Two years ago, Irma Lopez, a young woman from a Mazatec indigenous community in Oaxaca, Mexico, was forced to give birth on the front lawn of a medical clinic in Mexico City because she was denied service inside. The photo of the premature birth shocked the nation, and drew attention to the pervasive, widespread discrimination indigenous populations face in Mexico.
There are approximately 40 million indigenous people in Latin America and the Caribbean; Mexico alone is home to more than 15 million indigenous people, though the actual number is likely higher (Mexico does not officially recognize people as indigenous unless they speak an indigenous language).
Stories of neglect and abuse of indigenous people in Mexico and throughout Latin America at the hands of health workers are rampant. Four out of five indigenous women in Mexico are victims of obstetric violence, which includes neglect, refusal of services, humiliation, poor treatment, and even psychological or physical abuse. Even when indigenous communities have access to health facilities, health providers frequently do not speak indigenous languages and lack cultural sensitivity.
I recently returned from Oaxaca, Mexico, where I attended a forum on indigenous youth rights and heard firsthand about the discrimination faced by indigenous youth. The experience was a reminder of the rights we often take for granted, as well as the often arduous process to secure these rights and the high costs faced by activists around the world.
The forum was organized by the Central American and Mexican Network of Indigenous Youth and Indigenous Women for CIARENA (Conservation, Investigation, and Use of Natural Resources), a nonprofit organization working to advance and defend the rights and autonomy of indigenous communities in Mexico.
Forum participants discussed topics including rights to land and resources, sexual and reproductive rights, global and regional agreements recognizing the rights of indigenous people (such as the Montevideo Consensus) and tactics and strategies to organize and advocate for rights at the community level.
Many of the young participants are in the early stages of a training program with CIARENA that aims to build their self-esteem and identity as indigenous people, while also increasing awareness of their rights, as well as their obligation to pass this knowledge on to their peers and community. Dali Ángel Pérez, the Children and Youth Programming Coordinator, explained that the training program typically begins with younger adolescents. By the time the participants are in their late teens or early 20s, they are not only aware of their rights, but also equipped with knowledge on advocacy and organizing. CIARENA actively supports young people to form their own collectives and offers support (for issues including fundraising, advocacy, and communications) throughout the process.
Solidarity with other activists—including more experienced activists from Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Uruguay—and supportive collectives are critical for young indigenous activists because they face an uphill battle. Even the youngest adolescents were fully aware of the multidimensional discrimination they face. As one young woman put it, she feels discriminated three times over— as an indigenous person, an adolescent, and as a girl.
Many participants spoke of fear to speak out and stand up for their rights. I didn’t have to look far to understand what they meant. Upon my arrival to Oaxaca, I saw dozens of heavily armed police in riot gear, indicative of the heavy-handed approach often taken to deter organizing and resistance in some states of Mexico. In Oaxaca, for example, indigenous human rights activists have been killed, while others have faced threats and intimidation.
The police presence was also a clear reminder of the 43 mostly indigenous students who disappeared on September 26, 2014, as they were en route to the town of Iguala to participate in a commemorative march of the Mexico City student massacre of 1968. Mexican authorities continue to face intense public scrutiny for their handling of the investigation behind the students’ disappearance.
Given the persistent, daily discrimination indigenous people face, raising awareness and fostering a sense of pride is important. CIARENA encouraged workshop participants to wear their traditional clothing. Pérez described her dress as a political weapon and vital for her advocacy. “My clothes say, look at me, I’m here!” Which is precisely the goal of many indigenous activists—ensure that the Mexican government count them and hear their demands for justice and rights. Although they face many challenges, the forum was an important step to help build a community of activists willing to share strategies and support one another.