Some ten years back, I was riding in a car with my parents and my aunt. They were all born and raised in El Salvador, and I wasn’t. My aunt said something that I’ll never forget — “parece Indio,” meaning “resembles Indian,” in reference to El Salvador’s indigenous people. It was just an expression that they all knew, so they just laughed it off.
I dwelled on that phrase. Should I be insulted? What‘s so bad about looking Indian? I knew that I looked Indian with my stereotypical dark and straight hair, dark eyes and year-round tan. My mom looked Indian also. My dad and aunt not so much; their mother was a natural blonde with blue eyes.
So, when I heard that El Salvador was amending its constitution to recognize its indigenous peoples, I was initially confused, then elated and eventually hopeful. Awareness and recognition are crucial first steps to perhaps improving a whole country.
El Salvador Recognizing its Indigenous People
According to Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), on June 12, 2014, El Salvador had a “historic vote” about its national Constitution. Not only would Article 63 recognize that it is indeed made up of past and present indigenous peoples, but the nation would also recognize its “obligations to them.”
The highest power in El Salvador also weighed in. According to CISPES, President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, a former guerrilla commander who was elected as president in March 2014, called the ratification of the constitution, “a historic debt that we have to our roots and to our identity.”
El Salvador‘s Present Indigenous Peoples
I’d disagree a bit with President Sánchez Cerén. While it is about a historic debt, it is also a very present debt because El Salvador has indigenous communities right now.
The Cacaopera, Chorotega, Lenca, Pipil and Xinca are a few of the groups that constitute El Salvador’s indigenous peoples. Minority Rights cites that “approximately 600,000 or 10 per cent of Salvadorian peoples are indigenous.”
Despite 600,000 people, a 2004 World Bank assessment called “indigenous invisibility” an “identity crisis” that even permeates family units. An identity crisis creates other crises: poverty, land, health and education. For example, according to Minority Rights, while 95 percent of mestizo, or mixed, Salvadorans own their own land, only 5 percent of Salvadoran indigenous people own their land. 60 percent share communal lands and the remaining 35 percent rent land.
Divide, Conquer and Disappear No More
I’m not naive and I know that change won’t happen overnight, but I hope that by becoming aware and recognizing El Salvador’s indigenous people, Salvadorans will also note and recognize the crises that tear them apart. I might be a rare phenomenon because I was born a world away, but I’ve always connected to my indigenous identity. I see it in my phenotype, and I feel it.
I’m not particularly special; I was just fortunate not to have the idea that Indian is bad drilled in my brain. As the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage explains, under the magical man-made process of mestizaje (or mixing of indigenous and mostly European people), “Indians” (indios) were renamed “peasants” (campesinos). The only thing that was left about being indigenous people was the “Bruto indio” legacy, which has the same ‘backward Indian’ connotation (which is what my aunt was alluding to that day).
Having indigenous people divided between other groups and among each other has its benefits. In the U.S., Jacqueline Keller at xoJane explains, “The hope was that we would all eventually have too little ‘blood’ to qualify for citizenship in our own nations and tribes would then disappear and no longer trouble U.S. with claims to the land.” The truth is: divided people are easier to conquer, easier to exploit and easier to make disappear.
Indigenous people have already proven the social, cultural and environmental powerhouses that they can be when they come together as communities and mobilize. Chile’s campesinos did it when they beat Monsanto Law and kept their seed sovereignty. El Salvador might need a similar strong identity and strong identity to beat America’s current “bullying” to use Monsanto’s seeds instead of their indigenous seeds. An indigenous identity might also help fight narco-deforestation, helpCentral America’s harpy eagle and a slew of other indigenous stewardship issues.
Personally, I’d like to see El Salvador redefine itself. I’ll take an indigenous legacy over the country’s violent and war-torn legacy that killed 70,000 Salvadorans during it’s 12-year Civil War.
Photo Credit: Adalberto H. Vega
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