I Didn’t Know You Were Indigenous

by | June 8, 2023

The question isn’t the problem. The problem is the question.

It is 9 ish PM. The sun is drunk and in bed early. Into [insert gay bar in DTLA] enter me and my girl. We make a lap around the bar so that the eye candy will know that we’re snatched and thirsty, because while we’re in our 30s, we’re like “cool moms, not regular moms” (We double fist tequila pineapples and don’t go home to change diapers). Enter my girl’s “friend” who says hi to her three times but dodges me four. Regina George. When Regina decides to turn around to face me on the fifth bump (because my girl’s like “you know my friend right?” Signaling to say hi to me) Regina turns around and exclaims: “I didn’t know you were Indigenous!” She touches my arm in a fake apology. Regina George might as well have said: “If you’re so white, then how are you Indigenous?”

I should’ve dragged this Non-Black Latine by the durag and mopped the floor with her, but I didn’t. This isn’t the animal kingdom and this isn’t how things are done in the gay world. The question isn’t the problem. The problem is the subjugation that results in this line of questioning of any identity marker. To whom do we owe an explanation of all the lineages living in our bodies to prove that we are whole, enough, or who we say we are? Values and sincerity don’t hold their own in a political war.

“Yeah,” I answer, my pitch reaching sarcastic octaves I didn’t know I had. I place my hand over my chest, offended by her ignorance. “You didn’t know? Well, I’ll have to tell you all about it sometime.” She duck lips, lifts a brow, and throws out a hand signaling that she’s waiting for me to explain years of conquest, Mexican acculturation, migration to the Estados Unidos, and the displacement of my Indigeneity. I wish I’d clapped back with, “There’s actually a 99% chance you’re a fuckin bitch!” but I diffuse Regina’s confrontation by setting one acrylic nail on her arm and whispering to her, “This isn’t the time or place for this conversation.” I hope the tone carries the force of “FUCK OFF.”

Even though I want to yank off my blonde wig, drench it blue in an Adios and set the bar on fire, I don’t. I release my anger like one would in the cis gay world, subversively. I glare with the strength of a million Dolls burning everything in their path to get to him (and no, there was no fire alarm that could be pulled to save this Bitch). I smile. 

Cis gay men have a legacy of harassing, belittling, and questioning trans femmes. This catty exchange isn’t at the top of my list when I think of horrible situations I’ve survived (as a person that is a diasporic descendant of the Rarámuri, Pi’ma, and Cora peoples and as a formerly undocumented trans femme person). It’s blasé in the grand scheme of violences I’ve endured. However, the timing of Regina George’s biting remark falls perfectly in line as a moment of pause—reflection—as I unearth and reconnect with my people’s legacy. I have just begun embodying what my family and I always were beneath our national identity. I had confused the legacies of Indigenous ancestral practices as “Mexican” for too long because we had lost a ceremonial language for it. My people took on a national identity when they left their native lands and moved to larger cities to survive. As I untangled our lineage, pieced migration trails together on maps, understood the history of our customs and values, I came to understand the larger picture. My predecessors guided me towards this unearthing; they led me to the crossroads of legacy. There, I was able to ground myself in the questions: What was preserved? What was lost? What do we take into the future? More and more I realized that what felt “far,” aka “Indigenous,” was always present. It was at the breakfast table. It was in my grandparents’ speech. It was in our pláticas and cuentos. It was in our song.

Regardless of conquest, enblancamiento, and acculturation, my ancestors speak to me and through me. I never was a huge nationalist to begin with, no one in my family was either, not because we’re “self-hating Mexicans,” but because our identity was never defined by Mexicanidad to begin with. It happened to be the only available label that fit for “people like us,” migrants within Mexico and only a few generations documented. Although my recent predecessors understood our displacement, they could humbly name the people they came from. However, in the US, we can’t call ourselves Native American or Indigenous because we’ve  never lived on a reservation. We also don’t share the same violences as Native folks in the imperial structure that is the United States. We haven’t fought the same fights. And so Mexican we stayed. Not Mexican-American, ever, because we are all 0-0.5 generation in the U.S.A.

It’s so interesting how one is tested when they begin finding home in themselves. Although girls, I mean gay men, like Regina George are “life ruiners,” I’m proud that I don’t question my truth after this tiny brawl. I laugh to myself like, “This bitch really tried it.” At this point, however, I question why my homegirl still says hi to a venomous “scum sucking road whore” like Regina. Also: Where the fuck has this bitch seen my updated bio where I specify my diasporic and Indigenous legacy? More on this later.

