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From slavery to government

ASUNCION, Paraguay – Between 1954 and 1989, during the reign of Paraguay’s former President Alfredo Stroessner, many indigenous children were kidnapped and sold into slavery as domestics to rich households. One of these lost children, however, regained her freedom, became a leader of her people and ran for the Senate. She now holds a cabinet-level position in the government of newly elected President Fernando Lugo.

Ache Guayaki Chief Margarita Mbywangi was named Minister of Indigenous Affairs of Paraguay Aug. 19 by Lugo. She will also serve as director of the Indigenous Institute, charged with working on policy and distributing funding for programs for the more than 85,000 Native people of Paraguay.

Mbywangi, 46, is the first indigenous person to hold this cabinet-level position in a country where many Native people live in severe poverty. The poverty rate for the entire nation has been estimated at being as high as 35 percent; for indigenous people, it is even higher.

The newly appointed minister spoke about her struggle against poverty and repression at press events in the week after her nomination.

“My people were massacred,” she recounted. “The whites killed my parents and delivered me to a family when I was 4 years old.”

Like many other indigenous who recalled similar situations in this summer’s Truth and Justice Commission hearings, she went to work and was sold to various households over the years. She emphasized that the best thing that happened to her during that time was she went to school and that she now knows “how to read and write … I speak three languages: Ache, Guarani and Spanish.” But before she started her education, Mbywangi didn’t even know about her own background.

“After a while, when I was growing up, my owners told me I was indigenous. I didn’t know the meaning of the word, but after reading and reading I learned that I was a daughter of the land, a daughter of the forest, a daughter of the history of this country.

“Today I have no rancor because thanks to them, I was able to learn how to read and write and know a different world.”

That different world included reconnecting with her people, the Ache Guayaki community that resides in the northeast near the border with Brazil. She was 20 years old when she went back and quickly began to work on behalf of her beleaguered community.

After 25 years of activism and raising a family, Mbywangi was then chosen to run for Senate earlier this year. She was a member of the Tekojoja Popular Movement (MPT), one of the groups affiliated with the Patriotic Alliance for Change (APC), the coalition that backed Lugo, a former Catholic bishop, in his successful bid for the presidency.

In the next five years as minister, Mbywangi noted that there will be “so many challenges” she will be addressing on behalf of Native peoples. The list includes recuperation of the land, stopping the use of toxic fertilizers in large soy operations “that are tossing us into the mountains” and poisoning food and water, dealing with hunger and droughts, respiratory illnesses in children, the need for agricultural resources and the lack of seeds, the absence of medicines, and the opening of markets for indigenous people to sell their products.

One of her priorities will also be education, she explained, as she is finishing her high school classes as well. In a press statement, Mbywangi said that she works for the government during the day, then goes to classes and then goes home to be with her three daughters.

The new minister acknowledged that getting more indigenous children and adults into school will be one of her more difficult tasks, and that that issue is connected to fighting against discrimination and negative stereotypes.

“You know what they say here? That the indigenous are lazy drunks. I know that isn’t true, but to change that image involves ending discrimination.”

“Our children only get to stay in school until the sixth grade,” Mbywangi continued. “They never have given us opportunities to get to the university. We need grants and support.”

Along with discussing past injustices and obstacles, the new minister said she would like to push forward a new indigenous political trend “where the Indians are agents of change, not objects of pity, ridicule and discrimination.”

She is urging Native communities to “fight marginalization and injustice.”

“Enough with the handouts. Today a road is opened that will lead us to recover our dignity that was stolen from us 500 years ago.”