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2. L’entre-deux : espaces, pratiques et représentations
I. Espaces transfrontaliers

Yaquis of Southern California in-between the US-Mexico border



Cet article cherche à examiner « l'entre-deux » de la nation yaqui des deux côtés de la frontière entre les États-Unis et le Mexique : la nation yaqui de Californie du Sud (YNSC) et celle de la rivière Yaqui. Il présente l'entre-deux entre les pratiques cérémonielles et migratoires nouvelles et celles qui sont traditionnelles de la diaspora yaqui en Californie. Cet article conclut que le cas des Yaquis de Californie du Sud est une démonstration des pratiques collectives transnationales, culturelles-ethniques et politiques des peuples yaqui. Ces pratiques sont une manifestation de ce que Homi Bhabha a appelé l'hybridité culturelle. Le cas des Yaquis de Californie du Sud est l’« au-delà » de la culture qui négocie, redéfinit et remet en question les communautés ethniques.

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1According to Homi Bhabha, the location of culture today is in between tradition and newness (In Between Cultures 107–9). The idea of “in-betweenness” includes a process of redefinition of culture. It is where hybrid identities are created. The hybrid between the past and the present, the old and the new, is postcolonial migration history. In-between embraces the narratives of cultural and political diaspora, the major social displacements of peasants and aboriginal communities, among others (In Between Cultures 107). Bhabha argues that the location of culture and hybrid identities are in between the margins, a sort of being in the “beyond” of culture, more than in the core of “pure” traditions or homogeneous nations (The Location of Culture 9). Being in the “beyond” of culture is like inhabiting an intervening space; nevertheless, to inhabit “the beyond” is also part of an in-between time, the present, and the future. In that sense, then, the intervening space “beyond” becomes a space of intervention, in the here and now (The Location of Culture 10).

2Additionally, the notion of a traditional and homogeneous nation is in the process of being redefined, questioned, and reiterated. Bhabha notes that there is much “evidence of a more transnational and translational sense of the hybridity of imagined communities” (In Between Cultures 108). There is no such thing as a historically homogeneous nation or national culture, the consensual or contiguous transmission of historical traditions, or “organic” ethnic communities. There are changing elements involved. As a result, communities must redefine and perform traditions in different ways.

3For the Yaquis as a transnational ethnic community, the in-between spaces are situated on both sides of the US-Mexico border. In the United States, Yaquis are located in the Southwest, principally in Arizona, but also in California, Texas, and New Mexico. They are originally from northwestern Mexico by the Yaqui River in Sonora in Mexico. Culturally and politically, they are tied to the Yaqui peoples on both sides of the border. Both sides have endured thanks to the strong cultural and transnational political networks established between themselves, other indigenous peoples, resistance groups, the Mexican government, and the U.S. government.

4Since colonial times, Yaquis have been in resistance, adaptation, and negotiation. Migration has been an important strategy. As Evelyn Hu-De Hart writes, it “represented the Yaqui’s way of responding to pressures of the expanding secular society around them, demonstrating a flexibility that contrasted sharply with the Jesuit’s intransigence […]. When Yaquis practiced their particular type of rotational migration between mission and mine, they created demographic instability in the pueblos” (Hu-DeHart 6). Indeed, this strategy allowed them to resist the division of their ancestral territory and tax collection.

  • 1 According to Meeks (2007), “the people of indigenous and Mexican descent struggled to maintain cont (...)
  • 2 According to Joe Feagin, systemic racism is a theory of oppression related to foundational racism. (...)

5The Yaqui peoples have faced racial oppression for centuries in the form of land dispossession, environmental pollution, the genocide of their ancestors, development projects undertaken without consultation, among others (Radonic 1–21). In addition, they manifested oppression on nationality and ethnicity, primarily negating – or negotiating – their “Yaquiness” for generations and embracing Mexican or Mexican American heritage. Consequently, some Yaquis created new ways of expressing identity in an ethnic mode rather than the indigenous one. Eric Meeks argues that indigenous and Mexican descent peoples have created new institutions and practices to be included in national culture and in the capitalist economy. He calls this process “resistant adaptation”.1 The Yaqui peoples have practiced resistant adaptation while adapting the Indigenous identity to the context in unanticipated, resilient, and sometimes defiant ways of responding to the global economy, discriminatory policing, racist law enforcement, and other related processes colonial powers. Moreover, systemic racism2 has legally and socially forbidden cultural and religious practices in the public arena for decades. Therefore, cultural hybridity has resulted in redefining, questioning, and reiterating the “imagined community.”

6This paper begins with a brief description of the methodological framework. It then introduces the Yaqui Nation’s context. Next, it shows how the Yaqui Nation of Southern California (YNSC) constitutes a transnational indigenous people.

