“They tried to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds” – Dinos Christianopoulos
It’s Hispanic Heritage month and it’s a bittersweet time of the year for me. On one hand, I don’t identify as Hispanic, on the other, I too am a descendent of colonized people by the Spanish Conquest of what is now known as the Americas. I can be both patriotic of my motherland and critical of the so-called nation-borders that divide us and strip us of our roots. I identify as Xicana with an ‘X’ as most of my friends and peers feel the need to emphasize. Xicana, is different than Chicana with a ‘Ch’ in that the ‘X’ is rooted in the parts of our identity that are intentionally made invisible, like our indigeneity and decolonial consciousness. I am part of a growing group of people that are challenging the erasure of our people’s history by reclaiming parts of our identity that we refuse to let die. By reclaiming and acknowledging these identities, we are saying that we are still here and still alive. In times of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become even more critical to underscore that we won’t be erased. My people are still here battling colonialism and white supremacy since 1492, the true public health threat of our lives.
Growing up, I heard all kinds of stories from my elders, from having white and Black ancestors to hearing about the indigenous languages our families used to speak. As a little girl, I used to think all Mexicans looked like me and that we all spoke Spanish, but as I grew up and stepped out of my familiar bubble, I discovered the wide diversity that exists not only within Mexicans but Latinx people in general. This ranged from class, race, language….etc. That goes without saying that I, too, was on the receiving end of other people’s discovery of Latinx diversity. There have been plenty of examples of people having a hard time believing that I am Mexican and/or that I speak fluent Spanish because I did not fit the image that has been instilled in them for so long on what a “Mexican” should look like. Yet here we are, grouped together by a single identifier, Spain, a country I’ve never been to. For me, identifying as Hispanic meant white washing my heritage. Perpetuated by the media, light skin, white, and white-adjacent cis hetero Latinxs are usually the ones we see as the hallmark of Latinidad. On the polar opposite, and stereotypically shown are the dark skin, Indigenous and Afro-Latinx people; the ones that look like me. Focusing only on the whiteness of our identity is a pandemic of its own, as we erase each other’s non-white identities while simultaneously serving as a reminder of how active and embedded racism is today in Latinx culture.
On April 8th of this year, the CDC declared that racism is a serious public health threat because of how COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted communities of color. COVID-19 amplified structural inequities caused by structural racism that this country was fundamentally built on. For some, it brought to light what many of us already knew; white supremacy is a public health threat not just for people in this country but for all life on this planet. On September 9th, 2020 the skies in the Bay Area in Northern California turned orange due to a catastrophic wildfire season that ravaged around 4% of California’s 100 million acres. It was the result of overgrowth of underbrush that was once contained by controlled fires led by Native Tribes. Also on September 9th, we double masked and went to work. It was a summer of climate-related disasters all over the world resulting from a legacy of extraction led by capitalism at the cost of our biodiversity, wildlife, and poor people of color. Those with the privilege of staying home and working remotely, did. Those who couldn’t do the same were labeled essential. But work undoubtedly continued. Our farmworkers, our grocery workers, our constructions workers, our waste water workers who are majority low-wage earners and people of color were and are continuously put at risk for the benefit of capitalism and maintaining the status quo. It is not by coincidence that racial injustice, climate change, and health inequities are intrinsically linked; it is by design.
As we move through Hispanic Heritage month, I can’t help but reflect on how COVID-19 has not only deeply wounded our Black and Indigenous communities in this country, but also strongly feel for those who migrated to this country looking for a better quality of life, working day and night, putting their lives at risk only to find betrayal. I see my father, my mother, my uncles, and aunts in all the working-class people of this country. They are the ones gratefully taking on any job, the dirtiest jobs, and the riskiest jobs to get them ahead, even in times of COVID. They came to this country looking for economic stability, but little did they know that they also came for social, cultural, and political empowerment, if not for themselves, for their children like myself. They are my first teachers, they are my home, they are my biggest heroes. I think about all the hero ancestors that unintentionally made it possible for us all to still be here. They wanted and deserved to be here too. I am heartbroken for their families, for the possibility of what could have been if they could have just stayed home and didn’t have any other option but to continue going to work during a pandemic.
As a first-generation daughter of immigrant parents from an indigenous diaspora with roots in Southern Puebla, Mexico, my identity is political. Ironically, on Hispanic Heritage month, I reflect on my commitment to reclaim my indigenous and Afro heritages. I am having conversations with friends and family on what being Xicanx means to them today and how it has changed over time. But one thing that does remain constant is that Xicanx is still a decolonial practice. For myself, reclaiming who I am and being the story teller of my life, is not just about identity, it’s about practice. Beyond erasure, it is one step closer in dismantling the systems that drive climate change in which poor people of color are most negatively impacted. It is the antidote of white supremacy. It is recognizing how we are interconnected and interrelated, and how we must honor all of our relations on this planet. It is eliminating racism, it is about reparations, it is about Land Back and Native stewardship. It is about co-creating a better, healthier world in which we all reach self-determination to live a dignified life. Then, will we truly reach health equity.
As we talk about the dichotomy between struggling to heal from this ever-evolving pandemic at the brink of the next climate disaster during Hispanic Heritage Month, I am forced to think about who are the most vulnerable at this cross section. I think about how to best care for my father, a labor worker who worked overtime during the pandemic to help meet the demands of plexiglass orders. I think about the back of the house restaurant workers, the custodians, the day care workers, warehouse workers, farmworkers, our essential workers who are most likely to be Black and/or “Hispanic.” Those whose stories we rarely hear about during Hispanic Heritage Month but are the reason we have food on the table. The word Hispanic does not begin to capture my historical lineage or least address the issues that are killing my communities and our livelihoods. The word Hispanic is inauthentic to myself given the violent historical context. As we fast approach Indigenous People’s Day, I am reminded of the continuous erasure of Indigenous and Black contributions worldwide. Contributions that literally help keep us alive and healthy. It is reinforced in me that no one else but myself should take ownership of my narrative, because I am still here and still alive. They tried to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds. It is through my authentic sense of identity that I am able to liberate myself from white supremacy’s individualistic ideologies. It is how I take care of my community. It is how I honor those before me and those that will come after me. The ancestral wisdom and medicine of Black and Indigenous people everywhere helps me keep hope alive in that one day balance will be restored on this planet.
By Program Director, Gabriela Castillo, for HOP’s series of monthly staff blog posts.