Aura Cumes is co-editor of Crossroads of Identities: Women, Feminisms, and Mayanisms in Dialogue (2006) and Mayanization and Everyday Life: Multicultural Discourse in Guatemalan Society (2007), among other publications. She holds a PhD in in Social Anthropology from the Center for Advanced Study and Research in Social Anthropology (CIESAS) in Mexico City. She is co-founder of a blog and writers’ group entitled Comunidad de Estudios Mayas.
In an autobiographical essay “Algunas líneas de mi vida” (Plaza Pública, 2014), Cumes describes some childhood and adult experiences that shaped her development as an intellectual. Cumes grew up in the urban area of Chimaltenango, Guatemala. Her family spoke Kaqchikel, which is one of twenty one Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala. When Cumes attended public school, she lost her ability to speak Kaqchikel, because the school compelled her to speak only Spanish. Her father was a very devout Christian, but she came to question the sexism of his religion.
While her first university diploma credentialed her to become a secretary, her former classmates told her that she would not find work as a secretary if she wore her indigenous dress (traje). Those suspicions were confirmed. When she went to a bank to apply for a secretarial job, she was told, “We are not looking to employ a servant.” However, she insisted on continuing to wear her traje. She did not end up working as a secretary.
Instead, she worked for ten years in non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in rural areas of Guatemala while earning advanced degrees, including a degree in Social Work from Rafael Landivar University in Guatemala; a Master in Sustainable Development from the University of the Autonomous Regions of Nicaragua; a Master in Social Sciences, specializing in issues of Identities and Cultures from the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO - Guatemala); a degree in Gender and Feminist Studies from the Guatemala Foundation; and finally a PhD in Social Anthropology.
The following interview occurred over Skype and email, and I translated it from Spanish to English.
Megan Fountain (MF): Could you tell me a bit about your current projects, such as research, teaching, or activism?
Auma Cumes (AC): I am essentially a writer. I am independent. I have no particular organization. And I have always been urban. I was born in an urban area. People tend to think that “Maya” means a small community or a rural community, and I have no rural community. I cannot say, “This is my community,” a community with a particular history, with particular priorities and ways of life. So I speak more from the generality of being Maya.
I am involved in many projects, including the women weavers’ movement, which seeks to reclaim weaving as the collective knowledge of Mayan women, waging a struggle against society, but also against the state, to bring an end to the dispossession of indigenous women’s lives and knowledge by the state.
I am also part of the movement of comadronas, or parteras (midwives) as they are called elsewhere, but for us the concept of comadrona goes much deeper. In many places in Guatemala, up to ninety percent of births are cared for by comadronas. In other words, the state plays no part. What we seek is recognition of the work that comadronas perform, and we want an end to state persecution of comadronas.
Comadronas are persecuted by the state, which believes that they cause maternal deaths, when in reality these maternal deaths occur when comadronas are forced to transfer patients to state hospitals. It is during that transfer to the hospital that death occurs. Those are two of the major struggles in which I participate.
On top of that, I exchange ideas with women who belong to various organizations and seek me out to share ideas and stories with them. I go where I am invited, by Mayan women in Guatemala, and also by ladina or mestiza women who are searching for different constructions of feminism. And of course, I fight as a Mayan woman against racism and colonialism. That is at the center of everything.
MF: Public schools in your hometown insisted that you only speak Spanish. At the same time, some family members shamed you for losing the ability to speak your parents’ language, Kaqchikel. That occurred some 20 years ago. In the intervening years, have approaches to schooling in your hometown or elsewhere changed in any positive or negative ways for Mayan girls and boys? Can you describe the possibilities and challenges of multiculturalism and bilingual schools?
AC: Multiculturalism, from my point of view, is an extremely limited and inadequate strategy for societies that are built on a profoundly colonial structure. Some bilingual schools, depending on who directs them, have tried to put into practice a process of descolonización; but the majority of bilingual schools have avoided those aims, and they perpetuate the logic of traditional schools, which are characterized by poor educational quality and Western epistemologies, although students resist, drawing on Mayan ways of life that have been instilled in the home.
