By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — They traveled about 3,093 miles from their homeland to visit Kansas City, all the way from the Putumayo department in Colombia, South America. Reynelio Yagari and Ancizar Gutierrez are leaders of the Embera Chami, an indigenous people who reside in villages all through Colombia. Yagari and Gutierrez are from a large village in the southern part of the country.
They had never seen a train or a movie. They had never visited other parts of the world. They came at the invitation of the local chapter of the Colombian Support Network, which raised money to help pay some of the travel expenses for the two men.
The Colombian Support Network was started more than 20 years ago. Led by a husband and wife team in Madison, Wis., it is a grassroots activist organization that works through a system of “sister communities” to help the peoples of Colombia achieve peace, human rights and social justice. CSN has several chapters across the United States, including in Kansas City. The local chapter was started in 2001.
When the Kansas City chapter decided it was time to visit Colombia, members asked the national office about connecting with a city in that country as a sister community. The national office suggested the Embera Chami people, rather than a city. According to Bob Thatch, president of the Kansas City chapter of CSN, the Embera Chami are non-violent; weapons are not allowed in their territory, whether carried by the Colombian army, paramilitary or revolutionary groups, or anyone else. The policemen of their semi-autonomous “resguardo” (reservation) do not carry weapons, only brightly colored sticks as symbols of their authority. Thatch said the Embera Chami are unique in this regard.
After the local chapter traveled twice to the Putumayo department and met with various leaders, including the local priest, they decided to arrange for Reynelio Yagari and Ancizar Gutierrez to visit Kansas City. Money was raised for travel, dates were agreed upon, and the two men applied for Colombian passports and then for visas from the U.S. Embassy in Bogota. Although Thatch said visas are often denied for security reasons, Yagari and Gutierrez were successful in getting both their passports and visas, and earlier this month boarded a Delta flight to Atlanta and then Kansas City.
The Colombians had to change planes in Atlanta, a minor headache for many, but they could find no one who spoke Spanish to direct them through the airport, said their hostess Ann Suellentrop. They did make it to Kansas City for a 13-day visit full of talks with the media, communities of faith, including St. Peter’s parish, education, science and business institutions. As Yagari and Gutierrez speak very little, if any, English, an interpreter accompanied them throughout the region.
They visited The Catholic Center Nov. 10. Sitting around a conference table, the Embera Chami leaders answered questions about their native land and spoke of their impressions of Kansas City and the surrounding area.
Speaking through interpreter Rachel Hogan, Yagari said the Putumayo department (an administrative division, similar to a state with its own elected governor and assembly) is in the southern part of the country and borders Ecuador and Peru. This was his first trip to America. “I came here to share my culture and cultural identity,” he said.
Gutierrez said both men belong to the Embera Chami and came here to experience this country. “I will take my experiences and what I learn here back to my community and share with the elders and other members of my community. Traveling to America has long been a dream of mine.”
He said that more than anything his people are focused on the preservation of their culture. “We want to make sure our culture doesn’t disappear. It is important to us to keep the traditional foods, education, medicine, culture and beliefs of the indigenous people from disappearing. We also respect and hold in high esteem human rights and equality. There are 102 indigenous groups in Colombia. Communities have their own organizations and we come together and work together, while maintaining respect for the autonomy of each individual group. There is a lot of cooperation between each group.”
People living in other parts of the world may think that the people of Colombia all speak Spanish. Gutierrez corrected that misconception. “Of the 102 indigenous groups, about 62 retain their native tongue,” he said. Putumayo, the department where he lives, means “gushing river in Quechua, an Incan language. “There are about 18 others which are in the process of reviving their native languages. There are still elders in those villages who speak it, and they teach the others. The rest no longer speak their native languages.”
Yagari and Gutierrez visited several other Missouri cities, including St. Louis, Kirksville and Columbia, making cultural presentations in each. They also visited Washburn University in Topeka and Haskell University in Lawrence, as well as several churches in those cities. After arriving back in Kansas City on Nov. 3, they spent some time at KKFI radio and spoke to students and their families at the Clay-Platte Montessori School and Bishop Ward High School in Kansas City, Kan.
