A Plurality of Voices, Resistance and Existence to Defend the Territories of the Body and the Land
By: Wendy Matamoros Zambrana, FCAM Cross-Sector Alliances and Communications Coordinator
In this intimate, raw, inspiring and powerful interview, we will speak with Alex Vásquez, active member of the Guatemalan Network of Healers for Territorial Community Feminism (Red de Sanadoras del Feminismo Comunitario Territorial de Guatemala). In this conversation, ancestrality, Mayan cosmogony, and personal and collective emotions weave together to reflect upon their struggles and the connection of COVID-19 to the power structures that have historically worked to oppress first nations and the indigenous women of Iximulew–Guatemala.
FCAM: When a global health emergency like COVID-19 emerges in countries with authoritarian governments, it does not stop nor reduce existing structural violence, rather it elevates it. How is the pandemic affecting you all?
I will give my answer in the first person political. I will speak about what I have lived, about day-to-day life, about responsibility, because while I am part of a network, each of us weaves her path in a different way and we are spread across different territories.
We are not affected only by the arrival of this pandemic, we were affected before the pandemic and continue to be affected. Guatemala (Iximulew, as we call it in the Maya Q´eqchi language) has been a Colonial-Nation-State that is structured and woven in a highly racialized way. Racism is not just cultural exclusion, but a complete rejection of your existence.
In Guatemala, we have had genocide, persecution of rights defenders, neoliberalism that begins to weave itself into the “Peace Disaccords” (as we say), because we never reached those Peace Accords.
The pandemic grabs us in a place of intense political complexity for indigenous women and for human rights defenders and defenders of life. It grabs us in the territory Maya Q´eqchi under dispute with narco-trafficking. A territory that is in dispute with megaprojects, extensive monoculture agricultural practices, corruption, sexual violence, human trafficking, and political prisoners in the Q´eqchi territory.
What I have been able to discuss with the young women that we meet and gather with, is that in the pandemic violence against women is present. The pandemic grabs us within the reality of femicide, kidnappings, sexual violence, and among a multitude of other complex situations.
Of course the pandemic is a health crisis, but it is not crisis that unfolds on its own. It is a crisis that unfolds in a racist and patriarchal Colonial-Nation-State that does not recognize the self-determination of women’s bodies, and does not recognize the organizational self-determination of indigenous peoples.
In this crisis – as well as in the other crises of malnutrition, violence, damage caused by mining waste dumped into rivers, damage to rivers caused by monoculture runoff – the government takes advantage, as it always has, to pillage common goods.
The government of Guatemala takes advantage of any emergency situation to destabilize the ancestral organizations that continue to exist despite many attempts to make us disappear from our territories. For example, there is a curfew for some communities and people cannot go out to plant their fields, they cannot go out at all, much less to protest. Nevertheless, employees of mines and hydroelectric dams continue to work with extended schedules. The same rules are not being applied across the entire population.
FCAM: How does this dynamic (woven around the pandemic) affect the lives, rhythms and struggles of indigenous peoples?
I would go so far as to say that all government measures – in the pandemic and before the pandemic – are sustained by a structure that disassociates indigenous rights and the rights of people not recognized by the State, because the State has a set parameter for recognizing a person: if you are educated, heterosexual, religious, landowning, Spanish-speaking, then the state benefits you with all that it has available.
The differential treatment by the state towards indigenous peoples or towards bodies that are not perceived as people, and the criminalization against rights defenders, has not stopped despite the pandemic. Many women have experienced hate campaigns, stigmatization campaigns, public denouncements made against them, even radio spots to disparage them, printing and dropping flyers around the areas of town where they live. And I ask myself, “how is it that all of those cars could go out and distribute those flyers in the middle of a curfew?”
They do not let us mobilize and the accompaniment that we provide is face-to-face, we go to cry with human rights defenders, we go to prepare her plants, do her ceremony and purify her home with smoke. This government structure has halted many of our ways of organizing and of resistance.
For us, the symbolism of having your mouth covered is extremely intense. A kaxlan person (someone that is not Maya) goes to find designs for their mask, decorates it. We have cried over having to cover our mouths. It is uncomfortable not just physically, but politically, because of the historical silence that has been imposed on our different forms of resistance.
