“Spirituality is deeply anti-systemic”: An interview with Indigenous Thinker Antonio Gonzalez from the Aj Mayon Collective in Guatemala

In this article, part of our Food Sovereignty and Spirituality series, indigenous thinker and activist Antonio Gonzalez from Guatemala talks about the importance of spirituality in Indigenous Peoples struggles to recover and affirm their identity and defend their territories. He shares the journey he undertook with the Aj Mayon Agroecological Collective to link agriculture with culture and rekindle ancestral knowledges and practices. He recalls his first encounter with the “mistica” and distinguishes the mistica from Mayan spiritual practices.

Antonio Gonzalez, you have been part of the Aj Mayon agroecological collective since 2010. You have also been active in the Network in Defense of Food Sovereignty in Guatemala (REDSAG) from 2005 to 2018 and the Agroecology Movement of Latin America and the Caribbean (MAELA). Tell us a little bit about yourself, and how you got involved in Latin American networks for agroecology and food sovereignty?

I’m from the Mayan Kaqchikel people;  my Mayan name is Atun Kuljay. I come from a community called Chimaltenango. It’s a region in Guatemala that was targeted by the Green Revolution in the 1970s. We saw the development of export markets, and the transformation of seeds, machinery and of the whole production model, which in the end was not able to solve hunger. Guatemala is also a country that has long been affected by natural phenomena, such as heavy rains and landslides. For all these reasons, Chimaltenango is also an area where the struggle for agroecology has been quite strong. For a long time, there have been campesino a campesino (peasant to peasant) processes of agroecological transformation, with a focus on the protection of biodiversity and above all, cultural vindication. Together with many compañeras and compañeros, both peasant and indigenous, we felt we had to do something. We had to recover the ancestral agriculture in order to protect and conserve our territories.

We joined forces with academics, with NGOs and development cooperation actors. In parallel, I learned about permaculture, which I was attracted to for its link to culture. We did not talk about agroecology at the time. My work has always dealt with ancestral knowledge, biodiversity, and seeds. I am a member of the Agricultural Biodiversity Working Group of the IPC. For four years, I also served as regional Coordinator for Latin America and the Caribbean on the Coordination Committee of the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples Mechanism (CSIPM) of the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS). In those spaces, as I am indigenous, my role has always been to defend the rights of indigenous peoples and provide a perspective from this point of view.

A lot has been written about the political and legal dimensions of food sovereignty, but less about its spiritual aspects. What would you say is the role of spirituality, or religion, in the food sovereignty movement?

If I speak from the perspective of the Aj Mayon collective, spirituality has been a way to reaffirm us as indigenous peoples: we have rights and we can exercise our autonomy and self-determination. Spirituality has consolidated and strengthened us in our efforts to build territory. To talk about the spirituality of the Mayan peoples means talking about the territory. It implies looking beyond the political struggles of the left or right, the class struggle. It is about fighting for life, understanding our relationship to nature and living in harmony with it, it is about recovering ancestral knowledges and the practices that have been lost. Well, at least the practices that deserve to be reinstated, because some of them are not worth it. But there are practices that are important. One of these is going back to the agricultural calendars, to the ceremonial calendars and practicing them day to day. This is not a mistica. We learned about the mistica in popular education schools, where we were told we have to do a mistica. But for us it was about how to observe the sun, the moon, light a fire, speak and resolve conflicts around the fire, and make offerings. We really tried to regain an understanding of how the calendars work and what energies govern every day.

Seed offering before sowing, Colectivo Awän Agroecología, Guatemala

A key point that we have made in the food sovereignty movement is that agroecology needs to recognize the fight and contribution of indigenous peoples. We insisted on this at the Nyéléni International Forum for Agroecology in 2015 in Mali. Everyone was talking about peasant agroecology and peasant seeds, and we said, this is not how we see it. There was a lot of discussion. We said there are other ways of organizing the struggle, there are other worlds as the Zapatistas say. Our role has been to insist that indigenous peoples have a distinct relationship to nature. Even if it is changing, this cosmovision continues to exist and is probably what gives strength to agroecology movements in Latin America. Today we are taking about the peoples of Abya Yala — which in the Kuna language means “land in its full maturity” – or peoples of the Pachamama (Mother Earth) because we are starting to see a real unity across borders, a solidarity between peoples.

Can you explain a bit more how spirituality has supported this process of consolidation and legitimation of indigenous peoples and their collective identity?

