On October 9 Indigenous Peoples’ Day is annually observed in the U.S. to honor Indigenous communities and celebrate their histories and cultures. Instead of celebrating a colonizer (Christopher Columbus, traditionally recognized on this day), we recognize the suffering Indigenous groups have experienced as a result of the worldwide colonization and globalization Columbus started. But we also celebrate their contributions to the world today and throughout history, especially in Latin America where history is often rewritten to erase Indigenous peoples. Women like Lenca environmental activist Berta Cáceres who fought for Indigenous land in Honduras and Rigoberta Menchú, a K’iche Guatemalan fighting for Indigenous rights around the world. This is not an exhaustive round-up but a select list of heroes and changemakers from around the region. Read on to learn more about 12 Indigenous Latin American heroes you should know.
Guadalupe Vázquez Luna
Guadalupe Vázquez Luna is a Tzotzil Mexican activist, politician, speaker, artisan, mother, and Aceal massacre survivor where she lost many of her family members at the hands of para-militaries. As a representative in Mexico’s National Indigenous Congress, she fights for justice for her people, raises awareness of the issues they face, and organizes protests. She’s most well known for leading a march to the Majomut military barracks in 2018 where she protested the military presence on her people’s land. As an embroiderer, she’s part of the Acteal women’s cooperative that sells handmade crafts to support her community. Because of her work, she’s been featured in award-winning documentaries like Lupita. Let the earth shake where she talks about her life as a mother and leader.
Maxima Acuña is a Peruvian weaver, subsistence farmer, and environmentalist who has been fighting to remain on her land despite violence and intimidation from mining companies since 1997. Because her land is close to one of four highly coveted lakes in the region, the company wanted to build the Conga Mine there. She and her family have faced the destruction of their home, beatings, fines, and lack of support from police and the government despite evidence and witnesses. And still she fought to protect the waters that would’ve been contaminated as well as the farmers. She’s supported the protesters who have rallied in her defense, five of whom were killed in 2012, and has appealed countless times only to be denied. Finally, in 2016, the project was abandoned and she received the Goldman Environmental Prize for her efforts.
Miriam Miranda is a Honduran activist, a member of the Garífuna people, and the leader of the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras. She has fought against land theft, exploitative tourism practices and drug trafficking, and has faced illegal arrests, beatings, and kidnappings for her work. She’s also worked to reclaim traditional land, promote sustainability, and support local youth and women as they grow into leaders, land stewards, and community and culture defenders. In recognition of her 30+ years of activism, she received the Óscar Romero Human Rights Award which recognizes individuals who have made significant efforts to aid in the fight against injustices.
Tarcila Rivera Zea
Tarcila Rivera Zea is a Quechua activist and researcher who has focused her work on the Indigenous cultures of Peru, including the violence they have faced during acts of war. Since 1987, she’s been a leading voice on Indigenous rights worldwide, uplifting Indigenous cultures in the arts and consulting organizations like the United Nations until she became a member of their Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. She has founded many organizations in support of Indigenous women in politics including the Continental Link of Indigenous Women of the Americas and the International Forum of Indigenous Women.
Berta Cáceres was a Lenca environmental activist, leader, and organizer from Honduras. She protested illegal logging, plantations, and U.S. military presence in order to protect Indigenous people’s rights in her home country. However, she became most well-known for her work protesting the 2006 construction of the China and Honduras sponsored-Agua Zarca Dam which would build four dams on the Gualcarque River and threaten the Lenca’s access to water, food, and medicine. Under her leadership, they led a protest campaign, organized meetings, appealed to the Inter-American Commission Council, threatened legal action, and tried to stop construction workers from working on the land. They faced forced removal, military violence, torture, threats, harassment, destruction of their crops, and criminal charges but they never stopped fighting. In 2016, Cáceres was assassinated, which eventually led to the abandonment of the project the following year. The year before her murder, she was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize considered the Nobel equivalent for environmental activists.
Aura Lolita Chavez Ixcaquic
Aura Lolita Chavez Ixcaquic is a K’iche Guatemalan activist for women’s rights, environmental rights, and Indigenous rights. Through her work with organizations like the Council of K’iche Peoples for Defense of Life, Mother Nature, Land and Territory, she fights for the rights of her people for land protection. In 2012, she survived a brutal attack after attending a demonstration and has since faced other attacks for being K’iche. She was forced to flee to Spain as a result of death threats but still continues to work today to fight against exploitation and violence. In January 2018 she received the Ignacio Ellacuría Prize from the Basque government for her work.
