Monday, October 31, 2011

Appropriation, Authenticity, and Performances of Indigeneity (Natasha)

Jon Cruz's book struck at the heart of several issues I struggle with in my own research, but the issue I'll  speak to here is that of identity politics and performances of indigeneity in the contemporary Chicano community. Since the 1960s there have been movements to recognize the indigenous origins of Mestizo and Chicano peoples, despite the fact that conquest, centuries of colonialism, and concerted efforts to miscegenate the nation have left many Chicanos without concrete cultural practices, Native languages, and other concrete practices that connect them to their indigenous roots. There have been impressive efforts to recognize and revive elements of Mexican popular culture, religiosity, healing practices, etc. that are recognizably rooted in indigenous knowledge systems. However, Chicano groups have also adopted practices, dress, and symbolism rooted in Aztec culture and this is where things get a little thorny.

In the late 19th century, Porfirio Diaz began campaigns to valorize Aztec culture because he thought the Aztecs were the Mexican indigenous group most worthy of being part of modern national identity. Over the course of several decades, Aztec-inspired symbolism and architecture was incorporated into the Mexican nation and given increasing value. These efforts were put on pause during the decade of revolutionary fighting, but in the aftermath of the Mexican revolution the nation needed to congeal and indigenous identity again became a convenient tool for unification. In an effort to articulate clearly an identity that would unite the nation and quell further rumblings of revolt, the revolutionary ruling elite sought innovative ways to incorporate the Indigenous masses. By integrating Indians both culturally and biologically, these leaders hoped to solve its “Indian problem” while forging a modern national identity that set it apart from Europe and the United States.

Revolutionary leaders were inspired by Diaz's previous valorization of the Aztec and they continued to be the indigenous group deemed most worthy of inclusion in modern Mexico. A new generation of scholars (historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists) developed and learned (mostly from American social scientists) techniques for studying other cultures and, in doing so, rendered them "cultural objects" that could be appropriated and manipulated at will. Throughout this process, Aztec identity continued to be romanticized and carried the most cultural value. The authenticated conceptualization of indigeneity that emerged from these efforts was then appropriated by revolutionary nationbuilders and made central to Mexican national identity. A wealth of popular visual culture emerged to support this vision.

So, I find it interesting but unsurprising that Chicano activists chose to identify so closely with Aztec identity. I don't think that what the Chicano did was appropriation so much as a reclaiming of an identity, but I do think it's important to consider the politics of why Aztec was such a viable and visible option when that community sought to reconnect with its indigenous roots.

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