I met Metsá Rama through producing INSITE Commonplace’s1 Common Thread project.2 We became friends because we are almost the same age and are both fascinated by stories. From the beginning, I was intrigued by how Metsá’s stories are intrinsically related with words and their meanings.
Thus, searching for each word’s root and comparing differences between Spanish and Shipibo, we walk along the streets of Lima, randomly pointing to flowers, rocks, birds, food, little bits of trash, repeating each of the linguistic norms in both languages and sharing anecdotes about them. As part of our drifts through the city, we made a plan to visit the first Shipibo-Spanish dictionary, which is held at a local university, but the administration did not respond to our request for access.
I call her on the phone. She is now in Yarinacocha, where she is studying bilingual intercultural education at UNIA (the National Intercultural University of the Amazon). I tell her that I am observing the nearly one hundred pieces that make up the exhibition, Rao titabo itan koshi shinanya ainbobo. Visiones desde Cantagallo (Plant Mothers and Women Fighters: Visions from Cantagallo) held at MAC (Museum of Contemporary Art, Lima), and that I was left thinking about how the repetition of certain elements functions as a symbolic cartography, as an umbilical cord, to connect multiple meanings. Thus, we organize a list of image- words that Metsá intertwines with biographical and cultural stories, related to her pictorial works and her life near the river, dreams, and how stories have the power to create relationships. For too much time, that knowledge was classified as magical thinking by the white-masculine- Western view; today we can feel and understand that we live in a world of many worlds.
Metsá always ends our conversations with a bridge that I can cross. She tells me that in Shipibo the word for “yesterday” and for “tomorrow” is the same (bakish) because those realities are interconnected, they flow together, touch one another, coexist and, like river water when it withdraws, fertilizing the land, they mutually nourish one another.
Anaconda: The strength, the energy that this work can have. That image practically means strength and union, it is a xao kené.
Ceramic bowls: They are part of us. In ancient times, there were no metal pots, only natural mud. Families ate from them and shared. There were other times for sharing; time was a peaceful extension of moments. And, on the other hand, the ancestors used them to be able to cure us from illnesses. The container itself has a lot of power, which is directly related to a person’s healing. That little pot is special for boiling with herbs; we did not need the pills of Western medicine.
Choloque: As a young girl, I always lived in the forest, where there are not any cars, without everything that you see in the city. There you are surrounded by forest, animals, and you would get dirty working, and then you would go look for choloque. You would get the foam out of it and wash the clothes that perhaps you had gotten dirty. It is like a grape: the black seed is removed and then you split it on a tray, and we wash our clothes with that. We primarily use it in works or necklaces, because it also represents protection since choloque does not come undone. You can burn it, throw it in the water, or leave it out in the sun for a long time and nothing will happen to it.
Butterflies: My granddad would say to all of his grandchildren, when the black butterfly appeared in the house: “Children: you need to be careful. We are going to have a visitor, but the visit is not going to be pleasant.” Therefore, we already knew that if, for this or that reason at that moment or later, perhaps the following day, someone came, it was best for us not to be at home. Or if we were there, we would have to hide, to stay far away from that person, because they could bring bad energy. Because the black butterfly had indicated that nothing good would come. Butterflies are messengers. If it is a many-colored butterfly, it is good news, pleasant visits, good energy, something good.
Eyes: It is known that in our culture, every plant, or everything that we see or that is in our reach, has a spirit and is equal to us. For example, this body and this person who is speaking is called Pilar, or is called Metsá Rama, and it has an owner. And they say the same thing happens in regards to animals, plants, trees; thus it has an owner and we always draw an eye there. Because it has life.
Symmetry: Nothing can be out in the open; if there is a butterfly or some other animal, it is also surrounded by a design. Ancient and contemporary design are interconnected. Design is part of us. Each work is unique. The owner of the work is inspired; that person transmits their own interior. The xao kené represents paths: “When you go to the farm, you always take the wide path, right? But, for someone else, it can have another meaning. But, we already know what it truly represents.” In painting it is broader because each person can interpret things differently and the paths multiply.
