I've just come back from an amazing two weeks with the Arhuaco indigenous people in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia. As well as searching and tasting some amazing organic coffees I also met the inspirational Saul Mindiola. For the fist time in the history of the aboriginal communities, Saul, an Arhuaco is competing with local politicians for the mayoral race at Pueblo Bello.
Pueblo Bello is a small village that used to be part of the Arhuaco native reserve, but 18 years ago it was annexed to the Colombian administration as a municipality. At the time most Arhuacos didn't have national identity cards and so they couldn't vote. Now community leaders have convinced people of the need to vote, and as the Arhuaco population is 80% of the village, Saul has a big chance of wining and becoming major. It would be an amazing step for the Arhuaco's struggle for equal rights.
The Arhuaco people have a long history of struggle. In 1914 the community leaders asked the national Colombian government to provide schools in the area. The government responded by inviting the Spanish order of Capuchino priests. What followed was pretty much 60 years of terror for the Arhuaco people. Their language and religion were abolished and punished. They were given Spanish names, they had to speak only Spanish and had to convert to Catholicism.
The Arhuacos finally managed to expel the Spanish priests 60 years later, but the damage to their language and religion has been great. The society is also fragmented between those who converted to catholicism and those who persevered with their old traditional spiritual practices.
When the priests left one Spanish nurse, María Dolores Romo, took the decision to stay behind and continue to serve the Arhuaco community. She married an Arhuaco and together they have four children... among them Saul Mindiola.
Saul is very interested in fighting for the Arhuaco rights. The elections in Colombia will be held on 25 October. Good luck Saul!