Wildlife & Wild Places

A Portrait of the Lacandon People

 

The Lacandon people are one of the most isolated societies in the world.  They live in the Lacandon jungle in the state of Chiapas, Mexico.  Although they are quite traditional in their ways, modern culture is slowly creeping in and may for ever change their ways. Gema Ramon has had the unique opportunity to get close and document their lives.

How do we experience a culture? One that has been left alone, behind or abandoned in the jungles of Chiapas for centuries and now faces the reality of connecting with a modern world. Gema Ramon, a young Mexican photographer and visual artist, enters the Lacandon magical realm to capture their life, traditions and impressions as their world is about to be transformed. I had the wonderful opportunity to ask Gema about her experience:

What were your first impressions of the Lacandon people?

Gema Ramon: Living outside this society, I assume that our world and our concept of what is good or right, polite, is not the only way to live or the only correct line of thinking. It is truly a personal discovery to have the opportunity to experience other perceptions of our existence and being sensitive to reflect and place value to these distant but very human lives, how they contemplate their lives and their vision of the world. The Lacandon are a society that coexists harmoniously with nature. Their shared interests lead them to cooperatively conserve their space in the world. The common wellbeing is central to their beliefs, helping and protecting each other by performing rituals for everyone´s welfare. They believe that all living things come from the same root. They are a model to be replicated.

Who are the Lacandon people?

GR: The Lacandon are one of the most traditional people in Mexico. There are less than 300 members remaining and are direct descendants of the ancient Maya civilization. They migrated from the Yucatán Peninsula to the rainforest in Chiapas, Mexico, over 400 years ago. They live in a society that focuses on the abundance of natural resources for their sustenance. We are currently witnessing how this culture, the last to preserve ancient customs and language of the great Maya, are slowly being diluted by the influence of basic technology, media and evangelists that are transforming their community.

Are the Lacandon people threatened by modern society?

GR: Yes. This modest culture is threatened by the advance of our hegemonic model. The perverse consequences that result when modernity constructs a story from the demands of industry and the dominant political parties, creates cultural conditions that modify their way of facing facts, in addition it begins to deteriorate their health and how they relate to each other, conflict emerges.

The preservation of their customs is at risk because of the illusion of modern consumerism. I often ponder over what our society can bring to theirs to better their quality of life without losing the essence that makes them unique. Every day we see fewer of them performing their customs, actually there is only one Lacandon doing ancestral rituals.

How has this experience changed you as a person and as a photographer?

GR: Observing the Lacandon community I notice naturalness in them at working cooperatively with a shared purpose: the greater good. Sadly, a trait forgotten in modern society where we focus mostly on our needs as individuals and leave aside our collective well-being. The flow of change, the disappearance of the old and the arrival of the new, is the dominant component of our society, endowed with vast innovative potential but devoid in human relationships. Societies like ours, with narrow scales of expansion and predominant inequality, should change their attitude towards solidarity and mutual help. This experience has made me think about my role in society, It has opened my eyes to a great culture and made me aware of the shortcomings of our so called “modern society”.

 

 

Fabio Esteban Amador is an archaeologist, science communicator and visual artist. He uses visualization tools to get people excited about seeing, understanding and preserving their world and history. He is currently using gigapan technology, underwater imaging systems and aerial photography and video to capture art and culture around the world. Lately he has focused in the development of a new concept, strategy and workshop called the Art of Communicating Science, aimed at using creativity and visual technologies in exploration, discovery and story telling.

He started his career as an art student at the School of Visual Arts in NYC and followed his interests in becoming an expedition artist by graduating as an archaeologist from the State University of New York at Buffalo. Lately, he has focused on the archaeology and exploration of caverns in Quintana Roo, Mexico, photo-mosaicking shipwrecks in Latin America and the Caribbean and capturing images and video from aerial platforms to document archaeological sites to create digital elevation models. Amador’s continued effort in communicating science has allowed him to use photography, cinematography and other multi-media tools to reach large audiences through his public lectures at universities, presentations at international scientific and professional symposia, publications in scholarly journals and on National Geographic’s Explorers Journal and NatGeo News Watch online blogs.

Currently, he is a senior program officer for the National Geographic Society / Waitt Grants Program, promoting and coordinating scientific and exploratory research around the world. He is also an associate research professor at George Washington University and Executive Director and President of Fundacion OLAS, an organization devoted to capacity building for Latin American scholars dedicated to the study and preservation of the submerged cultural heritage.