1. Methodology

7This article employs an interdisciplinary approach, focusing on the historical and anthropological dimension of the cultural hybridity of the Yaquis. This research is a case study, which, according to Anol Bhattacherjee, is an interpretive research design and longitudinal study of a phenomenon at one or more research sites to derive detailed, contextualized inferences and understanding the dynamic process underlying a phenomenon of interest” (Bhattacherjee 116). He highlights that case research is a unique research design that can be used in an interpretive manner to build theories. This study seeks to examine in an interpretive manner the in-between culture of the Yaqui Nation of Southern California and the Yaqui River from a postmodern theoretical framework proposed by Homi Bhabha (Nation and Narration 291–220, The Location of Culture, In Between Cultures). The heart of Bhabha’s framework is the cultural hybridity of transnational imagined communities (In Between Cultures). According to Kathleen Eisenhardt, such studies include cases that support the theory (Eisenhardt 532–50). Therefore, this work includes two cases: the Yaqui Nation of Southern California and the Yaqui Nation of the Yaqui River. The cases support the theory of the cultural hybridity of the “in-betweenness” of both indigenous groups and their transnational ceremonial and migration practices. According to this theory, the location of culture is in between tradition and “newness,” in the hybridity of these elements, rather than in a homogenous national culture or an organic ethnic community.

  • 3 This process is called “theoretical sampling” and the researcher selects the participants who bette (...)

8Data for this study was collected through interviews (open-ended/semi-structured), conducted in person or by phone, and through participant observation of cultural events (e.g., attending ceremonies such as Vision Quest, Sun Dance, Sweat Lodge, Bear Dance, and Pascua), and social gatherings (e.g., attending meetings, briefings, and feasts). The interviews and direct observations were supplemented with documentation and archival records (e.g., internal Constitution, official webpage reports, and letters of tribal recognition). Five members of the YNSC were interviewed as a theoretical sample.3 Interviews were conducted in Spanish, recorded, and translated into English by the author. Having multiple contacts within the community facilitated the research, as did the trust and the commitment established with the Yaquis over the past five years. Indeed, being part of the group helped to target the topic. I attended multiple customary and non-customary versions of Sweat Lodge, Vision Quest, and Sun Dance ceremonies. I traveled to Riverside, California, to meet and interview Yaquis of Southern California several times. I met them in Arizona as well. Lastly, I used pseudonyms to protect the privacy and identity of the participants.

2. Who are the Yaqui peoples?

9The Yaqui peoples call themselves Yoeme. They have their language, culture, customary law, and mode of governance. Yaqui’s native language is Jiak noki, better known as Yaqui (Buitimea), and they speak Spanish and English. Their origins are rooted along the Yaqui River in northeastern Mexico in the border state of Sonora, a territory covering over half a million acres where their sacred lands are still located. There are approximately 42,000 inhabitants living in the eight Yaqui villages: Vícam, Pótam, Tórim, Ráhum, Huírivis, Bácum, Guamúchil, and Belém (Grageda and Molina 225–44). They also live in other parts of Sonora. In the United States, they are located mainly on the southwestern border area in Arizona, California, Texas, and New Mexico.

  • 4 Other scholars also take this approach. See, for example, J. Brown, The Sacred Pipe. Black Elk´s Ac (...)

10Christina Leza argues that the Yaqui peoples are US-Mexico border indigenous peoples4 because they are indigenous individuals with US citizenship and belong to an indigenous nation with cultural ties to Mexico (Indigenous Identities on the U.S.-Mexico Border 914). U.S.-Mexico border indigenous peoples such as the Yaquis face a complex process of identity construction, which may involve shifting perceptions of self-concerning nationality, ethnicity, and politics (Indigenous Identities on the U.S.-Mexico Border 914-36). It is evident that Leza is alluding to Pascua Yaquis from Arizona; nevertheless, identity construction is complex for Yaquis from other parts of the U.S. Like many Pascua Yaqui members, they might identify themselves as Yaqui, Mexican, American, Indian, and Native American, depending on the context and momentum.

  • 5 According to indigenous knowledge, the “Red Road” was given by the Creator or Great Spirit, and ind (...)

11The cultural life of the Yaquis has changed over the centuries, even more for those in the U.S. Changes have included the in-between and “newness” of their “traditions.” Yaquis have agreed that the only path forward possible for the indigenous peoples is what they call the “Red Road”,5 which implies reclaiming ancient indigenous heritage and a spiritual and ceremonial way of life (Brown 1953). Nevertheless, that path has changed depending on the place, time, and people. The cultural, social, political, economic, religious, and spiritual spheres are interrelated as a holistic model (Deloria 1973). For Yaquis, the ceremonial path connects with the Creator, relatives, and all the natural resources (land, water, sun, moon, fire, and stones). The “Red Road” guides the sacred journey of healing that unifies the peoples, the land, the four elements, the four directions, the Creator, and all the sacred things that allow kinship, “togetherness,” “peoplehood,” and “Yaquiness.”