In Latin America and in Guatemala in particular, we have endured processes of colonization. A first shock was the arrival of the Spaniards. Then with the “ladinización”, which consists in the State erasing the indigenous identity, our surnames were changed, our names were changed, our mother tongues were forbidden. There is such entrenched racism on the continent that it was necessary for us to vindicate ourselves as peoples and to say we are here and we do exist. Including to any vanguard, to any struggle, to anyone who might want to exclude us again from the social and political struggles. Because this has happened to us in Guatemala, we have experienced this exclusion from the very organizations of the left. For example, during the Internal Armed Conflict, we were told not to make any cultural vindication because this would weaken the Marxist struggle. We felt we had to affirm ourselves. We are indigenous and it is not something that we have to hide. We exist as peoples, each of us with its own history and culture, and that gives us rights. And those rights must be enforced.

What is the role of spirituality in this process? Well, we start talking differently, we speak according to how we understand the world and how we see the cycles of the weather. We start living according to the calendars. And as we do this, it creates community, and reaffirms the importance of community. It becomes a collective question. It reaffirms our identity. The energies, the calendar, they do not work in isolation, they are part of a broader cycle. If that cycle is broken, then the force that exists is also broken. And this is always linked to the natural elements. As you are feeling part of this, you are not feeling excluded by anything. That’s why we talk of brotherhood, because these practices reinforce the struggle of the territory, and not only the struggle of the land. Because the territory implies all these existing cultural relationships, not only the land to produce but the whole social bond. For this reason, we have put a lot of effort into reinforcing the cosmovision and organize the ceremonies.

Ceremony at the 2nd International Corn Conference, Antonio Gonzalez

Ceremonies are usually accompanied by fire. The fire is the main element that guides you. Families make an altar in their houses, where there is always a candle lit, and that fire symbolizes this energy that is always alive. In every activity, we light a fire as well. Like when we do the sowing or the harvest. These moments are also accompanied by food and a party. The parties are also part of the spirituality. That is how the force works, and that’s how we resist. In short, I would say spirituality is deeply anti-systemic, it is the most anti-systemic you can find. It recognizes another language, another way of understanding life, another way also of relating to time.

What has been your relationship to the misticas that are usually performed in the food sovereignty movement?

My first encounter with the mistica was around 2009 in the context of popular education schools. I also experimented them in the campesino a campesino movement. At the time, I understood the mistica as a kind of icebreaker. Some people would say well, let’s sing a song, like a socialist international. The facilitators were from the left, and they were always using the same line, the same approach. I wanted something more. Some of us from the Aj Mayon collective started to introduce aspects of the Mayan cosmovision in this mistica. We started to talk about the “energy of the day”. We said let us share a reflection, an analysis of other ways of life. And everywhere we started to put in this kind of logics, we brought this to more and more activities. Today, we start any activity with a fire or candle. We make a small altar with the four cardinal points, the four colors of corn and with flowers, corn, fruit. It depends on the event. And we do not talk about a mistica, we talk about an “invocation”. It is not a Mayan ceremony, but it is something shorter to invoke the energy of the day.

What are some of the gender dimensions of Mayan spirituality?

Women have been putting a lot of work into transforming aspects of indigenous cultures and Mayan spirituality. For example, there have been discussions on the topic of energies. There are spiritual guides who distinguish the energy of the woman from the energy of the man. They say that these energies are different, not inferior but different. Transformation is happening slowly in part because there is a fair amount of idealization of indigenous cultures, which makes self-criticism even more difficult. It’s still difficult to talk about gender. There are also a lot of divergent opinions, especially within feminism. For example, some talk about communitarian feminism to advance a feminism that is not western. There are also discussions about gender roles in the countryside. It’s a debate that’s not over.

Can you tell us more about the role of spirituality and religion in your own life and how this has guided your work in the movement? What was the religious context of your upbringing, if any?

I was raised Catholic. But along the way I started to understand that religion imposes a lot of rules and as a young person, I rejected this. At the same time, growing up close to the countryside, we were always in contact with Mayan spirituality. There are things that can’t be lost even if you learn other things. I think that is what sustains spirituality too, because there are many people who are Catholic, evangelical, but they continue to practice Mayan spirituality.