Maria do Socorro Silva
Maria do Socorro Silva is an Afro-Indigenous Brazilian land protector who has fought for decades to protect the Amazon from land-grabbing, corruption, and pollution by the government, military, corporations, mines, and refineries. As she lives in the Amazon, she has had to bear witness to how companies make things use her land for manufacturing products while her family and community get cancer and other infections and their crops die because of contaminated water. Silva is known as a “quilombola” (rebel descendent of African slaves) and has fought for legal status, government acknowledgment, and rights to the land she and her people live on. Throughout the years, she has organized protests, filed lawsuits, shared her story to the media, and continues to fight for the survival of the next generation. “I’m the descendant of slaves and the granddaughter of Indians. I’m strange like that. I don’t accept things. I’m difficult”, she previously told Atmos.
Helena Gualinga is a Kichwa Sarayaku environmental and human rights activist from Ecuador with a long familial lineage of activism and defenders of Indigenous rights. For her whole life, she has fought against oil companies, the fossil fuel industry, and the Ecuadorian government in order to protect her community’s land. After witnessing the rising number of forest fires, desertification, disease, floods, and melting snow in her home in the Amazon, she works with local youth and speaks at international conferences to encourage politicians to address climate change and protect Indigenous peoples. Despite persecution and assassinations against her and other community members, she has organized and participated in many demonstrations and called out international governments for their lack of urgency and support to incite change.
Yásnaya Elena Aguilar Gil
Yásnaya Elena Aguilar Gil is an Ayuujk (Mixe) writer, linguist, translator, researcher, and activist who studies and promotes linguistic diversity and the preservation of native languages in Mexico. As a member of the Colmix collective, she works to raise awareness of Mixe language, history, and culture, translates government materials into indigenous languages, and advocates for environmental rights, particularly water. In her book, Ää: Manifiestos sobre la diversidad lingüística, she explores how a growing number of languages are disappearing and yet diversity remains a politicized topic. The United Nations estimates that 40 percent of the world’s 6,700 languages are in danger of disappearing so her work is crucial in perserving Indigenous languages.
María Lorena Ramírez
María Lorena Ramírez is a Rarámuri long-distance runner from Mexico whose people are known for their gift at long-distance running as a means of transportation, communication, and hunting. Following a long tradition of runners in her family, she’s been the first in her community to participate in 100km races. In 2017, she skyrocketed to fame after she won the 50 kilometer-Cerro Rojo UltraTrail in seven minutes and twenty seconds while wearing her traditional clothing, a long skirt, and a pair of huaraches. As a result of her visibility, she’s competed in other competitions across the world, appeared in a Netflix documentary and the cover of Vogue Mexico, and inspired other children from her community to follow their running dreams as well.
Lorena Cabnal is a Maya-Xinka Guatemalan territorial community feminist, mother, and healer who has dedicated her life to defending her people’s territory against free trade agreements, landowners, and mining companies. She decided to embark on a path of activism after she realized that her community’s government had no women leaders. When she refused to accept the Indigenous fundamentalisms, or patriarchal customs, she faced sexism and persecution from her own people, was accused of being culturally contaminated, and was told to get pregnant again if she wanted to work with women. Eventually, she was forced to leave with her daughter but has continued to fight against misogyny, sexual violence, and femicide in her country. “Indigenous women have their own relationship with patriarchy. There are things–such as sexual violence against girls–that are normalized, that are often accepted as “part of life.” Also, a woman has never been an authority over a territory,” she previously told Feministing about how these norms led her and other women to feminism.
Rigoberta Menchú is a K’iche Guatemalan human rights activist and feminist who has fought to protect the rights of Indigenous Guatemalans during the Guatemalan Civil War, as well as Indigenous peoples around the world through her activism. From an early age, she fought for justice alongside her family against exploitation, colonization, human rights violations, political and economic inequality, and military violence that largely targeted women. She was written about in an internationally translated and best-selling biography I, Rigoberta Menchú and went on to write her own books. Her exposure brought awareness of what her people were enduring at the hands of the Guatemalan government and she was thus able to have the Spanish courts extradite and try several Guatemalan government members for genocide and torture. In 1981, Menchú had to go into hiding and eventually fled to Mexico where she continued her activism efforts. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 and in 2006, she and five other Nobel laureates created the Nobel Women’s Initiative to promote peace, justice and equality for women.