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News > Analysis

Meet Latin America's Most Prominent Indigenous Female Icons

  • Mexico's Guadalupe 'Lupita' Vazquez is one of many Indigenous women challenging traditional gender roles and stereotypes in Latin America.

    Mexico's Guadalupe 'Lupita' Vazquez is one of many Indigenous women challenging traditional gender roles and stereotypes in Latin America. | Photo: Canal22.org

Published 5 March 2018

As the world observes International Women's Day March 8, teleSUR pays tribute to 12 Indigenous women bringing meaningful change to Latin American communities.


Photo: frontlinedefenders.org

Marylen Serna Salinas

An Indigenous woman from the Minga community, Marylen Serna Salinas has been campaigning for peace in Colombia for 30 years. Serna has led multiple movements in defense of human rights, along with summits to address campesino and ethnic issues.

Salinas' insights into Indigenous communities provided a foundation for peace talks with guerrilla group the National Liberation Army (ELN), and led to the formation of a National Negotiating Committee to navigate the needs and rights of rural populations.

She lobbies for women's rights and against gender-based violence, calling attention to the effects that the government's failure to uphold the peace agreement have had on rural women – paramilitary violence in particular.

Salinas has served as spokesperson for the Minga Social and Community Resistance MovementNational Agrarian Coordinator (CNA), and at the Agrarian, Peasant, Ethnic and Popular Summit. She's also served as national representative of the People's Congress, and as a member of the Women's Movement for Life and the Social Table for Peace committee.


Photo: EFE

Tarcila Rivera Zea

Quechua activist Tarcila Rivera Zea has been recognized by human rights organizations around the world. Born in Vilcashuaman, Ayacucho, Rivera has devoted more than 30 years to fighting ignorance of Indigenous lifestyles and social injustice.

"We remain impoverished, accessing services of low or no quality, and our life systems (production of food, use of technologies, cultural practices, recognition of land and territory) are still questioned and are often persecuted and neglected in public media and formal education."

In 2017, she was one of 14 experts representing their communities in the Permanent Forum of the United Nations for Indigenous Issues. Rivera is also a director with the Association for the Rights of Women and Development (AWID) and the Advisory Committee of the Bureau of Women Peruvian Parliamentarians.

Within her own community, Zea founded the Chirapaq Center for Indigenous Cultures of Peru more than 25 years ago. It fosters pride in tradition and culture, as well as education regarding Indigenous rights.

A winner of the 2011 Visionary Award, Rivera has been commended for her "leadership, extraordinary vision and courageous work for the rights of Indigenous women."


Photo: UN.org

Rosalía Yampis

An Awajun leader and activist from the province of Bagua in the Amazonian region of Peru, Rosalia Yampis took her love of the land to an international table, providing new perspective on the climate crisis.

The environmental activist addressed the United Nations Climate Conference last year in Germany, suggesting scientists consider the harsh changes faced by Latin America's Indigenous communities. Native Peruvians are paying for the world's careless use of natural resources, but Amazon peoples may hold the secrets to slow the "climate catastrophe," Yampis said.

"Women have this ancestral knowledge about seeds and what we have to sow," she said, explaining that in forests people have already begun to culture plants believed to improve water cycles, such as cacti, pine and eucalyptus.

Yampis has also taken her movement to Peru's agricultural and fishing regions, encouraging Indigenous women to work together with a shared goal.

Yampis is also coordinator of the National Organization of Andean and Amazonian Women (Onamiap) and connected to the Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest (Aidesep), which exists to improve Indigenous health, education and housing and has at least 13 million members nationwide.


Photo: EFE

Aura Lolita Chavez Ixcaquic

"I come from K'iche', where I was born, a territory where I have dreamed of being a defender with rebellion, resistance, with great Kamal inspirations of revolutionaries, I am a seed that walks towards life in fullness." Aura Lolita Chavez Ixcaquic, a 45-year-old Mayan woman and former teacher, has been forced into hiding for her social beliefs, environmental activism, and influence in Indigenous communities.

