Photo by Genaro Santiz Gomez


Winter/Spring 2002

the beliefs of our elders

by Carlota Duarte

The Chiapas Photography Project was founded in 1992 by Carlota Duarte to give the indigenous people of the Chiapas region of Mexico the opportunity to creatively interpret their lives and culture. In October, Ms. Duarte accompanied the project’s “Nuestra Comida” exhibit to the Wabash campus.

The seed that became the Chiapas Photography Project grew from two sources.
As an artist, I wanted to see what people would and could express—and what I could learn from them—when they were given a new artistic tool and no pre-conceived notion as to how it ought to be used. Some of my professional friends in places where I’d taught questioned me on this. But I told them, “I don’t want to be a colonist. I’m not going to tell these people ‘Here’s how it’s done.’ The point of the project is to let them discover their own ways to use it” I knew from my own experience—for though I have my MFA in photography, I was originally self-taught—that this was a great way of learning.

My other motivation was justice. For centuries, indigenous people have been subject to other people representing them. I came to see this very clearly in 1985-86, when I was gathering data on pictorial collections of Mexican history and culture. I saw how important indigenous origins are for Mexico. But most of those representations of indigenous culture are not by Indians, but by someone else. For this project, I decided, the indigenous people should have their own voice.

The work of Maruch Satiz Gomez is just one example of how those voices have been heard. Maruch was in our very first group. Only 17 then, she already was a very good writer in her native language, tzotzil, one of the Mayan languages.
Maruch had applied for a grant to fund a literary project called Creencias, which means “beliefs.” She said, “I’m going to collect from the elders our beliefs, because these are things that are being lost or forgotten and need to be preserved for the next generation.”

Most of these creencias were ways of teaching children how to avoid illness or danger. Some were folk cures. Almost all would disappear with the elders who told them.

One day Maruch asked if she could use a little Fuji automatic camera I owned. She came in the next Monday and wanted to show me her contact sheets. When she began explaining them to me, I realized her idea was quite brilliant.

“I’ve written these down, but a lot of the people in my community can’t read, so whatever I wrote won’t help them,” Maruch told me. “But they might be able to read a picture in a book. So I want to take pictures to go with the text.”

The result was the book, Creencias, and its photographs and text introduced Maruch to the larger art world. Today, she’s internationally famous. A gallery handles her work, and she’s had shows in Liverpool, Johannesburg, Australia, Mexico City, and a collection of her work hangs in the Reina de Sofia in Madrid.

Her lifestyle has not changed, even though she now has a relatively substantial income. But her understanding of art, and of others, has grown.

I saw that most recently as she worked with Xunka Lopez Diaz, a young photographer whose family had been expelled from her native village of Chamula when she was four years old for embracing evangelical Christianity. Her book was about her broken childhood, and her younger sister’s mended childhood, and was a means of healing for Xunka. But she needed Maruch’s assistance translating the book into tzotzil.

When she first learned of Xunka’s plight, Maruch told me that it was right that Xunka’s family had been expelled. They’d broken away from the beliefs of the community, so they should leave, she said. But as the women worked together, Maruch saw the expulsion in a different light—with deeper understanding and empathy that I believe comes across in the writing of the book.

To see this young woman work so creatively to preserve her culture, even while recognizing its weaknesses, has been very rewarding to me.
In many ways, this project is only coincidentally about photography.

Excerpted and edited from an interview with Carlota Duarte
Read the complete interview on WM Online:

Return to INCENSE

Return to the table of contents