Practices of Belonging and Strategies of Freedom: Indigenous Communities in Diaspora Confronting Overlapping Violence since the Late Twentieth Century

Endorsed by the Immigration and Ethnic History Society (IEHS)

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Immigration and Internal Migration; Latino/a; Native Americans and Indigenous Peoples


In the 1980s an unprecedented number of Indigenous peoples from Latin America fled to the U.S. from the violence upheld by (settler) colonial structures and the expansion of global capitalism. While in the U.S., they confronted and navigated differential forms of violence that impacted their everyday lives as they were incorporated into a historically racialized and gendered segmented labor force. Among these forms of violence included language barriers, heavy policing tactics, and conditions of illegality that trapped or threatened to confine migrants in detention centers. These communities, however, were never simply passive victims of exploitation. Rather, this panel explores how Indigenous people from Mexico refused to be consumed by the violence they experienced in their everyday lives. Together, through attention to expressive culture and everyday practices of belonging, the panelists demonstrate how these Indigenous populations found innovative ways to recreate their communities with dignity and produced new social relations of belonging and strategies of freedom necessary for new democratic relations amid deleterious circumstances. Public historian and American studies scholar Michelle Vasquez Ruiz, for example, emphasizes how undocumented indigenous Zapotec communities have created translocal mobility through the use of online travel videos. In examining communities impacted by the violence of globalization and rigid immigration policies, Vasquez Ruiz’s work highlights the ways in which mobility has been both restricted and enacted by these communities in diaspora. Ethnic studies scholar Liliana Sampedro examines the ways that Mixtec immigrants engage in practices that cultivate life as Indigenous and undocumented people. By demonstrating how these practices strategically divest from capitalist and colonial valuations of land, life, and labor, Sampedro underscores the centrality of these practices that enable everyday migrants to envision another future beyond the violence of settler colonialism, immigrant policing, and capitalism. Finally, historian Jorge Ramirez will describe the ways in which indigenous Triqui and Mixtec people in southern Mexico, as they were forced to see each other as enemies, consistently remade their communities as they were placed in vulnerable and racialized conditions on both sides of the border. Together, the study of Indigenous communities since the late twentieth century reveal how U.S. capital and economic restructuring has disrupted and transformed the lives of communities through overlapping forms of violence by nation-states that continuously attempt to expropriate lands as well as incorporate, exploit, and eradicate communities. However, by examining the resourceful ways Indigenous communities form democratic relations and critical actions to address their violent circumstances, this panel also shows how the forms of exploitation and eradication constructed since the late twentieth century are not totalizing conditions but rather fragile and unstable.

Papers Presented

Virtual Archives of Containment and Possibility: Documenting Undocumented Zapotec Mobilities

The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) offered amnesty and relief for many undocumented immigrants, but for those that did not qualify for amnesty, the restrictions this act created and the ensuing border militarization that followed altered the relationship they held with their communities back home. These restrictions were especially damaging for undocumented Zapotec communities who frequently returned to their pueblos to fulfill their communal duties, a necessary part of their Indigenous identity and relationship to their pueblos. Being unable to return home, due to increase immigration restrictions, challenged their traditional notions of belonging, and left them in state of containment, tethered to their lives in the U.S. without the ability to return home. Despite these limitations, by using social media these communities have engaged in alternative forms of mobility through homemade travel videos that capture a sense of home. In this presentation I will read these videos as an archival source that reveals how undocumented Zapotec Indigenous communities rearticulate their relationships to their communities, their ancestral lands and their Indigenous identities while in containment. I will play close attention to how these videos are circulated, the videographer’s perspectives, and certain stylistic choices. By closely reading this archive I explore how these virtual spaces allow undocumented Zapotecs to imagine themselves existing in conditions outside of deportability and displacement to construct a distinct narrative of hope. These videos serve as an archive of Indigenous and undocumented possibilities.

Presented By
Michelle Vasquez Ruiz, University of Southern California

Self-Deportation and Collective Liberation: Indigenous Oaxacan Organizing in the Age of Obama

In response to undocumented migration since the 1980s, the U.S. passed a series of harsh immigration and asylum policies that increasingly criminalized undocumented status, militarized the U.S.-Mexico border, and tightened pathways to citizenship. Under the Obama administration, deportation levels reached historic levels even as relief offered by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) provided temporary protection to eligible undocumented youth. While some Indigenous migrant youth were granted relief through this policy, their communities continued to live in fear of deportation. Refusing to leave their communities behind and allow them to continue being targeted by violent forms of policing, Indigenous migrants have played a central role in immigrant social movements. This paper analyzes the actions of undocumented Mixtec and Zapotec immigration activists who in 2013, engaged in strategies of self-deportation in which they deliberately returned to their home country of Mexico in order to call attention to mass deportations. As actions that have decisively challenged liberal frameworks of inclusion through DACA, demonstrated the fragility of colonial borders, and destabilized the meaning of deportation and the category of undocumented status, these actions have effectively constituted anti-colonial practices. At the same time, these practices have been central to cultivating life for Indigenous and undocumented peoples as they imagined their relationships to each other beyond colonial systems of value. Examining these anti-colonial practices ultimately reveals a moment in the early twenty-first century that witnessed a break in the legitimacy of the settler state, its immigration policies, and oppressive colonial relations.

