Beyond Aztlán: Reflections on the Chicanx Student Movement
This essay was written following the discussion at the MEChA 2018 National Conference surrounding Aztlán and the questions posed by alumni who heard about it afterwards. Footnotes are at the bottom of the essay. Though inconvenient, I recommend reading them as you read!
The concept of Aztlán, though an ancient concept rooted in Mexica¹ historical narratives, became popularized within the Chicanx² Power movement of the 60s with the publishing of the Plan Espiritual de Aztlán. Written in 1969 at Crusade for Justice’s First National Chicano Youth Liberation Conference in Denver, Colorado, the Plan articulated a path towards liberation for Chicanx people that has guided the Chicanx Power Movement for more than 50 years. Artists, writers, organizers, and members of the Chicanx movement have reproduced and expanded the concept of Aztlán through countless poems, stories, songs, books, and visual art pieces. It was further established as central in the consolidation of separate student organizations into the one unified Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlán, which we are now a part of. Together, our many chapters form the Nation of Aztlán.
At the 2018 National MEChA Conference, a workshop was held titled “Beyond Aztlán: Situating Chicanx Struggle on Stolen Indigenous Land.” Members of the Alto Pacífico region (Washington, Idaho, Alaska, and Hawaii) shared their process and reasoning for removing Aztlán from their region’s name (formerly Alto Pacífico de Aztlán). Chapters from other regions who attended the two workshops took the conversation back to their regions during their respective Regional Resolution Circles and at least one region (Tierra Mid de Aztlán) voted to remove Aztlán from their regional name. The next day, at the National Resolution Circle, a resolution was proposed to have each Region and Chapter discuss the concept of Aztlán, how it has and continues to shape our movement and its philosophies, and how it relates to the work that we do within the movement. The resolution was passed unanimously except for one extension by a region that had only one chapter present and wished to consult with the other chapters of their region before voting. The resolution was not to drop Aztlán or change the name, but rather to begin the process of discussing the concept of Aztlán with our chapters and regions, and come back to next year’s National Conference to discuss as a national organization what those conversations mean for our organization and movimiento. So what is the origin and meaning of Aztlán, and why is it coming into question here, now, 50 years after its popularization?
Aztlán as a concept and space comes from the purported homeland of the Mexica nation, also known as the Aztec empire. Aztec means “people of Aztlán,” which itself means “land of the herons.” It is the place from which the Mexica nation emerged and left in search of a location for its capital city, Tenochtitlan (where Mexico City stands today). They were guided by Huitzilopochtli, the main god of war, who told them to stop calling themselves Aztecs in favor of Mexica, and to find a place with an eagle devouring a serpent atop a cactus, which they found on an island in the middle of lake Texcoco. The Mexica joined with two other tribes to form the Triple Alliance, with Tenochtitlan as the capital of their growing empire. They absorbed, conquered, and warred with neighboring tribes and nations, forcing some to pay tribute of either material goods or human captives.
Thus comes the first challenge of using the concept of Aztlán as a unifying concept for Chicanx people. What of those who are not descendants of the Mexica (who we claim to still represent)? The members of the more than 60 other Indigenous tribes of the land contained within the nation-state of Mexico, or those whose ancestors come from the many tribes located south of Mexico, do not claim Aztlán as their homeland. Mechistas with Central and South American ancestry have pointed out countless times the Mexico-centrism³ and Mechistas with non-Aztec Indigenous ancestry have pointed out the Aztec-centrism within our organization and the Chicanx movement at large. Alurista himself, many years after writing the Plan has agreed that there are dangers in idealizing the Aztec empire and its ideologies.⁴ It is true that since its inception, MEChA has established that Chicanx “is grounded in a philosophy, not a nationality” (from The Philosophy of MEChA) and that it “does not exclude anyone.”
As a political identity, Chicanx doesn’t have to be tied to Mexico as a national identity. But what if the historical roots of Aztlán and its use in the Chicanx power movement are tied to Mexican nationalism?