Cornered against a brick wall, my girl spills tea on Regina George. Apparently she’s doing car commercials…in South Gate! My girl goes on about how she’s a self centered narcisista that treats her friends like accessories when suddenly, we’re surrounded by Regina’s army of gay skanks. I wish this movie was a lie, but it’s not! Upon encircling us, they open to let their queen mosca enter center stage.

The Gretchen Wieners of the skanks takes out poppers from a cute transparent purse (which I would cop if I beat this bitch’s ass but y’all know I won’t jump anyone let alone jump in the platform boots I’m wearing). They pass around the disco drug like a blunt, and I’m like, “What kinda not-hood gay shit is this?” My face reading: Bitch, whaaaaaaat?! I hair flip my 32 inch wig and look at my girl like let’s get away from these fuckin’ weirdos. When the poppers get to me, I throw up my hand and nod away from it. “I’m good,” I say. When the poppers make it back to Gretchen, she thrusts the miniature glass container with its yellow and red label into my face. She says, “Nuh uh, you have to do it.”

“I SAID…I’m good.” At this point, I am a jaguar, all of them headless, while the rest of the bar turns into hooting animals celebrating the victory of setting a fuckin’ boundary. Upon my retaliation, Gretchen, with her big ass head full of secrets, looks to the group and says, “Aweeeeeeeeeeeee, she’s a virgin!” 

“I AMMMMMMMMM a virgin,” I announce to the group while realizing that I have just committed “social suicide” with my comeback. I’m Damien with a blue hoodie and shades in a room full of wild mean girls in the auditorium yelling, “She doesn’t even go here,” to myself. I truly don’t belong here. I truly wish I was a badder bitch, but I’m not. I am sensitive and always try to find some semblance of goodness in others. Or I’m full of shit and terrified of confrontation and this is why I am writing this essay instead. 

Regardless,  I wish this whole experience wasn’t happening, but it is and the Karen of their group reaches for my arm and says, “Good for you for standing your ground; I’m usually forced into these things,” and winks at me as an apology. Karen has a backwards “K” made of shiny jewels on her hairy chest and I want to punch her too. I yank my arm away to preserve whatever sanity I have left and push through the group. My girl and I go to get “another drink,” but actually order our respective Ubers. On the phone we decompress, become the animals we wanted to be. We devour Regina George. Call this resistance. Call this sucking the bone dry of marrow. “Fuck Regina George!” I say to my girl. The Uber driver shoots a glare at me from the rear view mirror and I sink into my seat cackling. 

Later, I learn that my girl invited her to a reading that I did at The Broad. That event was the first time that I used the word Indigenous in my bio boldly, confidently. I imagine Regina George holding the flier and quickly flipping it over to see the nutritional value on the back, making sure it’s not a carb. After she gets her ammunition (against me) and loses three pounds, she tosses the flier over her shoulder like a hard piece of bread, deciding not to attend the event but excited about sabotaging me the next time she sees me out in public.

To exist in the U.S. is to be thrust into the game of identity politics created by white colonizers who have enacted laws and restrictions, measured our bodies, tied our tubes, drawn lines that distinguished the Pi’ma and the Pi’ma Bajo people via the US-Mexico border. These constructs have real and violent consequences.

To exist in the U.S. is to be thrust into the game of identity politics created by ridiculous white colonizers who have enacted laws and restrictions, measured our bodies, tied our tubes, drawn lines that distinguished the Pi’ma and the Pi’ma Bajo people via the US-Mexico border. These constructs have real and violent consequences, realities—we have suffered them, I promise. Colonization has force fed them to our communities, which is why we are here, scrambling to be enough. Afraid to unearth and preserve. Afraid to ask constructive questions as a means to learn more about ourselves and others. But don’t get me wrong: there are so many Latine folks who are just White. Spanish White. European White. Anglo Saxon White? Who utilize a national identity to become racialized. Why do I say the initial question guiding this essay isn’t the problem? I’m light skint and aware that melanin robbed from my skin will bring up questions about who I am and who I say I come from. We live in a racist and colorist world, one where my light skintness insulates me from racism but where I still experience violence as a trans person and immigrant). As far as I know, anyone who is Non-Black has work to do, period. Venom in a question is one thing. “I didn’t know you were Indigenous?” Community building and calling in with a foundation of good values is another. This is the distinction where the work begins.

