The Midwest can be a strange place for people like us. We are often called “Mexican,” yet many of us have never even been to Mexico. We are often labeled “immigrants,” yet our ancestors were Indigenous to Turtle Island (the Americas). The “authenticity” of our cultural practices is often measured in comparison to the practices of Xicanos in the South/West, and we have not spent much time talking about what being Xicano means specifically for those of us in the Midwest. The letter you are reading is an attempt to begin articulating a response to these issues.
As Xicanos (the descendants of Mesoamericans) we are often expected to assimilate to mainstream culture—to speak proper English, to read only the history of dead white dudes and to date people only of the opposite gender. The pressure to assimilate is constant, and sometimes we get so caught up in trying to fit in that we have little time or energy to learn about our own culture or to exist specifically as Xicanos.
And the contrast between Xicano culture and mainstream culture burns brightest for you, dear Xicanos of the Midwest, for there are far fewer of us here than there are in other places. Many of the people around you might not share your skin complexion, your wide nose, your Spanish name, or your intense love affair with tamales, but that’s okay. Embracing our differences makes us stronger. It gives us insight.
Maybe you’ve noticed that many people seem to think that Xicanos only exist in big cities, or only in the southern/western U.S. You know it’s not true, of course, because you and your family are living proof to the contrary. But, if you’re like me, this false idea still causes some issues for you. Part of the problem with the assumption that Xicano culture exists only in these other regions is that it causes us Midwestern Xicanos to constantly measure ourselves against the nuances of what are really just different dialects of Xicano culture.
Michigan can never be California. Wisconsin is not Texas. And Indiana don’t look shit like Mexico. It doesn’t mean that you aren’t Xicano. If your Spanish sucks, it’s probably because you grew up around a lot of non-Spanish speaking (white) people; it doesn’t make you a fake Xicano. If your Mexican cooking tastes weird to a Xicano from Arizona, maybe it means that Midwestern Xicano cuisine is just different, not that it’s “bad” or “inauthentic” Mexican food.
“Xicanismo” is an important concept because it brings many of us together to remember our Indigenous roots, giving us a shared culture, but there is no one correct way to be Xicano. The main point of this letter is to ask you to carry both of these thoughts with you simultaneously, and to put our Xicano history in conversation with the present situation (Midwestern) Xicanos are faced with.
Regardless of where you were born, in a sense you are from Mesoamerica. Our ancestors are Indigenous to this continent. They survived and thrived here long before discovering Europe. For hundreds (or even thousands) of years they developed a special connection to the lands upon which they depended for survival, and that connection persists.
At the same time, our people have also always tended to be migrants. We have always traveled the continent, establishing deep roots along the way. As with most Xicanos, my family’s migration North was a forced one. We had little choice but to flee the economic instability of war-torn Mexico, which was constantly being invaded by Anglo settlers from the United States and Europe, by following the migrant farm-working stream that stretched from Texas to Michigan. That’s how I ended up in the Midwest, and in all likelihood you are probably here for a similar reason.
Make no mistake, gente. This process is still happening today, and that’s is why we need to be empathetic with people who continue to migrate to the US from other parts of the Americas. When we tell people that they need to come to this country “the right way,” what we are really saying is that they need to follow the law. But US law has rarely been “right” or ethical towards Indigenous people (or Latin Americans more broadly).
As Midwestern Xicanos we are both Indigenous and migrant. If we are looking to recognize our responsibility to those on whose land we now reside, we should be less concerned with the United States and more concerned with the Indigenous peoples who have deep historical connections to the land we live on.
I have written this letter as a Xicano from the Midwest who now resides on Anishinaabe land. Thank you to the People of the Three Fires—the Ojibwe, the Odawa, and the Potawatomi.
Santos F. Ramos is a Xicano organizer & academic located in Lansing, Michigan. You can follow him on Twitter @Tos_Ram.