Gertrude Duby Blom: The Swiss “Queen of the Mexican Jungle”

Photographs From Two Centuries

A photography project by Gerardo Garciacano and Gregorio Vázquez

UPCOMMING EXHIBITIONS:
OPENING: March 14th, 2024 at the  Mexican Embassy in Switzerland,  Bern. 
        Click HERE to see photos and videos from the opening event. 
June 6th, 2024 at the Museum Kleines Klingental, in cooperation with Expolat     
July 5th, 2024 at the Asociación Cultural Na Bolom, San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico

In cooperation with Swiss Cultural Association Na Bolom.ch,  Asociación Cultural Na Bolom in Mexico, and The Mexican Embassy in Switzerland.
This project is made possible with the support of Kanton Bern, Burgergemeinde Bern and the Temperatio Stiftung.

The introductory text by Meike Powroznik, curator for the Americas at the Ethnographic Museum of the University of Zurich, in German, is HERE.

Nahá. Sin fecha. ©Gertrude Duby Blom
"Nuk, Mariana, and Nuk Yamilet," Nahá, 2023 ©Gerardo Garciacano

“Hachakyum, god of gods, created the heavens and the jungles. In the sky, he sowed the stars, and in the jungle, he planted the large trees. The roots of all things are intertwined with each other.
When a tree is cut in the jungle, a star falls from the sky.”
Chan k’in Viejo (1900-1996)

ABOUT THIS PROJECT 

The project is a photographic dialogue between two centuries and two photographers. By juxtaposing the images captured by Gertrude Duby Blom in the remote Lacandon village of Nahá in the second half of the twentieth century with my own photographs of the same location from the twenty-first century, a narrative unfolds revealing a delicate interplay between traditions, globalization, and survival.

BACKGROUND

This project has been inspired by the photographic work of Gertrude “Trudi” Duby Blom (1901-1993), spanning her time in Mexico between the 1940s until her death in 1993. Trudi devoted the last 50 years of her life to preserving the landscape and cultures of the Southern state of Chiapas, establishing herself as one of the earliest environmental activists of the twentieth century. Trudi was a temperamental and indomitable Swiss Mexican journalist, social anthropologist, and activist known in Chiapas as “la reina de la selva” – “the Queen of the Jungle.” The name, coined in the 1989 documentary film by Robert S. Cozen’s  Reina de la Selva, Gertrude Blom: a Portrait, carries some of the ambivalence of Trudi’s role as seen in hindsight from a post-colonial narrative.

When Trudi first encountered the Lacandons in 1943, they were highly isolated from the broader concept of civilization. Their way of life bore more similarities to indigenous groups in the Amazon basin than to the rest of Mexico. Starting from the mid-1940s, Trudi actively raised awareness about deforestation caused by loggers, immigrant settlers, commonly known as “Ladinos,” the petroleum industry, and the actions of the Mexican government. Through her photographic work, she brought attention to the detrimental impact of deforestation, highlighting not only the harm to our planet but also the immediate threat it posed to the Lacandon way of life.

My portraits aim to build on Trudi’s documentary legacy by capturing the current generation and circumstances of the Lacandon people of the remote Nahá-Metzabok region. They illustrate how this community has been dealing with the impact of modernization and the influence of an increasingly globalized world.

“Not only do they speak ill of me: they hate me. They are my enemies. Like the foresters, the people from the Rural Bank who destroy the jungles with credits for cattle; the Ladinos who do not like the indigenous people….Only those who do nothing have no enemies… Let the myth of Gertrude Duby Blom grow. Later, when I am not here, the truth of things will be seen, and my existence in this magical area can be understood.”
Gertrude Duby Blom 

Trudi and Gerardo

The parallels between Gertrude’s life and my own have played a pivotal role in catalyzing this project. While Trudi was a woman from the Bernese Oberland who emigrated to Mexico, where she spent the latter part of her life, I grew up in Mexico and later moved to Europe in pursuit of my career as a classical singer and have lived in Berne since 2008. Also, both Trudi and I transitioned into photography later in our lives. Her photography primarily served the purpose of documentation and raising awareness about the destruction of the jungle and its cultures. My primary interest in photography is an artistic one. In my portraits I experiment with the juxtaposition of the posed, studio-lit portrait, with the flux and aleatory nature of street portraiture. While Trudi was a Swiss woman documenting ethnic groups in Mexico, I am a Mexican man documenting social groups in Switzerland in my Street-Portrait Series. Trudi and I also share the fact that, for the Lacandons, we are both Ladinos or foreigners. My home town of Nuevo Laredo in the north of Mexico must feel as far away as Bern in their view.

Gertrude Duby con Chan K'in viejo. Nahá. Sin fecha. Autor desconocido
Gerardo y Bohr "Mudo", Nahá 2019 @Gerardo Garciacano

“My fame as a singer quickly spread throughout the jungle. Whenever I arrived at different villages, one of my main duties was to sing. Once, to dispel Mateo’s anger because we hadn’t brought the desired phonograph, we found no other means than my singing.”
Gertrude Duby Blom

ABOUT NAHÁ

“Hach Winik”,  the “true men” and the guardians of the biosphere

The Lacandons are believed to have inhabited the region between Yucatan, Chiapas and the Peten in Guatemala since ancestral times. During the Spanish colonization, when other ethnic groups were being converted to catholicism or annihilated, they fled to remote places of the jungle to preserve their traditions. Many anthropologists believe that they were one of the purest indigenous people of Mexico until the second half of the 20th century when roads for timber companies made the jungle more accessible. That coincides with the time that Trudi Blom first arrived in Chiapas and her photos bear witness to the destruction of the jungle. About 80% of the Lacandon jungle, the only rainforest in North America, is believed to have been lost to deforestation.