12Despite the Yaquis’ efforts to continue practicing their ceremonies as they learned them from their ancestors, they needed to make changes according to the historical moment and geographical location. For instance, in the 1970s the Yaquis from Arizona started the Sun Dance ceremony at the Pascua Yaqui Tribe (PYT) reservation before the PYT gained federal recognition. At that time some members of the PYT, who did not agree with these Indigenous ways according to what interviewees reported, were no longer allowed to perform the ceremony on the PYT reservation. Then, they moved to Yuma and Southern California during the 1980s. After that period, they were offered to conduct the Sun Dance in Casa Blanca, Southern Arizona, where it had been held since 1998. Prior to that, people traveled to South Dakota to join the ceremony with the Sioux people. Currently, the ceremony is conducted under Sioux guidance, but in a hybrid way, respecting the Yaqui´s Eastern ceremony, Deer Dance, and “Chapayecas.” Mexicans, Mexican Americans, Anglo Americans, Tohono Oldham peoples, Gila River Community peoples, Navajos, and other indigenous peoples also celebrate the Sun Dance. Each group adds essential symbolic and material resources.

13The Sun Dance ceremony in particular is performed in an in-between space located in different cultures and geopolitical territories. As Bhabha writes, “These ‘in between’ spaces provide the terrain for elaborating strategies of selfhood – singular or communal – that initiate new signs of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration, and contestation, in the act of defining the idea of society itself” (The Location of Culture 2). As a transnational ceremonial society, indigenous peoples perform ceremonies with hybrid elements resulting in a unique transnational ceremonial practice with traditional and new components. In Bhabha’s words: “It is in the emergence of the interstices […] that the intersubjective and collective experiences of nationness, community interest, or cultural value are negotiated” (The Location of Culture 2). The negotiations overlap and displace the domains of difference in-between cultures.

3. Yaqui Nation of Southern California (YNSC)

  • 6 All the Indigenous peoples federally recognized in the US endorse a variant of the standard colonia (...)

14The Yaqui Nation of Southern California (YNSC) is part of the Yaqui Nation, which is located within two nation-states, the U.S. and Mexico. The YNSC shares the same cultural ties and heritage; nevertheless, it is in a foreign territory. Its members live in private homes near their places of work and ceremonial centers. The group was formally established in Riverside County, California. More than 100 enrolled members form it. Many others are in the process of affiliation. The enrolled members mainly came from Southern California, Los Angeles, Riverside, Palm Springs; Southern Arizona, Tucson, Phoenix, and other surrounding cities; Sonora, mainly from the Yaqui Villages, Hermosillo, Cajeme, and Altar/Trincheras; Sinaloa, and Chihuahua. They mainly speak Spanish and English. It must be mentioned that some of the members applied for membership in the Pascua Yaqui Tribe (the federally recognized Yaqui group) as well but were denied because of a lack of documentation.6 Furthermore, some of them have an affiliation with the group of Yaquis of Texas (a state-recognized Yaqui group). In an interview in 2019 the chairman of the YNSC stated:

Look, we are a Nation that is established in Mexico and the United States, and we don’t mind if we were born here [in the US] or in Mexico. All over the world, where there is one who is Yaqui, she/he will be part of the group. If he or she wants to be part of the group, we will recognize him/her.

15The process for enrolling in YNSC consists of a formal affiliation by issuing a membership card based on the request of the applicant and a subsequent investigation of the Yaqui history of the person. The documentation required to become a member consists of proof of genealogical data, such as historical, census and vital records. Blood quantum is not used. Most importantly, members are required to self-identify as Yaqui; to attend traditional ceremonies regularly; to maintain a degree of relation with Yaquis of the River and other Yaqui peoples in Mexico or the United States; to maintain some kind of link to California; to respect and love the Yaqui heritage; and to foster the Yaqui and other indigenous traditions as language, culture, and ceremonies.

