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'We are Indigenous too!' - Interview with Díana Bermudez on being a South American Indigenous person

Identity conflict is a deep-rooted societal issue that many of us can relate to, especially the feeling of not belonging anywhere. Now, imagine that you have always felt that there is more to you than what history and everyone else tells you; a certainty that you are missing something, that there is more to you than what is around you. You have the feeling that you are different than everyone else, but you don’t know how. When you find out, it becomes your duty to create a social space for yourself. These are the matters that Indigenous people concern themselves with. Whether it is the loss of culture, heritage, ancestry or land, questions of place and belonging in contemporary society become very present. Indigenous actress, Díana Bermudez, has made it her mission to celebrate her heritage, and to raise awareness about the struggles of Indigenous people.

‘I am Colombian and I am of Indigenous ancestry, however I feel like that is too simplified.’ She says to me. ‘I am Native American. That is my race, however I am from South America. We are the same race as those in the North, we have just been colonized by different Europeans. A lot of people are unaware, often associating the term Native American with Navajo or Apache, and are surprised to find out that there are any Native Americans in the South. In South America, we have been indoctrinated to the point where we do not call ourselves Native American, but Latino or Hispanic. That isn’t a race, it’s a cultural identity.’ She explains the difficulty in gaining recognition as an Indigenous person, in a space which only accepts a version of your identity.

She continues describing the Indigenous presence in Colombia: ‘The predominant civilisation in Colombia used to be the Muisca people. However, in Colombia especially, our history has been rewritten and destroyed so much, that we no longer can say to which indigenous tribe we belong to. There are still Indigenous groups in Colombia like the Wayuu, the Emberá, the Inga, the Kamëntsá, the Pastos and many more. I myself was born in Cali, yet I don’t pertain to an Indigenous tribe that is currently there, but my race, my colour, my features; it’s very clear that I am of Indigenous descent. It has only been in the last few years that I have been able to reconnect with my Indigenous ancestry. For us in South America can be more difficult to pin-point exactly what civilisation and group of people we have come from. But I know 100% that I am of Indigenous descent’.

Díana’s pride and passion when talking about her cultural identity is undeniable. The acceptance of being Indigenous, an identity which is considered non-existent by the majority of the population, is something that takes a lot of courage. ‘There is this whole idea that Native Americans are this mystical being. A lot of people think it is very interesting or very cool, but also there is a large percentage of people surprised the Native Americans are still around. It’s not that we don’t value our history still, but it’s just the fact that in the west, they have this idea of cowboys and Indians, which is definitely not the right way of thinking about it. On the other hand, when I try to bring up our race to other South Americans, who are clearly Indigenous as well, they don’t want to acknowledge it. This is something that the movements I am involved with, are trying to break down now. Trying to make people more aware of the Indigenous presence, the fact that they might be a part of it too and that it isn’t something that they should be ashamed of. The other barrier we are struggling with is the assimilation of our own people, and breaking the brain washing’.

There are certain issues in particular that are being faced by Indigenous people. ‘Representation really matters. I have never seen people who look like me on the screens. There are so many amazing tribes yet so little is known about them. Education would be a massive start, especially because, for me, learning about my own race has given me such pride and self-worth. If all you’re taught is that you don’t exist, then that only leads to questions about your own existence. I struggled with my identity all through university. Our history, isn’t taught in the UK at all. We need to celebrate more cultures around the world, and appreciate other civilisations’.

Throughout our conversation, questions regarding home arose: ‘I have found a home here in London. I have travelled, I have lived in Italy, I have lived in France, and I have come back to London; because above all, it has a reality of its own kind. I feel like London is my home because it is a melting pot. I have been able to thrive as who I am, my identity. It’s where my work is, where my friends are, where I have grown up. But then at the same time, when I see things about Machu Picchu, the Indigenous Women of Colombia – even though I am not there- I feel such a connection. Home is not the right word. I simply feel that I am deeply connected to my ancestors to my people. It’s a very difficult feeling to describe. That connection of having a shared history’.

I have asked her about a post on her Instagram, which was a portrait of her and a handprint on her face. ‘It is part of a movement called MMIW (Missing or Murdered Indigenous Women).’ She says to me. This movement has further developed being known as MMIWG, raising awareness about Indigenous girls as well. Then it transformed into MMIWG2S, which includes the Two Spirit, referring to non-gender conforming indigenous people. The abbreviation MMIW is still widely used and recognised, however it is important to acknowledge all those that this movement is standing up for. ‘There is an epidemic which is happening all across the Americas; a disregard for Native American women’s lives. The handprint symbolises the voices of those women who have been silenced. It is trying to raise awareness because it is not reported often enough in the media. My understanding of how it works on reservations is that they don’t have the same policing level, therefore when women go missing often the people who will be dealing with this is the FBI. Unfortunately, they don’t get involved until it is too late or it is up to the families to raise money for search parties. There is not enough help and people are getting away with it, making Native women become easy targets. The more people are learning about it, the more people want to do more. It’s not overnight, but I do feel that it is having an effect, especially in Native communities. I still get occasional hate on my social media for being Indigenous. People like to say things like “get over it”. There is nothing to get over, because this is still happening. With the disappearance and killing of Indigenous women occurring even today, because of colonization, we can’t get over stuff that is still going on. Being Indigenous comes with a lot of racism, and that happens everywhere'.

When asked about her cultural identity, she said to me: ‘I came here when I was 4 years old, and I grew up in the Latino community in South London. That was very much part of my identity growing up. You grow up with this Latino identity, and that is everything. I never really knew about my identity, because even today, we just accept that we’re Hispanic. A lot of the Indigenous culture has been shunned and looked down upon. People try not to associate themselves with being Native American. When I started working as an actor, I really started looking at myself and question my identity. It wasn’t until 7 years ago, when my current partner said, ‘Oh but you’re native,’ that I started to piece the puzzle of my identity together. It really took me a lot of time to understand this, so I started researching and I began to understand more and more. Social media has massively helped, because I have found groups and movements of people from South America reclaiming our race, and taking pride in the fact that we are native and that we are indigenous. It’s taken me long time to get to this level where I can feel comfortable saying that I am Native American, I am Indigenous’.

Written by Tímea Koppándi.

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