I had the privilege of meeting Julieta Paredes in Middlebury College in Spring 2012. A member of Voices of Indigenous People student organization asked this famous speaker to give us a minute of her busy schedule to talk about her thoughts on Indigenous politics in the 21st century. Julieta made a special trip all the way from Bolivia to see us. She is an Aymara woman, communitarian lesbian feminist, co-founder of Mujeres Creando (Women Creating Community), and member of the Communitarian Feminist Assembly. She lives in La Paz, Bolivia, a nation where a political change process is underway. Julieta is anti-patriarchal feminist activist, writer, author, and poet, and has been involved in feminist training with Indigenous and working class women throughout Bolivia and other parts of Latin America. Julieta changed my life in Middlebury College.
I went to her lecture that night. I felt like my grandmothers were speaking to me about their struggles, too. I was moved by Julieta’s thorough theoretical talk about communitarian feminism and how it differs from other forms of modern feminism in the 21st century. Before Christopher Columbus, many Indigenous women used to be powerful leaders in traditional societies. Women controlled the land, held political roles, and determined the well-being of the community. Men hunted and protected their women and children, but they did not have the last word. Men believed their grandmothers were wiser and stronger – like La Pachamama, Mother Earth.
After European contact, the conquistadors brought the machismo which impacted the lives of thousands of Indigenous women in the Americas. European men were raised and taught to subjugate their women. To them, women only served to procreate. European men hurt their women through domestic violence, rape, verbal abuse, and public shaming. They burned their women at stake for being witches (medicine women) or put them on a scold’s bridle for those who talked too much. The conquistadors brought this destructive culture with them to the Americas.
The conquistadors left this legacy to non-Indigenous, mixed-Indigenous, and Indigenous people in North, Central, and South America. Some brothers bully their sisters and disrespect their mothers from an early age. Why is it okay to watch a movie filled with so much graphic violence, deaths, and shootings? Why is it okay to listen to music degrading our women? Why is it okay to encourage men to be machistas?
Julieta talked about how women and men should work together to fight all forms of oppressive institutions. She used a simple metaphor: the human body. She said the left side of the body represented male and the right side, female. If they did not work together, one side of the body would suffer. The other side of the body will carry the weight of the burden. As a community, we should care for each one another even if we do not know the person. If a person is sick, we should help them. If a person is in trouble, we should give them a hand. If a person is overwhelmed, we should listen to them. In her own words, she said these were the principle teachings of our ancestors. We are a community of people who work together, love together, and care together like all the things interconnected in life on this planet. This is the circle of life. The community round dance. The shape of the sun and moon.
The next day, I drove Julieta Paredes to the Amtrak station. In that one hour commute, we talked about where my family came from and what they were up to. She listened to my words in silence as stared in the distance. She nodded at the details of what I personally encountered as a child, the experience of growing up in a confused world where labels determined my Indigenous identity, where peer pressure forced us into assimilation, and where abuse from my paternal side made my Indigenous self cringe at words like “cholo” or “montubio.”
“Scars make a part of who you are,” she started. “They make you stronger and wiser. They give you reasons to make something out of your life. Something good. It’s time to spread positive vibes of communal work to your community. It’s time to work together like the human body. Let’s not let one side of the body carry the burden of the world.”