16The YNSC peoples belong to a hybrid culture in-between space of two nations (US-Mexico), times (precolonial and postcolonial), traditions (Indigenous and European), and newness (the hybrid between Indigenous ways and Western ways). As Bhabha writes:

The borderline work of culture demands an encounter with “newness” that is not part of the continuum of past and present. Instead, it creates a sense of the new as an insurgent act of cultural translation. Such art does not merely recall the past as a social cause or aesthetic precedent; it renews the past, refiguring it as a contingent in-between space that innovates and interrupts the performance of the present […]. (In Between Cultures 109)

17This “in-between space” reconfigures not only the past and the present, but also the geographical reference and the cultural elements involved. In the YNSC case, the ceremonial and migration practices are complex and “beyond” the Yaqui culture (Mexican, Mexican American, etc.). Those practices inhabit an intervening space “in the beyond” of a revisionary time, reassessing the past and the present and investing in the future.

18As a transnational border community, the Yaqui Nation has experienced transnational migration, which could also be called postcolonial migration. First they migrated to the Spanish-occupied territory, then to the U.S. During the period of the Spanish Crown, Yaquis started their migration to the territory occupied by the Spanish conquerors. Yaquis were either working for foreign companies or fleeing to the hills during the uprisings against the Spanish conquerors. As Hu-DeHart explains regarding migration during the Spanish invasion:

The large-scale migration seemed to indicate that, despite strenuous Jesuit’s objections, Yaquis were asserting their independence and exercising their mobility with greater force and facility than ever before, thus confirming in turn that one consequence of the 1740 rebellion was, not surprisingly, the decline of Jesuit authority in the Yaqui mission. (Yaqui Resistance and Survival 90)

19Postcolonial migration provided assistance in order to resist colonialism. Yaquis worked their lands between the 18th and 19th centuries or migrated to Sonora, Sinaloa, or California. They always returned home because they had their lands. Since that period, the Yaqui migration to California has been part of their resistance and survival strategies.

20After the battles with the Spaniards, they had to fight the Mexican government. During the 19th century, they suffered devastating attacks from the Mexican government and transnational companies (Figueroa 16-161). In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, during the Mexican presidency of Porfirio Díaz, Yaqui diasporas were registered in Arizona, California, New Mexico, Oregon, and Nevada (Spicer Pascua XIII). It is considered that there was no diaspora of Yaquis before 1882 when the Yaqui War started in their territory (Spicer 21–24). Yaquis fled persecution, genocide, and deportation by Díaz´s government. They were forced to disperse to the Yucatán peninsula among the Maya or to the barrios of southwestern California among Anglo Americans in Los Angeles. Yaquis who came across the border returned soon to Sonora, sometimes with ammunition to support the guerrilleros of the Bacatete in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Spicer 21–24). After the Mexican revolution, many Yaquis returned to their lands, while others remained in the United States. Those who were deported to Yucatán were never provided proper repatriation (Padilla 1995).

21The Yaqui “diaspora” (Zatarain 7, 66, 132-133; Spicer The Yaquis: A Cultural History, 158-161) in the U.S. was primarily located in San Xavier del Bac in Tucson, Arizona, near Los Angeles, California, and in Zuñi Pueblo, New Mexico (Spicer The Yaquis: A Cultural History, 158-161). Some may have scattered to other places in the U.S., but it is not known where they were exactly. According to Figueroa, they were refugees of war and were aware of it (Figueroa 1985 16–161). In Sonora, Mexico, they migrated to the center, hills, or desert to Altar, Bavispe, Magdalena, Hermosillo, Guaymas, Matape, and San Miguel. Some stayed there while others have migrated to the U.S. at different times or returned home (Yaqui territory). They were fleeing the terror of the war against them (Figueroa 1985 16–161).

22Christina Leza argues that the Yaqui Nation has been divided by the U.S.-Mexico border enforcement policies and other colonial mechanisms. This physical and ideological separation within the Yaqui community threatened their peoplehood, even if they shared language, history, ceremonies, and networks as people across the US-Mexico border (Leza The Divided Yoeme 5–27). Moreover, within U.S. borders, there was another political and geographical division between different groups of Yaquis in Arizona, California, and Texas.

23During the 20th and 21st centuries, Yaquis established transnational networks and coordinated with the Mexican and the US governments, claiming and gaining federal recognition from both nation-states at different times (Schulze Jeffrey Are We Not Foreigners Here?). These networks were part of a transnational social field established among Yaquis of the Yaqui River, Pascua Yaquis, Yaquis of Texas, and Yaquis of Southern California. They also included non-indigenous groups, such as Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and or Anglo Americans.

24According to the YNSC´s political constitution, they define themselves as a sovereign Native American population and are in the process of requesting federal recognition. Its members have established and adopted this constitution in order to protect their inherent right to self-determination and self-government, in pursuit of the common good. Its legal status is currently a Nonprofit Mutual Benefit Corporation. This status was granted by the Secretary of State of California. Therefore, the YNSC is established under section 501(C)(3) of the IRS, Internal Revenue Code, classifying it as an Exempted Organization for the U.S. Treasury, as long as it respects its purposes of protecting collective rights.