"I am a mother of two beautiful beings that I love, I am a teacher, I am a defender of life and territories, a member of a movement of peoples, the Council of the K'iche' People for the Defense of Life, Mother Nature, Earth and Territory (CPK)," she says.

Persecuted by hydroelectric companies, monoculture companies, lumber companies, and paramilitaries, she describes herself as one of many "that make up the haunted forests of feminist rebellions."

"We live in a crucial moment in the defense of Mother Earth because it is impossible to continue legislating with environmentalist discourses when human lives are being massively destroyed.

"Transnationals violate our collective and individual rights, kill us, imprison us, sexually violate us in total impunity using false development as an argument and most companies are of European origin."

Ixcaquic's bravery won her the prestigious Lehendakari Iñigo Urkullu award in January in recognition of her work defending land, natural resources and exploited territory. She also qualified in the top three finalists for the Sakharov Prize for Human Rights 2017.


Photo: EFE

Otilia Lux de Coti

In Guatemala, the development of Indigenous women and girls is social activist Otilia Lux's chief concern: "Indigenous women experience institutional violence in the field of mining because they are defending land, territory and natural resources; women leaders say the land belongs to everyone, it is communal.

"Institutional violence is especially difficult where the rule of law is not equally distributed to all citizens of the country."

Born in Santa Cruz, Lux – a Quiche Maya – has dedicated her life to defending the rights of Indigenous women across Latin America. Former executive director of the International Forum of Indigenous Women, she also served as a deputy with the United Nations Permanent Forum of Indigenous Peoples.

When Guatemala's civil war ended 20 years ago, Lux served on the Historical Clarification of Guatemala Commission and bore witness to more than 7,000 war-crimes testimonies by victims in a 12-volume report. She still recalls the imprisonment of two military officers for war crimes, rape, sexual slavery, forced disappearance and discrimination against 11 Indigenous women in the Sepur Zarco department.

She has advocated for Indigenous and women's rights, including equal representation in politics, and is a role model as educator; executive director of the International Forum of Indigenous Women (FIMI), and former Culture and Sports minister.


Photo: EFE

Rigoberta Menchu

A Nobel Peace Prize winner and Unesco Ambassador of Goodwill, Rigoberta Menchu has put Guatemala on the map. The Maya K'iche' woman was born in Laj Chimel, San Miguel Uspantan, and is a fearless activist and social leader, championing human rights – particularly for women –and social equality for Indigenous peoples.

Menchu has successfully instilled a sense of respect in national and international organizations, and campaigns for peaceful dialogue in the region. She was especially prominent during the 1980s and '90s in social activism and promoting respect for human rights as leader of the Continental Campaign for 500 Years of Resistance.

Since then, Menchu has campaigned to preserve cultural traditions via numerous organizations, including the Women's Initiative, the Peace Jam Foundation, the National Directive Council of the Mayan Women's Political Association of Guatemala (Moloj), and the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).


Photo: EFE

Jeannette Paillan

Award-winning filmmaker and journalist Jeannette Paillan is bringing the Mapuche world and its traditions to the big screen as one of the community's first movie directors. Appearing in the 2017 International Festival of Indigenous Cinema (Ficwallmapu), Paillan competed with artists from across Latin America.

Former director of the Latin American Coordination of Cinema and Communication of Indigenous Peoples (Clacpi), she was proud to enter the cinematic sphere – a world with few Indigenous directors and even fewer female filmmakers – to provide a fresh perspective on conflict in Indigenous communities.

Paillan's documentaries fight Indigenous stereotypes, especially Mapuche, and "denounce the strategies of the great international corporations by expropriating and taking over the territory" of her people.

"If Indigenous peoples do not self-portray, if they do not tell their own stories or report these human rights violations to the relevant agencies, nobody will do it.

"There is a very important percentage of Indigenous peoples who are at risk of extinction and are living amid huge violations of their human rights. We are a people that have something to say."

Chile's largest native ethnic group continues to fight the government, despite paramilitary violence, to regain land lost during the 19th-century expansion south into Mapuche territory.


