Interview by Maria Eugenia Ulfe
María Eugenia Ulfe: Congratulations, Ingrid, for publishing this wonderful book. It is a beautifully written ethnography about Zapotec and Ayuujk mediamakers’ involvement across borders. I like very much this idea of Comunalidad, a communal way of life, which is contested, claimed, and reinforced even in megacities like Los Angeles. How is Comunalidad created via Indigenous media? How is Indigeneity claimed and strengthened in the urban context? What roles does it play and how does it work?
Ingrid Kummels: That’s what impressed me most, this nexus of living a communitarian lifeway called Comunalidad, being Indigenous—Zapotec or Ayuujk ja’ay originally from Oaxaca, Mexico—across the U.S.-Mexican border despite the illegalization of the majority of Mexican migrants in the United States, and self-determined media work. In the book, I show that ever since large numbers of Zapotec and Ayuujk people migrated without authorization, due to the cessation of the Bracero agreement between the United States and Mexico in the mid-1960s, they have exported Comunalidad to Los Angeles. That is, they have contributed to this megacity’s development through their everyday practices of organizing political meetings, sports tournaments, collective celebrations, and rituals around death—especially through their media activities.
During my ethnographic fieldwork between 2016 and 2021, I experienced the trend toward digital media which Zapotec and Ayuujk creatives and their audience/users implemented on both sides of the border to overcome immobilization and discrimination. Building on their own media histories, they harnessed radio broadcasting, the assemblage of social media content, and smartphone reporting precisely to uphold sociality and autonomy regarding Indigenous knowledges and grassroot politics—while at the same time shaping them and making them visible in a transnational setting.
That’s why I propose that Oaxacalifornia—as this communal, transnational lifeway between Mexico and the United States is also called—was, above all, “digitally made” during the Trump era. I followed self-determined internet radios, multimedia platforms, and community influencers in Mexico and the United States for whom broadcasting via Facebook Live was an important dimension of their media work for a transborder audience. In Los Angeles they focused on a broad spectrum of weekend events ranging from migrant association meetings, rosary prayer ceremonies, wakes, and fundraisers where Oaxacan cuisine and beverages are sold while live music is played and dances are performed.
Indigenous media practices help them assert their languages, cultures, and knowledges and resist denigration in challenging times. I experienced how Zapotec and Ayuujk internet radio stations, multimedia platforms, and social media showcased migrant association meetings at a time when the Trump administration was working to disrupt community life. The many executive orders the president issued to increase deportations inhibited free movement. Nevertheless, even more community fiestas were celebrated in Los Angeles backyards or banquet halls to raise funds for villages back home or for migrants in need in the United States. Self-determined media work defined Indigeneity in their own terms from different localities at a time when the U.S. government’s political discourse was openly racist.
María Eugenia Ulfe: In your book, present and presentness are not contradictory issues. Perhaps we can call them political time interventions through technology that have an impact even on persons who are not in the same place. How do synchronic communicative spaces cross national borders between the United States and Mexico, challenging uneven media structures, economic disparities, and ethno-racial and gender hierarchies? The Indigenous people involved create the sense that time opens for futures. How can we grasp the temporality of future? What becomes immediate?
Ingrid Kummels: Indigenous mediamakers carved out a space and time for transborder communication by setting up infrastructure, broadcasting in Indigenous mother tongues as well as in Spanish and English—the languages with which second-generation descendants in the United States are most comfortable. And here is where synchronicity and time interventions come in: Comunalidad in the capitalist sectors of Los Angeles is about creating and maintaining this feeling of obligation to reciprocate and share with the Mexican village of origin and vice versa—that is, sensing and experiencing this connection in real time. In fact, fundraisers and other get-togethers in Los Angeles backyards became vibrant showcases of communitarian life, equipped with live studios.
In general, the immediacy imposed by capitalist interests in the economization of time via digital instantaneity is blamed for a series of negative developments worldwide: a speeding-up of social life, economics, and politics. These wider developments exert pressure to migrate due to economic necessity. And overall, they lead to the volatility of social relations, as Paul Virilio, Hartmut Rosa, and other scholars have highlighted. In contrast, my book traces how Indigenous self-determined media set their own priorities when intervening in time. By enabling the experience of real time during a live transmission, let’s say of a basketball match in the village of origin, they take up the challenge of an uneven transnational terrain in terms of digital connectivity, infrastructure, and knowhow. At the same time, autonomous media is crucial for documenting and disseminating political ideas on the wider transborder community called Oaxacalifornia.
This digital divide is marked by several inequalities, beginning with the lack of interest on the part of major internet service providers in developing the necessary infrastructure in sparsely populated agrarian areas where they expect less profit. On the other hand, social media corporations like Facebook and Google encourage sociality to harvest and sell user data for financial profit, while they have no interest in supporting the content that media users wish to communicate and access, such as those of Indigenous knowledge systems. The state governments on both sides of the border failed to adequately regulate the media business, they failed to ensure the needs of those who are disadvantaged in the digital realm.
