As a Davis Fellow for Peace, Middlebury Institute alumna Danika Robison MPA ’19 documented a story of injustice, unionization and the hard-fought preservation of a Pre-Inca language and culture in Ecuador. The documentary short film, Kawasakunchik, is an official selection in the Smithsonian’s Mother Tongue Film Festival.
Kawsakunchik (Our Resistance) is a story of injustice, unionization and reclaiming space, says Robison. It documents personal stories of five former sweatshop workers of the San Pedro Textile Factory in Otavalo, Ecuador, and how they created a labor union to demand improved conditions. Most of the interviewees are Kichwa speakers. Today, former workers and community members have purchased the factory and transformed it into a museum, where they are in charge of telling the story of the space and their culture in their own voices and language.
“The film is also a glimpse into a much broader story about the history and sociopolitical context of highland Ecuador and much of Latin America,” Robinson adds. “Beginning during the Spanish colonial era, Europeans named themselves owners of vast swaths of land, and the region became dominated by rural plantations and urban sweatshops that exploited predominantly Indigenous workers. The scars of this system remain today in the form of social hierarchies and extreme inequality in land distribution.”
Kichwa traces its roots to the pre-Inca era and, as Robinson explains, “like many Indigenous languages – is spoken today despite every attempt by Western and imperial forces to erase the language and culture. During the Spanish colonial era and for generations thereafter, speaking and teaching the Kichwa language was outlawed. Kichwa speakers’ presence and strength today exemplifies their deep connection to their language and identity, which has fueled their 500+ years of resistance to colonization and assimilation.” She adds that over 3000 languages throughout the world today are endangered, and Kichwa is one of them. Robison is passionate about efforts to support and promote Kichwa and all Indigenous languages. “This is an urgent human rights issue because so many of the world’s languages are declining in use and in danger of disappearing.”
Robison is inspired by people like Luzmila Zambrano, one of the film project coordinators, who uses a vivid analogy to describe the importance of the Kichwa language to herself and the Kichwa-Otavalo people. “She says that Kichwa is like the backbone of their people and culture – it is integral to who they are and how they express themselves. She feels their language is key to their ability to survive and thrive as a people and that their language and identity cannot be separated from one another. Preserving and promoting languages such as Kichwa helps to ensure that the world views, identity and cultures of Indigenous peoples are valued and protected throughout the world.”
The Davis Fellowship complemented Robison’s studies in the Public Administration program perfectly. “My project was connected to a theme we often studied at MIIS of how top-down models of “development” can be disrupted and the importance of emphasizing community leadership. I tried to maintain that goal and mindset throughout designing and carrying out this project. Though it’s a very small-scale project, I was excited to be able to provide funding for an initiative that was truly led by the families and community we worked with through this grant.”
As part of her Davis Fellowship, she was able to work with incredible local filmmakers (Alberto and Frida Muenala of Rupai Corporation). “Myself and those that worked on the project are excited and honored that the stories of those in the film have this opportunity to reach different audiences around the world. The Mother Tongue Film Festival is free and open to the public online this year, and this film and many others that share stories of Indigenous languages and culture are streaming through the end of May.”
Robinson has advice to share with anyone considering applying for the Davis Fellowship. “I would encourage you to reach out to contacts, community members and friends from areas where you have worked or lived. It can seem both daunting and exciting to determine what kind of project to propose. The Davis Fellowship is such a flexible and unique opportunity that can be tailored to many different communities, contexts and projects ideas. My tip for anyone thinking of applying is to consider how to use your proposal to leverage this funding to support communities’ ideas for contributing to sustainable peace.”
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