Mermaids: Mermaids are the fishes’s owners. It is thanks to those beings that we can drink the water and feed ourselves through fishing. Without mermaids in the water, the river, the lagoons, would dry up. In my community of Paoyhan (Pao Ian), which is between the lake and the river, that is, in the middle, at midnight (or sometimes at 2:00 a.m.), the ronin would make a sound, a loud sound that would make the house shake and split the earth. Then, what would the merayas or the onanyab do? Through their songs, taking ayahuasca, they would make it possible for the ronin that was there to leave. Then, when the ronin had already left, that lagoon would slowly start to dry up, until it would cease to exist, giving way to land, which can be used to plant rice, corn, among other products, to feed ourselves. Now in order to fish you have to go at least an hour or an hour and a half from Paoyhan. Because it has already dried up. The ronin is no longer there, like the mermaids that attract the water.
I have a nephew who is a fisherman, and the mermaids used to give him lots of fish. When he was a child and they did not take him to the river, there were no fish; when they took him, the fish started to jump, there was a large number of mijano. But the mermaids also become fond of humans and want to lead them into the world of water. That also almost happened to my nephew: he went three nights without being able to sleep and when he was finally about to fall asleep, right when his eyes were closing, he saw a very beautiful girl. In his sleeplessness, she told him her name and told him that they would meet in the world of water very soon.
Then the boy, as he was growing up, could no longer sleep; his father was afraid to take him to the river to fish. At that time there was a good meraya in the community, who blew on him so that the mermaid would go away, and she did. The healing was done with mapacho and oni, because the mermaid had fallen in love with the boy. And that was how he, due to his fear, stopped fishing. He was a good fisherman and worked in fishing here in Yarinacocha from a very young age, but he does not do that work anymore. Mermaids are also protectors, “because if they are owners of something they are going to bring you something.” They are also women and that is always good.
Eucalyptus tree: It is primarily associated with COVID. That is why in my work, I painted “the tree that saved the Shipibos of the Cantagallo community.” Because it is true that we all go to that tree. Nobody in Cantagallo could say it was not like that, nobody can deny it. For us, it has been a blessing that this tree has been here. Because while we were going through this evil, that tree, which was already bare, since all the leaves had been removed, helped many people. Now, yes, it has already grown back.
Kené: In my perspective, kené is something unique, something very valuable, that represents us as Indigenous peoples and that, in turn, represents the paths, the birds, the plants, the fruits, the water, the air, life. In short, kené is a map, it is a map of the Shipibo people.
Blood: It represents the fact that we, all humans, are connected in one; nothing is isolated. Nobody’s blood is different from that of anyone else. We are all part of something. Apart from that, what I could tell you is that it is a union, strength.
Ayahuasca: It is a very important vine, with powerful healing properties. It cures all evils. Thanks to its power, many people have been cured of illnesses and have also acquired visions, which make you see what is really going to happen, or what already happened from an angle that you had not seen before.
In my case, when I ingested it for the first time, I could only see a light in my hand, which surprised me at the beginning. But later I was able to play and “pass the light from one hand to the other.” Sometimes I felt that the light was going to fall, but I never got tired of going from side to side with it, like that. That first time I also saw my mother’s death, how I have grown, and I was awash in tears.
The second time I saw dreams and designs. I saw my mother. I saw my grandfather, who said to me: “Sing.” And I responded: “I want to learn to sing,” and he said: “You already know how to sing, you just get intimidated. Sing! Sing, child!” And he made me listen to some melodies. That is how I started to sing.
By the third vision, what I saw was the yama jiwi, one of the few trees and plants that my grandfather had been able to eat during the seven years that he was interned in the jungle. And even my aunt, who is my teacher, has seen it... She says that I am there, with a little tree coming out of my head that is full of lights and, I don’t know how, but it is inside me. I feel the tree roots in my eyes inviting me to see more.
My grandfather also told me that everything that I see and that I say is going to happen, or something like that. When I was very young, I got sick, and they made me bathe with Pinyon Colorado for two weeks at midnight. But that herb had to be cut, and then they would throw salt and bathe me with that, every night. And then I had to throw the water out behind me without looking at it. And like that, without drying off, I would go to bed. That was what gave me the ability to see things or be able to predestine things.
Dolphin: I don’t know how all of this happened, but in my culture... The thing is that they have always told me is that even my family had a child with the red dolphin.
