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

Photographs from two centuries

UPCOMMING EXHIBITIONS

March 7th, 2024 at 17:30h: Mexican Embassy in Swizterland,  Bern
May 2024: Asociación Cultural Na Bolom, San Cristóbal de las Casas
November 2024: Bernisches Historisches Museum, Bern

This project is made possile with the financial support of Burgergemeinde Bern and the Temperatio Stiftung

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ABOUT THIS PROJECT 

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 Bernese journalist, social anthropologist, and activist known in Chiapas as “la reina de la selva” – “the Queen of the Jungle,” a name first coined in the 1989 documentary film by Robert S. Cozen’s  Reina de la Selva, Gertrude Blom: a Portrait.  As early as the 1940s, she raised awareness about deforestation caused by loggers, immigrant settlers or “Ladinos”, the petroleum industry, and the Mexican government, among others. Through her photographic work, she exposed the exploitation of indigenous people and the corruption of their culture. About 80% of the Lacandon jungle, the only rainforest in North America, is believed to have been lost to deforestation already. The “queen” title and her life as a foreigner in Mexico are not without controversy in our modern view with the hindsight of Post Colonialism discourse. Controversy aside, her environmental commitment remains crucial today in light of the consequences of climate change and globalization.  

My portraits aim to build on Trudi’s documentary legacy by capturing the current generation and circumstances of the Lacandon people of the remote community of Nahá. They illustrate how this proud 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. Trudi’s photography primarily served the purpose of documentation and raising awareness about the destruction of the jungle and its cultures. My primary concern in photography is an artistic one, but in this series it has also been driven by my deep admiration for her activist work. Trudi and me share the fact that, for the Lacandons, we are both Ladinos or foreigners. My home town of Nuevo Laredo might as well be as far aways as Bern in their view.  I firmly believe that by following in her photographic footsteps, even if our approach is different, I am paying homage to her original intentions. I hope to draw attention to the powerful images she captured, and also bring recognition for her work in her country of origin where she is hardly known, and renew her fight for the preservation of indigenous cultures and the enviroment.

THE PORTRAITS

The portraits in this project expose the extent to which even the most remote communities in Mexico today carry the traces of globalization: T-shirts with English slogans, mobile phones, tennis shoes and the omnipresent Coca-Cola signs. Children, teenagers and adults in Nahá wear traditional white tunics (Nok) and modern clothes side by side. Special for me are the portraits of Don Antonio, the 104 year old village spiritual leader (Ut’ohir) or chaman, and son of Chan Kin Viejo who was an intimate friend of Trudi and the former chaman. With two new evangelical churches in the small community Don Antonio unfortunately has only very few followers and no one has been trained to replace him.  

ABOUT NAHÁ

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

The Lacandon community in Nahá was so special to Trudi that 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. 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.  

They 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 this destruction.

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