Politics of Indigeneity in El Salvador

An interview with Hector Callejas, PhD candidate in Ethnic Studies, UC Berkeley

In this episode of the Matrix podcast, Julia Sizek, PhD candidate in anthropology at UC Berkeley, interviews Hector Callejas, a PhD candidate in Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley and a 2021-2022 ACLS/Mellon Dissertation Completion fellow.

Callejas specializes in Native American and Indigenous studies and Latin American studies. He researches and teaches on the relationship between Indigeneity, race, space, and power in the Americas. His dissertation theorizes the territorial turn in Latin America from a settler colonial perspective. It draws on extensive ethnographic and archival research on transnational Indigenous politics in contemporary El Salvador.

In the podcast, Sizek and Callejas discuss his research and how Indigeneity is understood in El Salvador, as well as contemporary Indigenous movements in El Salvador.

Produced by the University of California, Berkeley’s Social Science Matrix, the Matrix Podcast features interviews with scholars from across the UC Berkeley campus. Listen to other episodes here. You can also listen on Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.



Podcast Transcript


Woman’s Voice: The Matrix Podcast is a production of Social Science Matrix, an interdisciplinary research center at the University of California, Berkeley.

Julia Sizek: Hello, everyone and welcome to the Social Science Matrix podcast. I’m Julia Sizek, your host. Today, we’re excited to have Hector Callejas, a PhD candidate in ethnic studies and a 2021/2022 ACLS Mellon dissertation completion fellow. His research focuses on Indigenous politics and contemporary El Salvador. And he theorizes settler colonialism as a hemispheric structure. So thank you so much for coming today.

Hector Callejas: Thank you for having me.

Sizek: So let’s just get started by talking a little bit about the larger scope of your work, which is to say that much of your work focuses on the politics of history, the big scope of how we think about the history of El Salvador versus the history of other places in Latin and South America. How did you become interested in thinking specifically about this topic and also in the role that indigeneity has to play in understanding the history of El Salvador?

Callejas: Sure, yeah, that’s a great question. So basically, the origins of this research project on Indigenous politics in El Salvador is very much rooted in my own personal identity as a Salvadoran/Guatemalan American. Of course, I’m Latino. I was born and raised in Sacramento, California.

But very much of my Latino identity, I’ve always thought about it in terms of being a mixed race person and as part of that identity, that mixed race identity that has to do with mixture with Indigenous peoples, as well as mixture with European heritage. So going to El Salvador, my motherland, my mom’s homeland and trying to learn more about what Indigenous identity means there to the people who live there, that very much motivated my desire to turn this into a research project. In fact, it was very much– I think this started out as like an undergrad paper that I wrote for one of my ethnic studies classes, also here at Cal that just eventually morphed into the research project, as I’m thinking about it today.

Sizek: So how did you get started on the ground? What sort of things were you initially doing when you first went to El Salvador as a research project rather than as a time to visit family?

Callejas: Yeah, so my introduction, I guess or my point of entry into the field of national Indigenous politics in Salvador– I say national, but it’s very much a transnational phenomenon. But my entry was through a Salvadoran student group, student organization here on campus. It’s called La Union Salvadorena de Estudiantes Universitarios.

This is a student group with many different chapters at different public universities on campus. And it was through this network of Salvy student organizations that I was eventually connected to a grassroots Indigenous leader, Indigenous organization in Salvador. That leader actually came. He actually was invited by the UCLA chapter to give a talk at UCLA on Indigenous rights and activism in Salvador.

So basically, I showed up to this talk and I was like, hey, this is really cool. I want to get to learn more about what you’re working on and your activism back in El Salvador. And the timing worked out well for me because at that point, when I did this, I think I was in my third year of my undergraduate program. So immediately afterward, this talk was in May, in June, I was like, when you’re an undergrad– when I was an undergrad, I was like, I want to learn things. I want to learn them now.

So I met this activist in May, and in June and July, I basically got to live with him in his home with his family in El Salvador. And I got to follow him around as he went to these different Indigenous policy-making meetings at different national government agencies in the capital city. And I also got a sense of what kind of Indigenous activism he promoted on the ground in his community.

And it was through that relationship, that experience of living with an Indigenous activist and following this Indigenous activist as he tried to advocate for his community needs with different stakeholders in the national government that I was introduced to this world. And that’s the basis of my dissertation project.

