Of Gaps and Bridges

Juan Gutiérrez Maupomé, journalist, Mexico
E-Mail: jgutierrez@laneta.apc.org

The starting point of this conference is the concept of globalisation, a concept in itself of very dubious validity. Yes, nowadays it is easy to move large quantities of money from one country to another, and yes, you can visit some commercial outlets in almost every large city or town in the world. Merchandises move with little restraint from one place to another. Do they? Not all of them. Only those coming from large corporations have absolute freedom of movement. The lower you get down the scale the more difficult it becomes to get import-export permission. And once you get down to people, that is to say, when you are down to yourself, things become almost impossible.


A Mexican worker has to risk his life to cross a borderline. There is no legal way to do it. And we are not the ones worst off. A young woman from Central America who decides to go and look for work in California expects to spend well over 2,000 dollars to pay for the trip and bribes, and she knows sheíll probably be raped at least twice along the way.

Less dramatic, but no less difficult is the case of culture. If you own a publishing house or a record company, you can move your money as you please, you can invest wherever you want. Or, within market boundaries, you can sell your products in other countries. Yes, your products. But outside the market, it becomes rather difficult to move around the world. It becomes worse if you are an artist in the making, and you come from a non-fashionable country. In the end, it is one thing to be invited to Denmark to participate in this conference and quite another to be a Somali immigrant woman in this country.

When I hear concepts such as one-world and global village, I can only think they refer to a restaurant in New York. Reality looks very different if you look at it from a village in the high lands of Chiapas, or in the wide lands of the Northern desert in México. The world has always been one as a planet, but very diverse when it comes down to culture. And it remains to do so. The only globalisation that has taken place is that of finance and, to some extent, that of markets. But the world is not only a market.

My first observation will be that culture is not an industry. Of course there are a number of cultural products that can be treated as merchandise: books, films, concerts, videos, what have you. But they are always more than a simple commercial product, and culture is much more than those objects and events. Going through the cultural sections of newspapers and the media, however, we find that they are becoming more and more like consumer guides, no matter how sophisticated. There is still a worse tendency. These consumer guides are moving towards market success and away from other considerations, such as quality, just to mention an obviously basic one. We come to hear which books are selling the best, or which films have raised the most money. Those who are slightly more open-minded, concentrate on trends and fashions, but very seldom on anything else. If this trend comes to dominate and the media continue to understand culture as an industry, and as merchandise, then the media role in it will be marketing, and marketing, I am afraid, is not journalism. If cultural journalism has a future, it is outside these trends.

A Story

Let us see culture from a different angle, and thus, define the role of the media in it differently. For that, I would like to tell you small story. Well the story is very long, but Iíll make it short. It has to do with culture, journalism and indigenous people.

About nine years ago, while I was working with indigenous people in the central highlands of México, I was told the story of a small and vanishing culture living in the far North of the country. Up I went to the borderline with the USA, and found this nomad people who had inhabited the desert and mountains for over a thousand years. They call themselves Kiliwa, and can be seen as children of the wind. They have roamed those lands for centuries, knowing every source of water, every forest, every bush, every source of food, every sand mound in the desert. From a type of cactus they extracted a substance that kept their hair shining, and that would help them as a contraceptive. They have no written language, so their history and culture relied on singing. Every time one Kiliwa group met another one in their roaming, they would sing for a couple of days, sharing food and knowledge. Every time someone died, they would all get together to tell the story of those who had died, or I should say gone to live with the Great Spirit.

That had been their life for centuries. Even though the Spaniards had attempted to conquer their land in the 16th century, the Kiliwa and other local indigenous people did manage to defeat them. It was only in the early years of the20th century that Mexicans began to settle in Kiliwa land. And the Kiliwa let them do so, because how could someone own the land? How could someone own the air, the fire, the water or the sea? Land was there for everyone to live on it. But with the settlers came the barbed wire. And the land claims. For decades the Kiliwa simply moved along different paths. Until even that became impossible. And the battle for survival ensued. They fought for a particular piece of land, the precise area where the symbols of myth and history lay. It took them 40 years to win it. They knew it was not possible to survive there as nomads. They had no agriculture. They have had no children ever since. There are only eight of them alive. And since the youngest woman is over 56 years old, there is no return. In 1994, Trinidad Ochurte, the last of the Kiliwa singers, died. With him not only music died, Kiliwa history died as well. There is no one left to tell the story of those who have joined the Great Spirit.