This was countered by self-determined media outlets run by Zapotec and Ayuujk teams. They creatively bridged the analog and digital media practices that existed in the various localities due to uneven infrastructure. Interactive user participation also enabled cross-border sociality and regular exchange of experiences. It allowed people to enjoy spending time together and engage in fervent debates over issues concerning the transnational community and beyond. The uneven transnational terrain was levelled by practitioners who combined hands-on, older and newer media formats, for example, circulating family archival material such as fiesta DVDs, both on the ground and when remediatizing them on social media.
What precisely does the future become, when it’s shaped as something you can quickly reach, only a few mouse clicks away? Examples of short-term futures concern text, sound, and images on social media pages of construction work for church compounds and modern graveyards in the Mexican hometown based on a combination of migrant money and communal labor on site. Or livestreams of family festivities like a quinceañera, a coming-of-age party, which convey not only transnational family ties, but other close bonds like those to employers in Los Angeles. Visions of a bright future are often not only projected on the Mexican hometown, but are also carried out there, not without controversy within the transnational community.
María Eugenia Ulfe: What are the possibilities that Indigenous digital media creates for gender empowerment in the case of women migrants? Maybe I should ask how digital media affects Indigenous communities in general. How does it transform social and political relations?
Ingrid Kummels: Indeed, femininities and masculinities are reshuffled in the course of migration. The labor regime to which people are subject increases gender inequality, since women are driven into care work—which even pressures them to limit the time they can spend caring for their own children; men are restricted in other ways, especially when they work in the food industry, often assuming two jobs. One of the paths to empowerment that I trace concerns how women increasingly engage as mediamakers. Internet radio reporters and social media influencers transform what used to be seen as matters restricted to the family into issues concerning the wider transnational community. Reporters and influencers brought a new angle to Indigenous cultural expressions and knowledges by visibilizing and transmitting them.
I discovered that women are particularly active as what I term community influencers. They don’t seek to influence consumer behavior regarding lifestyle. Instead, their intention is to impact cross-border community life when they post about it on social media. The book delves into how both dance moms as well as young people celebrating their quinceañera craft media events designed to promote greater gender equality; these entail regendering Indigeneity. That was the case with a Los Angeles female dance group that performed and livestreamed a sacred dance, Los Negritos, formerly considered an exclusively male affair in their hometown. Moms who accompanied their children to Zapotec dance training would act as community influencers and devise sophisticated ways of reporting on, archiving, and publishing dance and music. Users then commented on these media events in ways that reflect on both Zapotec Indigeneity and gender issues. Indigeneity is thereby regendered, in the sense that they destabilized the notion of Zapotec authenticity as primarily linked to masculinity and sacredness.
Women’s experiments with visual aesthetic styles when live broadcasting are a case in point. The photo on the book cover shows a community influencer wearing something dear to her community, the huipil, an Indigenous women’s garment of precolonial origin. At the same time, she is transmitting a group selfie, together with two participants of the dance group called Negritos colmilludos. Wearing a mask and relocating it to a Los Angeles food fair are significant in redefining Indigeneity in an increasingly re-territorialized world. The mask is an age-old medium which this current mediamaker puts at the forefront of contemporary life. Within the frame of the smartphone photo, gender issues and Indigeneity move closer together—and are visually redefined.
María Eugenia Ulfe: Last, but not least, how do you see Zapotec, Ayuujk, and other Indigenous mediamakers, in the era of artificial intelligence? Can AI open new possibilities when applied and used by many different people, including Zapotec and Ayuujk communities?
Ingrid Kummels: This is a very important question. On the one hand, artificial intelligence machines and software threaten to intensify existing imbalances that large media corporations produce in the realm of knowledges stored and published on internet. The marginalization of Indigenous knowledges is increased by search machines and chatbots, which rely on and reproduce this one knowledge category, while ignoring many others. On the other hand, Indigenous mediamakers are already reorienting this development. The book highlights examples of internet archiving and its importance to Indigenous knowledge systems, which are quite diverse. They often tend to organize wisdom in a way that transcends Cartesian dualism as well as the human-nature-supernatural divides. Self-determined mediamaking relies on people becoming chroniclers, archivists, and publishers, which is extremely important with regard to a diversity of content becoming part of IA software such as the chatbot ChatGPT—that is, it should not be mainly programmed by white males residing in the Global North. Indigenous mediamakers are also planning on creating other chatbots, Voice AIs, and the like, which rely on their mother tongues. Therefore, such AIs promise to be more useful for communities, while also enriching the multiverse of digital knowledge systems of our planet.