That night, in the company of about 98 people, Yagari and Gutierrez went to see their first film, Impunity, at the Tivoli Theater in Westport. Impunity is a documentary about paramilitary killings of thousands of Colombians and the trial intended to create peace and justice that came to an abrupt halt when political and economic interests got involved. Suellentrop said the two men were deeply affected by the film.
Gutierrez said the presence of multinational companies that don’t respect national laws limiting their expansion results in the displacement of many indigenous people as well as human rights issues.
The indigenous peoples of Colombia live in villages and communities all across the country. The original Indians were conquered by an invading army of Incas in 1492. The Spanish invaded and conquered the indigenous communities in 1542, and the country has been administered by Catholic missions, organizations and leaders since 1547. About 90 percent of Colombia is Catholic.
“We respect all messengers of God,” Gutierrez said. “In many parts of our country we see examples of priests and missionaries of the Catholic faith working to support our communities, defending the indigenous peoples. Some have lost their lives supporting us. We respect Catholics and other religious people so long as they respect that we have our own cultural norms.”
Several examples of the culture of the Embera Chami brightened Gutierrez’ wrists and Yagari’s throat and shirt front. Intricate beadwork depicting symbols of nature and mysticism are as much a part of the people as their language and mores. Yagari removed his beaded medallion showing the face of a tiger to explain it.
“There are so many animals living in our jungle that our artisans want to depict them in our crafts,” he said. “Each figure and color has significance to us. The yellow in his eyes and on his nose stands for gold, his white stripes for purity and liberty, the blue background is the heavens and the sky. His black stripes and the black in his eyes stand for the earth and soil, and the green stripes in the fringe are the jungle. The orange is the flowers of the jungle. Our artisans want to depict them to show our respect for them.”
Bob Thatch wrote in an email that the tiger is a protective symbol for the two men.
Suellentrop added, “What impresses the most is their love of nature. That love is in everything they do — their music, their crafts, their care of the land. In fact, Ancizar (Gutierrez) said the forest is the lungs of the world. Think about it.”
Yagari continued, “If I could give advice to the people here, I would say take care of nature and protect what we have so the sons who follow us won’t be left with nothing. We saw from the plan that the flora and fauna are disappearing under roads and buildings. We need to protect the environment because it’s the mother of our biodiversity. We should give the sons who come next a world to live in.”
Gutierrez agreed. “To put it simply, plant trees to save the planet.” He thought for a moment then said, “As an indigenous culture, we want to build unity and alliances with this country. We hope to open a bridge between this country and ours. It’s difficult to be concrete about ways the people of this country can help. So much depends on the ability to open dialogue. Respect is needed on both sides. We don’t want to oppose the ways other people live, we want to cooperate. But we want others to recognize that we have a culture also.”
He was impressed with the engineering and development of the United States. “It was really the development of this country that caught our attention. There is an order to the cities and the mobility is different. In our country automobiles don’t stay in lanes, they are all over the roads. And electricity is sometimes difficult to have in our villages.”
Yagari said that he and Gutierrez wanted to know something about this country for themselves. “Our people have a lot of misconceptions about other countries. When we went to apply for our passports, a lot of people said, “‘The U.S.? It’s so dangerous there!’ Our elders have given us the strength and energy to see and decide for ourselves. We have learned that the U. S. is full of really dear, good hearted people. We will take back our impressions of this country and share them with our communities. We feel we have made connections with Americans.”
One thing about Kansas City made a big impression in the two men. CSN-KC president Bob Thatch took them to the zoo and related the events of the day to Suellentrop. “They went on the zoo train,” she said, “and the sky gondolas and they loved every minute of it and didn’t want to get off! They went everywhere in the zoo and loved it! They saw a big tiger and were fascinated. (The tigers they are used to are about the size of jaguars, she said.) They saw the word ‘Tropical,’ on a sign, recognized what it meant and went in. Inside it was 85 degrees with monkeys and long-beaked birds (jataros), etc., and they said it was the first time they felt warm since they’d been in Kansas City.”
Gutierrez said it is his dream to visit a lot of countries around the world and serve as eyes for his community. America was a good beginning. “The hospitality here has been wonderful,” he said. “We have enjoyed our time with the people here.”
The two men returned to Colombia Nov. 13.
To learn more about the Colombian Support Network, visit www.colombiasupport.net.