Finding Her Voice

Mar 20, 2017 5:00 AM ET
Blog

Raramuri leader influences traditional roles

For Rosa Villalobos – a member of the Raramuri First Nation in Mexico’s north central region – the ability to speak in front of crowds and provide key information to her community wasn’t always second nature.

But ambition led the way, and Villalobos – who speaks the traditional Raramuri language – also learned Spanish at the age of 15. And while only 11 per cent of those in poor rural areas have access to post-secondary education (and rarely women in her culture), Villalobos pursued further studies in ecology. From an early age, she was always committed to improving the environment and conditions for her community and for herself.

Reaching Mexico communities through traditional language

Villalobos’ remote community, San Ignacio de Arareco is four hours southeast of Chihuahua City, and located near TransCanada’s Topolobampo natural gas pipeline project.

When the project was announced, Villalobos was quick to join the company’s Community Advocates program as part of the project engagement process. Participants learn about the construction practices and environmental activities the company uses to install a pipeline, then go on to share this knowledge with their communities in their traditional languages.

“The goal is to cascade important information to those in affected communities and build relationships through informal meetings that take place near the pipeline route,” said David Torres, Community Relations Coordinator for TransCanada Mexico. “Rosa has been a key in opening the dialogue with San Ignacio in their traditional language.”

Indigenous engagement led by community members

Explaining these practices to her community has allowed Rosa to become a trusted advisor in San Ignacio. She points out how at the beginning the members of her locality did not agree with her taking that role, but eventually they came to accept it.

“I have earned their respect. They talk to me and ask me things.”

She also developed new skills, like public speaking, that have moved her into a leadership role in her community. She values all that she has learned by working and collaborating with TransCanada employees.

“I have learned so much. They taught me not to be afraid when I had to speak among a crowd,” Villalobos said .

The knowledge shared between community advocates and TransCanada employees is mutual: “Community advocates like Rosa help us learn more about the regions and cultures where we work and generate collaborative relationships of mutual benefit,” Torres added. “Rosa’s work is an example of the best possible coexistence between our projects and neighbouring populations.”

Consultation result is favourable

One of the main concerns from the communities was that the Rarámuris did not understand what the El Encino – Topolobampo project was about. Putting in practice what she had learned, Villalobos was able to explain the project to her community from their own perspective. Providing information about benefits and impacts, Villalobos was able to help her community see how the project could benefit them.

Villalobos is proud of her role encouraging all the members of her locality to participate in the process and to obtain their approval for the construction.

“That day I felt very comfortable, we had never worked this way before,” she affirms.

Next steps for a leader on the rise

Today, Villalobos is a member of the Tourism Committee and Follow-up Committee of San Ignacio de Arareco. She also supports her brother Daniel, the Comisario Ejidal (main authority), to write official statements and releases, as well as organizing events for the benefit of the community.

Villalobos’ path has been long, breaking stereotypes about what women should do and how they should behave as a result of years of tradition. However, she doesn’t see her current work as her main achievement, but as a stepping stone to her real goal: following the tradition of her grandfather, father and brother, but also becoming the first woman to be Comisaria Ejidal in her community.

Related stories:

Breaking new ground in Mexico
Words in action in Mexico
Dreams realized in some of Mexico’s poorest Indigenous communities