Indigenous Latin America – the real Latin America?

Emilio Faulkner is a third year IR student in the Department of War Studies. Due to his Honduran heritage, he is motivated to take on the position of Latin America Editor for IR Today. He also believes Latin America is often understudied and disregarded in the study of IR. He is therefore excited to have the opportunity to fill this void and explore the region’s role in international affairs. As well as Latin America, his academic interests lie in the concepts of Grand Strategy, Statecraft and the recent re-emergence of major power rivalry on the global stage.

“It is a struggle and a journey that starts with loving our own brown skin.” This is a reference to Latin America’s long-held struggle with its native origins – indigenous people’s years of oppression. However, in the present, indigenous communities are fighting for their rights and rightful position at the centre of Latin American identity, society and politics. For many, this is troublesome – a threat to national and Latino regional identities that have, for almost two centuries, been in a constant process of change, adaption and reconstruction. The debate over identity in Latin America is raging and never-ending. The re-entry of native-indigenous voices onto the negotiation table just adds another layer to this already hotly contested story of both unity and division.

Common Latin American identity in the region is strong. References to their unified sense of Latinidad are widespread, but defining this common regional identity is a challenge no one can seem to solve. The construction of this Latino identity has its origins in European colonization, the wars of independence, the subsequent formation of nations and the region’s anti-imperial relationship with the US and the rest of the world. However, what has long been forgotten about in Latin America, is its indigenous population and origins – those who pre-date any Spaniard, Portuguese or European landing on Central or South American soil. Arguably, the true Latin American.

Today and for years passed, indigenous populations in the region have suffered severe dislocation and attempted erasure from the Latin American map. In the period of formation of nations in Latin America after the wars of independence, national borders were drawn up with complete disregard for the historical territories and landholdings of indigenous communities. From its outset, the careless construction of borders created a narrative in which indigenous populations, due to their Indio ethnicity, suffered a sense of inferiority and perceived savageness with which Latin American elites today do not want to be affiliated. For example, indigenous populations in Guatemala represent 60% of the population. The government only recognises this number to be 40%. Similarly, in Honduras, despite vast indigenous communities, the government claims they make up just 9% of the population. Such indifference is evident throughout the region. Considering around 10 million people in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile, and Argentina still speak Quechua, the language of the Incas, the minimal rights awarded to these groups highlight their position of irrelevance or more accurately, structural disregard, in Latin American circles today. 

However, more than just experiencing a sort of deliberate ghosting from society, they are also the victims of severe violence and oppression. These include forced religious conversions, cultural cleansing, indoctrination via education systems, child labour, and land theft or forced displacement. Between 2017 and 2021, issues over extractive industries and land invasions have been the cause of 2,109 cases of violence against indigenous communities. This, along with the fact they make up 14% of those living in poverty in the region, despite only representing 8% of its population, is indicative of the brutality and prevalence of the violence unleashed upon these populations, on top of the structural barriers which prevent their full economic and social inclusion into society. 

Although the wars of independence of the 1800s ended formal European colonization in the region, it is also vital to understand that they laid the foundations for an internal form of coloniality. This internal form of coloniality was directed against indigenous populations who continued to be viewed as colonies, subjects and inferior persons. These legacies unfortunately live on, even if in a different form. Today, indigenous activists are accused of threatening the stability and bedrock upon which Latin American nations were built. Although current indigenous demonstrations, which have turned to statue toppling in Colombia, indicate this might be true, this is far from the reality. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries writers, historians and artists of all kinds were creating works to foment pride and unity around this newfound sense of Spanish or Latin Americanness, with complete and intentional blindness to the deserved presence of native voices and figures in these narratives. Therefore, these actions purely represent the efforts of these isolated communities to finally take a stand and assert their mere existence. Many believe their goal is to rip apart the whole fabric of what has come to constitute Latin American identity. Yet, this is short-sighted. Their goal is not to achieve the complete transformation and re-founding of Latin American nations – like all of us, they are fighting to ensure their rights and the safety of their communities and descendants for years, decades, and centuries to come.  

Today, indigenous social movements are some of the most influential political actors in Latin America. Groups like The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), considered one of the most influential indigenous movements in the region, lead protests against neoliberal policies which weigh heavily on indigenous populations as well as the rest of the world. They are also hugely committed, through social action, to representing the advancement of rights for all throughout the region. Evo Morales’  election in Bolivia in 2006 as the region’s first-ever indigenous President, underlines the potential strength and influence of indigenous populations. Despite their unpopularity among the Latin American elite, due to their efforts to amend the status quo these circles desperately fight to preserve, indigenous movements have the power and strength to be guiding forces for systemic change in the region – the search for democracy and respect for the rule of law.

To put it all together, the re-emergence of indigenous voices into the fabric of Latin American culture, society and political domain constitutes just another moment of identity evolution and reconfiguration in the region. Further than national and regional identities, the rise of indigenous movements could go much further than representing native rights. If supported, they have the potential to represent and even lead a historical power shift away from the legacies of hierarchy, division and coloniality.

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