Xinka Leader Speaks Out About Women’s Rights, Land Rights

Lorena Cabnal

Lorena Cabnal

In November 2013, Lorena Cabnal, accompanied by GHRC, spoke at a School of the America’s Watch Vigil about the Xinka community, their defense of land and women’s rights, and the recent impacts of remilitarization. Her story reflects both the historic struggles of the Xinka people, as well as the transformation of a group of women into a nationally recognized political force.

The Xinka people are not widely known outside Guatemala. And, until recently, the Xinka were not even recognized as an indigenous group in Guatemala; when Lorena was growing up, she didn’t know anything about that part of her heritage. Then, with the signing of the Peace Accords in 1996, and after extensive work by Xinka communities themselves, the Xinka people were officially recognized as a non-Mayan indigenous group.

Lorena herself settled in Santa Maria Xalapan, Jalapa, the largest Xinka community — often referred to simply as “the Mountain.” The promises of the Peace Accords, however, didn’t materialize in the Mountain. When the government claimed that Xalapan was not a target for social programs because “no indigenous people lived there,” (the government’s official count was 16,700), the women took the lead in organizing a community census. They showed that there were 85,000 Xinka people on the Mountain, and then organized marches to denounce racism and the “statistical ethnocide” that sought to minimize and disregard the population.

As Lorena and other women worked to promote Xinka identity, they also became increasingly aware of other problems affecting the community, such as persistent hunger and malnutrition, high rates of childbirth, and children dying of preventable diseases. This, too, they sought to address.

By 2003, the group had grown to include 377 women, yet only two knew how to read and write. They began literacy programs for women, participated in a feminist school led by the Women’s Sector, and began to talk about the roots of structural oppression: colonialism, patriarchy, racism, capitalism. Lorena recognized that western feminism wasn’t quite right for the Xinka people in Xalapan; over the last decade, she has developed a new model of community feminism that recognizes and incorporates the unique quotidian realities of Xinka women, their families, and their culture.

However, the women’s group — called AMISMAXAJ (the Association of Indigenous Women of Santa Maria Xalapan, Jalapa) — didn’t limit their work to cultural rights and education. As they identified increasingly complex problems, such as sexual violence and child trafficking, their organizing and advocacy began to affect interests of ancient patriarchal practices, local organized crime networks and military structures. And when they realized that their ancestral territories were being quietly taken out from under them in land concessions, they led massive marches that reached Guatemala City. They pitted their protest against the Guatemalan government as well as transnational mining interests.

Repression followed. Yet despite threats, police raids, the forced closure of their office, and Lorena’s displacement to Guatemala City for security reasons, the women of AMISMAXAJ continue to defend women, girls, and their territory from violence and destructive policies.

Here Lorena tells her story in more detail, and with it, the spiritual base that guides her and the Xinka women’s work to create a community free of violence, in which men and women live in harmony with each other and with their environment. She also shares what the international community can do to support AMISMAXAJ and women defenders at risk.

Lorena Cabnal joined GHRC on a speaking tour through Texas and Georgia in Nov. 2013, speaking at universities and community centers, and on local radio programs. The tour culminated at the School of the Americas Watch (SOAW) Vigil in Ft. Benning, Georgia. This video is provided thanks to SOAW:

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