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Aztecas del Norte: We Cannot be Illegal on Our Own Continent

“In the academy, [American Indian scholar] Jack Forbes created a path to bring Chicanas/os and others “home.” By this, I mean that Forbes provided historical knowledge about understanding that our legacies have always been deeply rooted in this hemisphere.” — Melissa Moreno, professor, Woodland Community College

Scholars in Chicano studies and related disciplines, since the 1960s, have long debated the idea of when Mexican Americans as a people(s) came to be. This is something that the discipline has grappled with since its creation in the late 1960s. Yet, it is a debate that has been rekindled both by the extreme anti-Mexican climate in this country, and also by the work of a pre-eminent American Indian scholar from a generation ago, who posited a seemingly controversial proposition: that these peoples, rather than foreigners, in fact are native or indigenous to these lands.

The first date chosen by early Chicano scholars within the discipline was 1848, when half of Mexico became part of the United States, after the end of the 1846-48 war and the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. A few years later, when the discipline became Chicana/Chicano studies, Chicana scholars generally selected 1519, the year that symbolically brought the Spanish and indigenous cultures together, producing the first mestizo or mixed child.

While Chicano/Chicana scholars grappled, one of the co-founders of American Indian Studies, Jack Forbes, in Aztecas del Norte: The Chicanos of Aztlan (completed in 1965, published in 1973), put forth the thesis that they were Anishinabeg, or Indians.

In addition, he also posited that the segregated barrio of Analco, founded in the 1600s and comprised of Nahuatl-speaking Tlaxcaltecas from Mexico in Santa Fe, New Mexico, was “the birthplace of the Chicano.” He actually put forth this view in a 1961-62 treatise: “The Mexican Heritage of Aztlan,” when he was part of the Native American Movement or Movimiento Nativo Americano, a Southern California-based organization that asserted that Chicanos were indigenous.

As Dr. Jose Castro, one of the early students at the Indigenous-Chicano D-Q University, recently stated at a symposium in his honor at the University of California, Davis: “Jack Forbes always believed that Chicanos and American Indians were Indigenous.”

Choosing 1848 was not so much part of a debate, but an acknowledgment that, prior to 1848, there were no peoples referred to as Mexican Americans. They existed, but not by that name. Thus, books such as Occupied America by Rudy Acuña marked the end of that war as the beginning of their history, when Mexico lost its northern territories, what later became the U.S. Southwest.

As an aside, because the 1562 Gutiérrez Map shows a Chicana site near the mouth of the Colorado River, it is possible that there were people called Chicanas/Chicanos, perhaps going back to pre-Colombian times.

Incidentally, with the signing of the treaty, Mexican peoples were given the choice of either going south into the new boundaries for Mexico or choosing to stay and become U.S. citizens. Even before this war, Mexicans, akin to American Indians, were at best, thanks to Manifest Destiny, seen as peoples in the way.

When the year 1519 was chosen, it was also because during the previous era within the discipline, there had been a romanticization of Mexico’s indigenous past, primarily the ancient Aztec and Maya civilizations. The operative word here was ancient. Part of the critique was that, while Chicanos romanticized the past, they were denying the painful legacy of their mixture. It was at this time that the idea that Chicanas/Chicanos were created via the arrival of Europeans solidified, thus the notion of 450 years of Chicano history, which later became 500 years of Chicano History and 500 years of Chicana Women’s History. These were both ideological constructs, but also books.

In my own work, based primarily on elder epistemology or oral traditions by living elders, I’ve long posited that the symbolic creation of these peoples was some 7,000 years ago with the creation of maíz, thus for many scholars, teaching that war or invasion, relative to beginnings or origins, has never worked. As such, Forbes’ work has always resonated with many scholars, especially today, as the right of Mexican peoples to be in this country is questioned on a daily basis to the point where they are facing the threat of an ethnic cleansing campaign.

Incidentally, Forbes never believed that all Mexican or Chicanos/Chicanas are or were Aztecs. What he also believed is that they are part of many hundreds of primarily living maíz–based indigenous peoples, who inherited the associated Nahuatl culture — due to its nationalization by the Mexican nation, especially after its independence in 1821 and then the Mexican Revolution of 1910-20.

Not coincidentally, the Forbes family, along with a number of scholars, have been looking into republishing his Aztecas book. There is high interest, because his work clearly situates the historic presence of Mexicans/Chicanas/Chicanos within what is today the United States. Earlier this month, the academic symposium and a memorial (which also featured the words of his wife Carolyn Forbes and his sister-in-law, Melissa Johnson) at UC Davis, paid tribute to his life and his life’s work. Of all that was said, his wife Carolyn perhaps summarized him best: “He was someone that connected with the earth.”

Forbes was a member of the Rappahannock Tribe and the Powhatan Confederation and grew up among Mexican Americans in Southern California.

“Gracias Jack Forbes for Aztecas Del Norte, THE seminal work on Xicano Indigeneity!” — Dr. Brian McNeill, Washington State University

Roberto Rodriguez is an associate professor in Mexican American studies at the University of Arizona.

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