My gumboots were covered in mud, raindrops slid down the windows, bright green grass and sheep for miles. I was in a small van with nine other student diplomats on our way to Karetu, New Zealand. After miles of a muddy unpaved road, we came to a stop. I stepped out of the van in awe, the sky was covered in pink and purple cotton candy clouds. I saw a marae, a sacred meeting ground, only stepped on after being invited by the Māori people. As I walked forward with my Student Diplomacy Corps group we witnessed our first ever Māori welcoming ceremony, one of the many we would experience on our three week journey immersing ourselves into the culture of the indigenous people of Aotearoa.
We were given food, stretched among vertical tables. “This tastes like my mom’s cooking,” I whispered as I devoured the warm beef soup with potatoes. However, I could taste subtle differences. Both of my parents are from Oaxaca, Mexico, where Caldo de Rez is cooked with corn. They immigrated to the United States as teens, with nothing to their names. Coming from a low-income household, I never imagined being able to leave the country. Only months before my acceptance to the program, I was living in a hotel with my family because my parents were unable to pay rent for the apartment we lived in previously. Being homeless affected my grades, and impacted my life in all aspects.
When I received my acceptance email I hesitated; I did not know whether my living situation would change by the summer. I grew angry at the fact that I might have to let this opportunity slide, but after long conversations with my parents, they assured me everything would be okay. I had received a generous scholarship, with some money left to pay. I spent hours making tamales, posters, and flyers. My family helped me sell food at the farmer’s market and at school in attempt to raise the money needed, and we were successful.
Once in the marae my group gathered with Māori people to discuss the impact of colonialism. I immediately thought about the Treaty of Waitangi, which I had researched before leaving for New Zealand. I tried my best to remember dates and names, but as the discussion began I stopped. The conversation was about language and personal experiences. Emotions rather than facts. I sat and listened, and most importantly, I felt. As a first-generation Latina in the US, I related to how the Māori felt when they discussed the fear of speaking their own language and sense of losing culture.
The following week our group saw a kapa haka performance in Auckland. I felt a sense of pride as they yelled across the stage, stomping their feet, slapping their thighs, singing, and moving their hands, representing life through vibrations. After learning about the Māori’s rich culture and history, the kapa haka became a symbol of resistance. Despite years of discrimination, the Māori performers were able to preserve their culture, learn the dance from their ancestors, and now perform it for hundreds of people.
Back home in Los Angeles, what I am most passionate about is activism. I organize marches, form school clubs, and work with city councilmembers to find solutions to end homelessness. Being in Aotearoa with the Māori people helped me better understand issues in my own community. I understood how different cultures can come together and learn from each other’s strategies to end injustice. The kapa haka is proof that years of resistance and determination to preserve the Māori culture payed off. However, after spending three weeks in Aotearoa, it is evident that the fight for indigenous rights is not over. It is small things like the kapa haka that encourage me to continue in my own activism, striving for a better future for all.