Presented By
Liliana Sampedro, University of California, San Diego

Indigenous Oaxacan Migrants, Race, and Violence in California Agriculture since the Late Twentieth Century

A shift in racialized labor occurred in California agriculture during the 1980s, as employers began to hire laborers from non-traditional sending areas of Mexico including Indigenous workers like the Triqui and Mixtec people from south of the country. The shift towards Indigenous farmworkers revealed the strengthening economic links between Mexico and the U.S. that had exacerbated violence in the Mexican countryside (peasant repression, systematic poverty), escalated forced migration, and the ways race and indigeneity played a crucial role in this process. As they were incorporated into the agroindustries, Indigenous migrants confronted new forms of structural violence as farmworkers involving the precariousness of job availability, mobility, and low wages alongside overlapping racial discrimination. Yet, despite the exploitation they faced in their place of arrival and in their home region, they transformed communal traditions and practices of belonging into translocal strategies of freedom. The actions they engaged in their everyday lives, including survival strategies and the recreation of their communities, became central terrains to resist, imagine, and enact new ways to relate to each other as they were integrated as the latest cohorts in the exploitative conditions of farm labor. Ultimately, the study of Triqui and Mixtec translocal practices of belonging as strategies of freedom reveals how Indigenous people from Mexico became a critical component to, and part of a broader pattern of, the reorganization of racialized labor in the U.S. amid the economic restructuring of the twentieth century as much as their basis to refuse violence and maintain humanity.

Presented By
Jorge Ramirez, University of California, San Diego

Session Participants

Chair: Luis Alvarez, University of California, San Diego
Luis Alvarez is associate professor of history at the University of California, San Diego. His research and teaching interests include relational race and ethnicity, popular culture, and social movements in the history of Chicanas/os, Latinas/os, African Americans, and the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands.

He is the author of The Power of the Zoot: Youth Culture and Resistance during World War II (2008, University of California Press, American Crossroads Series) and co-editor of Another University is Possible (University Readers Press, 2010). His publications also include essays in Latino Studies, Aztlan: A Journal of Chicano Studies, Popular Music and Society, Perspectives, French Review of American Studies, OAH Magazine of History, and Kalfou: A Journal of Comparative and Relational Ethnic Studies.

He has also published essays in Mexican Americans in World War II (University of Texas Press), Transnational Encounters: Music and Performance at the U.S.-Mexico Border (Oxford University Press), The Struggle in Black and Brown: African American and Mexican American Relations during the Civil Rights Era (University of Nebraska Press), Globalization and Culture: Volume II (Edward Elgar Publishing, Ltd, 2012), and Latinos and World War II: Mobility, Agency, and Ideology (University of Texas Press).

Commentator: Nicole Marie Guidotti-Hernández, Emory University
Dr. Nicole M. Guidotti-Hernández is Professor of English at Emory University. She is an expert in Borderlands History after 1846, Transnational Feminist Methodologies, Latinx Studies, and Popular Culture and Immigration.

She is author of Unspeakable Violence: Remapping U.S. and Mexican National Imaginaries, Duke University Press (2011) and Archiving Mexican Masculinities (forthcoming). Her articles have been published in journals such as Women’s Studies International Forum, ELN, Social Text, American Quarterly, The Latin Americanist, and Latino Studies, where her article “Dora the Explorer, Constructing “Latinidades” and the Politics of Global Citizenship” is one of the most downloaded articles in the history of the journal. She is also the co-editor Radical History Review special issue number 123 entitled “Sexing Empire.”

She has written numerous articles for the feminist magazine Ms. and the feminist blog The Feminist Wire, covering such topics as immigration, reproductive rights, and the Dream act. She also sits on the national advisory council for the Ms. and is currently on the national advisory council for Freedom University in Athens, Georgia.

Presenter: Jorge Ramirez, University of California, San Diego
Jorge Ramirez is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of California, San Diego and part of the Indigenous Oaxacan diaspora. His research examines the ways race, violence, and indigeneity functioned in opposition or alongside capitalism to connect southern Mexico with the agroindustries of the US and Mexican Pacific Coast in the late twentieth century. He emphasizes the self-activity of indigenous communities from Oaxaca through a long-range historical study to understand how these everyday activities, practices of belonging, and freedom dreams amid violence and racial capitalism were transformed and survived across time, borders, and regions. His research has been supported by the SSRC’s Dissertation Proposal Development Program, the Fulbright-García Robles, and a visiting fellowship at the Center for US-Mexican Studies at UC San Diego.

Presenter: Liliana Sampedro, University of California, San Diego
Liliana Sampedro is a doctoral student in Ethnic Studies at the University of California, San Diego and a second-generation Mixtec immigrant from Oaxaca, Mexico. She holds a B.A. from Brown University in Ethnic Studies and Sociology. Her current research is interested in late twentieth and early twenty-first century immigration policies and the ways these policies use racialized state surveillance and practices of control to maintain settler, economic, and sociopolitical hierarchies.

Presenter: Michelle Vasquez Ruiz, University of Southern California
Michelle Vasquez Ruiz is a PhD student in the department of American Studies and Ethnicity at USC. Her research considers the urban history of undocumented and Indigenous communities in Los Angeles. She is specifically interested in the ways in which Indigenous immigrants have been racialized in cities. Michelle completed her BA in Political Science and Chicano Studies at the University of California, Irvine and her MA in History at California State University, Los Angeles. Currently she serves as curator for the Boyle Heights Museum in Los Angeles as well as a researcher for the Mapping Indigenous LA project at UCLA.