By Patricia Schwartz
This January, for the first time in Guatemala, a woman was elected to Congress who identifies openly as both a feminist and a lesbian. Sandra Morán has a long history of radical activism, starting with her entry when she was 14 into Guatemala’s leftist movement in the midst of the country’s 36-year armed conflict. This helped form and continues to inspire her current proposals for facing Guatemala’s urgent human rights issues that disproportionately affect women, indigenous populations, and LGBTQ people. Since her childhood in Zone 7 of Guatemala City through her recent move to a new office in Zone 1, she has participated in social and arts movements and organizations focused on raising the voices and the status of these demographics. We wondered what a first like this means in Guatemala, which has the fourth highest rate of femicide in the world with a woman killed every 12 hours, according to a report published in 2015 by the Secretary of the Declaration of Geneva; and where 72% of the LGBTQ population report that their rights to health, work, and education have been violated, according to national surveys published by the Amigos Contra el SIDA collective in 2012.
So, we had a conversation with Sandra Morán Reyes (whose titles, in addition to congresswoman, include activist historian, musician, revolutionary, and member of the left-of-center political party Convergencia) to discuss her political positions on working from outside the system, the most pressing concerns facing the country and its most marginalized populations, and the importance of social organization today.
What is your definition of “feminism,” and why do you think it is important, or relevant?
Feminism is a political position, a way of seeing the world, and a set of theoretical contributions that help us understand inequalities of power. There are various feminist currents, which help us to understand different kinds of inequality like that of class, of race, and to gender. Our proposals have been built from the feminism of both rural and more urban viewpoints. It’s relevant because it allows me to take into account the interests, needs, and rights of women, of indigenous communities, and of all the minorities who experience different kinds of marginalization.
Feminism helps to see things in a different way. That is, how women, as well as Guatemala’s many diverse peoples, can be hurt or helped by certain actions. We have a broader vision and understanding of reality; indigenous peoples give us a more comprehensive perspective, which includes spirituality and the universe. This combination allows us to grow in every way.
What effect do you think achievements in “feminist” goals could have for society in general, taking into account issues such as malnutrition, lack of educational resources, etc.?
The problems of malnutrition, lack of resources in education, and all other social problems are also problems that feminists deal with, because they affect the lives of individuals and communities, and disproportionately women and girls in both rural and urban areas, especially Maya and Xinca women.
What are some of the most profound and dangerous challenges facing the LGBTQ community in Guatemala?
Violence, death, and discrimination in the social, labor, and education sectors. This is why most people in this community live with their sexuality in the closet, for their security and self-defense.
What needs to get done to face these challenges?[We need] laws that define discrimination as a crime, firstly.
What are the main goals you have laid out for your time in Congress?
We are currently building our agenda, but the principal goal is to do politics in a way that allows organizations, communities, and movements to build our agenda themselves. So, in our first steps we are building our agenda with the groups in our network and based on what we already know. Moving forward, the party wants to help advance the rights of communities, women, and the various minorities throughout the country.
Do you think that Congress has real power to make real changes at the national level?
Congress does have the power to do so. But the economic model that is present is not necessarily what women or indigenous peoples want. This is the challenge: to at least discuss these differences and proposals.
Why is it important to include diverse voices from populations traditionally silenced in social organization?
For women and indigenous communities who have been excluded, the use of voice is a very powerful way to fight. It validates our words and our much larger ideas. That’s why we have to break silences, make them listen to us, and validate ourselves. Sometimes we hope that others will validate us; even in social organizations we sometimes hope that the leader will validate our voice. But we need to validate ourselves, and know that our voice matters and has value. Democracy must be built through the practice of diversity, through diversity of opinions, voices, proposals, perspectives, worldviews, and the possibility of building complementarity.
What characteristics of Convergence make it different from some of the larger and better-known parties in the country?
It is a leftist party, the result of partnerships and participation of social organizations that take part in social and civic movements that include Maya communities.
Could you explain how the Convergence Party-CPO-CRD was formed?
