Flight 795

A Tale of Structural Racism

A professional Mayan woman wearing professional indigenous clothing engages in a conversation with two men in western business suits.

A Maya professional engages in a lively discussion. Photo by Carlos Sebastian/Prensa Libre

Guatemala today faces a lack of progress in fighting the complex racial oppression occurring daily. The small country has failed to confront the longstanding racism that contributes to the continuing disenfranchisement and poverty of the country’s indigenous population, 75 percent of which lives below the poverty line. This is a worrisome phenomenon for a country in which more than half of its estimated 13 million people is indigenous. The significant steps taken to alleviate these problems are, without a doubt, those pushed for by the indigenous peoples themselves. Despite constant racist attempts to annul indigenous people’s dignity, treat them as second-class citizens, increasingly deprive them of their territory, and subject them to severe ideological, material, and institutional pressures, indigenous groups have not ceased their ongoing demands to maintain and reproduce their cultural identity. Yet racism continues to manifest itself in negations of cultural identity that some might even consider trivial.

As a K’iche’ anthropologist and journalist I have been able to document and analyze the few steps taken to fight racism and the complexities of moving forward at a national level. I see Mayan dress, for example, as a validation of our cultural identity and I have fought and won court battles to wear that clothing on all occasions, and yet indigenous people are excluded from some restaurants and other public venues because of their clothing (although often other reasons are invented).

My experience shows me that Guatemala is not the only country lagging in the struggle against racism, however; nearly all of Central America has issues with racism. For example, on March 31, 2010, I sent a letter of complaint to the chairman of Copa Airlines, Pedro Heilbron, alleging racial discrimination against indigenous passengers. This complaint was based on a personal experience of mine on March 15, when I took flight 105 from Guatemala to Panama and flight 795 from Panama to Costa Rica. On flight 105, I was upgraded to first class and assigned to seat 4A: as soon as I arrived in Panama, the airline’s assistant handed me my new boarding pass, again first class, seat 3F.

I was the first person to board flight 795, and by the end of the boarding process two men and I were the only ones sitting in first class. The airline began upgrading passengers who were in economy class, all men. About two minutes before shutting the door, the woman who gave me my boarding pass at the counter approached me and asked me to move to economy class because my seat belonged to a late-arriving passenger. I replied that I had my seat assignment since the moment I arrived and asked why they wanted to move me and not someone from the group that received an upgrade? She replied that the captain’s orders were to move me in favor of the man who had arrived late.

She left and a steward from the airline came over with the passenger who arrived late. As they both stood in front of me, the Copa employee told me to move by order of the captain since that seat had been allocated to a passenger who arrived late. The flight was already delayed but I asked him to go and tell the captain, since these were apparently his orders, to come over and tell me himself to change seats. He replied that was not possible because the cabin door was already closed.

I had two options: I could not get up and further delay the flight, or I could move and make this claim and public denunciation. I chose to get up, and moved to a seat in economy class. It was clear to me that they decided to move me because I am an indigenous woman and I travel wearing my traditional dress, my everyday outfit. This is how racism operates, affecting those of us who are indigenous and who suddenly occupy spaces that society has decided we should not be in.

When the airline issued the boarding pass, my last name, Velásquez, told them nothing about my racial identity. However, when they saw me with my Indian garment, it was decided to force me to cede my first class seat to a white executive wearing a Western suit, despite the fact that I was the first to board the flight. For the airline and its employees, the norm is that white executives, not indigenous women like me, should occupy spaces like first class seats. It is how the racial hierarchy operates in most institutions.

My complaint to Copa’s chairman stated how the airline had violated my rights by racially discriminating against me for dressing as a Mayan woman. I explained to him that the racist actions of the employees violated Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO—the highest legal body at world-wide level in the matter of the rights of indigenous peoples), as well as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (specifically the articles that are applicable to the rights of indigenous women) and other human rights international instruments guaranteeing the right to indigenous men and women to live, speak and move freely in any public or private space.

I expressed my outrage because, in my experience, this company does not respect indigenous peoples. Instead, the company exposed itself as an institution that lacks a policy of ethnic neutrality and racial respect towards all paying passengers, indigenous or otherwise, who use the airline’s services.

In the letter I stated the following questions: “What makes us, as indigenous people, different from other men and women? Are not we entitled to the same services? Why do we need to stand these public violations, which are offensive and demeaning, and hurt our dignity and our lives as human beings? Where do equality, professionalism, and good customer service stand for indigenous peoples? Or is it that these elements do not apply to the indigenous population?”

Moreover, I expressed my outrage at “the grossest level of ignorance of both the flight captain and desk attendants, who do not know the racial diversity of the population they must serve in Latin America, home to over 30 million indigenous people, not including people of African descent. If Copa Airlines practiced a policy of racial equality, it would not foment an atmosphere of racial discrimination that began with the captain of the aircraft and ended with the desk attendants and stewards responsible for attending to the passengers. This company should review seriously and with humility, their conditions of service if they do not want to end up in court facing a racial discrimination suit. It is irreconcilable for Copa to use indigenous peoples in their publications to promote their company, but outside of the public eye to humiliate us, the same way I was humiliated by its staff. This act of self-reflection includes the captain who should be the first to analyze the consequences of taking the seat away from an indigenous woman to give it to a man. How does one name this act? It is not only racism, but also a deeply sexist act.”

On May 4, I received by email, through Diana Mizrachi Koper, the response of Copa chairman Pedro Heilbron. In the response, Heilbron expressed his concern regarding my letter, “where you complain of discrimination in a Copa Airlines flight, due to a change of seats inside the aircraft. I have ordered a thorough investigation of what happened, so I can review the reasons that caused this change and give a satisfactory answer to your complaint.”

He added, “Copa is a multicultural company, which respects all races, creeds, genders, and human and political orientations. Our success lies partly in our human diversity and we recognize that this is one of the principal assets of the region where we live. Therefore, not only do we not discriminate, instead we promote and celebrate the inclusion [sic] and the success of all people. These are personal values of mine, in both parenting and life, and which I assure you are shared across the company.”

In his letter he also stated: “until we investigate and I receive a report on what happened, I will not know the reasons behind the events. Nevertheless, I assure you I do not believe that a case of discrimination was the cause, since in my 22 years with the company this has not happened. But I assure you that if anyone in the company acted improperly, you will be the first to know as we take the necessary measures to correct this.” (my translation).

As I have not received the investigation report that Mr. Heilbron offered me, on June 22, I sent a new email to Koper, with copies to several Guatemalan lawyers who have taken several cases involving racial discrimination to court. However, at the time of the writing of this article, I still have not received a response to the questions raised in my letter and it is possible I never will. This leads me to conclude that in a globalized world, “celebratory,” neoliberal multiculturalism, although slowly dying, still attempts to dilute, confuse and deny racism and its everyday acts of oppression.

Fall 2010 | Winter 2011Volume X, Number 1

Irma A. Velásquez Nimatuj is executive director of the organization, Mecanismo de Apoyo a los Pueblos Indígenas (Support Mechanism for Indigenous Peoples). She received her Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin, She is author of La pequeña burguesía indígena comercial de Guatemala: desigualdades de clase, raza y género (AVANCSO, 2002).

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