The woman with the baby girl in a stroller said she was from Guerrero —a state on the Pacific coast of Mexico ravaged by organized crime in the last decade. She assured the volunteers that she would be able to carry the two plastic bags filled with milk, cooking oil, eggs, dish soap and other staples that they were handing out to her. It did not seem like much, but for many indigenous immigrants and their undocumented families who have been excluded from federal, state or local government support amid the pandemic, that kind of aid has been crucial to getting by during the health and economic crisis.
The food distribution rally on March 20 was funded by the American Indian Community House, which was founded in 1969 to improve the status of Native Americans and foster inter-cultural understanding. It is part of a program that has benefitted more than a thousand families with basic staples and hundreds of winter jackets in the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn since September.
The program, a display of community solidarity operating from the South Bronx —which comprises the neighborhoods with the lowest median income in the state— has also strengthened a sense of identity among individuals that descend from the nations that once ruled the continent.
The Red de Pueblos Transnacionales –a grassroots network of rural and indigenous immigrants from Latin America in New York that advocates for cultural, social and economic inclusion— provides the volunteers to distribute the staples. The Bronx Immigration Partnership —an alliance of community-based organizations that offer legal immigration services— also contributes to the effort.
Also read: Guide of Resources for Immigrants
At each rally, this partnership delivers close to 220 food packages —almost 25 of which go to households of elderly Native Americans. People interested in receiving the staples register online on the Red de Pueblos Transnacionales’ Facebook page.
“We are the most marginalized people and they [indigenous immigrants from Latin American] are just as marginalized, if not more, because they have to deal with the challenges of not being citizens of the U.S., which comes with stereotypes and oppression, racism and bigotry,” said Melissa Iakowi: he’ne Oakes, Mohawk from the Snipe Clan, executive director of the American Indian Community House.*
Indigenous peoples in the Americas share the impression of being foreigners, even though these territories belonged to their forebears, said Yogui Ariza, coordinator of the food distribution program for Red de Pueblos Transnacionales.
“There are many similarities and, in a certain way, it is the discrimination against them that brings them together,” said Ariza —who emigrated 22 years ago from Santa Ana Necoxtla, in the mountains of the Mexican state of Puebla. “Both groups [Native Americans and Indigenous immigrants of Latin American] feel identified with each other.”
Over the last two decades, New York has become home to a large influx of Native Americans and indigenous immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala. The Mexican Consulate in New York estimates that more than 250,000 of the city’s 323,000 Mexican-born population in the tri-state area (New York, New Jersey and Connecticut) are of Indigenous origin and that one out of three speaks an Indigenous language, like Amuzgo, Mixe, Purepecha or Tlapanec.
According to the latest census in 2010, New York hosts the largest number of Native Americans and Alaska Natives of any city in the U.S. —112,000. The figure represents a 20% increase compared to 2000. Dozens of Native American nations are represented in New York. The AICH is composed of individuals from 72 different tribes.
The newcomers —from within the U.S. and beyond the Southern border— have brought their distinctive knowledge and traditions. Networks of solidarity, cooperation and unpaid volunteer work are common to many indigenous nations in the Americas. Reinforced as a response to institutional neglect and discrimination, these practices have been in full display during the pandemic.
“We have witnessed that the government has excluded us in many ways from receiving aid,” said Ariza. “Feeling abandoned, we had no other option but to support each other.”
Indigenous Immigrants Coming together
The current ties among native peoples of the U.S. and Mexico started in New York before the pandemic. In 2019, the AICH partnered with Red de Pueblos Transnacionales to conduct the census within the undocumented community. Oakes also organized fashion and jewelry design workshops. During the sessions, Ariza said, the women “had the chance to know each other, not only as a teacher or sponsor to beneficiaries but through sharing stories about their differences and their lived experiences.”
Indigenous practices of solidarity are transcending their own communities amid the pandemic. Ti Toro Miko, an organization formed in Bushwick by a migrant from Guerrero, Mexico, to preserve the Ñu Savi (or Mixtec) culture, produced face-masks and gave them to health care workers for free. La Morada, a restaurant in the Bronx founded by Natalia Méndez, a Ñu Savi migrant from Oaxaca, has prepared as “a mutual-aid kitchen” thousands of meals for their neighbors. According to its website, “a nourished community is empowered to take back their food sovereignty and indigenous sovereignty.”
The solidarity also comes from individuals like Francisco Ramírez, a self-identified Otomi —an indigenous people from Central Mexico— who emigrated in 1993. A construction worker who in his spare time works as a citizen journalist, political activist and good samaritan, Ramírez formed the Mexican Brown Panthers at the onset of the pandemic. Honoring the free breakfast programs for children started in 1969 by the Black Panthers, Ramírez and his cohort —Sandra Pérez and other volunteers— distributed food and medicine to homebound COVID-19 infected patients in East Harlem.
“We decided as individuals to give our own time, money and work to create a group to help the people that have been left mostly unprotected,” Ramírez told Documented. “Neither the governments of Mexico or the U.S. were helping these people, so we had to react. We had to help them as fellow human beings out of our good conscience.” His work, carried out for months, was profiled by the Associated Press.
Although Ramírez stressed that he does not consider himself a Zapatista, he said their methodology inspires his work. The Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional erupted into Mexico’s political landscape in 1994 as a social justice movement for Indigenous people in Chiapas —the most impoverished state in the country. The Zapatistas functioned under the motto “mandar obedeciendo” (to lead by obeying) and established a leaderless organization.
“We have this ancestral philosophy, where everything is horizontal and democratic,” Ramírez said. “It works perfectly well.” He is also a regular guest and co-host of Rebeldía Radio, a Facebook webcast created by the Cuicatec activist Tadii Nandalii Angeles, to discuss social justice issues affecting Indigenous immigrants in Mexico and New York.
Rebeldía Radio is part of a wave among Latin American migrants in New York to promote indigenous pride and recognition. Similarly, Kwicha Hatari, a radio station in New York that broadcasts in the Kwicha language variant from Ecuador, hopes to foster a stronger spirit of ethnic identity, according to one of its co-founders, Charlie Urichama.
In New York, “I have found the value of being Indigenous,” Ramirez said. He has also discovered a new conviction —that as a Native person of the Americas, New York is part of his ancestral land too. He often yells at White counter-protesters spewing racist or xenophobic solgans in social justice demonstrations: “Go back to your country. This is stolen land.”
Oakes agrees that a new sense of solidarity amongst indigenous immigrants has risen in New York amid the double crisis triggered by the pandemic. “It is already happening but more on a social level, like social justice and protesting, but not really on a larger scale,” Oakes said. “I have a few things in mind that I am gonna be working on for developing the larger scope of Indigenous nations here in the Northeast.”
*Since March 19, Oakes has not worked anymore as executive director of the American Indian Community House (AICH). She now heads the North American Indigenous Center for Culture, Equity and Economic Development.