Historically, ever since Spanish ships touched shore in the Bahamas in 1492, indigenous people in Latin America and the Caribbean have been subject to severe consequences ranging from discrimination to forced labor to outright genocide. As soon as Europeans first came into contact with the indigenous people with dark skin and unknown languages, they automatically deemed themselves biologically superior and the indigenous people savages.
From this first point of contact, these groups of people have suffered from this persistent notion of racial superiority by white immigrants and their ancestors. Their cultures, social structures, livelihoods, music, and languages have been shamed and discredited, and assimilation to Western cultural norms is often considered the only way to be taken seriously in our modern world.
However, the story of indigenous people, or indígenas, has not always been one of victimization and pity; throughout history, there have been periods of resurgence and uprising in which they, fed up with their own repression, have risen up against their Western aggressors and taken pride in their historical roots to the American continent. Examples include the indigenismo and mestizaje movements, meant to highlight the marginalization of native people since the European conquest and to push for greater political and social inclusion in the 20th century.
It appears that something similar may be on the rise today. In recent years, indigenous people in Peru, Bolivia, Guatemala, Mexico, and other countries have taken it upon themselves to reverse the historical trend and turn what was once a handicap—their indigenous identity—into a tool to condemn their oppressors and express their ethnic pride.
It is known that when European settlers first set foot in the ‘New World’ in the 15th century, the native populations including the Aztecs, Mayas, Incas, and Tainos were decimated by superior weaponry and diseases from the Old World. The continent was then occupied for the next 3 hundred years by a period of colonization, often characterized by economic growth and development under the Spanish and Portuguese ruling classes. What is rarely considered in this history is the way that the original inhabitants of the land—the indigenous descendants of America’s fallen empires—were treated, or mistreated, during and after this era.
Since the colonial era, indigenous people in Latin American countries have been systemically oppressed, placed in a secondary status, and excluded from the political sphere. As a result, these groups have been virtually unable to protect themselves and their resources from exploitation by those in power.
This dynamic is evident in many countries in the access—or lack thereof—to political processes in recent decades. For example, until the 1980s there were still strict standards for literacy in Spanish that had to be met in order to vote; these literacy requirements were strategically implemented to exclude poor and indigenous people from the electoral process, as many indigenous people could only speak and/or write in their native languages.
Along with these strategies to exclude the indigenas from the democratic process, throughout the 20th century authoritarian regimes and leaders often targeted their countries’ indigenous people, resulting in vast human rights violations. An example is Peru under dictator Alberto Fujimori in the 1990s; Fujimori is known for his role in human rights abuses against indigenous people and poor campesinos. He was also famously behind a program that forcibly sterilized nearly 200,000 indigenous women in an effort to purify the nation.
While these types of horrifying human rights abuses are not nearly as common today, there is still a severe disparity between the quality of living between Latin America’s indigenous and non-indigenous people. To start, in countries such as Bolivia, Paraguay, Colombia, or Peru, a disturbing amount of the countries’ indigenous people live in severe poverty and with insufficient accesses to necessary resources.
Additionally, there is a lack of representation of indigenous people in Latin American political offices. While indigenous leaders may occasionally serve as local or congressional representatives, they are rarely elected to executive office; for example, countries such as Paraguay which have a significant indigenous majority have never had an indigenous leader elected to the presidency. Such is the case in Guatemala, Peru, Colombia, and Bolivia—until 2006, when Aymara leader Evo Morales became the first indigenous president in Latin America since the 1870s.
After centuries of such oppression and subjugation, however, indigenous people are rising up once again in resistance to the system that has impeded and targeted them for so long. They are retaking ownership of their identity and transforming it into a symbol of empowerment rather than disgrace through their language, music, and politics.
Indigenas to the Foreground of Politics
Though indigenous people have been involved in their political systems at a small scale for several decades, the rise of Evo Morales in Bolivia has undoubtedly inspired an upsurge in political participation and in the vocalization of concerns by indigenous people. Evo Morales is the first indigenous president in Latin America in over 140 years, and he has inspired many with his charisma and with the proud embrace of his own Aymara identity. He appeals to the interests of poor Bolivian coca growers and has spoken out against the struggles that indigenous people have had to face in Bolivia since the European conquest (HispanTV).
Evo is known by many as a politician of liberation from racism and Western imperialism, and also as a symbol of the modern indigenous movement. In a country like Bolivia where over half of the population identifies as indigenous, this powerful stance that Evo has taken has been a source of inspiration and hope for many that change is possible.
Another way that Latin American countries have demonstrated the defiant stance of indigenous people is through their unconventional celebration of what we know in the United States as Columbus Day. This day, which is celebrated in Spain as ‘Day of Race’, is seen by many in the Americas as nothing more than a celebration of Spanish supremacy—and for this, many countries have officially changed this day to celebrate indigenous pride rather than Christopher Columbus’s ‘discovery’ of the New World.