  • Luz Maria

    Beautiful way to depict the life and environment of the Lacandon People. It is sad to know how few remain and how our society is negatively impacting their lives.

  • Luz Maria

    Beautiful way to depict the life and environment of the Lacandon People. It is sad to know how few remain and how our society is negatively impacting their lives.

  • Phil Baer, Jr.

    Very nice pictures. Actually the Maya Lacandones are growing and multiplying. There are two groups of Lacandones…two groups in the north near lakes Naja’ and Metzabok and the southern Lacandones near the river Lacanja’. The Hach Winik (Lacandones) in 1943 were dying out due to lack of vitamin B in their diet. The book “Two Studies on the Lacandon” Phillip Baer Sr. & Dr. William R. Merrifield (1971) (available in Spanish) documents their life and customs. My bias is towards education and medical assistance. By providing medicine, helping the people to read and write in their own language, and obtain their rights to land, I believe that my parents were able to provide a level of protection which they needed upon the arrival of the outside world. With the development of the Bonampak ruins in the heart of Hach Winik’ territory and the promotion of the government of “eco tourism,” influence from the outside was inevitable. We can wish for the impossible but we have to face the reality that societies change, even the most traditional.

  • Phil Baer, Jr.

    Very nice pictures. Actually the Maya Lacandones are growing and multiplying. There are two groups of Lacandones…two groups in the north near lakes Naja’ and Metzabok and the southern Lacandones near the river Lacanja’. The Hach Winik (Lacandones) in 1943 were dying out due to lack of vitamin B in their diet. The book “Two Studies on the Lacandon” Phillip Baer Sr. & Dr. William R. Merrifield (1971) (available in Spanish) documents their life and customs. My bias is towards education and medical assistance. By providing medicine, helping the people to read and write in their own language, and obtain their rights to land, I believe that my parents were able to provide a level of protection which they needed upon the arrival of the outside world. With the development of the Bonampak ruins in the heart of Hach Winik’ territory and the promotion of the government of “eco tourism,” influence from the outside was inevitable. We can wish for the impossible but we have to face the reality that societies change, even the most traditional.

  • Sol Bedolla

    What’s truly sad and scary we have the last The last Lacandon performer ancient rituals. Don Antonio.wich he’s the one that talk to the Gods of nature so this world persist. We slowly kill out sell with Daily routine we usually do a day with out even really thinking about it. Just by making cash and than becoming part BIG part of it. Let’ have more respect dire this world since its life. .. they believe whoever is a good man and do good in this World. We man; become a tree.

  • Sol Bedolla

    What’s truly sad and scary we have the last The last Lacandon performer ancient rituals. Don Antonio.wich he’s the one that talk to the Gods of nature so this world persist. We slowly kill out sell with Daily routine we usually do a day with out even really thinking about it. Just by making cash and than becoming part BIG part of it. Let’ have more respect dire this world since its life. .. they believe whoever is a good man and do good in this World. We man; become a tree.

  • Michelle Gomez

    I have to disagree with Phil Baer Jr. I have been to Chiapas several times. There are only about 600 members of the Lacandonia as we call them there. I have seen them personally and they do keep up their traditions. I am truly worried that modern technology and impressions of missionaries will destroy their way of life. It worries me. We could learn from them a lot and many of the natives in mexico especially the other mayans suffer from health problems like diabetes because the love soda. That is the last thing I want for the lacandones. They also deal with albinism too. They really are some of the most amazing natives I have had the pleasure to interact with and also the chamula another group of tzotzil mayans.

  • william zulker

    Having visited. The Lacandos in 1958 and meeting Phil Baer Sr., I would like to get in contact with his son

  • Cristina Parente

    Having spent time in Naha in 1996 and 1997, I came to the conclusion that many non-Hach Winik view culture as static. Culture is indeed dynamic and shifts and changes. It is unrealistic to think that the Lacandon can stay the same while their world, the environment, and the people around them change so rapidly. Change is not bad – what is unfortunate is when the people about whom we are talking do not have the resources to direct how that change will occur. These accounts, while interesting, have not given a voice to the Lacandon. Instead, these accounts are always of the ‘exotic other’. I find this to be problematic.

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