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Finding Our Placed-Based Identities

A short introduction to my identity journey from centering nationality to centering my relationships with the land and ancestors.

By: Samara Almonte + Save to a List

Living as a racialized woman in the United States since the age of 9, the question about who I am and where I am from has never been something I can escape. How I respond to these questions has evolved throughout my life, and as I come to an answer that feels the most honest, I realize how much of a place-based response it is. It took me 20+ years to realize that who I am in this world is centered around land and relationship to place.

An Identity Based on Nationality

Nationality being the first identity marker I was introduced to, in my early childhood I identified simply as Mexican. However, as I grew older and adapted to “American” customs, I began to acknowledge my U.S citizenship while hyphenating my identity; I was Mexican-American. Looking back now, I realize that so much of my discomfort as an adolescent came from the inability to fully describe who I was and where I came through a national identity. I was being indoctrinated into a nationalist education system while living in the U.S, therefore I began to adopt a nationalist language to describe myself.

It wasn’t until I entered the world of higher education that I found a new language to describe who I was that centered a lived experience of, rather than a national identity. In 2015, I joined a PNW chapter of the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlan (MEChA), a student-led national organization created in the 60’s following the rise of the Chicano Movement. According to the “Mapping of American Social Movements Projects” by the University of Washington:

“The use of the term Chicano rather than Mexican American in the title of the organization was intentional. Chicano signaled a rejection of a Mexican American identity that accepted assimilation and shunned their cultural roots. Instead, MEChistA’s opted to identify as Chicanos, reflecting their commitment to a new political consciousness, self-respect, and pride in their cultural background”.

By identifying as Chicana in my early 20s, I found a community that not only could I share a political identity with, but a similar cultural background with. Although MEChA and Chicanismo as a movement was a stepping stone into growing my political consciousness and connecting with some incredible people, identifying as a Chicana was actually driving me further away from reconnecting with my ancestors and a placed-based identity. At its core, Chicanismo erases the Indigenous peoples whose land we occupy as Mexican-Americans and promotes a Pan-Indigenous view of Mexico. Identifying as a Chicana said more about the people I involved myself with than where my ancestors came from, or my lived experiences. To me it always comes down to the question of, whose land am I on, and what kind of relationship do I have with that land.

Tabling for MEChA during WWU'S Info Fair with 2016-2017 co-chair Cindy Marquina-Negrete

I want to acknowledge that I began to think critically about Chicanismo through learning from some incredible individuals across the organization and as an alumni of the movement, and that if it wasn’t for these people, I would not have the confidence to live as authentically as I do today.

Reconnecting with the Land

Aside from the inaccuracy of adopting a Chicana identity for myself, I also had to come to terms with the problem of using Latinx or Mexican to describe myself as non-White. Identifying as Latinx or Mexican doesn’t actually speak to my racialization, because neither term is an ethnic or racial identity. So if you stripped away these nationalist and colonial identities from me, who was left? Who am I when I don’t pledge allegiance to either settler-nation?

This most recent identity crisis is where I finally began my journey home to the ancestors. I can only speak from my lived experiences and from my ancestor’s lineage. And in order to do so authentically, I had to narrow down my identity to the specific relationships I have with land. Since we can remember, my ancestors have lived in Michoacan, Mexico, between the lakes and tierra caliente regions of the state. We have a deep and reciprocal relationship with the land across both of my families. On my father’s side there are several generations of sugarcane farmers, which is how we came to own land in our community and build an intergenerational home. My mother’s side is composed of medicine women, who understand an incredible amount of plants that can be used for sustenance and medicinal practices.

Understanding the geography of my ancestral lands, the map that is my lineage, is what has helped me navigate other worlds in my life. I identify now strongly with being part of the Michoacan diaspora, because although I don’t live in Michoacan full-time, it is from this corner of the world that I am able to build relationships with other Indigenous people. Land acknowledgements are not enough in terms of reparations for Indigenous people, but I believe acknowledgement can be a first step in supporting Indigenous sovereignty. When I introduce myself to a larger group of people nowadays, I am not just acknowledging my ancestors in Michoacan, I also find it crucial to center the Indigenous land on which I am living and working. And in building relationships with the people whose land I occupy, I have come to better terms with my own Indigenous identity. Because even when languages go dormant, when ceremony is not possible, when we are still finding our way to our ancestors, the land still holds our Indigenous knowledge. I am a P’urhepecha descendant because the land on which my family has been for generations is P’urhepecha. The land holds our plant knowledge and history as a family, and the waters in Michoacan remember my ancestors who I can no longer see. So in the moments where I don’t feel enough, where I feel like I need to conform to identity markers based on land acquisition rather than reciprocity with the land, I look inward and I speak to the land around me, showing gratitude to the ancestors of this land. Because living in diaspora does not mean I am disconnected, it means I am learning to carry our Indigenous knowledge wherever I go.

Eating mangoes in Michoacan, Mexico circa 2016

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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