Maribel Quezada Smith: Manuel Jamines Xum, an Indigenous Maya-K’iche’ man moved to the United States in 2003, leaving his wife and three children back in the town of Xexac in Guatemala. He wanted to work hard, save money, and eventually return home to make a better life for his family. In Los Angeles, he lived in a small studio apartment with 11 other men and every morning, he would make his way to a nearby Home Depot parking lot to look for day labor jobs. Seven years later, on September 5, 2010, Manuel was confronted by a Los Angeles Police Department officer near MacArthur Park. He was intoxicated and allegedly holding a knife. As LAPD approached him, they shouted commands in both Spanish and English, but Manuel did not speak either language. He was not ably to comply and was shot twice in the head. The shooting was later declared justified by LAPD.
Liz Alarcón: Manuel may have been deemed a threat to the community while intoxicated, but there’s absolutely no excuse for the gun to have been aimed at his head. This tragic event sparked outrage from Indigenous communities in Los Angeles and in Guatemala. Welcome back to another episode of The Pulso Podcast. I’m your host Liz,
Maribel Quezada Smith: And I’m Maribel. And today we’re talking about something that Latinos sometimes ignore or even forget. Indigenous peoples are often relegated to things of the past, but they are very much still here, and they are facing resistance and opposition from all sides, whether it’s political, social, economic, you name it.
Liz Alarcón: So let’s take some time to consider the struggles, and the resilience of the Indigenous people of our region.peoples of our region.
Maribel Quezada Smith: You’re listening to the Pulso Podcast. We’ll be right back.
Aurora Pedro: [Speaks in Akateko] My name is Aurora Pedro. And I introduced myself in Maya Akateko. It’s the language that I was born with, that my family speaks, and that my family brought here to the U.S. with their migration story.
Maribel Quezada Smith: This is Aurora Pedro. She’s the Manager of the Center for Indigenous Languages and Power at CIELO. CIELO, which stands for Comunidades Indigenas en Liderazgo, is an organization that provides interpretation services and resources to Indigenous migrant communities in Los Angeles.
Aurora Pedro: There’s a high number of Maya Kiche and Maya Qʼanjobʼal who only speak their Indigenous language. So how do you service a community if we aren’t recognizing their Indigeneity?
Liz Alarcón: In response to the outrage and protests, the LAPD began working with CIELO to address the massive gaps in communication and to bring awareness and understanding of the many distinct Indigenous communities in the surrounding Los Angeles area.
Aurora Pedro: It’s a right to be provided, interpretation to understand the information that’s being given to you.
Maribel Quezada Smith: Aurora’s father was born in Jolom Konob’ and her mother in San Miguel Acatan, both in the Huehuetenango region of Guatemala.
Aurora Pedro: From the 1960s to 1996, there was what is known as the Guatemalan Civil War. And during the 1980s, it was the most brutal years, most violent and bloody years in what we call the genocidal years of the Civil War.
Liz Alarcón: In 1982, Aurora’s family had to leave Guatemala because of growing threats of violence in her town.
Aurora Pedro: My parents really did not wanna leave. I don’t think it’s talked about enough how, you know, leaving your home, especially for Indigenous people who have been in their home for generations and it’s their ancestral home. It was really hard for my parents to accept that. But they knew if they didn’t leave, they would be good as dead
Maribel Quezada Smith: Aurora’s parents were then displaced to Chiapas, Mexico, then San Diego, and finally Los Angeles, which is where Aurora and her siblings were born.
Aurora Pedro: Being Indigenous, not speaking Spanish or English, my parents raised us with our language, Maya Akateko. This confused a lot of people on how to really interact with my family when my family was trying to reach out for resources or for assistance. And My mom, she was commonly mislabeled as a Latina or Hispanic. She understood a little bit of Spanish obviously from like crossing multiple borders and for survival. But Spanish was not a language that she was comfortable with.
Liz Alarcón: Aurora began to translate for her parents at a young age. That background led her to seek training for interpretation in 2017.
Aurora Pedro: How will folks understand what the community needs are if we can’t even get past basic communication?
Juanita Cabrera Lopez: Part of the work is educating that Indigenous peoples are not Latino, not Hispanic. And understanding that we do have a right to exist as an Indigenous person, free of fear, free of discrimination.
Maribel Quezada Smith: That’s Juanita Cabrera Lopez. She is a member of the Maya Mam Nation in the Western Highlands of Guatemala and the Executive Director of the International Mayan League.
Juanita Cabrera Lopez: When you don’t identify what Native Nation they’re a part of then we won’t be able to provide adequate services in terms of language, which is the most basic human right to express what happened to you, why you’re fleeing, did you encounter a violent situation in your migration journey? What kind of trauma are you coming with? The answers to these questions can decide the fate of someone arriving to the United States. And oftentimes, the lack of communication channels can be deadly.
