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Visiting professor Irma Alicia Velasquez Nimatuj reflects on activist career, passion for academia

Irma Alicia Velasquez Nimatuj, an indigenous rights activist, is the 2017 Mellon Visiting Professor at the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Duke University. A member of the K'iche Maya people in Guatemala, Velasquez Nimatuj is currently teaching an undergraduate course on the history of indigenous people in Mexico and Central America and a graduate seminar entitled "Indignity, Epistemology, Ontology and Anthropology." The Chronicle spoke via email with Velasquez Nimatuj about what she hopes to accomplish in her position at Duke. 

TC: Why did you decide to come to Duke?

IVN: On January of 2015, professor Diane Nelson from the anthropology [department] at Duke and professor Emilio del Valle at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill nominated me as candidate for a Mellon Visiting Professor fellowship. In the Summer of 2016, the Latin American Center informed that that I had been selected as a fellow for the Spring 2017 semester. I was honored by the amazing opportunity because I am passionate about teaching but also grateful of the trust that my colleagues had in me to nominate me.

TC: What will you be doing here?

IVN: I am currently teaching two classes, an undergrad and a graduate seminar. I am also participating in activities with other academics and activists from different Latin American countries at Duke and at Chapel Hill, who live and struggle in this part of North Carolina.

TC: What do you hope students will be able to gain from your classes?

IVN: I hope that my students can achieve an in-depth appreciation of the long history of indigenous resistance in Mesoamerica and how it has changed according to circumstances. I want them to learn about how the impact of Spanish colonialism in the 16th century connects to recent historical events. This will help them understand indigenous people as key actors in Latin American life. Above all, I want them to recognize the contributions of indigenous thought to universal history.

TC: Can you tell us about your work with indigenous cultures?

IVN: As part of the indigenous civil society, I have lobbied in the headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva and New York to procure that the economic, social, political and cultural rights of indigenous peoples are met. I was part of the team that drafted and lobbied the First Alternative Report of Indigenous Civil Society in 2006. This report examined the compliance of the Guatemalan state with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in its 68th session. As a result, Committee of Nations recommended to the state of Guatemala to support a justice system that reflects the country’s multiculturalism. It recommended the state create a law that penalizes racism and to invest in areas affected by the violence during the 36-year war.

At an international level, in 2004 I lobbied in the European Parliament to sue the Guatemalan state for failing to comply with the agreements signed in the peace accords. Additionally, for over six years, I was a member of the Grupo Consultivo de Líderes Indígenas Latinoamericano, which coordinates actions in favor of the rights of indigenous children and adolescents. I am also part of the board of the Caribbean Central American Research Council, a council that seeks to push forth processes of activist research to accompany struggles of indigenous and afro-descendants communities in Central America.

At a national level, in Guatemala I am a member of the Academic Board of the Guatemalan National Police Archive, which contains a crucial part of the country’s history with documents ranging over a century. I am also member of the advisory board of the [service organization] Fundación Propaz, and of the digital journalistic medium Plaza Publica.

TC: In 2002, you initiated a court case in Guatemala City that resulted in racial discrimination in Guatemala becoming illegal. How did that come about and what was the trial like?

IVN: I initiated the case as a result of an infringement of my rights on June 5, 2002. That day I was denied entrance to a restaurant in Guatemala City because of my indigenous identity made obvious by clothing. Along with indigenous organizations in Guatemala, we worked to lobby a law in congress to make racial discrimination an offense punishable by law. Up to that point in 2002, racial discrimination was legal, so any indigenous man or woman could be ejected from any space. In September of that same year, we managed to have congress pass a law against discrimination. We also managed to create the Presidential Commission Against Discrimination and Racism, [which is] in charge of supporting the construction of public policies in the multiple institutions of the state and to help prevent racism that affects the over eight million indigenous men and women who live in Guatemala.

TC: What issue are you most passionate about right now and how are you involved with it?

IVN: I am passionate about knowledge but most importantly about using the knowledge to change the world. However, as an indigenous woman I am aware of my privilege in being fortunate to have an academic career, especially coming from a country in which 80 percent of indigenous people live in poverty. I owe a great deal to my family and my community, which allowed and facilitated the conditions so I could grow academically. Because of this wherever I am I try to use my voice to help and support collective processes of other indigenous collectives that seek to transform the enormous social inequalities. That is why for me, academia is a medium through which I can make known the struggles and demands of contemporary indigenous peoples to key actors in the world.

My work since returning to Guatemala in 2005 has centered in a combination between political activism and academia. The first involves trying to get the Guatemalan state to implement formal changed and negotiate with indigenous organizations. The latter involves the publication of books and academic articles. I also participate in spaces where I teach and share my knowledge. Additionally since 2003 I have been a columnist for the national newspaper, elPeriodico.

Part of my political commitment is to continue to combine high-level research with the accompaniment of different indigenous struggles. I help train indigenous leaders so they can be role models for the rest of their communities. Also, alongside my colleague Peter Marquetti, we began a scholarship fund for indigenous students in their last year of college so they can write their thesis. I also support the creation of viable and realistic mechanisms that allow self-development for indigenous peoples.

Finally, I believe in working with non-indigenous progressive sectors because I am convinced that only collective and interdisciplinary work will allow us to build a truly democratic, participatory and equitable Guatemala and Latin America.


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