MF: Are there spaces where students are taught non-Western thinking or decolonial thought?
AC: First of all, I never use the category decolonial. I understand that the decolonial category is a product of political theory, right? But it is not something that I know. What I do is anticolonial or descolonial work in the form of political action.
Look, as you know, Latin American countries, particularly Guatemala, for a little more than 500 years, have a before and an after in our history. From that moment, not only the logic of the government, but especially our ways of life have taken a colonial form in which sovereign white lives establish their existence on a substructure of indigenous people—and black people too, but in this case we are talking about indigenous people. Since that moment, there have been indigenous ways of resisting, surviving, and enduring.
“Western” is in quotes and “non-Western” is also in quotation marks, because it is difficult to make a clean separation between both worlds. We are always surviving in both worlds, which contradict each other. So it is very difficult to say “this Western logic” and “that non-Western logic.”
Yet the education system in the case of Guatemala and Latin America is built on a system in which the legitimate way of life is the “Western” way of life, and within it, the capitalist vision of life. That is school. That is what is legitimate. That is what is superior. That is the aim. Everyone who arrives at school is educated in this way.
On the other hand, people are living at home, practicing many Mayan ways of life, and learning many Mayan ways of thinking, although it is very mixed with Christian thought, which continues to have a profound place in people’s lives.
Thus you have these contradictory ways of life. And although there is a belief system that treats “Mayan” as inferior, Mayan experiences still exist, and people do not arrive at school and change overnight. Students arrive with their own languages, some never having learned Spanish, and with different life principles. Thus, these two ways of life fight each other, with the colonial government giving power and force to the “Western” way of life. Mayan ways of life are still living and surviving, but in many cases they are completely disparaged. Still, they continue.
On the other hand, there are many people who, through forms of resistance, know the “Western” world, and use it against the same white people (or Western, criollo, mestizo people). That is what happens to many of us who have gone to school, who try to live many Mayan ways of life, and who have also learned to live according to Western logic. These two logics always exist in contradiction.
MF: How could schooling be transformed into a liberatory space?
AC: That is a task that will take a very long time. Here everyone has ideas for that, but we live in a terribly conservative country, where every change we make every day provokes a harsh response of violence from conservatives.
I think many of the liberatory spaces are the ones outside of schools, or in schools where teachers have different opportunities and struggles. Public school teachers nationally are an extremely comfortable (well-off) sector. So I have little hope that schools will transform into liberatory spaces, except with a few exceptions where teachers have a different outlook. These are long struggles.
The education system does not favor political participation in the broadest sense. Quite the opposite. Schooling is particularly focused on promoting the economic potential of bodies and diminishing their political force. I agree that schooling has been slowly increasing and expanding to more people, but the methods, essence, and theory of schooling remain aggressive and disciplinary toward indigenous women. Nevertheless, it is all we have, and it is very important to take advantage of it, because these tools can be useful to us, to question and challenge the same paradigm from within.
MF: Could you explain a little more about how schools discipline indigenous women?
AC: We are always being hammered into a particular archetype. For example women in this country are the ones who wear Mayan clothing. Have you been to Guatemala?
MF: Not yet.
AC: Well, Guatemala is perhaps the foremost country in Latin America where women use traditional clothing woven by Mayan women and men. We could say that the Bolivian case is similar, or the Ecuadorian case, but here the logic is distinct.
It is also women [as opposed to men] who typically use more Mayan languages. The school, in its crusade to civilize, instills the idea that what we wear on our bodies represents backwardness. In school, sexism and racism converge in this idea. Thus we see women being assaulted daily by the ideas of civilization, development, and progress, because the image of civilization, development, and progress is what we are not. We are its opposite.
