This year I saw something I have never seen before in a class at Duke. It was LDOC in Latin American Studies 490S, "Indigenous Resistance in Latin America," and everyone in the room was swollen-faced, choking back tears as they lined up to hug Professor Velasquez Nimatuj and thank her for a wonderful semester. A semester that taught us about the indigenous history of Mesoamerica; of the atrocities committed against indigenous communities, and of the ongoing struggle for an equitable existence in postcolonial Latin America.
For myself, a Guatemalan-American who has ambitions to address inequities to health care access in Guatemala, this class was the cornerstone to my understanding of indigenous existence within Guatemala. The misconception that indigenous studies represents a minor or insignificant field is dismissive of the fact that the population of Guatemala is 40-60 percent indigenous. There are 23 different indigenous communities within Guatemala, each with their own conception of autonomy and community structure. Understanding the genocidal oppression that these communities have faced, and reconciling their existence within a national framework that has repeatedly exploited and dehumanized them, has been the ultimate struggle of indigenous resistance.
Dr. Irma Alicia Velasquez Nimatuj is a remarkable woman to be teaching this subject; she is the first K’iche Mayan to receive a PhD in social anthropology, and her work has had a significant and lasting impact in Guatemala. She initiated Guatemala’s first-ever court case that criminalized racial discrimination. Her anthropological fieldwork resulted in pivotal trials against Guatemala’s high-ranking military officials for charges of Genocide and Sexual Slavery committed during Guatemala’s Civil War (1960-1996) against indigenous communities.
Dr. Velasquez Nimatuj is exactly the type of professor that Duke typically prides itself on employing. Her qualifications are undeniable, and it would be a tremendous honor and privilege for the Duke community to have someone so committed to engaged learning and global justice continue to shape motivated minds here in Durham. Her class this semester was full of bright and passionate people who eagerly want to make an impact in their home communities or abroad but that desperately needed the knowledge from this class in order to understand the complexity of indigenous resistance.
We were very fortunate to have Professor Velasquez Nimatuj here as the Spring 2017 Mellon Visiting Professor, but now that time has come to an end. She has left the university, but not without leaving an indelible mark. My classmates agree; we have a signed letter from every one of her undergraduate students saying this class was life-changing and essential. It is hard to fathom that one of the most fundamentally important experiences for us at Duke will not be made available again for future students, and that is why we are seeking the long-term appointment of Professor Velasquez Nimatuj at Duke University. We hope that many more Duke students will have the privilege to learn from Dr. Velasquez Nimatuj in future semesters so that her class can continue to inspire.
David Preston, Trinity ‘18
I was born and raised in Guatemala City. I am immensely grateful for the privilege of having Irma at Duke. She gave me a different perspective of my country, its people and history, which has significantly shaped my life beyond Duke. She has inspired me to move back to Guatemala and continue my work for social equality, focused on health and education.
Gabriela Asturias, Trinity ‘17
The history of Mesoamerica had always been an obscure and intelligible history that I couldn’t even begin to comprehend until I took Indigenous Studies in Latin America. As a scholar who continuously asks questions of Latinx and Latin American history and the making of the United States of America, it never occurred to me that I was missing an essential part of history that would allow me to understand these subjects. What I learned in Professor Velásquez’s class was crucial to my perspective on how Mexico and Guatemala came to be the nations they are today and how studying the histories of these nations can reveal that indigeneity is a complex topic that merits much more than just one semester at Duke. We need the types of classes she teaches. We need professors like her who strive to push us to think critically about the world.
Norma De Jesus, Trinity ‘18
For more information about Professor Velasquez Nimatuj, see the links below: