What Latinos Owe the Indigenous

Aug 26, 2015
9:30 AM

Last month a video was posted to YouTube in which a young Peruvian girl sings a Michael Jackson classic in one of Peru’s native languages:

Fourteen-year-old Renata Flores Rivera, whose mother started the campaign “Las juventudes tambien hablamos Quechua,” told Fusion she doesn’t speak Quechua fluently because she hardly uses it and it isn’t taught in Peruvian schools:

They teach a lot here, English, which is also really important because it’s the global language, but we can’t abandon our roots because this is ours, it’s a heritage that we shouldn’t allow ourselves to lose.

As with Chinese, what’s referred to as “Quechua” is actually one branch in a family of languages, and the branch itself divides further into more branches. A Quechuan language is spoken by at least 8 million Andeans from Colombia to Argentina, making it the largest indigenous language family in all of the Americas.

Yet, as an indigenous language, for most of its history Quechua has been threatened by the same forces threatening the people who speak it. Having survived the early onslaught of violence and disease —what Galeano called “the advance guard of civilization”— the indigenous peoples of the Americas have continued to face social, economic, cultural and actual death.

A Peruvian commission set up in 2001 to measure the damage left in the wake of 20-year period beginning in 1980 known as “el Terrorismo” found that 75 percent of the 70,000 people killed in the conflict were Quechua. A year before the commission released the results of its investigation, the people of Peru learned that their fugitive former president had conducted a mass sterilization of more than 200,000 Quechua and Aymara women, in addition to around 15,000 vasectomies forced on indigenous men.

Much has changed in the last 15 years in terms of indigenous rights in Latin America. Too much, however, remains the same.

For instance, when newly-elected congresswomen Maria Sumire and Hilaria Supa became the first Peruvians to take the oath of office in Quechua in 2006, a leading congresswoman insisted that all official business be done in Spanish—a move which was rejected by the congress. Then in 2013, the deputy minister of culture resigned in protest over President Ollanta Humala’s refusal to extend the right of “prior consultation” to indigenous whose land was being offered to mining companies.

The same thing is happening in neighboring Ecuador, were President Rafael Correa —who presented himself as friend of the Quechua early on, even donning a white shirt with indigenous patterns to his inauguration in 2007— is now in a pitched battled against his country’s indigenous community over plans to drill for oil in the Amazon. Only a few months in office, Correa promised not to drill for the estimated 846 million barrels under Yasuní National Park, leaving one of the most ecologically rich places on earth intact, if only the world would agree to pay Ecuador $3.6 billion: half the value of the oil.

It was a pretty good deal, considering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost the United States over $2.7 trillion. Uncle Sam could’ve paid the entire world’s share with change under his sofa cushions.

But after six years had passed and the world only managed to pay a measly $13 million thus far, Correa withdrew his promise and decided to drill for the oil after all, promising instead to use the profits to tackle poverty. As in Peru, the indigenous community in Ecuador grew upset that the president had decided to ignore their concerns about Yasuní. Sparked the renege, Ecuador’s indigenous are now at the center of anti-government protests over the perceived failures of the Correa administration to successfully introduce social and economic reforms.

In Chile the Mapuche are resisting efforts by the Bachelet administration to begin work on 40 dam projects on indigenous lands—an existential battle for a people whose name literally means “people of the land.”

The Lenca of Honduras have engaged in a deathly confrontation with the “transnational dictatorship” looking to exploit the land and extract every last resource. Brigitte Gynther provided a grim depiction of the brutality back in March:

On the evening Jan. 27, a bus of Indigenous Lenca community leaders returning from Rio Blanco, Honduras, the site of an almost two-year Lenca blockade and struggle against the construction of the Agua Zarca dam, was waived to a stop by the police.

The bus was blocked from proceeding by burning tires and people in the street. They were told they would not be able to proceed until Berta Caceres, the General Coordinator of COPINH, appeared. COPINH leaders on the bus explained that Berta was still in Rio Blanco and could be contacted there, just 30 minutes away. No, they were told, we will wait for Berta to come here and the bus cannot advance until she appears. Two policemen got on the bus to look for Berta. Meanwhile, back in Rio Blanco, Berta received information that if she went to the site, she would be kidnapped, beaten, ‘screwed,’ and more.

Despite the obstacles and ongoing struggles, there are a few bright spots. In Bolivia, where in 2006 Evo Morales became the first indigenous person elected president, the Quechua and Aymara are enjoying greater social, political and economic recognition. A 2009 revision to the Bolivian constitution gave 37 languages official status, and the president issued a decree requiring that all civil servants speak at least one indigenous language.

After winning a third term in office in 2014, he participated in a ceremony at Tiwanaku where he was again crowned “supreme leader” of the Aymara:

Farther north, Mexico’s La Jornada recently launched a Mayan edition to accommodate the nearly 800,000 Mexicans who speak the language. As the paper described its effort:

With two platforms, one digital and one print, the most recent franchise of the national newspaper La Jornada is published with the intent to respond, using all the tools of journalism, to the information needs of the diverse, changing, and educated Yucatan society.

Latinos frequently argue over what to call the land south of the United States—whether it should be called “Latin America” or “Latin America and the Caribbean,” or whether the entire continent should be referred to simply as “the Americas.” But for the indigenous people who were here thousands of years before my European ancestors invaded and my African ancestors were dragged here, the land goes by only one name: home.

Many Latinos like to claim Aztec, Inca or Taino ancestry, but very few have more than a minimal amount of indigenous blood. There simply weren’t enough natives around after Colon’s arrival for today’s Latinos to be descendants of.

That’s not to say the land was unclaimed when the Europeans discovered it. Galeano figured the indigenous population to be “no less than 70 million when the foreign conquerors appeared on the horizon.” Upon entering the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlán, Hernán Cortés and his 600 accomplices encountered a city twice as populous as Spain’s largest city, Sevilla. Mayan knowledge of time and the sky had created a calendar more accurate than our own, and the Inca traveled along one of the most advanced highway systems ever conceived.

By the mid-1600s, however,  disease, slavery and torture annihilated indigenous communities from the Río Grande to the Río de la Plata, leaving only 3.5 million indigenous people in all of the New World. Civilizations that had stood for thousands of years were virtually wiped out during the course of a dozen decades.

The Latin American people arose from the rubble of once great cities and mountains of dry bone. Latinos exists because nearly every indigenous man was slaughtered, nearly every woman was raped and nearly every child was enslaved. They may identify with the vanishing indigenous peoples of the Americas, but there is not getting around the fact that Latinos are also the descendants of those that did the pillaging and butchering.