On the other hand, there is a colonizing curriculum, in which schools want us to think as if we were bodies in need of economic development. At the same time, the social structure of the country is always denying women that space where we might achieve that so-called self-improvement; because the social structure has offered indigenous women certain labor choices, imposed by colonialism: jobs of servitude. Even when indigenous women are not employed in servant work, society—and not only Guatemalan society—wants them in servitude. Thus there is a forceful colonial aggression every day against women which contradicts the idea of civilization, which demands that you become a “civilized” woman, but at the same time the social structure closes you off from that possibility.
MF: What is the role of lenguaje (language) in the struggles of Mayan women?
AC: What lenguaje? I do not understand the question.
MF: What is the role of Mayan idiomas (languages) in the struggles of Mayan women?
AC: That is what you meant! We do not call them lenguajes. Maybe in Mexico, but not here.
Mayan languages are something that women speak daily. They reivindicar (restore/reclaim/defend) these languages. There is a recovery but at the same time there is also a process of accelerated loss with new generations. Still, the languages are spoken here daily.
There are places where languages are lost. As in the case of the Mapuche [indigenous groups in Chile], where language constitutes an important strategy for making demands, so it is here as well. However, given that indigenous languages are part of daily life here, I think that the great struggle is not for language itself, but rather language is part of many struggles.
MF: Indigenous movements in the United States and Canada have made the return of stolen lands central to their political demands. How does land fit into your vision for Mayan women’s liberation?
AC: The participation of indigenous women has been a constant in the history of these lands. Although there are scarce historical archives that record this past, the few historical archives that exist tell us about women who have always questioned the ways of power; and that is also why indigenous women have been repressed and forced to accept a “domestic role” or a role of reproductive labor in the private sphere, not so much reproducing their own families, but reproducing non-indigenous families in this country. The bodies and the productive and reproductive powers of indigenous and poor women have been expropriated and placed at the service of the colonial political economy of Guatemala.
Perhaps in our contemporary moment there is a growing visibility and recognition of indigenous women’s participation. The same system that has imposed bondage upon us now purports to offer us opportunities, promoting our participation and political labor, which seems like an encouraging opportunity to break this bondage. Yet appearances can be deceiving. In the current struggles in defense of territory, women are at the forefront, and defending life, territory, and natural resources, creating community and society, in other words, bringing into being a politics that is different and innovative; but they have been repressed, persecuted, and arrested with impunity because the colonial and patriarchal power wants to see them submissive.
MF: Could you give an example of a struggle where women are en la vanguardia (in the vanguard / at the forefront)?
AC: Every struggle. Women everywhere are en la vanguardia (in the vanguard / at the forefront). For example, I could speak here of San Miguel Ixtahuacán, where the Marlin [gold] mine was established 16 or 17 years ago. Land speculators arrived and spoke to the men, and they easily persuaded the men to sell their land. When women realized what was happening, because there were women who owned land, they would not sell their land as quickly as men. From the moment when women detected the trickery of the mining company, it was they who created forms of struggle against mining. It is not that women are participants in the struggles, but rather the center of the struggles against mining are women.
However, both [private] companies and [non-profit] organizations always look to men to understand the struggles, and they always think that women are included in the struggles. No. It is women who are awake to the fact that their water is contaminated, their animals are killed, their houses are damaged, their children are sick. It is the women who directly face the struggle, because there is a big change in their daily way of life. That is why they end up articulating the social movements against mining, and also against hydropower and many other struggles.
For example, there is the case of Doña Crisanta Hernandez. She is one of the women who was forced to integrate into a form of struggle that she had never known before, to go all the way to court and to countries abroad, because her participation in the anti-mining fight was ignited abruptly by the arrival of the mine.
There have been so many women waging critical struggles, but the big problem is that mining companies always arrive in a community looking for the men, and hydroelectric companies do the same. Any project does the same. NGOs and international funding sources do the same, looking to men to understand land struggles.
These fights against megaprojects have not been a “women’s movement” or a men’s movement. Instead, the women’s struggle in these cases represents a struggle for the defense of community, village, forest, river, and mountains. It represents collective struggles. The movements of indigenous women do not represent only women, and that is what feminism has trouble understanding.
