Global Conversations: Central American women activists discussed familiar social justice issues

Afro-Costa Rican historian Carmen Hutchinson Miller, Nicaraguan activist Madelaine Caracas and Maya-K'iche' historian María Aguilar spoke to the LMU community about global citizenship, knowing your history, and social justice in Central America and the United States.

As a part of International Education Week, LMU’s Global-Local Initiatives and Study Abroad offices co-sponsored Global Conversations, an event presented by the Center for Global Education and Experience at Augsburg University in Minnesota. Moderated by Augsburg University’s Joe Connelly, of Customized Programs for the Center for Global Education and Experience in Nicaragua, LMU students and staff were able to hear from three Central American women about social justice issues similar to those in the United States that are happening in Guatemala, Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

Vice provost for LMU’s Global-Local Initiatives, Dr. Roberta Espinoza, opened the event by encouraging audience members to “think deeply about what it entails to be a global citizen.”

The first speaker was Maya-K'iche' historian María Aguilar whose work is focused on security forces in her home country of Guatemala. Aguilar shared insights centering on police brutality in the context of Guatemala and the relationship of police brutality with authoritarianism.

Aguilar drew parallels between the origins of policing in the United States and in Guatemala. “In the U.S., the police force was created as part of the slave patrols for the controlling of Black bodies. In Guatemala, the police force was created because of a need to control the workforce, which in the case of Guatemala was Indigenous.” She went on to give context to the conversation on police brutality in Guatemala:

“When we speak of police brutality in our context, it means to speak of abolition or to speak of rethinking these issues. [It] doesn’t just mean rethinking how the state works, but how society itself has been configured. It is our people who are a part of these institutions not because they wanted to, but because it is how the system was designed.”

Next, the spectators heard from Dr. Carmen Hutchinson Miller, an Afro-Costa Rican historian. Miller spoke about the impact of George Floyd’s death in Costa Rica. She opened with a phrase that is popular in Costa Rica, saying that “when the U.S. sneezes, we catch the cold.” Miller said that the case of George Floyd in the United States helped to spark a national conversation in Costa Rica. It enabled African-descended Costa Ricans to speak the truth of their experiences with racism in a country that has gone a long time without recognizing the issue.

The final panelist was Nicaraguan artist and activist Madelaine Caracas, who spoke about her personal experiences as a university student activist living in exile from her country. Caracas organized protests in the capital against the government and was then forced into hiding. She explained how the government can accuse protesters in Nicaragua of terrorism. Caracas had to leave the country in 2019 due to her activist role.

Aguilar addressed the narratives surrounding many Central American countries. "We are not violent societies. We are not underdeveloped nations. We are nations that have been marginalized and excluded,” she said. She also brought to attention the power the United States has in the international community, emphasizing that whoever “is in power in the U.S. affects the policies that impact our countries.”

The three women said what empowers them to push forward is the knowledge of those who came before them and their hopes for a better tomorrow. Caracas also cited the power in recognizing strengths as a collective rather than as individuals. She went on to claim that empowerment can come from recognizing one's life as a form of resistance on its own. Caracas shared, “when I recognize that I am alive where other people have lost their lives, when I recognize that I am here, that is powerful.”

Miller shared what allows her to push on in her activism is her conviction that “we are human beings, we have a right to be here, we have a right to justice … I am a human being and I have a right to rights.”

Sophomore international relations major Saúl Rascón Salazar noted the calls to action he felt in the Global Conversations event set off his “activist alarm."

"After attending the Global Conversations event I found it really powerful that I got to hear three different, impactful narratives from all three women of color," said Salazar. "Nothing spoke louder to me than listening to Madelaine’s youth and struggle at the same time through her descriptions of her experience with her government. I was, once again, reminded that nothing will ever beat the effectiveness and rawness of someone’s narrative."

Gabi Davidson-Gomez, a sophomore environmental studies major, took the event as a reminder that meaningful action comes in many forms, and saw it as an opportunity to think more critically into the histories that make global and local communities the way they are.

“As a student with Central American family heritage, I was incredibly moved to hear from three empowered and insightful Central American women about their experiences with the region’s most pressing sociopolitical dynamics," Davidson-Gomez said. "These are narratives which many students at LMU can identify with regardless of ethnic origin, but can be difficult to come by, even in a Chicanx/Latinx Studies classroom. I appreciate that LMU provided a platform for discussion of Central American experiences and sociopolitical dynamics, and I hope that it will continue to do so.”

At the end of the event, Caracas left students with a final call to action: “Be aware that you are not only a citizen of the country you live in but that you are a citizen of the world, and there are other realities that you do not know but you can empathize with and be aware of."

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