“I name myself as an identity that this oppressive State refuses to acknowledge”
FRIDAY FILE: AWID spoke to Sara Álvarez Medrano, a young Mayan lesbian feminist about her experiences living as a lesbian in her community, the discrimination she has faced and her feminist and spiritual journey.
By Gabriela De Cicco
There are 22 different Mayan linguistic groups in Guatemala and Sara Álvarez Medrano belongs to one of the majority groups, Maya K’iche’. She was born in Santa Cruz del Quiché, the capital of the El Quiché department, but her family moved out because of the war when she was 4 years old and for the last 30 years she has been living in Guatemala City.
In speaking about her coming out process Sara shared how she dated a girl for the first time fifteen years ago. She explained how her sister discovered some notes they we were exchanging and told her other sisters and her mother. Although she believes her mother realized this on her own “she notices everything and, like in all Indigenous families, most of us live close together. We have a pretty intense and collective family life. My mother is always watching us and clearly she had noticed my closeness and my ways to be with this girl. Because I had been with boys before, she came to the conclusion I was a lesbian because I just stayed with this girl. I did not deny her suspicions and then the whole family process started.”
Sara recalls some of the difficulty she experienced at home, “My mother is Catholic, she is a Catholic Church activist, and so she has strong notions about lesbianism, seeing it as a sin and as something that is not right. In Guatemala, Indigenous and Mayan communities have been quite colonized by religion. My mother talked to priests, to people from her religious community and the only thing they said was that she just had to stay close to me - I think they suggested to her that “it” would pass. I left home and for a while kept some distance from my family. It hurt to leave my home because I am the youngest of 8 brothers and sisters, extremely spoilt and protected, and breaking up with the family was quite hard for me. But then I began to rebuild the relationship with them, one by one. Now we all get along very well; I even went back to live with my mother and sisters for some years and everything was fine.”
Strong feminist influence
Sara explains how being involved in women’s movements helped her in her personal process, “I honestly faced no difficulties in going through my personal process of being a lesbian. After I left school I went straight to a feminist organization, Agrupación de Mujeres Tierra Viva. There I learned about the theoretical side of feminism, about women's and feminist movements, sexual and reproductive rights. I got involved in the women's movement, met lesbians, was in touch with many women, was informed and as a result my internal process was not so hard. I think if I had lived in a community instead of in the city, the beginning would have been much harder for me because repression and social control are much stronger at the community level. Not only would I have been more repressed, but my family would also have been judged.
Woman, Mayan, urban lesbian
Sara explains that even though she was well known and loved in her community she still experienced some discrimination on her spiritual journey, “I think it has been a bit hard for my Mayan women's collective, they are pretty homophobic and lesbophobic. They are particularly afraid that their daughters may go through these experiences, but they respect and love me a lot.”
However, when Sara was looking for to embark on a spiritual process guided by the Mayan worldview she did experience a lot of rejection. One of the Guides told her, " ‘Look, if you want to be a Daughter of Corn, a Mayan Daughter, you can't be involved in those things’. That was very hard for me; in fact I took some distance from the community because of how my partner and I were being rejected. I had difficulties in going through my Mayan spiritual growth process and being a lesbian at the same time, because even I was split, even I thought I could not be both.”
But Sara explains how she persevered, “I looked for another spiritual Guide and I told her right away: "Look, I am a lesbian, and I want to go through the spiritual process but I am not changing this other part of my life". And she replied, "Look, if you grew up as part of the Mayan people, you are part of it, you have been socialized there, you are a product of this culture, nobody can tell you that you are outside of it". My spiritual process was the best thing that could have happened to me as it helped me to bridge that split and to see myself both as lesbian and Mayan at the same time. The process took about two years and I felt whole, able to be a woman, Mayan, urban, lesbian - all at the same time. In Mayan it is called "cleansing" - what you do is to clean, organize, order, integrate all your energies, everything you are. It's a process that allows you to see yourself, to know yourself in depth. Once you have gone through that journey you can accompany others. But I used to tell my Guide that was what frightened me the most: How can I become a Guide? Will I be even more rejected, or not? And she would say, "You are your own mission. By having solved (your split), by being content with what you are, you will already be an example and a learning for all of us in this community, in the Mayan community".
Being open to all forms of life
Sara talks about the importance of being open, “I think we have to see ourselves holistically, as persons and as bodies. A while ago I learned I have rights as a woman and as a Mayan woman, but racism and war took my Mayan clothes out of me. I used to wear my corte (skirt) and huipil (blouse), but felt racism around me. During my spiritual training, I knew I would be able to help, and in fact my Guide always tells my partner and me "You have opened many ways, you are already manifesting an example of how it is possible to live in a different way." I understand that but I want to tell you that it is different to have the knowledge, to know that yes, that's how it is, and to feel it deep down and to act in a consistent way using that energy. I knew I had rights, but I would not wear my dress because I still had a deep sense of inferiority inside me. And this is why Mayan women in Kaqla (my collective) say that there is a political dimension to the healing work. Because you not only have to recover the knowledge of having rights as a woman, a Mayan and a lesbian, but also recover that inner strength that makes you consistent with what you are saying. Only now I can see, I can relate to others from a space of greater affirmation, greater self-acceptance.
Right now I am out at work, in the women's movement, in social and human rights movements, which is where I am the most active. I think that for me it's a bit easier because I live in the city, because I have lesbian, feminist, Mayan collectives at hand, and a large family that allows me to move around, and I am not controlled or watched in my neighborhood. I have discussed this with other friends from Kaqla - many of them are also not married and are involved in relationships that are also outside the norm, and they are strongly judged and controlled which makes things different for them.”
Finally, Sara says that there is still some way to go to recognizing LGBTQI issues in Guatemala, “I live in a State that excludes, that is racist, misogynist, hetero-patriarchal. I name myself as an identity that this oppressive State refuses to acknowledge. It does not want the political subject I am to build myself, to be autonomous, to define myself. I am striving to recover my roots and to strengthen my identity, acknowledging the external and internalized oppression, as we in Kaqla say. That is what we are doing, trying to build ourselves as political subjects, with personal leadership as a step to be able to do it at the collective level.