MF: You have written about how political movements and university departments in Guatemala are divided into three distinct camps. Some focus on feminism, without considering race or class; others focus narrowly on indigenous issues, excluding gender and class; and others focus narrowly on class identity, as if ending class exploitation would end other kinds of exploitation. You criticize these existing approaches, because in the lives of Mayan women, these three types of domination intersect.
Could you give some examples of how this political fragmentation is manifested in Guatemala today? What are some of the specific costs when political movements do not think about gender, indigeneity, colonialism, and class as integral parts of social movements?
AC: Examples abound, not only in Guatemala but throughout the world. In the academic field, methods of analysis only reflect one part of reality, but not its complexity. The same is true in the field of social movements. For example, in the field of reproductive justice, a few days ago a U.S. activist and academic visited Guatemala to discuss the relationship between capitalism and the work of reproducing life. She said that capitalism sustains itself on the basis of patriarchy, in which women are constructed as servants of men. That is a well-founded vision that places gender at the center.
Nevertheless, in Latin American countries, with the reality of colonization, not only are women servants of men, but we are also products of a racial-sexual division of labor. Indigenous people, and especially indigenous women, are servants of whites or non-indigenous people. I suppose that the same thing happens in the United States as a result of slavery. To say that women are the servants of men, disregarding the impact of the racial division of labor inside the sexual division of labor, can establish a universal argument that does not observe the complexity of everyday reality, which is structured by histories of multiple forms of domination. This also requires us to note that the status of all women is not the same. White women experience racial privilege when other “dark” women take their place as maids so that they can leave the home.
MF: Have you found common ground with Afro-descendant feminists?
AC: Yes, I have found commonalities with Afro-descendant feminists. It is not that I came to understand my own experience when I listened to them. Not at all. In fact, I read them 20 or 15 years ago, because in this country feminism is terribly Eurocentric. In many cases, you had to show the feminists in this country—who are largely white or whitened mestizas—that you had read other things, if you wanted them to listen to you. If you tell them, “This is my experience,” they do not listen. Thus, a strategic way to talk to them is using their logic, quoting other sources and knowing worlds other than your own. That is why I wrote those articles [comparing black feminism and the multiples oppressions of Mayan women]. Still, if I read black feminists and listened to them, it is because our struggles had commonalities.
MF: What kind of relationship should exist or not exist among Mayan communities and the state?
AC: Indigenous peoples should demand autonomía (autonomy or self-determination) and not be under the Guatemalan state. They should have a relationship in which they are at a minimum considered as political peers.
MF: How are indigenous peoples in Guatemala demanding autonomía? Are there currently struggles for autonomy?
AC: Look, that is very difficult. For me, my aspiration is autonomía. There are others who also aspire to autonomía. Yet indigenous movements have not taken up the struggle of seeking political autonomy, because it is very complicated.
We cannot seek territorial autonomy, because we are everywhere. So what is territorial autonomy? Where will we go to live when we exist in all of Guatemala? That is a complicated question.
Political autonomy is also difficult. There are indigenous governments, and functional indigenous governments in many cases, which do not need the state at all in order to function. However, the state, looking for cooptation, always inserts itself into indigenous governments. Thus these indigenous governments find it very difficult to fight for autonomy, although in practice much of what they do is autonomous.
Epistemic self-determination is another struggle. We need to recover the meaning of life of indigenous peoples.
In sum, that word autonomía does not exist here as a demand, not in the way that it exists for Miskito peoples in Nicaragua [where the Nicaraguan government recognizes autonomous territories governed by Miskito nations], for example, or in Panama, where autonomy is perhaps possible because it can be structured geographically. Here that is not the case. Nevertheless, much of what is done here is autonomous from the Guatemalan state.
MF: Are you saying that much of what indigenous peoples or indigenous governments do is autonomous from the Guatemalan state?
AC: Yes, in large part they do practice autonomía, but perhaps it is difficult to name it as such because of the conflicting linkages with the same state.
