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Indigenous spiritualities among young immigrant rights activists

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Mirroring a larger trend among young adults, contemporary young Latino/a activists are increasingly embracing indigenous spiritualities, most notably among those working along the border south of Tucson Arizona, which is a major desert crossing point for undocumented immigrants.

In the early 2000s, the “New Sanctuary Movement,” was birthed in Tucson in response to the high numbers of migrants who were dying in the desert south of the city. The early activist organizations were predominantly White; their leaders were mostly men. Many of the early short-term volunteers who flooded into Tucson also came from positions of privilege. However, as the crisis dragged on, the original religious leaders moved on to other work. Over time, local churches’ involvement also declined. In their place, young adults, many of whom are immigrants themselves, stepped into this work. According to Emrys Stanton, a longtime Tucson activist and Unitarian minister, undocumented young adults are recognizing that if they are publicly involved in organizing, it is actually safer for them to come out of the shadows, even though their parents are frightened by the risk. These young public activists are using the language of “coming out,” which they have borrowed from the LGBTQI rights movement.12

Many of these youth organizers are developing strong connections to the land, recognizing it as sacred, and they are growing their own food. Central to their spirituality is the Mayan concept of Inlak’ech, which can be translated as, “you are my other me.” Inlak’ech is the title of a Mayan inspired poem written by Luis Valdes, who is known as the father of a Chicano/a form of theater known as Teatro Campesino. Valdes’ poem sought to embody Mayan spirituality, whose core ethos is expressed in the saying: “You are my other me; if I do harm to you, I do harm to myself; if I love and respect you, I love and respect myself.” The instructors in Tucson’s Mexican-American Studies program started every class with a recitation of the condensed version of Valdes’ longer poem. The routine recitation of this poem anchored the Mexican-American Studies program in an understanding of solidarity from within the ancient Mayan tradition. It is this understanding of mutuality that now undergirds much of the youth activism at the border. According to Stanton, for many young adults, “the Christian stuff, even if it’s liberative Christianity, is seen as a form of colonialism.”

While indigenous spiritualities are serving as a more liberative platform, Stanton wonders whether these spiritualities can also heal the trauma caused by the constant violence at the border. There, women are its most frequent victims. Stanton notes that now women also lead all of the region’s major human rights organizations. He attributes these leadership shifts to the increased assertiveness among the border activists. Citing reports that whole communities in southern Mexico are expelling the cartels, Stanton concludes that the Zapatistas’ commitment to self-determination is infusing other movements further to the North.

Concluding comments

In Southern California, the massive border fortifications remain an open wound, tearing families apart, while imposing itself as an arbiter of human worth. In this context, the presence of various Latino/a spiritualities in the midst of justice activism are a vital means of affirming people’s humanity in the face of demeaning assaults on their sacred personhood. Latinos/as and other activists draw from the wide range of observed spiritual practices for the life-sustaining narratives needed to counter the human suffering and oppression in these border spaces. These spiritualities serve as a foretaste of a healed community that lies beyond the present social order.

In the midst of reclaiming their humanity, generations of justice activists have drawn sustenance and meaning from a wide variety of spiritualities, beginning with Cesar Chavez’s Mexican Catholicism. Chavez moved his community’s Catholic faith out of the church sanctuaries, into the fields where farmworkers toiled. In doing so, farmworkers and their struggle for union recognition and livable wages were publicly acknowledged as being of sacred worth. Not only did the Catholic Church rally in support of these workers, millions of Americans, many without any direct connection to the farmworkers, joined La Causa. The strikes against the grape growers were always more than a fight for better wages and working conditions. Instead, they sought an acknowledgement of the sacred worth of the farmworkers and all who toil for meager wages. The farmworker struggle has served as the training ground for countless activists, both Latino/a and non-Latino/a.

Subsequent generations of Latino activists added new layers to the repertoire of spiritual beliefs and practices. Although many had participated in the farmworker struggles, the Chicano/a Movement drew its primary inspiration from the contemporary liberation movements fighting against colonial rule in Africa and Asia. They came to interpret the theft of historic land rights granted to Mexican-American residents of the southwest as a form of colonialism that underlay the inequalities in contemporary Chicano/a education, employment, and political power. They conceived of Aztlan as the spiritual embodiment of the Chicano/a people and as an actual location in the southwestern United States. Chicano/a activists drew upon existing indigenous spiritualities while also creating entirely new rituals to mark key life events. The newness of these rituals mirrored the ephemeral nature of their quest to constitute a new nation in the southwest. The 1980s Sanctuary Movement grounded itself in Latin American liberation theology, which read Scripture through the lens of the poor. Finally, contemporary Latino/a border activists are incorporating elements of the ancient Mayan peoples’ cosmology into their activism.

The presence of these varied spiritualities within multiple generations of Latino/a justice movements has been instrumental in creating new collective identities through shared spiritual practices that brought sacred meaning to protracted Latino/a rights struggles. By embedding these spiritualities in their work, Latino/a-led social movements have succeeded in reterritorializing certain sacred indigenous practices. The Lady of Guadalupe is now also at home in the United States, where she is an iconic image within predominantly Mexican communities as well as among those social movements fighting for full rights for immigrants, especially those whose ethnic and cultural roots lie in Mexico. She remains a widely used symbol of Mexican hybridity.

However, there are simultaneously processes of deterritorialization at work as certain indigenous spiritualities become increasingly detached from their original locations. For example, the use of elements of Mayan cosmology within Chicano/ a Studies Programs in the United States separates these ancient beliefs from their geographic moorings. Similarly, Guatemalan Mayans who fled their highland villages during the civil wars of the 1980s now constitute a relatively small, scattered community in the United States. Every year it meets for a two-day national conference, at which elders seek to teach the younger generations about their indigenous cultural roots, which includes learning to read Mayan hieroglyphs.


  • 1 Personal interview, July 7, 2014.
  • 2
  • 3 Personal interview, September 9, 2014.
  • 4 Workshop presentation by Dolores Huerta, “Forging Partnerships for the New Millennium: A National Religion-Labor Conference,” personal notes, October 8-10, 1999, Los Angeles.
  • 5 Personal interview, July 7, 2014.
  • 6 Personal interview, July 7, 2014.
  • 7 Personal interview.
  • 8 Personal interview.
  • 9 Personal interview.
  • 10 Personal interview, July 7, 2014.
  • 11 Personal interview with Ana Grande, July 10, 2014.
  • 12 Phone interview with Emrys Stanton, July 14, 2014.
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