We discussed some of these connections at the MEChA National Conference. First and most obvious, it is clear that the geographical region purported to be Aztlán, upon which the Chicanx nation was to be built, aligns with the portion of the US Southwest that was appropriated by the United States via the Mexican-American War.
The lands ceded in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the Gadsen Purchase, and the illegal occupation of Texas, overlap with the Southwestern states of California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas that make up the Califas, Centro Aztlán, and Tejaztlán regions of our national organization. This understanding of Aztlán, tying it directly to the land that was stolen, conquered or bought from Mexico by the United States, is a common one articulated amongst Chicanx people in the US Southwest. The project of Aztlán and Chicanx liberation, in that case, becomes the reoccupation of the land lost by Mexico. This is what white conservatives fearfully call the “reconquista.” Though this is not the commonly accepted understanding of Aztlán within MEChA, it points to significant issues regarding Mexican nationalism and its influence on the past and current formulation of the Chicanx power movement.⁵
Multiple authors have pointed to the historical and ideological continuity of the myths and ideologies surrounding the Mexican Revolution of the early 1900s and those used by the early Chicanx power movement. Within the text of the Plan Espiritual de Aztlán, we see a clue to its conscious or unconscious connection to Mexican nationalism in the ‘Action” section of the Plan, which calls for a national walk-out by all Chicanos: “September 16, on the birthdate of Mexican Independence.” As with most Enlightenment era anti-colonial revolutions in the Americas, the war for Mexican Independence was orchestrated by the elite of New Spain, who were largely white criollos as well as assimilated mestizos, who relied on the mobilization of Indigenous, Black, and mestizo/mulatto populations to fight in the revolutionary armies. But was the creation of Mexico a liberatory struggle for oppressed people within Mexico? While few of us would argue that the American war for independence from Britain was a decolonial struggle but rather a war to end the colonial relationship with Britain without altering the fundamental settler colonial relationship to the land, the creation of Mexico was accompanied by a myth of shared national and mestizo identity that has hidden its settler nation-state nature. It’s important to point out that all nation-states are created by myth, whether a myth of divine creation or a myth of mestizaje.⁶
Guided by the work of José Vasconcelos, inventor of “la raza cósmica” that positioned mestizaje as the destined catalyst for a new society, the criollo and mestizo architects of the Mexican Revolution of 1910 sought to unite a racially stratified society of white, mestizo, Indigenous, and Black communities. In fact, they created the idealized mestizo identity at the expense of Chinese and Black Mexicans who did not fit into the racialization of mestizos.⁷ The influence of Vasconcelos and other advocates of mestizaje within the Chicanx movement is clear: we are La Raza (Cósmica), we are a bronze nation, we are both Indigenous and Spanish, colonized and colonizer. And for those of us who are of mixed ancestry, this is in fact a significant place of concern, confusion, and discomfort. What does it mean for us to be neither here nor there, born of colonial sexual violence, and with cultural heritages of multiple racialized groups? This is something many of us found to be repeatedly popping up in our conversation surrounding Aztlán; it always came back to who are we? Where and to whom do we belong?⁸
But the way that our movement has responded to these questions in the past bring to light particular dangers of organizing ourselves around two concepts: mestizaje and what authors like Lourdes Alberto call “indigenismo.” Mestizaje has developed over time, from its original postracial formulation by Mexican and Chicano nationalists to Chicana mestizaje that emphasized hybridity and subjective experience (Centeno).
The early formulation of mestizaje by Mexican revolutionaries, while purporting to challenge the racial caste system that it replaced, actually romanticized and reified essentialist notions of race, turning mestizaje into a fixed and exclusionary category rather than a fluid inclusionary one (Centeno).
In Mexico following the War of Independence from Spain as well as the Mexican Revolution, mestizaje, as a formal and informal government policy of racial mixture, was used for the Europeanization of the Indigenous populations. The mixture was romanticized and celebrated, but it was the mixture with whiteness that positioned mestizaje above Indigeneity or Blackness.⁹ This is done at the same time, ironically, as the romanticization of the imagined “Indian” figure central to the Mexican nationalist project through what Alberto refers to as Indigenismo.