And that grandfather of mine was also meraya, and he was a dolphin. They called him that, even my grandmother and my aunts and uncles called him dolphin. When he would go out in the river in a canoe, the red dolphin always followed him, and sometimes he would throw himself in the water and fish would come in abundance. Also, when he went fishing, there would be many more fish than what other fishers would find, but he would always go fishing because he was familiar with the dolphin.
This also happens through dreams. When you dream about a gringo (here we always call outsiders “gringo”) and a woman who is in her fertile period dreams of being intimate with a gringo, it is possible for her to become impregnated by that red dolphin. That dolphin pretends to be a gringo. Therefore, in my culture, when a woman dreams of that she has to immediately be blown on with mapacho or ayahuasca so that it goes away. If not, she could become pregnant. In my village, Paoyhan, in the past, my grandmothers always lived on the riverbank. And during the growing season, they would just be in the water, with their baskets. And as the water was starting to dry, they found that large pink dolphin under my grandmother’s bed and it was possibly the one who made my grandmother dream of a gringo man and thus she had her dolphin child. Her son had something that would throb there on his forehead.
In its representations in images, it can be related with missing living in the jungle, in the midst of many beings with whom we have grown up, seeing the dolphin or having it reflected in stories.
Tiger: It is ino, which is the representation of my grandfather when he started to do the yama jiwi diet. I have also painted this story. As I said earlier, my grandfather dieted for seven years, but he says that when he started doing the yama jiwi diet, on the sixth night, when it had not yet started to have an effect, that he started to desperately shout in Shipibo “ainbtomanashibi,” which means something like: “Why have I had to bathe so many days? I have even taken it and it has still not had any effect! I am like a woman who wants something, I have to subject myself to those herbs and bathe and drink day and night, and nothing happens.” And he continued shouting like that in the forest out of desperation.
And that very night, as my grandfather was already falling asleep, with the mapacho that he was blowing, a man appeared and started calling his name: “Niwe, Niwe, Niwe.” And my grandfather, surprised, thought: “Who would come at this time of night?” And he knew that he could not have contact with any other person or with his family for seven years. Surprisingly, he turned around and it was not his family, it was a person who was decorated with a brilliant kushima with different ancient designs, with a crown... everything was shiny, everything was beautiful. Then he started saying to him: “I came because I heard your shouts. It is not that it is not going to have an effect, but that you have to be patient. What’s more, I can assure you that now you are ready.” Then my grandfather was left speechless and the man told him: “I am the owner and you are ready for what you want to do. That is why I have come to give you my sister.” And a very beautiful young woman entered, with her koton, with her chitonti and a rexo necklace, with all of the clothing that a Shipiba woman wears when she dresses up for a ceremony or to go to a party. She was very embellished. But the girl did not look up. My grandfather looked at her but she did not return his gaze.
And the man who had appeared said: “This is my sister, your wife, and now you are going to meet the whole family.” And they vanished. But my grandfather only remembers that he slept, that he slept a few hours, but when his family members went to see him in reality, far in the jungle, they realized that my grandfather was no longer there—at least not on this plane—doing his diet. Two weeks passed and the family considered him dead. My grandfather, meanwhile, continued dreaming. In his dreams he met the man and his sister again and first they went in a canoe and later they got off to walk and they found themselves in a lagoon. In that lagoon there were many inos (tigers) of all different colors. My grandfather was afraid; in the real world we could say that the ino represents danger for us, because it can devour us or something bad can happen. My grandfather thought about that, and he was afraid, of course, and he started to hide under a tree. And the man said to him: “Don’t be afraid; all of these animals that you see are yours. You are the owner of all of them. They have come because you have fulfilled your diet. They are going to protect you from now on.”
And that was when my grandfather started to turn into those ferocious animals. When one starts doing the ayahuasca diet, or the diet to become a doctor, there are many people who do the trial and there you really learn if what you are doing is good or if it is going to cause harm. Then my grandfather could turn into ino. After, that man, when he had already met all of his [my grandfather’s] family and they barely needed anything (they did not need to go to lagoons or to the river to look for fish, because everything existed in abundance), he explained to him: “You know that you have to go now because your family thinks you are dead and your mom spends all her time crying.” And then my grandfather ... who thought he had only been dreaming for one night, when he woke up, he realized that he had been in a trance for two weeks.
