Women in our community have focused on recreating our individual and collective identities and what it means to be a Mayan woman… This has been a process of healing, where we have talked about the autonomy of our peoples, but also autonomy within autonomy. Because in my nation, there’s patriarchy, and sometimes it’s worse than other barriers because it is so intimate.
Aura Lolita Chavez Ixcaquic, known as Lolita, is a Maya K’iche educator and human rights defender from Santa Cruz, Quiché in the El Quiché region of Guatemala.
A teacher and organizer for years, Lolita is a leader of the Council of K’iche’ Peoples in Defense of Life, Mother Nature, Earth and Territory (CPK). Her organization groups 87 communities and their traditional authorities that work to protect their lands, resources and territory.
Lolita’s warm smile, unending enthusiasm and clarity of expression have made her a leader not only among her people, but also internationally. She provides an inspiring example of indigenous resistance to the destruction of the environment by large developers backed by governments, while seamlessly weaving together issues of indigenous rights, women’s rights and protection of Mother Earth.
“With the men - the ones making the decisions to sell off the land - we had to make an effort to bring about a change in their perception of land tenure, and say that no one is an owner of the land, not even the state,” Lolita explained to a women’s forum in Istanbul in 2012. “The bones of our grandmothers are in that soil, so how dare you sell that land with the bones of our grandmothers?”
Lolita helped organize the commission for the “good faith consultation” - the community’s right according to international law - in the capital of the Quiché Department, held on Oct. 22, 2012. More than 27,000 people from indigenous communities participated. They delivered a resounding “NO” to extraction and exploitation in their territory, particularly large-scale mining and hydroelectric projects.
She serves on the Council of K’iche’ Peoples’ political commission and as an elected delegate to the Council of the Peoples of the Western Region (Consejo de Pueblos de Occidente-CPO). The CPO brings together communities from the departments of Quiché, San Marcos, Huehuetenango, Quetzaltenango, Retalhuleu and Totonicapán.
We get a lot of strength from many principles including reciprocity (you are me and I am you) and that gives us strength as women and this connection with life and the web we have among each other…So as part of this web, we declare that we have to have territories free of companies and free of violence against women, and that empowers us so we can say we are moving towards the full meaning of life.
The fight against mining and hydroelectric plants in her region has pitted indigenous communities and their defenders, like Lolita, up against powerful interests. Women’s participation and leadership is central to their movement. Lolita relies on ancestral teachings for unity, guidance and spiritual and communal support to the movement, but also teaches that some aspects have to be changed, especially regarding the role and the rights of women.
Lolita knows the cost of standing up for her people and she knows only too well what’s she’s up against. CPK members have been the targets of threats, defamation, intimidation, and violence. One member was assassinated on June 12, 2012.
We are very aware that we face strong opposition - the state is not a friend… it’s connected, along with the oligarchies, transnational corporations, world powers, and militarism. And all of these have seen us as their enemy.
This backlash is even stronger against women because we make decisions, and we are clear about our decisions, and we have a lot of energy from nature. And when we say ‘no’, it means ‘no’ and this has generated a lot of repression against us - sisters have been jailed, murdered, threatened...
On July 4, 2012 Lolita was ambushed, along with her companions on a bus, by a group of men armed with machetes, knives and sticks. Four women were wounded. Lolita had filed a formal accusation against the mayor of Santa Cruz, Estuardo Castro, for “abuse of power, racial discrimination, arrogance and authoritarianism, exclusion and marginalization.” Before the ambush, Lolita and the other women attended a peaceful demonstration where they criticized the mayor who is from the governing Patriot Party.
Lolita escaped injury, but she has been the slammed with trumped-up criminal charges on several occasions. She was granted precautionary measures by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights due the threats against her life that require the government to provide protection but they do not comply.
The Guatemalan communities where Lolita lives and works are confronting transnational corporations, re-militarization and an economic development strategy that routinely violates their rights and culture. Faced with hostility, danger and tremendous obstacles, Lolita chooses to embrace life.
Instead of fighting against enemies and obstacles, she describes her multi-pronged organizing for her communities, for Mother Earth and for women’s rights as a “fight for life.”
How do we say yes to life? In many ways: our community comes together around our meaning and existence and its close connection with nature – the sun, land and everything that gives us energy… We identify what are our real needs are so we don’t go back on what we are doing.
JASS was introduced and began collaborating with Lolita in 2012 through our regional program with indigenous women and JASS’ partnership with Sinergia No’j. Her courageous leadership among indigenous women and communities on land rights is a powerful and inspiring mobilizing force at local, national, regional and global levels. Her rousing speech at the 2012 AWID International Forum in Istanbul during JASS’ session on Access to and Control of Resources, was sharp, profound and unknowingly, spoke to feminist principles. In 2012 JASS organized an exchange between Lolita and indigenous women leaders from Panama to reflect on shared struggles, experiences and strategies unique to indigenous women activists. Lolita’s connections to JASS and the Mesoamerican Women Human Rights Defenders Initiative through allies like Patricia Ardon and UDEFEGUA in Guatemala ensure an immediate national, regional and international response when her life is in danger, and increasingly, find ways to ensure her safety and that of her organizations.
Always moving forward, teaching by word and example, using the positive to build movements, Lolita Chavez’s work shows the critical role of women human rights defenders in a world of new threats and challenges.