fei hernandez in profile

What I’m trying to get at is who we are, really, beneath the construction of who we’re supposed to be. For example, to be a respectable Mexican (and any variation of Mexican: Mexican-American, Xicanx, etc.) you have to participate in identifying with motifs like: calendario Azteca (which is wild, because not everyone in Mexico has direct Aztec lineage)(oop), Frida Kahlo, tamales, Selena Quintanilla, and speaking Spanish (and any variations: like Spanglish, pocho, etc). You must rep the concha, write poems about tortillas and Catholicism etc. etc. etc. When you don’t outright “rep” this then folks see you as self-hating, not part of the “raza” (which the term is hella problematic in and of itself), and you’re ostracized on all fronts. Latinidad also promotes a generalized anti-Blackness and anti-Indigeneity,  urging Latines to chase prestige and clout rather than encouraging us to participate in the sovereignty of whole Indigenous peoples fighting to defend their land. My family, for example, never had a Mexican flag to wave with pride. To this day, I don’t think we actually own one of those things. However, I’ve seen some soccer fanatics raise a Mexican flag in the air with veins popping out of their neck like their lives depended on it. And maybe they did because they had nothing else to hold on to but a national identity. Maybe I was privileged to know so much about what Indigenous peoples we come from, that I was left in another sort of space where—the limit does not exist. 

photo of a Mexican man and woman, seated outdoors.

When I hear about our lives before los Estados Unidos everything is simpler. My grandparents aren’t worried about preserving our legacy like I am in a big, concrete, and ceremonial way. They have preserved and persevered by following their alma and the teachings of their ancestors. That is what they taught me. Their values. Their community. Their canto. They are not quantifying who’s more Indigenous.. Instead, they’re simply concerned with who is the most dramatic member of the family or who’s the funniest storyteller. The reminiscences are always about the land, their poverty-stricken childhoods, their invincible and note-worthy parents who did all they could to keep them alive or who gambled it all in cock fights in Zatebo. They tell stories about picking coffee beans and grinding them, the nicknames their great aunts would give them. The way the sun pierced icicles from their cabin’s roof ledge and how the rainbow splayed across the snow angels. The deer and pine trees. It was always about the fortuitous give and take of us humans and the natural world. Stories about bringing strangers in to eat who need it, taking orphaned children as siblings, and a lot of natural phenomena, like my grandfather struck by green lightning or the feminine figure that appeared in the riverbank. Their world, my world, the worlds we come from, are not worried about a sensational, marketable, graspable “truth.” My abuelito and my abuelita just taught me to “be.” They continue to instill in me to listen to what the trees and wind say, to really listen to the lyrics of old rancheras or corridos that speak of the land and the people, not the new stuff. They tell me to eat slower and to sing to flowers to help them grow. They tell me stories about their parents, the rivers they bathed in, the soap they made from a root, the cold, the translucent scorpions, the heat, the fatigue, the bloody tree trunk, solidarity. They tell me about the bag of peanuts and oranges they received during Christmas one year. Or the birthday they didn’t receive anything. They tell me about the tortillas they patted and tossed in the air and how they never came down. They tell me about the bike they were lent or the basketball they were given by a stranger. They tell me about how they both migrated to the city as children and that’s where their love story began—and where my mom begins—and then I.

I don’t know the answer to a million questions, and maybe there’s another term I could use instead of Indigenous: Native or Mexican Indigenous? Mexican Native? 

 I am lucky to have my elders to teach me about the collection of learned values, little things about the ancient world before Mexico, before Los Estados Unidos. The way that naming something isn’t always as important as it is to feel, embody it. Urgency is dangerous and to quantify sometimes means losing something else. But without documenting, thereine quantifying, things can tumble through time never to be known. I don’t know which is worse. So I sit around my abuelitos and map the interior of our lives as much as possible even if that means squinting into flasks, weighing in my hands the language of our legacy, and what it amounts to, if anything at all. Cuentos, dichos, names, medicine, values and so much more have been bestowed to me, and if this is what I am to preserve and continue, then I’m going to make fetch happen. One dicho in particular, strikes me every time. My abuelito always says, “No rajeis, hasta las seis.” He knows how burdened I am with life in the United States, but he reminds me, “Don’t give up till sundown.” Somehow always relating back to the natural order, you set to rest when the sun does. The sun and I, a shared cansancio and corazón .

