For hundreds and thousands of years, Indigenous peoples have made use of the goodness of nature and used it in their everyday life (hunting, food, clothing, shelter, and medicine, etc.). As time passed, grandparents taught and shared their knowledge with new generations. Art and/or crafts have played a fundamental role in guaranteeing the continuity of cultural knowledges in this globalized world. It has primarily been women’s duty to teach their daughters since it is through them that stories, knowledges about plants, Indigenous cosmovision, and other important aspects of our lives are expressed.
The work entitled El árbol que salvó a los Shipibos y resistencia cultural (The Tree that Saved the Shipibos and Cultural Resistance), by the Shipibo-Konibo Indigenous artist Metsá Rama, shows us how the Shipibo community of Cantagallo—a community established in the heart of Lima more than twenty years ago—managed to survive the COVID-19 pandemic thanks to its ancestral practices and through medicinal plants, using the leaves of eucalyptus trees planted in the community. Rama’s work reflects one of the many realities facing the country’s poorest and most abandoned sectors. But our community, with more than 1,000 members—mostly of Shipibo origin—refused to be defeated.
Without support from the government and without access to the medication recommended by health care professionals, the Cantagallo community taught and shared with the world the use of traditional medicines used by our grandparents, such as eucalyptus, mucura, ajosacha, matico, ginger, and lemon. The seriousness of the situation forced us to ignore some of the WHO’s recommendations regarding isolation and social distancing; we understood that being close and united was the only way to save the sick without the need to isolate them and leave them to die. With love and fellowship, the mothers of the community went from house to house providing support with medication, without fear of being infected; their spirit of solidarity was stronger than the fear of contracting the virus and losing one’s life. That is how the community continues maintaining its customs and applying them to its everyday life, to be able to live in this concrete jungle.
I also had the firsthand experience of having a family member who became severely ill due to COVID-19. My mother, Olinda Silvano, an artist and Indigenous leader of the Cantagallo community, was affected. She was one of the people who watched over each infected or sick member of the community, giving them all her support and love. At first, we did not consider the pandemic to be of major importance, until the symptoms arrived and more than 80 percent of the population was infected. Our mothers and children cried because they thought they would lose their lives or would lose a loved one. Instead of sending and providing support in terms of medicine, the government chose to confine us in cages with the help of the military and police as our community became the place with the highest level of contagion in Lima. Just as Metsá Rama’s painting shows, overnight, our community was closed off and we were all very frightened by what was happening. Fathers and mothers were very concerned by the confinement since they could not go out to work or move around. A large percentage of Cantagallo’s residents live off of what they earn day to day, especially the mothers who go out to the streets of Lima to roam, selling their artisan crafts, walking many streets and blocks, from district to district, to be able to take home bread, to be able to pay for their children’s school, and the many other things needed in this metropolis. I heard one mother say, “If COVID doesn’t kill me, hunger will.”
In the midst of this emergency, we started to circulate information about our community’s situation through social media. We did not have medicine, nor food or water to be able to face COVID-19. Many generous people showed solidarity with the community and sent their support. My bedridden mother had told me that she had been presented with COVID-19 in its spiritual form in her dreams. She fought against that evil being with all her strength and her desire to continue living. And she managed to emerge victorious because she is not a woman who is easily defeated. Her courage and struggle motivated me to keep going. Since we could no longer go out to sell our goods and give workshops like we did before the pandemic, we started using social media platforms to offer our goods and services: painted fabrics, embroideries, jewelry, etc. But that was not enough. Every day the pandemic made things more difficult for us, but we would not allow ourselves to be defeated. We took that situation–the pandemic–as an impetus to keep moving forward. I spent many days without being able to sleep, thinking about what I could do to support my family. My grandparents and mother granted me a cultural inheritance and I thought that this knowledge could be used to give virtual workshops with a cellphone. That is how I started to spread my culture through technological tools. To me and many others, the pandemic provided us with a space to continue growing as Indigenous artists and to learn to face new adversities. My dream is that all our Indigenous siblings identify with and feel proud of their grandparents, our cultural legacy, and, above all, to value our ancient wealth. We will continue working hard so that the Shipibo-Konibo people have the place and respect that they deserves.