25Since 2009, they have met monthly to organize their formation and socialize, and several members are known for their kinship ties. Since 2014, they have been organizing their social and political structure at a more elevated level. For instance, they have been updating their constitution, meeting traditional Yaqui authorities of other groups, and establishing a name for the group. Recognition of the YNSC as a non-profit organization was granted in 2017. Currently, they meet during ceremonies or other special events. In the future, they will seek a resource for federal recognition.

26The idea of forming the YNSC was officially proposed in 2009. Since then, the elders of the group, who self-identify as Mexican or Mexican American, began the exploration of their Yaqui roots. The leaders encouraged younger members to do the same. These elders and their children then investigated their Yaqui ancestors and traditions. They contacted other Yaquis of California, Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, Sonora, and the Yaqui Villages. Hence, they reaffirmed their indigenous ways while also redefining them.

27The origin and formation were initiated after the death of two senior members of the group, part of Molina´s family and founders of the YNSC group. In an interview conducted in 2019, the chairman of the YNSC noted: “Before dying, the elders [of Molina family] expressed to their heirs that they were not Mexicans [or Mexican Americans] [but] that they were Yaquis, and this was the reason the group was started”. Unfortunately, they did not have more information about being Yaqui. Thus, they conducted research and found more people searching Yaqui ancestry. They found Mexican and Mexican American relatives with Yaqui heritage as well. It must be highlighted that the YNSC had involved Mexican and Mexican American descendants as enrolled members, as long as they self-identify as Yaquis, just as the Pascua Yaqui Tribe did when it was first formed (Spicer Pascua 8, 27).

  • 7 Johan Galtung approached structural violence as systemic oppression where the social order, special (...)

28In 2019 during an interview, Guadalupe Molina, a Yaqui woman founder of the YNSC, noted why her ancestor negotiated their Yaqui identity: “they had an agreement between my grandmother and my uncles. They could never say who they were because they were persecuted […]. They passed as Mexican [Americans] to survive”. Just before their respective deaths, her mother and an uncle informed Molina´s family members that they had Yaqui ties. The eldest members of the Yaquis of Southern California group then began to understand their identity as Indigenous people. They believed the indigenous identity was denied by generations or, instead, hidden because of the racial violence of which they were victims.7 Molina´s experiences evidenced the process of redefinition and negotiation of ethnic communities. Those experiences represented the transition of historical traditions or homogeneous national cultures. Hence, her experiences reflected an in-between cultural process, as Bhabha argues (In Between Cultures 107).

29In the United States and Mexico, the Yaqui strategy has been redefining and negotiating cultural identity and national belonging. It is an insurgent act of cultural translation to the geographical and historical context. It reconfigures the in-between space where they were immersed. The “concealment” of the Yaqui identity resulted from a mechanism of resistance towards the colonial violence against them.

30In the United States, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) prohibited many tribal religious rituals in the 1870s and 1880s. The idea was the assimilation (“Americanization”) of Indians thorugh the General Allotment Act, also called Dawes Severalty Act of 1887, which was a reform aimed to prohibit Indinas from their traditional community, private property, and education. The Dawes Act also made Indians competitive citizens with full legal equality as long as they assimilated to the American culture (Koppes 554-55).

  • 8 “Vanishing Americans” is an allusion to a novel by Zane Grey, The Vanishing Americans, published in (...)

31From the 1890s to the 1960s, the Indians were the “Vanishing Americans,”8 and their religious ceremonies were suppressed and could not be performed openly. It was not until the Civil Rights Movement that Indians began to reclaim their culture and sketch their own religious experiences. From the 1870s to 1978, the status of traditional religious practices and practitioners was unclear (Deloria God Is Red).

  • 9 The Yaquis of Southern California did not take part in the Civil Rights movement, but did benefit f (...)

32In 1934 the Dawes Act was repealed. Indian Commissioner John Collier established the “Indian New Deal”, which allowed traditional practices, fostering traditional culture and community. The Pascua Yaqui Tribe performed Lent and Easter (Pascua) related ceremonies because they were adaptations of European Catholic rites. However, there may have been a local lobby acting against indigenous ceremonialism in Arizona because the Navajo, Gila, and Yaqui elders with whom I spoke were traveling to other states to perform Indigenous ceremonies, such as the Sun Dance in South Dakota. However, after World War II, when the U.S. emerged as a victorious superpower, the tribes had to face the “termination” policy and forced assimilation which ended in the 1960s with the Civil Rights movement9 (Koppes, ibid.).

