SPLC Hosts International Conference to Fight Racism in Latin America

Activists and academics from Latin America are gathered at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., for an intensive, week-long conference to share strategies for fighting racism and discrimination.

SPLC officials will discuss tactics and programs they have used to fight hate in the United States, such as the Intelligence Project, Teaching Tolerance and innovative lawsuits that have toppled institutional racism and violent white supremacist groups. In Latin America, anti-black racism is prevalent, as is extreme discrimination and prejudice against indigenous communities.

“Prejudice and discrimination are a world-wide problem,” said Heidi Beirich, director of the SPLC’s Intelligence Project. “This conference is an exciting opportunity for the SPLC to reach beyond our nation’s borders to help others fight hate by sharing strategies that have worked for us.”

The conference is bringing together activists from Mexico, Colombia, Bolivia, Guatemala and Brazil to discuss their recent efforts and to increase their ability to fight racism. The Montgomery conference is the latest effort by the anti-racism network created by the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies at the University of Texas, which hosted the first gathering two years ago.

Teaching Tolerance staff address visitors from Latin America.
A second conference was held in August at the University of Cordillera in La Paz, Bolivia. That event allowed the various organizations within the network to describe their work and the nature of the hatred in their countries.

“In Mexico, we do not recognize culturally or officially the existence of racism,” said SPLC conference attendee Emiko Saldivar, a founder of Colectivo Para Eliminar el Racismo.

Yet racism is a problem in Mexico, she said. One form is the pressure on indigenous groups to assimilate – particularly in urban areas. Indigenous people can face discrimination if they speak their native language. Children from indigenous groups have been placed in special education classes simply because teachers did not want to teach them. Even Spanish-speaking children can face discrimination from teachers and classmates if their parents speak an indigenous language or otherwise maintain their culture.

Laws are in place to protect the indigenous population, but better enforcement is needed, she said. The need to address this discrimination can be seen in statistics that show 80 to 90 percent of Mexico’s indigenous population lives in extreme poverty.

Racism is also part of the social fabric in Bolivia, said Eduardo Paz, a researcher with the Observatory on Racism at the University of Cordillera who is attending this week’s conference.

Whites account for only about 30 percent of the population, with indigenous people and those of mixed race making up the majority, he said. But majority doesn’t rule.

Activists and academics from Latin America listen during a meeting with SPLC Teaching Tolerance staff.
“White is considered good, everything else is not,” Paz said. “You have discos for people with light skin, and discos with people for dark skin. You have wealthy landowners using other people almost as slaves. Everyone must stay in their certain places.”

Martin Torrico, also of the Bolivian observatory, said achieving equality for people in Bolivia is a challenge because indigenous people are typically found in lower socioeconomic positions. It can be difficult for Bolivians in higher socioeconomic positions to understand how someone, such as a housekeeper, can have equal rights, he said.

It’s clear to Paz that Bolivia’s future hinges on ending discrimination.

“As a country we will go nowhere until we accept and understand each other,” he said.

During their visit to Montgomery for the SPLC's International Conference to Fight Racism, Latin American activists and academics enjoyed a tour of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s former home.