Division is the fancy word for less, not more. Greater numbers of the overall Native population living today encompass different languages, countries and even continents. The barriers created by international borders, customs and currencies are swept aside when People of the Earth look each other in the eyes and recognize themselves within those across from themselves. What does a larger Turtle Island look like when the entire Native population comes together to bond a common heritage, if not existence?
Growing up in the 1970s, one Saturday afternoon I watched in wonder at the colorful headdress worn in the ring by a professional boxer on the small television screen. That champion was Danny “Little Red” Lopez, a Ute-Mexican fighter (also Irish) who fought his last fight in 1992. He made the cover of Sports Illustrated one week, and the lasting image was of a man proud of his heritage.
Even as I began writing here about a wider Native worldview, a modern kickboxer by the name of Daniel Morales, a self-described Aztec, was competing on my flat screen television. He also wore a beautifully feathered headgear into the ring, but unfortunately suffered a loss that night. Still, the link was to those earlier memories.
At times, it is hard today living in a predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio to make similar connections with all of my neighbors because of the Spanish language barrier that exists for me. Still, I greet them all as Native people and hope for the best.
One day, I decided to pull into the parking lot of a nearby restaurant and try out the menu. The freshly painted sign said La Fiesta Taqueria and the building it was housed in showed someone cared about how it looked. It turned out to be a business operated by a remarkable man named Misael Mayorga, who had moved here a few years earlier from Utah.
Inside this renovated former social club was a poster on the wall of an eagle diving at the water for a fish. When I complimented him for the fine meal that I had enjoyed, he pointed at my Mohawk haircut that I had just gotten that day, and he said that made him proud to see me wear that. I grinned at the man as he began to tell me his story.
Faith, Family, and Fiesta.
Misael pointed to a long black haired young lady working in the bustling kitchen and smiled as he stated, “She is an Indian, as I am. She is my daughter.” He self- identified as an Aztec Indian, and he said that through her mother, she is a Guatemalan Indian. Sadly, the family had just lost their matriarch, so soon after the restaurant had opened the previous year. Despite the crippling emotional loss, the family seemed intact, and they were absolutely the finest hosts that one could hope for. Coming in another day, I missed seeing my new friend, but I had the pleasure of meeting a son, who wore a DC Comics superhero tee-shirt. A humble young man devoted to his family business, he blushed as I pointed out the design. I could tell that the real heroes in his life were his parents, who had brought him into existence.
The power of heritage exceeds the limits of social status or upbringing in some people. That is why when I hear people tell me their own stories, I am humbled by the depth of what they are saying.
Misael explained that everything that he is comes from three things. He counted them off for me. “Faith, family, and fiesta. With those things, you have everything,” he said with absolute seriousness. Using his hand, he pointed with his finger into his palm. “Faith is the foundation of life, the family is the proof of that life, and fiesta is the nourishment of that life. There is nothing better than those things to have,” he explained.
I pressed him to tell me more about what kept him going despite adversity. “I loved my wife, and our children now work at the business that we strove to open. Another Cleveland restaurant sent me legal paperwork that asked me to change our business name because they also own a restaurant that opened before mine. This is our Taqueria business, owned by Indians. We will stay open as we planned before my wife passed on. It is her legacy,” he said.
His words sunk in after we parted company. I recalled a story from the Akwesasne Mohawk Territory by the elder Ateronhiata:kon who said that while he toured South America, he was given local corn seeds in exchange for his own Mohawk white corn kernels. Upon returning home, he planted his bounty on family land in Kawehnoke, and when they reached full height, this new corn stood almost 9 feet high. “They only lasted one growing season, but did that get everyone talking that summer. The international corn was like a tall green visitor to remind us that the world around us was bigger than we realized,” he told me.
The pan-Indian union of North, Central and South America is implicit in the similarities of the people living from one end of the geographic area to the other. True, the differences can be highlighted, but the division of that greater potential is the shortcomings that separate neighbors anywhere globally.
Sometimes called “mud people” by racial purists, such as in an infamous television documentary from years ago, the grudging respect that historical survival breeds cannot be withheld because of the scattered nature of where Natives were born in any of these areas. Attempts to minimalize their overall population by country of origin really are futile.
Misael Mayorga has a hope to bring the esteemed Guatemalan writer Rigoberto Menchu to Cleveland to speak to the pan-Indian community here. “Her foundation recently commented upon the disregard afforded the traditional culture by elected politicians. The politicians were startled by the support that her comments received. When the people unite, everyone listens. No one can obstruct the way when people stand together,” he assured me in his quiet manner.
Listening to his words takes me back to my memories of the boxer “Little Red” Lopez. Another Lopez family member, his older brother, Ernie “Indian Red” Lopez, was a contender for the professional welterweight title, also in the 1970s. The physical damage that he suffered in his career led to a hard, shortened lifespan, estranged from his family, and he became isolated socially before he died. Such a dark state is all too familiar to many Indians who step away from their own struggles to fade into the night alone. Their lost hope a silent warning to stay true to the potential, not the pitfalls.
The strength of any union is dependent upon the individual parts. Clearly, the face of many rising Central and South American political leaders reflects the will of the people populating those countries they serve.
Taking population growth patterns into account on all three continents would lead one to believe that Native people will finally find their voices soon heard at the highest levels of their respective homelands. Whether that happens, the real story here is about using what no one can take away as you live your life to the fullest. Faith, family, and fiesta are together more than a catchy phrase. Their combined message is one of endurance, success, and salvation, to any that choose to embrace the mantra. To be a Native in the 21st century is to look towards the glory that is yet to come to fruition, by a people deserving to take that step together, for all of the right reasons known to a common culture, whose time has finally come again.
Saying it another way, if you don’t possess heritage, all you have left are pastimes.
Charles Kader (Turtle Clan) was born in Erie, Pennsylvania to a World War II veteran. He attended Clarion University of Pennsylvania, earning degrees in Communication and Library Science, as well as Mercyhurst College where he earned a graduate degree in the Administration of Justice. He has worked across Indian country, from the Blackfeet Community College in Browning, Montana (where he married his wife) to the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, and now resides in Kanienkeh.