The Lacandons call themselves “Hach Winik” which translates as “true men” and they have been designated as guardians of the Nahá–Metzabok Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO site since 1998. Since 2004, Nahá has also been a RAMSER protected site. The reason for these designations is that some 40,000 species of fauna and flora exist in these habitats, and the area is considered the most important site for biodiversity in North America. The Nahá and neighboring Metzabok (another Lacandon community) regions represent only 0.4% of Mexico’s surface, but it contains 48% of the bird species, 33% of the bats, 11% of the reptiles and 25% of the mammals in the country. Nahá now has a population of about 270 inhabitants, around 60 families. They belong to the Mayan indigenous group and speak the Lacandon language

Culturally, most of the Lacandons have become alienated from their own traditions. One group converted to the Southern Baptist religion, while another embraced Seventh-Day Adventism. However, the community at Nahá, led by its charismatic chieftain and spiritual leader, Chan K’in Viejo, remained steadfast in preserving the flame of traditional Mayan religion and culture. Trudi developed a close friendship with Chan K’in, holding deep respect for his knowledge of Mayan oral traditions and its intricate moral and cosmological aspects [4]The current spiritual leader (Ut’ohir) of Nahá is Don Antonio, son of Chan K’in Viejo.  With two new evangelical churches in the small community Don Antonio, now over 90 years old, unfortunately has only very few followers and no one has been trained to replace him.

“They came from the other side of the sea and found us living here. And these people brought their own god: Akiantó. That’s why now there are many people and missionaries who worship the god of foreigners. They often built churches with the stones from the houses of our gods and in the ruins of our temples. They took many beautiful sacred objects that we never saw again. So many sacred things that our gods left us were burned and destroyed, and they are lost forever.”
Chan k’in Viejo (1900-1996)

Don Antonio con hombrecitos de barro. Nahá. Sin fecha. ©Gertrude Duby
"Don Antonio, the last chaman" Nahá 2023 ©Gerardo Garciacano

“My bitter experience from all the fights for many years is: the forest will go, the planet will go, and, what I don’t care about, humanity will go. We deserve to disappear.”
Gertrude Duby Blom

Gertrude Duby Blom

Gertrude Elisabeth Loertscher was born in Innertkirchen and grew up as the daughter of a religious minister in the small village of Wimmis near the Swiss alps. She led an extraordinary life that diverged radically from the norms of her rural Swiss background. In her twenties, she joined the Socialist Party and became a fierce journalist who wrote against fascism in 1930s not only in Germany but also in Switzerland, Italy and France. Due to her political activism, she was arrested five times, incarcerated three times, and sent to a camp for undesirable foreigners in France before eventually moving to Mexico.

Gertrude Duby Blom, autor desconocido

In 1943, she volunteered to join an exploration expedition led by the government to the southern state of Chiapas. The expedition was the first of its kind in one hundred years and it was mainly on horseback. This presented a challenge for Trudi, who had never ridden a horse before. In the Lacandon jungle, she encountered Frans Blom, a well-known Danish archaeologist and cartographer, whom she later married. It was during this time that she started her socio-political work, advocating for the environment and the communities of the Chiapas jungle.

Initially, her interest in the group, much like her husband’s, was primarily anthropological and sociological. They collected artifacts to prevent their loss, vaccinated the Lacandons to protect them from devastating diseases from the outside world, and, in general, sought to shield them from the destructive influences of that same outside world. Within a few years, however, it became evident that, even if Lacandon culture might be defended in the abstract, the relentless forces of economic change were condemning these gentle people to extinction [4]. Trudi began then to see herself as the protector and saviour of the Lacandon.

Gertrude con lacandón de Najá. Autor desconocido. Najá c. 1948

In 1951, Trudi and Frans Blom purchased a house in San Cristobal, which they named Na Bolom (“house of the jaguar” in Lacandon). The 22-room house, originally built in 1891 as a seminary, transformed into a research center with an extensive library containing specialized works on Chiapas, Mexico, and Mesoamerica. Trudi managed the day-to-day operations, and after Frans passed away in 1964, she established the Asociación Cultural Na Bolom to ensure the protection of Lacandon culture and provide them with a home away from home when they visited San Cristobal for personal or professional matters. Trudi passed away on Christmas Eve in 1993 and was laid to rest in the San Cristobal cemetery. In 2010, the remains of both Frans Blom and Trudi Duby were moved to the sacred cemetery of the Lacandon people in Naha. This emotional journey marked the final expedition to the jungle, fulfilling Trudi’s last wish.

“We must return. I believe, as the hunters believe, that people who have entered that jungle are lost; they must return, leave, but always come back until their bones remain there, trapped in the bosom of Mother Earth, under the emerald roof of its giant trees…”
Gertrude Duby Blom

Special thanks to Kyra Nuñez de León-Johnsson for providing invaluable information and her help editing the text in this website. 

SOURCES AND EXTERNAL LINKS

[1] Rostros y rastros de una leyenda: Gertrude Duby Blom by Kyra Nuñez de León-Johnsson. Consejo Estatal para la Cultura y las Artes de Chiapas. publicaciones@concecultachiapas.gob.mx

[2] Gertrude Blom Bearing Witness by Alex Harris

[3] Gertrude Duby Blom.  Alias Trudi Lörtscher, Pfarrerstochter zu Wimmis 

[4] Encyclopedia.com Duby-Blom, Gertrude (1901–1993)

[5] Fotostiftung Schweiz

[6] Karussel -Xunan-The Lady SRF Interview

[7] Garrick Wilkie: Chan K’in Viejo: El Sabio de la Selva Lacandona. Prof Mex Films

 

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