Naming, A Coming Home: Latinidad and Indigeneity in the Settler Colony



In this powerful text, Floridalma Boj Lopez describes how the identity concepts of Latinx and Indigenous are forged in the relation with the U.S. settler colony. As such, they often obscure and flatten the particularities of Indigenous nations from the south of the U.S. colonial border, as well as their specific relationship with the specific settler states that dispossessed them. Far from an absolutist account however, Floridalma invites us to adopt an “extensive gaze,” that of the Kab’awil.

In 2007, I started doing return trips from Los Angeles, where I have lived most of my life, to my home place of Quetzaltenango in Guatemala. Quetzaltenango has taught me so much since then. Quetzaltenango taught me about having a double view, usually anchored in the entity of the Kab’awil. The Kab’awil is most often represented by a two-headed bird where the heads do not face each other but, instead, look out to the universe. According to my elders, including literary critic Gloria Chacón who uses the Kab’awil as a framework for her work, this bird/concept is about expanding our possibility to see the complexity of life and recognize that the natural order of things is complementary multiplicity, not singularity. Growing up, I knew Quetzaltenango simply as “Xela.” I never questioned why it had two names and why one existed on official maps and the other existed in our everyday conversations and stories. It wasn’t until many years later on one of my return trips that my elders explained that Xela is short for “Xe Lajuj’ Noj” (the ten wise ones), and refers to the mountain range that surrounds the valley my family has lived in for as long as we can remember. In other words, my family practiced this double gaze in its own naming practices that continued in the diaspora after we were displaced multiple times first to Guatemala City and, later, to occupied Tongva territory.

In 2019, I traveled to Xela while leading a group of Guatemalan high school girls living in Los Angeles. We connected with a migrant-led organization that had a community center/café in my hometown. As we toured the space and the lead organizer explained why he had left Guatemala and then returned years later to create a space for returned migrants, I thought over and over about my own dad who had been deported by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in the 1970s. Here was a space dedicated to deportees and returned migrants that sought to be a gentler landing place, where returnees could discuss the hardships they faced as migrants, where they could express their fear and heartache, and get support if they had been child migrants that didn’t have family in Guatemala anymore. I thought about how much grief one small piece of land that had two names could hold. I thought about the loss returnees felt at losing their status as undocumented immigrants. I thought about how criminalized they were both for leaving Guatemala and for returning. I thought about my father and how his return was not cushioned, there was no gentle landing place, and those years when he was a deportee who formed a family after his deportation are lost to us now. We, I, don’t know what that was like for him because he passed away while I was an undocumented child in Los Angeles. In 1993, when I was seven years old, my dad joined the ancestors.

For the past several years, I have worked to have my students understand that Latinidad and Indigeneity are not just categories of identification: they are relationships to the settler state, to power, to history.

Indigenous as a category is only a result of the colonial wound that began the enduring devastation of our communities. Yet, we use it to bind us to each other and to all our relatives. Migration, however, changes the meaning of what we call ourselves. When settler countries like the United States eliminate us as Indigenous subjects, by classifying us as Guatemalans, and therefore as “Latinos,” they are redeploying an elimination that they perfected as they conquered what is now the Southwest of their national territory. In this third colonial structure—Spanish and Mexican colonization had already begun the process of land theft and Native elimination—it makes sense to make us illegitimate subjects by denying the fact that we have traveled this continent for much longer than these countries have existed.

It is this relationship to mobility and country that make Indigeneity and Latinidad stand at odds with each other. Latinidad is too often a subjectivity that centers the crossing of settler borders from a country of citizenship in Latin America to the U.S. Latinidad articulates a marginalization in the United States, but obscures the racial and settler colonial hierarchies embedded in countries of Latin America. Collapsing and flattening the racial hierarchy of our own countries by counting us as Latinos, however, does nothing to address the fact that racial understandings travel with migrants and are reproduced in the diaspora. Sometimes these racist notions or actions are direct/overt, and some not so much. Regardless, Latinidad is a settler concept to designate those of us from south of the Mexico border. In Guatemala, the stakes and the language are much clearer. Those of us who are Indigenous are still readily marked as Indios or worse Inditos (little Indians) by those who own the most land, the most privileged, and those who are considered the real citizens of Guatemala, otherwise known as Ladinos or Criollos. Ladinos and Criollos continue to claim publicly that our Maya dress is not sophisticated and does not belong on red carpets or award stages. Ladinos and Criollos begrudgingly allow us to fill certain positions or enact certain cultural practices, but all within limits so as not to actually disrupt the material inequality from which they benefit.

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Border between Mexico and Guatemala. / Photo by Eric V. Ibarra (2021).

One of the challenges for those of us migrating is the challenge of holding two settler nations accountable. In some ways, the challenge is even more primal: it consists in surviving two settler nations—three even, if we count our travel through Mexico. Each country has developed its own apparatus for how it eliminates Indigenous people. In Guatemala, elimination has taken the form of an enduring genocide; from the first invasion of colonizers to the arrival of coffee and banana plantations, the U.S. intervention, or the most recent Maya genocide of the 1980s. We continue to deal with the issues of clandestine graves, stalled reparations, and the government keeps on stealing resources, criminalizing organizers, turning a blind eye to feminicides, and ignoring ongoing malnutrition and poverty. However, against this backdrop, Mayas and their supporters are attacking the colonial state from every direction as well. Those Indigenous communities, nations, collectives, and peoples who fight back instead do so by explicitly naming their belonging to a Garifuna, Maya, or Xinca people, or perhaps even more specifically their language-nation names like K’iche’, Mam, Ixil. From Indigenous academics to grassroots organizers, to media producers, to land and water defenders, I see our communities in Guatemala fighting for their lives on every front. Their struggle to survive the violence and territorial dispossession produced by the joining forces of the Guatemalan nation, major foreign corporations, and organized crime often results in Mayas having to flee their ancestral territory to escape direct threats of violence, to continue organizing, or to escape the other side of colonial domination: intergenerational poverty.

From the 1970s to today, we come to the United States fleeing state terror. But like Guatemala, the United States has also perfected its tools of Indigenous elimination. Once in the U.S., many Mayas face a government already poised to brand them as Latino immigrants. This miscategorization is about more than recognition and representation, it is about rethinking why this is a contradiction and the consequences of thinking of these categories as contradictions. I have no illusion about the way the state recognizes us, but it is crucial to see how the erasure under the category of Latinx is purposeful and useful for the U.S. settler colonial project. In 2019 we saw the most devastating consequences of these structures as multiple Maya children died as a result of migration and detention. News coverage left many of us in the diaspora reeling. These children were killed by the overlapping conditions of fleeing poverty/dispossession, making an arduous journey through Mexico, and being treated as criminals upon their detention, rather than receiving appropriate humanitarian aid. This includes Indigenous language interpretation, but also intensive medical assistance given that those of us who undertake such exiles today often have to cross through what Jason de Leon calls the Land of Open Graves (2015), known otherwise as the Sonoran Desert. The poverty and at times malnutrition that Indigenous people face in Guatemala becomes compounded by the arduous migrant journey through Mexico. This is further exacerbated by the weeks-long journey through this desert. When the U.S. border patrol apprehends them, rather than providing them with intensive medical care and humanitarian aid, they often detain them in what are essentially prisons.

What then does it mean to be an Indigenous person whose ancestors walked those same routes and paths since before it was a settler border, let alone a heavily militarized one? Only in our current myopic moment do we think of migrants as “undocumented, unauthorized” by settler governments.

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Floridalma Boj Lopez and her daughters cleaning her dad’s tombstone in Xe Lajuj Noj in 2019. / Photo by mark! Lopez.

The United States as a settler government that expanded from “sea to shining sea” has had centuries to perfect the technologies of terror it continues to deploy. From not recognizing migrants as Indigenous people with Indigenous rights and sovereignty, to chasing down Haitian migrants on horseback in strategies that are reminiscent of chattel slavery and Jim Crow, the United States in the 21st century maintains the software it has always used. It has now upgraded them to be able to deploy these strategies against undocumented/unauthorized people.

The miscategorization of Mayas as Latinx, like the misrecognition of Quetzaltenango, is about much more than naming. It is a terrain of struggle over historical memory and power.

Who decides these names and, in that process, cements ideas that limit our access to our homelands and to our sovereignty? The fight against this coerced inclusion into Latinidad has been most forcefully waged by Indigenous organizers who are often forced to witness the failure of even the Latino immigrant rights movement to account for Indigenous needs as well as confronting the painful realities of Indigenous migrants they support. They see firsthand the havoc wrought or obscured by this “inclusion.”