In Bolivia, for example, rather than celebrate Christopher Columbus on October 12, they honor the ‘Day of the Discolonization in the Plurinational State of Bolivia’, as it was formally named in 2011. On this day, Bolivians recognize the indigenas that died during the colonization, and they celebrate the country’s cultural diversity that was made possible by the mixing of Europeans, Americans, and Africans in Bolivia (Publico).
Venezuela and Guatemala, on the other hand, use this day to denounce discrimination and inequality under the Spanish, and celebrate the indigenous culture that persists regardless. On this ‘Day of Indigenous Resistance’, Venezuelans and Guatemalans come together to embrace and celebrate the rich history of the native people that occupied the land long before the Spanish arrival (Publico).
Through initiatives such as this, it is easy to see how, by embracing their cultural identity, indigenous people throughout Latin America are rising up to make a statement against the systems that have oppressed them for centuries.
Tususunchis (Let’s Dance): Indigenas in Music
Another very symbolic and public way that many indigenous people have pushed themselves to the foreground is through music in indigenous languages and styles. One artist who has used her music as a tool to highlight her history, culture, and pride is Luzmila Carpio, the most famous Latin American indigenous artist in the world. Carpio is a Bolivian woman who identifies as Quechua, the single largest indigenous group on the continent. Her music (which is available on Spotify) is meant to emphasize indigenous cultural values and increase the sense of the rich diversity of indigenous people in the Andes.
Luzmila Carpio is known by many as ‘The Voice of the Andes’, and an icon of indigenous cultural resistance. She carefully designs each of her songs to show the tones, sounds, and instruments that are typical of Potosi, Bolivia, and to highlight Andean indigenous values such as Mother Earth or ‘Pachamama’, and resistance against racial segregation and suffering.
Other artists and groups have taken a more unconventional route to mainstreaming their language and cultural identity by rapping in their native tongue. An example of this is ‘the Tihorappers Crew’, a group of 8 young men from Quintana Roo, Mexico who write and produce rap music in both Spanish and Maya to express pride in their Maya roots. Similar artists can be found from Bolivia’s Wayna Rap group to Guatemala’s Balam Ajpu.
Through a combination of ancient folk musical styles, indigenous language, and modern musical styles, these artists have been able to break ground in the expression of indigenous identity in mainstream culture.
Can the indigenous languages be preserved?
Another sector in which Latin America’s indigenous groups have made some progress—though perhaps the most difficult—is the preservation of indigenous languages. Traditionally, indigenous languages are stigmatized, labeled as ‘dead languages’, and considered a barrier to opportunity in our increasingly globalized world. For these reasons, many young indigenous people choose to abandon their native tongue, move to the city, and learn Spanish or English to expand their academic and employment opportunities.
However, there is still a significant portion of the population dedicated to preserving these languages and making them more mainstream rather than leaving them behind. Although many speakers of languages such as Quechua, Aymara and Guarani have been lost to mass urbanization, certain government initiatives have been put into place to protect these languages from extinction. For example, the Peruvian government implemented the Law for the Use, Preservation, Development, Revitalization and Use of Indigenous Languages in 2011, asserting that the Peruvian state was under the obligation to serve and address all citizens “in their own languages” (Eureka).
Similarly, several countries in Latin America have added various indigenous languages to their list of official state languages, facilitating the use of indigenous languages in government activities. Bolivia, for example, now considers 26 languages as official state languages, symbolic of the country’s proclaimed status as a diverse and ‘plurinational’ state.
In addition to these legal initiatives, the use of indigenous languages in mainstream culture and media, such as through music or the news, has had an impact on the social acceptance of these languages.
In 2016, the first Quechua television news source was launched on Peru’s national broadcaster, which reaches 90 percent of the country. This news program, titled ‘Nuqanchik’ (‘all of us’ in Quechua) has been a big step in recognizing Peru’s large indigenous population and in mainstreaming the Quechua language.
Initiatives such as this are key in the preservation of indigenous language and identity. Only 10 years ago, to speak Quechua in public was rare and incredibly stigmatized; however, with the help of government efforts and the regionwide movement to embrace native culture, people feel increasingly empowered and free to speak in their native tongue in public (Eureka).
Though Latin American governments and societies certainly have a long way to go in providing recognition and equal opportunity to their indigenous populations, there is undeniably a movement currently making headway in this effort. Though many may still see their indigenous blood as a barrier to opportunity or acceptance, others see this identity as a way to connect with their rich history, society, and values, and to take pride in this.
Through the revival of indigenous music, culture, and pride, it is becoming increasingly evident to the world that America’s native people, values, and culture, is far from being stuck in the past. Rather, these cultures and livelihoods represent a massive group of people that is vital to the structure and organization of Latin American society. It is important to remember in our increasingly globalized world that these cultures, though rooted in a rich history, are not ancient folklore, and they are not dying—they are alive and everchanging, as is any, and they continue to contribute valuable ideas and perceptions to our modernizing world.