I would dare to say that violence against rights defenders has increased, as has violence against women in general. I am thinking about the girls that are confined with their sexual aggressor (a family member, a grandfather, a brother), women that are locked in with their aggressors. This situation is very difficult and painful, and the government is saying that this violence is generated by the stress that men are feeling in the face of the pandemic and that is why they are beating their wives and partners. It’s like saying, if you are stressed it is totally natural that you would beat your wife, that you harm her and your daughters, and we have to understand what you are going through. It’s absurd!
FCAM: Could it be said that the pandemic has become a double-edged sword, in which one side of the government wants to control it and eradicate it, and on the other hand, the pandemic itself has become an instrument to justify dominance, control and repression of indigenous peoples in resistance? Becoming a perfect excuse to cover up and justify acts of structural violence?
Of course, and I would say that if it were not for COVID-19, it would be for something else. And the sad part about all of this is that I do not want to say it is just the government, as if the government is something that is off on its own. The government is also the population (including those that do not benefit in any direct way from the government) that legitimizes all of these acts of violence and racism under the social structure that has been woven in Guatemala. I would dare to go even further, because it also legitimizes the forms of violence driven by NGOs against indigenous peoples.
The pandemic comes and fits like a glove on any hegemonic power structure that makes invisible and does not recognize the plurality of the diverse realities that are affected by its structures. And with all of my love and respect, NGOs and the bureaucracy of international cooperation is part of that, and the Guatemalan Colonial-Nation-State is part of that. But also part of that is the man that cannot read or write, that man that lives in a community and works the land, but is also machista and is sexually violent towards women.
FCAM: Another part of this is economic power, where as if in a spider web different economic interests and power structures come together.
Communities that do not follow a capitalist economic system are being affected. But, for example, I have not seen a McDonald’s have to close, or a Pollos Campero, I have not seen a large food chains have to close, and so why can a person that plants their corn in an autonomous, ancestral way not go to their fields? Many people that I know have stopped going to their fields because government orders for Community Development Councils (Consejos de Desarrollo Comunitarios – COCODES) say that they cannot conglomerate in the country, but you can conglomerate to go and work at one of those food chains, which besides being unhealthy are open to a mass of people?
This pandemic reworks state violence against populations that are vulnerable in the Colonial-Nation-State, which infringes upon certain kinds of bodies and certain forms of existence.
FCAM: Within the global dynamic created by the pandemic, there is also a lot of talk about solidarity. Nevertheless, in the case of Guatemala you have mentioned structural exclusion of all expressions of life that do not enter into the parameters of the Colonial-Nation-State.
There are realities that are excluded from solidarity. There are realities that are excluded from human rights and there are realities that are obviously excluded from the Colonial-Nation-State of Guatemala.
A lot of churches here talk about solidarity and everything that they are doing, like collecting groceries to be distributed across the members of their churches. But what about the sex workers? And the migrants? So solidarity can also be discrimination, in the sense that you are going to share with the people that fit your parameters.
That made me think that exclusion has an identity. You quickly think of an old women, you quickly think to give to her, but you do not look at other identities and realities that are suffering throughout this process.
FCAM: How are you finding ways to resist, when the government measures that seek to silence your political voice are being sustained by the response to the pandemic?
We have resisted out of the pure ancestral strength we inherited. That has sustained us. We been politically creative, using the political creativity that our grandmothers and grandparents had.
We have also been sustained by the search for coincidence, spirituality (not religion, but as an act of consciousness), through bathing in our plants, the plants that we have in our gardens and without which we could not survive. We also give ourselves permission to say, “I do not know what to do in this pandemic,” because only by asking ourselves and being aware that we do not know what to do, will be begin to figure out what to do. But this is not just a process for this moment, this is a process over years of confronting pandemics, just like the first pandemics that were brought with colonization.
FCAM: These are centuries of uninterrupted struggle. Oppression has taken on new forms, new looks and dynamics, but at the root the intention is always the same: dominate, control, take over, and sever the connections that join different expressions of life.
