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Worshippers kneel on pine needles in front of open Coke bottles and melting candles. Colored ribbons hanging from pointed straw hats cover their faces. Faded wooden saints wearing silk stare from behind glass cases. Clouds of incense muffle the chants of the Tzotzil villagers in San Juan Chamula Chiapas, as busloads of Europeans wear a path in the tile. The tourists outnumber the locals, but they have come to witness the religious ceremonies of indigenous Mexicans.

Who are these “indigenous people” of Latin America, and what does it mean to be an Indian? Few countries in Latin America have tribal registries based on bloodline, and most do not have established reservations. Is the answer in the way people dress, the language they speak, the religion they practice, or the color of their skin? Is it valid to fear that indigenous ways of life are vanishing?

These questions are hard to answer, but need to be explored.

The lines that once separated the “indigenous” from the “Latins” are blurring. Hundreds of years ago, the Spaniards came to key cities of economic and geographic importance. They rarely ventured out of these established areas, allowing indigenous communities to develop in relative isolation. Today, however, cultural isolation is rare. As transportation continues to improve, migration occurs and languages disappear; cultures merge. Now only the extremes are obviously identifiable as “white” or “indigenous.” The majority lie somewhere in the middle.

The term “vanishing culture” is frequently used to describe a process that has been occurring for centuries. Cultures are fluid and in a constant state of change. What we now think of as “signs” of the indigenous, such as round, black hats on Aymara women, may not have been recognizable to the same tribes hundreds of years earlier. Many of these “signs” are imports from non-indigenous cultures. I show this cycle of cultural change by photographing isolated indigenous populations, peoples living in mixed cultures, and areas where Indians have become extinct.

For nine years, I photographed in areas of Latin America with large indigenous populations. I worked with Maya in Southern Mexico and Guatemala, Aymara in Bolivia, Quechua in Peru and Ecuador, Tarahumara in Northern Mexico, Guaraní in Argentina and Paraguay, Yagua in the Amazon, and Nivacle in Paraguay, to name just a few. I photographed the vanishing and merging cultures in twelve countries, from the southernmost city in the world in Tierra del Fuego, where the native populations were annihilated, to the Tarahumara cave dwellers of the Copper Canyon on the Mexico-Texas border.

These 15 images are a small sampling of a larger project. They are documents of street life that show how people live, work, and lead their daily lives. The photographs show the merging of the Indian and Latin cultures and the changing ways of life. They question what it means to be indigenous.

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The writer and photographer
Jackie Bell, InTheFray.com Contributor

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