33Finally, in the late 1970s, Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which aimed to protect and preserve the inherent right of American Indians to practice their traditional religions (Deloria God Is Red).

34However, legally and socially, Anglo Americans treated Mexican people with indigenous heritage as inferior, and profiled them racially in anti-immigration law enforcement as they did all persons of Mexican “appearance” even if they were born in the US (Acuña 1972). Long before the founding of the U.S. Border Patrol in 1924, descendants of Mexicans were persecuted by Anglo-American nationalists. They adapted by reconfiguring their identities, especially their indigenous roots, keeping them secret almost until the grave to protect the younger generations.

35The context was not brighter in Mexico, where Yaquis faced intense persecution, slavery, deportation and genocide from the 1880s to the 1930s. Racist policies and law enforcement almost exterminated the Yaqui Nation during this period (Figueroa Los que hablan fuerte 16–161). Yaquis were either killed, forced to flee or forced to deny their heritage for the sake of survival. One had to think twice before publicly practicing an indigenous ceremony or even passing the Yaqui heritage on to younger generations.

36Younger members of the YNSC who performed their Yaqui identity in the United States experienced relief from being part of this group and practicing ethnic rituals. In an interview, Francisco Flores (2019), a young member of the group, stated: “[…] the ceremony opens up the door so that our ancestors allow us to feel we are Yaquis [in the sense that we are welcome] along with the oral history of my grandmother, as well as my family tree”. During his childhood inside a Mexican American family of indigenous heritage, he discovered his Yaqui roots through his family´s narratives. However, they did not perform any indigenous practices. It was not until Francisco Flores had attended a ceremony that he performed his “Yaqui identity.” From the first moment, he felt that he belonged to the group. He developed a sense of being a Yaqui relative, honoring his Indigenous ancestors, through ceremonies such as Sweat Lodge, Sun Dance, Vision Quest, singing, and drumming. The ceremonies are evidence of the hybridity of “imagined communities.” Since he was a child, he has been occupying an in-between space (Mexican American of indigenous heritage), questioning and reiterating it according to the historical period and the context, and forging what Bhabha calls “in-between,” or hybrid, identities (Bhabha In Between Cultures 107).

37On the other hand, Rafael Bacasehua (2019) was always sure of his identity as Yaqui. From his youth, he knew he was Yaqui because of the narratives of his great grandfather. In an interview, he observed: “since I was a child, where I was born, there were a lot of Yaquis, and we knew we were Yaquis. My grandfather, the father of my father, was born at a Yaqui Pueblo, and I have Yaqui relatives in Tucson [Pascua Yaqui Tribe]. That was part of my family forever. We were taught that way since childhood.” Being a Yaqui varied depending on the context from Bacasehua´s experience. He referred to the fact that his family lived in different towns on both sides of the US-Mexico border since 1915 before living in the Yaqui Villages. The family that migrated to the United States was located in the Pascua Yaqui Reservation. Nevertheless, the proximity, the networks, the fluid border, and flexible law enforcement allowed them to transit back and forth from Mexico to the United States, maintaining family ties.

38Currently, Bacasehua expresses the concern that a great part of his family has adopted another way of life, experiencing a sense of loss of their indigenous roots and connections, especially the younger generations living in the U.S. Additionally, the family has been split because of increasingly strict border enforcement, which has led to a sense of loss of cultural and community values, in particular the language and ceremonial way of life. However, he is looking forward to reconnecting with his Yaqui relatives in the US and Mexico. As Bhabha states, the borderline work of culture demands an encounter with “newness” as an insurgent act of cultural translation that renews the past and reconfigures the present (Bhabha In Between Cultures 109). Culturally speaking, the Yaqui peoples are in this process of re-imagining their past and restructuring their present. Migration and ceremonies are important elements in this process that supports Yaquis as part of a transnational ethnic network.

39Regarding the political dimension, the YNSC is recognized by the Yaqui authorities from the Yaqui River. In the following extract from the “Letter of recognition towards the YNSC” received on December 7, 2016, they were granted ethnic recognition by the Yaqui authorities from the Yaqui River in Mexico. Equally important, they express gratitude and support towards the YNSC group. The authorities of the Yaqui pueblos declared in this letter that

What joins us is our race, culture, and traditions. We would like to continue the contact with you to promote our culture and traditions and strengthen the networks that link us as Yaqui relatives. We are also willing to exchange experiences in mutual support of our peoples and our Yaqui Nation, our recognition for you, for your work and culture.

