Nawapipiles: The Defense of Spirituality as a Disputed Territory
By: Manuel Fernando Ramírez
A few days ago, while sharing a cold drink with a friend, he told me about an experience, in his opinion, a ridiculous one. For this experience we travel back to a moment in time that occurred in southern Guatemala; foreign visitors went to a Mayan community to be a part of a ceremony. When presenting the sacred elements and starting the ritual, the visitors dramatically interrupted the priest to firmly assert that the altar did not have the elements and colors necessary to carry out the ceremony. With disappointment and full of emotions, my friend fires a few questions: Do these White people really believe that they know more about the customs of Indigenous peoples than the people themselves? What thoughtlessness persists in this century in us White people to believe that we can arrive and correct Indigenous peoples in their religious or spiritual expressions?
The aforementioned experience opened a series of discomforts on a personal level. Meditating and reflecting upon territorial displacements, cultural impositions, and the inevitable religious syncretisms that colonization brought to our lands and spirituality in this day in age continue to demand defending the identity and worldview we have inherited. Like many Indigenous peoples of Central America, the Nawapipil people in El Salvador have been made invisible and devalued; their fundamental rights have been violated ever since the encounter with the Spanish conquerors up until the arrival and establishment of supposed democracies.
Persecutions, repressions, and ethnocides have nuanced the complex current state of affairs of the Nawapipil people; structural and political violence exerted by the State have made identity recovery or restorative justice processes impossible for Indigenous peoples in El Salvador. Proof of this is the constitutional amendment that was ratified only in June 2014. In it a portion reads, “El Salvador recognizes Indigenous peoples and will adopt policies in order to maintain and develop their ethnic and cultural identity, worldview, values, and spirituality.” It is only one hundred ninety-three years after the independence of Spain that that the Indigenous presence in the Salvadorian territory is recognized officially, thus highlighting the uncertainty suffered by the Indigenous peoples in the country. Our patrimonies continue to ask us to be vigilant guardians of our knowledge, which are as important, valuable, and deep, as those that our ancestors unexpectedly encountered one day. Therefore, aware of the value and wealth and the suffering that has already been experienced, a starting point emerges to visualize spirituality as a territory in dispute in the process of becoming.
As a result, a new door opens for reflection and it is necessary to ask: What is the defense of our spirituality as territory? What is in dispute? How are assets and knowledge viewed through the lens of defense? A series of necessary elements arises when asked these questions; on the one hand, one must deconfigure and deconstruct the very concept of territory so as not to minimize it or see it as a given or something unique, naming the physical space that is and exists, independent of the conflicts that are generated from, and in it. Additionally, there is an urgent need to know the various points of view from where the defense arises and is justified, thus understanding the place of the actors who claim membership or express removal. Finally, we must rethink the nature and origin of the actions that have led to the emergence of a dispute and the socio-historical scenarios that are drawn and built from these processes. Thus, these processes validate causes and do not limit a pre-existing and clearly delimited territory as an object of defense. In turn, the cultural, social, religious, and other manifestations that define or differentiate one human group from another become territories, and when they are threatened by having to deny their identity or they are objectified by submission or alienation, they become disputed territories.
Like the foreigners in the community in southern Guatemala, many continue to maintain an attitude of superiority towards Indigenous peoples in their imagination. This is a result of that long nullification and minimization in a social structure that evaluates and emphasizes the value of the person from the side of the invader, mostly a Eurocentric vision, and also a “Yankee-centric” or a perspective from the United States. Additionally, a global pseudo-spiritual movement exists that encourages practices of meditation, exercise, diet, and a whole host of other practices that gathers elements and components of worldviews of native peoples of the Americas, Asia, Africa, and other latitudes. This promotes a new asceticism with neocolonialist and mercantilist overtones. This new spirituality has been shaped according to the demands of capitalism and has been reduced to a technique of mercantile and self-help that, in essence, reinforces individualism and neoliberalism. The spiritual expressions typical of our Nawapipil people, like many Mesoamerican peoples, focus on proper coexistence; the responsibility for the good use of common goods in our spaces of coexistence, as well as fostering value for life and respect for natural goods personified in Mother Earth. It is in this way that the new colonialist, capitalist, and White spirituality has gradually diluted ancestral identities, generating “neo-syncretisms” that are far from the values that our spirituality contains. Therefore, the Pipiles demand the appropriation of political spaces that would allow requiring compliance with the constitutional amendment of June 2014.
Thus, the challenges appear on the stage before a spiritual movement that radicalizes the temporary, encourages forgetfulness of historical memory, shoots down cooperation, and claims elements of our worldview to alienate the masses. For the Nawapipil people, the defense of Spirituality as a Disputed Territory demands strengthening the spaces won, albeit small, but won, in the Salvadoran legislation. Articulating, from this legal tool, demands for participation in public spaces that seek to overcome the folkloric vision instituted by a segregationist system. In addition, the cohesion of the different sectors and spaces that promote Indigenous identity in El Salvador is urgent. It becomes essential to purge political-partisan interventions of our collectives and spaces that have lacerated our identity and have demonstrated on more than one occasion the use of our struggles as springboards and businesses that never benefit us.
The world is changing easily and fleetingly in the digital and globalized era. However, the false spirituality that is becoming stronger each day and is cataloged as a “revolution of conscience and inner life” dictates forms, recipes, and formulas to face, cope, assimilate, and naturalize the problems of capitalism and neocolonialism. This expression promotes, in a variety of ways, the perfect and submissive attitude in order to maintain the status quo. The new asceticism is replaced by optimism that encourages conformity and develops a resigned political passivity. On the contrary, Indigenous spiritualties are based on personal shifts that promote a critical questioning of the historical, cultural, and political conditions that are responsible for the environmental and social suffering around us. That is why defending our spirituality as a disputed territory is a reality and demands our most ancient enthusiasm.
About the Author:
Edwin Manuel Fernández Ramírez (Uselutzin) is 39 years old and is from Santiago Texacuangos, a town located in the southeastern part of San Salvador. He has studied Sociology and Theology. He is currently part of an initiative called “Ne Pashaluani” (He Who Walks) that seeks to rescue cultural elements of the Nawapipil people. He has dedicated part of his life to the activism of the defense of Human and Environmental Rights, within and outside El Salvador. He is working on audiovisual production in support of different initiatives that seek to make the Indigenous presence in El Salvador visible. He also supports a collective radio broadcast initiative in Panama that addresses Indigenous and Afro-descendant themes