Indigenous youth facing COVID-19: Pride and community organizing

By Global Fund for Children | July 15, 2020 | The Americas | Youth Empowerment

Editor’s note: This blog was written by Johanna López, a leader at Colectivo Vida Digna, a GFC partner in Guatemala. This post is also available in Spanish.

My name is Johanna López. I am from an Indigenous community called San Juan Ostuncalco, in the department of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. In my Mayan Mam language, the name of my town is Oxe Tun Kal, which means “Hill of the Three Drums,” because it is surrounded by mountains that greet you as soon as you arrive. Every time I see those beautiful mountains, I feel at home.

From the time I was very young, my father taught me to be proud of who I am, to cultivate and honor my roots. He told me, “The richness of Mayan spirituality is alive, and it is up to all of us, especially young people, to continue cultivating our history.” I never forgot those words.

Johanna and the young women of the lx Kame School for indigenous women. © Vida Digna

My father has always been a leader. I grew up watching him talk to our neighbors, trying to organize our people so that we learned how to take action collectively. So we could feel the power of working and living as a community.

From a very young age, I wanted to follow in his footsteps. I have been talking to young people and sharing our Mayan knowledge so that they will feel proud of their culture. Of that universe that we are a part of.

It has not been easy. If you are an Indigenous woman and you are young, many think you do not know anything. But with work, with my words, and with daily efforts, I have shown them that I’m strong. That my grandmothers’ blood and all of my ancestors’ knowledge run through my veins. And in that way, I feel connected with who I am and with the world.

A few years ago, I was invited to a youth cultural empowerment workshop taught by an organization called Colectivo Vida Digna. I had never heard of them, but I felt they were something my heart was looking for. I was not mistaken. It was as if a light ignited within me.

Johanna and the team of Colectivo Vida Digna. © Vida Digna

I remember that they told us, “Many young people forget their heritage. They feel ashamed of their culture and deny the knowledge of their mothers and grandmothers, of their fathers and grandfathers. So when they migrate to the cities, they feel lost. They don’t know who they are. It is important to recover and reinforce our Mayan identity and to draw power from what we are and from what we want to be. Our spirituality is our strength.”

Since that day, I have not left the organization. After much learning and many paths taken, I am currently part of the Board of Directors. Moreover, I take the message of Vida Digna to other spaces, to other organizations, so that our mission and our voice can grow stronger.

We work in various areas: the recovery of ancestral knowledge, such as weaving and handicrafts; the study of the Mayan calendar, which allows us to connect with the earth, the environment, and the universe; community economic projects; support for returned young migrants to strengthen their sense of belonging; and the Ix Kame Learning House project, which seeks to recognize the strength of Mayan women affected by migration.

Workshop on Participatory Methodologies for Vida Digna facilitated by GFC's staff. © GFC

The COVID-19 pandemic and the accompanying travel restrictions have seriously affected Guatemala’s Indigenous communities. Unable to sell their products and having lost their sources of employment, many families have been struggling to survive. At Vida Digna, we started to carry prevention kits and healthy food supplies so that our families and communities could meet their most basic needs. This was just the first step.

In addition, we work to strengthen the sense of community belonging by offering COVID-19 prevention workshops and developing community economic projects to support the production of family gardens. In this way, our communities will have access to quality food; one of the most important elements of our culture (agriculture and knowledge of the land) will be recovered; and families will not depend on external markets to have a dignified life.

We are currently running the #CanastasDignas fundraising campaign, bringing healthy food to communities while supporting local merchants who have been affected by the pandemic, offering them fair prices. You can learn more about our campaign here.

We don’t want to go back to normal; we deserve better. The pandemic has changed many things, but our dreams remain intact. That is the lesson we have learned.

We fight not for survival but for the integral wellbeing of Indigenous communities, where young people can develop their full potential, have access to quality jobs, and feel proud of their culture. We want them to never forget where they come from, even if they have to leave the community to pursue their dreams.

We are confident that this crisis will make us stronger and wiser. As an Indigenous woman, this pandemic reminds me of the responsibility that we as young people have to raise our voices and change the world. Step by step. House by house. Community by community.

The answers we are looking for are within us, in our culture. That is our starting point to connect with the universe.

And we will continue walking. Together.

Slowly. But we will keep moving.

Thank you very much for your support.



Colectivo Vida Digna is a Mayan organization in the western highlands of Guatemala dedicated to affirming Indigenous identities. Vida Digna supports young people, women, and families from the countryside to fulfill their potential and to support the growth of their communities. Vida Digna focuses on two principal areas: migration and culture. Since 2010, Vida Digna has worked with young people affected by migration. In particular, Vida Digna focuses on serving young unaccompanied migrants who have been detained in the US and Mexico and are returning to Guatemala. In 2013, Vida Digna expanded its services to include transnational advocacy, scholarly research, and strengthening US-Guatemala partnerships. Vida Digna is part of the Adolescent Girls and Migration Project, protecting the safety and rights of adolescent migrant girls in Guatemala, Mexico, and the United States.

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