Mayan spirituality is not a religion. We don’t talk about God but we talk about Ajaw, the lord of the mountain, the lord of the water, the lord of the stone. Some people assimilate Ajaw to a Christian God but it is more appropriate to say the lord. Mayan spirituality is not a polytheistic religion, as they often say, because that would imply many gods, right? But it’s a recognition of all the natural elements, and the functions of all these natural elements. When I started to learn this at the Mayan Culture Vindication School (Escuela de reconstitución del ser Mayab’), this helped me grow a lot, including politically. I was older then, as I was definitely not taught this as a kid. It helped me understand that the struggle was not in itself to change the State, but it was to defend the land, to defend our food, to defend our health, to defend the water, the environment, everything that is around us. That the institutions were a means more than an end, and that I always needed to build community, to keep strengthening the community. That is why in the Aj Mayon collective we decided to think things through, to work slowly, to do more than just respond or react. We also insisted on the importance of self-management to make sure we do not depend on international cooperation. This way of thinking was much inspired by other Mayan comrades like the Zapatistas. I live on the road which leads to the border with Chiapas, and I spent a lot of time with them. I learned that things can happen in this self-managed way, and that there are alternatives to looking towards Cuba or Nicaragua for inspiration.

Lighting the candle at the beginning of the Consultation on farmers’ rights to seeds in Brazil, Antonio Gonzalez

How would you describe your personal spiritual trajectory?

Within my family, there has always been a syncretism between spirituality and Christianity. This was the first thing that made me reflect a bit. The second is that I come from a migrant family. When I was 11, my dad migrated to the US. This had an impact on my family’s diet. I was very used to eating what my grandmother or my mom prepared, but with access to US dollars, we started to eat instant soups and noodles, to eat fast food. We started to live what they ironically call the “American dream”. Fortunately the elders from our family resisted the junk food and it was easier to maintain our traditional food. Later when I was 13 or 14, I started to enjoy the cultural dances and activities that are done for the Day of the Dead, like the giant kites (barriletes) that we fly above cemeteries to honor and connect us to our ancestors. I was also part of a youth group that reflected a lot about culture. And since I also liked sowing a lot, I began to meet more people who were still using traditional practices. And that is how I got more and more into it. Later on, I became interested in creating spaces where we could reflect on these issues, of which there were very few. Within our collective, which was involved in beekeeping and restoring seed practices, we started to organize workshops, to reflect and share. Many people started to listen to us, and to know us thanks to the work that we did around seeds and ancestral forms of management. I also studied anthropology and I started to do more research on this.

In your view, what are some of the challenges around food sovereignty and spirituality in the future?

I think a big challenge is to recognize the importance of spirituality and the role it plays in transforming the social struggle. Related to this, how to understand the cosmovision of a people and not homogenize it. That’s a big challenge. An additional challenge for social movements and especially for academia, is to recognize that there are very strong ancestral knowledges, that these have great value, and that these knowledges cannot be negated anymore. Recognizing the importance of spirituality also implies recognizing its forms of organization. This means identifying the ancestral authorities that are part of the political struggles, and that have the legitimacy to speak, to fight and to exercise local power. This is part of what today is maintaining the territories. Spirituality is what is keeping the struggles alive.

If you look at the situation in Ecuador, it is the indigenous peoples that are mobilizing. That’s a great example, and it is a great example also of how the left does not know how to dialogue with indigenous peoples. In Mexico and in Nicaragua, it is the same thing. You have all these megaprojects that are dispossessing them, and indigenous peoples are resisting. How can social movements of the left really create unity if they don’t recognize all these struggles? But things are changing. Many people are now realizing that they cannot move forward without us. And indigenous peoples are saying: “you are not going to talk on our behalf, nor about us, anymore”. You can’t have 20 indigenous peoples’ experts and none of them are indigenous. This perpetuates a western look that sees us as an object of study. All of this creates a lot of tensions. An example of advancement of the spirituality aspect in the struggle of social movements can be found in the changes that occurred in the Civil Society Mechanism (CSM), where we recently had a lot of discussions to agree on the name change, which is now Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples Mechanism (CSIPM). Another challenge is how to change the laws in order to protect indigenous peoples’ rights, including ancestral knowledges and the rights of nature. There are a lot of exciting legal developments on this front.

What is the role of spirituality in your own life as an activist?

It is something that gives me strength and meaning because it allows me to reflect on the important and less mundane things. At the same time, it is hard because sometimes you can be very lonely, it is a perspective that not everybody understands or shares. And then, now that I live abroad in France, it’s even more difficult, because I can’t practice it that much, although I can make offerings to the land, because the land is a whole. But yes, it’s something that I think strengthens me.

This interview was designed, conducted, recorded, transcribed and edited by Priscilla Claeys and Jasber Singh. The final version was revised and validated by Antonio Gonzalez.

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