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Ingrid Kummels

As a response to the Covid-19 pandemic, social arrangements allowing people to carry on despite the restrictions on mobility forced upon them became predominant across the world. From work (home office) and education (home schooling) to birthday parties, meetings, conferences and political campaigns (Zoom, etc.) diverse aspects of life were reoriented to adapt to the requirements of “social distancing” – although this term is a misnomer, since the actual challenge consists of overcoming physical distance. Even countries that are leaders in high-tech have had a hard time adjusting, since they had failed to consider the necessary widespread availability of equipment, training and creativity to remotely organize a community, its social life and leisure for long periods of time.

From today’s perspective the protagonists of my book who live in Tamazulapam, Oaxaca, and Los Angeles, California, may be characterized as pioneers of media practices battling remoteness. When I set out to do my research in 2012, my intent was to explore the local media histories of indigenous villages in the Sierra Mixe in Oaxaca, Mexico, their appropriations of mass media such as photography, radio, TV, video and the Internet to Ayuujk language and their own culture. But I soon discovered how Tamazulapam had developed self-managed commercial photography, a video industry, radio and TV stations as well as Internet platforms in a thoroughly transnationalized setting – one that transcended the restrictive border regime between Mexico and the US that illegalized Ayuujk migrants living on the northern side of the border. Despite these adverse conditions and the structural marginalization of indigenous peoples, local media enthusiasts developed cutting-edge initiatives in the 1990s during a phase of massive international migration. These initiatives helped overcome the immobilization imposed on compatriots in Los Angeles and other places of work and settlement.

Photo credit: Ingrid Kummels

I spent my time with media outlets such as TV Tamix, Radio La T Grande, Video Cajonos, Video Rojas and Reunión de Tama, which had opened new media spaces and circulated novel audiovisual genres as a result of their quest to uphold and reinvent communal life across a transnational terrain riddled with inequality and division. A variety of men, women and youth intervene in these media spaces, actors with different occupations, educational backgrounds,  places of residence and legal status. Fiesta videos, for example, portray the village festival in Oaxaca and are sent by a local parcel service to Los Angeles, another example of self-managed infrastructure of transnational life. Videographers travel from fiesta to fiesta to capture them audiovisually in a culturally specific way, with communitarian aesthetics, thus allowing distant viewers to experience the event with their senses of hearing and sight. See my portrayal of their work in “Ayuujk Cameras.” These videos are a way of practicing community politics. Migrants living in Los Angeles invest in their production in order to participate in the home village’s modernization, receive recognition as citizens and serve as authorities in the hometown. This is consistent with political ideas about indigenous autonomy, called comunalidad in Oaxaca. During my fieldwork, digital devices became increasingly affordable and smart phones began to be used widely in 2014. This quickly led to further innovations, such as the use of a Facebook platform as a sort of virtual village assembly.

At times heated debates took place in these media spaces; most concerned village affairs that had a broader, transnational significance. Arguments about dance pairs spotted on village videos had to do with transnational marriage and family life. The recording of sacred places and rituals that normally are not allowed to be viewed were considered audiovisual transgressions related to the special value attached to place and being on-site in times of deterritorialization. Self-determined media thereby paved the way for negotiating novel visions of community life, gender and indigeneity in the 21st century.

Because they are at the intersection of politics, entertainment and culture, these culturally specific media practices and formats such as the fiesta, family rite-of-passage videos and experimental artistic photography did not receive much scholarly attention. Nevertheless, Ayuujk people employ them as essential ways of making and maintaining family and friendship as well as building a wider community that includes the inhabitants dispersed between two countries. There are many lessons to be learned from these pioneer transnational mediamakers. Moreover, they are the forerunners of digital media outlets such as the Internet radio stations and multimedia platforms that currently connect transnational indigenous communities between Oaxaca and California at a time when rifts caused by historical patterns of inequality have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Indigenous peoples like the Ayuujk ja’ay have had to manage many of these hardships and, in particular, have had to secure basic health care needs on their own. Nevertheless, when it comes to organizing remote social life, they have been able to rely on the transborder media spaces they have constructed – one of their major contributions to universal media history.

Ingrid Kummels is Professor of Cultural and Social Anthropology at the Free University Berlin. She has conducted long-term ethnographic research in Mexico, Cuba, Peru and the United States, produced several documentaries and co-edited the volume Photography in Latin America. Images and Identities Across Time and Space (Columbia University Press, 2016).

About the book

Ayuujk Videomaking between Mexico and the US
Ingrid Kummels

“[This] work gives admirable depth to Ayuujk media as they shapeshift across nation-state borders. Such a detailed and locally embedded contribution to the study of Indigenous media in Latin America is likely to be of most value to fellow scholars and postgraduate students in Visual Anthropology and Indigenous Media studies.” • Bulletin of Latin American Research

Transborder Media Spaces offers a new perspective on how media forms like photography, video, radio, television, and the Internet have been appropriated by Mexican indigenous people in the light of transnational migration and ethnopolitical movements. In producing and consuming self-determined media genres, actors in Tamazulapam Mixe and its diaspora community in Los Angeles open up media spaces and seek to forge more equal relations both within Mexico and beyond its borders. It is within these spaces that Ayuujk people carve out their own, at times conflicting, visions of development, modernity, gender, and what it means to be indigenous in the twenty-first century.

Purchase Transborder Media Spaces for 25% off with discount code KUM199  (offer valid until 30 June, 2021).

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