Back for the future Young Central Coast Latinos find inspiration in indigenous traditions to reinvent themselves and the world around them

By Claudia Meléndez Salinas

The ancient Aztecs believed the god Xolotl gave humans the Xoloitzcuintli, a breed of hairless dog, after creating it from the Bone of Life, the source of all life on earth. The dog’s warm body is also believed to have healing properties, a palliative for menstrual cramps or arthritic pain. That’s why Castroville residents Francis Salgado and Salvador Lua decided to name their puppy Pahtli — “medicine” in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs.

Sal always wanted a Xoloitzcuintli, both because of the breed’s playful nature and for spiritual reasons (the xolo was considered sacred among indigenous Mexicans because it helped souls transition to the underworld). Right around the time Pahtli came into their lives, the couple decided to become serious about Sal’s hobby of gem polishing and make it into a business. It would be less confusing to have fewer names, so they decided to name the business Pahtli Stones.

“It was just easier,” said Francis, sitting in the living room of their apartment. “We have an Instagram for her, too — Pathli the Xolo. For consistency.”

Francis, 30, and Sal, 26, met while attending Brown Berets meetings in Watsonville, gatherings that teach community activism grounded in indigenous history.

“They emphasize mental decolonization, going back to your roots, where your family came from,” Sal said. “Doing more things like your ancestors, like eating like they would eat. In Central and North America there are stones people would use and believe they have certain healing powers. To us, these stones are our elders. They were here before us, and they’re going to be here long after us.”

Francis Salgado and Salvador Lua | Photo, Vernon McKnight

Born of immigrant parents, Francis and Sal belong to one of the largest and fastest-growing young populations in the country. With a median age of 28, Latinos are the youngest major racial or ethnic group, a cohort whose social trajectories will also define the United States 20 years from now, and whether the country is reinvigorated or has its social problems deepen,  according to immigrant scholars Alejandro Portes and Rubén Rumbaut.

With a median age of 25, Latinos in Salinas and Watsonville are even younger.

It’s a generation whose parents arrived in search of the so-called “American Dream,” hard working immigrants who likely knew the beneficiaries of their journey north would be their children. But like their millennial counterparts of every background, they’ve seen their economic prospects diminish after the 2008 recession and the housing crisis.

The path that the most civic-minded among them are taking in California’s Central Coast — as evidenced by their cultural production, community building and concerns — is rooted in this continent, in indigenous traditions that survived five hundred years of European assaults. They’ve learned in their Chicano studies classes, in informal networks, in YouTube videos an alternative history to what’s taught in the regular classroom, a history where indigenous cultures are advanced civilizations — the Mayans invented the concept of zero, after all — and not the wild savages European made them out to be. Many of them recognize they’re descendants of indigenous peoples — Francis has Purépecha ancestry and Sal, Huichol. They’re seeking to remake their identity in community building as opposed to personal gain, in the music they use for their performances, in community gardening and the “decolonize your diet” movement.  And they’re taking their knowledge to the streets, sharing their art with younger generations and showing it in their work, in their appreciation for Aztec dancing, Day of the Dead altars, and in other indigenous cultures of North America.

It’s a transformation that goes deeper than the spread of taquerías and tienditas, and it’s changing the soul of Salinas, Watsonville, Oakland, Los Angeles, and many other cities in the Southwest.

It won’t be evident if you simply drive on the streets of Salinas or its oldest barrio, the Alisal — where all you can see are the aging buildings, their peeling paint and the cracks on the asphalt like wrinkles on a wise elder. But inside the walls of schools and community centers there’s an energy that’s burning like the sacred fire the Aztecs believed had to be renewed every 52 years.

“The Chicano movement always had, as a part of its core identity and beliefs, the importance of elevating pride in our indigeneity, in our indigenous roots,” says Maria Villaseñor, professor of Chicano Studies at California State University Monterey Bay. “That’s the case in a lot of art in Alisal. There are a lot of folks in our community that are directly indigenous identified, like Oaxacan people people who are speaking indigenous languages. That’s the other influence we have. I have students who speak Mixtec, and my (other) students can see that there are people who actually speak Mixtec. This is a reality, this is not from the past. They’re among us, they’re related to us and directly living the culture that has an influence as well.”

