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From Cairns to Madrid: The first female Indigenous ambassador takes her charm to Spain

Julie-Ann Guivarra, the new Australian ambassador to Spain. Source: Supplied

Julie-Ann Guivarra was the first in her family to go to university. She was the first Indigenous person to serve as a senior executive in the Australian Foreign Ministry. Last year, she became the first Indigenous woman to represent Australia as its highest-ranking diplomat in Spain.

With her broad smile and warm voice, Ambassador Julie-Ann Guivarra stands out among the top Australian diplomatic circles.

Despite the high position she holds, her friendliness invites one to break the usual protocol, and even call her by her first name and not by her title and surname.

Ms Guivarra, who is both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, is a pioneer: she was the first in her family to go to university, the first Indigenous person to serve in the highest ranks in the Foreign Ministry, and since 2018, the first Indigenous woman to represent Australia as an ambassador.

“Certainly I’ve never set out necessarily in life to be a trailblazer, but I do think that being the first Indigenous female ambassador is a huge honor. It’s an honor for myself, you know, I know that my family back in Australia are very proud of this achievement."

Ms Guivarra was posted to Spain, the country where her Basque surname originated. Ms Guivarra's Spanish connection dates back to one of her great-grandfathers, of Indigenous and Filipino origin: a combination not all that unusual, given the ancient maritime trade routes between Asia, Europe and Oceania reached the Torres Strait islands.

"My last name is Spanish because my great-grandparents were from the Philippine islands. It was only when I got this position that I started learning the language," the ambassador explains.

"Since I arrived here last year, we've had the opportunity to speak with many people (...) People like the history of the Indigenous peoples of Australia a lot. It's interesting."

Ambassador's grandfather (standing) and his brother (sitting)
The ambassador's grandfather (standing) and his brother (sitting).

From her childhood, Ms Guivarra's road map seemed to indicate a future abroad.

"I was born in Cairns, in northern Queensland, and my family is Indigenous. I lived in several towns, such as Cooktown and Townsville because when I was young my father worked in the Ministry of Aviation."

Her family lived in a tiny airport about twelve kilometres from Cooktown. It was not strange for her to play on the airstrip when planes were not landing or taking off.

"It was actually a one-man operation, where he (my father) managed the airport in Cooktown for three years. My brother and I, my mother and father lived actually at the airport.   

"My youth was very simple. For example, when I was young and living in Cooktown, I rode my bike on the airport runway, I did not wear shoes and I lived in total freedom. I would not have imagined that I could become an ambassador for my country at that time."

Her experiences in Cooktown had a great influence on her. As a mining town, Cooktown had a prominent Asian community, as well as a deeply-rooted Indigenous cultural heritage.

Musical group which included Ambassador's grandfather (back left-of-centre)
Musical group which included Ambassador's grandfather (back left-of-centre).

“Cooktown is a really fascinating town. It has an interesting history. It was a thriving goldmine and a wave of a Chinese community who came to the area and it has a rich [Indigenous] heritage. Captain Cook landed there, so it’s an interesting place," she explains.

She also lived in Cairns, one of the most multicultural towns in North Queensland, which welcomed different waves of migrant communities.

"Even when I was growing up, there were different waves of migrant communities around Cairns. In fact, I think Far North Queensland is much more multicultural than what people give it credit for.”

Ms Guivarra considers that having grown up in a multicultural and Indigenous environment influenced her professionally.

“Growing up in a multicultural town gives you an ability to relate to communities from different parts of the world and of course that’s a very important part of the role of a diplomat, you know, having the ability to sit down and listen to different points of view of the world.

"I think that too is inherently part of the Indigenous communities as well, being able to sit and listen to different views, to try and understand different points of view. That is something that is very important to my work now, but obviously growing up in a multicultural community is an essential part of life, really.”

The opportunities generated by the policies of the late Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke helped her access higher education.

"I studied a bachelor's degree in Commerce at James Cook University in Townsville, and I was thinking about what I could do after college. I had seen an ad to take exams to be an official for the government of Australia, and I thought it could be a good opportunity. I had an interest in foreign affairs. In fact, it was the time of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, when Australia was opening up to the world," she recalls.

“Certainly, the public service appealed to me because I really wanted to do something for the Australian community in general."

