Liz Alarcón: Have you ever wondered what it’s like to fall sleep in one country and wake up in another? Not falling asleep on a plane or in a car, but when the country underneath you just changes one day. Hold that thought as we go back in time, to 1848. After the Mexican American war, the U.S acquired the land qthat is now California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico. All the Mexican people living in these regions suddenly found themselves on U.S soil. They were the first Latinos in this country whose lineage has been here for almost two centuries. For many of us, the Mexican American War was taught through the lens of a growing United States and it’s “manifest destiny”, the idea that the westward expansion of the new country was destined by god, and that the continent was rightfully theirs. But from the perspective of Mexico, United States soldiers came into their country and provoked a bloody war. And when that war was over and The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed in 1848, the borders moved south, and the Mexicans living in those territories unwillingly became the first Latinos. And we say The first Latinos to differentiate this demographic from those in Latin America. The term “Latino” was created to identify Latin Americans who came into the U.S. Yet this group of people we’re talking about, these first Latinos, they didn’t go anywhere. The U.S. came to them.
Turiya Chavez: I want to say he was 25 when the border crossed over.
Liz Alarcón: That’s Turiya Chavez, a content creator and digital organizer here at Pulso. She was born and raised in the southwest, where her family has been for generations, and her great great great grandfather, Manuel Chavez WAS one of the First Latinos
Turiya Chavez: When people talk about Mexicans coming to the United States, we didn’t come here. They came to us when they bought our land. My Nonna, my grandmother, she’s done the ancestry lineage. She can go back to like the 15 hundreds with our ancestry line.
Liz Alarcón: Turiya told us that her family comes from a lineage of farmworkers from what is now New Mexico. The Chavezes didn’t have much money, or access to education, and the family children would leave school to work on their land. So when the border moved, they decided to stay, because
Turiya Chavez: There was more opportunity for growth in terms of job seeking because Mexico at the time, didn’t have strong opportunities for jobs.
Liz Alarcón: So they stayed, but the world around them changed and suddenly, home was a new place, which meant they were forced to adapt to a totally new way of life.
Turiya Chavez: They weren’t allowed to speak Spanish in school, or they would be hit by a ruler and they didn’t teach Spanish to any of their kids because they were afraid that their kids would be punished for speaking Spanish. So my great grandparents would speak Spanish to each other, but they never taught their eight children how to speak Spanish, including my Nona. So it was sort of bred out of our family.
Liz Alarcón: The Chavezes lost their country and their language, almost instantly. And almost 200 years later, Turiya is still dealing with the consequences of what happened so long ago.
Turiya Chavez: I’ve been trying to teach myself how to speak Spanish for years in schools on my own time. And it’s just so frustrating because, uh, Spanish was a huge part of my family’s life. It was really up to the kids to learn how to speak Spanish and understand what their parents were saying. So me and my siblings and my dad, we are not able to speak Spanish. And as much as I try it’s just frustrating knowing that I can’t really communicate in that way.
Liz Alarcón: And like so many Latinos, Turiya’s sense of identity is linked to the Spanish language.
Turiya Chavez: I consider myself, um, Mexicana. And I think, there is this almost shame or guilt that is felt using the identity because so often people that use that identity are able to speak Spanish or they’re able to, um, even celebrate Dia de Muertos with their families. And because we never grew up doing any of those things, it almost makes you question like, well, am I really Mexicana?
Liz Alarcón: And unfortuanely, Turiyas experience is not unique.
Patricia Perea: Oh yeah. That’s exactly what happened to my family. My mom and dad were punished for speaking it so they didn’t teach it to me.
Liz Alarcón: This is Patricia Perea, a lecturer in the Chicano studies department at the Univerity of New Mexico.
Patricia Perea: I’ve tried to like come back around to it, but it’s not easy. The like comfort with like communication and stuff, just, you know, it’s gone.
Liz Alarcón: And language wasnt the only thing that was lost when the border crossed over.
