Making Visible the Spirit World of Mexico’s Indigenous Communities
Water is life. So, too, is blood. And for the indigenous communities of Mexico’s Guerrero state, the two are closely intertwined in their beliefs. To them, a drop of blood spilled in ritual combat becomes a drop of rain.
These beliefs, where spirits inhabit the environment and offerings are given in thanks or supplication to nature, existed before the Spanish conquest and have endured to this day (at times syncretizing their beliefs with Catholic ones). Originally dismissed by Christians as mere idolatry, the rituals underscore a core tenet Yael Martínez heard as he explored the region’s indigenous religion. “Their philosophy is holistic,” Mr. Martínez said. “When you talk to the campesinos, they say, ‘We eat the land and the land eats us.’ Everything is cyclical.”
Mr. Martínez set out to document the rituals, collaborating with a small team to produce “La Sangre y La Lluvia,” or “The Blood and the Rain.” Funded by the Magnum Foundation, the project uses photos that are sometimes combined with illustrations by Orlando Velázquez, Mr. Martínez’s brother, and commentary by Julio Glockner, an anthropologist who has extensively studied indigenous rituals. He also enlisted the help of Rene Tlacotempa, a local man who participated in ritual combat, as a guide.
Before embarking on this journey, Mr. Martínez had worked on, among other projects, a deeply personal series looking at the murder or disappearances of several relatives in the same town where 43 Mexican students were later abducted and presumed killed. To him, exploring indigenous beliefs was a way of grounding himself.
“I had been working in the mountains on the families of the disappeared,” he recalled. “ I already knew some of the rituals. What I was trying for was a spiritual cleansing for myself after covering the forced disappearances.”
While the spiritual and natural worlds are intertwined, photographing the dual aspects of their cosmology can be difficult. He had been able to observe some rituals, but he was not always allowed to document them. Also, there was the basic question of how to photograph that which is felt, but not seen.
“What I tried to do was to make an image of living between physical and the invisible,” Mr. Martínez said. “I tried to find images that were more symbolic, so then we could recreate them later with photos and graphics. Along with an anthropologist, we documented each of the ritual’s symbols. In a way, we were trying to conceptualize the images.”
He and his brother deepened their understanding by also participating — but in some cases not photographing — several of the ceremonies, including a weeklong one that included fasting, a dangerous hike up to a mountain cave, and offerings of food and drink in the hopes of rains for a good harvest. Afterward, men wearing tiger masks engaged in ritual fights, re-enacting a mythical battle that resulted in mankind being given maize by the deities.
The hike can be physically dangerous, but even mishaps are part of the master plan. Mr. Martínez at one point slipped on rocks, breaking several ribs and injuring another man who was hit in the face and knocked unconscious by a rock he had knocked loose as he fell.
“He was bathed in blood,” Mr. Martínez recalled. “His face was super pale. I told him he had to go back down, but he refused. He had to finish the ritual.”
Such discipline and self-sacrifice kept him going, not despite the danger, but because of it.
“Rene told me how two years ago he had fractured some bones and was risking his life,” Mr. Martínez said. “I asked that if he knew it was very dangerous, then why did he go that way. He said you have to put yourself in danger to give meaning to the ritual.”