Defining My Indigenous Culture for Myself and Others

P.S. Not all Indigenous people are Native American

by Liza Tuyuc

Liza Tuyuc

“I’m not Latina, I’m Indigenous,” I tentatively said to my good friend, Wena, one early winter morning before school started. I was in 10th grade, and we had just finished sweeping the stage floor with two other classmates as part of our technical crew duties. This was a volunteer position where we served as the backstage workers in anything related to school performances.

Waking up annoyingly early rewarded us with the temporary tranquility of the auditorium, not yet bombarded with the chaos that only high schoolers can produce. Sitting on the stage behind the stage curtains before the rest of school poured into the auditorium for morning announcements was a perfect place to confide tender secrets.

Plus, Wena was a trusted friend and I had been feeling uncomfortable for a while now about being misidentified. I tossed the idea around in my mind, of being Indigenous, yet never talked about it with any of my friends. So I chose to keep this discomfort to myself. Until now.

“What is that? Like, you’re Native American?” she asked, looking confused.

“I suppose I’m Native American, except from a different part of the world.” I had no idea of the answer.

As someone who couldn’t even spell out the Indigenous group I come from, “Kaqchikel,” (Kaq-CHI-Kel), who couldn’t point to Guatemala on a world map, and couldn’t even define “Indigenous” without a dictionary, who was I to correct her?

As the students poured into the auditorium, the loud roars of chatter failed to wash away the brewing shame and sadness that I felt. A question echoed in my mind, “Who am I?”

Later that day, while I sat with my parents and siblings eating beans with tortillas at our table covered in colorful textiles, I wondered what Kaqchikel culture is, and what the difference is between Native American and Indigenous? Unfortunately, our identity was not a topic we discussed. My parents had never even told me about our heritage.

Was I somehow also less Kaqchikel for being born in America? Do I still call myself Latina? This confusion was something I had to resolve on my own.

Lumping Together Mayans, Incas, and Aztecs

Knowing I was Indigenous was a difficult subject to contemplate as a high schooler. The dictionary describes Indigenous as “originating or occurring naturally in a particular place.” Yet this didn’t make sense to me, a first gen kid. My parents were born in the homeland, Guatemala, but I was not. Originating from a particular place: the complete opposite of my existence. A diasporic Indigenous person. Both a juxtaposition and a question.

Liza Tuyuc

My knowledge of Indigenous groups is limited. In kindergarten, the teachers dressed us up in pilgrim hats and feathers on Thanksgiving. In 5th grade, we had a small unit in social studies class squeezed in at the end of the year when no one paid attention to class anymore. We were taught of only the “ancient” groups, lumping together Mayans, Incas, and Aztecs into one pot of myths and assumptions that they were extinct.

In 10th grade global history, we repeated the cycle again, squeezing in the Mayans, Incas and Aztecs at the end of the year with lazy presentations summarizing ancient history. Yet we were never told that these civilizations were Indigenous, too.

I Learn About My Kaqchikel Roots

This lack of a more detailed and accurate history in school and everywhere else made me feel that I didn’t exist. I yearned to learn more. I couldn’t accept that my culture’s history consisted solely of bloody sacrifices shown in National Geographic, or conspiracy theory documentaries from the History Channel of how aliens built the pyramids. That Indigenous groups seemingly  disappeared after colonization in the Americas, mostly by the Spanish conquistadores. Once existing in vast cities and societies, only to be dominated by better armed explorers.

Throughout 10th grade, I Googled keywords like “Mayan” and “Guatemalan” and started to learn what I wasn’t being taught in school. The Maya civilization was not a single civilization at all, but instead a series of city-states with various languages scattered across Central America. These indigenous groups actually did not just disappear after Columbus, but remained in their homelands despite being put under Spanish rule, and later as the region developed into the different Central American countries throughout the 1800s.

Today there are over 20 Mayan languages and groups, one of them being mine—Kaqchikel. Kaqchikel people typically originate from the highlands of Guatemala. Interestingly, Guatemala is mostly Indigenous people; an estimated 60 percent or more of the total population is Indigenous.

Surrounded by People Who Look Like Me

I was fortunate to be able to visit family that summer.   

An exhausting plane ride to Guatemala couldn’t stop my grin as I got off the plane and was  surrounded by people who looked like me: same skin, same nose. Instead, I was the outsider for wearing t-shirts, as so many people wore their indumentarias: colorful rectangular blouses and long skirts, secured with a faja (belt) wrapped tightly around the waist.   

No one ever sat me down and lectured me with PowerPoint. An accurate history textbook never arrived in the mail. Instead, bits and pieces of an accurate history about my people gradually came out by being immersed in the culture and the country.

