A 30-year-old Indigenous woman from a rural community uses her personal experience and passion to champion the rights of Indigenous people, women, and activists against violence and corruption. 

Jovita and her sister, Gladys, at a protest march in Guatemala City.

Jovita Tzul Tzul was just 8 years old when she won a village competition to become a “judge for a day.” It was her first taste of the legal system, and from that moment she knew she wanted to be a lawyer when she grew up. Now, at age 30, Tzul Tzul is one of Guatemala’s youngest Indigenous women defending the rights of Indigenous communities before Guatemala’s highest courts of law. 

Tzul Tzul—the youngest of five children, though only three survived infancy—grew up among the pine forests and rivers of the rural community of Paqui, Totonicapan, in the western highlands of Guatemala. Her father, Delfino, was a teacher and one of the few people in their rural community who was trained in a profession. He and her mother, Rosa, a homemaker, were determined that all their children would be able to go to school. 

Tzul Tzul was an excellent student and at 14 entered the bilingual teacher training college in Totonicapan. Teaching was one of the few possibilities for further education available to Indigenous girls at the time. Tzul Tzul grew up speaking K’iche, one of Guatemala’s 24 officially recognized languages, and as a bilingual teacher she would be able to teach children in K’iche and Spanish. 

Tzul Tzul first began to advocate for Indigenous peoples’ rights during her teacher training, she and her classmates were prohibited from wearing traditional Mayan dress—a woven corte (skirt) and huipil (blouse)—despite the fact that most of her fellow students were from Indigenous communities. All Indigenous children in Guatemala have the right to wear their traditional dress, which is an integral part of their identity, to school but not all schools respect this right. Guatemala, like many nations with Indigenous populations, has a deep history of violence and oppression of native people.

Guatemala suffered a brutal 36-year armed conflict that began in 1960. An estimated 200,000 people were killed, mostly by the national army, and 45,000 were disappeared as the state attempted to wipe out Guatemala’s Indigenous people, their language, culture, and forms of organization. A 1996 peace accord ended the civil war, but Indigenous people in Guatemala continue to face multiple forms of exclusion and discrimination.  

“The peace accords had already been signed, so there was more awareness about Indigenous rights,” said Tzul Tzul. “I wanted to be able to wear the clothes I had always worn, not what the institute imposed on us.” 

Organizing with fellow students and parents, Tzul Tzul pressured the college to permit traditional dress. They succeeded within the first year of teacher training and Tzul Tzul and her classmates were able to wear their traditional dress to college. She went on to become the secretary of the students’ union in Totonicipan, where she organized for Indigenous teachers to participate collectively in the national teacher’s union. Upon graduating at age 18, Tzul Tzul still dreamt of becoming a lawyer. She passed the entrance exams for studying law at Guatemala’s only public university, the San Carlos University campus in Totonicapan. She spent a year working at everything she could put her hand to: teaching, as a shop assistant, doing traditional embroidery, all the time saving up to go to the private university Mariano Galvéz University, which offered night classes in law in Totonicapan. 

Jovita Tzul Tzul at work during the case of Abellino Chub Caal. Photo by Cristina Chiquin.

In 2007, then 19, Tzul Tzul was finally able to start studying law. During that time, she secured an internship in the local branch of the Office for Public Prosecutions—a state institution that addresses complaints and crimes reported by citizens, and prosecutes criminals. Working in the Office for Public Prosecutions made Tzul Tzul aware that Indigenous people needed  better services within the state legal system. She saw first hand how fellow Maya K’iche people were discriminated against when they wanted to report crimes or resolve other legal issues. 

“People would leave their community in the early hours of the morning, miss breakfast, to get to the office when it opened at 8 a.m. They would wait around for hours for someone to see them, often to be told to come back the next day,” she recalled. “Meanwhile lawyers who had the offices just down the street would be seen whenever they arrived.” 

Most people who came from the countryside couldn’t speak Spanish and few people in the office could speak K’iche. “Even the interpreter who worked at the office would make people speak Spanish to her,” Tzul Tzul said. “I didn’t agree with this kind of discrimination, so I started seeing people when they arrived. I could speak to them in K’iche and I saw them on a first come first serve basis, I didn’t prioritize the lawyers; they had to wait their turn.”

Eventually, everyone coming to the office only wanted to speak with Tzul Tzul.

Tzul Tzul worked at the Public Prosecutor’s Office for three years, sometimes paid, sometimes voluntarily, while she finished her law degree. She had almost graduated when she won a scholarship with Lawyers Without Borders that would allow her to get work experience   with a human rights law firm in Guatemala City called Mayan Lawyers. She moved to the capital city with $100 in her purse and no support network. 

While she learned much from the lawyers, Tzul Tzul said the experience was her first disappointment with the legal world. “It became clear to me that that was a world made by men for men, women lawyers barely had a chance. We were there to pander to the men’s egos, we were either treated as subordinates or we had to put up with much harassment, even in a human rights organization!”

Tzul Tzul left the firm in 2014 and was so disillusioned with law that she gave up on the idea of joining the bar, the last step towards practicing as a lawyer. She started working on independent research on indigenous land rights and community organization, until she joined the Tz’ununija’ Indigenous Women’s Movement as a legal expert. Tz’ununija’ works to prevent violence and promotes individual and collective justice for Indigenous women. 

