Late last night, my father and I talked about how the ethnic term Latino mislabels Indigenous and mixed-Indigenous Mexicans, Ecuadorians, Puerto Rican, etc.. For a long time, he and I believed Latino and Hispanic correctly defined the Spanish-speaking mixed-Indigenous people of Mexico, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. His argument was, “We speak Spanish. We dance to Spanish music. We have Spanish names. We live in Spanish towns. That’s what makes us Latinos.”
As we crossed the George Washington Bridge, I looked at the Hudson River and wondered, Why is this so? Why would this make sense to us? I mean, it is true. We speak Spanish and practice Spanish culture fused with Indigenous and African elements. But my family is also Indigenous. We have Indigenous ties that should not be overlooked. I thought hard about how to politely counter argue his belief. His opinion. His Latino identity.
“So I guess that means Filipinos are Hispanics and Latinos, too?” I said. “Think about it, they have Spanish names. They speak Spanish. They probably dance to Spanish music, too.”
“They’re Asians, though. You can’t confuse their race with Spanish,” he says, laughing.
“Exactly, so what makes you think we’re Latino or Hispanic? Some of us are Indigenous, right? Think about our families, papa. We’re Guayakos and Manabítas. We come from Huancavilca and Manteno blood that stretch back to thousands of years.”
“No, well..” he stammers. “I would say we’re…Ecuadorians.”
That’s it hits me. Ecuador is a country named after the equator in South America. But it’s also a country with rich Indigenous history, culture, dances, language, and people. In other words, we’re an Indigenous Nation and we don’t even know it.
Latino or Hispanic is a term coined by the United States to identify Spanish-speaking people coming from south of Mexico. However, the reality is Spanish-speaking people from Latin America come from a variety of racial and cultural backgrounds.
Since 2011, more Latinos/Hispanics identify as Native American, census shows. Even the New York Times features their article on the cultural change and perspective of Indigenous identity among mestizos, mulattos, and Indigenous people. I also want to add that Indigenous people who migrated from South America to the United States do not have access to their identity in this cross-cultural migration process. Hence, they wrestle with the ethnic label “Mestizo” and “Latino.”
Latino comes from the root word Latin which corresponds to the nations that used to form the Roman Empire: Spain, Portugal, Romania, Italy, and France. According to El Boricua, ” The word Hispania thus refers to the people and culture of the Iberian peninsula, Spain in particular. The term Hispano (Hispanic) later was used in referring to Spain and its subsequent New World – New Spain, conquered territories which covers most of Latino America.” The white-mestizo society or descendants of Spanish relatives can claim these labels to themselves because they are Spanish or Latin-descendant for the matter.
But many of us do not come from the Roman origins of Europe. Some of us come from our very own land in the Americas while others came from Africa and Asia.
Some of mixed-Indigenous and Indigenous people wrap our babies in shawls and braid our hairs in trensas. Some of us eat tamales, tacos, maize, beans, papas, tomatoes, and lentejas every day – the traditional meals of our Indigenous cultures. Some of us pray to Catholic Saints and a pantheon of ancestral Indigenous gods and goddesses that might have similar purposes to our Indigenous beliefs like La Virgen de Guadalupe – Tonantzin in Mexico. Some of us dance to cumbia – a fusion of Indigenous, Spanish, and African music elements, and in many places, we still dance to Indigenous music. Some of us wear ponchos, sombreros, and Indigenous skirts. Some of us believe in el cuco, talk to Grandmother Moon, walk on Pachamama, swim with mermaids, and fear the devil and tin tin. Some of us EVEN use words with Indigenous syntax and don’t even know the original meaning of it – like mexica (Mexico), guagua (baby, Ecuador), huracan, (hurricane, Puerto Rico) and tayta (father, Peru). Does this sound Latino to you?
“We’re Ecuatorianos,” my father said last night. You see, Ecuador is not a country named after the Equatorial line. It’s a country founded by many Indigenous nations, tribes, clans, and families that lived in the region for thousands of years. It’s a country rooted in the Quitu-Shyri Empire (320 AD- 1465 AD) and influenced by the Tawantinsuyu culture (1465 AD-2014 AD). It’s a country surrounded by a wealth of natural resources in the Amazon rainforest and protected by totem poles, shamanism, and Andean spirituality in La Sierra. Recently, Spanish and African cultural elements influenced Ecuadorian society in the past 500 years. Ecuadorian mixed-Indigenous population acculturated some of these foreign elements into their Kichwa culture, roots, and language – but they still maintain their Indigenous identity alive.
