According to Danielè Dehouve (2015, 28), migrations created the roots of pre-Columbian Indigenous peoples. Nevertheless, those lengthy pilgrimages in search of new lands turned into exoduses due to forced displacement and relocation in order to work forcibly under Spanish colonialism and its continuation through Criollos in independence. Centuries after those foundational and enforced displacements, well into the twenty-first century, Indigenous mobilities challenge the geography of mestizo/Ladino nationalist maps. We are witnessing great diversity in Indigenous peoples’ displacements and mobilities that question the typical concepts and approaches used to characterize urban marginalization and rural Indigenous peasants.1 In addition to mass labor-related displacements, others are due to expulsion or people fleeing violence, or because of the transformation of how younger generations conceptualize their lives, futures, and possibilities. At the same time, the dispersion and fragmentation of Indigenous peoples are accompanied by new territorialities, and new forms of coexistence and communal relationships.
This special issue brings together a set of articles on contemporary Mesoamerican Indigenous mobilities in Mexico and the United States that reflect on the multiplicity of effects caused by neoliberal capitalism, among them, control of human mobility and unequal and racialized vulnerabilities. We are interested in reflecting on the perspectives we have used to think about the mobility of Indigenous peoples and the consequences of the spatial captivity and mobility of Indigenous peoples. From various disciplinary and methodologic approaches, this special issue seeks to interrogate notions that require critical attention from scholars and Indigenous activists, such as (1) the different colonial experiences in the context of Mexican and American nationalisms; (2) the idea of regarding Indigenous peoples as peasants, making their condition as workers and their participation in union struggles, shoulder to shoulder with others, invisible (Weber 2002, 35); and (3) the widespread phenomenon of Indigenous urbanization.
This issue brings an analysis of the way mobility in the contemporary world redefines the relationship between cultural differences and social inequalities as a field for fruitful discussion that goes beyond Indigenous Mexican peoples and coincides with the experiences of mobilities of other ethnic-racial categories in other parts of the world. A key question that motivates this issue is, How do we think about displacement and colonialism together, in relation to identity transformations and ethnic relationships?
Apart from this overarching question, this introduction is organized into two main lines of inquiry in relation to the articles that follow. First, we trace the relationship between mobility and colonialism reflected in studies on contemporary experiences of Mesoamerican Indigenous peoples’ displacement to the United States. We suggest a multifaceted theoretical perspective to frame the study of Indigenous mobilities through time, taking into account theoretical innovations. We engage with branches of the study of colonialism that are in dialogue with studies of Indigenous mobilities. As the case studies here include Mexico and the United States, we feel it is important to explore theories of critical indigeneity and internal colonialism—approaches that have gained significant traction in Mexico—and settler colonialism, which has dominated US Native studies, but which is increasingly being used as an analytical framework in Mexico and other parts of Latin America. Once we have put these different theoretical perspectives in conversation with one another, we focus our discussion on the following analytical themes from the case studies in this special issue: (1) non-Western and specifically Indigenous ontologies/models of knowledge to rethink the relationship between geographic space, time, and movement; (2) communitarian models of life often tied to models of Indigenous autonomy and anticapitalism; and (3) models of interconnected circuits and networks linking families and communities across a variety of borders under flexible capitalism.
A Multifaceted Approach to Indigenous Mobility in Mesoamerica
Currently there is no unified conceptual vision for understanding the displacement of Indigenous Mesoamericans in the context of globalization. Recent approaches include labor migration, transnationalism, and theories of human mobility and diasporas. In what follows, we discuss these multiple theories used to explain Indigenous displacements to the United States, beginning with the second half of the twentieth century—a time period marked by post-industrialization and globalization under the extractive neoliberalism experienced by Mesoamerica, a region that includes southern Mexico and Central America.
At the end of 1980s, the study of displacement of Indigenous peoples in Mexico was dominated by the labor-migration approach (Weber 2002). In the context of Latin American industrialization and urbanization, there was an abundances of studies about Indigenous migrations from communities that were considered rural, but which, with time, demonstrated that Indigenous peoples were an important part of new urbanisms and of the ethnic transformation of urban social geographies. As some of the pioneering transnational theorists pointed out (Glick Schiller, Basch, and Blanc-Szanton 1992), many of these studies were characterized by methods tied to a national focus that prevented researchers from seeing the articulation of local time and space with transnational trends and logics. Such an approach also produced a blind spot toward the ethnic heterogeneity that was hidden within national categories. The idea of Indigenous urbanism was forged in relation to the national dichotomy of Indigenous-mestizo, without considering the ethnic diversity within the state category of Indigenous and the ways that the category of mestizo erases Indigenous and Afro-descendent diversity and presence.
Indigenous migrations that went beyond national borders were thus obscured by the national mission of mestizaje (referring to people of “mixed race”) project in Mexico, on the one hand (Santibáñez  1991), and by the historical racism of US immigration policy focused on preventing “illegals” from entering the United States, particularly through the southern border, on the other. Nevertheless, despite these significant limitations, studies from the 1980s provided some concepts that were useful for studying Indigenous migrations. Perhaps the best example is the classic study titled Return to Aztlán by Douglas S. Massey et al. (1990), which discusses the cumulative causation of migration centered on migration networks through time. The concept of networks of migrants has been seminal for understanding the social and cultural reproduction of populations on the move around the world. Studies carried out in Latin America in the 1990s concur about the importance that labor migrations had in the transformation of community life and in the historic reproduction of Indigenous peoples (Morales 2007).
