Indigenous Cultures Take Root in New York
The ongoing struggle for racial justice. The future for immigrant families. The health and well-being of all Americans. The very fate of our fragile planet. The United States faces a crossroads in 2020. Seeking out the stories flying under the national radar, The Nation and Magnum Foundation are partnering on What’s At Stake, a series of photo essays from across the country through the lenses of independent imagemakers. Follow the whole series here. This installment was produced with support from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
When the pandemic hit New York City this spring, Próspero Martínez, a Mixe Indigenous migrant from the community of Tlahuitoltepec in Oaxaca, Mexico, began managing a community garden and green roof project at the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. The community was experiencing food shortages and many people were losing jobs or having hours cut. People were scared.
For Próspero, joining with his neighbors to get through the crisis together just made sense. “Planting your own food is a way of resisting, of being autonomous—it is what we, Indigenous peoples, have fought all our lives to preserve,” he told me this summer. “It is a way to return to our origins, to revalue the work of the campesino, which in the labor hierarchy occupies the last step and, during the pandemic, we saw paradoxically, that he became the ‘essential’ and yet the most exploited worker.”
The food distribution network that Próspero is a part of, centered around the Good Shepherd Church, is largely run and led by Indigenous people, and for many like him, the work they are doing to keep their neighbors fed and housed draws heavily on the Indigenous practices they’re importing from their home communities. (Full disclosure: My husband is the pastor at Good Shepherd Church, so I have deep connections with this congregation.) Over the course of the pandemic, I have been visiting these centers of mutual support run by Indigenous migrants, photographing their work and talking to them about the importance these practices represent to them.
When Próspero came to New York City two years ago, he was joining a diverse mix of Mesoamerican Indigenous immigrant communities hailing from the mountains, jungles, and deserts of Mexico and Guatemala. Though not wholly new (Indigenous migrants have been in the United States for as long as the country has existed, and from the 1940s to the ’60s, Indigenous manual laborers from southeast and central Mexico worked as peasants in the US under the government’s “Bracero Program”), the pace of Indigenous migration to the United States has accelerated in recent decades. Indigenous communities in Mexico and Guatemala have faced new levels of economic precarity and violence in recent decades, which has displaced thousands of Indigenous people from their communities. New York has become a destination for many of them, and the city is now home to Mixes, Totonacos, Mixtecos, Otomís, Tlapanecos, Tepehuas, Amuzgos from Mexico; K’iches, Mams, Kaqchikels and Tz’utujils from Guatemala; Nahua from across Central America; and Quechuas and Aymaras from South America. Each of these peoples come with their own language, culture, identity, gastronomy, religion, oral history, philosophy and worldview that is glossed over or erased in many discussions of Latin American migration to the United States.
What many of these peoples share, however, is an idea of reciprocity and mutual support—“giving, returning and receiving”—as a social organizing system. These concepts and practices are embodied in words and phrases like tequio, faena, la mano vuela, mayordomías, and compadrazgo, concepts that have no direct translation in English but that all imply an individual’s responsibilities to the collective, and the obligations that come with being part of a community.
I’ve been working with and photographing Indigenous communities for over a decade, and this work has been grounded in a personal search for my own roots. My paternal family are Nahua from the community of Ahila Pahuatlán Puebla, Mexico, for years I lived in Indigenous Otomí, Nahua, Téenek, and Tepehua communities in Mexico, and when I first came to New York in 2011, I lived in an Otomí community in Queens. These experiences have led me to work as a community organizer with Indigenous K’iche’, Nahua, Otomí, Tepehua, and Tlapaneco communities in New York, creating long-standing ties of friendship and kinship.
So when it came to documenting Indigenous communities during the pandemic, I wanted to draw upon the ethic of mutual support that guides many of these communities. To make these portraits, I used the approach that guides all my work: Through collaboration, I asked how they wanted to be represented, and worked with them to create images that reflected what they wanted to express about their identities and their lives. This more horizontal, anti-hierarchical approach to image making is driven by my desire to create work collectively, in community with the people represented, in an effort to more accurately represent what Indigenous migrants consider to be important to them. This mode of engagement stands in stark contrast to the way these non-Latino immigrants are treated by the institutions that exert outsize influence on their lives, be they the courts, the migration system, hospitals or other institutions that fail to recognize the diversity—linguistic and otherwise—of Indigenous migrants. Many Indigenous migrants work low-paid and dangerous jobs, including as delivery workers, carwasheros, nannies, domestic workers, and day laborers, making them particularly vulnerable during this time. As the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, the fact that many of these migrants are also categorized as “undocumented” by a government that has existed for less than 250 years is another nonsensical affront to the enduring resilience of peoples who have made their lives and developed their cultures here for millennia.
Alongside the portraits, I asked people to write, in their own Indigenous language, what they wanted the world to read. Their messages reveal the struggles they face, the ways they adapt to a system that holds them in low regard, and the way they are thriving in their adopted city. From soup kitchens to Indigenous-language radio programs, green roofs to sports clubs, embroidery classes to community organizing drives, the diversity of efforts Indigenous migrants are currently leading points to the ways they are making New York City their own. These photos, then, represent a fraction of the efforts underway across the city to build and sustain vibrant Indigenous cultures.
Cinthya Santos Briones is an interdisciplinary artist and anthropologist based in New York City.
Co-published with The Nation.