Gizelxanath and Ben Barson

Finding Home: Migration, Exile, and Belonging Essay Salon

BACK TO THE FUTURE: Indigenous Migration and the Mexican Imagination


Mexico is a land of forgetting. Memory and contradiction are foundational of the nation’s foundational myth: that of the “terceras raíces,” in which a harmonious synthesis of Castilian genocide of indigenous communities produces through rape, coercion and displacement the “Mestizo.” As with most settler colonies, such as the United States and Israel, the indigenous peoples of the land are displaced in the national imagination to a subaltern past, with the vague and exotic iconography of Aztec supremacy standing in for one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse regions on the planet. It is a forgetting of cosmic proportions.

Unfortunately for this narrative, more than 25 million indigenous peoples who still live and thrive in Mexico are asserting their autonomy and culture in intense and amazing ways. On January 1st, 1994, the Zapatista movement entered global consciousness and disrupted the idea that indigenous communities no longer exist, as the revolutionary indigenous Mayan movement occupied the capital of Chiapas, San Cristóbal, and several other municipalities. Life expectancy for Mayan peoples in Chiapas was 44, and they were often beaten in primary school for speaking their languages of Tsotsil, Tzeltal, Tobojal, Ch’ol or Zoque, which means 1 million people were prevented from maintaining their culture--the definition of genocide. Today, 22 years after the Zapatistas rejected NAFTA and set up collective and autonomous communities, Indigenous languages are taught, public art flourishes with murals on every school, and huge collective organic farming projects that reject producing the type of monocultures that were asserted when indigenous peoples were forced to be slaves on huge latifundias controlled by a handful of families. (The collective and autonomous communities and schools where Indigenous languages are taught, by the way, are located in the Zapatista communities or affiliated spaces. The schools of the consciousness erasing government maintain their racist war against Indigeneity across the country.)


As an opera singer of Yaqui descent, I, Gizelxanath, have found it striking that I have labored for thousands of hours to learn the structure and pronunciation of the major European languages -- Spanish, French, English, Italian, Russian, German -- and was never once given space or resources to learn my own language. Years later, after coming into contact with members of my people and doing vocal education within Zapatista Mayan communities, I realize that paradigm is racist and colonial. My work is now rooted in the languages the government wishes no longer exist, save for the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. I am learning Tsotsil, Yoreme and Nahuatl, and integrate this into contemporary art forms, especially those of the African diaspora which essentially makes up the entirety of global popular music (jazz, rock, hip hop, funk, Cumbia, Samba, rhumba). However, I am not the only one: the Universidad de la Tierra Chiapas, CIDECI, for instance, is an amazing institution in which indigenous students learn world systems analysis, shoemaking, indigenous feminism, and farming - and which the government routinely flies helicopters over in a show of force. I have taught vocal classes at CIDECI to a whole generation of youth who have pioneered the integration of hip-hop and their Tsotsil language to speak out against oppression and assert contemporary expressions of their identity with style and grace. Not only did I encounter this phenomenon at CIDECI, but an amazing rapper we work with in Pittsburgh - Juan Jiminez - is a migrated Tostsil-speaking Chiapan who finds roots in his music while he labors as a busboy in a Mexican restaurant. These indigenous artists do not choose the language of mestizo-ism but rather align with a great tradition, the sonic expression of the Black Liberation Movement. This musical synthesis has its roots historically in the convergence of escaped African slaves and displaced indigenous communities throughout the Americas, know as “Maroon” communities, with the Seminoles being one of the most prominent examples.

Unfortunately, the state has created its own version of Black-Indigenous convergences as it exercises genocide against both. My people, the Yaqui, were still being enslaved in the thousands by the dictator Porfirio Díaz 46 years after the Emancipation Proclamation was passed. My grandfather and father were displaced for generations of such violence and I grew up away from the nation, and then was further displaced in my childhood. My childhood was one of intense migration, and its roots were in the genocidal war against my people. The Yaquis were one of the few peoples who successfully resisted both Aztec Imperialism and Spanish conquest, and even today still practice autonomy. Even today, the Yaquis are engaged in a war against the Mexican state, which diverts its ancestral river to the major cities in the Sonoran desert to satisfy the insatiable hunger of American transnationals who need it to power their exploration of cheap Mexican labor. Even today, the Mexican government imprisons or disappears the leaders of this movement.


How can art and song confront such a crisis of identity and racism? For me, it might be the only force that can. The Mexican people must remember these borders were created for us, and not by us. We are not anymore Mexican than a Texan is a Texan or a Kuwati is a Kuwati: these are lines drawn by the imagination of Empire. We must remember who we really are - not Spanish, not Mestizo: we are an Indigenous nation.  Only when we celebrate the collective genius of hundreds of generations of thousands of distinct groups who cultivated the land sustainably and collectively, will we find the courage and power to resist US capital which is ripping the heart of the Earth and releasing demonic forces of carbon which will imprison the life of this planet to permanent death. We need a new song that is also old. We need an Afro-Yaqui music that is not afraid to speak truth and denounce false consciousness. As I teach at the CIDECI, I realize this is being taught to us as much as we try to generate the collective process of reclaiming and renaming our culture and identity.



GIZELXANATH and BEN BARSON are performing artists and teachers who split time between Chiapas, Mexico, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Gizelxanath, a Mexican of Yaqui descent currently residing in North America, is an acclaimed operatic soprano whose work now focuses on the music and languages of first peoples in the Americas. Ben Barson is a baritone saxophonist and composer whose work connects political movements for ecological justice and antiracism with indigenous communities in the global south. Together they lead an ensemble, the Afro Yaqui Music Collective, and have taught workshops at Batstil K'op and CIDECI in San Cristóbal, Mexico, the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and the University of Pittsburgh.




Ruth Margraff is a playwright and writing program chair at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Margraff's plays, poetry and opera works include Anger/Fly; Three Graces; Temptation of the Fresh Voluptuous; Cafe Antarsia Ensemble; Seven; Stadium Devildare; The Cry Pitch Carrolls; The Elektra Fugues; Night Vision; Deadly She-Wolf Assassin At Armageddon, Voice of the Dragon 1,2,3; Judges 19: Black Lung Exhaling; All Those Violent Sweaters; Red Frogs; Night Parachute Battalion; The State of Gristle; Centaur Battle of San Jacinto; Wallpaper Psalm. Her work has been performed at various festivals and venues throughout USA; UK; Canada; Russia; Romania; Serbia; Hungary; Ireland; Italy; Greece; Turkey; Slovenia; Czech Republic; Croatia; France; Austria, Sweden; Japan; Egypt; India, Azerbaijan. She is recipient of numerous awards from institutions including Rockefeller Foundation; McKnight Foundation; Jerome Foundation; National Endowment for the Arts; Theater Communications Group; Fulbright; New York State Council on the Arts; Illinois Arts Council; Arts International; Trust for Mutual Understanding of New York, CultureConnect. 

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