IN SEARCH OF AZTLÁN
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--its in our memory, its in our blood. And here is the
land where the truth lies. So theres 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
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 weve 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 thats not Aztlán. Aztlán
is a land with no borders.[In the] action component [of youth] projects,
if its a mural, if its 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 its not
with bullets, but its with songs and beauty and food. So, these
are the ways that we work with youth, [ways] that I walk the community.
We dont 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: Youve seen the maps that were 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 dont 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 dont
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 were 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 were
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. Thats 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. Theres 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 [thats] 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 shes 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. Shes
just had her ears pierced at a Sun Dance, and it was very scary for her,
because its 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 shes important. And thats
what our children need, and thats what I try to give to my baby.
As Chicano people, we are an autonomous, indigenous nation. Were
fighting, and were 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 theres people
fighting to stay in power, and thats not what were searching
for--we're not searching for that power. Were 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 youd 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. Its 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. Ive been feeling better since
I danced and I used these medicines." And thats 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 doesnt matter if youre from Europe,
or youre from Asia or youre from Alaska, or if youre
from Argentina. Were 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. Its an all-people's way, and we're all indigenous people.