It was not until the 1990s and early 2000s that Indigenous migrations were studied through a transnational and critical colonialism lens, making evident the diverse ethnicities that were a part of migration and the intensity of communal life and distance from the Mexican state that were a part of these processes. Carole Nagengast and Michael Kearney (1990) signaled the changes in ethnic political consciousness that came with the migration experience of Oaxacan Mixtec agricultural workers in California. And in their important edited volume, Jonathan Fox and Gaspar Rivera-Salgado (2004) proposed the first multi-ethnic vision for Mexican migration to the United States. In the same approach, Laura Velasco Ortiz (2014, 56, 57) takes the concept of the ethnic configuration of Miguel Bartolomé and Alicia Barabas (1996, 18) to propose the concept of the transnational ethnic configuration “as a useful analytical tool for studying identity formation in the migrant population, in the framework of multiple systems of classification and state social hierarchies based on race and ethnicity” (Velasco Ortiz 2014, 57), as result of the different, but simultaneous, colonial models.
At the same time that migration was explored in relation to transnationalism, the 1990s also brought studies of Indigenous migration from a diasporic perspective, emphasizing the persistence of Indigenous people across many state borders. The concept of diaspora is an ancient one, though, as pointed out by Stéphane Dufoix (2012, 21), it was absent from the vocabulary of social sciences up to the 1960s. According to Dufoix, the concept of diaspora took on a secular meaning in relation to African American social movements and history in the United States, after being associated with Jewish displacements and movements around the world. Nevertheless, Robin Cohen (1997, ix–x) and Roger Brubaker (2005) agree that the concept of diaspora works more as a notion, for it has been scantly theorized and encompasses a wide variety of phenomena that entail displacements or human migration or cultural dissemination. There are some elements in common among these different definitions: a similar displacement background, dispersion, common origin, and links to the actual or symbolic place of origin (Dufoix 2012; Cohen 1997). This approach has been taken up again with the goal of analyzing specific Mesoamerican mobilities associated with the violence of war, as is the case of different Mam communities in Guatemala or other Indigenous peoples (Camus 2012; Jonas and Rodríguez 2015); the main characterizations are dispersion and community reconstruction associated with the place of origin. And as Brubaker (2005) suggests, a diasporic perspective draws attention to the persistence of state borders in relation to understanding the movement and fragmentation of Indigenous peoples historically.
Both network theory of migration and the concept of diasporas were challenged in the twenty-first century by the great variety of displacements involving state, social and criminal violence, extractivism, and climate change. This diversity of displacements cannot be explained solely by models of labor migration, family reunification, or diasporas connected to social networks. These changes were echoed by the turn toward the sociology of mobility (Urry 2000) that permits thinking about the complexity and variety of Indigenous displacements in Mexico and Central America today in a context of state and criminal violence and climate emergencies. The concept of mobility was originally used to define a variety of displacements and flows—not only of humans but also of other interconnected processes (Urry 2000). “The new mobilities” paradigm was proposed as a conceptual umbrella to challenge static social science and to rethink modernization as a fluid, ever-changing process that occurs outside of fixed geographic or material containers regulating movement of all kinds of things (people, information, disease, etc.) (Sheller and Urry 2006, 209–10). From our perspective in this issue, this work serves to illuminate the heterogeneity of human mobility, such as expulsions due to deportation, labor migrations, forced displacements due to violence, and other factors resulting in refugees and asylum seekers. Mobilities can further vulnerabilities, be liberatory, or both.
This theoretical turn was accompanied by understandings of ethnic, class, and racial inequalities in the reconfiguration of global geography (Faist 2013). The visibility of inequality in mobility resonated with the struggles for recognition and determination of Indigenous peoples in Mexico and Central America. The right to remain in place (el derecho de no migrar) and demands that Indigenous peoples be consulted in development and immigration policy were part of Indigenous movement agendas (Bacon 2014; Bada and Fox 2021).
A Dialogue on Colonial Perspectives
The articles in this special issue all speak to the importance of colonialism and its ongoing institutionalization as a historical and current form of domination. Nevertheless, the articles differ implicitly or explicitly in terms of how they theorize the historical construction of race and ethnicity in Mexico and the United States. In order to clarifiy these differences, we discuss several ideas that can illuminate the consequences of colonialism for contemporary Indigenous mobilities.
On the one hand, fifteenth-century Spanish colonialism can be recognized as a project of militarization followed by imperial state (Moreno Toscano 1994, 53–59; 1976) and spiritual domination efforts (Ricard 1986, 408). The Spanish colonial strategy sought not to eliminate Indigenous peoples completely but to facilitate their exploitation and conversion to Catholicism and to preserve them as a labor force. In the United States, under settler-colonial logic, the elimination of Indigenous peoples happened not only through genocide but also through other forms of elimination, such as land theft, assimilation, loss of language, and, in the later historical period, the implementation of the blood quantum system (see Lytle Hernández 2017, 10; Stephen 2022).
