The Rain People 

With the coming of a saint, Richmond's Mixteco community steps into the light.

Page 2 of 2

BORNE ON STRONG men's shoulders, San Miguel glides down Perry Street. The Mexican flag flutters in the breeze.

"Vamos empezar nuestro procesión," Auerbach says. Let us begin our procession. The 200 people here don't heed his admonition to form "una fila delgadita," a thin line. They fill the street, curb to curb.

click to enlarge Stills from a saint procession video shot in Metlatónoc.
  • Stills from a saint procession video shot in Metlatónoc.

Boys wear suits with pants that pool around their feet. Girls wear elaborate braids in their long, dark hair. Their white party shoes tread on broken bottles and weeds. The people sing while they march around the block.

Two guys are washing a Jeep at the car lot on the corner. They don't look up from their sponges to watch San Miguel sailing majestically down the street.

Everyone's sweating by the time the saint finally returns to the church. Auerbach says a few more words and flings holy water onto the saint's robes. This ritual is new to him, he confides: "They're telling me how to do it." Everyone troops into Sacred Heart for Mass, with prayers in Spanish, English and Mixteco.

Leon borrowed about $3,000 from family to pay for the saint. Artisans in the Mexican town of Tlapa de Comonfort required one month to make him.

When the saint arrived in Richmond, Leon and the other Mixtecos felt "really happy and very proud, because it looked just like the one from where they're from," Auerbach translates. It was the first time Leon had seen San Miguel in 12 years.

click to enlarge Early Sunday evening, friends play outside in the trailer park where they live with other Mixtecos off Jefferson Davis: Jackeline Leon, Marisol Mejia, Lorena Ariles and Jazmine Leon. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Early Sunday evening, friends play outside in the trailer park where they live with other Mixtecos off Jefferson Davis: Jackeline Leon, Marisol Mejia, Lorena Ariles and Jazmine Leon.

INDIGENOUS IMMIGRANTS FACE a dual challenge, says Debra Rodman, an assistant professor of anthropology and women's studies at Randolph-Macon College. They have two foreign worlds to face: the local Latino culture as well as the larger American society.

From an anthropologist's perspective, cultural integration doesn't happen magically from watching TLC and eating at Applebee's. It happens with the help of already-established immigrants — the "integration intermediaries," Rodman says.

And that can be a problem, if you're Mixteco.

"We're not familiar with the racism that's embedded in Latin-American society," Rodman says. (She hasn't studied Richmond's Mixtecos, but she works with Mayans and other local immigrant groups.) Indigenous people from Latin American countries often are mocked as bumpkins, hillbillies or mountain people — "montañeros."

Lopez experienced this firsthand. When he worked on farms and in restaurants, people made fun of his physical appearance. "I'm not like white-colored skin," he says. "I'm like dark-colored skin. I'm not tall like any other mestizo from other states. I'm short."

But Lopez, unlike many Mixtecos, was fluent in Spanish and ready to fire back. "I would say: 'I don't like how you look at me. ... I don't like that word you used against me.' At least I was able to say that."

Because of discrimination, many of the immigrants Rodman works with are reluctant to reveal their indigenous identity. They'll say they're Mexican, she says, until she coaxes out the truth by asking: "Do you speak another lenguaje? Another language?" They sometimes say no, but their parents do; or no, but they can understand it. In fact, Spanish is a second language for almost all of Richmond's Mixtecos.

click to enlarge Accompanied by guitar and tambourine, the Mixtecos sing hymns while they walk around the quiet neighborhood in Manchester. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Accompanied by guitar and tambourine, the Mixtecos sing hymns while they walk around the quiet neighborhood in Manchester.

Migration to the United States presents a rare opportunity for indigenous people to lose pejorative labels, Rodman says.

"I found that the U.S. had an equalizing effect," she says. Non-Hispanic Americans don't make distinctions between indigenous people and those of Spanish descent, she says. "Their gringo bosses are saying, 'Hey, all you Latinos.'"

For indigenous people, Latino or Hispanic is a new sense of identity, Rodman says. "They're in the U.S. now. They're going to reinvent themselves."

She says she believes the lines will be erased in the next generation. Children won't know the scorn their parents felt. Neither will they know all their traditions.

Leon's children understand Mixteco, but speak only English and Spanish. Mixteco is a difficult language to learn, he says.

"I scold them all the time," Auerbach says. "I tell them they have to teach their kids Mixteco." (Auerbach is of Hawaiian descent; his grandmother spoke Hawaiian.)

click to enlarge The Rev. Shay Auerbach, pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church, has spent the last four years getting to know the Mixtecos. “They’re a world unto themselves,” he says. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • The Rev. Shay Auerbach, pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church, has spent the last four years getting to know the Mixtecos. “They’re a world unto themselves,” he says.

Leon himself is shyly pleased when asked to say a few words in Mixteco. He borrows a pen and writes: "taá nikuú." Pronounced ta ni-co, it means "hello" — buenos dias, buenas tardes, or buenas noches, depending on the time of day.

On Oct. 1, the church is holding an even bigger ceremony in honor of San Miguel. "He'd love to invite all the Americans to come," Auerbach translates, "so they could say hello to them and they could say a few words in Mixteco."

IT'S 9:30 SATURDAY night, and the Sacred Heart Center is bumping.

Every time the front doors open, music explodes into the summer night, brassy and thumping and loud. In the front hall, where Mixtecos are mingling, the music's even louder. Linger too long in front of the speakers set up in the gymnasium and you stand to become sordo. Deaf.

This is part two of the celebration of San Miguel: a fiesta that began with a feast at 1 p.m. and continues with dancing until 1 a.m. The Mixtecos have hired seven separate bands to play chilenas mixtecas, songs popular in coastal Mexico.

Despite the frenetic tempo and the flashing lights, there's a feeling of fatigue. Worn-out women and sleeping infants line the perimeter of the sweltering gym. A few couples jog briskly around the dance floor. Men crowd the doorways, watching. Garbage cans overflow with empty Modelo Especials.

Outside, the young still revel. Children flit across the playground, swinging and sliding and shrieking. Safe from parents in the dark, teenagers laugh and curse. All of them are speaking English. S

The big saint's day celebration of San Miguel will be held Oct. 1 at 2 p.m. at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, with Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo presiding. The public is welcome. shcrichmond.org

Correction: This article has been updated to include the correct title of R. McKenna Brown, executive director of the Global Education Office at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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