Ecuador is home to 30+ Indigenous nations and to 8 million descendants of the Quitu-Shyri Empire. It’s also home to 1 million Euro-Ecuadorians and 1.3 million Afro-Ecuadorians. The 8 millions mestizos are the rainbow colors of the Indigenous race mixed with the Spanish and the African. In Ecuador, we say “tenemos la pinta ecuatoriana” (we have the Ecuadorian look) because we inherit the culture, the language, the ritual, and Kichwa traditions. Because we dance to merengue and reggaeton, but we blast to Indigenous music and do our round dance. We sing in Kichwa, pray in Kichwa, speak in Kichwa, and have Kichwa names or nicknames. (My last name, Quinde).
Is that what Latino means? Ecuadorians are mixed-Indigenous and Indigenous people who re-invent their identity with a fusion of foreign cultures, languages, and religions yet preserve their ethnicity, traditions, and roots. We have mixed-Indigenous soap opera, rappers, hip-hop artists, dancers, actors, and famous singers like Julio Jaramillo.
We repeatly find ways to break negative stereotypes of Indigenous people in South America by inviting ourselves in cultural spaces where we’re usually excluded – especially in the media.
Los Nin – Otavalo Hip-Hop Artists rap in Quechua (Runa Simi, the language of the Tawantinsuyu Empire)
Rosita La Taxista Soap Opera – Kayambe Indigenous Taxi Driver (This telenovela forever changed the antiquated perspective of Indigenous women as stay-at-home moms. Rosita is a Taxi Driver in Guayaquil City who encourages mixed-Indigenous Ecuadorians to embrace their original culture in a dominant white-mestizo space)
Ecuadorian Indigenous Group perform in Times Square -EVERY DAY! People think of “Indians” in the past and as a vanishing culture, but then are shocked to see this group perform in the famous Times Square venues.
Manta and Wankavilka communities re-claim traditional clothing on Columbus Day as a collective resistance to better inform the world that they are still here. In Ecuador, coastal Indigenous people are viewed as mestizos even though they are not. But the coastal Indigenous people are challenging the stereotype and redefining the national space.
Since the 1980s, Ecuadorians migrated to the United States. The U.S. census does not provide an accurate label for Ecuadorian Indigenous people. The only option they have is: Latino/Hispanic to geographically place them in the map.
But this is not what the U.S. wants to deal with. Because it’s easier to label them Hispanic or Latino instead of recognizing them as one of the original people of Ecuador. Because it’s convenient to make them think they’re the immigrants, terrorists, invaders, thieves, criminals, and idiots instead of treating them with proper respect and solidarity. Because it’s okay to fool them into thinking they’re “free” and they’re chasing the “American dream” instead of disrupting US colonial institutions that aim to steal more land and more resources abroad in Ecuador.
As long as church authority figures force their knees to the floor and media convince us into thinking we’re Spanish with white actors on soap opera, South American and Central American Indigenous and mixed-Indigenous people will not rise as a people with a political voice to protect their lands.
But if North American and South American Indigenous people in the United States work together to raise awareness, all Indigenous people of the Americas will have a stronger political voice as one Indigenous race. The mixed-Indigenous people will have a chance to learn from their mixed-Indigenous culture as well. For example, my parents and their generation learned to speak, write, and read Kichwa (language of the Inca empire) as young kids in schools. It was tradition to learn the language, the history, and the dance. This tradition did not exclude mixed-Indigenous Ecuadorians because as a nation, they recognized the importance of including both cultures (Spanish and Indigenous) in their mixed Identity.
Recently, Ecuador changed the policy and limited Kichwa to certain regions to encourage assimilation of Indigenous people to the Mestizaje and re-invite the learning of international languages such as French, English, and Italian in schools. Although there is nothing wrong learning European languages, there is something wrong with limiting the original language of our ancestors. There is a potential danger in losing our tradition to both mixed-Indigenous and Indigenous Ecuadorians.
The Idle No More Movement is an excellent example of how Indigenous people in North America unite to stand up and fight for their culture, land, and identity against people who think it’s okay to walk over Indigenous people with mascot names, Halloween Indian costumes, and trespass violations. I also think the Idle No More Movement should include the Indigenous people and mixed-Indigenous people from Spanish-speaking nations as an effort to collaborate, unite, and support one Indigenous people across both continents.
