Ceremony Brings together Original Peoples to Address Mexico’s Colonial Past

In a remote part of Mexico this month,  Apache men, women, and children from both sides of the Texas-Mexico border joined other first nations of Mexico for a ceremony dedicated to forgiving the country’s colonial past.

by Jessica Lutz

Deep in the Sierra Madres outside the village of Guachochi about 350 kilometers from Chihuahua City, original peoples from both sides of the Texas-Mexico bordered gathered.

The groups came together for “La ceremonia del perdón” , a gesture of forgiveness for colonial crimes against the Apache and other tribes across the Americas. The event was the vision of Bernarda Holguín. And it was her vision—literally, her eyesight—she lost, while exploring her family’s ancestry.

Holguín — whose last name is Apache for “one who carries a secret” — says it was traumatic not knowing her true heritage. She says, in Spanish, that she asked god for guidance, to restore her vision and to help her track her heritage.

Not knowing her family’s heritage, Holguín says, or holding the secret of ones identity can cut deep into the heart,  permeating generations with various forms of trauma.

Although long separated from the turbulent times of the Indian wars of the 19th century, those gathered at the event — like Richard Gonzales — share a common bond. Gonzales is an Apache, and like others gathered at the ceremony, his ancestors hold the secrets of his past heritage. Gonzales’s grandmother was a young girl in 1890 when her mother produced a traditional Apache dress. She wanted her daughter to see the dress one last time, before she burned it to ashes, never to be spoken of again. Gonzales’s grandmother related this story to him when he was a young boy and added, “It’s time. You have to know who you are or you will have no clue as to where you are going.”

People came to the mountains of the Sierra Madres to reconnect with their ancestry and weave the threads of their heritage through dance, song, and prayer in languages colonial society wanted them to forget. Ivan Alexander de Leon, Coahuila State Representative for the Lipan Apache Band speaks his native tongue fluently, transitioning between and sharing languages as he speaks. Almost the entire event was translated into the Tarahumara language.

The Tarahumara — who are famously known for their long-distance endurance running —are natives of the state of Chihuahua. They retreated to the high sierras of Copper Canyon and the Sierra Madre, fleeing Spanish invaders during the 16th century, a flight that has enabled them to maintain their cultural identity, during a time when Apache’s and other tribes were being killed and confined to reservations.

People arrived at Guachochi from far flung corners — from Los Angeles, California and the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona, from the Mountain of Coahuila Mexico and along the muddy banks of the Rio Grande.

With thunder rolling off the canyon cliffs, Crown Dancers from the White Mountain Reservation in Arizona danced and sang prayers under a canopy of pines. Manuel Cooley Sr., an Apache Medicine Man, explained that the Crown Dancers represent the first people their creator made to help establish the universe. The dancers summon the spirit, and through their prayers, he says, the creator offers healing.

Kiriaki Orpinel Espino, an anthropologist in Guachochi dedicated to preserving the rights of first nations, explains that each tribe, bands within tribes, and individual pueblo villages, have a distinct culture, language, and manner of living.

Espino is offended by the blanket term “indigenous” she says because it lumps and generalizes distinct peoples.

Even so, she is inspired about this gathering and what it means for original people everywhere, as they gather to share their secrets, their culture, and reclaim their true identities. “The original peoples of this area are like pieces of a puzzle.” she says. “And are now coming together, including the mestizos, people with mixed heritage. All together as one.”

Jessica Lutz is an IWMF Fellow for the Adelante Latin American Reporting Initiative.

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