She provided legal advice in cases of sexual and domestic violence, family law, and Indigenous  women who have been criminalized for their participation in social movements and in defense of human rights.

“For women to be able to demand their rights or participate in social movements, they needed a minimum of economic, emotional and familial stability,” Tzul Tzul said. “The law could help them with that. That is why I decided to join the bar at last.”

In 2016 after a couple of years with Tz’ununija’, Tzul Tzul and a colleague, Juan Castro, established the Indigenous Peoples Law Firm so they could have greater independence and the ability to choose their own cases. “There only a few Indigenous women working as human rights lawyers in Guatemala. I wanted to give a voice and create a space for women. Somewhere I didn’t have to ask permission from anyone to take a case,” she said.

Jovita Tzul Tzul, Ramon Caden, and Juan Castro in support of CICIG in Guatemala. Courtesy of Bufete de Pueblos Indigenous (Indigenous Peoples Law Firm).

The Indigenous Peoples Law Firm is currently handling 47 different cases. Their clients include Mayan women who are trying to protect the intellectual property rights to their traditional weavings, and many human rights activists and communities who are defending their land and natural resources.

Access to land has been disputed in Guatemala since the time of colonization, when Indigenous people faced mass dispossession of their lands. Despite attempts to address the inequalities in land distribution, 92 percent of small farmers have access to just 22 percent of the land; 54 percent of all farmland is owned by 2 percent of the population. National and transnational businesses often try to push small farmers off their land to grow cash crops such as palm oil, sugar cane, bananas, and rubber for export rather than feeding people. Sixty-five percent of Indigenous children in Guatemala suffer from malnutrition. In other cases, land is taken for mining or hydroelectric projects, which can pollute and otherwise damage the environment. The families and communities who are trying to defend their rights to land  and territory often face violence, and are called criminals or terrorists. Sometimes, they’re sent to prison on invented charges such as trespassing, arson, making threats, or even assault. Others have been murdered for defending their human rights.

Tzul Tzul has acted as a defense lawyer in many of these cases, trying to win freedom for people who have committed no other crime then standing up for their human rights. “The hardest case I ever had was [Abelino Chub Caal], but it was also the happiest one.” A Maya Q’eqchi human rights defender, Caal was arrested in his home village of San Pedro Carcháb in January 2017 and accused of trespassing on private land and arson.

“We received threats and we were followed, even though we had international accompaniment. We tried everything to secure his release and nothing worked; there were so many disappointments from the court and we were so worried for Abelino’s safety. It was a great day when he was finally freed,” Tzul Tzul said. Caal was declared innocent in April 2019 after spending two years in prison, far from his family in the capital city, where he was awaiting trial. The judge found that there was no evidence linking him to the crimes, and criticized the state prosecution for misusing the legal system  to persecute human rights defenders.   

Tzul Tzul has also presented complaints to Guatemala’s Supreme Court of Justice and Constitutional Court on behalf of communities that are resisting mining or hydroelectric projects. In most cases, these companies did not consult with the communities or are not fully compliant with the law. These hearings are often in front of 13 judges with 300 or 400 people in the audience, many of whom work in the companies she is challenging. 

“I still get nervous and scared when I face the court, anyone would,” said Tzul Tzul. “I’m afraid I will make a mistake or that I’ll fail. It’s much harder for women, we always have to excel, go over and beyond what is expected of men, to prove we are good enough. I’m also afraid of the reprisals.” 

Tzul Tzul and her colleagues at the Indigenous Peoples’ Law Firm have been threatened and intimidated for their work; Tzul Tzul was nearly arrested for using force while visiting Santa Eulalia, one of the rural communities the firm represents. “We are used to being watched and followed at different hearings, but the attack in Santa Eulalia was the scariest. It was so bad that I haven’t gone back. I’ll have to return to Santa Eulalia eventually, but I’m not ready right now.” The Mesoamerican Network of Women Human Rights Defenders put out an alert for her safety early in 2019. 

Despite the risks, Tzul Tzul said she will continue to work for human rights as long as she has the strength. She plans to finish her masters degree in criminology, to take some time for herself, and to keep studying. Eventually, Tzul Tzul would like to earn  a PhD. She also wants to continue making space for other Mayan women to practice law and defend human rights. 

Last year, the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission awarded Tzul Tzul and the Indigenous Peoples Law firm the Alice Zachmann Human Rights Award for their commitment to promoting respect for human rights. “I received so much criticism for receiving the award: because I’m woman, I’m young, and there are other lawyers who deserve it more. But there are very few Indigenous women litigating on human rights in Guatemala. I hope other women see this and realize that they can do it too. Women can change the direction of justice in Guatemala.”

Jovita Tzul Tzul with Abellino Chub Caal, upon his release from prison.

Aisling Walsh is a freelance writer and translator with 7-plus years of experience working in communications, advocacy, and activism with international development organizations in Ireland, Guatemala, Mexico, Bolivia and Timor, Leste. She writes on feminism, sexual and reproductive rights, and social justice for publications including Women Under Siege, Open Democracy, The Establishment and The Irish Times. As of September 2019 she will be a doctoral scholar, holding the Andrew Grene Postgraduate Scholarship in Conflict Resolution from the Irish Reseach Council, researching feminist theory and practice on healing justice in post-conflict Guatemala. Follow her on Twitter