MF: Regarding state violence and crimes of the past, what should the Guatemalan state do to repair the harm of the 1980s genocide and the long history of exploitation of Mayan peoples? How might the state return what has been stolen from indigenous peoples?
AC: There must be a condemnation of the acts committed and of their authorship by the Guatemalan state. The state must repair the damages, recognize the self-determination of indigenous peoples, stop the permanent dispossession of their resources and their lives, and return some of the enormity of what has been stolen. Because of ongoing colonial racism in this country, the state has not even allowed moderate constitutional reforms that would recognize indigenous justice systems, which are carried out cross the entire country.
A forceful struggle by indigenous peoples is necessary. Unfortunately, indigenous peoples do not always seek radical movements. Due to the processes of colonization, there are many different political tendencies. Some movements tend to seek radicalism, but others do not.
This must be understood in the context of a terribly conservative society, where the powerful classes say that any struggle for justice is a “struggle for revenge.” They again raise the anti-communist flag, under which all those who died [in the civil war and genocide] were communists and were rightly killed. All the people who were killed died because they were part of the insurgency, and the insurgency was a criminal organization. Thus, these movements are complicated.
In countries like ours, one can aspire to radical struggles. One can hope to say that this state never will change until it recognizes indigenous autonomía or until the state apologizes and is reconstituted in a different way. This is in our dreams. I have no faith in the state in any way.
Yet because of the history that we have lived, many people are asking only that the harm be repaired; that the state apologize; that [the dead] be recognized as innocents; that there be monetary compensation for some of the losses that people suffered during the war; that monuments be built; that the history of indigenous people’s struggle be known; that it was not always a communist struggle—in some cases, it was, but in most cases, it was not; that the state be recognized as an entity that produced the genocide; and that political and economic projects be structured more directly with the affected communities.
These demands have been lodged, for example in the case of Sepur Zarco [the historic trial that in 2014 convicted two former military generals for sexual slavery and using rape as a weapon of war and genocide]. The reparations are holistic. It is not a movement to compensate the women with a little money. Instead, the women have said, “We want healthcare. We want a clinic. We want a school. We want the title to the land for which our husbands were murdered. We want monuments in memory of the victims, of those killed and of us women, and we want our history be known and taught in the schools.
All those reparations were ordered in the Sepur Zarco ruling, but what has been implemented to date? A medical clinic without a doctor. A mobile health clinic. Nothing more. Beyond that, the state does not answer, because it is the same state that is the enemy of indigenous peoples.
Thus we can dream many things, but until conservatives do not have a force of such caliber, the conservative classes will remain the same classes that authored the genocide, despite the important struggles waged by indigenous peoples, women, and peasants.
MF: Speaking about the Sepur Zarco case and women who testified publicly about sexual violence and violence against women, what can be done to end violence against Mayan women?
AC: Your questions are very broad. How many years could it take us to answer these questions! Which violence do you speak of? There are multiple violences.
MF: Perhaps you could explain a little about the comadronas (midwives) movement?
AC: Comadronas undergo a very specific type of violence. First, there is racist violence in which doctors see them as woman-killers. Secondly, there is the criminalizing of midwives. Third, there is daily physical violence. For example, the hospitals kick them out. They verbally abuse comadronas, push them, throw water on them, pass the mop over their feet, or throw disinfectant or deodorant on them, as if to say that they stink. There are multiple forms of violence.
Comadronas are also witnesses to another kind of violence incurred against indigenous women patients. When comadronas bring patients to the hospital, they witness the abuse of these patients. Indigenous women are treated cruelly during childbirth. Doctors handle their bodies like the body of someone who is not human. Doctors put their knees on their stomachs. They insert instruments into the vagina without any care. They do not even take into consideration the pain of women when they are giving birth. They think that women feign suffering.
This is a form of violence against Mayan women, but it is also a violence directed against the Mayan people, a form of violence that also occurred during the armed conflict, when indigenous women were attacked for being part of the Mayan people and because they were beings who gave life to Mayan people.
