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Keeping Up with the Indígenas

Maylei Blackwell breaks down what it means to be indigenous in Los Angeles

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Janice Peregrina, Staff Reporter

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The Center for Gender and Sexualities recently put a spotlight on one group in particular and how changing times have shaped how these people are living today.

Maylei Blackwell, the Director of Chicana/o Studies and Gender Studies at UCLA, was the special guest speaker at this event. Her main focus was on indigenous migrant peoples specifically, but not limited to Oaxacans, and how they have been displaced by the remapping of Los Angeles.

Blackwell’s presentation began with insight into her upcoming book project and its overarching theme on indigenous feminism. She began her speech by talking about the last chapter of the book, which covers how Los Angeles previously belonged to the Tongva people, and how they have been “displaced through southern colonialism.”

Today, Los Angeles holds the “largest urban Native American populations” in the nation. “The map of Los Angeles does not tell the history of its people,” she iterated. She took a shift here to talk specifically about Latinx communities, and how the growing number of diasporas in the city are shifting the identities of Latinx people. Despite the displacement of cultures throughout Los Angeles, Blackwell explained that through a concept called “indigenous mobility,” cultures remain and even thrive in the city today.

Indigenous mobility involves “culinary, political, and communal spatial projects” that represent specific cultures and diasporas moving from their place of origin. In other words, as Oaxacan and other indigenous migrants move to different regions, little shared pieces of their cultures follow them as they make their homes. Blackwell spotlighted indigenous Oaxacan women and how their “gender specific roles of creating and sharing their traditions” are important in preserving their culture. Cooking and distributing foods such as chalupas, tamales wrapped in banana leaves, mole, and fried crickets are examples of the rich and diverse culinary delicacies of the Oaxacan people, and a great example of how Oaxacan women “placemake” within LA to share their voices.

Indigenous peoples, though present and vocal about their culture, are still at risk of being forgotten or glossed over by others, especially governing bodies. Organizations such as El Comision De Mujeres Oaxaqueñas (COMO) fight to keep awareness and fair treatment of Oaxacan people, especially women. Blackwell, as a part of her contributions to her field in UCLA, is also helping to organize more awareness of indigenous peoples through the Mapping Indigenous LA Project. This website collects research on different indigenous cultures in LA, both through formal research and first-hand from indigenous-born people themselves, and shares it in order to “impart significant understandings of history, place, culture and the environment – in essence rooting our knowledge of Los Angeles in the rich and multiple notions of place created by indigenous peoples,” according to the website. Indigenous citizens can add to their “story maps,” personalized pages highlighting important features of culture and history, to better educate those interested in learning more about just who lives in Los Angeles.

Blackwell is currently trying to make the site mobile-friendly so that it is more accessible to those who need it.

For more information on the indigenous culture in LA and how you can help, visit mila.ss.ucla.edu.

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Keeping Up with the Indígenas