Patricia Perea: You will still hear a lot of people, including like my family talk about the land that they lost, um, to the Americans in the 18 and 1900s and, you know, there’s some new Mexicans who kept it but a lot were too poor to keep it. So they just, you know, they couldn’t. But, um, the part about land loss too that sucks is, it’s like people will lament over lost land without ever considering that, that land, when the Spanish gave it to them, was taken from Native people. So, you know, it’s a hard conversation to have.
Liz Alarcón: Many of these families who lost their land witnessed their homes culture, and lives becoming assimilated and lost.
Patricia Perea: There’s these beautiful, beautiful homes, like, you know, with the thick adobe walls and the vigas and all of this stuff, that’s gorgeous. The U S comes in and they start like assimilating in. So you get to the early 1900s and they’re changing their houses to look more American. You know, all their traditional curanderismo, parteras, like all that stuff. The doctors, the hospitals come in and all of a sudden, you’re not supposed to have babies at home. You’re not supposed to speak Spanish. You’re being taught how to be white.
Liz Alarcón: But some of them did fight against the notion that they had to be something other than who they were. As you can imagine, once the treaty was put in place, the Mexicans who were now on American land weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms. Not only was their culture discouraged and their land taken away, but over the years they were overpoliced and kept out of the election process through voter suppression laws. We can definitely see the effects of this discrimination toward Latino, Black, Indigenous, Asian, LGBTQIA+ and disabled communities in our country today. But during the 1960s, members of these groups decided it was time to try and put a stop to centuries of mistreatment. And with the social justice movements of the later half of the 20th century, came a new unique identity for descendants of the First Latinos. Chicano.
Patricia Perea: What it is essentially is it’s an American identity, right. It was born in the United States. It doesn’t exist anywhere else. Um, and it’s something that came out of the 1960s and 70s. Previous to that, it had been kind of a derogatory term, um, almost like pocho or vendida or something like that, like a sellout Americanized kind of thing. But they took it back over in the 1960s.
Liz Alarcón: This Chicano identity incorporates a little bit of history, a little bit of myth, and some social justice, too. It came to be when descendants of Mexicans who had the border cross them tried to claim an identity that represented their place in America, where they were constantly discriminated against for the way they looked and their language, and their place in their own Mexican history. Because many of us don’t have a clear knowledge of our ancestral lineage, part of the Chicano identity was piecing together the missing parts of their history. When Mexican Americans in the 60s studied Aztec folklore, they learned about Aztlán, an Aztec land that was believed to have extended as far north as the U.S. southwest. Just by learning about the possibility of a place in the U.S. that once belonged to their indigenous ancestors, these budding activists were able to feel a spiritual ownership of the land that they’d been raised to believe they didn’t belong in. By giving themselves the name Chicano, Mexican Americans were able to reclaim a kinship to the land that so many of their ancestors lost to the Treaty of Guadalupe.
Patricia Perea: We had no actual like tribe to affiliate, but, um, since the Mexica/Aztec, you know, were something that we could kind of trace a history to, um, they took that term, right, mexica put it into an American term and it became Chicano. So it became a left pro indigenous US born Mexican American identity. So yeah, I call myself that.
Liz Alarcón: Patricia is a descendant from people who lived in the Llano Estacado, a region that includes parts of eastern New Mexico and the Texas Panhandle. But she grew up in Texas, a state that has its own history with Mexico. Before the Mexican American War, Texas seceded from Mexico to become its own nation called the Republic of Texas. The fight to become independent of Mexico resulted in major battles, like the famous Battle of the Alamo in San Antonio. After nine years as its own territory, Texas became part of the U.S. as the 28th state. Mexico resented this action and border disputes between the two countries is what eventually led to the Mexican-American War. What we were taught in school paints this history from a whole different angle. As a child, Patricia felt discouraged by her teachers to learn about the Mexican American and Native American history in her own backyard.
Patricia Perea: In the story, all you ever hear is like Davy Crockett died and you know, all this stuff about the white Texans, so it’s like, that’s messed up. They, first of all, don’t tell you that a lot of the people in the Alamo were Mexican they were Tejanos who were fighting for statehood against Mexico. What it did for me as a little kid was when you hear Mexicans being called cowardly, when you hear them being compared to brave Texans, when you hear them being called inept all the time, you know, it deeply affects your self-esteem. It affected my self-esteem.