Alberto provides us a clear discussion of Indigenismo in “Nations, Nationalisms, and Indígenas” and ties it back to the myth behind Mexican nationalism:
Indigenism was not a phenomenon exclusive to the Chicano movement. On the contrary, indigenism has a long history throughout Latin America, forged predominantly in the 1920s. Indigenismo in Mexico encompassed a range of governmental policies, educational reforms, land redistributions, artistic movements, intellectual movements, and racial frameworks instituted during the early twentieth century as a strategy to bring cohesion to the emerging nation. The multiple aims of indigenismo, as governmental policy as well as cultural production, facilitated the formation of a modern Mexican nation by creating a myth of origin through the selective incorporation of indigenous history — while at the same time excluding actual indigenous people through assimilation programs and land dispossession (p. 108).¹⁰
Yet the Chicanx power movement and MEChA were significant and powerful in their reclaiming of our Indigeneity, as opposed to the previous moves to deny our Indigenous ancestry in a racist caste system.¹¹ What should be clear by now, though, is that our movement did so by relying on and reconstructing the Mexican nationalist “indigenismo” that rendered us all Mexica/Aztec, yet also mestizo. It is important to note that Indigenismo is not the same thing as Indigenous resurgence, which is led by Indigenous people seeking autonomy and sovereignty, but rather the Indigenismo of post-Revolution Mexico was invented and disseminated by criollo and mestizo elites like Vasconcelos who utilized a mythicized (or as Lourdes calls it, imagined) “indian” for their nation-building project. For the most part, the Indigenismo of Mexican, and later Chicanx, nationalism was designed for the benefit of mestizo populations who have been assimilated into European-Mexican society rather than for the liberation of Indigenous peoples.
This brings up the question of how have those of us who are mestizo, and especially in previous generations, have been complicit in the erasure, dispossession, and oppression of Indigenous peoples in our own homelands?¹² In some ways, Indigenous Mexicans or their mestizo descendants gave up their tribal identity for their Mexican national identity much like European settlers gave up their cultural identities for the homogenized but privileged status of whiteness. How does our homogenizing of distinct Indigenous tribes into one “bronze nation” similarly at the same time surrender unique cultural heritages and position ourselves as superior to those who are Indigenous and continue to live on their traditional homelands or practice their Indigenous customs? This is a question that we struggle to untangle due to the loss of kinship ties and connections with our own Indigenous roots. Many of us don’t have the privilege of knowing from which tribe we descend.
So what is our relation to Indigenous people of the lands we currently inhabit, within the settler-colonial nation-state of the United States of America? Indigenous scholars have pointed out the prevalence of “playing Indian,” where non-Indigenous settlers either take on Indigenous culture or spiritual customs, or claim to be descended from a faraway Indigenous ancestor (commonly known as the Cherokee princess grandmother). It is described by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang in “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor” as a “settler move to innocence” by which settlers deflect responsibility for the ongoing and historical oppression of Indigenous peoples.¹³ This is complicated for many of us who can in fact trace our Indigenous Mexican, Central, and South American ancestry. But it must be said here that our claiming of this land, thrice occupied (first by Spanish, then Mexican, then American settlers), in fact erases and disrupts Indigenous people’s claim to their land.
What is Aztlán to the 21 Pueblo Tribes of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas? Or to the Diné (Navajo) who have fought to maintain the largest land base of any Indigenous tribe in the United States, spanning Utah, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico? Not to mention the tribes whose land extend beyond the geographical region of Aztlán, such as those who inhabit the area within our organization’s Alto Pacífico, Tierra Mid, and Este regions.
