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Salvadorans take steps to reclaim heritage

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CACAOPERA, El Salvador -- Tucked inside a valley, a one-room building is
quiet in the midweek afternoon sun.

The simple structure of brick and ironwork is set on 11 acres. Most of its
floor space is allocated for a classroom that contains a dozen desks
surrounding a chalkboard. On the wall is a sign, in Spanish, identifying
the mandate of the property: "WINAKA A space for the Kakawira identity with
dignity and development."

The building, a 20-minute walk from the nearby village, is the culmination
of a goal two decades in the making for an indigenous community in a remote
eastern region of El Salvador. Barely acknowledged by its country's history
and, later, severely mistreated during the decade-long civil war that ended
in 1992, this Interpretation Center of the Winakirika Culture is able to
provide the initial steps toward reclaiming the lost heritage and
traditions of these Mayans.

Operating the school and overseeing the building is the community's
spiritual guide, Miguel Angel Amaya y Amaya. Having lived his entire life
in the area, Amaya, 44, understands what decades of cultural genocide by
the government through legislation and police enforcement has done to his
people.

"First place, as to why the slowness for construction is that a lot of
indigenous organizations are considered, like the people, to have left
[-leaning] tendencies and the government doesn't have policies in favor of
indigenous communities," said Amaya.

The town of Cacaopera, population 13,000, is an hour-long bus trip off the
paved highway that winds its way through the mountains. Of the small number
of indigenous people in the country, about 15 percent of Morazan residents
can claim Native blood.

Far from the national capital of San Salvador, the department of Morazan
(the equivalent of a state) with a population of a quarter-million,
experienced the heaviest fighting during the civil war. This violent era
took a heavy toll on the Kakawira.

"In Cacaopera there was a divided population [between] fighting for the
FMLN [left-wing guerillas] and the youth who were soldiers in the
military," said Amaya. "A lot of traditions and cultural values have been
lost, as many families have disintegrated and also many indigenous leaders
were assassinated or died."

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But the problems have been more endemic than just the civil war. According
to Amaya, his country had -- and has -- continuously ignored the history of
Natives.

"In El Salvador there are five original [indigenous] people, but the
government doesn't recognize indigenous people," he said. "They have not
ratified the 169th convention of the International Organization of the
Worker [regarding indigenous people, prepared in 1989]. Therefore, the
indigenous people in El Salvador are invisible to the government."

In 1992, before the cultural center's construction, Amaya began to store
artifacts and teaching materials in his home. A donation of $12,000 by an
American Mennonite organization allowed the Kakawiras to purchase the land
until, in February 2004, the building finally opened.

A small section of the facility is partitioned off as a museum, with a
series of religious paraphernalia, photographs and musical instruments
hanging on temporary walls. The center has earned a smattering of
recognition in some tourist brochures as one of the country's 12 museums
outside of San Salvador. Still, Amaya conceded, publicity has been scarce
given its inaccessibility.

For now, the center's efforts are directed within the Kakawira community to
rebuild itself. Immediately noticeable in the classroom is the layout of
the desks, in a circular shape with the ashes of a burnt offering and four
ears of corn in the middle of the floor. The corn, pointing in four
directions, come in four different colors (black, red, white and yellow);
while on the wall the tribal flag contains seven stripes, including the
shades of corn plus green, brown and blue to acknowledge the trees, earth
and water.

Classes are held regularly on Saturdays for children and adults to re-learn
their culture, language and history. The lack of knowing who they are,
Amaya believes, is at the heart of why his people are on the bottom of the
economic and social strata.

"That's why there's a lot of poverty, marginalized with [other] problems:
the exploitation of artisans, and also little access to health and
education and, later, a loss of ... identity because of the influence of
other cultures."

Long-term plans include developing a small, self-sustaining community in
which tribal members can operate a farm and create traditional medicines by
reintroducing native plants and animals. This site would also be a place
where artists could craft and sell their work.

"We are fighting for the reawakening of our ecological and spiritual
conscience and finding collective ways to resolve our economic
necessities," Amaya said.