Convergence is the result of the New Nation Alternative party’s strategy to become more open after it reviewed its performance in the last few elections. The strategy was to open the party to alliances with social organizations so that the candidates in elections would be chosen or appointed by these organizations. This began to build the Convergence for Democratic Revolution (CRD), which later formed an alliance with the Council of Peoples of West Guatemala (CPO), who had decided to participate in elections through a political party that would accept their own candidates. Finally, it was decided that the unity of these three collectives would be called Convergence, to illustrate the alliance that had been formed.
You have participated in movements “outside the system,” such as the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP). What motivated you to get involved in politics as part of the current government?
In the history of Guatemala, there have been times when decisions had to be made about the best path and methods of struggle to achieve the ultimate goal of improving the lives of individuals and communities. In the sixties, repression and persecution of opposition to the military government imposed by the counterrevolution of 1954 closed political spaces and convinced those involved to decide that their method would be a military political struggle that would fight for control of the state. It would in many fields confront the army, which was the weapon that landowners and business elites used through the state to guarantee their interests and kill the opposition. I was born in this context, and I saw from a very early age the repression of teachers and students. I grew up in a very Catholic family and was taught to help the poorest and the neediest, to seek justice and to live to help others. In this context, I decided to take the path of revolution to do what I was called to do for the good of those most in need.
Since the peace accords, the method has changed. We must continue the struggle by the means permitted by the Constitutional state, through social organizations and movements and political parties. I’ve been a part of social movements all these years, but in the context of the political situation since April 16, I decided in early May to accept the proposal that I become a candidate for Congress, because the situation created a feeling of revolutionary energy and opened spaces for revolutionary action.
In your opinion, what are the tools or methods most useful and necessary for social organization today?
We must be clear about why, and from what roots, we are organizing, because political struggle does not just happen in political parties, but also happens in work, family, community, and personal struggles. The exercise of civil rights and independence is a political struggle that we can engage in everywhere. Today we do not need to be organized, structured, and institutionalized. We need to exercise civil rights from where we live and where we work. The collective effort is a movement with with we share dreams and this exercise of civil rights. We have to build a movement and not just organizations. Sometimes organizations are institutionalized to the point that nobody new can join, and there are many people still today who cannot find a space to participate.
What do you think are the requirements to form and maintain a successful social movement? What advice would you give to those who are trying to organize?
Organizing is a right, but it is not easy, and it depends on why you are organizing. Organization is necessary for everything, to protest, to defend yourself, and to build alternatives to the way we are living. Today we need to organize ourselves as organizations and communities that allow us to grow collectively, and that fight the individualistic self-interest that has gradually entered people’s minds, regardless of age or community background.
We saw a lot of social organization in Guatemala last year. Why do you think that now is the time for this kind of movement, and what we need to do to take advantage of this energy as a catalyst?
The last year was a spontaneous expression from citizens tired of so many lies and so much stealing. It was very important. But the strength was not in organization, but rather in spontaneity and the personal exercise of civil rights that ultimately became collective. (We in traditional movements did not have the same political impact because our movements were not formed like this.) Maya communities were welcome, and that was important. We need to continue with the message and build from there other ways of organizing ourselves that do not involve structures but rather involve agreements, common objectives, and the freedom to act in a variety of ways. The idea that “it must be done this way” in finished. There are many ways, and all are brave and important.
What is your opinion about comprehensive sexuality education? Are there issues that you think are important for young people to learn about?[Students should learn about] sexuality as an expression of life, of vital energy. Sexuality as a vital realization of the human being, as an exercise that should be responsible, informed, and purposeful. Sexuality as an expression of being, as a way to relate to yourself and other people and lay the foundations for respectful and healthy relationship.
Do you have any advice for people who are struggling to define their identity, and enduring the consequences of being outside the norms of the country’s hetero-patriarchy?
You must work on your own fears and be prepared to lose some things while gaining others. It is especially important to be able to feel comfortable with who you are. Internalized homophobia is very difficult to face. You must heal yourself.
What motivates you to get up every day?
Contributing to changing things, to advancing, to confronting what oppresses us, to revealing and denouncing. Sharing life with family, friends and colleagues.