The importance of the religious dimension of Spanish colonialism can be seen through the roles of clergy in the independence of Mexico and the seeds that missionaries planted of what later became known as indigenismo (Indigenism). The institutionalization of colonialism after Mexican independence and in the modern state came through the re-elaboration of indigenismo as a way of administrating the colonial difference and also as a nationalist ideology and policy (De la Peña, 2005). According to Guillermo de la Peña, the term indigenismo was created to “refer to the set of discourses, categorizations, rules, strategies and official actions that have the express purpose of creating a state domain over groups designated as indigenous” (2005, 719). Barabas suggests that operationally the indigenist policy of the state can be understood as “the set of actions carried out by non-Indians to provide a solution to the ‘problem’ of the existence of Indians within the national State” (Barabas 2000, 15). In the different stages that Mexican indigenismo went through, the terms of institutionalized colonialism were settled in contradictory ways.
If we follow Miguel Ángel Sámano Rentería’s (2005) detailed chronology of the different stages of Mexican indigenismo, we can distinguish some substantial changes in indigenist policies in relation to the model of colonialism in Mexico. During the second half of the twentieth century, indigenista policy was realized through cultural integration via education. Beginning in the 1990s, particularly after the Zapatista movement of 1994 and other Indigenous movements and forms of resistance, indigenista policy converged with social policy and moved away from its culturalist origins (Nolasco 2003) in order to attend to the structural inequalities that permeated Indigenous communities and peoples.
A new generation of Indigenous intellectuals has confronted indigenista policies through the lens of decolonization. In Mexico, the best-known strand of colonial criticism thought (Rivera Cusicanqui 2010) is Mexican sociologist Pablo González Casanova’s ( 2006) theory of internal colonialism. He suggests a persistent continuity of the structures of colonial relations that continue after independence, particularly through economic and political power held by Criollo and mestizo elites in contact with industrial capitalism with exploitative relations in Mexico and Latin America.
González Casanova defines internal colonialism as:
a structure of social relations of domination and exploitation between heterogeneous, different cultural groups. If there is any specific difference with respect to other relations of domination and exploitation (city-countryside, social classes) it is the cultural heterogeneity that historically produces the conquest of some peoples by others, and that allows us to speak not only of cultural differences (that exist between the urban and rural population and in social classes) but of differences in civilization. ( 2006, 240)
The author places this definition in the framework of the dependency of Latin America, in dialogue with other dependency theorists such as Rodolfo Stavenhagen (1968) and André Gunder Frank (1973). The vision of internal colonialism as a structure that orders social relations is used by Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui (2010) to think about globalization. She suggests a tree metaphor to represent the structure of internal-external colonialism with centers and subcenters, nodes and subnodes of influence and power, in such a way that internal domination is connected to the external in a reticular fashion.
Institutional and structural models of colonialism that emerge from the long tradition of critical Mexican and Latin American indigenismo are connected with the development of capitalism (González Casanova  2006, 212). González Casanova’s (233–34) concept of colonial capitalism, based on slave exploitation, is close to the theory of racial capitalism developed by the African American Marxist theorist Cedric J. Robinson (2019). Both González Casanova ( 2006, 234) and Robinson (2019) suggest the continuity of feudalism and capitalism through colonial slave exploitation that is reconfigured in the Mexican racial hierarchy that exists to this day. The displacement of the colonized and/or enslaved population, as a labor force, has been a pillar of the economy of internal colonialism in Mexico and of racial capitalism for centuries (González Casanova  2006, 73–74, 200).
The articles in this issue by Adriana Cruz-Manjarrez and Velasco Ortiz connect with the critical intellectual tradition of Mexican indigenismo as a state policy and ideology and of internal colonialism. Both authors assume the persistence of updated colonial relations of exploitation and domination as reflected in the mobility of Nahua and Mixtec agricultural workers in agro-export within the country or through the ambiguous generational changes resulting from the migration of Mayan populations to the United States. Meanwhile, the works of M. Bianet Castellanos and Lynn Stephen are framed through settler colonialism in order to analyze the strategies of resistance of Mayan Mexican and Guatemalan peoples in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic in Mexico and in the United States.
Settler colonialism is a framework for understanding the “elimination of the native” (Wolfe 2006, 387). As described by Patrick Wolfe (2006), settler colonialism refers to ongoing structures of occupation rendered through logics of different forms of elimination of Indigenous peoples and their replacement by settler populations, both physically and symbolically. This replacement involves ongoing forms of social, economic, and political reproduction. As stated by historian Kelly Lytle Hernández, “Settler projects seek land. On that land, colonists envision building a new, permanent, reproductive and racially exclusive society…settlers invade in order to stay and reproduce while working in order to remove, dominate, and ultimately replace the Indigenous populations” (2017, 7; see also Speed 2019, 22, 112–99; Veracini 2011). Settler colonialism has been attractive to some scholars as opposed to postcolonialism for its exploration of the ongoing structures and logics of colonialism that continue to work through periods of independence and neoliberal and post-neoliberal forms of governance and economy through settler states (Speed 2019). As Shannon Speed notes, settler colonialism has facilitated the shifting needs of capital through time (2019, 24–25).
