How I Learned About and Honor my Indigenous Roots in Mexico

As a child, one of many truths I struggled to understand about both sides of my family, and about myself, was the constant mixture and conflict of our identities

Embracing Indigenous Roots

Photos courtesy of Sofia Aguilar

As a child, one of many truths I struggled to understand about both sides of my family, and about myself, was the constant mixture and conflict of our identities. Being a mixed-race person of European, specifically Spanish, and Indigenous descent, adopting both Mexican and American culture, switching between English and Spanish in certain spaces, it always felt like I had one foot on two sides of an impenetrable line.

While I learned over time to accept, even embrace, the duality of my languages and multicultural mix, my Indigenous roots were something no one on either side of my family seemed keen to talk about, mostly because they had no idea how. Because of colonization, shame and racism toward Indigenous communities throughout all Latin America, as well as just pure ignorance, our Indigeneity was an accepted truth but also an invisible one.

When I spent the last month asking several of my maternal relatives if they knew which Indigenous peoples we were descended from, I received no answers, only shakes of the head, even disinterest. They didn’t seem to think it mattered now, especially when we were so far removed from that part of our genetic make-up both geographically and culturally.

To a certain extent, I saw their point. If we did trace our roots to a certain group of people, what then? Lay claim to an identity that Mexico, our country of origin (and subsequently, the entire region of Latin America), has been attempting to eradicate since colonization began? They didn’t want to be guilty of appropriating what our Spanish ancestors had stolen from the Indigenous ones and what has since been absorbed, reframed, and celebrated in the larger Mexican culture and Spanish language—only for Indigenous communities to be denied rights to adequate land, resources, and government support. I didn’t want that either.

But if I was asked, I didn’t want to contribute to the myth of indigeneity as a monolith by simply saying that I was of Indigenous descent. I wanted a specific group of people I could point to, educate myself about, advocate for, and support in whatever way they needed.

My Tía Gloria was the only relative who encouraged me to find out the answers, if not from my maternal side, then at least my paternal one across the border in Mexico, in the state of Morelos.

Later that day, I reached out to my Abuela Paz, my father’s mother, on Whatsapp and asked her point-blank if she could tell me more about our Indigenous roots. Honestly, though she is heavily involved with the culture and people of Cuautla, the city where she and the rest of my paternal relatives live, and though she is highly knowledgeable about history and literature, I wasn’t expecting her to know or reply so quickly.

“Descendemos de la tradición Tlahuica en Tetelcingo que aún habla el Nahuatl y el moisehuale,” she texted back immediately. “Tetelcingo está a quince minutos de Cuautla ciudad donde nació tu papá, tu abuela y tus tías Osorio Revilla.”

It was almost laughable how simple she’d made my years-long search for the secrets of our ancestry. Within minutes she’d told me that we were descended from the tradition of the Tlahuica people, that they still spoke Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec empire. She shared that the community was centered in Tetelcingo, a town only fifteen minutes from Cuautla. She was even able to send me a photo of their Day of the Dead celebration one year, featuring the familiar papel picado decorations.

Day of the Dead celebration

Photo courtesy of Sofia Aguilar

On top of that, Abue Paz reminded me about the earrings she’d gifted me earlier that summer when we were traveling around New York together. Known as “chicken earrings” and handmade into a silver safety pin-like shape, Tlahuica women begin wearing them after marriage to signify their status. But I wouldn’t have known this had Abue Paz not had a pair specially made for me and educated me about their deep cultural significance. While I may not be married, these earrings have been crucial in reconnecting me with the roots that colonization never wanted me to find again, as all jewelry can be. Piercings at birth and small gold hoops, anyone?

And it’s only the first step in reconnecting with my roots that are still very much present and alive today. Moving forward, I want to prioritize researching all I can about Tlahuica history while understanding that Spanish colonization has done all it can to erase it. And brushing up on my Spanish, and learning at least a few phrases in Nahuatl. When it’s safe to travel again, I hope to visit my family in Cuautla and, given her close connection with the community, accompany Abue Paz on her visits to Tetelcingo.

While I may have begun this journey intent on understanding my multifaceted identity, I want to be of service to the community of people I come from, and other Indigenous peoples throughout the country. It’s so obvious the national government is not interested in doing the same. Researching, compiling, and donating to causes centering the survival of Indigenous livelihood, even individual GoFundMe’s on social media, can be more beneficial than most of us even know.

If you’re seeking similar answers to your Indigenous ancestry, I’d encourage you to ask questions of your family, go to a website where you can find out the entire breakdown of your DNA and genetic make-up. Do the work to find and understand your heritage, while also honoring, respecting, and supporting currently living descendants. Because of centuries of colonization, persecution, and marginalization, the difference between being Indigenous and identifying as Indigenous-descendant is wide. But if we approach our pasts with the care that our Spanish ancestors never did, I know our future will look that much brighter.

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