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My Troubled, Uncertain Relationship with the Indígena Within

By Sofía Jarrín-Thomas


Growing up in Ecuador no one taught me about racism. In school I learned that we were all victims of Spanish colonialism, indigenous and mestizos alike, and that much of our poverty as a country was because they stole our gold and our dignity. It was easy to blame the Spanish conquistadors for everything.

But later on I started hearing words like “indio,” “longo,” “chagra” — all racial epithets against indigenous people — and slowly understood that there was a clear difference between the two groups, starkly marked along class and racial lines.

Then one day in high school I was shocked to find out that “runa,” a word we commonly use in Ecuador to describe street stray dogs, actually meant “human being” in Quichua, a north Andean native language. I had used that word myself hundreds of times.

As an adult I found the only photo I have ever seen of my dead grandfather, a labor organizer for the Communist Party, and was in awe when I recognized indigenous facial features: the large angular nose, prominent cheekbones, dark skin, straight black hair. But a heartfelt conversation about our indigenous grandfather was just not going to take place. “Are you crazy? Your grandfather was not an indio!” Of course, no one talks about him being a member of the Communist Party either, persecuted and exiled for over a year. His ethnicity and his political leanings are all buried deeply in the family’s photo album.

But this brings me to ask myself, am I indigenous? Believe it or not, this is the first time I have asked that question — while I’m sitting here, trying to find the courage to write for EmbraceRace.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think I suffer from internalized racism. I just feel so extremely removed from my indigenous roots that I can’t even wrap my head around claiming them for myself. I have indigenous friends and love (almost envy) their cultural richness, their language. I took a couple of Quichua lessons and failed miserably at them (it is much closer to Japanese than it is to Spanish).

At one point I even came to romanticize indigenous peoples as “noble savages,” worked closely with a shaman (a yachak) as his interpreter, and built a web site to promote his work on traditional healing. But later I came to understand the deep neocolonial problems of stripping indigenous people of their post-modernity and everyday existential struggles in a globalized world.

In Otavalo, one of my favorite cities in Ecuador, indigenous women dress in the most beautiful embroidered blouses, tight-knitted colorful belts, and dark blue long skirts. “Why don’t you buy yourself one?” my husband asked the last time we were there. Oh, no way. It would feel like cultural appropriation. It still does.

I mean, I look at myself in the mirror and all I see is a brown Latina (maybe not even brown enough), although I have the long straight hair and the red cheeks that are often associated with native people from the Andean highlands — the same hair and cheeks my daughter now inherited. Who am I? Is that the reason why I have always gravitated towards indigenous cultures? Does it matter?

I guess the silence matters. The deep silence in my family about who grandpa really was. About who we are. And the fact that I still don’t feel comfortable claiming those roots for myself - that brings me close to tears.

Racism in Ecuador is well and alive today. It is regularly used by the Ecuadorian government against indigenous people fighting mining and oil companies in their territories. There is the “good Indian” who supports development projects and modernization, and the “bad Indian” who wants the country to remain “backward” and “primitive.” Yes, they have gained some political power, but the leaders of many of the indigenous organizations are now being persecuted, harassed, and face terrorism charges for peacefully protesting unjust policies.

“They.” See what I mean?

Sofía Jarrín-Thomas

I am a multimedia journalist with a focus on human rights, social movements, indigenous people, and Latin America. More about Sofía >
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