Voces of Indigenous Activists: Reimagining Migration on Our Own Terms

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Date: Aug 04, 2021

Author: Rachael Shier

In July 2021, the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA) in collaboration with Latin America Working Group, Center for Gender and Refugee Studies, and several other United States and Central American organizations, held a webinar to hear the perspectives of three indigenous activists on forced displacement and immigration policies. The webinar featured activists Dr. Floridalma Boj Lopez, a Maya K’iche’ community organizer, Gerónimo Ramírez, a Maya-Ixil youth leader and Ixil community organizer, and Natali Segovia, an international human rights lawyer of Quechua/Peruvian descent.

What is forced migration?

Forced migration is distinct from other forms of migration and presents unique challenges to those who experience it. Natali Segovia provided this definition for a forced migrant: “someone who migrates in order to escape persecution, conflict, repression, natural and human disasters, ecological degradation, and other conditions that threaten their life, freedom, or ability to sustain themselves.” It also includes those fleeing political persecution and extractive environmental practices like mining. The key difference between forced migrants and others, like economic migrants, is the absence of choice, she stressed. Forced migration is involuntary and due to circumstances outside one’s control, such as armed conflict or a repressive state. Because they are often fleeing for their lives, leaving home and family behind, Natali pointed out that there is an additional level of trauma that occurs during forced migration that may not occur in other cases.

Forced migration in indigenous communities

For indigenous communities, forced migration is a constant source of trauma and persecution, says Gerónimo Ramírez. It has many causes: racism, marginalization of native communities, violence, and myriad human rights abuses. In Guatemala, indigenous land rights are far from guaranteed, he explained, allowing transnational corporations to forcibly displace native communities and exploit their natural resources with the authorization and support of the Guatemalan state. But this persecution is far from new. “This did not happen recently,” Gerónimo emphasized. “This began more than 500 years ago, when our nations were made invisible and our rights violated.” 

He is referring to the invasion of the Americas by the Spanish and other colonial powers. According to Gerónimo, this event is what marks the beginning of the “invisibilization” of indigenous communities. Colonizers arrived without invitation nor consultation with the original peoples, building their settlements on top of them as if they were not even there. What followed was 500 years of massacre and genocide. The activist’s voice cracked as he reflected on the massacre his own Ixil community suffered only some 30 years ago. In the face of such systematic attempts at erasure, indigenous peoples often have no choice but to flee.

The consequences are significant. Indigenous rights and the need for their fulfillment go largely unnoticed because they are often not even recognized as native peoples in the first place. Gerónimo noted the current trend in Guatemala, the United States, and elsewhere to call and see indigenous people as “Latines,” describing it as a violation of their human right to exist and to self-determination. Invisibilization also results in a lack of access to translators and interpreters when migrating and crossing borders, Gerónimo pointed out, leading to daunting language barriers and a lack of due process.

Indigenous women and girls are especially burdened by forced migration. Dr. Floridalma Boj Lopez reminded us that “settler colonialism is a gendered project.” Colonizers brought with them ideals of a biological, nuclear family, and the associated gender roles and dynamics were not forgotten. According to Flori, gender-based violence against women during forced migration is a result of their not being seen as full members of indigenous communities, as well as of the “impunity available to a lot of men” working as police officers, soldiers, and border patrol. The media and government consistently fail to recognize that “we’re not just talking about men; we’re talking about entire families and communities and nations, and that has to be a part of how we rethink migration on our own terms.”

Indigenous perspectives for the future

Flori believes there is much to learn from the work of the Land Back movement, a transnational campaign that seeks to restore indigenous political and economic control over ancestral territories. “For me, Land Back in Guatemala is an ongoing struggle,” she said. “It’s not just about saying we want to own a piece of land, because that’s not necessarily the relationship we want to have. It’s about saying we have a right to live lives with dignity, to establish and continue to reproduce our own forms of governance… on our own ancestral territory.” She and other Mayan women scholars and activists also believe in Land Back’s potential as an intervention to the gender-based violence that women, girls, and femmes in Guatemala are fleeing. “To say ‘Land Back’, to reclaim ancestral territory, is also to reclaim our own bodies. It’s to reclaim the self-determination of our very beings.”

Looking to the future, each activist stressed the importance of solidarity across borders. “It is a colonial policy of massacre and genocide that links our ancestors, not only in Guatemala, Canada, or the United States, but in all of America where we have existed for thousands and thousands of years,” Gerónimo reflected. Though the conditions may vary, the struggle against the remnants of colonial power unite original peoples throughout America. As Natali, Gerónimo, Flori, and other indigenous activists work to build relationships among different communities, secure their sovereignty over ancestral lands, and combat the factors driving forced migration, LAWG will continue to stand with indigenous migrants and their organizations, advocate for their rights, and help their voices ring through the halls of the U.S. Congress.

For the English recording, click here.

For the Spanish recording, click here.

For the Maya Mam recording, click here.