Clothes, Language Lead To Discrimination For Native Indigenous People In Mexico

Isabel Arce, left, and her sister Veronica Arce shop at a mall in the capital of the Mexican state of Puebla. Isabel and Veronica said they have been denied service at some stores because they are of indigenous background.
Jorge Valencia
September 28, 2017

This is Part III in "Reporting Hate," a four-part Fronteras Desk series that takes a look at the roots of intolerance and prejudice in the Americas today. Each piece is a unique profile on an individual exploring specific kinds of conflicts and tensions in their lives arising from their identity.

TLAXCALA, Mexico — Isabel and Veronica Arce have always been close. They’re the oldest of five kids and they grew up together helping out around the house. They would take the donkey to fetch wood, bring feed for the chickens and make tortillas in the kitchen.

They grew up speaking Nahuatl: the most widely spoken native language in Mexico. Their community of Tlaxcaltec indigenous people makes up part of the more than 1 million people in Mexico who use the language.

And this is worth pointing out only because this story centers on how some Spanish-only speakers in Mexico react when they hear them speaking in Nahuatl.

Jorge Valencia
Delfino Reyes Arce, a native of San Isidro, Tlaxcala, Mexico, makes embroideries, a craft that has been passed down in his family. The designs are so detailed that one can take them a week to make.

Isabel Arce, 38, and Veronica Arce, 38, make their living sewing ornate embroideries of animals and ancient legends. The designs are so detailed that one can take them a week to make. They learned their trade from their father, who had also learned it from an older relative.

“He’s the one who gave us this treasure,” Veronica Arce said. “It’s a way that we can keep our tradition alive and also it’s a way that we can make a living.”
The father, Delfino Reyes Arce, tells an anecdote about something that happened to him, but has happened to everyone in the family. He and his wife went down the hill from their town San Isidro, population 9,000, to the nearby city of Puebla, home to 1.5 million people. He said they went to go buy a bed, a pair of glasses and a pair of pants. But the attendants in all three stores wouldn’t give them the prices.

He remembers the clerk telling him, “No. Those pants are too expensive.” Reyes said it’s because his wife was wearing traditional Tlaxcaltec clothes — an embroidered blouse, a long skirt and sandals.

“People see the blouse with the embroidery and think, ‘They’re indigenous. They can’t afford to pay this,’” Reyes said.

Jorge Valencia
Veronica Arce, a native of San Isidro, Tlaxcala, learned how to make embroideries from her father. She made this pattern for a shirt for her son.

Isabel Arce and Veronica Arce prefer to wear jeans, sneakers and a T-shirt. But they say the same thing has happened when people hear them speaking in Nahuatl.

So on a recent Sunday morning, I went with them and their kids down the hill to Puebla.

At an outlet store, Isabel and Veronica sorted through clothing racks looking for shorts and a jacket — for their kids (Isabel Arce's son Gadiel had his yes on a "Toy Story" T-shirt). Isabel Arce tried on a vest herself, to stay warm while sewing.

“Your back feels cold before anything else,” she said.

The sisters speak to each other in Nahuatl, and occasionally switch to Spanish to speak to their children. They shopped for an hour, paid and then took their kids to look at fish in a pool in the shopping center.

But the closest thing to a confrontation happened to me. A clerk saw me carrying a satchel and asked me to check it in at the front desk. That’s standard practice to prevent theft here. Isabel Arce and Veronica Arce laughed.

“Maybe it was because you were following us around with a microphone, but they didn’t say anything to us,” Isabel Arce said. “They respected us.”

family shopping
Jorge Valencia
Isabel Arce (center) and her sister Veronica Arce (right) shop with family members at a mall in the capital of the Mexican state of Puebla.

Afterwards, we had some fried chicken sandwiches and they showed me a YouTube video of two department store security guards dragging an indigenous man across the floor. Several people scream, and the man recording the video asks the security guards to stop. The man getting dragged eventually gets up and shows them he had nothing but the clothes he was wearing.

There a handful of similar videos on YouTube. The thing is that it’s not a surprise to Veronica Arce and Isabel Arce. And government survey confirms it: the most discriminated groups in Mexico are indigenous peoples.

While we were eating, Isabel Arce's son woke up from a nap. And Veronica Arce said something that I can’t tell whether it’s directed at me or the little boy.

“What we do for a living is called Nahuatl embroidery. We can’t do it, if we’re ashamed of ourselves,” Veronica Arce said. “We grew up speaking Nahuatl, and everybody speaks it here in our town. It’s super valuable to us."

Isabel Arce has something to add.

“We can’t lose our culture,” Isabel Arce said. “We have to preserve as much of it as we can. That’s why we have to do our best to teach our kids, even if it’s hard, even if people criticize us.

Which leads us to the three expressions Isabel Arce wants to teach us. It’s what she has taught her son Gadiel, who is 2 years old:

Yes: Quimaya (pronounce kee-ay-ma).

No: Amo (Uh-moh)

I love you: Nimisnequi (Knee-miss-nay-kee).

Something Isabel Arce hopes her son will learn in the Nahuatl language: Nimisnequi means I love you.