When I talk about this with many women and men, they do not find it surprising. To me that is terrible. If that does not seem to surprise us, it is because society is used to seeing indigenous women suffer this way, because there is a totally colonial and racist way of thinking about indigenous people. If you are accustomed to abusing an animal and you do it daily, then you see an animal being abused and it produces absolutely no reaction in you. The same applies here. Society is unmoved by the suffering of indigenous people in general but particularly of indigenous and rural women. There is much work to do to denormalize it, name it, and create a new sensibility in Guatemalan society to see that this really is a crime, because for much of society unfortunately it is not a crime, and for the government it is not a crime. Those who run the state are part of Guatemalan society.
MF: Do you have to go to court to make this crime visible? Or how do you make this violence visible?
AC: Yes. The midwives are fighting in court. First for the recognition of comadronas as an important part of Mayan peoples, and second, to free them from oversight by the state.
Here is a concrete example of the struggle for autonomía. The state creates certain norms to which comadronas must conform in order to get the state’s permission to do their work. They must get a state license and be trained by the state, and if not, they are doing illegal work.
However, from the Maya cosmovisión (worldview), comadronas are born. Their work departs from a completely different logic. Many of them are not even trained in institutions but when the state begins to monitor them, all of them have to be under the umbrella of the state. They have previously operated from a space of autonomy from the state, but now the state arrives to monitor them, and the state is destroying that autonomy. Many of us who are in this fight are trying to recuperate that autonomy.
Right now we have a serious problem in that political parties intrude in all of these social movements. There are indigenous political parties here that really take advantage of women’s struggles. They advocate for the state to provide monetary compensation to comadronas, and this again cripples the autonomy of comadronas. An ancient practice is inserted into the logic of the market, and, unfortunately, it takes on a different hue.
Now, I am looking at the comadronas from the outside. It is important to make this distinction. You could say that my struggle—as a woman who no longer suffers hunger and enjoys a different standard of living, because I earn more than a comadrona—is different. I do not agree with the struggle for monetary compensation. I do not agree with state control. Some comadronas think like me, but other comadronas only want to improve the conditions [of state control]. It is understandable. I understand them because of the place they are in.
Still, I think that if some of us [indigenous women] have gone to school and understand the logic of the white man, then we can tell other indigenous women that we know the logic of the white man, and thus we can warn them about where this logic will lead.
In sum, it is a very complex struggle, as is the weavers’ struggle. If a political party arrives and says “Ah, we are going to offer you this and that,” the weavers also have a tendency to follow that party. These are very complicated struggles when they are waged in precarious economic conditions and in situations where education is lacking.
MF: What struggles are the weavers waging?
AC: They fight for several things. First, that weavings, textiles, and indigenous clothing be recognized as collective knowledge, rather than as individual knowledge, because what the state does is the following:
Imagine that you are a designer and you go to a place and tell a weaver, “Lady, I would like you to make this huipil, but do not put the bird here, put it there.” Then, after you have the textile, you tell the weaver, “Now you cannot make any more textiles with this design, because if you do, you are stealing from me. It’s my design.”
This designer is stealing ancient knowledge, and we see the same thing happening with seeds. Companies arrive, they grab corn seeds and other seeds, they modify one cell, and now that seed belongs to the company.
The second goal of the weavers’ movement is to demonstrate how the state exploits the bodies and lives of Mayan women. The state exploits the image of Mayan women to sell that image to foreigners; and the resources that enter the state through the sale of that image—none of those resources reach indigenous peoples. So these are the struggles that are being waged.
MF: Are you trying to change the law to establish weaving as collective knowledge rather than private property?
AC: That is exactly the law we want to create, because that law does not exist. There is only private property law and corporate law. There is no law that protects the collective knowledge of indigenous peoples. We are in the process of creating it.
MF: So there are lawyers in the movement?
AC: Absolutely. We are a movement including lawyers, anthropologists, activists of various kinds, artists. It’s a big movement. The comadronas movement is also a legal fight because, insofar as the state is the one controlling, regulating, and dispossessing them, the fight is also against the state. The legal struggle is a means for survival. It is not an end in itself, but rather a means to an end.