The eight surviving Kiliwa live nowadays from the 10 dollars a ton they earn selling that cactus I was mentioning earlier, to labs in San Diego, California, where shampoos and contraceptive pills are being manufactured. You probably used them without knowing it.

It took us more than four years to raise enough resources to make a documentary on them. And it took even longer for a national newspaper to print the story. But more important than our efforts to get this known, it took a major armed rebellion led by indigenous people in the South East of México to win the interest of the media. Prior to the Zapatista uprising, time and time again I heard the same arguments on this and other stories: no one is interested in that, we can not sell such a story, there is no space in the market for that kind of story. And I wonder, is there a single more important cultural event, than the disappearing of a whole culture from the face of the earth?

Yes, it did take an armed uprising to get the media, and society at large, to be interested. But generous as they are, the rebellious Indians of my country have come up with some ideas on culture and the media that I want to share with you. They come from a gathering called and organised by the Zapatista army, in Chiapas, back in 1996, where delegates from 42 different indigenous peoples and some of us who have worked with them for some time, spent a week trying to find ways in which to achieve peace in our country, and build a fairer society at the same time.


A young Chol Indian defined culture as what we do and what we donít do it is the way we are, the way we live, the way we relate to each other culture is the way we value what is around us, the way we relate with nature it expresses itself in many ways, be it language, dance or music and it is always alive, because it has to do with giving and receivingí. Another young leader, a tzotzil woman from the highlands of Chiapas said, ëIt is in our ways to learn to listen before we speak. And so should the media do.í For a Mixe video maker, the media were a useful means of expanding the territory where culture can reproduce itself, and can act as mirrors in which people can reflect about themselves. Beyond that, ideas were put forward to develop a more horizontal way in which the media could relate to society at large, a way in which the media can be the voice of the listeners, the written words of the readers, trying to break down the barrier between those who act as public and those who have a say in the media. They were not talking of open microphone programmes, or at least not only about that; they were trying to define new ways of communicating with each other and with society at large through the media. The media seen as mirrors, in which listeners and speakers were the same, were conceived as bridges that could help fight racism and exclusion. If cultures sharing a given space can dialogue with each other, then many, many problems can be sorted out. It would help us recognise that we are equals and different at the same time. They defined the media as electronic bridges that could establish a dialogue between cultures, and as part of the process of building a fair society. So they said. It might sound a bit utopic or simplistic. Yet they have been building just this type of media for a few years, with a great deal of success.

From my experience living in the first world for a few years, I can guess some of you may be thinking, yes, that is the type of thing that takes place in the third world countries. Well, last year, here in Denmark, I was standing at a bus stop one morning. Across the road there were a couple of Somali women with a son and a daughter. About two meters away, a group of Danish people stood together. They didnít look at the Somali women, let alone address them or made any sign of having actually noticed them. I have to say that I did look very much like a simple visitor, and thus people did talk to me in the streets, so the silence surrounding the Somali women was not due to a sort of Danish national character. So I was wondering that morning, do these women need to cover even their faces, get themselves a machine gun and seize Parliament so as to be seen and listened to? Do they have to act as the Indians in my country had to in order to be taken into account as human beings? Do you need a riot in London, Liverpool, Paris or Los Angeles to get to notice those who, being equal, are different?

Donít cultural journalists have a great deal of work trying to bridge the large abysses that separate cultures that are now sharing spaces? Should cultural journalists spend their lives reviewing the most recent bestseller on the bookshelves, or could they act as mirrors for those who live around them? Shouldnít they, and the media, be working as those bridges enabling cultures to dialogue with each other?

Yes, indigenous people back home are now discussing with the Mexican Parliament over their rights, including cultural rights. They have become a barrier to those tendencies to unify the world into a single culture, a single culture that has been designed by marketing, and that does not reflect the actual culture of anyone alive. Both the promoters of the idea of globalisation and of a universal market (call it cultural industry, if you want to) try to sweep away diversity. Fundamentalism, no matter whether it comes from Kabul or Wall Street, can only impoverish the world we live in. Threatened with extinction, the indigenous people of México donít speak of accessing a global village or a single world; they speak about building a world made up of many worlds. And in that effort, those of us who work with culture have a lot to do.

Indigenous Peoples' Literature Return to Indigenous Peoples' Literature

Compiled by: Glenn Welker

This site has been accessed 10,000,000 times since February 8, 1996.