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Decolonizing Culture and Experiencing the Fullness of Life

Unitarian Universalist Service Committee


Asociación Pop No’j is a nonprofit grassroots association in Guatemala that facilitates education, organizing, advocacy, and sustainable development among Indigenous Maya communities in the northeastern department of Huehuetenango. Through their women’s, youth, and migration programs, they work directly with families and communities across a range of projects providing resources, accompaniment, and technical expertise. So far this year, they have supported families in building and maintaining household gardens, held educational workshops with children and youth to prevent sexual abuse and violence, and broadcast their monthly radio program designed to reach local residents with information and conversations of particular interest to Maya communities. The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee recently spoke with members of Asociación Pop No’j about their work to maintain and revitalize Maya cultures.


UUSC: Could you tell us the history of the Association and the work it does?

Asociación Pop No’j: In 2005, Pop No’j was established with an Indigenous Peoples’ approach to interacting with the world. In the history, identity, and culture of Indigenous Peoples, we see great potential in building other ways of living. We base our work on the ancestral Maya worldview: their unique way of seeing, understanding, feeling, and being in the world. We accompany Maya leaders and organizations, particularly in the department of Huehuetenango, contributing to the defense of their rights through processes of training, organization, participation, advocacy, and communication. In 2010, seeing that forced migration was affecting Indigenous people and communities, we incorporated it into our work. Because of our approach, we could not disregard migration since the majority of Guatemalan migrants are Maya and the greatest effects of migration are being experienced in Indigenous communities.


UUSC: At Pop No’j, what is your perspective on decolonization? How does it manifest?

APN: The Spanish invasion and colonization of Abya Yala began more than 500 years ago and initiated the military, political, economic, and ideological oppression of Indigenous Peoples. Although Guatemala formally achieved its independence in 1821, this did not mean freedom for Indigenous Peoples or other impoverished sectors of the population. We continue to live under new forms of colonialism. This imposition is supported by a racist ideology, which shows contempt for the culture and ancestral knowledge of Indigenous Peoples, as well as the intention to annihilate Native communities. However, Indigenous Peoples have a history and culture that are rich in knowledge and practices that are alternatives to the dominant system. They have managed to survive, stay, and resist as peoples. For Indigenous Peoples, the challenge is to eliminate colonial domination and exercise their right to autonomy, which means decolonization in feeling, thinking, and acting.


At Pop No’j we support the strengthening of identities and the recovery of ancestral knowledge. We promote the use of native languages, spiritual practices, and strengthening the forms of self-organization. We work towards a holistic vision that corresponds to the Maya worldview.


Girls participate in the Danzamos por la Vida (We Dance for Life) Festival.

UUSC: Can you explain Buen Vivir (good living) and why it is important?

APN: From the ancestral Maya worldview, we understand that human beings belong to Mother Earth; the Earth does not belong to humanity. In nature, everything—animals, plants, soil, air, water, light—is important. Everything has life; each part, from the micro to the macro, contains the whole. Everything that exists has energy, feels, and reacts; it has dignity and deserves respect. But humanity is exploiting, destroying, and polluting nature in an effort to accumulate wealth. There are those who feel that they own everything that exists, even the lives of other human beings whom they oppress, exploit, marginalize, and deprive of all kinds of rights. The Buen Vivir proposed by Indigenous Peoples is based on the principles of diversity and complementarity, of balance and harmony. It seeks to maintain the life of the Earth for the future and the continuity of human beings on it. Buen Vivir is not only individual, but collective; it is not limited to the material, but also includes spiritual wellbeing. It seeks to create conditions for all of us to live fully in co-responsibility. Our relationship with people, plants, animals, and the cosmos must be harmonious and balanced.


UUSC: How is Maya culture threatened in the regions where you work?

APN: The cultures of Indigenous Peoples have been stigmatized, considered inferior, denied, and persecuted. Their languages are not recognized and are said to be dialects; their spiritual practices are not valued and are said to be witchcraft. Other ways of understanding the world are not recognized and are said to be superstitions and magical thinking. This is done in the schools, the churches, the media, and in society, eventually reaching the families themselves.


New communications technologies increase the threat against the cultures of Native Peoples since they lead to a globalized culture. Let us bear in mind that the dominant capitalist system places consumption as a priority in life. It is more important to have than to be. The consequences are that, frequently, people refuse to identify as Indigenous. They stop speaking their language and wearing their traditional clothing so as not to be discriminated against, and they adopt consumer practices that are not typical of their culture.


UUSC: What are some examples of the practice of Buen Vivir?

APN: A demonstration of the strength of Indigenous Peoples and their cultures is that they have managed to resist domination for more than 500 years. An example of this is the vitality that the Maya culture maintains in Guatemala. At Pop No’j, we contribute to the recovery of ancestral knowledge with principles, values, and practices that allow our coexistence and harmonious interrelation with plants, animals, and the diversity of humanity to feel and become one together with the Universe.


We promote several initiatives for the defense of Indigenous Peoples’ rights and the construction of Buen Vivir. For example, we are supporting families in productive processes of sustainable organic agriculture, which recovers ancestral knowledge and helps counteract the impacts of climate change [through] soil and water conservation, crop diversification, and eliminating the use of agrochemicals that pollute the environment.


The youth program accompanies economic initiatives that are also aimed at fulfilling needs in the communities by establishing economic networks that promote collaboration. Likewise, young people are trained for social and political participation. In the women’s program, we accompany Maya leaders in their processes of empowerment and organization to defend their rights and help them and their communities live free from violence.


UUSC: How does Pop No’j support the reintegration of young people who have returned to Guatemala?

APN: Every year, thousands of young people return. We coordinate with organizations in the United States, such as Kids in Need of Defense, who refer girls and boys returning to Guatemala. With this information, we contact their families and guide them toward the moment of reunification. We then provide comprehensive psychosocial support for an average of one year, in which we attend to the physical and emotional health of the children, their reintegration into the school system and other educational alternatives, legal support as needed, and the search for economic alternatives. We do all of this in coordination with different organizations and institutions.


UUSC: How do you see the relationship among migration, decolonization, and Buen Vivir?

APN: Migration has structural causes that are the product of the violent history of colonialism and its continuity under other forms. Colonialism left us with a patriarchal, oligarchic, racist, and discriminatory country whose economic foundation is an unfair distribution of land and its resources with the heirs to the colony holding the largest and best lands that grow monoculture crops for exportation (coffee, sugar cane, and palm oil). The neoliberal capitalist model is now betting on extractive industries and mega-projects that continue to cause the dispossession of Indigenous communities and their forced displacement.


As a result, it is the Indigenous Peoples who are in greater poverty and marginalization, without opportunities or hope, which in turn forces them to migrate. So that people are not forced to migrate and for this to instead be a truly voluntary option, the root causes of migration must be addressed. For Indigenous Peoples, this means recognizing the right that peoples and communities have over their territories and facilitating decent living conditions for everyone—that is Buen Vivir.


Indigenous Peoples represent life options not only for themselves, but for all of humanity. Therefore, we must shift our mindset to recognize their knowledge and wisdom. We must seek more horizontal relationships of equality in which all of us learn from each other. As Australian Aboriginal leader Lilla Watson put it, “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”


Top photo: Girls from the Loctoc Village School in Santiago Chimaltenango, receive food support from Pop No'j. Photos by Fredy Sitavi, Pop No'j.