40As can be seen, the federally recognized tribal authorities of the Yaqui River state the ethnic and political recognition of the affiliated group in Mexico and the desire for collaboration. Another scholar flagged the same ethnic and political recognition as a matter of high priority for the Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Southern Arizona case, demonstrating a strong collective tie that goes beyond borders (Vega 2018 125–44). They claim their collective rights concerning the self-determination of their cultural values, traditions, and relationships among their people. At the same time, they redefine new ways of relation in in-between spaces. The Yaqui Nation in Mexico has rights of self-government and self-determination; its recognition as part of an indigenous nation in the U.S. by the Yaqui authorities from the Yaqui River is critical for the YNSC. Although neither the U.S. federal government nor the state of California recognize Native American tribes outside of the U.S. territory, their ethnic recognition is currently enough for the YNSC. The reason for this is that the YNSC is an opportunity to connect with other Yaquis who are disconnected from their indigenous relatives and have experienced changes in their traditions and thus an opportunity to redefine, interrogate, and reiterate their cultural hybridity.

41The YNSC is a transnational group self-funded by contributions from each member to carry out ceremonial activities such as healing circles, healing dances, funerals, and other traditional rites. It contributes materially to the collective purchase of healing medicines, transport, food, lodging, and other travel expenses so that members may attend the ceremonies held in the U.S. (California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas) and Mexico (Sonora and Chihuahua). The members also donate to the Yaqui Pueblos, buying housing, school, and ceremonial supplies with money from their own pockets.

42It must be mentioned that Yaqui peoples of Southern California do not receive public funding for public schools. Thus, their children cannot attend public schools in California, where they are not taught Yaqui culture. Nevertheless, they learn about their culture through their parents, elders, and other community members.

  • 10 The Sun Dance is a Plains ritual taken up by numerous tribes from Canada to the south of the U.S.
  • 11 The main purpose of all these ceremonies is healing. Prayer in a healing circle seeks cleansing and (...)
  • 12 The indigenous ancestors are considered collectively as Indigenous Americans.

43The ceremonial practices reiterate and negotiate a Yaqui identity regarding the cultural-ethnic dimension. They prepare themselves almost year-round to observe or participate in festivities such as Lent, Holy Week, Day of the Dead, Deer Dance, and All Saints celebrations. They approach Catholic ceremonies in a syncretic way, placing them on the same level as traditional indigenous practices. Their religious syncretism may be seen in their versions of Lent and Holy Week, in ceremonies held on both sides of the border and there is a vast literature on it (see, for example, As for Yaquis in the U.S., they are in the “beyond” of a culture where they inhabit an intervening space and time. They practice other indigenous ceremonies aside from those already mentioned: Temazcal or Sweat Lodge, Vision Quest or Up to the Hill for a Vision, Sun Dance,10 Bear Dance, Memorial Dance, smudging, drumming, singing, and smoking the Sacred Pipe (Chanupa).11 These ceremonies are the legacy of their indigenous ancestors,12 prior to the arrival of Europeans and the adoption of Christian religious festivities such as Lent, Holy Week, and Easter.

44In addition, these ceremonies establish a transnational relation with other Indigenous nations, not only with the Yaqui Nation but also the Tohono O’odham, Navajo, Apache, Gila, and Lakota peoples. They also interact with other groups, such as Mexicans, Anglo Americans, and Europeans living in the U.S. These ceremonies allow them to be in the “beyond” of culture, in a hybrid space here and now while redefining their ethnicity and nationality.


45The relation the members of YNSC have with the Yaqui peoples (those of the Yaqui River, Mexico, and the United States) is a demonstration of their cultural hybridity, which includes collective transnational cultural-ethnic and political practices, considering the territorial, cultural, and political “in-betweenness.” It is evidence of what Bhabha has called the transnational and translational sense of the hybridity of imagined communities. The YNSC case is the “beyond” of culture that redefined, questioned, and reiterated ethnic communities on both sides of the US-Mexico divide. Transnational practices contribute to inhabiting and intervening in the space “in the beyond” of culture. That process reiterates the Yaquis’ right to self-determination in cultural practices, social and political organization and territorial administration.

46For purposes of analysis, the transnational character of the Yaqui case could be divided into two main dimensions, ethnic-cultural and political, as some scholars have argued (Grageda Lo global como posibilidad de lo étnico 225–44; Meeks Border Citizens; Schulze Are We Not Foreigners Here?; Vega Persistence-Resistance 125–44). In order to understand the ethnic-cultural dimension, it is necessary to place the Yaqui Nation within a transnational social field. The ceremonial and migration practices allow them to reiterate the continuity of the relationship between Yaquis -and other indigenous peoples on both sides of the U.S-Mexico border. In addition, these practices support the redefinition and negotiation of their culture. Regarding the political dimension, the recognition by their peers in Mexico is essential for the YNSC because it supports their claim as Yaqui peoples. This component makes it possible to continue interethnic transnational networks. The economic dimension, is intimately related to the other dimensions given that the Yaquis fund their own activities.

