Sara Mendoza Interview
July 30, 1999

Q: Sara, what is Aztlán, and what does it mean to you?

A: Aztlán is the spiritual homeland of our indigenous Chicano people. This land is where our ancestors lived when we traveled south to Mexico to establish Tenochtitlán. But now, in our return to Aztlán, in fulfilling the prophecies of our people, we return, and we return in masses--it’s in our memory, it’s in our blood. And here is the land where the truth lies. So there’s a lot of hope to understand who we are in the North, who we want to be, the responsibility of saying that we are Chicanos, that we are people of Aztlán to build on a society, to build ourselves as new human beings.

Q: How do you implement your beliefs about Aztlán in your work as a community organizer?

A: I believe that the traditions of our ancestors--the way that they taught their children, the teachings that we have--all these teachings are very practical. And the way that I live my life, the way that I work in this community as a community organizer is I have this information, and I pass it on to the people. We have a danza Azteca group, and not only is that learning the danza, learning the spirituality of movement, but it's also learning how to retake a lot that has been taken away from our people, like taking care of the fire, fuego, how that represents the fuego of the people, how that is the ombligo of our people, the altar is creating sacred sites.
Also, when I work with youth, you talk to them about the way it is to respect each other, the way our ancestors taught us to respect the opposite sex, to respect each other as females, to respect each other as males, and these are different aspects of the things that we’ve understood from our ancestors. And when we teach them these things, we take them to the sweat lodges, we take them to different activities that include their understanding of who they are. We take [them] through a process which is called ipanewani which is the four directions, everything for which I live for, and these four directions talk about taking the youth through a reflection, teaching the youth about themselves, their bodies. So we educate them in anatomy and sexuality and things that are not really talked about, but we do it in a way that respects the cultura and it respects the way our ancestors used to think. So it's important.
A lot of our community has already adopted a lot of the borders, and they begin to recognize them, and that’s not Aztlán. Aztlán is a land with no borders.[In the] action component [of youth] projects, if it’s a mural, if it’s a dignity run, which is a run that runs through different communities and barrios, teaching them to respect each other, to welcome people to a different barrio, and it’s not with bullets, but it’s with songs and beauty and food. So, these are the ways that we work with youth, [ways] that I walk the community. We don’t recognize any borders, because the minute that we begin to recognize the borders of that one side, then we lose. We lose the spirit of what is Aztlán.

Q: You’ve seen the maps that we’re using for the video. What is your reaction to the maps?

A: The maps are a very important tool. I think there are a lot of people out there that don’t understand how real it is when we talk about Aztlán. We are children of Aztlán. But they think it's only a dream, an idea. [The maps help] to educate those people that don’t believe. Because it's very rare when we get to talk to our cousins, like the Dene people. I had an elder talk to me, and she told me that she remembers her parents telling her that the Mexica came to her land, and that we lived there with them for awhile before we continued moving south, and that she knows that we’re related, she knows that we're cousins. But this is very rare to get this type of information from our elders. So living in the urban city, living in a place where everything has to be on paper, it is vital to have these maps, because it proves what we’re saying: that [Aztlán] is not a myth, that [it] is a reality. So for people to see these maps, I hope that they feel that we do belong in this land, that we are not immigrants, that this is where we belong. And this is our history.

Q: What is the role of women in transmitting culture?

A: The role of women in transmitting culture pretty much is that we have the first contact with our youth. We are the main care providers for our children. We are the doctors, the teachers, the cooks, for our children. And it is important as women to educate our children about their history, and use that history in every day life to teach our children to take care of their bodies, to not take in any drugs, any alcohol, to be able to treat each other with respect. Women are the ones that must teach our children that [they] come from an invaded people versus a conquered people. That makes a difference. A lot of our young men are walking around believing that we are a conquered people. That’s not the way it should be.

Q: Please tell us about the program you are involved in.

A: I work at Teen Leadership Challenge. We are a pregnancy prevention program in Boyle Heights in East L.A. This community has a lot of violence. There are killings every week. There are a lot of attacks on women--by women. There’s a lot of division. So what we do in this community, we walk the community. We talk to the people. We ask them what they want. We include cultura in everything that we do. We have a danza Azteca group, pretty much initiated by the community.
We also have a young men's and a young women's circle, circulo, and this is a curriculum that we take the youth through. We talk about culture, we talk about self esteem, we talk about them respecting themselves, their bodies, knowing about AIDS, knowing about STIs, about birth control, different things like that. And we talk about higher education. We also have a mentorship program where we recruit only those mentors that are good role models.
We also have a theater project [that’s] also based on culture, and our instructors are always trained by Theater of the Oppressed, which our youth here in the community have really used in a beautiful way. [Through theater, they] talk about the things that bother them. If it's been a killing, if it's been teen pregnancy, if it's gang violence. These are things that youth talk about in their plays. So they create, they write, and they direct their own plays.