In her 2019 book Incarcerated Stories, Speed provides a detailed discussion of why the settler-colonial model makes sense in Mexico. She points to the work of scholar Richard Gott (2007) as signaling the applicability of settler colonialism to Mexico and other countries.
The settlers sought to expropriate the land, and to evict or exterminate the existing population; they sought where possible to exploit the surviving Indigenous labor force to work on the land; they sought to secure for themselves a European standard of living; to justify or make sense of their global migration; they treated the Indigenous peoples with extreme prejudice, drafting laws to ensure that those who survived the wars of extermination remained largely without rights, as second or third class citizens. (Gott 2007, 273)
These characteristics continue through colonialism into independence and the modern period (Gott 2007, 273; Speed 2019, 22–24). Scholars such as Speed and Gott have argued that settler colonialism was consolidated in Mexico through independence from Spain, the emergence of nationalist discourses of mestizaje, and the solidification of Mexican racial citizenship through the concept of mestizaje. María Josefina Saldaña Portillo argues that this racial citizenship was “accomplished by casting the Malinche-mother and the chingón father (now also part Indigenous) as progenitors of the entirety of Mexican territory” (2016, 13–14). Based on archival work on both sides of what is now the US-Mexico border, Saldaña Portillo seeks to reveal the creation of racial geographies in both the United States and Mexico, and the ongoing “legitimate claims of Indigenous peoples to their colonized territories” (14). Saldaña Portillo’s work brings in the ongoing and ever-changing processes of the creation of racial geographies in the United States and Mexico as a part of ongoing settler-colonial projects.
The work of Lytle Hernández suggests multiple models of colonialism in her study of Los Angeles (2017, 10). First, what is now Los Angeles was under a model of Spanish colonialism that sought land and to subjugate the labor of the Tongva peoples. Under Spanish independence as part of greater Mexico, this model continued through the institutions of independence. After 1848, when the city of Los Angeles was absorbed into US territory as a part of the settlement of the US invasion and war against Mexico, Tongva peoples entered into the domination of white-settler colonialism.
While settler colonialism was put forward in the light of historic experiences in Australia, Canada, the United States, and Africa, and of critical indigenismo and internal colonialism in Mexico, both models emphasize the displacement of Indigenous peoples. Colonialism implies geographic and spatial domination over populations and the construction of new imposed borders that have shifted through time.
New Ontologies, Epistemologies, and Models of Communalism
The dialogue between mobility and colonialisms that emerges from this set of articles allows us to delineate some areas of ontological, epistemological, and empirical novelty in the study of contemporary displacement of Indigenous peoples. The first is the need to rethink ideas about borders and maps in times and spaces disrupted by mobility. The second is reflexive criticism of the categories that name ethnic and racialized subjects, and that can lead to their reification. Such a critical eye suggests strategies for not translating our analytical concepts directly into classification and identity labels. And finally, we comment on the constant renewal of community visions and practices that sustain circuits and family and local social networks in new models of communalism.
Borders, Mapping, Space, and Time
Non-Western and specifically Indigenous ontologies/models of knowledge challenge some of our ideas about geographic space, time, and movement. One of the fundamental questions some authors here are asking is how we should consider the different borders that are imposed on and navigated by Indigenous peoples in movement. Settler and racial logics of geography have set boundaries in and around Indigenous and Afrodescendant peoples in the Americas for centuries. Articles by Castellanos on Mayan urban dwellers in Cancún, Stephen on Mam and Mixtec farmworkers in the United States, and Maylei Blackwell on Zapotec and Mixtec spaces of daily life in Mexico and the United States all suggest how settler logics of time, space, identity, and relationships permeate the contemporary reality of Indigenous lives. All hesitate to establish firm borders around Indigenous lives, such as urban and rural, Mexico, Guatemala, and the United States, and suggest Indigenous strategies of connection for reshaping racialized and unequal geographies. Acknowledging the historical legacies of these shifting borders wrought by settler-colonial states is important to these authors in terms of how they conceptualize Indigenous peoples in movement. At the same time, however, these articles suggest how our own tools of analysis can trap us in the settler and racialized logics we seek to escape.
Just as scholars of Afrodescendant and African American history have emphasized, “We were not slaves first,” in reference to the tendency to write about people of African descent only as slaves and not to explore and document their lives outside of slavery in many other meaningful realms, including the spiritual (Alexander 2021; Lara 2020), scholars of Indigenous peoples can question the use of all-encompassing labels such as “migrant” or “immigrant” to refer to the lives of Indigenous peoples in movement. Instead, we might consider the totality of their experiences, as suggested below by M. Jackie Alexander (2005) in terms of working against colonial (settler and others) tendencies to fragment lives. We comment more on this below, regarding the kinds of categories used by the authors here and by Indigenous organizations.
Since colonization has produced fragmentation and dismemberment at both the material and psychic levels, the work of decolonization has to make room for the deep yearning for wholeness, often expressed as a yearning to belong that is both material and existential, both psychic and physical, and which, when satisfied, can subvert and ultimately displace the pain of dismemberment. (Alexander 2005, 281)
Castellanos’s and Blackwell’s articles, and to a certain degree Stephen’s, work to create portraits of integrated Indigenous subjects living multidimensional lives broadly connected to each other through strategies of caring, convivencia, and cultural projects involving language, music, and storytelling. Other articles, such as those by Cruz-Manjarrez and Velasco Ortiz, engage in showing connections through networks and circuits.