Sizek: Great. I mean, it sounds like you have so much experience working in this field. And one thing that our listeners might be interested in knowing is trying to understand all of these different categories, some of which you’ve already mentioned. So for example, you’ve talked a little bit about how you identify as a mixed race person.

And so what does that category mean, especially in terms of Salvadoran politics? So there in your dissertation, you mentioned all these categories, not only the category of mestizaje or being mestizo, but also the category of Indigenous or being an originario.

Callejas: Yeah, no, that’s a great question. So I guess before I get into the explanation, I just want to say that the way that Latin American countries, including in Salvador, have understood and conceptualized and institutionalized, legislated and defined through policy race has been– racial identity has been very different than how we in the United States understand racial categories. So in the specific case of El Salvador, mestizo, what it means in Spanish is a person of mixed race heritage, specifically racial mixture of European and Indigenous heritages.

This identity, mestizo, was part of a broader nation building project called mestizaje that the Salvadoran national government or rather, specific agencies within the national government promoted to define the Salvadoran identity during the 20th century. And of course, mestizaje in El Salvador was very much part of a broader regional project throughout Latin America of all these different national governments, all these different national actors within different Latin American countries trying to construct and create these mixed race national identities. So the reason why I spent time giving you some background on mestizo and mestizaje is because in Salvador, like many other Latin American countries, have historically defined mestizo, so mixed race or mixed race person, in relation to and in opposition to an Indigenous person.

So even though mestizaje claims Indigenous identity, they claim it in such a way that differentiates the mestizo from the Indigenous person. So in Salvador, historically, the categories that have been used or the identities that have been used to refer to someone who is Indigenous and Indigenous person have been ordinario, natural, as well as indio. The last one, Indian, indio has a very pejorative meaning in everyday Spanish in El Salvador.

These identities, oh man, they have not– so in terms of the history of these identities in El Salvador, these Indigenous identities, the national government actually– as part of the Salvadoran nation building project of mestizaje, for many decades during the mid-20th century, the national government was like, we don’t really care too much about Indigenous peoples in El Salvador. The only attention that they gave to them was through national heritage and national culture. That was the extent to which the national government was willing to give Indigenous peoples any specific attention to their Indigenous identity within the realm of national law and policy.

Sizek: Great. So for part of your dissertation research, one of the things that you actually did is you worked with groups that were participating in this heritage field, doing a cultural tourism. What sort of work were you doing with them? And how does that fall under the auspices of this government recognition only through tourism or through heritage, rather than through land, which we’ll get to later?

Callejas: Yeah, that’s a great question. So yeah, as you’ve mentioned, the national government of Salvador, it wasn’t until 2014 that the legislative assembly was like, OK, we’re going to give constitutional recognition to the existence of Indigenous peoples in El Salvador. Prior to that, the national government didn’t give formal legal recognition.

It did give some recognition and some very limited cultural forms through national policy. But 2014 was when we see, OK, the national government has legalized the category of Indigenous or Indigenous identity. This form of legal recognition has been very limited.

I don’t want to talk about land right now. We can talk about it in a little bit. But this recognition has been very much in terms of national culture, multiculturalism. So mestizaje, we could say, was a nation building project that the national government promoted during much of the 20th century.

And multiculturalism is now the nation building project that the national government is promoting. So part of this project or an important feature of this new multicultural project has been basically saying that Indigenous peoples exist in El Salvador after nearly a century of saying that they no longer existed under mestizaje. And in order to prove this existence or in order to define or articulate this existence, the national government has very much focused on the cultural dimension of contemporary Indigenous identity with regard to the field of heritage, welfare, and visibility.

So I guess one of the– so I should also mention that, today, the national government entity responsible for Indigenous policy in El Salvador is the ministry of culture to give you a sense of the strong cultural emphasis that the national government is giving to contemporary Indigenous identity. And one of– at least for me, one of the most visible or high priority cultural expressions of contemporary Indigenous identity as it’s being promoted by the ministry of culture is Indigenous tourism or Indigenous tourism development. So El Salvador has a national tourism program that’s administered by the ministry of tourism.

This program is called pueblos vivos. Pueblos vivos, so like living towns, living peoples. But basically, the purpose of this program is to get people who live in urban centers, so like the capital city, the city of Santa Ana, the city of San Miguel, try to get these urban peoples out to visit and spend their money in these small towns in the countryside, smaller pueblos, small towns, small communities. The main attraction or one of the main attractions of this program is culture, heritage.