The civil rights movement in the Latino community, commonly known as the Chicano movement, had a strong influence on the transformation of Alisal in the 1960s — and it planted the seed for what’s happening now. It was a movement inspired not just by the Vietnam War but also by labor organizer César Chávez, who led some of his most famous strikes in the 1970s in Salinas, was imprisoned in Monterey County Jail and inspired a generation of young activists to demand Latin American history classes, Cinco de Mayo celebrations, and better food in school cafeterias.

“I was painting a lot in high school and the Chicano movement was (still) very strong,” said JC González, founder of the Urban Arts Collective and a teacher of ethnic studies at Hartnell College. “There was a lot of going on, with exhibits with José Ortiz, but when I went to San Diego State, when I left Salinas, that’s when I realized how big the Chicano movement was.”

Eduardo Esparza | Provided photo

Going away to college and coming back home is a recurring theme, as is the case for Eduardo Esparza, who’s taken a long and sinuous road after graduating from Alisal High School. The 34-year-old Salinas native attended Hartnell College to earn enough credits to transfer to a four-year college, and he eventually chose Cal State Long Beach. It was during his sojourn in Los Angeles that he experienced a cultural awakening.

Back in Salinas, he was embarrassed to speak Spanish, embarrassed by his musician father. But in Los Angeles he lived with a cousin in a house full of recent Mexican immigrants, a mirror that reflected his own reality in a different light.

“In Los Angeles, there are all these people from different American countries: El Salvador, Mexico, Nicaragua. They are all proud of who they are, proud to be from down there, and it’s a lifestyle that I started embracing,” Eduardo said, sitting at Viva Espresso, a Mexican-themed coffee shop in North Salinas that serves Oaxacan Mocha and Mexican chocolate. When talking about his life journey, Eduardo switches between English and Spanish comfortably,  a hint of an accent sprinkled like ground cinnamon on a latte’s foam.

“I started opening up to this idea that it’s not just your family and the history of your family. It’s your identity. Start accepting that you’re part of that identity. So I started speaking more Spanish, regardless if I didn’t say it right. Me gané la confianza de hablar español. Salinas is a small place where you don’t see that, but out there you get to meet people who are from very different parts of the world, and they are proud to represent. So why not me?”

While a student in Southern California, Eduardo came upon the Long Beach Clothing Company, founded in 2003 to bring together artists who love their city and are proud of it. On his way to earn his degree as graphic designer, Eduardo saw a business opportunity that would incorporate a sense of place.

“People living there were proud to represent Long Beach, even though it has the same issues that Salinas has. They have gang violence. So I thought, how can I do that for people who live here and can still be proud, still know it’s a positive place? I know you get that hesitation from people. The cousin I lived with would always say ‘I’m from the Bay Area.’ No man, you’re from Salinas. Why are you ashamed? You should be proud.”

Eduardo launched the Salinas Valley Clothing Company in 2009, where he focuses not just on printing clothing with Salinas or East Salinas emblazoned across the chest. He’s also showcasing the area’s bilingual prowess with slogans such as “Ensalada Bowl,” “Levántate” and “Siempre Échale Ganas.” He also incorporates indigenous imagery such as Mayan fretwork.

“It was very important when I founded the clothing company that it was made with culture. With cultura. I learned that, over all, if you do something to just to do it, and you have no emphasis on who you are, who is your family, what are your roots, then why are you doing it? So I created this eagle to symbolize cultura.”

Eduardo points to a sleek eagle design, his own version of the Hecho en México logo commissioned by the Mexican Commerce Department in the 70s to identify all goods domestically produced. The logo has been widely reproduced and transformed in posters, T-shirts, hats, and all sorts of paraphernalia.

