By Santiago Martínez
It is impossible for a term like “indigenous” to comprehend the 600+ cultures in Latin America. However, they all do share a story of marginalization and exclusion from the political, economic and social life. Despite such a historical baggage, there are certain individuals that have risen up to the challenge to revindicate the story of each of their cultures.
Here are the names of five leaders who defy expectations and have become symbols of empowerment. These leaders inspire change in societies that badly need it.
Manari Ushigua (Zapara)
The Zapara are an indigenous group that has only around 500-1000 members living in a 500,000 acres expanse of the Amazonian forest in South-Central Ecuador. Since 2009, they call themselves la Nación Sápara del Ecuador (Zaparo Nation of Ecuador) Manari was their president from 2009 to 2013. What is incredible about Bartolo Alejandro Ushigua Santi (Manari’s legal name) is that he rose up with the rest of his people to save the culture of the Zapara from extinction. In 2001, UNESCO recognized Zapara culture as an “intangible cultural heritage” after a long effort led by him. However, Manari’s greatest feat has been fighting off oil companies seeking to drill in their part of the Amazon forest, leading internationally a plight for his culture, and leading a group of people against the corporate behemoths. As of today, he is defending the government’s relegation of their land to Chinese oil companies since 2012 by being the ambassador of the Zapara in the international community.
Cecilio Solís Librado (Nahua)
Red Indígena de Turismo en México (RITA), a network of indigenous entrepreneurs dedicated to eco and ethnic-tourism has been one of the major breakthroughs in the tourism model in the country. Cecilio, the founder of the project,united 32 enterprises from 16 different ethnic groups under one project in 2002. He initiated a community collaboration in which the development of the indigenous communities came from themselves, building an empowered Mayan society. Now, RITA has 189 different enterprises in 16 different states in Mexico that he has selected by leading a team of 20 experts from environmental engineers to accountants searching for sustainable, ethic enterprises. He has worked also in a Latin American indigenous network, indigenous tours, making him part of the forefront of indigenous development.
Aníbal Bubú (Nasa)
It is said that education is the backbone of a society. Aníbal Bubú understood this simple truth. Born in a poor Nasa community in Colombia, he saw the gap between the education system and the actual needs of the population. So he decided to dedicate his life for a simple dream: a school for indigenous peoples by indigenous people. His first victory was in 1991, when he was able to change the Colombian Constitution to promote “ethno-education”, a concept in which engages indigenous culture, tongue and ethics while mixing it with the current western education. Since then, he has won various fights for the community; and in 1998 he built a school that now has 2,000 students and 59 schools in the country. He has even co-created a governmental organization for indigenous education. He changed education in favour of his people, making him a great leader.
Eufrosina Cruz (Zapotec)
To understand the importance of Eufrosina Cruz, one has to know her story. She was a woman in a deeply patriarchal culture, in one of the poorest communities of Mexico, Zapotec and did not learn Spanish until she was 10 years old. Against all odds, she became the first female official to be elected in a local congress in her home state, Oaxaca, and eventually became federal deputy. She wrote a bill that empowered women to vote in these indigenous communities in her state, enforcing the role of women. She has since been an avid advocate for gender and indigenous rights and now the president of Indigenous Affairs Committee in the National Congress of the country. Because of the patriarchal nature of some indigenous cultures in southern Mexico, and the fact that Mexican political system has systematically marginalized indigenous voices, her avid fight is a symbol towards a more balanced and egalitarian society. She really stands out as a leader fighting on two fronts.
Maria Eugenia Choque Quispe (Aymara)
María is one of the most interesting characters in this list. She is an intellectual, as she has earned a master’s degree in Andean History and a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work. She has written in countless publications and journals regarding indigenous studies. Her deep understanding of the indigenous experience, both intellectually and experientially, drove her to become the Minister of Indigenous Affairs in Bolivia, and a Member of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. If that isn’t enough, she has been a consultant for Oxfam, the Paraguayan and Bolivian government, the Swedish International Cooperation, the UN, the World Bank, among others. She is one of the leading minds regarding indigenous studies in the world.
Leaders are not people are not only people that decide to act on things, but also that represent something bigger. All these people represent something important and irretrievable: the indigenous societies can make it, and will make it. It is a clear message for all of us. They are not helpless. They are empowered.