Historical and current awareness of the ways in which particular spaces—whether landscapes, cities, labor camps, housing complexes, or ejidos—are racialized and result in the physical, economic, political, and cultural marginalization of Indigenous Mexican workers is an important theoretical thread through the articles here. Cultural geographers such as Laura Pulido, Laura Barraclough, and Wendy Cheng (2012) challenge us to reimagine cities and other spaces, and to make visible relations of power and inequality, as well as the great diversity of peoples in them and their contributions historically and currently. They provide a model through their book on Los Angeles.
A People’s Guide to Los Angeles…shares the perspectives and histories of those who have been systematically excluded from most representations of the city’s history: the working class and the poor, Indigenous peoples, people of color, women, immigrants, gays and lesbians, environmental justice activists, political radicals, and other marginalized groups.…
We uncover the labor and hope of subordinated people and places. We show how everyday people are exploited and disenfranchised by capital and the state; how those same people sometimes mobilize to create alternative forms of power; how racism, sexism, class differences, and homophobia lead to struggle and conflict; how dominant ideas are memorialized in landscapes. (Pulido, Barraclough, and Cheng 2012, 16–17)
Blackwell has been involved in another mapping project titled “Mapping Indigenous Los Angeles.” The project notes that when “Pacific Islands and Latin American Indigenous Diasporas” are considered, Los Angeles has the largest Indigenous population of any city in the United States. The mapping project is transterritorial and transhistorical including:
Gabrielino/Tongva and Tataviam who struggle for recognition of their sacred spaces and recognition as a nations, American Indians who were removed from their lands and displaced through governmental policies of settler colonialism, and Indigenous diasporas from Latin America and Oceania where people have been displaced by militarism, neoliberal economic policies, and overlapping colonial histories. (UCLA, n.d.)
Mobilizing the concept of remapping to reveal both relations of inequality and power and the presence and power of people rendered invisible or marginal is a powerful tool for rethinking our representations of Indigenous peoples in diaspora. While Blackwell remaps the presence of Indigenous communities from Mexico in Los Angeles along multiple dimensions, Velasco Ortiz and Castellanos take us inside labor camps in Baja California and social housing complexes in Cancún to reveal how the logics of capital drive the configuration of physical space and in turn constrain people’s autonomy and ability to construct relations of mutuality with those around them. These articles suggest the ways in which the mapping and remapping of physical space also involve emotional and social dimensions.
Blackwell’s chapter brings in the additional dimension of time to suggest how racial and ethnic categories and characterizations of Indigenous peoples tie them to the past while simultaneously denying their existence in the present. Blackwell suggests that Indigenous people in diaspora often live between at least two times and spaces: the past and modernity. Embodied actions—such as the act of “grinding corn, forming the masa into tamales wrapped in corn husks, and then selling them” on the corner—link together multiple temporalities, including a “continuous physical relationship to metates…that goes back thousands of years [and] continues in the present” (Blackwell, in current issue) through selling the same tamales in the present on the corner. Such a perspective allows us to understand the multiple dimensions of space and time experienced and rendered by Indigenous bodies in movement.2
On the Politics of Categories and Names
The authors in this special issue have used a variety of names to categorize and refer to their interlocutors including “Maya,” as a part of “Indigenous urbanisms,” “Indian,” “Indigenous,” “Oaxacan,” “Indigenous migrant women,” “Zapotec,” “Mixtec,” “Mam,” “Nahua,” “Chatino,” “Maya yucateca,” “pueblos indígenas,” “migrantes,” “trabajadores flexibles,” “jornaleros,” “campesinos,” “Indigenous farmworkers,” “migrantes indígenas,” “nativos,” “migrantes de” (many specific communities), “retornados,” “nuevos retornados,” “dobles retornados,” “Indigenous Guatemalan and Mexican farmworkers in diaspora,” “Ñuu Savi,” “Maya Kaqchikel,” “K’iche’,” “Indigenous diasporic communities,” and “pueblos originarios.” This vast range of terms used to refer to Indigenous peoples in movement suggests the complexity of what we are attempting to capture in this special issue.
As highlighted in the Stephen and Blackwell articles, the politics of naming is important within and between Indigenous communities and groups. It is striking that there is not one uniform pan-Indigenous label used by all authors and that a wide range of more particular names of communities, languages, and ethnic groups continue to have currency. Organizations that serve a wide range of Mesoamerican communities in the United States also reflect this tension. Comunidades Indígenas en Liderazgo (CIELO; Indigenous Communities in Leadership) uses the umbrella term of “Indigenous communities” in their name and describe their organization as “a link, a resource, and a liaison for migrant Indigenous communities residing in Los Angeles” (CIELO, n.d.). Part of their programming involves language revitalization classes in Dilla Xhon, Tu’un Savi, Maya T'àan, and Ayuujk. The organization thus exists at the intersection of the concept of “Indigenous communities residing in Los Angeles” and classes and services provided in specific languages identified with specific ethnic groups. These languages are usually referred to as Zapotec, Mixtec, Maya, and Mixe in Spanish.