Q: How do you respond to people who say that Chicanos are U.S. citizens and so, therefore, they should try to integrate into the American society?

A: There are [people] that [say] by identifying [with] our cultura, we are becoming separatist, but these attitudes, I believe, are based on a lot of ignorance. Ignorance on the way this country was founded. It was founded on the blood of our indigenous people. And I think it is important to understand that history, for everyone, of all colors, that history of why our communities are the way they are now. It is not by coincidence that they are the way they are now.
I think a lot of people fear what is different, and, unfortunately, then don't understand that these culturas, these cultures, are based on thousands and thousands of years of instructions by the creator. I think that a lot of people need to participate in dialogue, they need race relations, education. I have a daughter. She's four years old. Her name means "good person that struggles." And the way I raise my child, number one, is by teaching her that she comes from a beautiful people. So she can grow up with a healthy self-esteem. Knowing that her people have not been conquered, that we've only been invaded, and that as long as we are still here struggling for peace and dignity, we will not be conquered. I think that is important to recognize that our children don't belong to us. She has been given to me by the creator to take care of, and I need to respect her, in that way. And I think it is important to take her to our ceremonies that we thought were long forgotten. But every month, I take her to these ceremonies. And she’s recognized by her community as a young woman. It's important to teach them about the changes in their lives, and to have ceremony for every one of those changes. Rites of passage. She’s just had her ears pierced at a Sun Dance, and it was very scary for her, because it’s painful, but these are things that now she can recognize that she wanted, and her community was there to support her, to tell her how beautiful she is, to tell her that she’s important. And that’s what our children need, and that’s what I try to give to my baby.
As Chicano people, we are an autonomous, indigenous nation. We’re fighting, and we’re looking for sovereignty in a spiritual sense. Even in the most confused young brothers or sisters in the street know that racism is not right. Aztlán is not about those negative things. There's not hate in Aztlán. But there is a lot of love. And I think that we need to validate the feelings of our people, the feelings of oppression, the feelings of that racism, that discrimination. The inequality in our educational system, an equality of colored people in prisons. These are real issue that we need to talk about. And I think that there’s people fighting to stay in power, and that’s not what we’re searching for--we're not searching for that power. We’re searching for self-determination to protect our traditional ways, to protect our ceremonies, to protect our elders, and to protect all [our] brothers and sisters. All those indigenous brothers and sisters that have lost their land, that are losing their land, that are being relocated. These are the things that we talk about. And if people have these negative ideas, that they think this is a separatist movement, we're [just] talking about basic peace and dignity.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

A: [The important thing about] working in community organizing, or working with communities, is educating the people about their cultura, but not only [in a] historical sense, but also in the practical ways that our cultura, our medicines, are important. So working with the community, working with the señoras, with the women, and their children in this community, it is important to be able to give them back some of that medicine that has been taken away from their families. Part of that is giving the people their fire, their fuego, back. Because the fire's the heart of the family. It’s what connects them to the land. And in danza Azteca, in our Aztec dance group, we teach them how to take care of that fire. So we give them a lot of different methods of healing. They use, now, the sage, which is one of the herbs that grows here in Aztlán. And they've taken it and they say "wow, it really helps me for my nervousness and it helps my body. I’ve been feeling better since I danced and I used these medicines." And that’s part of the value in our culture, and how practical it [can be] in every day life.
The other thing I wanted to mention [was] about attitudes people have [about us being in a] separatist movement. [They] only talk about Mexican people or Chicano people, descendants from this land, but that is not what we're saying. All peoples, all colors, all four directions, are all indigenous people. It doesn’t matter if you’re from Europe, or you’re from Asia or you’re from Alaska, or if you’re from Argentina. We’re all indigenous people. And after so many generations, we have lost our original instructions of what it is to be a human being. So when we talk about talking to the creator, taking our culture back, [about] becoming closer to earth, closer to the creator, directly--this is their culture, too. But they have their own instructions. They have their own ceremonies. It does not matter if they come from Spain, or if they come from England, or if they come from Oaxaca. We all have our original instructions. So it's important that we stop looking at it as an Indio-Mexicano way. It’s an all-people's way, and we're all indigenous people.