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Tokenism in Latin America

Writer: Naomi Martínez Ramón

Editor: Adelyne Koe, Tonwaan Apiratikiat

Graphic Designer: Heidi Wong

Latin America is a territory as rich as its history – from ancient civilizations such as Machu Picchu, Tenochtitlán and the Mayan region, to modern cities such as Mexico City and Buenos Aires. This region has some of the largest indigenous communities in the world, including a myriad of customs, culture, food, and dialects. But despite being openly diverse, many Latin Americans have been left behind by society; most Latin American communities today are part of the population that lives in extreme poverty, educational backwardness and exclusion in society.

A rising major issue is the exposure of this indigenous culture, tradition and even the image of indigenous people as a “token” of national pride and as a representation of all citizens equally. However, should all Latin Americans be represented equally?

In the case of Mexico, the Mexican population and government often boast about having an immense culture in terms of dialect, food, ceremonial practices, etc.--all of which belong to indigenous Mexican groups. This is a normal practice in Mexico, particularly since many Mexicans live under the illusion that these traditions and culture belong to them, even though they themselves are not part of any indigenous community.

Moreover, Latin-Americans, especially white Latin-Americans, who benefit from the privilege of being white tend to use indigenous people as “tokens” to show representations of diversity and acceptance in social media as well as in politics. In recent years, it has become normal to see Latin American influencers and celebrities generate content for social media, using the image of indigenous people as a false symbolism of acceptance and humility.

In the same way, these influencers benefit in a utilitarian way from indigenous communities, either through likes and popularity in media, or economically through the sale of artisan products. In politics, the indigenous people of Latin America are used as a political strategy by those seeking to win a majority of votes through minority representation. This was attempted by the current president of Mexico, Lopez Obrador, who has chosen to “speak for” indigenous people and make use of their image for a political campaign.

Latin Americans might not be fully aware that they are tokenizing indigenous people and appropriating cultures that do not belong to them. This sort of "cultural appropriation" involves a form of symbolic violence that eventually grows into a huge system of tokenism of culture and symbolism of even the indigenous people. So, how is it that the Latin American population takes aspects such as traditions and even the mage of the indigenous people as a representation of their culture when they themselves do not practice it?

Latin-Americans are raised by the idea called "mestizaje", an ideology or a concept introduced by the first rulers of these countries after their independence. In the ancient past, the Spanish castes were a system applied to the Spanish territories in America that proposed that the inhabitants of these areas were to be categorized by "Purity of blood"; that is, a pyramidal power. If you were a descendant of the Spaniards, you were at the top of the pyramid. If you were a "mix" between a Spaniard and an "Indian" you were a mestizo, and the framework goes on.

In countries like Mexico, Chile and Peru, the post-independence rulers raised the idea of "Mestizaje". In Mexico, part of this common history was to make the legend of mestizaje the origin and birth of the Mexican population. This narrative presents the Mexican indigenous people and the Spanish conquerors as the two roots that gave rise to a new race, the mestizos, which means that if everyone in Mexico was mestizo, everyone in Mexico was equal to one another.

What is being mentioned is that this mixture of races was carried out to bring the entire population closer to the European concept of "whiteness". Being mestizo was, unfortunately, just a political tool used as a mechanism to neutralize and silence different ethnic and cultural groups.

Since all Latin Americans are "mestizos", all Latin Americans can adopt the culture of these indigenous communities as their own, but in the same way, indigenous peoples are undervalued as cultural objects. This is why it is common to see influencers and celebrities take photos with indigenous people as if they were another souvenir of their travels.

Unfortunately, this means that indigenous communities are unable to have a political representation in the country that ensures their well-being and the preservation of their roots and culture. Indigenous people are not only poor in political representation, which makes them unaware of their country's problems and vice versa, but they are also the majority of the marginalized and impoverished population in many Latin American countries. Even so, the Latin American indigenous people are culturally exploited by their governments and by non-indignoues Latin Americans.

Indigenous people are not tools to be used in social media or in political strategies. Folklore clothes should not only be worn simply in patriotic celebrations or for international representation. We should respect and acknowledge the source of diversity from which Latin American countries come from.

And so what can we do to help in this situation? Firstly, we must realize and recognize the racial segregation that we have in our countries, decolonize our way of lifeand be aware of the problem. Secondly, take small actions. It will be difficult to get used to stopping making racist jokes, to stop your friends when you hear them say something inappropriate, but step by step, we can create a more friendly society that will open up to the inclusion of indigenous groups. Most importantly, we must empower these marginalized groups. We should not only be concerned with “image changes”, but also with improving their living conditions, especially economic ones. We must establish and strengthen our support to help these groups emerge from their arduous situation.

As Commander David of the Zapatista army in Mexico once said:

What we indigenous peoples ask and what we need is not a big place or a small place, but a dignified place within our nation; fair treatment, equal treatment, being a fundamental part of this great nation; to be citizens with all the rights that we deserve as we all; that they take us into account and treat us indigenous people with respect ...”.




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