Cultural Survival welcomes our new Director of Advocacy and Policy, Monica Coc Magnusson (Q’eqchi Maya). Monica is an attorney born in Laguna, Toledo District, Belize, where she currently resides. As she describes, “people here still practice our traditional ways of being, planting our milpas, hunting, gathering, and fishing in the winding streams and lagoons that grace our village. We still maintain our traditional forms of governance, and our Jolomil K’aleb’aal (traditional leaders or Alcaldes) hold both a customary and statutory role.”
Monica spent her early childhood with her parents, siblings, and extended family, including her grandmother, Na’ Tzul (Mother Mountain). “In many respects, I lived in three worlds: that of the Catholic school that I attended outside of my village, that of my non-Native neighbors and playmates, and my own Q’eqchi Maya community in Laguna. We spent the week in town and returned to the village on the weekends. Those were days that allowed me to love and appreciate different cultures and languages present here in Belize,” she says.
On choosing her career path, Monica says she was influenced by the issues facing her community. “Growing up in an Indigenous community had lots of challenges, particularly related to land tenure security. I often heard conversations around the threats to our way of life. My close association with Mayan leaders, as some were my relatives, allowed me to witness the work of prominent leaders in our community. As I got older, I realized that we needed technical and legal support to get our message to the global community. This is what instilled a desire in me to pursue a law degree and sparked my interest in human rights issues.”
A true trailblazer, Monica became the first Indigenous woman from southern Belize to be called to the Belize Bar and become a lawyer. After graduating from Le Moyne College in upstate New York with a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology and Anthropology, she began her legal training at Indiana University School of Law and received her Doctor of Jurisprudence in 2008. She practiced law for several years in North Carolina before completing the requisite program at Norman Manley Law School to qualify her to practice law in Belize. Her areas of practice include international human rights law, civil litigation, and criminal defense.
For the last decade, Monica has engaged in the struggle to defend Maya land rights. She served as local counsel to the Maya Leaders Alliance and the Toledo Alcaldes Association where she helped advance claims before Belize’s highest appellate court, the Caribbean Court of Justice, as well as the Supreme Court of Belize. She was involved in the landmark land rights case Maya Leaders Alliance, et al v The Attorney General of Belize. Most recently, she served as co-counsel to the Maya community of Jalacte, who were awarded $3 million USD in damages for violation of their constitutional rights.
Monica is ardent about women and children’s rights. She has worked with local organizations on issues related to crimes against women and children and the Human Rights Commission of Belize on issues facing refugees by participating in their Legal Clinics. “I am passionate about uplifting, empowering, and loving people,” she says. “However, only by loving our true selves will we be able to love others. Loving oneself is hard for many of us, but especially colonized Peoples, because the idea that we are not good enough has been ingrained in us from years and years of colonization. The traumas our parents faced are passed on from one generation to the next, and it is something we struggle with as Indigenous Peoples. We must do everything in our power to continue to decolonize our minds, to become proud of our heritage and culture and who we were created to be in this world.”
Monica first connected with Cultural Survival when she traveled to New York City to attend the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples Issues on behalf of her community. She was impressed with “the important work that Cultural Survival does with Indigenous Peoples around the world, supporting our Indigenous communities to effectively participate in international spaces by highlighting local struggles.” As the new Director of Advocacy and Policy, she says, “I am hopeful that we can expand our reach even further as we continue to impact, encourage, and influence policies related to the protection of the rights of Indigenous communities on a global scale in this ever-changing world.”