Maribel Quezada Smith: In 2018, under Donald Trump’s administration, a quote “zero tolerance” policy was adopted across the US-Mexico border. This resulted in immediate separation between children and parents or guardians upon entering the United States. The consequences of this inhumane policy devastated the lives of countless migrants, many of them Indigenous peoples.
Liz Alarcón: That same year, Jakelin Caal Maquin, a 7-year-old Maya Q’eqchi’ girl died while in custody of the U.S. Border Patrol.
Juanita Cabrera Lopez: Her Indigeneity was not that of her and her family of her father, and, she died of complications with infection, with the flu. But what if her father had been able to provide the context of her health? We believe that if they had been afforded a language interpreter of Maya Q’eqchi’, perhaps she wouldn’t have died. When we are denied our right to exist as Indigenous, our right to our languages and our right to simply be, it has life and death consequences.
Maribel Quezada Smith: And that same year, 2018, Claudia Patricia Gómez González, a 20-year-old Maya Mam woman also died at the border. She was shot in the head by a US Border Patrol Agent. What possible reason could there have been for this brutal act to take place?
Juanita Cabrera Lopez: There is still today amounts of violence, criminalization, and killing of our people because we are Indigenous. It’s not something from 500 years ago. We’re treated as invaders in our own lands. And when we’re forced to cross borders that were imposed over our peoples in our Nations, told that we are illegal, that we don’t belong.
Liz Alarcón: Juanita’s words are powerful, and devastatingly true. There’s a long history of violence and erasure of Indigenous peoples in the Americas.
Tony Lucero: It’s not an accident that many of us don’t know a lot about whose lands were on.
Liz Alarcón: That’s Tony Lucero. He’s a professor at the University of Washington, where he specializes in topics surrounding Indigeneity and politics across the Americas.
Tony Lucero: We, in the general sense, think about Indigenous peoples in the past tense as things that are in history books or museums. And that is exactly what colonialism wants us to think. They wanted us to think that history unfolds as European settlers come and create this new republic. And Indigenous people, almost by definition, are eliminated.
Emil’ Keme: Our histories don’t begin with the independence of Peru or the independence of Mexico, or Guatemala or Colombia, but rather even prior to the arrival of Europeans, right?
Maribel Quezada Smith: Emil’ Keme is Kiche Maya. He is a professor of English Literature and Native Studies at Emory University, and a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University.
Emil’ Keme: I can trace my history as a Maya person, even thousands of years prior to 1492, right? Between 250 and 900 before Christ, that’s when Maya civilization has flourished, it has become a civilization with its own writing system. It’s own spiritual values, it’s own political structures. And then once Europeans begin to invade our homelands, then all of that is destroyed.
Maribel Quezada Smith: New countries are formed with new names and new borders.
Emil’ Keme: Like you can think of the Wayuu people, for example, you know, like one day they wake up and one half is Venezuela and the other half becomes Colombia. But for them, the border is just an imaginary line.
Juanita Cabrera Lopez: Nations and systems were created over us, not only physically over our lands, but also over our bodies, over our philosophies, over our ideologies. We’re invisible in plain sight. My family’s actually part of the founding members of the Mayan League. I, myself, am a former political refugee, and that is one of the reasons why we as an organization continue focusing our work, particularly with Indigenous refugees, asylum seekers, those who are in diaspora.
Liz Alarcón: The International Mayan League is the only Maya women and youth-led organization in the United States. They provide direct support to communities in the northeastern United States, including language interpretation, environmental protection, and Indigenous women’s rights.
Juanita Cabrera Lopez: If you don’t know where you come from. You don’t know where you are and therefore you don’t know where you’re headed. The critical work is to revitalize ourselves, to revitalize our histories, our stories, our teachings, and to have a process of reconnecting.
Liz Alarcón: And Aurora agrees.
Aurora Pedro: One of my favorite, favorite things is having youths, reach out to Cielo and saying, “my mom’s also from Sam Miguel Acatan” or, “my mom and dad speak Zapoteco. How can I learn the language”?
Maribel Quezada Smith: But many people that were forced to migrate do not want to relive the trauma and violence that led to their displacement. And this poses a barrier for younger generations, those who were born in the United States to parents who fled their ancestral lands.
Juanita Cabrera Lopez: Their parents don’t wanna share anything. It’s too painful. This has made it so that this newer generation that’s growing up has not had the opportunity to learn from their family about the customs, the traditions, maybe the language.
Aurora Pedro: I hope that we continue to move in a way that visiblizes Indigenous people Because the next generation, they’re watching us. They’re watching the work that we do. So really this is for them.
Maribel Quezada Smith: Another big endeavor for The Mayan League is providing interpreter training courses. Juanita recalls a particularly powerful moment during an online class.
