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Documentary Captures the Dying Yumano Culture’s Legacy

Still from POLEN's Nido de Lenguas | Courtesy of POLEN Talking to Action PST LALA
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This is produced in partnership with Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, a far-reaching and ambitious exploration of Latin American and Latino art in dialogue with Los Angeles.

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The Yumanos, an indigenous group that once spanned Baja and Alta California, as well as parts of Arizona, remember that they have always lived along the Colorado River, even as political borders divided them and environmental conservation has threatened their way of life. The Kiliwas, Pai Pai and Cucapá are three Yumano tribes who still live in Baja California, although their languages are nearing extinction and their tribal numbers are in decline.

To save what little remains, POLEN, the Tijuana-based collaborative art duo, worked with Institute of Cultural Investigations of the Autonomous University of Baja California and with members of Baja California Yumano tribes to create a documentary based on their myths, geographically symbolic locations, dreams and beliefs around death. The result is a short, non-narrative documentary shown at Talking To Action: Art, Pedagogy and Activism in the Americas at Otis College of Art and Design (September 17, 2017-December 10, 2017).  The exhibit is part of the wide-ranging Getty effort, Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA.

POLEN created their documentary, Nido de Lenguas (Nest of Languages), by working extensively and intimately with three Yumano tribes: Kiliwas, Pai Pai and Cucapá. Though Adriana Trujillo and José Inerzia directed and produced Nido de Lenguas, the success of their documentary came from their collaboration with the Yumanos. Trujillo and Inerzia wanted to “reverse the tradition of classic anthropology,” and they established close relationships with the Yumanos to create their documentary by “working from the recreation of [the Yumano’s] myths, fears and magics…[and] integrating actions from the moment of the [Yumano] themselves and their imagined reality.” In their collaboration, POLEN filmed and directed as various tribal members spoke with them, told them tales and helped to recreate the scenes, myths, fears and dreams that appear in the documentary. The result of this four-year-long effort is a haunting, non-linear film that layers myths and culture on the desert landscape.

Still from POLEN's Nido de Lenguas | Courtesy of POLEN Talking to Action PST LALA
Still from POLEN's Nido de Lenguas | Courtesy of POLEN

“The idea of extinction is something that intrigues us; we are eyewitnesses to constant death. With Nido de Lenguas, we intended to make a picture of the geo-symbolic Yumano universe and their principle myths related to the land, the memory and their fears. They have already died, and we are the witnesses of their death. We have excluded them for centuries, what is their territory, the land. In it, we wander and their myths and reams will linger there forever. There is no better way to portray them than through the ephemeral, the intangible,” said Trujillo.

Still from POLEN's Nido de Lenguas | Courtesy of POLEN Talking to Action PST LALA
Still from POLEN's Nido de Lenguas | Courtesy of POLEN

Nido de Lenguas opens in a future where there are no more Yumanos left in Baja California. “They are already extinct,” Trujillo says, not only because there are only five living Kiliwa speakers and ten Cucupá, but because “not Mexicans, not the governments recognizes them, because we have already forgotten them, so the film begins in a future when they no longer exist.” A myth, an amalgam of Yumano beliefs written by Trujillo, appears written across a blank screen, telling the tale of a volcano that the people pacified and a devil-monster they could not tame. Long, still shots of desert locales follow. The camera lingers on the parched and cracked earth; on a rocky, hilly landscapes; explores a crashed plane and the viewer experiences the silent stillness of place, and nearly feel the heat rising from the land. The clouds move slightly in the background, perhaps the wind causes branches to shift, but otherwise, the people-less scenes are motionless. These scenes fulfill the promise of the myth, in which there is no one left.

People enter the documentary gradually, first through a distant shot of a man, tiny against the landscape, walking along a dusty dirt road, then the sounds and shadows of someone moving through a dark home and then out into the bright day. We follow behind this man, José Ochurte, as he walks out into the sun and along a road an enchanted or cursed rock, the Sorcerer Stone. As he tells us how all people who pass by leave an offering and ask permission from the stone before walking on, the camera pans along the silk flowers, beer and candles left on the stone itself. From this point on, Yumanos people the documentary and we are able to enter into the landscape through the legends they share, or while they carry out some casual, daily action. An old woman, Inocencia Rodríguez, rolls and grills tortillas as she speaks of a cursed cliff once called Jamimchmimp. A young boy practices with his bow and arrow. A boat slides out into the river. A voice-over whispers tales of the bird-men with diamonds set into their foreheads who flew overhead. Many of the stories are told in the past tense, about the people who once were. Yet, Yumanos, still alive, are the “actors” in this film and they tell the stories in their own language.

With Nido de Lenguas, Trujillo and Inerzia decided to “use science fiction to see a world in which the Yumanos no longer exist, [where] they have already disappeared” to show the Yumanos as they know themselves, through their beliefs and stories. The modern world doesn’t see them, having forgotten their very existence, and Trujillo and Inerzia posit that contemporary Mexico “[sees] them as already extinct, so the intersection between documentary film and science fiction provided us with these tools to shape the cosmology of these communities [within the film] from their dreams and myths.” While projecting into the future allowed POLEN to more fully allow the Yumanos’ own stories and beliefs to shape the film, it is an uncomfortable exercise against the reality that the Yumano population is declining and that indigenous people in Mexico are in economic crisis.

In the past ten years, Tijuana has experienced a massive influx of indigenous people migrating north, as indigenous people from poorer, southern states move towards border cities and towns where there is more work. They don’t just come to the border towns but also work in fields in Baja California, where produce is grown to be shipped to the U.S. “The southern states have the highest poverty levels. And these are the same states that have the highest indigenous population in all of Mexico,” says Victor Clarke Alfaro, director of the International Center for Human Rights in Tijuana, “And in accord with the data from the Mexican government, the 76 percent of indigenous people in [Tijuana] live in conditions of extreme poverty. For this reason, indigenous people look for opportunities to better their conditions. They migrate to the border.” With this influx, Tijuana itself is changing, with more than 50 indigenous languages now spoken in the city of 1.8 million people. This migration of indigenous people, moving within their own country to find better economic opportunities, speaks to the perilous situation many indigenous people are in.

Within the film itself, we witness Ochurte taking care of gravesites, pounding old, fallen grave markers into the ground, and others praying and observing a small and brightly colored cemetery. As Ochurte picks up the fallen grave markers and pounds them back into the ground, he acknowledges that the people used to care for the gravestones, but “there is no one left.” It is difficult to know where we are in time here: does he speak of the people who used to live in the particular place of gravesite? Or does he project into the future with POLEN? As he sits and shares his understanding of the world order, that “all people are going to die, all the Kiliwa also. We all came here to die. God gave us the earth to die also,” the acceptance with which he speaks makes where we might be in time in the film not matter. POLEN deepens into the theme of death by shifting the scene to focus on a gravestone, a rare engraved stone among wooden markers, that tells the story of a fisherman who died and continues to paddle his boat across the sky. The scene shifts again, and the silhouette of a man standing in his fishing boat, paddling across the dry lakebed of Laguna Salada, against the night sky appears. It is a peaceful image, which allows us to reimagine the landscape through the eyes of the people who have lived there for millennia. As the Yumano who took part in Nido de Lenguas re-enact or perform their experiences, stories and beliefs, they offer us a way into the Yumano culture. They also leave behind a precious legacy for a future when there truly are no Yumano left to walk this earth.

Top Image: Still from POLEN's Nido de Lenguas | Courtesy of POLEN 

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