Hispanics identifying themselves as Indians
A procession of American Indians marched through Sunset Park, Brooklyn, on a weekend afternoon in early May, bouncing to a tribal beat. They dressed in a burst of colors, wore tall headdresses and danced in circles, as custom dictated, along a short stretch of the park.
But there was something different about this tribe, the Tlaxcala, and when the music ceased and the chatter resumed, the difference became clear: They spoke exclusively Spanish.
The event was Carnaval, an annual tradition celebrated by tribes indigenous to land that is now Mexico. And despite centuries of Spanish influence, the participants identify themselves by their indigenous heritage more than any other ethnicity.
When Fernando Meza is asked about his identity, “I tell them that I am Indian,” said Mr. Meza, a parade participant from the Tlaxcala tribe. “They say, ‘But you’re Mexican.’ And I say, ‘But I’m Indian.’ ”
Mr. Meza represents one of the changes to emerge from the 2010 census, which showed an explosion in respondents of Hispanic descent who also identified themselves as American Indians.
Seventy percent of the 57,000 American Indians living in New York City are of Hispanic origin, according to census figures. That is 40,000 American Indians from Latin America — up 70 percent from a decade ago.
The trend is part of a demographic growth taking place nationwide of Hispanics using “American Indian” to identify their race. The number of Amerindians — a blanket term for indigenous people of the Americas, North and South — who also identify themselves as Hispanic has tripled since 2000, to 1.2 million from 400,000.
“There has been an actual and dramatic increase of Amerindian immigration from Latin America,” said José C. Moya, a professor of Latin American history at Barnard College.
Dr. Moya attributes the increase to shifting patterns of immigration to the United States over the last two decades, from regions with larger indigenous populations, like southern Mexico and Central America, instead of northern Mexico.
Half of all Hispanics who moved to New York over the last 10 years were Mexican, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. Most of them come from southern Mexico.
The pattern started in 1994 with the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which opened the American-Mexican border to more economic activity. To encourage foreign investment in Mexico, its government started to strip Indian landowners of a long-held legal protection from privatization. The resulting conflict awakened ethnic tensions that dated back centuries, and spurred a populist support of indigenous heritage.
That movement was on vivid display at Carnaval in Sunset Park, home to the city’s largest Mexican community.
The Tlaxcala were costumed, carried whips and wore pink-hued masks that had flush cheeks, blue eyes and thin mustaches — obvious stereotypes of the European conquerors. Tlaxcala costumes are also worn in parades in other months in New York, and in other boroughs.
The Indians’ version of Carnaval, a Christian holiday of revelry that falls just before Lent, is satirical in nature, the Tlaxcala marchers explained. When Spanish conquistadors celebrated Carnaval in the 16th century, the Tlaxcala observed the custom from afar. The Spaniards wore flamboyant dress, drank too much wine and danced late into the night.
“We are descendants from the original people of Tlaxcala,” said Gabriel Aguilar, a Ditmas Park resident. “Five hundred years ago, there is not territory known as Mexico. It’s just tribes.”
The American Indian totals are still a small fraction of the overall Hispanic population of the United States, which eclipsed 50 million this year. But the blip in the census data represents raised awareness among native Latinos who believe their heritage stretches farther back than the nationalities available on the census form.
The trend is not occurring solely among newcomers to the United States. Nancy Perez, who shares her household in Ditmas Park with her sister and parents, held a family meeting to decide how they should identify themselves in the census. Her parents moved to the United States from Puebla, Mexico, in the 1970s, and although her family was mixed, “if you go back far enough, we are indigenous,” Ms. Perez said. American Indian, they decided, made the most sense.
“We felt that there were very limited options to identify with,” Ms. Perez, 32, said. “So out of the options available, that was the best one.”
The Amerindian numbers do not account for those who take a more activist approach toward filling out the census form. Carlos A. Quiroz, an activist and blogger born in Peru, checked off that he was a “Non-Hispanic” American Indian, a category normally associated with North American Indians. Mr. Quiroz said he selected it because he opposed use of the word “Hispanic” as an ethnic category.
“Hispanic is not a race, ” said Mr. Quiroz, whose ancestors were the Quechua people, of the Central Andes. “Hispanic is not a culture. Hispanic is an invention by some people who wanted to erase the identity of indigenous communities in America.”
“We don’t believe we have to accept this identity just because we speak Spanish,” Mr. Quiroz added.