Decolonizing our Language

I’ve been wanting to write this post for a few years and am finally sitting down to do it.

I began this documentary journey about 10 years ago, when I knew a lot less than I knew now. In the past 10 years, I have come to understand deeper levels of how colonization played out globally and just how much our current culture is a direct result and continuation of colonizing forces and framework.

I say “our” current culture, as in the global human culture, since colonization was a global force. So although it affected the whole world, colonization played out in different ways in different regions and cultures of the world, depending on the particular environment and circumstances. But the overall driving forces of imperialism, land theft, genocide of indigenous cultures, the racist hierarchy based on white supremacy and anti-Blackness, and the exploitation of labor were present across the globe and continue on today.

One of the aspects of how colonial culture continues to play out today is in our language.

A few years ago, when I first saw the phrase “enslaved Africans” as an alternative to “African slaves,” I immediate felt how this was such an important shift in our language. I felt my heart sink in realizing that I had used the phrase “African slaves” so many times in the documentary narration and accompanying booklet. This was another example of how language can be a powerful tool in the colonizing process. I regretted that I had used this dehumanizing language of the colonizers, reducing humans to this label of property that was forced on them by their enslavers.

In Spanish, a friend in the Afro-Bolivian community told me about using the phrase “en calidad de esclavitud” (in the condition of slavery) instead of just “esclavos” (slaves). When I heard this as the preferred phrase that some people in this community use to refer to the conditions of their ancestors, it was again a moment of disappointment in wishing I had learned of these alternative language choices before finishing post-production and printing the DVDs in 2013.

I have come to accept that I produced this documentary with what I knew at the time and did the best that I could to be accountable to the people in the film, and made peace with understanding that language norms change over time.

Although I can’t go back and replace all the times in the film and essay that I used the words slaves/esclavos since making a new edition of the film is not feasible, I hope that at least this film can be used as an opportunity to discuss how the language of the colonizers was part of the system used to oppress and dehumanize African people, and how language can be a powerful tool to uphold or to help challenge and dismantle oppressive systems.

Back to Bolivia

In January this year, I went back to Bolivia for the first time since I first began the “Solidarity in Saya” project in 2006. It was really incredible to be back there after so many years. I arrived in La Paz and was thrilled to connect with the breathtaking Andean mountains again and spend the next several months reconnecting with the people I hadn’t seen in so long and meeting many new people.

Photo with Mount Illimani in the background of La Paz
Over looking la Paz.

It was exciting to see how much has changed in Bolivia and how much the Afro-Bolivian community has accomplished over the past 8 years. There are so many new Afro-Bolivian organizations and representatives in the government working to address a variety of issues and needs of the Afro-Bolivian community.

With the help of many friends, “Solidarity in Saya” screened in many locations in La Paz, premiering at the Museum of Ethnography and Folklore with a panel discussion and a live Saya performance by MOCUSABOL. There were also screenings at la Cinemateca, an art house cinema, the Spanish Cultural Center, and a small art gallery, la Casa Espejo. “Solidarity in Saya” also screened in Cochabamba at the Museum of Archaeology followed by a live performance by Mauchi and another screening in Santa Cruz. Many of the screenings were followed by panel discussions with various Afro-Bolivian activists and led to great discussions and questions from audience members. I also went to the villages Tocaña and Chicaloma in the Yungas and had screenings there.

MOCUSABOL performing Saya at MUSEF (Museum of Ethnography and Folklore) after the La Paz premier of “Solidarity in Saya.”

Panel discussion at MUSEF (Museum of Ethnography and Folklore) after the La Paz premier of “Solidarity in Saya.”

It was so rewarding to reconnect with the Afro-Bolivian communities that I had worked with and be able to bring the finished movie back to them and share it with Bolivian audience members. Distributing the DVDs to the Afro-Bolivian villages and urban activists whose stories created this project, I really felt more than ever how much all the work for all these years has been worth it.

With every screening, I was nervous to show the documentary to Afro-Bolivian audiences, since this was the audience that mattered most and who would be affected most personally by this work. Luckily the feedback was positive and people said that it was great to be able to have this work as a reflection of where their movement began and how far they had come and how much more work there was to do.

So many people I spoke to in the Afro-Bolivian community told me that people often come to study, interview, film or photograph them and they rarely hear from those people again or even see the work that featured them. After hearing that, I felt so grateful that I was able to have the support from so many people and resources to be able to make a finished product and travel back to Bolivia.

