By JONATHAN TILOVE
March 29, 2001
c.2001 Newhouse News Service
(UNDATED) Felipe and Fernando Ayala are brothers from the village of Santiago Petlacala in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, though they now reside, two among 12, in a one-bedroom apartment on New York’s Staten Island. They are shy and quiet souls who live lives of unremitting work and estrangement in a strange land.
Here less than two years, they are part of the latest wave of immigrants who swelled America’s Hispanic population in the last census. But they are also typical of a newer wave of immigrants who are increasing the American Indian population beyond almost anyone’s contemplation, and in ways that may test and transform both Hispanic and Indian identity in years to come.
The Ayalas are not mestizo _ the Spanish word for mixed-race _ but Mixtec _ an indigenous people of Mexico. That is, they are by blood purely Indian. Their mother tongue is not Spanish but Mixteco. And they represent an accelerating movement to the United States of indigenous people from throughout Latin America.
According to the 2000 census, the vigorous growth of the American Indian population was powered by phenomenal surge among those identifying themselves both as Hispanic and American Indian. (Hispanics can be of any race, and the question of Hispanic ethnicity is asked separately on the census.)
While the number of non-Hispanic American Indians grew by 15 percent in the 1990s, the number of Hispanic American Indians grew by nearly 150 percent. Growth was especially pronounced in states receiving a lot of Latino immigrants: In Texas, Florida, Illinois and New Jersey, the numbers of Hispanic Indians more than tripled; in New York, they more than doubled.
In 10 years, Hispanics went from being 8 percent to 16 percent of those identifying as American Indians. Hispanic Indians now well outnumber non-Hispanic Indians in New York City, Houston and Chicago.
The census accounts for only a decade, but the way the American Indian population is growing reflects epochal change.
More than 4 million U.S. residents now call themselves American Indians in whole or in part. That number approaches the 5 million that University of California, Los Angeles anthropologist Russell Thornton estimates inhabited what is now the United States in 1492, and far exceeds the low ebb of 230,000 Indians counted by the 1900 census.
It is no small irony that immigration should contribute to the comeback of Native Americans, and all the more noteworthy that the indigenous immigration is of a people that had barely budged from where they lived since time immemorial. It also constitutes a historic shift that both indigenous newcomers and others are proudly embracing Indian identity, echoing a similar shift in American attitudes since the 1960s.
“We have always known from childhood that we were Indian people; we were told this by our parents, but it was kept within the family,” said Rene Marcano of Manhattan. “To be called Indian meant to be a nobody, a dog or a savage.”
Marcano was born in Puerto Rico. The original people there and on neighboring islands were the Tainos, the first indigenous people to encounter Christopher Columbus, the first to be called “Indians,” and long ago declared extinct. But, said Jose LaBoy of Brooklyn, N.Y., “we hid where they could no longer annihilate us _ in their blood.”
In the late 1980s in New York City, Marcano, later joined by LaBoy and others, began a movement to restore the Taino nation _ reclaiming its dress and customs and language, to the point where they can now pray and sing in Taino. Marcano is now Cibanakan, the restored Taino nation’s foremost chief, and LaBoy is a second chief, Boriwex.
The Taino restoration movement has inspired some Puerto Ricans to identify as both Hispanic and Indian. But Cibanakan, Boriwex and other leaders of the revival have discarded all but the Indian label. “We reject being called Hispanic or Latino,” said Cibanakan.
The reborn Tainos are not alone in that sentiment, which means that the rise of Indian identification among those with Latin American origins may ultimately render “Hispanic” a smaller and less all-encompassing category. It is, to begin with, a peculiarly American term, added to the census in 1970 as a catch-all category for anyone of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American or “other Spanish culture or origin.”
In Fresno, Calif., Leoncia Vasquez, himself a Mixtec immigrant, ran the census outreach effort for the Oaxacan Indigenous Binational Front. “They would smile when we would say that they had the opportunity to identify themselves as Mixtec or Zapotec,” Vasquez said. But “Hispanic” was an unfamiliar term that suggested some relationship to Spain. “`They didn’t want to identify themselves as that.”
Vasquez advised indigenous people not to check “Hispanic,” though he said Hispanic organizations working the same territory advised the opposite. California Rural Legal Assistance, which set up a special census project to work with the increasingly indigenous farm labor work force throughout the state, advised checking both “Hispanic” and “Indian” and then writing in the particular Indian affiliation that applied.
A couple of changes in the format of the 2000 census undoubtedly contributed to the increase in American Indian numbers.
The Hispanic question was moved from after the race question to before it. That means people who think of themselves as both Hispanic and Indian would now come to the race question after already establishing they were Hispanic and feel freer to identify themselves also as Indian. (Because Hispanic is, on the census, an ethnicity and not a race, a person who identifies as Hispanic and Indian is counted as being of one race, while someone identifying as black and Indian or white and Indian is counted as of more than one race.)
