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.
May ?, 2024 Asociación Cultural Na Bolom, San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico
November 1st, 2024: at the Bernisches Historisches Museum, Bern.

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.

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

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.”  This name,  first 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 encountered the Lacandons in the 1940s they were very isolated from the rest of so-called civilization. Their way of life had more similarities with indigenous groups in the Amazon basin than with the rest of Mexico. As early as the 1940s, Trudi raised awareness of deforestation caused by loggers, immigrant settlers or “Ladinos,” the petroleum industry, and the Mexican government. Through her photographic work, she exposed the ways in which deforestation was not only harming our planet but was posing an immediate threat 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.

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 Chankin viejo. Nahá. Sin fecha. Autor desconocido
Gerardo y Bohr "Mudo", Nahá 2019 @Gerardo Garciacano

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 Lacandon 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) region 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 Lacandónes 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.

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

Gertrude Duby Blom

Gertrude Elisabeth Loertscher was born in Innertkirchen and grew up as the daughter of a minister in the small village of Wimmis. 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 Germany. 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 Mexican federal government to the southern state of Chiapas. The expedition, mainly on horseback, 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 initiated 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, inoculated the Lacandon 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 Lacandón 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 Lacanonds and in the 1970s she and Frans Blom founded  the Asociación Cultural Na Bolom (“house of the jaguar” in Lacandon) in San Cristobal de las Casas to assure the protection of their culture and assist them in times of need.

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

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

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