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Guatemala: “This Was the First Time I Felt Discriminated by the People of My Own Ethnicity”

March 29, 2016

SOLOLÁ, GUATEMALA – Early this month, I was walking through a park in my region of southwestern Guatemala, and I saw community mayors walking out of their meeting.

Community mayors represent all the communities in the Sololá municipality. The majority of those I saw were men, but it caught my attention to see women holding the sticks that represent their status as mayors. I immediately noted an opportunity to write something about them.

My colleague, Brenda Leticia Saloj Chiyal, told me that she had a similar experience. We both knew it was not common for women to represent their communities in local politics.

As a reporter, my job includes taking photos, and that was the biggest challenge for me for this story.

I had the task of photographing the weekly meetings to show women in the context of a male-majority room. I called to schedule a meeting and get permission to take the photos, so Brenda and I arrived at the meeting hall at 8:30 a.m. As we waited outside, we could hear the leaders praying in their language of Kaqchikel, giving thanks for a new day. About 45 minutes later, the leaders left the room and Brenda and I approached them to confirm our appointment to take photos. They said fine, but that we would have to wait until 10:30 a.m. So, we waited more.

As it got closer to 10:30 a.m., Brenda and I asked again if we could enter the meeting room to take photos. We waited a few more minutes, and then a representative came out to greet us.

He looked at me, and then looked down at my legs. I was wearing pants that day. He said I could not enter the meeting room because I wasn’t wearing my traditional dress, which is my indigenous clothing. But Brenda could enter because she was wearing her traditional clothes.

This was the first time I felt discriminated by the people of my own ethnicity. I had returned from a trip that morning for my other job, which invovled traveling for three hours. Pants were much more comfortable for me. Because of the early meeting time for the photos, I didn’t have enough time to change.

In our culture, an indigenous person expects other indigenous people to wear their ethnic dress, and they look down on them if they don’t. Women who wear pants, cut their hair or put on makeup are looked down on. A lot of social pressure exists here, but that discrimination was still very startling for me.

Brenda took the photos that morning, but I was still able to photograph for this story by taking portraits of this year’s four female community mayors. I had to travel to each of their homes, but it was fantastic to talk with each of them and to be welcomed. The travel was worth it, because to see them grab their sticks, which represents a community mayor’s authority, with so much respect and pride really inspired me as a woman. It gave me strength to continue being a woman reporter in my community, for GPJ, and to be a representative of my community. For me, it is a great honor to do it.

Natalia Aldana, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish.