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LATINOS IN THE MIDWEST
Michigan State University PressCopyright © 2011 Michigan State University
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Chapter OneSANDRA M. GONZALES
Aztlán in the Midwest and Other Counternarratives Revealed
In the field of Chicano Studies, the Mesoamerican connection to the southwestern United States is well documented. However, these connections have not been adequately explored for the American Midwest. An alternative perspective, however, suggests a long-standing connection between the indigenous peoples of the Midwest, the Southwest, and Mesoamerica. Examining midwestern Chicano identity through the lens of story provides an interesting counternarrative that dramatically deviates from the dominant historical narrative for the region.
Aztlán and How Stories Can Shape Identity
Storytelling and oral traditions have played an important role in the development of the field of Chicano Studies. In 1969, at the First Chicano National Conference in Denver, Colorado, "El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán" was drafted. "El Plan" highlighted building unity within the Chicano community as well as the importance of education and the perpetuation of cultural values. But the most significant result of "El Plan de Aztlán" was the crystallization of a Chicano national identity built around the story of Aztlán.
According to the Aztec narrative, Aztlán was located somewhere in the north, on an island with seven caves and a twisted hill called Colhuacan (Leal 1998). To this day, it is not clear where exactly Aztlán is located geographically, but there are theories that place its location everywhere from Nayarit, Mexico (Pina 1998), to California, New Mexico, Florida, and Wisconsin. Even China has been theorized as a possible location for the Aztec homeland (Leal 1998). It is from Aztlán that the Aztecs departed on a journey that would eventually lead them to found Tenochtitlán, or what is now known as Mexico City.
The power of the Aztlán narrative has attracted the attention of anthropologists and archaeologists on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border. U.S. scholars largely believe that Aztlán must be located somewhere near the Four Corners region of the American Southwest, while Mexican scholars have largely settled on the Mexican state of Nayarit as the most probable location. There is no conclusive archaeological evidence to substantiate either claim, and yet the story of Aztlán lives on to be told and retold, generation after generation, century after century, creating a historical consciousness in the contemporary psyche of Chicanos today.
The significance of the story of Aztlán for the Chicano community lies not in any scientific evidence, but rather in the construction of a unifying identity that strongly suggests that Chicanos are not immigrants who steal opportunities from white Americans, but, indeed, are native to the Southwest United States and have indigenous roots in the region that go back thousands of years. As Rudolfo Anaya and Francisco Lomelí (1998, ii) argue in the introduction to the collection Aztlán: Essays on the Chicano Homeland: "Knowledge of the homeland provides an important element of identity. The Mexican American community in this country in the 1960s lived at the margin of the society, and thus the margin of history.... For Chicanos the concept of Aztlán signaled a unifying point of cohesion through which they could define the foundations for an identity."
The prevailing discourse within Chicano Studies theorizes that midwestern Chicanos are newcomers or immigrants to the Midwest, arriving around the 1900s from either the southwestern United States or Mexico, whereas Chicanos from the southwestern United States are native to that region (Cardenas 2001). Because most Chicano Studies programs concentrate on the history of Chicanos in the Southwest, very little is known about the history of Chicanos in the Midwest that predates the 1900s (Cardenas 2001). Without such inquiry, Chicanos in the Midwest are trapped at the periphery of an already peripheral discourse with regards to Chicano identity and history. Though all Chicano discourse occurs at the periphery of Western knowledge production, midwestern Chicano identities and experiences are at the margins of southwestern Chicano scholarly research. Cardenas (2001, 79) writes: "Judging by the published literature, one would hardly know that Chicanos and other Spanish-speaking ethnic populations reside outside the Southwest or East Coast since the literature ignores the Midwest despite the availability of historical documentation on the subject."
A strong argument can be made that Chicanos have a long-standing connection to the American Midwest. Just like their hermanos and hermanas (brothers and sisters) in the American Southwest, the cultural ancestry of midwestern Chicanos may be deeply intertwined with Native American history and folklore. Th ese stories imply that midwestern Chicanos are a vibrant part of intercontinental diasporas of Mesoamerican and Native American heritage that predate the time of Christ. They have the potential to ignite a regional metamorphosis whereby midwestern Chicanos have greater access to each other, to their shared histories, and to their ancestral roots in the region, allowing them to contribute to the national level of Chicano discourse. Using oral histories to establish a link between Mesoamerica and the Midwest could liberate midwestern Chicanos from their double immigrant label—immigrant to the United States and immigrant to the Midwest.