This brings us to one of the major points of the conversation surrounding Aztlán that was brought to the National Conference. How is our struggle accountable to the more than 566 recognized Indigenous nations and tribes¹⁴ within the US whose stolen land we occupy? Every social movement that occurs in the United States exists within the context of a settler colonial society. Tuck and Yang point out that many non-Indigenous communities and social movements participate in reoccupation of stolen Indigenous land, seeking access to that stolen land rather than dismantling the settler colonial system that structures our relation to land. Our organization strives to be decolonial, but the question that is being brought to us is how does our claiming of Aztlán as our own birthright contradict decolonization led by Indigenous people who are fighting to regain sovereignty over their land? And looking forward, how can we (re)formulate our relation to this land and our movement as a whole to align with Indigenous decolonial struggle?
There were important responses presented at the National Conference that Aztlán is a spiritual and philosophical space or state of mind, rather than a geographical region that we are “claiming” and occupying. This is an important distinction. However, the mention of birthright draws us to a relevant and timely parallel situation that illuminates the connection, and potential dangers, between spiritual and geographical spaces: Israel and Palestine. Much like the Aztecs with Aztlán, Jewish people left their homelands due to persecution with the memory and promise of Israel, the Holy Land and Promised Land.¹⁵ Like Aztlán, it is simultaneously a sacred homeland, of the past, and a promised land, of the future. Somewhat like the guidance of Huitzilopochtli, the Jews were promised this holy land by God. But Israel as a theological concept is not necessarily the same as Israel as a nation-state, the one that dispossessed and continues to displace, arrest, and murder Indigenous Palestinians. Zionists, mostly Ashkenazi Jews (of European ethnic descent), have laid claim to the Holy Land of Israel, the physical, geographical, and political as well as the spiritual land. In fact, Israel uses the spiritual claim as justification for the geopolitical claim. MEChA as an organization stands in solidarity with Palestinians who resist Israeli occupation and it is clear that none of us want to copy in these lands, through our claiming of our own holy and promised land, the settler-colonial project that the Israeli nation has established with the support of Western powers (especially settler colonial nations such as the US, Canada, and Australia) even as we escape or resist persecution we have historically faced.
However, one can believe in Israel as a metaphorical Holy Land where Jews will finally be liberated, and many Jews do so and are not Zionists. As a mentor and activist within the movement for Jewish solidarity with Palestine recently told me, “Israel will be wherever liberation finally occurs.” What this could mean for Aztlán is up for discussion amongst ourselves, current and graduated members of our collective organization. Can we clarify our understanding of Aztlán and preserve it as a future place, wherever we as a people (again, the “we” must be interrogated) exist and struggle for liberation rather than as a geographical region that corresponds with the stolen Indigenous land lost by one settler state to another?
These are the questions that current members of the national MEChA are grappling with. We seek ways to ensure that our framing of the movement fully represents and respects the diversity of our membership, to struggle for liberation in ways that are accountable to the people who are Indigenous to the lands we occupy rather than further entrench and reinforce settler colonialism. This will require a concerted effort to study, recall forgotten or erased history, teach and learn from each other, from older and younger generations. It will require a deep reckoning and grappling with some of the generations-old ideologies and values we’ve inherited from pre- and post-Revolution Mexican nationalism and Chicano machismo, much of which is entangled with history of our homelands that as members of a diaspora we have lost connection to. We look to our teachers, our mentors, and our antepasados for guidance in unforgetting these histories and we bring our evolving critical lense to their study.
It must be said that we are here at this moment of critical self-reflection because of the work of the past. Our movement was born out of a response to wide-ranging oppression facing Chicanx communities, from education discrimination to labor exploitation to police brutality. It united disparate barrios and pueblos under a banner of Chicanismo and shared ancestry and destiny. It put our parents and ourselves into positions of education where we gained access to histories, ideas, and resources that now allow us to do this self reflection on who we are, what our movement seeks to build, and how we will respond to the problems of today with a constantly evolving recollection and understanding of the past. We invite you all, present, past, and future members of this movement, to continue with us on this journey that was begun long before we were born. We are in a time where many communities are being attacked (and have been for a very long time) but how we define ourselves and how we frame our struggle determines how we go about building a movement in response. Beyond just a potential change in name, this represents the continued evolution of the direction, strategy, and most fundamentally, the purpose of our movement itself.
