Urban Indigenous: How Peru's Shipibo-Conibo Keep Amazon Culture Alive In The City
For four years, indigenous photographer David Díaz Gonzales has documented the lives and movements of his Shipibo-Conibo community, as many of them migrated from their native Peruvian Amazon to the city. A work of remembrance and resistance.
YARINACOCHA — It was decades ago when the Shipibo-Conibo left their settlements along the banks of the Ucayali River, in eastern Peru, to begin a great migration to the cities. Still among the largest Amazonian communities in Peru — 32,964 according to the Ministry of Culture — though most Shipibo-Conibo now live in the urban district of Yarinacocha.
For four years, Shipibo-Conibo photographer David Díaz Gonzales has documented the lives of his relatives and neighbors from Yarinacocha, in the Ucayali area, to show how they strive to keep their culture alive and share their vision of the world.
Traditions in the city
Shipibo-Conibo professor Eli Sánchez Rodríguez, an expert in the history and customs of his people, says that the indigenous group's migration to Yarinacocha began in the 1960s, when the European Adventist missions began to send members of the Shipibo-Conibo people from Paoyhan (the main settlement on the banks of the Ucayali) to the city, to join their churches.
"The first Shipibo-Conibo family to arrive in Yarinacocha were the Rojas," says Sánchez Rodríguez. "In the following years we continued migrating due to the creation of the Amazon Hospital, where they brought us to be treated; and later, we also moved there to receive education.”
David Díaz Gonzales, a Shipibo-Conibo photographer who grew up and lives in the Nueva Era settlement, made it its mission four years ago to document and pay homage to the transitory group. He began photographing his relatives and neighbors from Yarinacocha, in central Peru, to show how his people try to preserve their culture nowadays — but also how it has been transformed.
“We who are living in urban neighborhoods, and not in our native rural communities, continue to practice our customs, despite being far away from our ancestors. Those customs have survived extreme hardships and are still being kept alive,” says Díaz Gonzales, whose name in Shipibo-Conibo is Isa Rono: "It means 'little bird' and 'snake' — my grandfather on my dad's side gave me that name," he says.
A woman prepares cotton to turn it into thread for weaving.
Transformed indigenous heritage
In the Shipibo-Conibo language, the name of the community is related to the words "monkey" and "fish". According to their mythology, people transit through different worlds: the world we inhabit, "Non Nete", and the world of water, "Jene Nete".
While some Shipibo-Conibo traditions are still intact, others have been changing and adapting. Take hairstyling, for instance: A woman with a fringe is usually taking part in a ceremony or celebration. In the Besteti Xeati, or "haircut festival" adolescent girls' fringes were cut to present them to society.
A haircut as weapon of protection.A haircut was also a farewell and a weapon of protection. When a man died, the widow would cut off all her hair as a sign of mourning, and to protect the family from another death or tragedy. "It was not just a haircut, but also a ceremony where the family of the widow and the deceased participated," professor Sánchez Rodríguez points out.
Formerly, that same ritual included clitoridectomies, or removing the girls' clitoris to "purify" them. Such female genital mutilation stopped being practiced between the 1950s and 1960s.
The kené design is drawn or embroidered by Shipibo-Conibo women to express various aspects of their culture, from traditional song to medicine and aesthetics.
More than clothes
Clothing is also very characteristic of the Shipibo-Conibo people. The women wear colorful blouses and skirts with geometric designs; the men, a kind of long tunic, adorned with designs of geometric figures. Currently, says Sánchez Rodríguez, not all Shipibo-Conibo men and women wear their traditional costumes on a daily basis — this is mostly done by older people — but rather for special occasions.
The elaboration of the garments is a laborious task, especially when it comes to men's kushmas, long and ornate tunics. These are woven by hand, from the fabric on. The women prepare the cotton, then turn it into thread and then into clothes.
The women wear the koton, the blouse, and the chitonti, the skirt. Both the chitonti and the kushma are embroidered or painted with the kené ― embroidered motif. The kené design, which made it into the country's official Cultural Patrimony in 2008, is done by women and decorates not only clothing but also other fabrics, as well as ceramics, weapons, shaman crowns — and even serves as body adornment.
But the kené is not just an ornament in the form of geometric figures: It expresses the worldview, knowledge, aesthetics and traditional medicine of the Shipibo-Conibo people, as anthropologist Luisa Elvira Belaunde explains. During Ayahuasca or Piri Piri hallucinatory-plant ceremonies, men and women are said to have visions of the kené, although only the latter are the ones who execute it. The kené is also the basis for traditional songs.
During his photographic journey, Díaz Gonzáles did a lot of research. He also got to make aluminum necklaces and earrings that some of his models wore. The necklaces are usually made of plastic beads or aluminum circles, and evoke how, when merchants from the city started reaching the Shipibo-Conibo by canoe in the 1960s, they would pay members of the indigenous communities in coins. As they did not know what to do with them, having never seen coins before — they started making jewelry instead.
Previously, the Shipibo-Conibo pierced their nose and chin to hang earrings shaped like circles, leaves or even Christianity-inspired crosses.
"I remember that my grandmother had a hole in her chin, but the one in her nose had already closed," says photographer Díaz Gonzáles. "I also remember the story of an aunt who had a chin earring in the shape of a cross, but the priest in her town would not let her wear it and threw it into the river because he said that was wrong."
Ruperto Fasabi is a shaman: a mediator between the worlds.
David Díaz Gonzáles also spoke to the wisest among his people, like Shipibo-Conibo professor Eli Sánchez Rodríguez ― or "Pakan Meni" in his language― who has helped to systematize and spread the knowledge and folklore of this indigenous people. The expert has helped create school material for the teaching of Intercultural Bilingual Education (EIB), in addition to writing books about the culture of his people and even translating foreign literature, such as The Little Prince, into Shipibo-Conibo.
The national curriculum has never been designed to preserve our cultural identity.
The photographer also met with shamans, such as the renowned Ruperto Fasabi who is highly respected among the Shipibo-Conibo and who also happens to be the father of the rapper Wihtner Fasabi Gonzales or “Wihtner FaGo”. The shaman is the community's highest sage and acts as a kind of mediator between the worlds.
Díaz Gonzáles also photographed members of the "Comando Matico": people who, in the toughest times of COVID-19, turned to the benefits of the matico plant. Richard Soria, a member of this group, says that they discovered the properties of the matico while trying to alleviate the pain of COVID-hit patients with the plants that were growing in their gardens.
The Comando Matico also served to worked toward raising awareness around the alarming state of the hospitals in the region, about which the government does very little.
According to Soria, neglect starts at the education level: “The national curriculum has never been designed to preserve our cultural identity. Only one perspective has prevailed. In schools there has never been the desire to give importance to our culture. For this reason, we have formed indigenous organizations to make sure that the community, its culture and language, continue to exist. This is how we exist, as a resistance.”
Photographer David Díaz Gonzáles has moments of introspection and anxiety. During them, he thinks that someone like him, an indigenous artist in a world where indigenous knowledge is not valued, has to do something to right that wrong. Picking up his camera, he adds, "Whatever I do will remain as an example and incentive for my people, it is my responsibility."