It was so inspiring to see all that has happened in the Afro-Bolivian community and how much they keep moving onwards in the work of empowering and celebrating their culture and community and working to overcome the struggles they face. It was great to see the various Afro-Bolivian organizations working on so many different projects such as organizing workshops and retreats for young Afro-Bolivian women to discuss and learn about feminist issues and sexual and reproductive health. Another organization was working with the Ministry of Education to implement a school curriculum about Afro-Bolivian history and culture.

After “Solidarity in Saya” screening in Santa Cruz at the Ministry of Culture.

After reconnecting with so many friends and making new friends and getting used to the lifestyle in Bolivia, it was sad to leave not knowing when I would be able to come back. But I did feel refreshed and fulfilled by everything I had learned and experienced while I was there and felt that I had completed a cycle in this long journey I began when I went to Bolivia years ago not knowing what I was actually beginning…
Now I’ll be continuing on in distributing the DVDs and sharing this story as widely as possible!

Filmmaker interview w/ author Kalisha Buckhanon of

Here’s an interview I did a few years ago with my friend and brilliant published author Kalisha Buckhanon:

An Interview with Maya Jensen, Filmmaker behind ‘Solidarity in Saya: An Afro-Bolivian Music Movement’

Interview with Afro-Bolivian activist & organizer, Caren Paola Yañez Inofuentes

Caren Paola Yañez Inofuentes was an active youth member of MOCUSABOL in La Paz when “Solidarity in Saya” was filmed.
I interviewed her in the Spring of 2012 to see what she had been up to since the filming of the documentary.


Maya: Do you still live in La Paz?

Paola: Yes, I am still living in La Paz.

M: Are you still involved with MOCUSABOL?

P: When you came to do the documentary, the Afro-Bolivian Center for Comprehensive and Community Development – CADIC, was in the process of forming under the leadership of Jorge Medina, to be the technical, political, and social branch of MOCUSABOL. This was a way to create a branch separate from the cultural, to influence the state in the Constituent Assembly (100% political vindication) So I had been an active part in the cultural activities of MOCUSABOL during that transition of forming CADIC and until the end of 2008.

From there I have dedicated myself only to the social and political demands of the Afro-Bolivian people, succeeding Jorge Medina as the Executive Director of CADIC in the period 2010 – 2011, when he became a member of the Parliament.

M: How is everything going with the organization?

P: This year, the president of MOCUSABOL is Jaime Flores, one of the activist youths since 2002 and the head of CADIC is Renan Paco, with MOCUSABOL in the cultural front and CADIC leading political processes and training Afro-Bolivian people nationwide.

M: How do you think the organization has changed over the past years that you’ve been involved?

P: As I explained earlier, it has changed considerably, from actors to the new struggles.

M: In your experience, how do you think the condition of Afro-Bolivians has changed over the past 6 years?

P: The recognition of the Afro-Bolivian people in the state constitution has enabled and guaranteed our participation in policy areas of the country; the arrival of Jorge Medina as a deputy on the Pluri-national Legislative Assembly, who has proposed and passed laws recognizing Saya [music] and Afro-Bolivian people as part of Bolivia’s cultural heritage; the declaration of September 23 as the day of Afro-Bolivian people, commemorating the abolition of slavery in Bolivia.

The Afro-Bolivian people are now visible and which allows us to hold the state to our specific rights.
For the first time this year, the population census will include a box of ethnicity for us.

Almost all Afro [-Bolivian] communities now have an organization and play Saya.

This among many other things.

M: What are some of the current goals/objectives of the Afro-Bolivian movement?

P: There are many. Now that we achieved constitutional recognition, now with the decentralized state through the autonomies, we seek to influence and make demands of each part of the Autonomous Departmental Statues and Municipal Organic Letters

Create an Afro-Bolivian people’s educational curriculum, agricultural insurance

On the cultural side, to innovate and get to know more about afros in other countries.

M:. Do you still have family living in the Yungas?

P: Still live there my uncles and some cousins and a grandmother

M: How are they doing? How has life in the villages changed in the past 5 years?

Bolivia has changed a lot, the condition in the villages has changed. We are guaranteed our participation, we are now familiar with our rights, despite all the problems and inconsistencies the process of change is moving forward with them and we Bolivians are rebuilding ourselves.

M: What else are you up to these days besides the SAYA organization?

P: I finished university, and I’ve been dedicated to formative processes of Afro-Bolivian women and activities with other organizations on the issue of rights of women, young and etc.

M: Do you have any plans or dreams for the future that you would like to share, either for your personal life or for the Afro-Bolivian movement?

P: The struggle of a people does not stop, there’s always more to do.