Cresting the wave
For Norma Martínez Martínez the turning point came on 1 November 2013. Returning to Chicontepec, her ancestral Nahua village in the Mexican state of Veracruz, she had adorned the altar in her parents’ house with flowers, candles and bread for the Day of the Dead feast. Wearing the traditional dress of the Nahua people, decorated with colourful embroidery, she took photos with her family in front of the altar. She, like millions of Mexicans, was excited about the ceremony and posted the photos on social media. What she did not expect were the racist comments that followed.
Martínez recalls being close to tears. ‘I couldn’t understand why someone should say ugly things about this ceremony. Maybe it was because of our dress or, I don’t know, maybe our celebration.’
The Day of the Dead celebrations, a blend of pre-Hispanic rituals and the colonizers’ Catholicism, are how Mexico’s native people respect their ancestors and highlight their indigenous identity. Reason enough for some other Mexicans, who look down on indigenous culture, to devalue and attack such traditions.
Breaking the silence
‘Ignorance is the main cause of discrimination and racism,’ explains Martínez. ‘Discrimination against indigenous people exists because the racist does not understand the value, the history and the richness of indigenous culture.’
No matter the cause, Martínez could no longer stay silent about racism after her Day of the Dead experience. There is a long history of uprisings to combat racism and the systematic destruction of indigenous communities since the beginning of Mexico’s colonial era in 1521. Martínez uses art.
She has been painting since she was 11 and had her first solo exhibition at the age of 18. Until 2013, she had painted landscapes and portraits, but now it was time for her to take a new path. In her energetic paintings she began to focus on depicting her people’s daily life, handicrafts, clothes and traditions.
‘I thought that as an indigenous artist I had the responsibility to raise awareness about my people and culture, to bring them into my artwork and let the world know that we still exist,’ Martínez says. Her large colourful canvases, painted in warm tones, have been exhibited several times in Mexico and the United States.
‘Every day, indigenous people face racism on the streets of this country. I fight against it by speaking my native Nahuatl language, by putting on dresses with Nahua embroidery, and by painting different elements of indigenous identity in my artwork,’ she explains.
Martínez is part of a wave of young, educated, indigenous women instigating social change by revolting against racism, discrimination and the patriarchal structures firmly in place in Mexico.
In search of Mayan identity
With about 17 million indigenous residents, Mexico has the largest native population in the Americas. Colonial regulations that outlawed indigenous cultural practices and languages are officially abolished, but rights groups argue that discrimination based on ethnicity remains at alarming levels.
According to research conducted by Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI) in 2017, for the majority of Mexicans dark skin is associated with poverty and low education, while light skin denotes the opposite.
Rocío de la Cruz, an oral-literature researcher and writer from the Tzotzil people of Chamula in southern Mexico, explains that even nowadays putting on traditional outfits or speaking indigenous languages is considered by many as a sign of illiteracy, backwardness and belonging to a lower social class.
‘The indigenous people who migrate from villages to cities don’t speak their native language with their children, because they don’t want their children to bear the same shame as their parents,’ she says.
‘To understand the level of racism against indigenous Mexicans, it’s enough to know that here, in the land of Tzotzil people, the Tzotzil language was not officially classified as a language until the early 2000s,’ adds Cruz, who studied literature at the Autonomous University of Chiapas in Tuxtla. Although her short stories are written in Spanish, they are based on Tzotzil folklore and she believes that protecting native languages is a way of preserving indigenous identity.
For Cruz, travelling between Tzotzil villages in Chiapas’ highlands and interviewing the elderly to collect folktales is a search for her Mayan background. Tzotzil stories are often a mysterious fusion of myth, the reality of indigenous life, religious thoughts and Mayan rituals.
She works at a research centre devoted to Tzotzil culture in San Cristobal de las Casa, where she gives short talks weekly about Tzotzil folklore and myths to an audience of locals that includes indigenous and non-indigenous people.
‘Today, as indigenous writers and researchers we are not only chronicling stories that are hundreds of years old, but documenting a history of pain and resistance,’ she says. ‘We are putting together the pieces of the puzzle of today’s Mayan identity.’
Pushing against the limits
Colonial rules, unwritten neo-colonial laws and discriminative social boundaries are not the only obstacles Mexican indigenous women face in their fight against racism and marginalization. They have also had to combat gender-based discrimination in their own communities.
Libertad Gómez is an artist from the Zoque community, who began by taking photos of Zoque rituals, religious festivals and the ancient tradition of making Ramillete – a ceremonial offering made of flowers and mango leaves. However, after a while, she found herself at the forefront of breaking down traditional gender roles among the Zoque people.
‘While taking photos to document my people’s unique traditions, I also helped the maestros who had been creating Ramillete for decades,’ Gómez recalls. ‘Each time, I asked more about the symbols they use in this traditional offering, and helped more and more. Finally, they agreed to teach me how to make Ramillete.’
This was quite a breakthrough as, for hundreds of years, only men created Ramillete. After three years of assisting the maestros, Gómez was accepted by the community as a Ramillete maker in her own right. Her success paved the way for others and now two more young women are Ramillete makers.
‘My generation is pushing against these limits. I won my people’s trust, when they noticed how important my photography was to introducing our culture and lifestyle to the world outside our communities.’
With a growing reputation, she has been invited by various Mayan communities as well as non-indigenous cultural centres in Chiapas to exhibit her photos about Zoque life and traditions.
‘Non-indigenous people think that following Mexico’s independence, our fight against colonialization and racism ended,’ says Gómez. ‘That’s a very wrong assumption based on the fact that no-one talks about our daily struggle against the same suppressive forces, which still exist nowadays.
‘The Zoque language is now dying out, and if we don’t protect and preserve our ancestral culture, if we don’t celebrate our indigenous identity, it will also die.’
Gómez plays a vital role in Mexico’s indigenous rights movement by raising awareness about the life and culture of her people. She is one of a growing number of young indigenous women who have graduated from universities and are making use of their studies to lead the fight for their rights, both as women and as indigenous people.
Changiz M Varzi is a journalist who writes about the impacts of wars and conflicts.