Ingrid Kummels discusses her book, Transborder Media Spaces

Interview by Alana Mazur

Alana Mazur: One of the main themes running through your book is Indigenous audiovisual media and mediatized politics. You provide an in-depth and nuanced analysis of the role of videography in connecting the Ayuujk hometown community in Tamazulapam and satellite communities in Mexico and in the United States. Could you please situate the focus and the main arguments of your research?

Ingrid Kummels: The protagonists of my book who live in Tamazulapam, Oaxaca, and Los Angeles, California, may be characterized as pioneers of media practices battling remoteness. When I set out to do my research in 2012, my intent was to explore the local media histories shaped by the Ayuujk people of the Mixe Region in Oaxaca, Mexico, and give them greater visibility. I had become aware of their autonomous endeavors concerning photography, radio, TV, and video adapted to their own language and “ways of seeing” (Berger) when in 1993 (together with Manfred Schäfer) I filmed what was perhaps the first local TV station (TV Tamix) set up autonomously in a Mexican Indigenous village, precisely in Tamazulapam del Espíritu Santo. Before that, individual villagers had engaged in sophisticated single-lens photography and radio broadcasting, which they adapted to community needs. This motivated me to revisit Tamazulapam almost 20 years later, in 2012, and update these developments from the perspective of media anthropology. But when I returned to Tama (as the village is nicknamed), I realized how pervasive migration for higher education and job opportunities had become—mainly to the United States because of the possibility of earning up to ten times more than in Mexico. At the same time, this entails immobilization since migrants are forced to cross the border without authorization. b—and above all fiestas, large community celebrations in honor of the patron saint.  

When observing and talking about village media practices it became obvious that culturally specific genres had been created such as fiesta, family rite-of-passage, and officeholder videos; these had not received much scholarly attention since they are at the intersection of politics, entertainment, and culture. Means of communications had been harnessed to facilitate community life and communal values even from afar, ranging from interpersonal cell phone calls to a veritable transnational video industry whose offerings included series of ten fiesta DVDs, which were ubiquitous not only at local markets, but also in Oaxaca City and in U.S. cities like Los Angeles. Ayuujk people had set up their own infrastructure and used mass media for practicing community politics. Migrants living in Los Angeles invested in their production in order to participate in the home village’s modernization, receive recognition as village members, and serve as political officials in the hometown. These media activities therefore contribute to political ideas about Indigenous autonomy, which is called Comunalidad in Oaxaca. Here it is important to emphasize how these practices challenge the way that Indigeneity has been constructed “from above” and as an antithesis to the modernity that media (often equated solely with mass media) allegedly embody. On the other hand, the use of media and the innovations devised by Indigenous peoples that combine storytelling, crafts, music and dance with analog and digital mass media often are not recognized as self-determined, cutting-edge developments. Nevertheless, these innovations have been achieved despite extremely adverse media structures in Mexico, where private mega media conglomerates dominate radio and TV, while alternative media are pushed into informality, against a “visual divide.”

Here is where the concept of media spaces comes in. Indigenous media makers open such spaces in multiple inventive ways when overcoming the uneven access to mass media due to racialized inequality, which is inscribed not only in the representations of Indigenous peoples but also in the contexts in which they received media training and engaged as practitioners. These are spaces that actors have been able to extend in terms of geography, practice, and imagination. Setting up their own media infrastructure, appropriating media knowledge and technology according to “one’s own” standards of professionalism, and managing transnational diffusion and marketing all form part of this endeavor.

Alana Mazur: In the introduction you mention that your ethnographic research was multi-sited and the fieldwork was conducted in Tama and Los Angeles between 2012 and 2016. What motivated you to pursue this ethnographic participatory research with Indigenous media makers in Mexico? How was this experience like for you?

Ingrid Kummels: I am a practitioner of media myself and after studying anthropology I started working as a professional filmmaker making documentaries for German TV. So, I know what it’s like to engage in filming, interact with people while doing it, and critically reflect on this work and issues of representation. I like to exchange ideas with people who have had similar experiences. To give an example: When I first met a fiesta filmmaker, I was fascinated to see that he had installed his entire store and production unit with editing equipment in his pickup: along with his son, he not only edited the films on DVD discs overnight, but also printed covers so that the next morning they could start selling DVDs to visitors during the five-day patron saint celebrations. He readily told me about arguments that can arise when “illicit” dance pairs were spotted on village videos; they had to do with transnational marriage and family life. The recording of sacred places and rituals that normally are not allowed to be viewed was considered an audiovisual transgression related to the special value attached to place and being on-site in times of deterritorialization. Women face particular challenges as both mediamakers and comuneras. These self-determined media activities therefore paved the way for negotiating novel visions of community life, gender, and Indigeneity in the twenty-first century. (See my portrayal of their work in “Ayuujk Cameras,”

Following these itinerant merchants during the month of May 2013 meant getting to know how they cultivate networks and forge alliances in many villages of the Sierra Mixe and beyond; some have more to do with commercial circuits, others with political solidarity. Mediamakers

are well informed on the different situations and aesthetic tastes of specific village audiences in their respective transnational outreach. As a result of specific migratory pathways taken, community celebrations in the home villages are pervaded by forms of transnational reciprocity. To compensate for their absence and their lack of participation in the village’s governance system called Usos y costumbres, migrants contribute with financial donations to hometown fiestas. Their sponsorships are announced publicly and above all documented in fiesta videos, which a transnational audience witnesses. These viewers participating from a distance are constantly in the mind of videographers and influence their choice of motifs, scenes, and camera settings. I moved along these networks, since mediamakers would orient me and introduce me to their colleagues and advisors. It was often through these contacts that I got to know a village for the first time, so I was immediately immersed in mediamaking there. On the spur of the moment, I would be invited to an event they were covering. While this work was delightful, I also learned about their strict professional discipline and soon was very conscious that there are no simple onlookers at a fiesta: community members have a moral obligation to participate which includes its sacralized dimension. So, in many ways, recording a fiesta is a solemn affair based on these same moral obligations.

