Growing up in Mexico without an indigenous woman role model meant I didn’t see women of indigenous descent who were open about their cultural identity and be proud of it. In Mexico, it is uncommon for an indigenous woman to either hold a position of high authority or just be able to work at what she loves most while at the same time making a decent living out of it.
The only woman who brings back memories of being in touch with her indigenous background and who wore her unique style with confidence was Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Even though Frida and her work was not introduced to me in elementary school I knew about her through pictures I would see throughout the city’s historic downtown and learned about her later on as an adult. I always wondered why she wore indigenous clothes. Later I also learned that by wearing indigenous clothes, Frida asserted her indigenous roots. She also rejected foreign art styles in favor of the styles of the indigenous peoples of the Americas.
As a child though, the first indigenous woman that readily comes to my mind and who was commonly introduced to most Mexicans in their early age (those who grew up in the 80s and 90s) was La India María. La India María, which literary means the Indian named Mary, was a Mexican comedian from the 70s and 80s who became famous for playing an indigenous woman who made fun of her own illiteracy, cultural identity, and ethnicity.
It wasn’t until I saw Lila Downs performing live for the first time in the United States that my perception of being indigenous finally changed. I wrote about this experience four years ago in one of my posts Lila Downs: Ambassador of Mexican Culture. Since then, I became a follower of her music.
I was inspired by her presence and confidence performing on stage while wearing indigenous dresses; from her hand-made gold and silver jewelry, and intricately detailed clothing, to her adorned, two braided hair-style. I was astonished because growing up in Mexico the women I saw wearing indigenous clothing were either from lower working class families or they wore it as part of a cultural event at a tourist hotel. Never before had I seen a woman dress like Lila in order to perform publicly in major stages.
All of her clothes are made by indigenous hands. She also wears indigenous clothes as a way of promoting the diversity and talent of indigenous groups throughout the American continent. For example, during one of the live concerts I attended, Lila was wearing a hand-made top made of textiles from the Quechua people, an Andean community. Her skirt sported hand-made embroidery crafted by the Mixtec community of Oaxaca, Mexico. Her entire attire was a combination of different garments made by different indigenous groups.
Thinking of La India María and how indigenous women have been viewed in Mexico I couldn’t help but ask how did Lila Downs learn to appreciate her own cultural identity and make that a big part of her career?
Based on my years following her career and my own interests on cultural and heritage preservation I came up with three reasons: Lila’s own acceptance and appreciation for her indigenous culture; Lila’s unique cultural background (Mexican American) became an opportunity rather than a hindrance to her own success; and, simply put times have changed.
Acceptance and appreciation of one’s culture
I read and listened to a lot of her interviews from back when she first started in her musical career all the way to now as an established artist. I learned that when she was younger she went through a period of cultural identity crisis. She didn’t know where she “fit” culturally. Was she American or Mexican? Or even at a deeper level, was she white or brown?
Lila’s experience is that of many children who come from biracial and bicultural couples or even someone who is non-white. Many of these kids go through a journey of searching to find out where they “fit in” culturally and in society.
Lila was born in Oaxaca, Mexico. Her father was an Anglo American professor from Minnesota and her mother is an indigenous (Mixtec) woman from Oaxaca. Her mother ran away from home at age 15 trying to escape a prearranged marriage. Lila lived with her mother in Mexico until she was 14 years old and then moved to Minnesota to live with her father. This stay with her father was temporary because he passed away two years later but during their time he helped her learn English and encouraged her to further her academic studies.
When Lila was of age she attended the University of Minnesota where she studied Anthropology and Opera Music. Lila also attended music schools in New York, Los Angeles, as well as the Escuela de Bellas Artes; a prestigious school of the arts in Mexico.
Throughout her youth Lila split her time between living in Oaxaca with her mother and living in Minnesota with her father. The fact that Lila had an opportunity that not many Mexicans have of being able to cross easily across borders gave her the opportunity to openly explore both worlds, the world of her father, Anglo American, educated man and the world of her mother, indigenous, uneducated (to the standards of Western philosophy) Mexican woman. She was able to absorb the best of both worlds and keep what she believed was best. This however was a process that took her some time to accept. In an interview with Adela Lila admits that growing up she experienced feelings of rejection towards her indigenous ethnic background. She wanted more to fit in with her father’s cultural background than with her mother’s.