47Because this case study is relatively new, more research is needed. There is extended literature and research about Yaquis of the River, Sonora, and Arizona butthere appears to be little of the Southern California case. It would be interesting to observe the YNSC is politically organized and how cultural, and political collaboration among Yaquis works in this case as well as in the others.

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1 According to Meeks (2007), “the people of indigenous and Mexican descent struggled to maintain control of their own culture and daily lives […] so they created new institutions and practices in order to absorb into a national culture and the capitalist economy. These responses are understood in the light of resistant adaptation. [This refers] to the unanticipated, resilient, and sometimes defiant ways in which people adapt to impositions by those in power.” Eric Meeks, Border Citizens, Texas, University of Texas, 2007, p. 4.

2 According to Joe Feagin, systemic racism is a theory of oppression related to foundational racism. It includes extensive range of white-racist dimensions, such as racist ideology, attitudes, emotions, habits, actions, and institutions of whites in society. Systemic racism is organized by a racial hierarchy founded on historical and governmental processes (public policies, laws, rules, enforcements, institutions, among others). Joe Feagin, Systemic Racism: A Theory of Oppression, Ann Arbor, Routledge, 2006.

3 This process is called “theoretical sampling” and the researcher selects the participants who better fit the research questions. The selection is based on theoretical considerations such as whether they fit the phenomenon being studied or whether they possess certain characteristics that make them uniquely suited for the study. Anol Bhattacherjee, Social Science Research, Op. cit., p. 95.

4 Other scholars also take this approach. See, for example, J. Brown, The Sacred Pipe. Black Elk´s Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux, University of Oklahoma Press, 1953.

5 According to indigenous knowledge, the “Red Road” was given by the Creator or Great Spirit, and indicates the good or straight way, the purity, and the source of life.

6 All the Indigenous peoples federally recognized in the US endorse a variant of the standard colonial theme and require demonstrating blood quantum and race purity as a metonym of Indian identity. The PYT is not exempt of these standards granted by the US government. Christina Leza, “Indigenous Identities on the U.S.-Mexico Border,” Op. cit., p. 930.

7 Johan Galtung approached structural violence as systemic oppression where the social order, specially its stratification, is indispensable for the understanding of structural component. “Structural violence is inequality, above all in the distribution of power, then this can be measured; and inequality seems to have a high survival capacity despite tremendous changes elsewhere […] (Galtung, 1969: 175). This kind of violence involves inegalitarian distribution of the social structure levels (Galtung, 1969: 176). The condition of structural violence is social injustice and inequal social structure (Galtung, 1969: 171). Examples of structural violence are exploitation, penetration, segmentation, marginalization, and fragmentation (Galtung, 1990: 292). Galtung concluded that violence can start directly, culturally or structurally with the violent structure institutionalized and the violent culture internalized, direct violence also tends to become institutionalized, repetitive, ritualistic, like a vendetta (Galtung, 1990: 302). Johan Galtung, “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research,” Journal of Peace Research, vol. 6, no. 3, 1969, pp. 167–91,; Johan Galtung, “Cultural Violence,” Journal of Peace Research, vol. 27, no. 3, 1990, p. 291–305,

8 “Vanishing Americans” is an allusion to a novel by Zane Grey, The Vanishing Americans, published in 1925 and also turned into a silent film that same year.

9 The Yaquis of Southern California did not take part in the Civil Rights movement, but did benefit from its gains.

10 The Sun Dance is a Plains ritual taken up by numerous tribes from Canada to the south of the U.S.

11 The main purpose of all these ceremonies is healing. Prayer in a healing circle seeks cleansing and purification.

12 The indigenous ancestors are considered collectively as Indigenous Americans.

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Aracely RIVERA COHEN, « Yaquis of Southern California in-between the US-Mexico border »e-Rea [En ligne], 20.1 | 2022, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2022, consulté le 22 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Post-doctorante au Binational Migration Institute de l’Université d’Arizona
Aracely Rivera Cohen a grandi au Mexique à Hermosillo (Sonora). Elle explore ses origines Yaqui depuis longtemps et est récemment devenue membre de la Yaqui Nation of Southern California. Docteure en sciences sociales interdisciplinaires, sa thèse a porté sur les femmes Yaquis. Elle est aujourd’hui post-doctorante rattachée au Binational Migration Institute au sein du Département d’études américaines et mexicaines de l’Université d’Arizona (Tucson, États-Unis), à l’Université du Sonora (Mexique) et CONACyT (Mexique).

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