MF: Are there any journals or websites where I could learn more about these movements?
AC: On the internet you can search for AFEDES (Women’s Association for the Development of Sacatepéquez), the weavers’ movement, and that will show everything they are doing and the result of their struggles. On the comadronas and the weavers, I have written reports that I can send to you.
MF: Have these movements interacted with indigenous movements elsewhere in Latin America?
AC: Yes, the weavers’ movement has been invited to many places around the world, because in Guatemala weaving is especially important for life among the Mayan people.
MF: How has your dialogue with movements elsewhere in Latin America influenced your thinking?
AC: I cannot say that I truly have relationships with other movements in Latin America. However, I receive invitations to visit many countries, and I go and share my knowledge and engage in dialogue. Certainly I have been nourished by all of those dialogues. It is hard to pinpoint specific influences. I feel that what I am is a product of everything that I have learned.
MF: How can non-indigenous movements and people in the Global North act in solidarity with indigenous movements and peoples in the Global South?
AC: I do not think that we should ask for solidarity because it is not a relationship of charity. The relationship is based on a logic of dispossession and accumulation. Global activisms should demand an end to the ongoing processes of dispossession carried out by countries that currently proclaim the power to take, plunder, and pillage the resources that other peoples conserve.
MF: You have told me that you are not an expert on the issue of migration, but I would like to think about making some connections between migrant women here in the United States and the struggles that are occurring in Guatemala. I volunteer with Unidad Latina en Acción (ULA), a collective of migrants here in Connecticut who try not to be totally disconnected from their roots and the struggles that are taking place in Latin America. Do you have an opinion about how we might connect women who are abroad with Mayan women’s struggles in Guatemala?
AC: I imagine that there are connections, but it is a great pity that I do not know of those connections directly. There should be strong linkages [between Mayan movements and Mayan migrants in the United States]. Unfortunately, with so many struggles, we cannot do everything.
Yet, I think that there are several indigenous women’s organizations who could make connections perfectly. For example, there is Tz’ununija Indigenous Women’s Movement [which most recently has fought against mining and megaprojects]. There are national women’s movements, but there are also local movements, which could perfectly well form coalitions with migrant women abroad, and the struggles of women who are abroad could understand themselves, as you say, in dialogue with their roots.
My group, the Comunidad de Estudios Mayas, is a small community, and, in reality, what we do is the work of thinking and writing. We do not do much political activism, although each of us does our own activism from multiple locations. We have no funding. We do not offer workshops or anything like that. We do not even have an office. We are building something entirely different. So I cannot say that we could “host” visitors from abroad, but we certainly want to build coalitions that can nourish our ideas and contribute to the political strength of the Mayan people, whether they are here or anywhere in the world. The struggle against colonialism and racism is always at the center of our visions.
MF: Here, in the United States, we are in the center of the empire. Migrants are integrated into this system. So ULA tries to develop an alternative consciousness here inside the empire. Migrants send remittances and make investments in their countries, but they might think about how to invest in alternative projects in their countries, not just to start a business over there, for example.
AC: Exactly. Many of the problems that drove people to emigrate continue to be problems here, problems that have not found solutions and that continue to push out large numbers of people. Emigrants might focus a little more on attacking the root causes of this system of domination over indigenous peoples. This requires a political project to reconstitute society, much more than economic projects.
This is just an idea. We have a long way to go to make it a reality, but I am beginning to think that it could be possible. If your people want a connection, we are here at Comunidad de Estudios Mayas. Our web page needs updating, but we are here. Tz’ununija Movement, the weavers’ movement, and all kinds of movements could build connections.
Megan Fountain is a veteran community organizer with Unidad Latina en Acción (ULA) in New Haven, Connecticut, where she fights for the right for migrants to live and work with dignity. She previously worked at Theatre of the Oppressed NYC. She is earning a Masters degree at El Instituto for Latina/o, Caribbean, and Latin American Studies at UConn Storrs. She has a B.A. in Literature from Yale.