American Indian was also redefined for the 2000 census to bring in descendants of indigenous peoples of all the Americas. As a consequence, when the bureau eventually issues its breakdown of various tribes and native communities (persons checking “Indian” were asked to write in more specific affiliations), Indians from south of the border will be included.
These changes may yield some dramatic differences in the look of America’s Indian population. In the 1990 census, Vasquez said, California officially had a Mixtec population of 1. (He thinks it was his boss at the Binational Front, who wrote in “Mixtec.”) But Jack Forbes, a professor emeritus of Native American studies at the University of California, Davis, believes the 2000 census may well find that Mixtecs or Aztecs are the largest group of Indians in California, and the Aztecs the largest group in Texas.
Anthropologist Paul Kroskrity, chair of UCLA’s American Indian Studies program, said they are expanding their mission to include indigenous people from throughout the Americas, cross-linking with Latin American studies. Kroskrity said some faculty thought it a mistake to broaden the focus, while others thought it did not go far enough and ought to be reframed as world indigenous studies.
A similar debate may ensue in Indian country.
In 1990, according to UCLA’s Thornton, about two-thirds of the Indians counted in the census were enrolled in one of more than 300 federally recognized tribes that have government-to-government relations with the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. As the number of Hispanic Indians grows, members of these traditional tribes will represent a shrinking share of total Indian population.
“It’s a fuzzy area,’ said Curtis Zunigha, past chief of the Delaware Indians in Oklahoma, where the large American Indian population grew by only 8 percent in the 1990s, and only 2.5 percent of the Indian population identifies as Hispanic.
For many Indian programs, tribal enrollment is much more important than census numbers. For other programs off the reservations, the larger census numbers could lure more resources, or simply redirect existing monies. In some cases, American Indian and Hispanic groups may find themselves fighting over how, for programmatic purposes, people who identified as both Hispanic and Indian should be classified.
In Los Angeles, the city with the largest urban Indian population, American Indian leaders and activists are preparing to do battle.
Glenda Ahhaitty is a Cherokee from Los Angeles who serves on the Census Bureau’s Advisory Committee on American Indians. She said L.A.’s official 1990 Indian population count and government funding for American Indian social service programs were crippled because, for most public policy purposes, Hispanic trumps Indian. Someone identifying as both Hispanic and Indian gets officially counted by state and federal agencies as Hispanic.
“We’re going to raise all kinds of hell if they try to do it this time,” said Ron Andrade, director of the Los Angeles City/County Native American Commission, who said that because of his surname he is frequently mistaken for Hispanic.
But American Indian leaders acknowledge that in a tug-of-war with Hispanic groups, they are seriously outmanned.
“The Indian tribes are not as well-equipped as these organizations like (the National Council of) La Raza,” said Larry Rodgers, executive director of the Utah Navajo Trust Fund. “They’ve got the numbers.”
A debate awaits about where the best interests and truest identity of Hispanic Indians rest.
By all rights, said Forbes, the Indian scholar, the 42 percent of Hispanics who said they were of “some other race” _ meaning that they found no applicable census category among the several options offered _ ought really to be counted as Indians.
“There is tremendous prejudice against Indians found among many Latinos,” Forbes said. “Look at Latino TV and you instantly see this is a white-oriented culture and brown skin, indigenous and black-looking people are completely left out.”
Joel Magallan, a Jesuit brother from Mexico, was brought in by the Catholic Archdiocese of New York five years ago to study and develop a support network for Mexicans in the city. It has come to be the Tepeyac Association. He said some indigenous Mexicans did move on to New York from California after “feeling more discrimination there, even from Mexicans.”
On that score, at least, it is better in New York, where he said the Mexican Indians are perversely preferred workers because many can barely speak Spanish, let alone English, and cannot complain or demand.
Without papers, lost in New York’s large but still largely hidden Mexican community, “they are trapped here,” said Magallan, who has set up Guadalupano Committees in neighborhoods throughout New York to organize and look out for them.
“See my color, it’s the same color to them,” said David Torres, holding his arm out toward the Ayala brothers in the space the Staten Island Guadalupano Committee occupies in the rear of a narrow little Mexican department store.
Torres, a Mexican immigrant, works at a dry cleaner’s but has devoted himself to representing the interests of the Mexican Indians. He has some Indian blood but is from Mexico City. He is streetwise, tough, confident.
He worries how utterly vulnerable the Mexican Indians are in New York. They are rescued, he said, only by their gentle obliviousness. “Don’t look at them too directly or they will run away,” Torres warned.
The Ayala brothers line up each morning by dawn on a day-labor corner informally assigned to those from the Mixtec village where their wives and children remain. They come _ Fernando, 36, and Felipe, 29 _ to the Guadalupano office to learn English from Torres’ daughter. At 13, she instructs the men in a heartbreaking Berlitz of vital phrases:
“I need my money.”
“Why you’re paying me less if I’m working for more hours?”
“I can’t work today.”
“I need to go to the doctor.”
“I’m leaving from here, when I come back can I still work here?”