For Eduardo, the eagle denotes his clothing “is culture gear. It’s not just a brand like Nike. It’s pride, it’s raíces, it’s all that. I make sure the águila is present in everything.”

Just as Eduardo launched his clothing company, his father lost the family’s home in the 2008 housing crisis. Eduardo decided to transfer to CSU Monterey Bay so he could be closer to his parents and help the family get back on their feet. The business continues, albeit the time Eduardo dedicates to it has to be shared with his full-time job and his two little boys, ages 2 and 3.

“It’s tricky because I never knew anything about selling or making money, or having a business; it’s so new to me,” he said. “Now I need to learn about having a plan: what am I going to do this season, how am I going to promote it, with whom? This is the year I’ll be getting that plan.”

Emily Morales | Photo, Claudia Meléndez Salinas

Young Latinos sit not only at the cultural crossroad that intersects the country of their birth with that of their parents. As millenials, they’re also coming of age at a time when economic opportunities are diminished, when the housing crisis has robbed the youngest families among them of the financial backing that might have sent them to college or fund their start-up businesses. The oldest, those in their mid-to late 40s, are having a hard time recovering from the crash, according to a study by the Federal Reserve of St. Louis.

Rather than becoming discouraged by the financial landscape, Emily Morales found inspiration and a sense of purpose by pursuing her passion for the arts — a passion her grandfather had supported while he was alive.

A Yaqui Indian, Emily’s grandfather would drive her to music lessons and theater rehearsals up and down Monterey County and beyond. She starred in “Honk! the Ugly Duckling” and “Rain of Gold” at the Western Stage when she was around 8, and later participated in “Zoot Suit” at El Teatro Campesino. Her grandpa, Gildardo Morales, would pack her burritos and snacks and pick her up no matter how late those rehearsals ended. But he got sick and Morales took a job in the tourism industry to help with the family’s finances. When he died, she felt she had an obligation to honor her grandfather’s encouragement of her artistic pursuits.

“When he passed, it was very clear to me that I was wasting a lot of the sacrifices he’d made for me in order to support what I wanted to do,” said Flores, 29. That, and her own long-held desire to give young people the opportunities she didn’t have locally inspired her to launch Artists Ink, a collective to support artists of all disciplines to come together to create work that builds community.The group is now in rehearsals for a stage reading of “ReAlisal: Stories of East Salinas,” which will take place at the Western Stage in March.

Flores finds inspiration for her work in her indigenous ancestry, which she tries to incorporate in her work.

“It’s something that roots us in the work and in the way we approach the work we do. Being respectful and honorable is a way to connect with our students to our ancestors and ancestry and reclaim what was taken from us,” she said. “It feels good to reclaim what one feels was taken from us in an earlier generation.”

Those of us who grew up in Mexico likely knew a person who “cura con hierbas” — an herb healer. The healer, an older man or woman, would touch your head to feel what your ailment was, pray over you, and subsequently cleanse you with a bunch of rue, rubbing it all over your body. The healer would send you home with instructions to drink herbal tea.

The healer whom Rocio Burgos Navidad knew happened to be her grandfather, the man who taught her about herbs and cures.

“I was interested in keeping the tradition,” she said in Spanish. “Little by little I carved my niche, watching videos and whatnot. But you always need to take a class to prove whether what you’ve learned is accurate, so I took a class on Mexican herbal science in Morelos.”

Armed with the knowledge she acquired from her grandfather and the classes she’s taken, she began making medicinal rubs and tinctures, items she sometimes sells to friends or at pop-up markets.

“I try to focus on women’s health, on abdominal issues — I suffer from premenstrual cramps. Also, I studied to be a massage therapist, that’s also why I decided to make rubs. All of it is natural medicine.”

Burgos Navidad, 32, came to the United States when she was 17 and graduated from Watsonville High. She later took classes at Cabrillo College and UC Santa Cruz, but the academic training most meaningful to her was acquired through her participation in the Brown Berets.

