part of the other recognized races/origin categories.
Truly, whether de-Indigenized peoples or “mestizos” choose the American Indian option will not be subject to approval by the bureau, regardless of whether the bureau chooses to promote or not promote that option for them. Though what is undeniable is that census bureaucrats have always directed those from the Hispanic/Latino category to check the White racial option. But the other question may or can become even trickier. Do these same peoples, whether they are members of Indigenous nations or tribes, or de-Indigenized or “mestizos,” after checking the American Indian option, will they choose or forego the Hispanic/Latino category?
That is a question of self-identity. At the same time, it is akin to the now standard practice of labeling Mexican/Indigenous foods in supermarkets as Hispanic foods. It is jarring and equally incomprehensible. To reject that category is a decolonial act and also goes to what is referred to what Chicano novelist refers to as “the ceremony of naming,” arguing that there is nothing more sacred than the act of naming oneself.
The inverse is also true. To impose a name upon peoples – and to lump them into an artificial category – especially one that de-indigenizes and one that re-inscribes a colonial identity – is nothing short of perverse and sacrilegious.
A bureaucrat would have difficulty understanding this. But this is why referring to peoples with a primarily Indigenous or African backgrounds as “Hispanics” is like nails on a chalkboard. 300 years of oppressive Spanish colonialism does not readily fade away. And yet, whether to identify as Hispanic/Latino, will have to be answered individually. Of course, some Hispanic/Latino national organizations would not be pleased if many opted out of this category.
CHECKING THE AMERICAN INDIAN/ALASKA NATIVE OPTION
Being that it is likely that the U.S. Census Bureau will not assist in this process, the question remains, how will the aforementioned peoples know that they have a right to self-identify as Indigenous peoples? It will necessarily involve grassroots campaigns, including through the media, and especially via social media. Because the 2020 Census is not yet printed, no one can say with certainty its precise wording. What appears to be certain is that the race/ethnicity question will be combined. And people will be able to choose more than one category.
For purposes of this discussion, it is important that if someone who is Indigenous from Mexico or points south, that they choose the category of American Indian/Alaska Native, then specify the nation or tribe one is affiliated with or identifies with. For example, if someone is Zapotec, Nahua, Mexica, Huichol or Rarmuri, etc, then the person can write that in. For someone who is or who identifies as mestizo or as a de-Indigenized person (someone who has lost connection to their tribe or nation), but who still wants to assert their indigeneity, there are no rules for this. It is conceivable that one could check the American Indian box and write in “mestizo” or “mestiza” or some other term,possibly the tribe or nation the family remembers. In Mexico, many Indigenous or original peoples refer to themselves as “gente de maiz (people of maiz) or as “macehual” (regular people) as their primary identity.
If the bureau wanted to facilitate this process, if they were to change the category to American Indian/Alaska Native/Indigenous, that probably would see a much greater increase than the previous Census when 175,000 additional peoples checked the American Indian category. Unless the word Indigenous is added to that category, many will continue to be reluctant to check that box, because they will continue to believe it is not designed or does not correspond to them. If the bureau were to come on board, the numbers would greatly increase. But chances are unlikely because their primary charge under this category will always continue to be to count American Indians and members of American Indian tribes. As it should.
The question, however, is, can the bureau do both, that is, collect data in regards to American Indian tribes and American Indian tribal members, and Indigenous racial data, which would include people with Indigenous roots primarily from south of the U.S./Mexico border who today live in the United States? As noted previously, this is already happening in Canada, generally without confusion, though the situation is not actually analogous.
Yet, this does not have to be a conflictive process, but for various reasons, many tribal representatives may see this as encroachment and possibly as a competition for resources. Yet, as conceived, the two do not have to conflict. And they shouldn’t.
Choosing an American Indian/Indigenous racial option would not make people eligible for entitlements, resources or treaty rights due tribes and tribal members, etc. (Arguably, people of Mexican descent may be due treaty rights also, via the 1847 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, which is a whole different argument). There may still be objection, however, the important thing is to ensure that indeed, this affirmation of one’s roots is not a pathway to competition for resources of any kind whatsoever, etc.
One has to remember that prior to the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico, in the early 1990s, peoples from Mexico and points south, many people were [made to be] ashamed of their Indigenous roots, in public, no less. However, since then, people now are stepping forward and no longer deny the obvious. Despite Spanish-language media in the Americas, which includes the United States, viewers are bombarded non-stop with blonde and blue and green-eyed actors and actresses and characters, reinforcing a sense of racial inferiority. Those days are gone as Indigenous pride and consciousness is on the upswing, but our societal institutions throughout the continent need to catch up. That includes the U.S. Census Bureau.
This is a message that U.S. politicians should also come to understand because the notion that the nation is becoming browner actually means that it is once again becoming native.
Lastly, something controversial that should be discussed in the future is the possibility that rather than individuals opting out of the Hispanic/Latino category, perhaps for reasons of history, permitting the Mexican/Chicano/Chicana populations of the United States to opt out of the Hispanic/Latino category altogether and putting them into the American Indian category. Most Central Americans living in this country, emanating from the same maiz-based cultures, could conceivably also make a similar argument. And I suspect this will be an argument for another day.
“They tried to bury us, but they did not know we were seeds.”
Rodriguez is an associate professor in Mexican American Studies at the University of Arizona and can be reached at: [email protected]