- Mexica is the name used by the Nahuatl speaking people commonly referred to as Aztec
- For the most part, I will be using the ‘x’ to denote the gender neutral and inclusive variant: Chicanx (pronounced Chicánex exactly like Chicano/a but with -ex, or Chicanéx, with emphasis on the -ex, I’ve heard both ways). Places where “Chicano” is used is to denote the traditional first wave formulation of Chicano identity or in text citations.
- One point I’d like to discuss with Central and South American Mechistas that occured to me recently: How do we critique Mexico-centrism without over relying on Central and South American national identities? In other words, the solution to Mexican nationalism isn’t other settler-state’s nationalism (though I acknowledge that the nation-state of say, Bolivia or Ecuador, are very different than Mexico or Argentina). Is there a way to frame this critique without relying on nation-states and the national identities that separate us?
- Quoted in Luis Leal’s “Aztlán” Encyclopedia entry: http://science.jrank.org/pages/7521/Aztl-n.html
- See Rodolfo Centeno’s Decolonizing the Mestizo: Postcolonial Approaches to Latino Identity in Chicano Literature and Lourdes Alberto’s Nations, Nationalisms, and Indígenas (A very good read but unfortunately requires a University access account, email firstname.lastname@example.org for a pdf version)
- Benedict Anderson (cited in Centeno) points out that all nations are based on an imagined community and the myths that unite them since members of a nation will never meet the majority of the rest of the nation but nonetheless exist within the imagination of each member. The United States was founded on a myth of divine providence, democratic exceptionalism, and white landownership, while Mexico was founded on a myth of a mestizo identity of Spanish and Indigenous heritage (Alberto, see footnote 3)
- Remezlca has a great article titled: How Anti-Chinese Propaganda Helped Fuel the Creation of Mestizo Identity in Mexico
- Here requires a pause and another question of who is “we,” and how do we construct the imagined community of we as a people (la raza); who is included and excluded from that “we”? (“Para la raza todo. Fuera de la raza nada”)
- For an in depth analysis and critique of mestizaje, check out The Darker Side of Mestizaje.
- This video (in Spanish only) explores the contradictions between how Mexico celebrates an Indigenous past yet continues to oppress, discriminate, displace, and indeed eliminate Indigenous people today. The contradictory myth is what allows Mexico to celebrate its Indigenous history while arresting, assassinating, and displacing Indigenous peoples.
- Laura Gomez’s Manifest Destinies is a great book overall about the construction of Mexican as a “race” and particularly discusses how Mexicans both in Mexico and in the US sought to prove their whiteness or Hispanidad via real and manufactured documents of their Spanish ancestry.
- In my research on the Zapatistas who rose up in 1994 in Chiapas, where my Mam Mayan paternal grandfather was born, I encountered a term that was unfamiliar to me: Ladino. I realized that this is what my grandfather’s community would call me, a mestizo disconnected from my Indigenous language, land, and culture, and thoroughly immersed (though struggling against assimilation) in settler society. It is a pejorative term used by Mexico’s Indigenous communities to describe those descendants of Indigenous people who have adopted European customs and entered mainstream Mexican society and largely ignored the calls for support by Indigenous groups such as the Zapatistas.
- Decolonization is Not a Metaphor is a very important intervention, challenging us to question how we make decolonization a metaphor (“decolonize your mind”) rather than engage with its actual goal of returning stolen land to Indigenous people. A highly recommended read for all organizers and members of social movements, especially Chicanx folks interested in Indigeneity.
- This is only counting the tribes recognized by the settler state, while many surviving tribes such as the Duwamish and Chinook continue to fight for Federal recognition.
