According to Unicef there are 29 million indigenous people in Latin America.
Indigenous peoples represent 6 per cent of the population of Latin America; mestizos, afro-descendants, whites, and other races represent the other 94 per cent. The vast majority of us are mestizos, a mixed race of Spaniards and Indigenous.
Indigenous people face a lot of difficulties. In countries like Guatemala, where 40 per cent of the total population is indigenous, high rates of poverty, illiteracy and low levels of schooling affect them. Ironically, as Mestizos, we don’t always know how to interact with indigenous populations. We know very little about their traditions and exoticize them as if they were characters from a fairy tale. Sometimes we just discriminate against them.
I recently confirmed through a DNA test that I am 22% indigenous, something my family never told me, or maybe even outright denied. To my Colombian grandparents, uncles and aunts, and even my own mother, colored eyes, blond hair, and white skin were the standard of beauty and social status, a social phenomenon known by experts as whitening. Little did my family know, they were ashamed of themselves.
As I came to better understand my ancestry and ways to work with indigenous communities, a particular project, of the hundreds the Inter-American Development Bank funds, caught my attention. It’s the “Chilean project “Orígenes,” in which the Bank and Chileans learned from previous failed experiences.
“Orígenes” was unprecedented in Chile and the Latin American region for both the scale and methodology used to empower nearly 2,000 indigenous communities, allowing them to carry out their own development projects. The ultimate goal was to establish a new relationship between the government and indigenous peoples by strengthening indigenous identity, culture, and quality of life.
“Orígenes” mainstreamed indigenous issues into the operations of other government agencies, contributing to a ten-fold increase in public spending on programs benefiting indigenous populations between 2002 and 2012. “Orígenes” also improved perceptions about government services among beneficiary communities. According to a 2012 survey with 515 families that participated in the project, 55 percent of beneficiaries said that public services improved.
It was only when Chilean mestizos decided to understand indigenous traditions, rather than imposing policies on them, that development projects started to work. Mestizos of Latin America, especially those who share the views of my family, need to learn how Chile embraced its own diversity and no longer be ashamed of our ancestry. It’s time to start working together!
To learn more about this project click here.