There are also many Indigenous migrants who maneuver in and out of these identities as part of their everyday reality. They may join a food vendor campaign that employs a more Latino immigrant discourse or strategy, and this does not erase who they are. Indigenous migrants may seek U.S. citizenship, and this does not eliminate their relationships to their ancestral territories. These, and countless others, are tactics of daily survival that we engage to carve out space wherever we may be. Ultimately, it is up to Maya people as a collective to determine the parameters of what it means to belong and be accountable to each other in the diaspora and in relation to our ancestral territory. My own claim to Latinidad has been less about the idea that I or my children have ceased to be Maya, and more about a sense of responsibility to understand myself as a guest on occupied territory. I know that I am counted as such, and in being so counted as an immigrant or a Latina or a Guatemalan or a Central American, is to also be wary of how I am engaging in the settler structures that limit and enclose Tongva sovereignty or Native sovereignty. I cannot say that this is the work that Latinidad should do, but to solely claim Indigeneity at the scale of an entire continent would belie the way that we also occupy Indigenous territories that we have not been invited into. Migration can be terrible, and in this context of terror, it has been Native relatives who have stepped in to hold space, speak against the violence facing their southern relatives, and established nation-to-nation relationships that have perhaps become the most hopeful space for many of us.

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Festival in Quetzaltenango in 1979. / Creative commons, Infrogmation of New Orleans.

In my own experience, the first person I ever heard speak publicly about the detention-caused death of Maya and Guatemalan children was Jessa Calderon, a Tongva relative. I wept in the audience as she spoke about the harm done to children, to Indigenous children. In other instances, Native people have shared resources like surgical masks and information for the Maya immigrant community during this pandemic. When I think about ideas like reconciliation for instance, I don’t think of the settler government, I think about the possibilities held by what Mississauga Nishnaabeg writer Leanne Simpson terms as “Indigenous Internationalism.” For better or for worse, as Maya people, we also know the pain of clandestine mass graves, we also know that the politics of elimination are not theoretical but, rather, an everyday reality. It can be from knowing these sites of terror, from sharing our stories of survival from building together, that we may demand more of the settler state while also knowing that abolition and LANDBACK are the only ways forward. That is to say, I have more hope that sovereign Native nations will understand our struggles. Similarly, I understand that the struggle for Tongva life  needs to be supported by those of us trying to be good guests on this occupied territory.

Despite this context of terror, I want to end on a note about survival and the power of naming. For the most part, my work in community and in academia has focused on our survival. It’s both a strategy for taking care of myself, as the struggles I laid out here are very hard for me to think about and write about, but also because I do not want our suffering to be the only narrative existing when we well know that joy, laughter, love, and support are also pillars of our continued existence.

When I was twelve, I legally changed my name. I was offered the opportunity to become a legal permanent resident, and this required my adoption by extended relatives. My relatives gave me the option of keeping or changing my name from Boj to Lima. As a twelve-year-old undocumented Indigenous child, I was tired of my complicated and strange name and jumped at the chance to change it to something more Spanish sounding. I finally had at least a surname that was legible to the Latinx community, where I was attending public school. It took about ten years for me to realize that in dropping my K’iche’ name of Boj, I had severed the ties I had to my relatives still in Xe Lajuj Noj. I had severed ties to my people and my ancestral place as well as to the significance of my name which means “clay,” and is also the name of a fermented drink made in clay pots. It took me over a decade, but I ultimately went through with changing my name back and I did so with a newfound sense of pride.

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Quetzaltenango Cityscape and the surrounding mountains described by Floridalma Boj Lopez in her text. / Photo by Herny Aranjuez.

Maya resistance across borders is policy change, blockades, language revitalization, the defense of our textiles, refusing the celebration of the 200-year anniversary of the establishment of a Guatemalan nation. Our resistance is interpretation, wearing our Maya dress whenever we choose to, sharing meals, and maintaining our food-based epistemologies alive.

Sometimes, our resistance is simply how we hold on to names: the names of our people, the names of our communities, the names of our places, and the names of our ancestors.

It is in this context that I think we should consider the work of a term like Latinx. Naming Indigenous people as Latinx has more often than not served to obscure the sovereignty of Indigenous people who cross settler borders for their own survival. At the same time, as we work to defend ourselves against this harm, we must also remember that many in our community also claim Latinx to articulate or understand their own position as immigrants, workers, students, and so on. Therefore rather than advocate for one versus the other or some uneasy combination, I would argue that we consider who we leave out and what politics we obscure when we take a stance that Latinidad and Indigeneity is an either/or choice. It is important to remember instead that as I noted in the beginning, the Kab’awil models for us an expansive gaze, one that can engage multiplicity, and plurality. This expansive gaze can teach us that rather than a Latinx or Indigenous discourse, it is important to consider the work, genealogy, possibility, limitations, and violence of each term and move accordingly. ■