Latin America is a diverse region. Home to more than 650 million people, and 33 nations, it is a place of stunning beauty and confronting contrasts. My earliest visit to Spanish-speaking Latin America was in 2007, as an undergraduate student on a semester exchange in bucolic Cuernavaca, Mexico. The small city, 1.5 hours south of the sprawling Mexico City, was home to conquistador Hernan Cortes in the 1520s when he began setting up the colonial Spanish presence in Mexico, but Cuernavaca has been home for various indigenous communities since at least the 12th Century. Walking around the city in 2007, the highlights included Cortes’ Palace, the beautiful lake and garden grounds of Jardin Borda, and of course, the Cathedral. I spent hours reading and practicing my Spanish verbs on the sunny benches in Jardin Borda, snacking on chili-covered broad beans and horchata. The joys of being an exchange student mean you are literally given a new country as a textbook, and told ‘go out, learn it.’ The people of Cuernavaca have long been kind hosts to the hundreds of North American and European youth who flood their cobblestone streets year after year, and I was fortunate to benefit from their hospitality on numerous occasions. My take-aways from the “cultural highlights” tours were largely that the Spanish colonizers encountered a docile, uninterested local indigenous population that lacked education and business acumen. The Palace, the Cathedral, even my favourite gardens, were all symbols of enlightened progress that the Spanish generously erected for the locals, and themselves. They built these beautiful buildings because there was nothing there before was the general gist of the story I was told, and look, how beautiful those buildings are!
My favourite class that semester – “Latin American Anthropology and Indigenous Worldviews” – told me a different story. The course was taught by a spritely Mexican anthropologist with a big van and permits from the National Anthropology Institute to enter sacred and preserved sites. During my six months, we went to over 20 local indigenous settlement sites, burial grounds, ceremonial centres and nature reserves. Learning about the indigenous civilizations of the area – predominantly the Tlahuica and Aztec peoples – I started to view the land differently. The location of the river, now mostly dried up, seemed to be a clear meeting place and gathering spot for farmers to market their crops and share information. I also soon learned about the city’s best kept secret: the Museum of Traditional Medicine. Today, the Museum holds a vast collection of ethnobotanical exhibits and information, as well as regular workshops on themes such as soap making and using local plants to produce natural dyes. This knowledge – how to live in balance with your surroundings, responsibly use the natural resources available to you, build systems and processes that generate enough, not excess – is timeless, and what the world needs to learn more of today. It is the knowledge that you get from living in a place for many years, from learning from the land and knowing its cycles and patterns. It is not the knowledge of extract and move-on. It is the wisdom of observe, harvest, share and repeat. Traditional knowledge systems and practices are at the forefront of what we promote at Florezca, through our focus on ancestral weaving techniques and sustainably sourced materials. I believe it is important to raise awareness about the diverse traditional production methods like weaving and plant-based dying that are active and prevalent today, perfectly positioned to help us evolve away from fast fashion and mass production and towards ecologically sustainable clothing and lifestyles.
Indigenous-led tourism is an opportunity for us to connect to this movement as well, albeit with greater intention and meaning. A lot of times, tourism can bring to mind pictures of white-sand beaches, zip-lines and walking tours though old city centres to monuments and plazas named after old white men. But indigenous-led tourism is a completely different experience, one that offers travellers a deeper connection to a place and way of life different from their own. Indigenous tour operators offer you the opportunity to experience how indigenous peoples actively sustain and protect their culture and values up close.
I am so pleased to participate in an upcoming webinar, organized by Latincouver, and part of their annual Carnaval del Sol Festival, focused specifically on Indigenous tourism in Latin America. We will speak with five different female indigenous tourism operators from Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala and Canada about their tour offerings, the cultural components of their work, and how tourism can be a powerful driver of indigenous economic development and cultural protection.
It’s not every day that you get to speak to leaders in their field, people with a vision who have stuck to it, despite the hard times and challenges because they know the value in what they are doing. It is also rare to connect with five leaders from Latin America who represent the next wave of tourism in a place home to many languages, traditions, and world views.
As the moderator of the event, I am most interested in hearing what the North American webinar participants are looking for and interested in learning about indigenous Latin American societies and how we as Canadians can promote and seek out indigenous-led tourism and travel experiences in our own backyard.
The free webinar will be held on Zoom this Saturday, July 25th at 10am. Register here: http://www.carnavaldelsol.ca/indigenous-territories/