Nuestra Historia Indigena

by Yovany Jerez | 5/23/01 5:00am

In the spirit of the May 12th"13th of 2001 weekend of celebration of the native peoples and native cultures of the western hemisphere, we, Los Hermanos de La Unidad Latina, Lambda Upsilon Lambda fraternity, would like to share with the larger Dartmouth community a brief reflection on the significance and influence of our ancestors who inhabited this part of the world prior to the European conquests and occupations beginning in 1492 on our collective Latino cultures and histories. It has been a central tenet of our organization since our founding to celebrate and gain empowerment from the triune root of Latino history and culture (the indigenous, African and Spaniard), though history, through the consequences of slavery, conquest and racism, has produced a legacy that has often denied the contributions of all of our ancestors on the infrastructure of the institutions of the Americas, as well as on the cultural and religious ideologies of modern Latinos. Unfortunately, many histories would have us believe the lie that the native inhabitants were simply conquered, disenfranchised and dispossessed of all property for exploitation, enslaved to build a life for their conquerors and then erased off of the physical and psychological face of human history.

From the moment that the first Conquistador met the first native of what we now call the Americas, the European man began his evolution to the citizen of the 21st century. Priests, scholars, engineers and physicians quickly made their way to the "new world" to gain wisdom from those same peoples histories have called "conquered." The provincial Spanish government and the current government still use the ancient Aztec water engineering design and construction of the wonder Tenochitlan (now Mexico City) in order to bring water to the city. Priests studied the religions of the native peoples in order to evangelize of the gospel. The way in which many Latinos view religion, not to mention such religions as santeria, also has its roots in native beliefs and practices. Physicians from Europe discovered new drugs and learned of new procedures from their native counterparts, as well as the idea that physicians should communities through leadership and service, practiced informally in homes and formally by professional Curanderos and Babalaos. And even on the issue of slavery, it was Bartolome De Las Casas in the early 16th century, a Spanish lawyer who after becoming a friar and moving to Cuba, was so struck by the cruelties and realities of slavery as to advocate the end of the enslavement of the native population and a modification of slave law that would give slaves the right (quinta) to own property and to have a family, an action without equivalent in the 250 years of slavery in the United States.

Although legends and death tolls fill most histories of the conquest of "New Spain," there is yet another story of resistance, perseverance and sheer will that could break any chain and withstand the crack of the strongest whip. Just as the survivors of the atrocities sought refuge in the wilderness, formed secret communities to pass down the wisdom of their ancestors and the syncretism of the ideologies imposed on them with their ancient ways, so too did the African captives preserve their identity with the drum, despite the "middle passage" and the system of enslavement, their secret brotherhoods (cabildos) and the syncretism of Santeria. Although the imperial administration declared illegal the thoughts, beliefs and cultures that nurtured the soil and filled the air, these people breathed in the land the Spanish stole, as well as the associations created to save their cultures in a place that the Conquistadors made foreign, they could not outlaw the rising of the sun, crush the human spirit. They could not usurp the divine right of every human being to live a life of dignity, respect and freedom of belief and culture.

Today the legacy of our ancestors is present both in our 21st century popular culture and in the foundations of our American democracy. Although many commonly accept that the food and dance, such as yuca and tortillas as well as Punto and Bachata (Andean and Dominican music, respectively), live on, few people consider our influence on the history of the U.S. and the history of the struggle for civil rights. When the colonists struggled against the British empire, they were fighting against the British in the American revolutionary war alongside Cuban militias raised for their aid. After the United States annexed one half of Mexico's land in order to preserve Mexican culture -- decades before the NAACP was conceived -- Mexican Americans founded the League of United Latin American Citizens in the U.S. in the mid-19th century. Because the media often portrays Latinos as foreign and as a late 20th century addition to this country, they conveniently forget that all Puerto Ricans have been American citizens since 1917. Although some may say that Latinos always look to the past before the conquest and slavery, today the United States has the second largest Spanish speaking population in the world. Furthermore, with projections showing that 25 percent of all Americans in the next 50 years will be Latino, we look forward to the future and see it bright and full of opportunities to bring human civilization to the next level.

508 years after Columbus' voyage, here at Dartmouth we have inherited a multicultural, multilingual, multiracial and multifaith community. Before us stands a great challenge to create a civilization through actions rather than words that respects the rights of all people and promotes the enfranchisement and empowerment of the underrepresented, disadvantaged and disenfranchised. As Hermanos of La Unidad Latina, we choose to live out the legacy of our ancestors through the advancement of the Latino/Hispanic community and other communities of color through education, service, leadership and the promotion of our cultural histories. As members of the Dartmouth community, which was ostensibly founded to educate Native Americans, we challenge students, faculty, administrators and alumni to follow the examples of De Las Casas and to veer from the crimes of Conquistadors, slave-traders and imperial administrators by actively promoting an environment in which differences are celebrated, assimilation is rejected for the empowerment of under-represented voices and support is given to paradigms that are founded in cultures other than the mainstream.