It is a little over 6pm Bogotá time (or 9am in the morning for us Sydneysiders) when we call Anderson to check that we’d still be good for a chat. Give me ten more minutes! Luz Mila requests, and when her face does show up on the WhatsApp screen, both her cheeks have been intricately stained with the Indigo blue of the jagua fruit*. These lines on her cheeks and chin illuminate the pride of her people’s history and culture. No quiero perder mi cultura. “I don’t want to lose my culture”, is what she repeats throughout our transcontinental video call.
Luz Mila is an Emberá Chamí woman from the town of Mistrató in the Colombian department of Risaralda. The Chamí of “Emberá Chamí” is a Chocó word that refers to being “people of the river” – Luz Mila and her people are the pueblos originarios* of the river valleys near the mountain range which lies to the west of Colombia’s capital. It’s a region full of natural beauty and topographical variation, where the Río San Juan drains into the Pacific Ocean. Unfortunately, it is also a region that has seen the grim imposition of colonial conquest from the start of the 1500s all the way through to the neocolonial industries of extraction and narcotrafficking that we see today.
This infliction of environmentally destructive mining practices finds its historical roots in the Spaniards’ obsession with the El Dorado myth. It is in colonised Colombia that the conquistadores* first hoped to find a “lost city of gold”. Although later proving to be a European misunderstanding of gold as a metal of monetary value instead of the Muisca tradition of gold representing spiritual value, the damage was done. Colombia’s contemporary legacy of extracting and being extracted by Western nations continues to dispossess First Nations peoples of their ancestral lands.
(A gold figurine from the Muisca people of Bogotá representing the spiritual ritual of the golden Cacique)
In recent years, Luz Mila’s community has experienced this very dispossession from their ancestral lands in Risaralda. Their rural-urban migration to the outskirts of Bogotá represents a major life change for displaced Emberá Chamí. Dr Gloria Barrera-Jurado of the Pontifical Xavierian University in Bogotá asserts that the power relations between European colonists and pueblos originarios are systemically skewed in favour of the colonisers (Barrera-Jurado, 2011, p.178). Despite the systemic injustice of being forced off both “their physical and symbolic territory” and into the capital city, Emberá Chamí like Luz Mila and her family achieve “brave, large-scale forms of resistance” through traditional beading (tejido) and dancing (baile)(Barrera-Jurado, 2011, p.178).
She mentions the differences between life in Mistrató by the San Juan River versus life in Bogotá. En Bogotá es duro. “It’s hard in Bogotá”, Luz Mila confirms. She tells us about how her family used to cultivate and live off the land, but now she must rely on selling or bartering her beaded artworks in Colombian marketplaces. But for her, beading is a form of resistance against centuries of injustice. Como soy mujer, soy una trabajadora. Puedo apoyar a mí y a mi familia. “As I am a woman, I am a worker. I can support myself and my family”.
Luz Mila weaves memory and history from her riverine homelands into her beaded works, her tejidos. The flor jaipono is a sacred medicinal flower and a motif that appears in much of her beading. So too, does the leaping likeness of pescado (fish) – found among the ripples of the San Juan – appear. She also tells us of vivid colours and other sacred flora and fauna that she often recreates out of seed-beads.
(Embera design with pescadito (little fish) motifs)
Luz Mila, her husband Anderson, and their extremely cute son Kevin exemplify the strength of Indigenous innovation, and the importance of preserving culture while adapting to new realities. The beaded art that the community of Emberá Chamí beaders and of course, Luz Mila herself, sends over to us here at Mami Watta Collections are tangible pieces of ancestral culture and intergenerational memory.
Kevin’s infant face comes into focus on the WhatsApp call, and he screeches in delight when he realises we’re on the other side of the phone screen. His parents laugh at his antics and Luz Mila leaves us with a piece of wisdom that is striking in its complex simplicity – "to paint our faces, to dance our dances, and to bead is to move forward".
"Pintar las caritas, bailar, y tejer es seguir adelante" (Luz Mila 2022).
(Photo taken my Felipe Cuadrado in 2019)
The Mami Watta Glossary
- Colonialism: The political, sociocultural, and economic process of foreign invasion that relies of Indigenous dispossession and exploitation for profit.
- Conquistadores is Spanish for “conquerors”. This term refers to European colonisers from 1492 onwards.
- Extractive industry: A global industry of mining, land clearing, and deforestation that is traditionally tied with colonialism, environmental destruction, and the forced dispossession of First Nations lands.
- Jagua fruit: Jagua fruit is a quince-like fruit. When not yet ripe, its juice produces a temporary tattoo ink that is a customary aesthetic practice for Emberá women.
- Narcotrafficking: The illegal and destructive running of illicitly processed drugs mostly for export.
- Motif: A recurring image or pattern that symbolically represents a deeper idea or concept.
- Pueblos originarios: can be literally translated to “original peoples” but is better understood as “First Nations peoples”.
- Barrera-Jurado, Gloria Stella. “Fields of power in craftsmanship in the Kamsá community of Sibundoy, Putumayo, Colombia. From bartering to fashionable tendencies”, Apuntes, 24 (2), 2011, p.178.
- Jaramillo, Sara Catalina Garcia, Cano, Daniela Maria Garcia, and Gonzalez, Veronica Cadavid. “Words on Returning: Narratives on Displacement and Returning in Indigenous Communities in Colombia, Museum International, 71 (3-4), 2019, pp. 132-141.
- Mariko Konno for her artistic rendition of Emberá Chamí beading. Her work can be found here.
- Luz Mila and her family for spending time in their evening to speak to us and share their sacred knowledges with us.
- Mami Watta brand founder Ana María Parada for her interview, conceptual, and editorial guidance.