And that’s where indigeneity comes in. At least indigeneity, as the ministry of culture is trying to implement it through national policy. The ministry of culture and the ministry of tourism in the past decade more or less, they’ve identified a few municipalities, a few municipalities in the countryside, small towns that they’ve basically said, Indigenous peoples live here.

And they’ve been trying to– not just them, not just these national actors but also these national actors in collaboration with local actors. So the mayor, the director of the casa de la cultura, casa de la cultura being like a cultural community center run by the ministry of culture, as well as other local actors and stakeholders have been trying to define like, OK, what does Indigenous identity look like within the specific town? And what kind of tourism activities can we develop around this kind of Indigenous identity that we’re rescuing or we’re promoting?

Sizek: So what are some of– if you were to go to one of these towns, what would the activities be that you would do? Like, what would be an example of a town? Like, what sort of crafts might they have or activities might they have that they’re trying to encourage these people from urban centers to go experience in the countryside?

Callejas: Yeah, experience and consume. Because at the end of the day, they want urban people to spend their money in these local economies, these local municipal economies. But OK, so my first introduction to Indigenous tourism development was, again, with that Indigenous activist that I lived with.

At the time that I was living with him and his family, he worked closely with an Indigenous handicraft collective, also located in his town. So on some days when– there were some days when I followed him to these government meetings in San Salvador. And on days that these meetings weren’t happening, I hung out a lot with the Indigenous handicraft collective.

Yeah, I got to see how– I was very much interested in seeing how they made their local handicrafts, their local products at that specific site. The town that I was in was called Nahuizalco. Nahuizalco there, the handicraft promoted products made of natural fibers.

So let me think. Tula was one of them. All different kinds of fibers that could be harvested locally within the canton. The cantons are the rural districts that surround the urban core of Nahuizalco.

So that was my initial exposure to Indigenous tourism with that Indigenous activist. This was, I think, in 2013, back when I was an undergrad during, let’s see, between January 2019 and March 2020. I didn’t live with the Indigenous activist, but I did return to Nahuizalco. And I also started to visit a neighboring municipality called Izalco.

So Izalco and Nahuizalco, neighboring municipalities in the Salvadoran countryside in the zone or the region called El Occidente or the West. So in Nahuizalco, Indigenous tourism was very much focused on handicrafts. There was also some other activities that were promoted, usually fiestas around religious holidays that are organized either by the local municipal government or by the cofradias.

The cofradias being these Catholic brotherhoods, these popular– yeah, cofradias are super fascinating. They’re these popular organizations, so these organizations led by laypeople in collaboration with the local Catholic parish, who are just responsible for organizing and hosting, putting on all these really elaborate displays of popular religiosity. So now Izalco, we saw handicrafts and these cofradia fiestas.

And in Izalco was just pure– yeah, it was like pure cofradia fiestas. There was also handicrafts, but we could say that it was– the emphasis was switched between Izalco and Nahuizalco. Izalco was all about the cofradias, whereas Nahuizalco was very much about the handicrafts.

Sizek: Yeah, that’s really interesting to hear about, I mean, both in terms of how the national government thinks that they’re going to market indigeneity as becoming this new category, where urban folks can spend their money in the countryside, therefore propping up these economies and making them more sustainable. But it also gets back to this, I think, one of the big questions of your research, which is this issue around land and the history of land in El Salvador. And I guess, more specifically, how the categories that we’ve already talked about of mestizo and of originario, that both of these categories imply different relationships to the land, both legally and in terms of contemporary rights. So can you just tell us a little bit about the history of who gets to own land and why in El Salvador?

Callejas: That’s a great question. That question is at the heart of all Indigenous studies. A lot of scholarship in Native American Indigenous studies are very much focused on the relationship, the historical relationship between Indigenous peoples and the land. Man, so in El Salvador, initially– so let’s see, how should I phrase this?

Indigenous peoples in El Salvador, one of the things that make them unique among other Indigenous peoples in Central America, as well as in Latin America, is that they do not have any form of land tenure or land rights that are specific to them as Indigenous peoples. So usually, yeah, I mean, for the past what, three decades in the region, national governments have given partial state recognition to Indigenous communities or other subnational, Indigenous, socio-territorial formations. National governments have recognized Indigenous people’s partial rights to land, territory, political autonomy.