Audre Lorde is irrefutable when she writes, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” The questions of Who am I?, Where and who do I come from?, and What can I preserve for future generations? are what’s guiding me to kill cesar with his mighty ass self, bossing my thoughts and integrity around. Destroying the master’s tools is helping me to envision a new world, blueprinted on the codex of the ancient past. All of this is to say that Regina has every right to ask questions. To question and understand is a human need. The issue is about when and how it is done. It’s about the mental gate keeping, policing, and border patrolling that ostracizes, quantifies, assumes, and intercepts us away from humanity and spirit—it’s precisely what keeps us from freedom and community. This isn’t all to bypass true and violent distinctions that determine real lived racialized, immigrant, trans experiences—how you survive, live, and hurt in this country or any other nation state—in the body and legacy of your people. It’s about the liminal space that’s possible to understand and learn beyond the rigid binary of being “enough” or “more of” what you are to appease an onlooker. Killing the cop and border patrol agent in my head has brought me to this place of (re)claiming who I’ve always been: Ráramuri, Pi’ma, Cora… and this isn’t to say I’m not Mexican either. Race and nationality are not mutually exclusive.

What do I do with the Regina Georges who will continue to use Caddy (Heron) tactics of confrontation to make me stop trying to make Indigenous happen. Maybe Abuelito is right when he says, “Sometimes naming something makes it lose its form.” Yet, if I don’t say I’m a descendant of the people I come from then am I participating in the erasure of the legacy of resistance I have been betrothed? If I say I am Indigenous, am I taking up space and participating in the same erasure I’m seeking to counteract? And after this whole scene, should I remove the politicized word “Indigenous” from my bio? Absolutely. Yet, I can’t keep removing myself from the epicenter I walk in and/or write from. I need to continue to untangle this identity dilemma in every intersection that I know is the lived experience of many diasporic peoples. Although I am aware of this essay being a moment of individuation upon my “identifying”, my analysis cares more about the ethics of questioning that can be violent and murderous in other contexts more severe than this Mean Girls moment. My writings also keep in mind the sovereignty of the people I come from who may not know I exist, who are still systematically impacted by colonization and nation states like Mexico and the USA RIGHT NOW because they are still on their native lands and their lives are under attack daily, unlike mine, in the same way. Yet as an elder has told me: you are still us. And so I write from where I can, my place in the world, outside of my native lands, in an urban landscape built upon Tongva land who has been the land my family and I have settled upon, Inglewood or Compton, humbly, one day hoping to go back to my lands and not be a settler. And once I’m back, go back some more, to the place where my ancestors come from. And then, further back, to what’s left of them.

I don’t know the answer to a million questions, and maybe there’s another term I could use instead of Indigenous: Native or Mexican Indigenous? Mexican Native? That is more “politically correct” considering that a lot of the connotations for the word “Indigenous” are reserved for folks living more racialized and systemically impacted lives that don’t always parallel my urban life. But what I do know is that when I find the silence within me, when I truly clear words and quantifications, spirit takes me to a realm of ceremony, knowing, and guidance that says I am exactly whole and in alignment with the political solidarity that is to say Indigenous. I am a continuation of my Ráramuri, Pi’ma, and Cora ancestors and yet, don’t need to say Indigenous to prove it. It is an acknowledgement of and let go of needing to be claimed or to claim. My revolution is right here, in the epicenter that is my family, their stories and legacy, and where we’re going as a displaced people, and me at the center of a fusion of native blood and writing. By saying the name of the people I come from I hope to be found, I hope to give attention to their wholly lived experiences and their continual strive for sovereignty of land, of culture, of heart, and of existence and perseverance—where their futures are secured. My grandparents handed me what they had, our complex legacy, and that’s enough for me. There’s no one I need to or will push in front of a bus to prove it.

féi hernandez is a trans, Inglewood-raised, formerly undocumented immigrant author of the full-length poetry collection Hood Criatura (Sundress Publications 2020). They are a 2022 Tin House Scholar and a 2021 Define American fellow. féi has been published in POETRY, Autostraddle, PANK Magazine, Immigrant Report, The Breakbeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNext, Somewhere We are Human, TransLash Media & Narrative, and more. féi, birthworker and spiritualist, is the founder of The House of Etéreo and within it, Spirit School for the Divinely Gifted, a spiritual learning space for TGNC BIPOC spiritual practitioners developing their healing abilities.