Don't Be Fooled: Latino = Indigenous

Santy Quinde Baidal

Late last night, my father and I talked about how the ethnic term Latino mislabels Indigenous and mixed-Indigenous people from Mexico, Ecuador, Puerto Rico, etc. For a long time, we believed Latino and Hispanic correctly defined the Spanish-speaking mixed-Indigenous and Indigenous people in Latin America.

As we crossed the George Washington Bridge, I wondered, Why is this so? I mean it’s true. We do speak Spanish and we practice Spanish culture. But we also come from a land that is still governed by our Indigenous relatives. I thought hard about how to politely counter argue his belief. His opinion. His Latino identity.

“So I guess this means Filipinos are Hispanics or Latinos, too, right?” I said. “Think about it, they have Spanish names. They speak Spanish. They probably dance to Spanish music, too.”

He laughed at me. He said, “They are Asians, though. You can’t confuse their race with Spanish.”

“Exactly, so why are we the only ones considered Latino or Hispanic? Some of us are Indigenous, right? Think about it, papa. We are Guayakos and Manabítas. We come from family clans that stretch back for thousands of years of Indigenous tradition.”

“Well..” he stammers. “I would say, we’re Ecuatorianos.”

Latino or Hispanic is a term coined by the United States to identify Spanish-speaking people coming from south of Mexico. The reality is Spanish-speaking people from Latin America come from a variety of racial and cultural backgrounds. We are like a rainbow.

However, since 2011, Latinos or Hispanics now start to 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.

Also, 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.

But Latino is not a person who only looks Mexican and speaks Spanish. Many of us come from mixed-Indigenous heritage and some of us are Indigenous, too. For example, Ecuador is home to 30+ Indigenous nations and a home to 8 million descendants of the Quitu-Shyri and Spanish ancestry. It’s also home to 1 million Euro-Ecuadorians and 1.3 million Afro-Ecuadorians. However, the 8 millions Ecuadorian mestizos form part of the rainbow colors of the Indigenous race mixed with the Spanish and the African cultures. In Ecuador, we say “tenemos la pinta ecuatoriana” (we have the Ecuadorian look) because some of us are brown, have black hair, and some, more than others, inherit the Atahualpa face, our last Tawantinsuyu King in 1535. We also dance to merengue and reggaeton, but we blast to Indian music and do the round dance, stomp the floor, swing the skirts, and chirp like the Curiquingue and Quinde birds.

Ecuadorians make up the majority of mixed-Indigenous and Indigenous population, among other groups like Afro-Ecuadorians and Euro-Ecuadorians, who re-invent a fusion of all cultures, languages, and religions, yet preserve their Indigenous ethnicity, traditions, and roots simultaneously.

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 a people who think it’s okay to walk over Indigenous people with mascot names and Halloween Indian costumes. I also think the Idle No More Movement should include Indigenous people and mixed-Indigenous people from Spanish-speaking nations as an effort to collaborate, unite, and support one Indigenous people across both continents.

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? Why don’t we call Euro-Americans “mixed” or “mestizos” because they also have Irish, Italian, German, African, and Indigenous blood, some more than others? However, 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. 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 ethnic and cultural genocides, the ethnic label “mestizo” provides a convenient strategy to avoid all of the aforementioned complications. However, Indigenous people should not feel obliged to make the switch from Indigenous to Mestizo because of the shame with their Indigenous identity. Their culture is as beautiful as that of the African-American, European-American,and Asian-American.

In Santa Elena, Ecuador, we identify as Indigenous people. We go by “cholo comunero," and some, more than others, by “Wankavilka” to emphasize their ethnicity. The Ecuadorian government sends us a census that provides three options: white, black, and Mestizo. We are forced to put mestizo even though in our hearts we know we are Indigenous to our ancestral lands and cultures, but this mislabel affects new generations of youth who start to distance themselves from their Indigenous heritage and encourage outsiders to expropriate our lands because we do not “voluntarily” identify as Indigenous. (Original Source in Spanish). Therefore, in this case, the mestizo concept does not equally glorify two cultures, but only the dominant European one. It serves to disenfranchise Indigenous people in Latin America. In a parallel comparison, there are Latinos, (Indigenous Spanish-speaking people from tribal nations in Latin America who migrate to the United States), who do not want to identify as Latinos and Mestizos but are forced to because it’s the only option.

Appropriating a local tribe that is not yours is also NOT the respectful manner to go about this either. However, US census should provide an ethnic label that speaks for Mexican, Central, and South American Indigenous people. This also gives an opportunity for mixed-Indigenous people to learn from their culture via Indigenous groups in United States settings. Because as mixed-Indigenous people from Spanish-speaking nations, we have a right to learn about our Indigenous past that includes everything before 1492. Our nations started way before the colonial contact.

Imagine what would happen if mixed-Indigenous or Indigenous Ecuadorians, Mexicans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans, Peruvians, Bolivians, among other Spanish-speaking nations re-identify with their Indigenous roots, how would that cause a chain reaction in Latin America and how would that redefine our culture, our history, and our thought process?

Santy Quinde Baidal, blogger of The Quinde Journey | Wankavilka Nation (www.squinde.wordpress.com), speaks about his experience of re-identifying with his Wankavilka Comunero Indigenous identity as an Ecuadorian-American citizen in the United States. He recently graduated from Middlebury College with a Bachelor’s degree in English and Creative Writing. Thanks to oral tradition and extensive independent research, Santy learns about his Indigenous culture, identity, and traditions that stretches back to 12,000 years, to the first people of Santa Elena, Ecuador.

