A Mexican Photographer Explores the Enduring Bonds of Her Indigenous Culture

A Mexican Photographer Explores the Enduring Bonds of Her Indigenous Culture

The homes, streets and shops that make a community tangible may crumble, and its residents may scatter, but the invisible bonds of culture, love and longing endure. This is not mere nostalgia. It sustains life itself.

Among the indigenous people from Yalálag in Mexico’s Oaxaca state, these ties bind them to one another, no matter where they may have migrated in search of opportunity. Citlali Fabián’s parents hailed from there, moved to Mexico City, and returned to Oaxaca City, which is 90 grueling kilometers away from Yalálag. But no matter where Ms. Fabián lived, her heritage kept her — and others — close to the cradle of her people, who descended from the Zapotecs.

“Why is it that despite the distance and separation there is that need to stay connected?” Ms. Fabián said. “We who are born away from there, how do we keep the same preference to work, or to celebrate as if they were still there, or the music? It’s interesting how years and generations pass, and we still dance to the same music my grandparents and parents did. It’s the same dance they taught me. It’s very interesting to see the reconnection of generations. You don’t have to live in a specific place. It’s beautiful to create — and recreate — a community when you are away from it.”

Her project, “Soy de Yalálag” — I’m From Yalálag — is a quiet look at the town, its residents and its diaspora, focusing not on what they lack materially, but the richness of a culture that endures and sustains. It is deeply personal, which gives her images of festivals, family and friends an emotional heft that reassures and reaffirms.

Ms. Fabián, 30, started her continuing project in 2011, when she began a documentary on the craftsmen who make Yalálag’s distinctive huaraches, like her grandfather did. Her grandmother Chencha — who would come to live with her parents — also piqued her curiosity about the town and its traditions.

“She had lived her entire life in the town,” Ms. Fabián said. “She was my first model. For me, it was a chance to share with her.”

Chencha was not fluent in Spanish, while Ms. Fabián did not speak Zapotec.

But their chats prompted her to explore the traditions that united them and led her back to Yalálag to document festivals, religious ceremonies, markets and daily life, while making portraits that projected a quiet strength and confidence. She walked around, talking to people she encountered.

“You have to win their trust to see their true, human, face,” she said. “The human condition is not seen simply by looking. You have to have patience and want to learn more about others.”

That approach led her to also track the town’s diaspora, venturing to Mexico City to reconnect with cousins as well as planning a coming trip to Los Angeles, where she learned how strong the ties to back home are. She recalled having breakfast at an IHOP when she noticed a woman staring at her. A few minutes later, the woman walked up to her table.

“She said I was the daughter of Isaías Fabián,” Ms. Fabián said. “I was shocked. She told me, ‘I am your aunt Panchita, your father’s cousin.’ I knew her name. Then she told me, ‘You look like your mother, but my daughter saw your huaraches and knew it had to be you.’”

Encounters like that reaffirmed her commitment to her project. Guiding her in this process is a determination to show her extended family and community as she knows it, not as something exotic. And as she continues to document Yalálag’s culture, she holds her subjects close to her heart.

“This project is not for the outside, but for us,” she said. “I think it’s very important to understand our community as something more, that overcomes the obstacles of space and time. To see reflected, far away from Yalálag, the rich culture of the food, music, the way in which people get involved. I think the indigenous communities can be closed off a lot, they have some resentment about how they have suffered and what has been taken. But this helps us connect among ourselves.”

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