Alana Mazur: The book provides a captivating analysis of the sociopolitical dynamics that involve diasporic movements among the Tama inhabitants across the Mexico-US border. Along the chapters, you elucidate, for instance, how remittances sent by migrant villagers to their families and “unpolitical fiesta videos” ostensibly sustain vibrant connections between the local “comunitario” and the growing “transnational village” (p.35). Through mediatization, as you conceptualize it, videographers both capture and create myriad of “media spaces” (p.391).

In this vein, could you provide a brief overview of these concepts and the processes they entail? What implications does the diffusion of Tama mediamakers’ work have on the Ayuujk ja’ay community members’ social life? Following on from that, how does Ayuujk videography constitute itself as “self-determined media,” as you suggest in the introduction (p.400)?

Ingrid Kummels: In short, transnationalism as a single field of social relations between two or more nation states due to the regular flow of people, commodities, money, and ideas across the borders is communalized by Ayuujk people. Migration, even in the many cases in which it is motivated by individual, personal interests, becomes at some stage a communal joint venture—in the more literal sense. Transnationalism scholarship has looked into the communal logics on which migration is based, but has often emphasized material, financial transfers. Nevertheless, transnational community building depends on the desire, the urge to be involved with a community. This is where self-determined media come into the picture.

As I examined the scholarship, I became aware of how transnationalism forgoes a perspective on media. On the other hand, media anthropology tended to view Video Indígena within the national container of Mexico. But in fact, the political Indigenous movement and the use of media to overcome distance in the transnational context, which includes connecting with the cross-border community in an entertaining way, are interrelated. The focus of my research is situating media use both within the contested field of Indigeneity as well as identifying it as an indispensable glue of transnationalism. There is nothing natural or matter-of-fact about maintaining a connection with one’s community of origin. In the case of Tama, reliance on self-developed media practices is key to new social arrangements between the hometown and the satellite communities that allow them to continue their communal way of life despite the restrictive border. These arrangements systematically integrate the migrating population. Many individuals participate in this endeavor due to a communal spirit. So, it is important to explore these communitarian values, Comunalidad or simply “lo communal,” as most people refer to it. It upholds the logic of owing service to a community, which at the same time is a sacralized entity worshiped in the patron saint. All of this is reflected in fiesta films and is understood by people with similar experiences who are socialized in this “way of seeing.”

Self-determined media practices are key for the creation of community connected to similar values. The hometown is one of its main motifs, since the future aspired to is projected onto this special place. Videographers are comuneros and comuneras, that is, they perform duties that influence their media practices and products. Despite being merchants and commercializing DVDs in a transnational outreach, they must also conduct themselves in a way that accommodates the values of community life (for example, not charging too much and paying the community a fee for filming); it is expected that their work portray those communal values. Moreover, they themselves have to invest in the community when needed. On the whole, they are an essential part of the transnational communal tissue.

Roberto J. González on his book, Connected


Interview by Patricia G. Lange

Patricia G. Lange: According to your book, the people of the remote community of Talea in Oaxaca, Mexico have a saying that “a bad compromise is better than a good fight.” How does this maxim emblematically illuminate what it took to secure their right to be connected to mobile networks and the internet?

Roberto J. González: For almost a decade, villagers dreamed of being the first in northern Oaxaca to have cellular service. They repeatedly petitioned the big telecom firms Telcel and Movistar, and when these companies turned them down, they petitioned state and federal regulators, who weren’t any help either. Eventually, in 2012, villagers decided to work with Rhizomatica, an NGO dedicated to helping indigenous communities get connected, and together they were able to create their own non-commercial DIY cellular network. Like most fledgling technologies, it had glitches and limitations—but it worked.

Now, I suppose when Big Telecom denied them service and government regulators ignored them, Taleans could have occupied the state capital, or kidnapped government officials, or had a protest march or hunger strike. But instead of a fight, they decided to find a compromise, a nonconfrontational kind of direct action—building the community cellular network—which worked well for several years.

By 2014, some people began accusing those operating the network of mismanagement. In this case, in order to avoid a “good fight” that might have politically divided the pueblo, village authorities came up with a bad compromise: to give Movistar another chance to provide cellular service. The company accepted.

Patricia G. Lange: A key cultural characteristic that you focus on is Talean openness to outside ideas. The Taleans’ willingness to experiment with innovation seems to have ironically both spurred support for their community-based, autonomous network—and hastened its “downfall.” Given that Taleans ultimately abandoned their community cell network in favor of a major telecom company, what does it mean to say that they are “ecumenical when it comes to technology”? How was your perspective and analysis influenced by teaching in Silicon Valley?

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