But in El Salvador, they don’t have that. Let’s see. In many Latin American countries, the way that we understand Indigenous territory and Indigenous land rights are based in or are in reference to collective land rights that were defined and operationalized during the Spanish colonial period. So in El Salvador, the national government, after it had achieved national independence first from Spain and later from Mexico, later from Central America, the national government in Salvador had also inherited collected land rights.

And these collected land rights were used by ordinario communities. But the national government did away with collective land rights at the end of the 19th century. And yeah, it was at the end of the 19th century.

And this was the last– in many other Latin American countries, there has been– these collective land rights have existed in some form for Indigenous peoples. But this didn’t happen in El Salvador. They didn’t continue to exist.

Collective land rights did not continue to exist within national law after, I think, it was the 1880s, 1880 to 1881. So Indigenous peoples lost their collective land rights in El Salvador at the end of the 20th century– oh sorry, at the end of the 19th century. Much of the early 20th century and mid-20th century– early 20th century was when we saw a lot of land privatization happening.

So the national government was basically like, OK, we want to promote private property as a form of land tenure throughout the entire national territory. We want to do this because we want to achieve or promote some sort of capitalist development. This kind of development that we want, we want it to be based on coffee.

Well, collective land tenure is not good for coffee cultivation. So in order to free up more land for coffee cultivation, we’re going to get rid of and privatize all that collective land because that collective land is very fertile. And it would be great for growing coffee.

So using this rationale or logic, the national government outlawed collective land tenure at the end of the 19th century in the national government. So it was a legislative assembly and the presidential administration, different legislative assemblies of different presidential administrations. And they basically tasked local communities and municipal governments to be in charge of privatizing all these formerly collective lands.

This process, I think, was supposed to be finished officially in 10 years of land privatization. But I think it extended into the early 20th century. But the point is, is that, eventually, our collective lands were privatized within the entire national territory. No part of the national territory remained or maintained collective land tenure.

And the reason why this matters is because– so this happened– Let’s see, land was privatized, fully privatized by the early 20th century. It wasn’t until what? The 1980s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, that transnational Indigenous movements had started to emerge and not just in Latin America, but also in North America, Oceania, Africa, Southeast Asia.

And one of the primary Indigenous rights, or one of the primary emphases focuses– one of the primary focuses of these transnational Indigenous movements have been about defining Indigenous peoples rights to land. The way that many Latin American governments have responded to these international Indigenous movements to this global proliferation of Indigenous rights to land, territory autonomy has been to give Indigenous communities partial control over their communal lands or their collective lands. So we’ve seen this happening in countries that neighbor El Salvador, like Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, Mexico, Costa Rica.

But we haven’t seen this happen in El Salvador for the past, let’s see, since the 1990s. So since the end of the Salvadoran civil war. The national government has been slowly been increasingly invested in developing some sort of national policy on Indigenous peoples.

And at different points in this very recent history, different national actors have been very explicit about not creating collective land rights specific to Indigenous peoples. So as of now, Indigenous identity in El Salvador is not tied to land. At least, it’s not– it is tied to land, but it’s not given a form of land tenure that is specific to Indigenous peoples, which makes El Salvador very different from its neighboring Latin American countries.

Sizek: Yeah, so I mean, the fact that it is so different in that– in many ways, El Salvador shares common histories with a lot of the neighboring region. Obviously, coffee cultivation is not unique. So what do you think that this different set of histories, what can this tell us as social scientists who are interested in understanding what indigeneity means?

I mean, the historical sedimentation of all these differences obviously has accumulated to mean a very specific set of things are happening in El Salvador versus elsewhere. But what does this tell us about the politics of indigeneity today?

Callejas: I’m still working that out. That’s like the so what of my dissertation. I’ll have that figured out and very soon, as I work on my job market applications. But for me– so you’re right, coffee cultivation is very common in Central America, for example. So El Salvador isn’t unique in that sense.

But what I think– I guess the lesson or what El Salvador teaches us about Indigenous identity and politics in Latin America, I think it reveals something about the nature of colonialism in the region. So not to get too caught up in how different scholars or theorists have talked about colonialism in Central America. But I’m very much interested in trying to analyze and understand El Salvador in terms of settler colonialism.