The Centro Binacional para el Desarrollo Indígena Oaxaqueño (CBDIO) has a pan-Indigenous title grouping together the different Indigenous peoples of the Mexican state of Oaxaca. The staff from CBDIO identify themselves as Zapotec, Mixtec, and Triqui. The organization’s website states that the organization was formed in 1993 “to serve the Indigenous migrant communities from the state of Oaxaca, Mexico that reside in California, United States (US). Each of our communities has its own language and culture that differentiate us from one another, however all Indigenous people face similar problems in our hometowns, as well as to the places we have migrated” (CBDIO, n.d.).
CBDIO was founded by another organization, the Frente Indígena de Organizaciones Binacionales (FIOB), which itself underwent a shift over time in changing its name from including the specific names of languages and Indigenous ethnic groups (Zapotec and Mixtec originally) to a pan-Indigenous title of an “Indigenous Front.” FIOB describes itself as made up of:
a group of organizations, communities and individuals (men and women) of diverse origins, who have decided to combine efforts, ideas, and projects that overcome the economic, political, social and cultural problems that our migrant and non-migrant Indigenous brothers and sisters face in Mexico and in the United States (USA) to fight for the respect of their rights and identity as Indigenous peoples.3 (FIOB 2021)
The FIOB thus uses the language of pan-Indigenous solidarity to push for the rights and identities of “Indigenous peoples.” Because the FIOB is binational with organizational bases in both Mexico and the United States, and has engaged with the “right to not migrate,” its membership is identified with both migrant and nonmigrant Indigenous individuals and organizations.
Migration is the most widespread term use in colloquial language to describe movement and is largely derived from its status as an official category in government discourse. While a number of authors invoke the term migrant to refer to their interlocutors in combination with other identity labels—perhaps the most common being “Indigenous migrants”/migrantes indígenas—others do not. The word migration, as much as diaspora and mobility, is of European origin, coming:
from the Latin word migrationem (nominative migratio) “a removal, change of abode, migration,” noun of action from past-participle stem of migrare “to move from one place to another,” probably originally *migwros, from PIE *(e)meigw- (source of Greek ameibein “to change”), which is an extended form of root *mei- (1) “to change, go, move” or perhaps a separate root.” (Online Etymology Dictionary, n.d.)
While beyond the scope of this introduction, it would be important in future discussions to explore how the concept of migration, diaspora, or mobility are encoded in Mesoamerican Indigenous languages. Words for change, go, move, and other related concepts exist in many languages. In Mixtec, Na ii kua’an inga ñuu means “person who went,” according Mixtec professor Tiburcio Pérez (personal communication). In Tsotsil, jxanbal means “(person) who walks,” according to Tsotsil linguist Satsak Nichim (personal communication).
While most organizations serving Mesoamerican Indigenous communities are not reluctant to use the word migrant/migrante in their organizational culture, there is increasing resistance to the word immigrant. The term immigrant was coined by Noah Webster in his 1829 American Dictionary of the English Language (Erickson 2018). Because immigrant is such a recent word, it is reflected in many languages of the world as a loan word. Labeling Indigenous peoples in diaspora in the United States as “immigrants” is found to be objectionable to an increasing number of organizations that serve these communities, as noted in Stephen’s article. If we step back from the historically imposed colonial, national, and other borders on Indigenous territories in the continent—America itself was an invention in the minds of Europeans in the 1500s—both the importance of particular places and the transcendence of Indigenous territories and lives through, around, and across these borders are recognized. Labeling Indigenous peoples as immigrants erases histories, languages, and knowledges, including forms of collective knowledge and caring that have proven to be important resources for Indigenous communities living through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nevertheless, we note that there is an important difference between the processes of migration, mobility, and diaspora, and the identity category of migrant. While Indigenous peoples in movement we have worked with do not self-label with the term migrant, the term has been politicized by some organizations as a way to connect as allies and work with others who have migrated and are “migrants.”
Communitarian Models of Life and Anti-capitalism
The search for understanding the specificity of Indigenous migration, mobility, and diasporas cannot overlook the weight of the experience of colonization and the institutionalization of colonialism by the state. Against this analytical horizon, we start from the premise that the settlement and constant updating of coloniality entail forms of resistance and survival of Indigenous peoples in the face of the different colonial policies in Mesoamerica. We are interested in emphasizing the models of communalism that are emerging from the social and political practices of Indigenous peoples in relation to different experiences of mobility.
Along these lines, at the end of the twentieth century, a current of communalist thought emerged among Mesoamerican activists (Zapotecs and Mixes), who proposed going beyond just analyzing the political subordination of Indigenous peoples. According to Alejandra Aquino (2013, 7), this communalist movement emerged in the late 1970s because of the re-encounter of a generation of Ayuujk and Ben Gwlhax men and women who returned to their communities after having immigrated to the city to study or work. These intellectuals are Floriberto Díaz in Tlahuitoltepec; Jaime Martínez Luna in Guelatao and the Ixtlán district; Joel Aquino and Juana Vázquez in Yalalag (Aquino 2013, 7).