Ambassador Guivarra presenting her credentials to King Felipe VI of Spain
Ambassador Guivarra presenting her credentials to King Felipe VI of Spain.

"Now I have worked in the ministry for 23 years, I studied a Masters in Foreign Affairs and I have had destinations in other countries such as India and Switzerland. And now I am the ambassador of Australia in Spain. It has been a phenomenal experience."

When SBS Spanish asked what is the most interesting part about her work, she says it is still being able to connect with different people from all over the world.

"I have the opportunity to talk with other people in many countries and I love learning more about how other cultures work. So, for me, this is the perfect job."

During NAIDOC week, when we celebrate the achievements of the Australian Aboriginal peoples and the Torres Strait Islanders, recognising the work and success of the first female Australian Indigenous ambassador through an interview, for this reporter, is more than a journalistic obligation - It is a privilege for a migrant who has been welcomed into ancestral lands.

Ms Guivarra says that she owes her success to her family, who supported her in her career, despite not having had the same opportunities or education.

"[My grandparents] worked hard all their lives to provide a good life for their children. My father did not have a good education, but he [taught me] that it was necessary [to have one]. He gave me a lot of support during my studies, and I am very grateful, in fact, to my family."

Inspirational talk by Ambassador Guivarra with the Airbus Women Network.
Inspirational talk by Ambassador Guivarra with the Airbus Women Network.

"My nan and my pop, they really did enforce upon us the importance of a good education. They were always expecting that I would go to university, even though I was the first person in my family to do so. They were very supportive of me when I went off to my first posting. And again, for someone from an Indigenous family, it’s not very common to have your children or your grandchildren go off to the other side of the world to do a posting. On my first posting to India, my father came across to visit me. It was his first time overseas, so they’ve always been very supportive of my career."   

When asked about her reception in Spain, a monarchical country with a colonialist past, she says it has been extraordinary: "The Spanish people have a genuine interest in who the Indigenous peoples are, where they live now, what is their lifestyle."

The ambassador adds that her presence as an Indigenous woman not only generates curiosity, she encourages those who know her to learn more about the true history of segregation in Australia - still opaque and unknown abroad.

"I think it’s an opportunity to try and build an understanding, a more well-rounded understanding, of what is happening in Australia and what Australia looks like, and potentially, there are things in that sharing of our story which helps other countries as well," she explains. 

"Recently the Embassy in collaboration with the National Museum of Australia showed an exhibition here in Madrid.

"We had several groups of schools that visited the exhibition and, during their visit, they asked me about the coexistence of the Indigenous and white population in Australia."

Opening reception of Indigenous art exhibition Yiwarra Kuju: The Canning Stock Route. In the picture, Ambassador Guivarra with the seven Ambassadors that attended the reception.
Opening reception of Indigenous art exhibition Yiwarra Kuju: The Canning Stock Route.

"I explained to them about the history, for example of the Stolen Generations, but also about the progress in the relations with the apology of the prime minister (Kevin Rudd) in 2008. I think it is important that we talk about bad things and about good things and be honest about what happened in our history so that we can continue with confidence towards the future," she says.

"I have an opportunity to speak not only about the past and the difficulties of our history but also about the resistance of the Indigenous populations.

"Ms Guivarra aspires to be an inspirational model for the next Indigenous generations to fight to achieve their dreams, despite the many obstacles. More than a yearning, she feels it is a responsibility.

"I would like Indigenous children, when they think about the future, to think that it is not unusual for a man or a woman to be an ambassador and to have an example of that.

"As for what she would like the Hispanic community in Australia to know or learn about Australian Indigenous cultures and NAIDOC Week, the Ambassador replies that it is important to recognise that even though colonisation stories from anywhere in the world are "difficult", and that it is necessary to understand the damage that has occurred, above all we must celebrate and acknowledge the resilience of Indigenous peoples.

"I think it's important for people to know, that people have an interest in the Indigenous peoples of Australia, because it is a part of our history. Not only of our history, but of our future as well," she says."It's something unique to Australia and something different, in our history as a country. (...) I am proud to say that now many people realise that our Indigenous cultures are something to be proud of."

Before our time is up, she extends an invitation to migrants in Australia: "If you have money, a visit to the Torres Strait Islands could be a phenomenal experience. A unique and unforgettable experience."

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