- Check out this webpage for some background on the Israel-Palestine conflict and Zionism
A note about the author:
This essay does not represent the official views of the National MEChA organization. These are my personal reflections on the conversations that occurred and are occuring in order to help illuminate the points of discussion for those who have not been able to be present in those spaces. It seeks to raise questions and offer historical/theoretical background of Aztlán. If we as a national organization decide to edit and publish a version of this essay to represent the national structure’s views, that will require input from other regions, chapters, and individuals.
I write this from a specific positionality. I critique both Mexico and the United States as a dual-citizen of both, with the privileges and protections that those afford me. I write this as a cisgendered heterosexual man who has been provided undue leadership opportunities and authority within my own chapter and region. My introduction to MEChA as well as my continued work has been thanks to the work of mujeres and non-binary folks who have taught me, encouraged me, provided unrepaid emotional labor, and who have dealt with harms that I have caused. I also write this as someone who does have the privilege of knowing the specific tribe and village that my paternal grandfather was from yet who does not know the language nor has ever even visited Chiapas. I owe much of my understanding of Indigeneity to my experiences growing up with a half-brother whose Pueblo father and extended family accepted us as kin even after the divorce of my mother from his father. Growing up in relation to my Native half-brother meant knowing that I was Indigenous to somewhere (elsewhere) rather than the land I lived on in Albuquerque, NM (Sandia and Isleta Pueblo territory) and provided me a nuanced understanding of Indigeneity. I also come from a family with intergenerational education and the wealth that comes with it, having both parents educated (my immigrant father directly through the efforts of the Black and Chicano Power Movements that secured a spot for him through affirmative action, and who was a part of MEChA for much of his college years) and one set of grandparents educated. I come to the question of mestizaje not only as a descendant of Spanish, Indigenous, and potentially African ancestry, but also as the grandchild of a white maternal grandfather of German descent. Growing up “güero” and “biracial” has afforded me both light skin privilege as well as insight into how racialization occurs within and external to racialized communities, especially “brown” ones, and particularly the socially constructed nature of race. Finally, my education has afforded me access to sociological and other disciplines’ texts and ideas that I bring with me in my analysis. I know that not everyone has the luxury of studying something as unemployable as sociology, and I hope to make those knowledges accessible to everyone.
Major Works Cited/Further Reading List:
An Indigenous People’s History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
-An essential read to understand the settler-colonial history of the US and to understand Indigenous people’s struggle against colonial occupation. I had the opportunity to have lunch with Dr. Dunbar-Ortiz last year and shared that I was from New Mexico. She said, “there was a big issue with land grants over there. The Hispano descendants of Spanish settlers were fighting for the US to recognize their land claims given to them by the Spanish Crown. One woman I talked to asked me, ‘Why don’t the Indians support our movement?’ I replied, ‘Well do you know what they’re fighting for?’ She shook her head. ‘The land you all stole.’”
-A somewhat tough read with academic terminology but gives a great analysis of the evolution of mestizaje, Aztlán, and Chicanx nationalism in first wave Chicano writings (Alurista and Corky Gonzalez), queer Chicana revisions (Gloria Anzaldúa) and queer Chicana shifts away from Chicano nationalism (Cherrie Moraga).
-As mentioned in a footnote earlier, this is only available with the login of a participating university. But it is a really strong critique of the Indigenismo of post-Revolutionary Mexico and how it influenced the Chicano nationalism in the US. If you would like a pdf copy please email email@example.com and I’ll send you a copy.
“Decolonization is Not a Metaphor” by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang
-A truly life-changing text. I’ve read it over 10 times straight through and have referenced it in every academic paper since and still learn something new each time I read it. It is challenging in the sense that it calls on us to reflect deeply about our own work and how it often contradicts decolonization in its most tangible sense. It made me rethink my entire upbringing hearing about the Civil Rights movement.
-An interesting short article on Remezcla that discusses the construction of the Mestizo identity and how it has been problematic, particularly for non-Spanish and Indigenous descendants.