As with the story of Aztlán, the recovery of Chicano pre-Columbian history requires a shift from a positivist position that relies on the scientific method to a more holistic approach, by which something can matter regardless of proof. Though the current colonial structure teaches one to think in terms of city-states and territories, these categories did not exist in the precolonial era in the same way they do today; these categories did not define a group or culture, nor did they bind people to a physical landscape. These perspectives are based on European ways of thinking and living and are not transferable to pre-Columbian native peoples because they had their own unique way of defining their world (Rodriguez 2008). Such evidence requires the ability to reenvision the Americas without borders and its people without the labels that are used today to define identity and territory, such as American Indian, Mesoamerican, Mexican, and even Chicano, because none of these identities existed during the pre-Columbian era. Geoffrey Turner (1992, 10) in Indians of North America suggests, "Is that famous border [the U.S./Mexican border] a natural boundary? In aboriginal times the line would have been utterly indistinguishable; one would have been more conscious of changes in language and life-style in travelling along it from east to west. From north to south across it one would have met only gradations of change."
Migrations, Mounds, and the Mayans in the Midwest
Midwestern Chicano history typically credits the industrial and agricultural boom for driving Mexicans northward (Cardenas 2001) from the central Texas region at the turn of the 20th century. However, this trend may have begun several centuries earlier, if we credit Alfredo Chavero's work. A Mexican scholar, Chavero wrote Historia Antigua, the first in a five-volume set of books entitled Resumen integral de México a través de los siglos. These texts outline the history of Mexico from indigenous "prehistory" to the age of industrialization and political reformation. Chavero (1953) details pre-Columbian trade and migratory practices that date back to at least 2,500 B.C.E., linking indigenous communities in what is now the American Midwest with Mayan groups as far away as present-day Central America. He describes the Mayans as the same as the peoples of "the North" (Chavero 1953, 69) and intermittently defines "the North" as the regions of the Mississippi Valley up to the Great Lakes. Chavero suggests that the Nahuas may have inhabited the region, predating the Mayans.
There are many pyramid-shaped structures in the Midwest called "mounds," which Chavero argues are the remnants of the Mayans. According to Chavero, there were entire mound cities capable of defense that sustained large populations of people. The larger truncated, or flat-topped pyramids, were used as government buildings, palaces, and temples, while the smaller marked roads or trade routes that led from the lakes to the city centers. The truncated mounds were made of earth or sometimes of earth and stone mixed together; they were of various sizes and were composed of various platforms, built one on top of the other in successive stages over time (Chavero 1953). There were also animal mounds, used to revere the animal kingdom and spirits, and burial mounds for the dead.
Mounds are not native to the Midwest alone; there are mound groups in the Southeastern United States, indeed all over the globe. Some have been unearthed and restored to their original shape and luster, others are fragile and crumbling, and still others lay silent—undiscovered and undisturbed. Unfortunately, much of this history is lost, and a substantial number of the mound structures in the Midwest have been destroyed by farmers or industry.
The state of Michigan is a good example. According to Hinsdale (1931), there were once 1,068 mounds in the state. However, a small cluster of mounds in Grand Rapids, called the Norton Mound Group, are nearly all that remain. Th ere is also one tiny mound located at Fort Wayne in the Delray neighborhood of Southwest Detroit. A rusty iron fence protects these modest remains.
Though there were once thousands of mounds dotting the midwestern landscape, this chapter will focus on the mounds in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Ohio.
The largest mound by far in the United States is Monks Mound, one of the Cahokia Mounds (figure 1) near East St. Louis, Illinois: "It is a truncated pyramid about 1,080 feet long and 710 feet wide, raising to a maximum height of some 100 feet and covering approximately 16 acres" (Silverberg 1968, 320). A bustling city, Cahokia, included over 100 mound structures (Coe, Snow, and Benson 1986) that spanned 4000 acres "with a central urban area and suburbs" (Waldman 2000). Monks Mound is larger than the Great Pyramid of Egypt and almost equals the size of the pyramid located in Cholula, Mexico (Coe, Snow, and Benson 1986). The mound city of Cahokia was founded about A.D. 600 and began its decline after A.D. 1,250 (Coe, Snow, and Benson 1986).
Truncated mounds like the ones at Cahokia are found elsewhere in the Midwest. They are so reminiscent of the pyramids of Mexico that in 1836 Judge Nathaniel Hyer concluded that his city in rural Wisconsin was the original homeland of the Aztecs, Aztlán. He thought the stepped pyramid structures discovered in the area (figure 2) were built by the Aztecs before they began their journey south to found what we now know as Tenochtitlán. Hyer was so certain of this history that he renamed his town Aztalan, a misspelling of Aztlán (Birmingham and Eisenberg 2000).