We were taught of only the “ancient” groups, lumping together Mayans, Incas, and Aztecs into one pot of myths and assumptions that they were extinct.

My abuela would nod as my relatives teased each other in Kaqchikel. “Chan chik” they would say as a goodbye and “matyox” as thank you while passing the dinner plates. Still, these phrases were rare as only my grandparents spoke fluent Kaqchikel. My abuelo refused to teach his children when they were young because of stigmas that made knowing Kaqchikel shameful.

There is an idea in my culture called “’mejorar la raza” or “improve the race,” which is understood to mean being closer to whiteness, which is associated with many things: beauty, wealth, privilege. Opposing ideas are applied to indigeneity: ugliness, poverty, suffering.

Speaking Spanish instead of Kaqchikel is part of this denial of our heritage. Allowing the language to die out can bring us one step closer to “improving” our blood and bringing us closer to the “superior race.” This belief is one example of the rampant internalized racism within the Kaqchikel and Maya communities of Central America.

Learning this made it easier to understand why I was never told of my heritage. Self-deprecating comments about our tan skin and teasing young cousins to marry White people are other examples of how this shame manifested itself.

Still, the small hints of Kaqchikel that were spoken in my family served as welcome evidence that we are an Indigenous family.

Indumentarias and Marimba Lessons

Every day that summer, my tias dressed up in indumentaria. When we went to a local beauty pageant for Mayan women, I wore my first indumentaria. It was a yellow outfit embroidered with birds, borrowed from a tia (aunt). It was a bit big on me but I didn’t care. The night was cold and my legs were freezing, my waist hurt from the faja (belt) pulled too tight. Yet as my outfit matched the models on stage, I felt powerful and beautiful. I had a sensation of belonging, as wearing indumentaria is one of the clearest indicators of an Indigenous identity.

Liza Tuyuc

I worked as an English teacher volunteer at my uncle’s school. When I was free, I subtly listened to my uncle’s classes and filled my notebooks with pages of notes in the Kaqchikel language.

I took marimba lessons, happily playing Guatemalan folk music as the mallets hit wooden panels. An instrument originating from Africa, marimba was adopted by Guatemala and used to create various folk songs. “Yo soy puro Guatemalteco” one song goes, “I’m pure Guatemalan.” As I played these songs, I felt pride in being able to create something directly related to my culture: music.

Culture is an experience. It’s language, food, music. My attempts to define what being Indigenous meant was in part an attempt to become Kaqchikel. I prayed that if I knew the answer, I would immediately know how I could be Indigenous. But this immersion didn’t make me Kaqchikel, it made me aware that I am Kaqchikel.

I didn’t wear corte all the time. I am rusty at marimba, and both my Spanish and Kaqchikel skills are spotty enough to make the Duolingo bird cry. Still, these experiences connected me with my heritage and taught me that I don’t need to prove my ethnicity to others.

Kaqchikel, to Be Specific

Visiting my homeland felt like coming home. Saying “I’m Kaqchikel” suddenly had more meaning, as I finally understood what that entails: the music, the culture, the history and the struggles. But I only felt comfortable sharing all I had learned with Wena, teaching her how to pronounce Kaqchikel, mentioning that I no longer wanted to be called Latina.

My senior year of high school, one warm spring afternoon, I walked with friends down a busy street in Flushing, Queens, seeking a store with air conditioning. We chatted about the food sold on the streets compared with the dishes we ate at home.

Then: “Liza, you’re Native American aren’t you?”

I froze up. Years of accepting people’s assumptions was a habit I hadn’t broken, even though I now took pride in knowing so much more about my roots. Self-doubt was a familiar companion of mine and she sat on my shoulder once more. 

Behind me popped up my friend from the stage: Wena spoke up for me. “No, she’s not Native, she’s Indigenous actually. Kaqchikel to be specific.”

I walked ahead, overhearing the other friend say, “Oh really?”

“They’re not the same,” Wena explained further.

The moment of clarity was greatly appreciated, and felt like a milestone in my journey to reclaim my heritage and roots. Of course, there is still work to be done: dismantling the internalized racist ideologies within my family, becoming comfortable in establishing my identity by myself, and continuing my own studies of Kaqchikel culture and history.

I still wrestle with the feeling of being “less Indigenous” because the phrase “first-generation” Kaqchikel feels like a contradiction. “Indigenous” is defined as originating in a certain place. Belonging to the land. An awkward juxtaposition: belonging to a land that has never claimed me. Still, despite the world’s attempts to erase my heritage, I instead grab it, holding it close to my heart.

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