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LOS ANGELES — The 21 women featured in the book Diža’ No’ole cover their faces with their hands, turn away from the camera, or peek out from behind bunches of flowers or leaves. They do not hide out of shame, but out of a desire for self-preservation. They are all undocumented, indigenous women from Mexico and Guatemala, who are now living in Los Angeles. This is not to say they do not reveal anything about themselves, their lives, and their journeys. The photographs are interspersed with written excerpts from hours of interviews that range from hopeful to heartbreaking, including even a lengthy recipe for one woman’s “favorite food from your culture”: relleno negro, a yucatecan black soup made from chile de arbol, turkey, and hard-boiled eggs. The women are each photographed wearing a hand-embroidered garment from their pueblos, showcasing a material connection to a place that they may not have been able to return to for years or decades.

Diža’ No’ole

Diža’ No’ole (translated from Zapotec as “Palabra Mujer” in Spanish or literally “Word Woman” in English) is a collaboration between photographer June Canedo de Souza, and Odilia Romero and Janet Martínez of Cielo (Comunidades Indígenas en Liderazgo), a women-led nonprofit that supports indigenous communities in Los Angeles. The seeds of the book began with Cielo’s Undocumented Indigenous Fund, an initiative they launched early on in the pandemic to raise money for those communities that have been hit especially hard by COVID-19. Since last May, they have raised $1.8 million, according to Romero. “While documenting their stories,” the book jacket reads, “we began to understand the importance of centering the voices of the most marginalized members of this group — the women.” All of the proceeds from sales of the book will go back to the women who participated.

For Canedo de Souza, the decision to obscure the women’s identities posed challenges. While much of her work deals with migration and displacement, she typically avoids a candid style where the people she’s photographing may be unaware of her lens. “I normally photograph people looking at the camera, gazing back at the viewer,” she wrote via email. “Street photography was very popular when I first started taking photographs eight years ago, but I never understood why. I couldn’t understand how people were so comfortable framing images of strangers they didn’t know who had had their photos taken without their permission.”

Canedo de Souza makes the most of these limitations, however, letting a body’s stance, the lilt of the head, or a smile shining through clasped fingers communicate what these shielded visages cannot.

Romero described hours-long, emotional interviews with the women that encompassed joy, solidarity, and tears. On one day of interviews, all four women whom Romero spoke with had left children behind when they crossed the border. “Leaving my kids behind at such a young age was extremely hard because the youngest one was five years old. Now, they are young adults and two of them are parents,” one participant says in the book. “Our relationship is now stable. But there was a very hard period when they used to get upset or would judge and would ask why I left them. Why. They don’t understand.”

It is a difficult decision that Romero has first-hand experience with. Born in the Oaxacan town of Zoogocho, her parents came to the US when she was six, sending for her five years later. “My aunt picked me up in the pueblo, and cut my hair in Mexico City, so I would look less ‘Indian,’” she recalled in a phone interview. From there, she took a bus to Tijuana and then to an apartment building in the Pico Union neighborhood of Los Angeles. “It was very traumatic, they were complete strangers,” she says of the reunion with her parents. At the time, she spoke only Zapotec and a few words of Spanish, forced to learn both Spanish and English simultaneously. 

Despite the hardships that many of the book participants have endured, Romero said it was important to depict nuanced and multifaceted portraits. “When they think about us it’s all poverty porn. We didn’t want to do this,” she said. “Even in the pain we’re living in, there are still moments to smile, there’s a lot of joy in food, clothes, our existence.”

As she notes, clothes are a point of pride and a connection to tradition for many of the women. “Yellow means sun, red means the blood shed by my ancestors who were fighting with the Spaniards,” one woman says in the book, explaining the symbology of her blouse-like huipil. But their traditional garments also reveal a dark historical past and a contemporary pattern of appropriation and erasure. Indigenous textiles were once demanded as tribute from the invading Spanish, and today, the aesthetics of these clothes are often appropriated by Western fashion designers with little regard for intellectual property rights or even recognition.

Other participants describe the mutual aid and solidarity that helped them weather various crises, including pandemic-related illness, death, and financial insecurity. “All of us have suffered but I think there have been positive things that have come to light in the community,” one woman says in the book. “Like the support, the communal ways of how we survive, like Guelaguetza [a traditional Oaxacan communal celebration], exchange and all the things that we know how to do as indigenous communities that we have polished during this time.”

Diža’ No’ole also includes poems in Zapotec by Natalia Toledo, and in Mixtec by Celerina Patricia Sánchez Santiago. “We wanted to push people to feel uncomfortable, not knowing exactly what’s being said, making you feel like an outsider,” Janet Martínez, Cielo’s director of programs and Romero’s daughter, said of the decision to publish the poems in their original languages without translation. Toledo’s poem reflects on the possibility that her children may not speak their ancestral language, leading to a cultural loss, a rift between generations.

Through image and text, the book walks a line between revealing and concealing, between demanding visibility and respecting the women’s decision to keep some things hidden. “The book is intentional, every aspect of the book was considered, from the empty space within the pages to the ways the shadows fall onto the pink walls (of Odilia and Janet’s house),” said Canedo de Souza over email.

“The silence in these pages, the emptiness, the white pages that engulf text, it reflects a lot of conversations with the women,” explained Martínez. “There was a lot of silence. There were things that weren’t shared.”

Even though they remain anonymous, the women are represented through their stories, their clothes, and a list in the back of the book detailing the places they’ve emigrated from: San Bartolomé Zoogocho, Villa Alta; Tamazulapam del Espíritu Santo, Sierra Mixe; Cajolá, Quezaltenango, to name a few. A map designed by Oaxacan artist duo Tlacolulokos fills the shape of LA County with the 18 indigenous languages spoken by the book’s participants: Zapoteco, K’iche, Mixteco, Nahuatl, and others.

More than simply offering financial assistance, the book’s creators aim to affirm the existence and diversity of these indigenous communities that still remain unknown or misunderstood to many. “What I want to accomplish is to show that we exist as indigenous people. Not everyone from south of the imposed border speaks Spanish,” Romero said, noting that there are 68 indigenous language families with 364 languages or dialects spoken in Mexico. “Here we are, not fully recognized, but rich in many things. Here we are not recognized as indigenous peoples yet we contribute to this county’s economy.”

Diža’ No’ole is published by Cielo.

Matt Stromberg

Matt Stromberg is a freelance visual arts writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to Hyperallergic, he is a frequent contributor to Daily Serving, and Glasstire.

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