Another important symbol that shares cultural ties with Mesoamerica is the serpent-shaped mound. Serpent effigies can be found all across the Midwest and Southeast in various forms such as winged serpent, water serpent, and egg-eating serpent. The Great Serpent Mound in Peebles, Ohio, is the largest intact animal effigy mound in the world (Ohio Historical Society 2007). It is oriented toward the sun, with the head in alignment with the setting sun of the summer solstice and the three coils of its body aligned with the sunrise of the solstices and the equinoxes. The Ohio Historical Society dates its origin back to between A.D. 1,000 and 1,650, but note that there are researchers who argue that it can be dated back to as early as 800 B.C.E. to A.D. 100. Squire and Davis (1998) believe that when it was first examined in 1848, the effigy was 1,000 feet long and was an awesome five feet in height and 30 feet wide at the center of its body.
These serpent symbols are also found in the Southwest, as illustrated by a video recorded by the Equinox Project, a group that studies Old World connections to America. The recording provides a visual representation of the relationship between the serpent symbol and the sun (Schmidt 2008). The video was filmed in Inyo County, California, just south of Yosemite National Park, where indigenous peoples etched various symbols into stone, several of them in the shape of concentric circles. While there is no serpent mound at Inyo, researchers captured on film a shadow which is reminiscent of the serpent and egg effigy at the Great Serpent Mound in Ohio (Schmidt 2008). The clip shows that when the sun rises on the morning of the equinox, a shadow is cast in the form of a serpent which appears to slither toward an egg, at which point the jaws open to consume the egg (Schmidt 2008). This is similar to the equinox celebration held at Chichen Itza, the Mayan site located in the Yucatan Peninsula, where a shadow is cast during sunrise on the equinox that makes it appear as if a snake is moving the length of the central staircase of the main pyramid.
Serpent stories and symbolism can be found throughout the United States and Mexico. Rodriguez (2008) affirms that the people of the Americas were bound together by a belief in a feathered serpent called Quetzalcoatl by the Nahua and Kukulcán by the Mayans. This connection is supported by a community of HoChunk/Winnebago students and faculty who share a belief in a Mesoamerican link to the Midwest. In 2001 they received a grant through the United States Department of Education to actively study their Mayan ancestry through a partnership between Little Priest Tribal College in Winnebago, Nebraska, and Metropolitan Community College in Omaha, Nebraska. This partnership was designated "The Mayan Connection," and their purpose was to
begin with a comparative study of the ancient Mayan Civilization of the Yucatan and Central America and Nebraska's Winnebago or Ho-chunk people who lived in the states of Kentucky, Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin. Little information is available to share this knowledge of U.S. Native American heritage and the roots of Midwestern Native American people who appear to be descendents of the ancient Mayan civilization. ("Mayan Connection" 2003)
The Ho-Chunk Nation have adopted many of the sacred mound sites in Wisconsin, particularly Aztalan and the effigies or animal-shaped mounds, which they claim to have built (Birmingham and Eisenberg 2000).
In chapter 10 of Historia Antigua, Chavero (1953) describes what may be a Ho-Chunk connection. He argues that the animal mounds of Wisconsin and Ohio are from the great civilization of the Usumacinta region, a Mayan region, which borders the southern tip of Mexico and the northernmost part of Guatemala. More specifically, he argues that the Mayans went from south to north via the Gulf of Mexico, penetrating the Mississippi Valley region as they made their way up to the Great Lakes.
Another group asserting a Mesoamerican connection is the Yuchi. David Hackett (1997), the Yuchi tribal historian, asserts that the Yuchi are of ancient mound-builder and Mayan ancestry. He believes that the Yuchi are a Mayan satellite culture; according to oral tradition, they island-hopped across the Caribbean, migrating into what is now the Southeastern United States (Hackett 2009). Though the Yuchi lived primarily in villages scattered from the Carolina coast to the Mississippi River and Florida, they could also be found as far north as Illinois (Hackett 1997).
Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, indigenous people used boats to travel great distances across the hemisphere, and they traded extensively in the Americas, quite possibly trading with Old World cultures as well (Hackett 1997). Hackett (2009) argues that, contrary to popular belief, pre-Columbian native peoples were not homogenous groups occupying discreet territories, but rather a melting pot of people, cultures and ideas; they were very mobile and multilingual. The Yuchi people were the translators because they knew many different languages (Hackett 2009). The arrival of the Europeans disturbed the delicate alliances that allowed groups to live harmoniously intermingled within each other's villages. Eventually, according to Yuchi legend, the tribe was forced to break apart, with some joining the Cherokee, some the Seminoles, and others the Creek (Hackett 1997). The fate of the rest of the Yuchi is unknown (Hackett 1997).
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