Indigenous issues: Public officers in Colombia give disrespectful names to indigenous people

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Indigenous issues: Public officers in Colombia give disrespectful names to indigenous people


Names like Payaso (Clown), Alka-Selkzer (sic), Cosita Rica (Yummy Thing), Bolsillo (Pocket), John F. Kennedy, and Cabeza (Head) were among the names officially given to indigenous Wayuú people in northern Colombia by bureaucrats of the National Registration Office.

Since the majority of the Wayuú population is illiterate (only 31 per cent have finished primary school) the victims didn’t know that their birth names had been changed by public officials when they were registered as Colombian citizens. Many don’t know how to sign their name, nor what their date of birth is; the Wayuú, like many other indigenous communities, do not use the Gregorian calendar.

Estercilia Simanca Pushaina, a Wayuú writer and lawyer, recounts these facts. Her story, ‘Manifiesta no saber firmar’, Nacido: 31 Diciembre’ (‘Affirms Not Knowing How to Sign. Born: 31 December’), won her an award at the First Continental Biennale of Indigenous Art, celebrated in México. With her writing Estercilia highlights problems facing the Wayuú people inside and outside the community.  Through her organisation, which bears the same name as her award-winning story, Estercilia works to safeguard human and environmental rights in Wayuú territory.

Every three years in October, Estercilia explains in her story, at the time of the Colombian pre-election campaigns, the Wayuú people are visited by politicians. They come with gifts and false promises of making drinking water accesible or building schools in their community, in exchange for votes in the coming election.

When Estercilia’s uncle asked them to leave because ‘they never do what they promise’, the politicians said that this time it was different because ‘the current candidate is the son of the latest one and this one is a nicer person’.

Each election day the community voted, hoping that for once the politician would do as he had promised. To her surprise, Estercilia remembers, she heard her friends and family members being called by disrespectful names. Although she wasn’t old enough to vote, she could read and write, not only in Wayuú but also in Spanish, unlike many in the community.When she looked at her family’s ID she realised the mockery that elder members of her community were subjected to and that all of them, according to their ID, were born on 31 December.

Words are powerful weapons, be careful how you use them.