De la Sierra Norte y Las Valles Centrales a Los Angeles: Chinantec and Zapotec Diasporic Indigenous Societies
By: Chinantec Power
Earlier this year I was in conversation with a friend in which I was asked, “You’re Chinanteca? Where are the Chinantecos at in LA? We know where the Zapotecs and Mixtecs are at, various parts of LA county, the IE, San Diego, Central Valley and NorCal, but I didn’t y’all were here too? When did your people arrive?”
That question and the suppression of accurate Indigenous representation in mainstream media prompted me to write a small piece of my people’s history.
Yes, Chinantecos and Zapotecos are here in the San Gabriel Valley and various parts of LA county, land of the Tongva people. If you go along Rosemead Boulevard, specifically in the Pasadena, Rosemead, and Temple City area, you will find that many of us live within a 5–15 minute radius. Our networks stay close. It is how we create opportunities for each other in employment and higher education. Those of us, Zapotec and Chinantec, in the San Gabriel Valley arrived mostly during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. My uncle and father were among the first men to arrive from our pueblo in the 1980’s and paved the path for the migration of our paisanos and the formation of our diasporic Indigenous societies in the United States. The women of our pueblo also played a vital role in managing property, land ownership, and raising the next generation of Chinantec and Zapotec youth, both back home in Oaxaca and the United States. This is a part of a centuries long struggle for survival, sovereignty, and autonomy. The intent behind this is to send resources back home to create livable and stable living conditions after multiple generations of land dispossession, removal, and genocides. The earliest one I know of is one before the Mexican revolution. The second one was executed by the Catholic Church during my grandmother’s generation. During the arrival of the Catholic church, my people were murdered and tortured if they refused to convert or practiced our traditional religions. I am still trying to recover and understand the history that has been stolen from us by public education on both sides of the border. Colonial violence destabilized our economic, social, and geographical systems to the point where migration out of the town and into the United States was the last option for our survival.
The most popular destination for establishment was along Rosemead Boulevard, crossing through Pasadena, Temple City, San Gabriel, past Valley Boulevard. This is because we had paisanos from other Zapotec pueblos in the Sierra Norte working in restaurants in the Valley. They helped my older relatives attain housing and employment in these locations. Now over 20 years later we can be found all across the Valley, Long Beach, Koreatown, and South Central Los Angeles. There are Indigenous nations from other pueblos situated across California, with Los Angeles, San Diego, and the Central Valley being the most popular location of settlement for southern Indigenous migrants. Every pueblo from Oaxaca and across Latin America that has migrated to California has its own migration story. There are thousands of us and we are inextricably linked to each other, for our survival depends on our networks, or relationships to each other and our pueblos. Governments on both sides of the border do not recognize us or our nationhood, therefore we rely on each other much more. Our ways of organizing are not something created within the past five years, rather they are hundreds and thousands of years old, as old as our societies. They were cultivated by our ancestors and passed down to us, with more recent forms being changed by the ways colonialism harms us.
Migration from southern Mexico is difficult, expensive, and deadly. We have lost some paisanos along the way and the process of getting the individual home and funerals are emotionally painful and expensive. It takes community emotional and financial support to identify the individual, retrieve them, their belongings, send them back home, and host funeral services. We heal in community with family and paisanxs.
We migrate, survive, and grow together. Our displacement from our homelands comes with different kinds of losses. However, we try to keep as much with us from our homelands as possible. We cannot lose our culture. That is at the core of who we are, it is part of our soul so we bring it and create it wherever it is that we reside as well. Tlayudas, entomatadas, enfrijoladas, chapulines, and tamales de hojas de platano are staples in my home. They are popular foods in the Sierra Norte and Central Valleys of Oaxaca. My relatives brought their recipes to the United States too. Mexican grocery stores do not have a lot of the main ingredients that go into our traditional foods so we have to go to our paisanxs or Oaxacan grocery stores or restaurants in Koreatown and other parts close to the center of Los Angeles. A lot of my paisanxs and relatives live in apartment complexes without yards that leave room for gardening or farming like in our pueblos. Therefore some of us make urban gardens in our patios. My family will go to the swapmeets to buy vegetables and some of the traditional herbs in Zapotec and Chinantec cuisine that we cannot find in grocery stores to plant in our patio gardens. We like to have the freshest fruits and veggies, things that remind us of life in our pueblos. Our pueblos are very much centered in farming, so these gardens are an important piece of us too. We find home in each other and create it around us too.
Language also travels with us during our migration. Our native languages are Chinanteco and Zapoteco, not Spanish. For many of us English is our my third language like it is for me. Spanish was my first, then Chinanteco, and lastly English. The public education system in the United States and in Mexico discourages Natives from speaking our Native languages and instead imposes colonial languages like Spanish and English onto us. There has been a decline in fluency of our Indigenous languages in my pueblo because the public school punishes and traumatizes students for speaking Chinanteco and Zapoteco in school. The arrival of the Catholic Church during my grandmother’s generation was the first to discourage our native languages from us. I speak very little, but am relearning now that I am an adult. It is important for Indigenous people to receive institutional support when it comes to sustaining and nurturing our Native languages or these thousand year old languages may die out. For the time being, we teach each other and keep these languages alive among ourselves. Still, it is difficult to do that due to discrimination and marginalization we receive from mestizxs, Mexicans, Americans, and their institutions. Languages that are most spoken within colonial systems are English and Spanish. Community translation then becomes an important tool for us.
Our stories and histories show me that we have strength in community. There are colonial traumas, such as internalized racism and misogyny, that we need to heal from and not regenerate onto each other. However, we find strength as a collective and when we support each other. We survive not alone, but in congregation with our paisanos. That is the way we were raised and how our pueblos were created. That is how we will continue to be and proudly.