‘Where Our Ancestors Once Tread’ Valbina Miguel Toribio talks about filming the Yanesha

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LA PAZ, Bolivia – Valbina Miguel Toribio was a long way from her village in the Peruvian Amazon as she gazed out the bus window at the bright but chilly altiplano landscape of Bolivia. She wore the traditional long brown dress and beaded red necklaces of the Yanesha people and, underneath it, a cream-colored, long-sleeved turtleneck to protect against the cold. “If you take my picture, don’t show too much of this thing I’m wearing underneath,” she said, laughing.

Toribio, though still in her 20s, is a traditionalist. She went to La Paz to attend the Continental Encounter of Indigenous Peoples and share the history of her people with the video she worked on, “Where Our Ancestors Once Tread.” The video project, she believes, is a good example of how Amazonian peoples can rescue and record their fast-disappearing oral histories and traditions.

Toribio’s community, Loma Linda, is located in the eastern Amazon jungle region of Peru. Like many other Amazon peoples, the Yanesha began regular contact with outsiders only in the last 50 years. But in that time, according to Toribio and other Amazonians, cultural change has been rapid. Most people of Toribio’s generation in jungle communities bordering the encroaching “civilization” could care less about their histories or language. They want to learn English. They want to forget.

Underneath her easy laughter, Toribio is nervous about the survival of her people. It’s not just cultural survival she’s worried about, it’s physical survival.

She’s worried because there’s been an increase in illegal logging around the community. She’s worried because a large oil company has recently signed a contract with the Peruvian government and Yanesha leaders to begin exploration on Yanesha land.

“In the beginning the oil companies say they’re going to do this and that for the community. In the end, all we see is what happens in other communities: a lot of contamination in the river. The birds are dying, the plants are dying.”

“Look what’s happening to the Machiguenga. Their community has been working with the company PlusPetrol, and the river is being contaminated, the fish are dying. You can’t drink the water anymore because it’s so contaminated with oil, and the children that drink it are covered with sores ... I’ve seen videos which really leave you shocked.

“Our most important food is yucca, but the earth is no longer producing it the way it should. In some areas, when it grows, it looks like someone has thrown hot water on it, it’s all bent over. I’ve seen this in videos in Lima, and I know that in my community this will happen as well.”

The video Toribio worked on is not about problems with illegal logging or oil companies. It’s about the way things were before, when the Yanesha could still see and speak to the spirits that populated their land.

But she feels that it’s important to draw strength from the past in order to confront the problems of the present. “Very few people see the spirits of place anymore. They’re still there, they just don’t show themselves the way they used to.”

Like many young Peruvians in rural areas, Toribio migrated to Lima to find a job, returning to the ancestral territory of the Yanesha. She began working with the Instituto del Bien Comun, an organization dedicated to conservation of nature and indigenous culture. One of the institute’s projects was a series of four videos on the Yanesha culture, in collaboration with the anthropologist Richard Chase Smith and the Federation of Yanesha Communities. Toribio worked both on and off camera on the project.

In the series of four videos, community elders were asked to share their traditional songs and knowledge of where the Yanesha had lived and traveled, and what histories, ancestors and spirits were connected to the places they had walked. Like the frog who carried fire for the people as they walked and who is the reason frogs today eat charcoal if you throw it at them. Or the mountain Chemoyepen, which was the temple and final hiding place of Grandfather Coromesh. Or the importance of the sun to all of the Yanesha people.

“At first the elders were very reluctant to talk to us,” Toribio said. “They had gone so long without anybody being interested in what they had to say that they just looked at us and said, “Why should I talk to you?

“But once the videos were completed, it was amazing to see them watch themselves on video,” she continued. “One grandmother, as she was watching herself sing, began to cry. ‘My children only want to listen to mestizo music,’ the grandmother said. ‘Nobody has cared about my songs. Now I am crying because I am being heard.’”

The videos are now being used in schools, community centers, and to help the Yanesha recover control of their sacred sites. They have had an effect on the younger generation, Toribio said, helping them appreciate what came before them.

“We have to start with the young, with education, with teachers and families,” she said.

When the bus ride to La Paz was almost over, Toribio smoothed down her long sleeves to face the chilly air outside, admitting that the high altitude of La Paz had made her somewhat dizzy. But before she left, she smiled.

“I want to do even more with video work so that my people can be strong,” she said.

“Q’orianka, that Peruvian Native actress in Hollywood who played Pocahontas: I want to be like her. I want to be someone that inspires Native kids to reconnect to their culture and language, someone they can look at and say, ‘If she can do it, why can’t I?’”