For us, plurality is vital for sustaining life. If on a hill there is only one kind of tree, that land will not be healthy land. It is the same with extensive monoculture, there is no plurality of existence and the land cannot sustain standardization of the soil and subsoil and all of its minerals. When monoculture ends, nothing else can be planted there.
When you walk into a forest or up a mountain, in one cubic meter you find a plurality of rocks, of leaves, of animals, you find a plurality of things. No tree is the same as another, no grain of sand is the same as another, and no star is the same as another. That is the meaning of how life is sustained.
The same goes for this experience that they have named the human experience. When you standardize one reality, and you impose it and impose a model of a person on top realities that are not taken into consideration, you are ending life in a spectacular way.
This is what the government has done. The government takes one social reality as if it belonged to everybody and based on those measures, it does its political analysis (if it does one at all) and makes decisions, and that is why there is an imposition that does not recognize the dignity of our resistance.
This also applies to other sources, such as from the sexual diversity community, intellectuals, feminists, leftists and revolutionaries. When they approach us with a standard proposal with their own interpretations of our realities and how we can emancipate ourselves, we cannot weave together with them, because they do not share our meaning of plurality.
FCAM: What does plurality mean for territorial community feminism?
Plurality gives us political and emotional sustainability to confront all of the attacks, the multiple oppressions and even pandemics, all throughout history. Plurality is what allows us to sustain life.
We like to speak about plurality as a principle of cosmogony, not a meaning of plurality as a merely intellectual construct, but as day-to-day plurality, that is grounded in nature, that is observed our territories, observed in our expressions of life, of sexuality, of creativity, of knowledge, and the in the ways of connecting yourself with different forms of existence.
There is a plurality of realities, there is a plurality of emancipations, there is a plurality of oppressions and there is a plurality of histories. For you, growing your hair could be an emancipatory act; for an indigenous woman, cutting her hair would be emancipatory. For one woman, becoming a mother could be emancipatory, for another, the decision not to become a mother would be her emancipatory act, for her reasons, for her memories, for her life, for her existence.
There is a vitality in plurality that is important for confronting a ton of things, and if you fall into the trap of wanting to rationalize it, of wanting to structure and form it like a merely intellectual idea, you lose the beautiful opportunity to feel it and see what it can contribute to the fabric of your life.
“I am grateful for your path, I am grateful for the times you doubted your existence so that you could be where you are today. I am also grateful for the times that you will again come to doubt your existence, your actions, your reflection; because it is in doubting where the meaning of life and plurality becomes a reality; because if we do not doubt what we do, we also standardize our existence; because if we do not doubt what we think, we also standardize our feelings. The opportunity to live while doubting the vastness of your existence, of your imagination; gives you vast political creativity and it confronts you, it throws you, it topples you out of place, but for me that struggle is absolutely worth it, because I refuse to allow forms of oppression and patriarchy to have certainty over my life, because I am not going to cede my existence to them.” Alex Vásquez
About the Network of Healers for Territorial Community Feminism (Red de Sanadoras del Feminismo Comunitario Territorial de Guatemala):
Founded in 2015, the Network has seven members, all indigenous xinca Mayas of various ages. Some work with plants, others with smoke, some are midwives, others do massage, and some are political and territorial organizers. Each of them makes a unique contribution for the defense of the body and their land. Their cosmic-political path comes from the ancestral healing and knowledge that they have inherited from their grandmothers, grandfathers and grandparents, in order to face the struggles and resistance that have been woven into their territories.
About Alex Vásquez:
Alex is intersex, and was born into a plural body in an ancestral territory. In the pursuit of justice for her body, she learned to weave her path with other paths for justice and emancipation. She is an ancestral healer, she did not attend university and all of her education has taken place through life, the streets, the community, women, her grandmothers, her grandfathers, her aunts and her cousins. She believes in rebellion as a cosmic-political path, as well as the defense of her body-territory. She believes that defending it is indispensable to be able to heal and find harmony. She currently accompanies human rights defenders, as well as women and girls in situations of violence and sexual violence. She accompanies spiritual reporting of abuses, as well as community, personal and collective emotional processes.