The U.N. has designated Aug. 9 International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. According to Dictionary.com, indigenous means “originating in and characteristic of a particular region or country.” In simple terms, an indigenous person is one whose ancestry is based in the country and region in which they are born.
According to the U.N., there are an estimated 370 million indigenous people living in 90 countries across the world. With that kind of diversity, the experiences of one indigenous group might vary greatly from the experiences of another. There are some common experiences, however, such as maintaining strong connections to tradition and community, and facing the challenges of discrimination and lack of opportunity. How these experiences develop depend on the country, region and even sometimes the gender of an indigenous person.
At Unbound, we focus on the individual to understand their distinct needs and goals. To gain a better understanding of what it’s like growing up as an indigenous person, we interviewed Selica Piloy, a former sponsored member from Guatemala who’s attending college in the United States and just finished a summer internship at Unbound’s international headquarters in Kansas City. Selica, 21, is getting ready to start her sophomore year at Cottey College in southern Missouri, where she’s pursuing a degree in international studies.
Selica is part of the Kaqchikel Mayan community in Guatemala. She’s passionate, bright and articulate in describing her experience as an indigenous woman.
“There are 21 Mayan languages spoken and mine is Kaqchikel,” Selica said. “The language is Kaqchikel and the community is also Kaqchikel. Each group is distinguished according to their language, their cloth and traditions.”
You can tell what town someone is from simply by what they wear. Different communities have different designs on their clothing, from birds and flowers to fish and trees.
“My traditional cloth colors are stripes with red and white,” Selica said. “The traditional skirt is called corte, and the blouse we call huipil. And the corte is black. Basically what we have in the pattern of our blouse are small and tiny figures. We have a dog, a duck, and we have some spiders, some kind of mountains, or some tree branches or some jars. Each one has a meaning.”
The meanings often have to do with protection, such as the dog, or survival, like the jars that contain water. Even the belts that the women wear have a meaning. Women’s belts are made of a stiffer material, and represent the strength of a woman and her power. Indigenous women need all the strength they can get as they face misconceptions about their communities and, in some cases, outright discrimination.
“I think most of the common misconceptions,” Selica said. “I want to speak in regards to Guatemala because in the United States I haven’t faced anything like that yet, but back home [if you’re an indigenous person], they think that you don’t shower, you don’t have money, you don’t have an education, you don’t know how to speak Spanish, or you don’t know even how to cook well.
“Those are examples of some misconceptions about Mayan people. But that’s not true. Many [indigenous] people there, they can speak Spanish, not 100 percent, but still they can. And they cook; they have amazing meals every day. And they’re healthy, they’re clean and hard workers. Sadly we are always seen as cheap labor, we are seen as tools instead of human beings, or as the focus of public policies.
“There are many kinds of prejudices that we face every day. At least like the big challenges, like poverty, violence, discrimination, racism and injustice. … For example, once I wore my traditional clothes and I went to Guatemala City and asked for a job, but the company didn’t give me one because I had worn my traditional clothes. And I think that they should judge the person according to their capabilities and their abilities, not just because of their looks.”
Selica shared that she has also faced prejudice at school. Still, she has often been at the top of her class.
“We don’t have the same quality of education [as in the cities],” Selica said. “Indigenous people are often told, ‘OK, you just need to learn to read and write and that’s it because you’re going to marry, take care if your home and have children.’ And for people who are mestizos [of European and indigenous descent], they have more opportunity to go to school, to learn more, to explore and to do many things.
“But I think we’re all humans and we all deserve equal opportunities. We all have the same capabilities, but society discriminates against us, society divides us. … And, mostly, Mayan people, they don’t have their own voice, their own decisions. They don’t decide what they need; they don’t go and decide what they want to do in their lives. It’s always that society comes and decides over them.
“And I say, always, I want to be different and helpful to my community. I want to empower young women, young indigenous women, in the future, and tell them that they can accomplish their dreams. I want to empower them that it doesn’t matter where they come from, what their language is, what ethnic group they’re from, what matters is that they need to achieve their goals and be different, be the voice of their society and be the voice of themselves.
“I want to encourage them to be agents of the change and progress of their communities and families. Sometimes I felt that the society didn’t believe in me because I’m a Mayan first and second I’m a woman. Mayan women in Guatemala are always discriminated [against]. They’re always seen as a housewife or [in] a house-cleaning or a babysitting [role].
“Unfortunately, people in power in Guatemala don’t give the right position for the women because women are forced to work in extreme conditions, with miserable wages and exploitation. So, I want to keep fighting against discrimination and show the society that we are capable of doing big and great things.
“We only need opportunities to improve our future.”
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