Juanita Cabrera Lopez: We had breakout rooms and everyone got separated by their Nation so they could start speaking and having their practice session in their particular languages. And when we came back into the main space and everyone’s throwing heart emojis and their smiles, and there’s like faces that have lit up and, and many comments in this section were, “we didn’t know that it was okay to speak our languages. We didn’t know we had permission to”. And at the same time, it was so beautiful to see the power dynamic that changed and the love and happiness that we could see in people’s faces. That right there, now I’m getting emotional. The fact that they need permission to speak what is theirs, is emblematic of structural racism because they didn’t know that it was okay to simply be who they are.
Liz Alarcón: They didn’t know it was okay to simply be who they are. Just take that in for a second. Every morning when they woke up, they had to figure out how to hide who they were for a chance to survive.
Juanita Cabrera Lopez: As soon as you deny a person their right to exist as an Indigenous person, you right there have violated their human right, because you are denying them everything that comes from their humanity, not just language.
Maribel Quezada Smith: Indigenous peoples are taught to hide their identity in their own lands.
Juanita Cabrera Lopez: And many people still hide their identity as they’re forced to cross borders because it’s a way of survival.
Liz Alarcón: When entering the United States, it’s not uncommon for Indigenous peoples to be lumped together under the umbrella of Latino or Hispanic.
Juanita Cabrera Lopez: And many times in our community we might let those assumptions be placed over us because we’re under self-preservation and hiding our identity to survive.
Aurora Pedro: That’s something that needs to be understood. Like how do you build rapport with these communities? How do you ask in a way that makes them feel safe and recognizes their Indigeneity and the multiple barriers that they come here facing?
Maribel Quezada Smith: CIELO and The Mayan League are still hard at work, calling out the continuous mistreatment and mislabeling of Indigenous peoples in the mainstream.
Liz Alarcón: Just last year, in October 2022, a leaked audio recording of LA City Councilmembers Nury Martinez, Kevin de León, Gil Cedillo, and Ron Herrera revealed racist remarks, some disguised as jokes, against Black and Indigenous communities in Los Angeles.
Aurora Pedro: We’re not surprised at things like these are being said behind closed doors. That’s something that we experience every day as Indigenous people that have been displaced.
Liz Alarcón: Here at Pulso we joined the protestors in LA in calling out this racist behavior. Both Martinez and Herrera resigned soon after, but de León and Cedillo were still in office. Aurora explains that this is an example of how being progressive and inclusive in Latino circles often excludes Indigeneity.
Aurora Pedro: We’re actually getting a lot of people from the Latino community not understanding why we are asking them to resign. These council members said that they did not say anything racist, and that it was Nury Martinez that said these racist remarks. However, I think it’s important to note that when you’re in a room and you’re having these conversations, and you’re laughing along with these jokes, you’re condoning that. You’re agreeing with those racist remarks. And if you are a representative or if you are an elected official and you can’t speak up in those spaces, how can we trust these people to continue to represent our communities and the constituents that they’re supposed to be serving?
Maribel Quezada Smith: And earlier this year The New York Times published an article addressing the horrific conditions that migrant children face while working jobs that violate child labor laws in the United States.
Juanita Cabrera Lopez: Most of the children who were affected were from Guatemala, yet not one mention of Maya or Indigenous was in that article.
Emil’ Keme: For a family to let their child migrate to the United States without anybody, you know, it’s, it’s a big sacrifice. And so obviously something is happening in that community and we need to learn more about what’s going on in the grounds because we come here not because we want to, but because we have to.
Juanita Cabrera Lopez: As people have said, migration is a right. It is a human right to migrate. We also counter and say staying home is a human right because many of us didn’t want to leave. So we need to do better in terms of mainstream media starting to change its language, and also government systems. And we have talked to government officials saying there are particular ways in which rights and services need to be provided and addressed.
Maribel Quezada Smith: Aurora and Juanita continue to fight for a seat at the table, for Indigenous representation, and for language revitalization.
Aurora Pedro: We know that racism isn’t going to disappear today, tomorrow, in a week. we’ll continue to fight for Indigenous visibility and we’ll continue to fight against language violence. And just visiblize the struggles that Indigenous people face, but also show that we are strong communities and we’re resilient. And even though we do face a lot of barriers and violence every day, we are really great at celebrating together as well.
Liz Alarcón: Aurora recalls that on Indigenous People’s Day in 2022, a vigil was held at Los Angeles City Hall. It was a call for unity and to demand the resignations of the disgraced LA City Councilmembers.
Aurora Pedro: And I remember, someone came up and, you know, looked at everybody standing in front and the banda playing, and they were like, “is this a protest or is this a party”? And I think that speaks for itself, right? Because what else could be like the strongest way to show that we are here, you’re not going to erase us, than showing the talent within our community, the joy within our community, and to show that we do come together in these times of need. And we’re definitely gonna continue doing this work because it’s not just for us, it’s for communities across borders and for future generations as well.