Martínez Luna (2013, 83) defines communality as a way of thinking that originated in the Spanish invasion and then continued through colonial institutionalism and subsequent mestizaje. The principles of such communality are the values of work, respect, and reciprocity (86–88). Yásnaya Aguilar Gil (2013, 72), who subscribes to this line of communalist thought, adds the importance of language. The author introduces the concept of comunalecto to refer not only to Indigenous languages of pre-Hispanic origin but also to languages used today—which can include Spanish and English (in addition to Indigenous languages)—by Indigenous members of transnational, diasporic, or migrant communities to communicate.
Because of migration or mobility, such communalism as a way of life also takes on new forms of support and care evident in the daily practices of families and communities. Fox and Rivera-Salgado (2004) gathered reflections by activists and academics about Indigenous Mexican migrations. Building on their work, it is evident from the articles included here that other forms of communalism are emerging in the daily practices and organizational discourses found in the cities and agro-exporting zones of Indigenous diasporic communities spread across transnational geographies. Activists such as Moisés Cruz, Rufino Domínguez, Rivera-Salgado, and Odilia Romero grew up in and organized around their experiences of Mixtec and Zapotec migration and mobility in cities such as Netzahualcóyotl and Los Angeles, or in the agricultural fields in Sonora, Sinaloa, and California. Indigenous experiences as urban settlers, as farmworkers, and as the undocumented nurture the roots of current organizations that highlight transnational and cross-border movements in cities like Los Angeles (see the articles by Stephen and Blackwell).
The concept of transborder communities proposed by Stephen (2007, 2012) illuminates how the experience of migrating implies crossing a number of national and regional, ethnic, racial, class, gender, and sexuality borders, and reconstitutes identities and communities in multiple dimensions and places. In this way, communalism implies structures of solidarity, support, and care across several spatialities and times. The work by Stephen, Blackwell, and Cruz-Manjarrez in this issue shows how the construction of transnational/transborder community projects in cities such as Los Angeles works by means of collective actions. This can be seen in CIELO, a project of Zapotec and Mixtec people who have reconstructed communality in a transterritorial geography.
Mobile lives that spread families and communities out in multiple locations where they are not physically close to one another also produce challenges in terms of rebuilding connection, care, and solidarity, challenges that are exacerbated by situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic. These challenges and their impact throughout the pandemic are discussed by Castellanos and Stephen in moving prose. In another case, we can see how hosting seasonal farmworkers in labor camps or in precarious housing results in isolation and segregation that has subjected a generation of Nahua, Mixtec, and Triqui youth to savage exploitation. Their only escape is to literally flee, as described in Velasco Ortiz’s article. These extreme cases make it evident that the construction of a new communality, proposed by Aguilar Gil (2013), is also part of an anticapitalist and anticolonialist struggle linked to Indigenous demands for community autonomy and self-determination. According to Aquino (2013, 16), one of the biggest challenges that migration imposes for such a project is the difficulty of consistent collective reflection, because the members of such a project do not share time and space—hence the importance of the new community spaces and new transnational resistance projects such as those documented by Blackwell.
The articles in this issue analyze the interconnected circuits created by displacements and mobilities in multilocal and transnational geographies that intersect logics of gender, ethnicity, race, and citizenship. Cruz-Manjarrez’s study of young Mayan returnees shows the complexity of the ties that expand through the intergenerational networks that sustain scattered families and communities. The experiences of mobility of Indigenous peoples in Mexico have reached the generations of young people born and raised in the United States who, after the deportation or forced return of their parents, try to resettle in Yucatec Mayan communities and remigrate (back to Mexico)—but as returnees to the country where they were born.
This play on words—returnee to the country where you are born—leads to the centering of family ties as the main source of continuity of transterritorial attachments and life projects in the face of a weak state. Studies on internal migrations in Mexico and international migrations between Mexico and the United States continue to rely on units of analysis, such as the family home and the community, translated into links and support networks in processes of displacement and resettlement in new places. The analytical vitality of the circuits, support networks, and care are emphasized in the articles of Stephen and Castellanos, who focus on the responses of Mayan, Mam, and Mixtec communities to the COVID-19 pandemic in Mexico, Guatemala, and United States. Exclusion from or selective access to health care systems is partially alleviated by family support networks and solidarity among neighbors in the form of communal practices such as convivencia that integrate the living and the dead into the same life horizon, as suggested by Castellanos.
