Indigenous Resistance in the Face of Capitalism

An interview with Victoria Blanco

In Out of the Sierra: A Story of Rarámuri Resistance, author Victoria Blanco asks, “What does it mean–physically, spiritually, and emotionally–to exit a system that is bound with the natural world and enter one that is actively working to destroy it?” As she details the ongoing displacement of the Rarámuri people of Chihuahua, Mexico, one of the largest Indigenous tribes of North America, Blanco’s years of rigorous field research and observation bring a clarifying light to the issues of forced migration, capitalism, and water hoarding in the desert.

This spring, Victoria and I exchanged questions via email about her writing and research process, how to resist thinking of time linearly, and her love of the desert.


Devin Kate Pope: To say that I loved your book isn’t specific enough – I was incredibly moved and devastated by Out of the Sierra. The book is a close look at one family’s – and a community’s – break with the land and forced experience of life under capitalism. How would you introduce people to the significance of the natural world in your book?

Victoria Blanco: For the Rarámuri people, the natural world and Onorúame – their creator – are one and the same. Onorúame lives in the land and, because the Rarámuri people were formed out of clay, Onorúame lives in the Rarámuri people. So the significance of the natural world is that it holds the spiritual and the physical. The natural world is God and it is also the body. Rarámuri teachings hold that we become corrupt when we do not have connection with the natural world, and for me, that is the primary tension that they are living with their forced migration to Chihuahua City and other urban centers. How do you remain Rarámuri when you are forced to live in concrete homes surrounded by busy roads? 

 

DKP: At the beginning of the book you write, “I am not including any Western map of the Sierra and am thereby leaving my readers unsure of where, exactly, the stories in this book take place.” I thought this was a bold way to take the book out of United States publishing’s default, which tends to appeal the white gaze. Throughout your process, how did you navigate writing the book in a way that doesn’t “other” the Rarámuri people?

VB: I think it’s important to acknowledge that the first drafts of the book did “other” the Rarámuri people. I think I had to go through a process of writing flat characters and telling the story from the mestizo perspective in order to understand that I could do so, so much better. Luckily, it didn’t take me too long to get on the right path with my research. One important decision I made early on during my research was to not speak with government and health workers, or any other mestizos who came through their settlement town, El Oasis. During my first weeks of research, I held a few conversations with mestizos in various positions of power and realized that each of them regurgitated some variation of the trope that I grew up hearing: that Rarámuri people are lazy, ignorant, etc. It felt all too easy to listen to this perspective and let it cloud what I really wanted to learn, so I chose to speak and interact only with Rarámuri people. 

Rarámuri teachings hold that we become corrupt when
we do not have connection with the natural world. . .

I was very committed to participatory research. I wanted to run, sew, cook, collect herbs, dance, and do everything else right alongside the women who allowed me. I think this mode of research, coupled with my refusal to hear from mestizos, allowed me to get much closer to the Rarámuris’ lived experience than if I had simply conducted interviews and watched from afar. It was tricky for me, though, to transfer this experiential knowledge to the page. I read books that I thought succeeded, at least to a certain degree, in not “othering” the writing subjects. I eventually chose to write in a close third person (the first drafts of the book had long sections written in the first person) because it most closely resembled my research methods. I think that research, experimenting with the writing, and learning new techniques are all factors that helped me write Out of the Sierra. I was (mostly) patient with myself, because I knew that writing the book I wanted to write couldn’t be a rushed process. I needed to give myself the time and space to grow as a researcher and writer. 

 

DKP: Lack of water was what brought the Gutiérrez family out of the Sierras, into the city. And water hoarded by the mestizos and Mexican government was another awakening for the mother in the family, Martina, who through that experience saw more clearly the moral depravity of capitalism. Can you tell me more about the importance of water in the story of the Rarámuri people, as well as in writing your book?

VB: Water is everywhere in the desert. There’s a general perception that the desert is devoid of water, but that is absolutely not true. Water gives life to the desert, just as it does to every other landscape. I feel like I have been fighting this idea that the desert is devoid of water, and therefore lacking life and creativity, ever since I was a child. I grew up with the perception that landscapes filled with trees and rivers and lakes were more beautiful than my desert, and that I should aspire to leave for a place like that because a lush landscape would somehow make me more successful and happier and beautiful.

For me, writing this book was a way of re-seeing the desert, of looking at the place that I come from as having everything that I need. I don’t know if that comes across in the book, but it’s what I felt through my research and my writing. This book is a love letter to the desert, and by extension to the people of the desert, including my mestizo family. 

 

DKP: You write that Luis and Martina, the parents in the family we follow through the book, “had not heard many of the stories of the Spanish conquest, nor had their parents and grandparents.” They instead learned stories about the Sierra and about their people’s resilience. How did knowing or not knowing about the conquest help or hurt them? How is the younger generation, who has lived in both the Sierra and the city, adapting or supplementing the stories their parents learned?

 

Pick up your copy of Out of the Sierra here.