I mean, do we call an African-American a Britannic because he or she speaks English? Do we call an Arab an Amish because he or she looks white? Do we call white people mestizos or mixed because they make up also are mixed with the Irish, German, African, Native, Asian heritage even though they physically look white? There is no debate about our differences. We come from different nations, backgrounds, religions, cultures, and so forth. But the key point is to co-exist in peace and respect each other. The principle is to not step on people’s sacred space without asking their permission. The Indigenous space has been repeatedly trespassed and disrespected in the Americas.
I can only speak of what I‘ve seen in Ecuador. I make the comparison from what my people in Santa Elena are going through to what Latinos are going through in the United States. In Ecuador, the label Mestizo provides an opportunity for Indigenous people to “climb” the social ladder. In order for them to NOT be hated, insulted, harmed, put down, ashamed, physically assaulted, and to some extent, massacred in genocides, it’s so much more convenient to make the switch to “Mestizo” to avoid these social complications.
But Indigenous people should not feel obliged to make the switch because of the shame. Their culture is as beautiful as the African-American’s, European-American’s, and Asian-American’s. Their culture is the only one that has a solid foundation on these lands for millennia. In Ecuador, the mestizaje percentage jumped from 40% in the 80s to 78% in 2010. It’s not because Indigenous people mysteriously “vanished” but because they are forcibly pressured to assimilate to dominant white-mestizo society. In some communities, they do not have access to their ethnic label in the Ecuadorian census. My comuna in Santa Elena is a perfect example. We all identify as Indigenous. We go by cholos comuneros, and some, more than others, Wankavilka, but we have ancestral ties to these lands for 12,000 years.
In the 2010 census, the classifications available for self-classication were: Mestizo, Montubio, Afrodescendiente, Indigena, & Blanco in the Ecuadorian census. However, sometimes the census does not arrive in the hands of Indigenous people in certain locations in Ecuador, and if they do, does the census include all ethnic labels or provide another opportunity for cultural assimilation?
In Santa Elena, comuneros identify as Cholos because it closely describes their existence as an ethnic group that acculturates from one era to the other -pulling a rich history of 12,000 year-old-Indigenous culture and including new cultural elements to their Comunero identity, like Spanish and African. “Indigenous” to them means a group of people who maintain their traditional clothing, roots, language, and land intact since the beginning of time. Cholos live in the same land and maintain their Indigenous culture, but they consistently adapt to new clothing and language depending on the era in order to keep up with the global technology and better use of their communal economy. I’m a Comunero from my mother’s side. I speak English fluently and acculturated to American society. But I also pull Spanish, Kichwa, Huancavilca, and Sumpa culture with me.
The ethnic label “Cholo” is not in the Ecuadorian census – which means they have two options: Mestizos or Indigenous. They oblige-voluntary identify as Mestizo – a blanket term that covers up discrimination and encourages assimilation of all ethnic groups regardless of their historical origins, colonial trauma, and ethnic traditions. Also, the mestizo concept does not equally glorify two cultures. The dominant Euro-centric culture overpowers the Indigenous one – providing an opportunity for discrimination with words like “cholo” and “longo,” expropriation, and much more. In this case, the ethnic Comuneros are still an invisible presence in their region – a total of 200,000 or mre people. Consequently, Comuneros are viewed as mestizos and larger corporations expropriate them from their ancestral land due to the mislabeling since 1982.
There is no need for Indo-mestizo or Indigenous people from Latin America to leave their culture behind and adopt the Latino label. Without their identity, they are very close to losing their own culture, language, and tradition — the ones they brought over from Latin America.
Appropriating a local tribe that is not yours is also NOT the respectful manner to go around this. However, US census should provide an ethnic label that speaks for Mexican, Central, and South American Indigenous people -or the very least, make specific classifications that distinguishes them from the Indigenous people in North America. This provides an opportunity for mixed-Indigenous people from Spanish-speaking nations to learn from their culture and respect the Indigenous cultures in North America. This provides an opportunity to start a conversation of, “What does it mean to be Indigenous from North and South America and how we can work together?” Our culture does not start in 1492; it started millennia before 1492 and not many “Latinos” know that. We glorify our past ancestors but we never acknowledge the present Indigenous culture and people in our respective nations.
Imagine what would happen if mixed-Indigenous or Indigenous Ecuadorians, Mexicans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans, Peruvians, Bolivians, among other Spanish-speaking nations re-identify as Indigenous, how would that cause a chain reaction in South America and how would that redefine our culture, our history, and our thought process? Would we stop hating each other and point fingers to others when we ourselves are also Indigenous?