“Down with prisons, jails, and borders. Anti-colonial resistance in the barrios and villages.” With these powerful words and to the beat of rap music, Leafrox launched the virtual conversation “Disruptive Notions: Intersectionality and Decoloniality in Central America,” which was promoted by FCAM as part of the planned activities for their twentieth anniversary.
The participants were Maya K’iche’ artivist Camile Juárez, human rights defender Misael Molina (both from Guatemala), and Leafrox, an Afro-indigenous Honduran and anti-racist writer. The conversation was moderated by the feminist journalist Catalina Ruiz-Navarro. In this post, you’ll find definitions relating to intersectional and decolonial theory but, above all, disruptive reflections from the perspectives of the three young activists.
More praxis than theory: The origins and future of intersectionality
To start the conversation, we asked participants what the pros and cons of an intersectional, decolonial framework were when analyzing the Central American contexts.
Camile began by tracing the origins of the term “intersectionality” as an analysis category to the late 1980s, when Black U.S. American legal scholar and anti-racist author Kimberlé Crenshaw coined it to describe a phenomenon whereby individuals suffer oppression or enjoy privileges based on their belonging to multiple social categories.
The Guatemalan activist recalled that this concept was created to serve the search for justice by addressing the need to categorize oppressive situations experienced by Black and racialized women in the United States, which entailed naming the multiple oppressions and unequal conditions they faced. Camile’s take is shared by Ana Montanaro in her book Una mirada al feminismo decolonial en América Latina, which highlights Crenshaw’s contributions: the law’s omission of Black women is an erasure mechanism. Intersectionality reveals what is erased when categories such as gender and race are conceptualized as separate from each other.
Camile situates this analysis it in the Central American context and explains the complexities of using an intersectional framework in Guatemala: “In my opinion, intersectionality goes beyond theory. It is a practice based on people’s experiences, which is why it fluctuates, One’s needs are not the same when one’s young as when one is older and has a chronic illness, for example. Living conditions may also change and develop in very different ways throughout a person’s life, both individually and collectively. Moreover, there are cultural and social implications that affect one’s quality of life.” Camile also added: “I think it’s necessary to analyze people’s interpretations of this framework. In recent years, [intersectionality] has gained a lot of traction among organizations, but it can be a very dangerous word because saying “intersectionality” doesn’t necessarily mean an intersectional analysis is taking place, and these different layers [of oppression] under which each person or group develops could continue to go unacknowledged.
The Guatemalan activist clarified that, although she recognizes the concept’s origin and importance, she still finds it uncomfortable because she has become aware of its “objectification,” which has led her to conclude that “intersectionality shouldn’t only be a tool to name systems of oppression; instead, it should center diversity and embrace it, and, above, it should be used to develop practices that mitigate inequality.”
For his part, Misael stressed that “it is not a contest about who is more oppressed, or how we stack systems of oppression. It is about acknowledging that every person moves through different realities; it is about knowing we have differentiated needs and figuring out how to best guarantee human rights at the community and territory level, moving away from racism and classism, which continue to play a role in different contexts.”
Leafrox, for their part, recognized that, although these are academic terms, intersectionality is a necessary anti-racist reading that helps us see more comprehensively the systems of oppression that affect our bodies, for example, racism, patriarchy, fatphobia classism, and all those layers of violence that are interconnected. They added: “I think this concept is helpful in that it leads us to question outwards, but also it helps us to see inward. It’s important to not only to see ourselves as victims but also as perpetrators. Because we inhabit these systems, we have internalized and normalized violence, so we also exert violence on other people.”
The critiques offered by the panelists in Guatemala echoed the opinions of people consulted by the Colombian organization Sentiido in 2021, who expressed caution regarding the concept. “Although an intersectional approach is important because it opens up new parameters for research by acknowledging the particularities of specific populations, the way that is now commonly used has become a cataloging of differences, an enumeration of identities that generates fragmentation because it doesn’t name those who perpetrate and benefit from these categories and therefore loses sight of the joint struggle for common goals. In addition, the original concept has been so watered down that its current iteration ignores the historical, social, and political consequences of the hierarchies imposed by the racial and class categories, which have become mere identity labels as opposed to categories of oppression that allow us listening to the voices of the people most affected by them.”
The “other”: Distinct people in distinct territories
At the turn of the century, new feminist lines of inquiry emerged in Latin America, including decolonial analysis. For Montanaro Mena, postcolonial feminisms “generate new reflections, meanings, symbols, discourses, theories, and feminist praxis, providing new analytical tools—theoretical categories aimed at showing broader, more complex and critical visions coming from the diversity of the “other” women who move in political, economic, social, and cultural contexts where new forms of coloniality are present. In her book, she defines postcolonial feminisms as those that establish a set of feminist contributions from the Global South that are geographically scattered but situate themselves in specific geographies and territories. [In addition,] they put forth various arguments about coloniality and decoloniality, assume new challenges and incorporate new subjects that have been silenced and excluded by hegemonic feminism. [These subjects] aim to denounce, from the periphery of knowledge, the Eurocentric, ethnocentric, and universalizing character of the subject of hegemonic feminism and the way in which it reproduces coloniality; [moreover,] they are steadfastly committed to the push to decolonize feminist thought and praxis.