VB: I find fascinating the idea of purposely refusing to know something. Not knowing the story of the conquest is a form of resistance for Rarámuri people in the Sierra, since the narrative of the conquest always ends with the conquistadors winning and the Indigenous peoples dying. So by not knowing this narrative, by refusing to hear it, they disregard a narrative that disempowers their people. By not knowing, the Rarámuri people have been able to hold space for their own peoples’ origin story and narrative of protecting the Sierra. This is very empowering.

Of course, this mode of resistance has become much more complicated as more Rarámuris are displaced to Chihuahua City. In the Sierra, they’ve managed to live quite isolated, limiting their interactions with mestizos to an impressive degree. But simply by being in the city, they’re exposed to mestizos’ stories and perceptions about them, and it becomes impossible to not learn the narrative of the conquest. This is why there are so many efforts in El Oasis to instill pride in Rarámuri identity; through dressmaking and the waving of the El Oasis flag during the holy week dancing, for example. They’re actively working to counter the mestizos’ narrative of Rarámuri people dying out.

I think the youth are in the most fascinating position, because most of them left the Sierra when they were very young and don’t have many memories. They listen to their parents’ stories of the Sierra and most of the youth recognize that these stories are important, but there’s a disconnect simply because they don’t know the Sierra as their elders do. They find creative ways to make the stories relevant to their own lives. For example, young women still wear traditional dress, but they accessorize with hoop earrings and winged eyeliner. There are a few teens in El Oasis who rap in Rarámuri. They write their own songs in their ancestral language about what it means to be Rarámuri in the city. These adaptations are so awesome because they’re finding ways to connect with their culture despite their displacement. The youth give the El Oasis community so much hope. 

 

DKP: In the Author’s Note, you mention that it’s been over ten years since you started your year of interviewing the Rarámuri. How did getting to know the Rarámuri’s philosophy of generosity and circular time impact the writing of the book, and/or you personally?

VB: Fully understanding korima – the term they give to their philosophy of generosity – is the most important lesson I learned through my field research and writing. It’s a way of thinking and acting that is so antithetical to the values I was raised with that I truly needed an entire decade to understand its meaning. I had to let go of so much that I took for granted as truth; the idea that I, as an individual, am entitled to anything, for example. In their culture, if you have just a bit of food and a neighbor arrives to your door, you’re morally bound to share what you have, even if it is not enough for yourself. This behavior is rooted in the idea that individuals can’t exist without their community, so sharing what you have is a way of ensuring your own survival, even if it means that you go hungry in the short term. Once I understood that their behaviors are guided by this philosophy, I began to uncover motivations and logic that I simply didn’t understand during that first year, even with all my dedication to participatory research. For example, I didn’t fully understand why Martina was so appalled by the fact that people in El Oasis don’t always practice korima as they do in the Sierra. I understood that people in El Oasis were just looking after themselves, as I would do. It took years to dig into her psychology, and to live alongside her, and then to internalize it all so that I could write about it. 

On a personal level, I ask myself each day what is the generous course of action in any given situation. And I try to take that course of action. I have also tried to slow down in life, to notice the comforting patterns of the day that circular time gives us. I think that both of these changes help me feel more peace. 


. . . individuals can’t exist without their community, so sharing what you
have is a way of ensuring your own survival, even if it means that you go hungry in the short term.

DKP: Perhaps the central question of the book is: “What does it mean–physically, spiritually, and emotionally–to exit a system that is bound with the natural world and enter one that is actively working to destroy it?” Can you speak to this?

VB: For me, existing under capitalism is to always be on the defensive. I not only have to worry about making enough money to survive and, ideally, to plan for the future; I have to worry about theft and corruption. In the Sierra, even more than in Chihuahua City, Rarámuri people share what they have with one another because it is the way that the land behaves. The land gives and, in turn, the land receives love and care from the Rarámuri people and all living beings. That’s a way of living that simply can’t exist under our current economic and moral framework. So I think that trust and reciprocity are replaced by behaviors of worry and hoarding. 

 

DKP: How can people resist linear time and practice more generosity within the confines of the capitalist society we live in today? And how can those efforts work to honor and heal the natural world?

VB: I love that you ask this question! This is the question we have to ask ourselves each and every day to fight off despair. I’m very interested in the ways that linear and circular time affect our emotions, thought processes, and behaviors. For me, resisting linear time takes the form of playing with my children, with no learning agenda. I try to be very generous with my time with my husband and my children, first and foremost. That can mean putting aside writing and deadlines of all sorts. I worry a lot less about being late for things than I used to. We should all resist deadlines! 

I think these efforts help me focus on relationships with my family and also the aspects of our lives that give us health. We have clean water, air, and land where we live. I remind my children that taking care of each other and our neighborhood, which includes a creek and a lake, is a way of life that will keep everyone content for generations to come. I hope that this community-based outlook helps them make responsible decisions for years to come. 


Victoria Blanco’s writing has been published in the New York TimesCatapultGuernica, and others. She holds her MFA in creative writing from the University of Minnesota. She is from El Paso, Texas, and now lives in Minneapolis with her three sons.

Devin Kate Pope is a writer and editor based in Tempe, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in BOMB, The Rumpus, Autofocus, and elsewhere. Devin writes a newsletter on food, climate and labor in the Sonoran Desert, and liberation called The Good Enough Weekly.