Photo: EFE

Milagro Sala

A matriarch of the 70,000-member Indigenous organization Tupac Amaru in Jujuy and former member of the Mercosur Parliament, Milagro Sala was arrested by Argentine authorities in January 2016 on suspicion of public disturbance, fraud, money laundering and illicit association.

She was the first political prisoner arrested in President Mauricio Macri's administration, and was finally released after two years of arbitrary detention. Sala's reputation for grassroots activism prompted international calls for her release. While she was still being held, Sala went on hunger strike to protest the inhuman and cruel treatment of her 25 cell mates.

Sala's civil rights organization remains active, protesting upcoming labor reforms and austerity measures. "I believe in the unity of the grassroots (movements), in the unity of the people," Sala says.


Photo: Facebook

Guadalupe Martinez

Founder of the Alliance of Indigenous Women of Mexico and Central America, Martinez took a big step for native women by launching the News Agency of Indigenous and Afro-Descendent Women (Notimia).

With support from U.N. Women and the Spanish Agency for Inernational Cooperation (AECI), Notimia will provide unique news coverage with 15 panels dedicated to reports on the Permanent Forum. The agency concentrates on providing Indigenous news in multiple languages.

With the motto "Voices, media and networks for peace," the Nahuatl native says the agency aims to empower women and provide a global platform for women to discuss Indigenous issues. More than 500 native women are already working in the field, reporting news in 69 languages.


Photo: EFE

Maria de Jesus 'Marichuy' Patricio

An Indigenous Nahuatl healer, Maria de Jesus 'Marichuy' Patrico ran in Mexico's 2018 presidential elections, but fell short of the required signatures. With the support of the National Indigenous Congress (CNI) and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), Marichuy had said she "promises nothing," standing only for women and Indigenous rights.

"As a woman, as a mother and as a worker, let me tell you something: we have to fight sexism. For them, common people don't exist. We have to organize and end this capitalist, patriarchal and racist state,” she said.

When she failed to collect the required number of signatures needed to appear on the July ballot, a report by Cimac Noticias blamed skewed media coverage on the nation's prime television and radio programmes.



Guadalupe Vazquez Luna

Dressed in traditional purple tunic and black wool skirt, Guadalupe 'Lupita' Vazquez stands proud as a member of the Indigenous Council of Government, representing the Tsotsil people from the Alto-Centro region in Chiapas. In the city, 45 crosses serve as a daily reminder of the Acteal massacre.

Lupita sees her status as a council member as an opportunity to address the many issues faced by Indigenous communities – including violence, forced disappearances and human rights violations – and convince communities to join forces in order to enact change.

"The idea is to organize ourselves and defend our lands, our lives and our rights," Lupita says. If government officials won't act, it's up to Indigenous people to "build it from the ground up, looking for a way to live in peace."

Lupita has also joined forces with left-wing revolutionary political and militant group the Zapatistas to overthrow traditional women's roles dictating the laws of etiquette, marriage and submissiveness.

"My brother said that if they came to ask me (to marry), he would give permission as is the custom. I answered: 'Go ahead, let them come and say yes, but you will live in my place?' They never ask me (to marry after that)."


Photo: EFE

Myrna Cunningham

Social activist Myrna Cunningham discovered activism while working in the Ministry of Public Health. She became the first Miskita governor and played an important role in negotiating peace agreements which honored the rights of the region's diverse communities.

Since then, Cunningham's philanthropic efforts have inspired others and taken her around the world as president of the Fund for the Development of the Indigenous Peoples of Latin America (Filac). Filac has so far trained more than 500 women who now hold positions in government, but Cunningham says these accomplishments are not enough.

"Indigenous peoples represent 8 percent of the population, but in some countries like Mexico they are the majority: there are 15 million Indigenous people," she says, noting that crime rates against native people and women remain high.

Indigenous people are forced to fight for their rights and for equality in the courts, Cunningham says: "Murders are the order of the day... and complaining does not help us."

In Mexico, 62 women are murdered every month on average; that's 15 a week, according to a report by the National Institute of Forensics. Victims were either shot (373), asphyxiated (144), stabbed (63) or dismembered (8).

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