Indigenous Heritage

Houston Institute for Culture 
By Donna S. Morales and John P. Schmal

My name is Donna Morales and I am a Mexican-American woman born and bred in America's heartland, Kansas City. I am as American as apple pie and my family is proud to be American. It's almost hard to believe that a hundred years ago my family was still living in Mexico, speaking the Spanish language and working as laborers in the mines of northern Zacatecas and on the haciendas of Aguascalientes and Jalisco. But, like most American families, we came from another place and we adapted to our new environment.

    The History of Jalisco

How We Got Here: The Roads We Took to America

Government: The Tejano Struggle for Representation

More articles by John Schmal and Donna Morales

But each morning, when I wake up, I look into the mirror and I realize that I have inherited a unique legacy. When I look at my reflection, I see a person who has Indian features and I realize that, somewhere in my background, my ancestors were the indigenous inhabitants of Mexico. But I do not speak an indigenous language, nor do I practice any Indian customs. My family has become very American and we embrace the culture and traditions of the United States because that is the only way we know.

But, when I look in the mirror, I realize that Mexican Americans have inherited a special legacy that makes them unique from many other American citizens. While the ancestors of many Americans came to the United States fifty, one hundred, or two hundred years ago from England, France, Germany, Africa, Japan, Ireland, China, Syria, Lebanon, Rumania, Norway, Finland, Italy, or Russia, Mexican Americans have lived on this continent - North America - for many thousands of years.

It is important to understand that our Mexican-American heritage is very multi-dimensional. Although most of us carry Spanish surnames and practice the Christian religion that was given to our ancestors by the Spanish missionaries, our genetic heritage tells a different story. Mexican Americans are the face of Native America. When you look at our hair and gaze into our faces, you can see the nomadic hunters who crossed the Bering Strait 20,000 years ago.

Mexican Americans are proud because we know that North America has been our home for thousands of years. Whoever came to the Western Hemisphere after 1492 found us waiting on the shores of North America. And wherever we may live in North America, whether it be Zacatecas, Jalisco, Kansas, Illinois, Texas or California, we know that our ancestors traveled through at one time or another in the last 20,000 years.

In November 1990, John Schmal and I met at an appraisal firm in Koreatown, just west of Downtown Los Angeles. It was John's thirst for historical information and my pride in and curiosity about my Mexican ancestry that led us on a journey of discovery. In time, I would begin to understand that I did, indeed, have indigenous ancestors and I would understand why that connection was severed centuries ago by the events taking place in Mexico.

I carry the surname that my father's family brought to America from Aguascalientes. The surname Morales is derived from moral, the Spanish word for mulberry tree, specifically the Black European Mulberry. The suffix "es" or "ez" in Spanish denotes "son of." So I presume that a person who was called Morales in Medieval Spain may have been a person who dwelt near a mulberry tree.

It has been said that the surname Morales originated in Santander in northwest Spain sometime around the Eleventh Century. For many years, I wondered to myself, "When did my first Morales ancestor come to Mexico from Spain. And from what part of Spain did he come from?" I had thought that it would be very interesting to find out that some distant Morales ancestor had left some part of Spain, perhaps in the hopes of coming to Mexico to make his fortune. Since most of us Mexican-Americans carry Spanish surnames that would be a logical presumption.

However, our family history research has determined that my earliest Morales ancestors on my direct paternal line were actually Indians from the town of Lagos de Moreno in the northern highlands of Jalisco. My great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents, Miguel Morales and María de la Cruz, were Indian peasants who were raising their family during the last two decades of the Seventeenth Century in the Spanish colonial province of Nueva Galicia. And it is likely that the Spanish padre of their parish, at some point, gave Miguel the surname Morales. Marķa's surname, de la Cruz (of the cross), was a surname frequently given by parish priests to their newly-converted Indian parishioners.

I can say very proudly that several of my ancestors were among the first Spanish settlers in the city of Aguascalientes in the late 1590s and early 1600s. I do have Spanish blood running through my veins, and through my father, I am descended from the famous Ruiz de Esparza family that left Pamplona in northern Spain for Mexico in 1593.

But I am also proud of the fact that the vast majority of my ancestors were indigenous people living in the states of Jalisco, Zacatecas, and Aguascalientes. However, I cannot trace myself to any one indigenous tribe because I am descended from many of the tribes that lived in Nueva Galicia four centuries ago.

When the Spaniards came to Zacatecas and Jalisco, a social transformation took place. The ravages of disease killed large numbers of Indians. The Spaniards, with their superior military tactics, easily overwhelmed the tribes that resisted. The great loss of life from disease or war caused a social chaos among the various indigenous groups.

Through this social chaos, existing social structures disappeared and knowledge of the past disappeared. The cultural link that was usually handed down from parents to child was severed. A new religion, Christianity, replaced the old religions. And a new language - Spanish - became the language of the subdued tribes.

Because the Indians were now God-fearing Christians, they no longer felt pride in or reverence for their old cultures. So, the names of my ancestors were changed. In many parts of Mexico, indigenous people - after being Christianized and Hispanicized - assumed Christian given names and Spanish surnames. This was considered a necessary part of their indoctrination into the new religion and a rejection of the old pagan religions they formerly adhered to. If one had chosen to keep his indigenous name, it would have been construed as an attempt to retain his former culture and religion.