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ajross's picture
I agree with the author. This results when people are labeled and defined by others. I can only speak for myself as a white American of Italian background. . As an example of our imposed (US) labelling system, NY Yankee, Michael Francisco Pineda, born in Yaguate, Dominican Republic, would be considered "Hispanic or Latino" despite his obvious African ancestry. Although my ancestors came from the land of the Via Latina and I have relatives whose last name is Latino, I am not a "Latin American". Some would call me an "Anglo American". Being mostly Sicilian, the mixing began before Christ, but that is another story.
swrussel's picture
"Hispanic" is indeed a nonsensical classification. He you must use it, don't forget those colonized by Portugal rather than Spain. "Race" is also a nonsensical classification in that it has no biological meaning, only a social meaning, and that social meaning carries such a scary amount of freight. The author neatly demonstrates the power of census categories but does not delve much into their purpose. The purpose is to drive public policy by counting persons of similar interests. There is a public policy sense in which a Cherokee and a Comanche or a Keres speaking Pueblo dweller and a Pequot have more in common than not. In both of those cases, the cultural differences can barely put those peoples on the same planet. But if they are lumped together for mistreatment, it might be good to lump them together for defense.
alexjacobs's picture
Sign the census as Native American, because you - all your brothers & sisters are...in central & south America, the indigena can call out 10s of thousands of people to march in the streets, we in the north have become comfortable, we need the numbers, we are still a silent & invisible minority no matter how loud we shout & protest, we need the numbers and they are coming...the browning of America...
100IndigenousAmerican's picture
Santy Quinde Baidal, thank you for your story. It gives me a whole new perspective as to why the mainstream media in countries to the south have mostly European looking persona and a theme of ridiculing the indigenous. Ownership of media is an avenue to take, it may be possible to tune out the European trash perspectives and values through media ownership and targeting of everything brown and nurturing it. Indigenous American People from across the entire Continent need to establish a pan-American framework of action that will help our upcoming generations to stay brown and buy into "BROWN IS BEAUTIFUL".
Sam Harris's picture
I identify with my native roots. I am a Mexican native and very proud of that. I am a mestizo and I am not ashamed of that. I am however irritated when I have had a Native from the USA telling me I am not a real indian and an insult to me. She bragged about practicing her culture and so forth but knows nothing of tribes outside of her own. That is why I find it irritating and some may not agree with me, but seriously it was very offensive to me. I don't sit there and judge Natives the the US but just because I am light skinned and "look european" doesn't mean that is what I am. The issue is that Mexican is a nationality not an ethnicity. However unlike Ecuador the word mestizo became obsolete on the Mexican census and is no longer used except in cases of studies of ethnicities in Mexico. But thank you for writing a wonderful essay and I very much agree with it.
Sam Harris
Xavo_T's picture
Excelente artículo! I am a Guayaquileño currently going to school at Hampshire College, and I am focusing my academics on the very contested Latin American identity. Although I wish you would have gone more into the role the 'Latin' Empires (France, Spain and Portugal) had in creating and spreading 'our' identity, the article successfully tackles the issue at hand. Because of how mixed Ecuador is and the overwhelming presence of the 'mestizo', I really believe we are extremely well-equipped to engage with these discussions on race/ethnicity/identity in the United States (which, by the way, are ridiculously confusing, problematic and shifting constantly). In my experience, young people from other Latin American countries lack even the words to start talking about these issues. Personally, I will say that I am not comfortable with saying I am indigenous, as I my family is immensely mixed and all over the place; it would be a gross appropriation to state such a thing. I would say that I am mestizo, and, if needed, Latino. But Latino such a politically charged term. Gracias por compartir; me alegra que estas conversaciones estén ocurriendo!
numunu's picture
You Wrote: "However, US census should provide an ethnic label that speaks for Mexican, Central, and South American Indigenous people. This also gives an opportunity for mixed-Indigenous people to learn from their culture via Indigenous groups in United States settings". Why should the U.S. give people in other countries sovereignty? isn't it up to the native people in their own country to get their own sovereignty? I have spoken to this author myself. And he is yet to really understand the situation of natives in the U.S. with politics and culture. I don't see how someone can come here and demand the U.S. to give sovereignty of natives of other countries. And Filipinos are NOT ASIAN. They are Pacific Islanders, I have worked with many Filipinos and have many good Filipino friends. They would get offended for that remark; "They are Asian".
scot.chevraz's picture
Completely agree. It's the oldest trick in the book, divide and conquer. The key is solidarity. The EZLN and Idle No More have more in common than not.
Jerry Davis's picture
I can speak for different areas, although I am a "mixed breed" white person (Scottish/Irish/Danish). In Mexico, a person is not indigenous unless they speak their indigenous language. In the US, a person is not indigenous unless they have their card. An African-American is not African, and I am not Scottish/Irish/Danish. We are people of African or Scottish/Irish/Danish ancestry. African affiliation is tribal. European affiliation is by citizenship. Here in El Paso, Texas, USA, Hispanics disdain their indigenous heritage unless they are drunk or disorderly, when they blame their "Apache" or whatever blood. The Spanish were the mass murderers, not the indigenous people. They didn't even have the capacity to wipe out the people of an entire continent. Indigenous people of North America have always cut each other's throats for the benefit of Europeans and European-derived people. "Divide and conquer", Rome's theme song. If you don't belong to a tribe in Ecuador, if you don't speak an indigenous language, then you aren't indigenous.
Jerry Davis
Jerry Davis's picture
Hahaha! I've been queued by site administrators. What a perfectly Western thing to do!
Jerry Davis