After Lila’s father passed away she moved back to her native Oaxaca. It was then that she had the realization that she no longer felt self-rejection at the fact of being Mexican and an indigenous woman. Back in Oaxaca she went through a journey of exploration and in the process she “re-learned”(I use this word to describe the process of deliberately teaching ourselves knowledge that we have forgotten about our cultural identity) all of the traditions that identified her with being indigenous: things that were so ordinary to the life of an indigenous person such as the art of weaving textiles or sowing and harvesting as well as working with the staple food of the indigenous people in the Americas before the arrival of the Europeans – corn.
When I hear Lila describing her personal journey I think that the process of re-learning all her cultural traditions and indigenous knowledge served as a form of therapy. She gained a deeper understanding about her mother’s cultural background and traditions and it also helped her understand herself and make peace not just with being Mexican but also with being an indigenous woman.
Lila’s struggle with cultural identity resonates with many Mexican Americans in the United States as well as with Mexicans, Native Americans and anyone who comes from a mixed ancestry or who comes from a non-white ethnic background.
An opportunity rather than a hindrance
What appeared to be a possible hindrance; being indigenous and part Anglo, became an opportunity to Lila as an artist. Lila’s unique background gives her a unique opportunity to serve as a voice to other indigenous people as well as allows her to bring something new as an artist to the world of music.
Lila is also well known for promoting diversity and talent among indigenous groups specifically from Mexico, as well as promoting indigenous arts and traditions especially through her artistic image and music. One example of that is in her indigenous attire which she wears with confidence every time she performs. Lila has also been chosen as the face for the tourism marketing campaign promoting her native Oaxaca in Mexico.
Lila is the first indigenous woman from Mexico who has become successful performing and promoting Mexican folklore music. Of course, there has been other successful Mexican American artists in the U.S. who became famous singing Mexican folklore music such as Linda Ronstadt during the 70s. However, this is the first time an artist identifying herself as an indigenous woman from Mexico has become successful at an international level.
Times have changed
There has been a shift in society from individuals wanting to ‘fit in’ as part of a homogenized society where every individual thinks, talks, or dresses the same to one of where individuals want to know where they come from and want to be able to express themselves without any repercussions. Today, cultural diversity, at least in the U.S., is more socially acceptable than it was fifty years ago. Millennials are some of the most diverse generations demographically in the United States. As such, millennials are more likely to be open about their cultural and racial ethnicity than any generation before them.
Indigenous women in the Americas, whether is in North America, Mexico or South America are still facing discrimination and have a long ways to go towards achieving fair, just and equal fair treatment. Nonetheless, musicians such as Lila Downs have blazed a path forward that challenges the cultural perception of indigenous women throughout the Americas. Lila has changed the way indigenous women are viewed.
Through her music Lila is making the public aware about indigenous traditions and cultures that many until now would have described as no longer relevant. Through her clothes and fashion she promotes indigenous art and encourages generations of women, young and old and anyone in between, to be proud and of wearing and reclaiming any part of their cultural identity that in the past was deemed lost. And through her songwriting Lila also has the opportunity to serve as a voice for the indigenous people and create awareness about the issues that affect these communities.
Lila is a powerful image for the younger generations of Mexican and indigenous women. I see Lila Downs and it makes me feel hopeful and proud about being able to identify myself and reconnect with my indigenous ancestry. Lila Downs led the way as an indigenous woman by reconnecting with her ancestral roots, making peace with her cultural identity and serving as a voice for other indigenous women.
I believe that had Lila not gone through that process of re-learning and discovering her own cultural background she would not have learned to appreciate it as she does now and thus learn to accept herself as both an indigenous and an Anglo woman. Her education played an important part in accepting her cultural heritage for she learned to embrace both the traditional methods of education (college), which is the universal norm, and the traditional indigenous knowledge and wisdom (from her mother’s indigenous culture). One is no better than the other and I believe both are necessary in order to learn to accept ourselves and feel confident in where we fit in society.
I share my favorite quote which I once heard one of my teachers say, “you don’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you came from.”
The one thing we can learn from Lila Downs and Frida Kahlo is that appreciation of one’s culture is not something that is naturally born, it must be taught, it must be instilled early on by the community who raises the child, the school, all the way starting from the immediate family.
In order to appreciate our cultural identity and find value in it we must first learn about our cultural background, the traditions of the place we came from and the history of our heritage.