To help with the social and religious transformation, the Spanish authorities brought peaceful sedentary Christianized Indians from other parts of Mexico into the region. These "civilized" Indians were given the task of helping their Indian brethren to adapt to the new Christian way of life under Spanish tutelage. These Indians groups - the Tlaxcalans, the Mexica, and the Purépecha, among others - had all undergone the same experience several decades earlier. In most cases, their loyalty to Spain and the Roman Catholic Church was well rewarded, and they were given special privileges that most other Indians did not have.

According to the historians, a great many Indian tribes inhabited the regions of Jalisco and Zacatecas. Some were peaceful agricultural people; others were warlike and uncompromising warriors determined to protect their native soil from trespassers. Collectively, most of these Indians were called Chichimecas, a derogatory term meaning "the sons of dogs," originally given to them by the Aztec Indians.

But, having studied the history of the Jalisco and Zacatecas, I now realize that my Indian ancestors were the Cazcanes, Tecuexes, Guamares, Zacatecos, and Guachichile Indians, among others. These tribes put up a terrific resistance to Spain's intrusion in the Sixteenth Century. The Mixtón Rebellion of 1540-41 pitted the Cazcanes and other Indian groups against the Spaniards. The Mixtón War was followed by a forty-year conflict, the Chichimeca War (1550-1590), in which the Guachichiles, Zacatecos and other groups made countless hit and run attacks against Spanish and sedentary Indian settlements and caravans.

But these wars did not represent a pure case of Spaniard versus Indian. In reality, the Spanish military employed many of their Christian Indian allies in their campaigns against the "uncivilized" Indians who had not yet submitted. The late historian and author John Wayne Powell discussed - in great detail - the Spaniards' use of Indian allies in various capacities: "as fighters, as burden bearers, as interpreters, as scouts, as emissaries." This use of Indians as soldiers and scouts led to enormous and wide-ranging migration and resettlement patterns throughout Jalisco, Zacatecas and many other parts of Mexico.

Dr. Powell wrote, "the pacified natives of New Spain played significant and often indispensable roles in subjugating and civilizing the Chichimeca country." In addition, the discovery of silver brought many Indians from southern Mexico into this area, seeking mining jobs (usually carrying ore). And, so, Dr. Powell continues, "This use of native allies... led eventually to a virtual disappearance of the nomadic tribes as they were absorbed into the northward-moving Tarascans, Aztecs, Cholultecans, Otomíes, Tlaxcalans, Cazcanes, and others... within a few decades of the general pacification at the end of the century the Guachichiles, Zacatecos, Guamares, and other tribes or nations were disappearing as distinguishable entities in the Gran Chichimeca."

As the Seventeenth Century dawned, Dr. Powell explains, "the Sixteenth-century land of war thus became fully Mexican in its mixture." And, thus it came to pass that my ancestors, while appearing to be Indian in physical appearance, became Christian Mexicans, subjects of the Spanish king and his authorized representatives.

This unique and remarkable assimilation was repeated across many parts of Mexico over a period of three centuries. It had varying degrees of success, but very few indigenous groups were able to avoid some level of assimilation. In the southern states of Chiapas, Yucatan, and Oaxaca, Christianity prevailed, but so did the cultures and languages of several indigenous groups, and even today, many of these states contain individuals who speak Indian languages.

But, for most of us Mexican Americans, the connection to our indigenous ancestors has been severed or - if not totally severed - contains only small elements of former Indian cultures. As a result, the journey through time for Mexican Americans has been a long an interesting one. We have gone from Indian warriors to Indian peasants, from Indian peasants to Mexican citizens, from Mexican citizens to Americans. From generation to generation, the cultural elements have evolved, but the image of Native America remains.

© Copyright, Donna S. Morales and John P. Schmal. All Rights Reserved. Donna Morales and John Schmal are the authors of "The Indigenous Roots of a Mexican-American Family" (Heritage Books), available at Ms. Morales has indigenous roots from Lagos de Moreno and Spanish roots from Teocaltiche. Read more articles by John Schmal and Donna Morales.


Donna S. Morales and John P. Schmal, "My Family Through Time: The Story of a Mexican-American Family." Los Angeles, California, 2000.

Philip Wayne Powell, "Soldiers Indians and Silver: North America's First Frontier War." Tempe, Arizona: Center for Latin American Studies, Arizona State University, 1975.

John Schmal is an historian, genealogist, and lecturer. With his friend Donna Morales, he recently coauthored "Mexican-American Genealogical Research: Following the Paper Trail to Mexico" (Heritage Books, 2002). He has degrees in History (Loyola-Marymount University) and Geography (St. Cloud State University) and is a board member of the Society of Hispanic Historical Ancestral Research (SHHAR). He is an associate editor of SHHAR's online monthly newsletter, John is presently collaborating with illustrator Eddie Martinez on a manuscript entitled "Indigenous Mexico: Past and Present."