Liz Alarcón: And in one particular instance, little Patricia felt a strong urge to combat the narrative that Mexicans were the villains in American history.
Patricia Perea: When I was a kid, one of the things they made us do to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Alamo, is they made us do a little coloring book. They like did the little print out of the Alamo and we were supposed to color it. And, so I did it really pretty and I was like super happy about it. But then like I’m finished with the picture. It looks great. And then like, I lost my mind as a second grader and I took out the permanent marker and I drew a huge Mexican flag on top of the Alamo. And then a huge Mexican soldier because technically we won. And then, like, I remember looking at it and being like, fuck, I messed up my picture and it’s in permanent marker. So then I tried to erase the soldier and the flag and I couldn’t do it. Um, but that became my whole dissertation chapter because I was like, see, we’re like haunted by this fucking narrative of Anglos and Mexicans. Even if we’re in second grade.
Liz Alarcón: So Patricia grew up confused and ashamed about her identity and what it meant. After spending much of her early life being told she should resent her Mexican heritage, it was hard to hold on to her defiance.
Patricia Perea: Because I did grow up in a place that was mostly white. I spent so much time rejecting being Mexican because being Mexican meant, um, you know, it meant being other, like not getting to fit in.
Liz Alarcón: Then she went off to college where she enrolled in her first Mexican American literature class. This is where she discovered a new side of her Hispanic identity.
Patricia Perea: And then all of a sudden, like here’s, you know, a thousand pages of Chicano lit like dumped on my lap. And I was like, Whoa, we’ve been writing, we’ve been artists. Some of us are professors. You know, we have, we have a whole community here. Um, and that’s when it opened up.
Liz Alarcón: So Chicanos, Mexicanos, Tejanos, and Mexican Americans along the southwest have had to rebuild an identity, a language, architecture, customs, and a place for themselves on their own land after all these things were taken from them. These first Latinos were put through the ringer. And aside from forced assimilation, they faced racial and ethnic persecution in the form of over-policing, voter suppression, and segregation that continues to this day. They’ve been told they didn’t belong in the U.S., while simultaneously being forced to forget they were ever a part of Mexico. But.. against all these challenges, and the unfavorable odds, these first Latinos, and the culture they carried prevailed. During the census for the year 2000, Patricia overheard her family discussing what race they were going to identify as.
Patricia Perea: My mom and my grandma were having this talk and, they’re on the phone and my grandma is like Mija, I don’t want to put white. I’m not white. And my mom’s like, mom, you don’t have to put white, you can put something else. And my grandma’s like, well, what do I put? And my mom’s like, you know, you can just write mestiza and I was like, Whoa, my mom just said, mestiza, it was rejecting whiteness. It’s like, okay, we’re not going to be called that.
Liz Alarcón: Patricia’s grandma was owning her indigenous roots, after a lifetime in a world that told her she should strive to assimilate to white America. And moments like that, however small, prove how some things just cant be taken from us, no matter how strong the pressures of assimilation are. And as for our team member Turiya, well she and her family have been on their own journey and have made their own peace with history, while finding ways of holding on to their identity.
Turiya Chavez: One thing that we always make when we’re all together is pozole, um, that’s a big part of our culture and heritage. And we also all make tamales together. So I would say those are the two main food groups around Christmas time. Am I really Mexicana? Can I really use that to define myself? And I think the answer is yes, um, that you can, and I do, uh, because that’s who my family was and that’s what our culture is, and that’s what we come from. Despite those things sort of being taken away, I don’t think that doesn’t mean that they can’t be brought back into our lives.
Liz Alarcón: If there’s one thing Latinos from all backgrounds, and all people really, can learn from the story of these trailblazers, it’s how some bonds, to family, heritage, and inner compass can withstand more hardship than we can imagine. 173 years after the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, we don’t have to imagine it. We can see it.