The report by Sentiido also includes a brief section on the concept of decoloniality, which in summary states that “[r]acialization and class are cross-cutting issues in Latin America that account for the social, political, and economic impact of the inequality structures imposed by colonization, which have been perpetuated through coloniality. The category of race, in particular, arose during the colonization process and continues to be used to unequally distribute rights and resources to black and indigenous populations. Hence the importance of a decolonial perspective within the different currents of Latin American transfeminism.”
In 2009, the Dominican feminist Ochy Curiel said: “[I]t is urgent to articulate and transfer this perspective in order to think about how power, race, class, and sexuality relations are expressed in postcolonial contexts; […] although colonialism has changed since the arrival of the European conquerors, coloniality remains rooted in our contexts, in our bodies, in our lives, even in many of the feminist projects. This becomes manifest in ideological, political, and material dependence that is still ingrained in much of the feminist movement, its theories, discourses, and practices, as well as the personal lives of many.”
Regarding this debate, Misael pointed out during the conversation that “[c]olonization, as such, marks our bodies, limits us, and tries to determine what we should feel, how we should identify, how we should name ourselves, even. However, more important than following the rules of the academy when it comes to naming ourselves, what matters is how the decolonization process is put into practice, even in terms of community activism, because many of us are doing it, but we don’t even name it as such. That said, we identify the differentiated needs of each person, each reality, and each context”.
Leafrox referred to decoloniality as an academic concept and pointed out that for their organization, practice comes first because these are concepts that many people in barrios and villages do not have access to, so their anti-colonial practices are based on the community itself organizing—protest as a popular public action that takes place in the territories. [These practices, however,] are not labeled as decolonial, even if they are fundamental.
Decolonial feminism critiques the hegemonic Western feminism that prevails in Latin American institutions and academia, highlighting how many of its categories and practices reproduce racism and the logic of coloniality. Moreover, it contextualizes the multidimensional violence exercised by individuals and States in a context of neoliberal capitalism.
The activist also expressed that we live in a highly racist society, and it is necessary to pick a side, be uncomfortable to others, and not be accomplices to the silencing [of experiences] pushed by whiteness. “As long as we stand on the sidelines, we’ll continue to be complicit in all these violent structures, because racist and colonial structures aren’t merely a kind of oppression; they uphold multiple forms of violence, which we face routinely. I believe that any stand we make will have its advantages and disadvantages—there’s no way around it—but these [political positionings] are necessary readings to be able to build collectively and discard the colonial notion of borders, which doesn’t refer only to physical borders but also discursive ones in terms of actions and the resistance we’re weaving.
Academy-street tensions and transformative actions
During the panel, Leafrox brought up key points regarding the tensions between social movements and academia and said that, although the word tension is very strong, it points to an ongoing issue. “My political interpretation [of the current situation] is that this tension is rooted in epistemic extractivism, but we have resisted ancestrally. The tension is there because the anti-colonial resistance has correctly cited indigenous people as the source of much of the knowledge academia claims as its own, something they refuse to accept to this day. Moreover, [academia] upholds colonial and racist structures by hoarding texts and information that is extracted from indigenous knowledge, from black knowledge, and from the territories. The ivory tower almost never works with the community, but it claims [epistemic authority] over the community. However, things happen on the ground—on the streets, in the barrio—that don’t happen in academia. As such, these actions go beyond the discursive. There are strong political stands that are absent in academy. Academia does not assume an anti-militarist, anti-racist, anti-classist, and anti-patriarchal position because it is part of those system, and it upholds and reifies them while justifying the violence they inflict. Therefore, taking back the streets and turning them into our territory implies a break with the academy, which refuses to abandon its comfort zone.”
Missael believes a transformative scheme by activists could be to continue to support the collective construction of knowledge the reappropriation of academic spaces to include these debates: “We must go to those spaces, bring our identities, our struggles, [and] our names and make ourselves visible because [the insertion of our knowledge in these spaces] must be done in a decolonial way, so they don’t replicate concepts and structures that have been imposed on us. I think that we can recover this space by asking questions, making noise, and generating discomfort. It’s not about fighting with academia; it’s about thinking how we can take over, decolonize it, and turn things on their head.”
“We can take these questions to the streets, to our community activities, to the work we do with local governments, for example, and see how we can continue with this collective construction [of knowledge] and put theory into practice. We can take this academic theory to the community and use it to build something, and we can do it the other way around. Because that space would also allow us to exchange experiences [and] knowledge. That way we can finally see if these kinds of knowledge—born from collective input, born in the streets, and born in academic and thought spaces—can be woven together.”
In connection to these transformative actions, Camile spoke about the young people as a social group that has inherited the streets as public spaces for militancy and about the streets transcending physical space, referring to the internet.
“Young people in Guatemala mobilizes vial social media. Many of them have taken on the task of translating and creating content about concepts that come from academia, but which academia has failed to disseminate. I think this is a great contribution with tremendous value, and it speaks to how we can transform things and they can be put into practice. There are influencers who explain what a certain feminist concept means, why intersectionality is problematic, or why voting is important, etc., and I think it is an extremely valuable action that [these young content creators] are taking this super dense information and transforming into digestible, bite-sized content. These young people are connecting, transforming, and disseminating concepts, which they have studied, understood, and paraphrased for wide consumption. These young internet users have contributed an immense added value.
As the conversation came to an end, Catalina invited us to let our imaginations run wild, to open new paths that help us to resist on a daily basis, and to continue claiming joy without losing our discontent.
Notes from FCAM’s virtual conversation: “Disruptive Notions: Intersectionality and Decoloniality in Central America.”