“To me, that changed my entire perspective,” she said. “Ever since I arrived here I was motivated to do something for the community. That’s why I participated in clubs, but those are very bureaucratic, there’s a lot of politics that didn’t fill me. Then I started going to the Brown Berets; they’re more grass roots and they depend on our donations and our work. That’s where I learned about the different philosophies, not just indigenous ones from Mexico but also from North America. It’s as if I had discovered different faces that I didn’t know I had, and I could say ‘I can also be this, this is where I come from.’ It made sense.”

Although Burgos Navidad continues to make creams and tinctures on the side, she makes a living both as a massage therapist and with her own catering business. She and her brother drive their truck to the fields seven days a week during the growing season. It’s demanding, hard work where she can dictate her own terms and have her own schedule.

A few months ago she helped put together a “mercadito,” a pop-up market event where small business owners gathered to sell their wares. Burgos Navidad sold pozole as a fundraiser for local community organizations. Francis and Salvador of Pahtli were also present, as was Eduardo of Salinas Valley Graphics. Whether through the Brown Berets or their participation at community events, they’ve found each other and found strength in their support for each other.

“I’d seen this idea of a mercadito in Watsonville and other places. And if nobody showed up (to our event), the idea was to hang out and support each other. I donated 10 percent to the Semillas Collective, which is to support queer persons. We all like to talk when we (sit around the table) — that was the idea, to gather around art.”

| Photo, Vernon McKnight

“What’s happening now is there’s a lot of people that have that consciousness who are able and willing to engage in this work. They can have a fandango comunitario if they want to. They can get together, teach kids in informal networks, they can get grants to teach danza, art, to have Day of the Dead events,”  said Martha Gonzalez, assistant professor in the Intercollegiate Chican@ Latin@ Studies Department at SCRIPPS/Claremont Colleges and a musician with Grammy-Award-winning band Quetzal.

They’re not the majority, González and Villaseñor agree. But they’ve grown into a significant segment well positioned to make significant changes.

“Part of the value of beauty and art is that’s where influence is made,” said Villaseñor. “People who are creating beauty, culture, iconographic expressions are going to influence other folks or even activists. (The art) is not going to reach everybody right away, but over the long run is highly influential. Those kinds of ideas tend to be more far reaching, especially living in this cultural moment with the resurgence centrality of the new white supremacy. People are aware of white supremacy, and that has the potential to heighten people’s consciousness and is making way for other people’s ideas.”

While indigeneity seems to be in the forefront of many civic-minded Latinos on the Central Coast and beyond, embracing spiritual concepts based on indigenous beliefs is not just a tool for activism, it’s also a spiritual path: they are committed to walking the “red road” — an obligation to the seven virtues of the Lakota people: prayer, honesty, humility, compassion, respect, generosity and wisdom.

Sitting near the kitchen of their apartment, Sal looks relaxed, carefree, exuding a feeling of calmness rare in young men his age. Neither he nor Francis, who has been his partner for seven years, are expecting to become rich or famous through Pahtli Stones. More so, in recognition of other people’s financial struggles, they accept trades for their jewelry, and they point to some of the paintings they have in the living room as proof.

“The overall goal is to not lose our traditions, our beliefs, our religion we fought for,” Sal said, referring to Native American struggles such as the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Wounded Knee Massacre, where nearly 300 people were killed on the Lakota Pine Ridge reservation in 1890. “It’s all been for our beliefs. Your actions right now affect people, and you have to think about them and about the earth, and you have to think about your beliefs and how you’re holding them up and how you carry yourself. It’s a way of life more than a religion. The goal is not to lose that and to bring people back in.”

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Claudia Meléndez Salinas

About Claudia Meléndez Salinas

Claudia Meléndez Salinas is an author, journalist, open water swimmer, and cat lover. | Claudia Meléndez Salinas es autora, periodista, nadadora de aguas abiertas, y aficionada a los gatos.