The arrival of the Spanish invaders to the Mexica capital of Tenochtitlán in 1519 led to the eventual burning of codices that erased a people’s past, while destroying their present.
The Spanish invaders clearly understood that burned codices was not so much about eradicating the Indigenous past or the present because they recognized that the few remaining Indigenous elders would somehow manage to educate their children as an act of resistance.
Rather, the Spanish invaders knew that for their enterprise to be a complete success, the burned codices had to be ultimately grounded within the scheme of total conquest and colonization.
The Spanish invaders were cognizant that with the passage of time, future generations would be so completely detached from their history and culture that consequently they would forget that they were the rightful owners of the land.
In burning the codices, the Spanish invaders and the colonizers who would follow afterwards did not realize that while a conquered and colonized people might lose their land, their soul, spirit, and strength would remain intact to be passed on to future generations. Inevitably, there would always be pockets of resistance in keeping the memory alive that this is Indigenous land.
Since 1521, we have been strangers in our own lands. Our codices have been burned, but our memories and words have survived.
Resistance through knowledge of our history and culture has been one of our weapons for survival. We must document our exile and existence in the internal colony. We must reclaim our family archives.
In digging through my own family history, I accidentally uncovered the existence of family treasures through old faded photographs. I began asking questions. The answers I received led me to ask more questions.
I uncovered an American history. More importantly, I uncovered a Chicano history.
The codices may have been burned 517 years ago, but through an accidental recovery of my own family history I realized that our very survival was dependent on keeping our personal codices alive generation after generation through our own histories so that one day we would be able to rise.
Cuauhtémoc, the last Mexica ruler, in his famous Last Speech said:
Our Sun has gone down
Our Sun has been lost from view
and has left us
in complete darkness
But we know it will return again
that it will rise again
to light us anew
In the 1960s and 1970s, the words that Cuauhtémoc uttered in 1521 were truly prophetic. The Chicano Movement exploded in the urban barrios with an urgent call for community self-determination by any means necessary. The political, economic, social, and cultural landscape of the Chicana/o was altered forever.
Chicano Power! Ya Basta! and Mi Raza Primero! weren’t hollow slogans, but were part of the movement’s iconography for self-determination. Every Chicana/o, depending on their talents and skills, was expected to play an important role in helping to create Aztlán.
Diverse organizations, such as La Raza Unida Party was founded as a direct challenge to the two-party system. Católicos Por La Raza challenged the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church while Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/o de Aztlán challenged the university system for its exclusion of Chicana/o students.
The political went beyond the streets. The Chicano Movement inspired a new generation of artists, poets, and writers to create revolutionary artistic work that would help politicize the movement further through visuals, spoken word, and music.
And this is how I came across the Royal Chicano Air Force (RCAF), a Sacramento, California based art collective that was founded in 1969 by José Montoya (deceased), Esteban Villa, Ricardo Favela (deceased), Armando R. Cid (deceased), Juanishi V. Orosco, Rodolfo “Rudy” Cuellar, Luis “Louie the Foot” Gonzalez, Juan M. Carrillo, Joe Serna, Jr. (deceased), Eva Garcia (deceased), Lorraine García-Nakata, and Juan Cervantes.
Initially named the Rebel Chicano Art Front, the RCAF came together to achieve the goals of the Chicano Movement and help in the organizing efforts of the United Farm Workers.
The primary focus of the RCAF was to make available to the Chicana/o community a bilingual and bicultural arts center where artists could come together, exchange ideas, provide mutual support, and make available to the public artistic, cultural, and educational programs and events.
In 2010, the RCAF was honored by the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture (NALAC) for Lifetime Achievements at its national conference in San Jose, California.
One of the founders of the RCAF was my cousin Armando who passed away in 2009 at the age of 66. My cousin was a printmaker, painter and craftsman whose art expressed the traditional folk life of Mexico.
I don’t know too much about my cousin and unfortunately, I don’t recall ever meeting him. Regretably, I’ve been detached from my extended family of uncles, aunts, cousins, and nieces. So uncovering this family history has been difficult especially since many of the older generation have passed on, and I have little to no contact with the new generation.
It has been through Chicana/o Studies that I have been able to uncover my own community and family history.
As much as I will argue that Chicana/o Studies is the intellectual arm of the Chicano Movement, it should be clear that Chicana/o Studies evolved out of the community. So it is only appropriate that family history be a primary emphasis in uncovering our own burned codices that remain hidden within our families.
It was a pleasant surprise to find out that my family on my father’s side had been actively involved in the Chicano Movement. I still question to this day why it took going to the university for me to learn this history?
My cousin Armando was born in 1943 in Fresnillo, Zacatecas and moved as a child with his family to Sacramento. He graduated from Sacramento High School and served three years in the Army.
My cousin Armando worked in advertising at the Los Angeles Times while studying at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. He earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art at Sacramento State University. My cousin’s work can be found in many private and public collections, including the Smithsonian Institution.
My cousin saw art as a way to educate and empower the Chicana/o community. He eventually became the executive director of La Raza Galeria Posada bookstore and gallery. In the late 1970’s, my cousin Armando was the Arts Commissioner for the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission.
There is more to tell, of course. I am still in the process of researching and making sense of my family history, while coming to terms with my own journey within that legacy.
My cousin’s story is but one of many modern codices that will rise from the flames to ignite a new resurgence in the Chicano Movement. I know this to be true.
My cousin had a daughter, whom I’ve never met, Ximena Cuicatl, a self-identified Chicana and Native American, who earned her Bachelor’s degree in Astrophysics from the University of California at Berkeley; her Master’s degree and Ph.D in Physics from the University of Texas at Arlington. This is just another seed of resistance being planted everywhere in Aztlán.
The legacy left behind by my uncles, aunts, cousins and even my own mother and father were very simple, and perhaps unbeknownst to them, but it was to clear the path for us to reclaim Aztlán.
Cuauhtémoc was profoundly correct:
But we know it will return again
that it will rise again
to light us anew
It is happening now. We are rising everyday despite the odds.
Harry Gamboa, the Chicano avant-garde artist who co-founded ASCO, once wrote: “For the artist to become involved in creating images and concepts that defiantly oppose the false mystification and negativism which has been popularized against Chicano culture, the artist is then effectively participating in a form of self-imposed urban exile. The artist who is exiled is free to question, to denounce, to mispronounce, to bring ugly truths to the surface. These truths can be the psychologically damaged goods which are strewn over a wide area of intercultural conflicts, including the loss of self-esteem and the adoption of fake identities.”
We must document our stories, especially our family’s stories, which have remained largely untold. We exist and live in exile. But as Harry Gamboa stated we are free to question. We are free to announce to the world that we are Chicanas/os.
While in exile, we are free to roam with defiance in our eyes and our fists in the air to proclaim Ya Basta! wherever injustice may lurk.
We are free to tell the story about those who came before us whose codices were burned. We will write new codices. We must write new codices.
At a time when Chicana/o Studies is banned in Arizona and under assault in other regions, we must defiantly and proudly reclaim the family archive as an act of resistance to begin telling our stories.