Sandro Mezzadra (2012, 173–76) critiques approaches to the study of migration that incorporated the imposed categories of the state. Instead, he proposes that we use the perspectives and categories of migrants themselves, concentrating on their ability to re-create and resist forces that control mobility and are linked to an obsessive search for available and disposable labor. We believe that centering familial and communitarian circuits and networks allows us to do that and makes visible the importance of ethnic, gender, and generational differences. Velasco Ortiz, for example, shows how ethnic differences are forged in the mobility circuits found among agricultural workers who are taken to agro-export regions under a logic of locating cheap and available labor. Ethnic differences are conjoined with gender in the spaces and jobs in export agriculture where Nahua Indigenous men from Puebla and Veracruz work in the more hazardous labor of harvesting, while non-Indigenous women from Guanajuato, Puebla, and Sonora work in better conditions in packing houses. These spatial and labor borders mark asymmetries nested in the class, gender, and ethnic statuses of agricultural workers, which are in turn embedded in the familial and communitarian circuits and networks that people live and work in. Such circuits and networks also function as pathways for the transmission and renovation of survival and resistance tactics and strategies we have witnessed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Two of the articles in this special issue focus on the impact of COVID-19 in Indigenous peoples’ lives in Cancún and in the state of Oregon. Many of the observations made in these two articles would also apply to other analyses done before the pandemic, such as that of Velasco Ortiz, which demonstrates the kinds of limits placed on workers through crowded housing, a lack of boundaries between “work time” and “free time,” and structural and racialized inequalities borne by those who do “flexible” work versus salaried work. Castellanos brings us directly into the impact of COVID-19 on Mayan families living in Cancún through a deeply personal story about a family she has worked with throughout her research career. The loss of her friend and interlocutor Francisco was extremely traumatic for his family and for Castellanos. His story demonstrates the ways in which “safe” zones have been built for tourists in Mexico while the health of the essential workers serving them is a secondary priority. This theme is also reflected in Stephen’s article, which highlights the broad economic, physical, and mental-health burdens borne by Indigenous farmworkers in Oregon during the pandemic. Both articles map the invisible labor of essential workers during the pandemic and suggest the cascading impact that sickness can have: lack of access to information, income, and medical care, and lack of ability to quarantine can result in losses on many levels. Labor conditions became even more precarious, and workers do their best to manage multiple levels of risk at home and at work.
Interestingly, in the Mayan communities described by Castellanos in Cancún and in Mayan and Mixtec communities of farmworkers in Oregon, relations and structures of care were fortified during the pandemic. Castellanos introduces the concept of convivencia as caring for one another in the absence of the state. In Yucatec Maya, the plural form of the Spanish word convivir translates to u kuxtal u yéetel u máatsil máako’ob, literally meaning “life with the miracle of men.” An individual who is part of a relationship of convivir is ti’ óol, which one of Castellanos’s interlocutors translates as “to be generous,” but which is literally defined as “your heart, will, energy, or spirit.” Failure of the state to care for Mayan people is part of a long history of state violence, but the survivance and creative power of Mayan communities is as well. As Castellanos argues, the recentering of values of caring and celebration of life through convivencia offers a vision of a radically different present and future during this and other pandemics.
Mam farmworkers in Oregon, as well as Mixtec and other Indigenous communities, have also created networks of caring, not only among people in the United States but also connected to their communities in Mexico and Guatemala. Such connections also operate largely in the absence of the state, in many contexts. Such networks and formalized associations have a long history among Indigenous communities in diaspora. The documentation of strategies of connection and survivance during the pandemic simply elevates the long-standing history of these forms of organizing and care work.
Understanding contemporary colonialism in Mexico and other Latin American countries in light of modern Indigenous mobilities entails transnational and transhistorical perspectives. A dialogue with other models of critical colonial thinking such as settler colonialism offers a way to connect different historical and colonial regimes and states, and to document colonialism as an ongoing structure, not a historical event. The complexity of Indigenous mobilities in the context of neoliberal capitalist accumulation processes on a global scale is also tied to the survivance and resistance capability of Indigenous peoples. The study of ethnicities and race in Mexico has been a very prolific interdisciplinary field since the second half of the twentieth century, largely supported by studies on Mesoamerican migrations, either internally, as rural to urban, or internationally, primarily to the United States.
The magnitude and diversity of Mesoamerican Indigenous displacements pose a conceptual challenge. This field of study is characterized by a conceptual pluralism that oscillates between drawing on studies on migration, diasporas, and mobilities, and the existence of common processes of reterritorialization and transnationalism, which have reconfigured nationalisms and ethnic-racial identities. Perhaps what has affected Indigenous peoples the most in the past fifty years is Indigenous urbanism in connection with a new Indigenous rurality that offers both some stability with the past (see Bada and Fox 2021) and significant transformations.
The articles in this issue point to a redefinition of Indigenous Otherness, which has been maintained via exclusionary structures and practices on the part of local and state governments in arenas such as housing, health care, access to land and public space, and cultural expression. At the same time, Indigenous mobilities are clearly powerful sources for generating strategies of belonging and resistance. Diasporic Indigenous communalisms are recreated by means of daily practices of solidarity, support, and care, and through horizontal alliances around anticapitalist and anticolonialist projects. The health crisis caused by COVID-19 deepened already existing ethnic/racial/class inequalities and had severe consequences on the extreme precariousness of migrant families who survived, in part, through communitarian resources and relationships in their networks and human circuits. Our future research agenda needs to continue a focus on the exploitation and dispossession processes that accompany Indigenous labor migrations linked to the racial capitalism threatening the physical, political, and cultural reproduction of Indigenous peoples—and, in fact, all peoples.
The term pueblos indígenas is used in Mexico and Central America, so throughout the article we translate that as “Indigenous peoples” to refer to those peoples in and outside of Mexico.
The communalist model described here matches what might be called Mesoamerican communalities, which move away from the ones that appear in other civilizing regions such as the Gran Chichimeca (Mendiola Galván 2010, 105) and which correspond to the Indigenous peoples of northern Mexico, seminomadic with scattered settlements, whose lives were centered in family-based rancherías (hamlets) or in groups of houses based on family links, and not the colonial towns, and where the notion of the individual is as important as the collective (Sariego 2015, 162–80).
Translated from Spanish by the authors. All translations are ours unless otherwise noted.