And I see El Salvador as a pretty good case that can teach us something about where Indigenous territories are allowed to emerge today in Latin America. Does that make sense? So we could say that in the past two decades, Indigenous territories have emerged as a result of these transnational Indigenous movements, as a result of these local Indigenous communities struggling for territory.

But we haven’t seen that process of emergence of Indigenous territory in El Salvador. So I want to try to– I want to take that uniqueness of El Salvador and try to see if I can make some sort of generalization about this broader territorial turn in Latin America.

Sizek: Yeah, that sounds really interesting. And I’m looking forward to seeing you in the near future. This also brings us to this question of the stakes of settler colonialism as a specific form of colonialism and why you decided that this was an important term for your own research.

Oftentimes, when people talk about settler colonialism, they’re referring to the United states, Canada, actually, a lot of the anglophone world. And so what made you think that settler colonialism was a good term to describe what’s happening in El Salvador? And what are the stakes of using this term to describe what’s happening there?

Callejas: Yeah, so settler colonialism, as you said, it’s a specific form of colonization. It’s ongoing. I guess two main points that Native American and Indigenous studies scholars like to emphasize about settler colonialism is that it’s a structure, not an event. Meaning that even though these– even though national countries have claimed formal independence from their former colonizing imperial homeland, they’ve nevertheless maintain a social structure that is colonial in nature. So that’s the first point.

And the second point is that, I guess, one of the key drivers or endeavors of settler colonialism is to eliminate Indigenous peoples and Indigenous territories as an obstacle to the settler possession and development of land. So in terms of, why did I choose settler colonialism for El Salvador? Well, I mean a big part of it had to do with that I just wasn’t finding literature in Latin American studies that talked about colonialism in a way that was helpful to understand El Salvador.

Much of the literature talks about coloniality, drawing on postcolonial and decolonial theory. And all that scholarship is great. It’s very useful. It explains a lot of interesting facets and dimensions of contemporary Indigenous politics with regard to land and territory in Latin America.

But the way that these theories had been– I guess, these theories had been theorized, have been developed, they just weren’t able to make much sense of El Salvador. Like, a lot of scholars who were invested in the kind of questions that are being centered through postcolonialism and decolonial theory, they just didn’t really give much attention to El Salvador, which made me look elsewhere for a theoretical framework that could. So I’m in ethnic studies. I’m a PhD candidate in ethnic studies.

I specialize in Native American studies. And in Native American studies, we very much draw on settler colonialism as a theoretical framework. So I was able to take that theory of settler colonialism and try to see like, OK, what sense can I make of El Salvador?

And I found settler colonialism’s emphasis on Indigenous erasure from national territory to be a very productive lens for thinking about El Salvador because at some point, I think by the 1990s, it was common knowledge in El Salvador that Indigenous peoples didn’t exist. Which to me was like, wow, that’s totally like settler colonialism to completely erase or claim to erase the social existence of Indigenous peoples. And yeah, the second part– yeah.

Sizek: So I think– I mean, one of the really interesting things is this actually brings us back to what we were discussing at the beginning and this question of how Indigenous peoples are becoming much more prominent in Salvadoran politics, as well as in terms of these tourism programs. So what do you see as like the movements for Indigenous peoples in El Salvador today? Like, what direction do you think things are headed in?

Callejas: So future directions, well, as of now, I think the future direction made possible through law, through national law is heritage and culture. As limited as that is, that’s just the terms through which the national legislative assembly or different legislative assemblies have been willing to grant formal state recognition of Indigenous peoples. There have been talks within different national government agencies about the possibility of establishing, of ratifying ILO convention 169.

The interesting thing about that is that ILO convention 169, for those of you– for those who are unfamiliar, it’s an international legal instrument that is recognized by many countries in Latin America. And this instrument is very much– Indigenous rights to land and territory are very much at the center of the ILO convention. 169. So in Salvador, the national government has been unwilling to ratify this international treaty, since this treaty was passed in 1989.

But there have been talks in the past decade of possible ratification and what the legalization of ILO 169 means for Indigenous politics and rights in El Salvador. And whether that could mean the recreation of some sort of collective land rights and maybe the possible emergence of Indigenous territory in Salvador remains to be seen.

Sizek: Thank you so much for coming in today. It was really interesting to learn more about your work. Thank you.

Callejas: Thanks for having me.

Woman’s Voice: Thank you for listening. To learn more about social science matrix, please visit matrix.berkeley.edu.



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