Papagayos: Xawan. They used to live very close to the communities, but today they are no longer there, they are going extinct. You can still find papagayos farther away, but you can’t find them in the forests nearby. Recently I have painted them in honor of that. My partner dreamed about them when I was pregnant; it was a good message. My daughter started speaking when she was very little. Her grandmother Dora would say: “Your daughter is going to be very intelligent.” And she really is. Dreams also reveal things to you. In my culture we always obey what dreams tell us.
Dreams: My mother- in-law Dora [Olinda’s mother] put piri piri in my eyes, along with my daughter and her other granddaughter, when she was two months old. My daughter has taken it three times. I only did it once. Señora Dora grated the piri piri with paiche tongue. Then she added a little water, to absorb it with a cotton ball and retain the liquid. The last step is to put the substance on a spoon. And that was put in our eyes. After the piri piri drops, I dreamed of my mother, that she was teaching me to draw. This might or might not be related to what I had taken. In the dream, my mom did not talk about kené itself, but she came to show me many designs. My mom died when I was very young, but we learn to make kené from a very young age. However, when she died, my grandmother gave away all her looms and finished works to another family— that is how it is in my culture; they don’t want to see the dead person’s things in the house— and that is what my grandmother did. Later I stopped working with embroidery and dedicated myself to jewelry and things like that. But I already knew, just from knowing. I started embroidering again much later. I also remember that when I did xao kené (which was easier for me because I could use my square notebook, which is when I started coming up with designs), she told me that I did it very well and she transferred my design to embroidery on tocuyo or cañamazo.
Green: In regards to green or blue, for us it is yankon; red is joshin. The same word refers to all the cold colors. There are many words like that in our language. For example, the word “tomorrow” and the word “yesterday”: in Shipibo, “tomorrow” is bakish and “yesterday” is also bakish. The difference, of course, lies in the intonation of the phrase, which we have to generate according to the context.
Green has a lot to do with nature, with the forests. Basically, it represents the forests. In the jungle we are surrounded by many trees and also when it appears, it is our home, the Amazon.
Mokura: They gave this to me on Monday, when my grandmother put it in my nose. It is used to have more energy, when you want to wake up earlier; it is an energizer. It makes your throat ache and makes you tear up, but it is an important part of the delicate work that requires spending hours embroidering and painting.
Flowers: Most of us want to experiment in the jungle (children even more so), because we do not have the colors at hand—like today you can buy them in the bodegas— we do that by crushing flowers to obtain colors. What have we always done to get rubber? We grab our yuca and start to grate with the grater. Then we squeeze that juice and put it in a little tin, a tuna tin, and we start to heat it up with coal, and thus it starts to become a bit of rubber. Or, for example, the ani, which leaves a purple color. I don’t know the word for it in Spanish. I remember that when we had clothes that were no longer colored, we redyed them with that.
Hummingbirds: Love, good energy. The hummingbird’s blood is very good. My mother used to faint; she was epileptic, we know now. Sometimes she was fine, but from one second to the next, she would start to pass out and lose her balance. We had to touch her and touch her. Until a man from Alto Ucayali (also of the Shipibo- Konibo people) came who said that hummingbird blood was very good for combatting what my mom was suffering from. Then my siblings and my uncle, who had good aim (because the hummingbird is small and very fast), captured one. Next my grandmother started to pluck its little feathers and she put that blood on a spoon and gave it to my mother to drink, and, with that, she felt better.
Huayruro: I have always wondered about it, because I have constantly heard that it brings good luck. Then I went with my grandfather and asked him: “Grandpa, where can I find huayruro, and why do they say that it brings good luck?” And he responded: “There are two huayruros: female and male. When you go to the forest to hunt animals or for any other reason and you find the male huayruro, then you already know that there is a female huayruro nearby, because they are always together. Thus, it shows that good luck accompanies you and if you are going to hunt animals, you are going to catch a lot of animals.” And it is true; in the jungle, when you find a fallen huayruro, then you look at the trees and there are a ton. You happen to look over to the side. Nearby you find another tree and obviously they are never separated, they always go together. You might find the female huayruro tree first, or you might find the male first, but they are always together. The small huayruros are a mix of both sexes. They are not big trees, rather like small grapes.
I remember when my grandfather was alive. He only had a huayruro necklace, but he wore beaded bracelets on his wrists. But those beads were not from the city or some store, they had not been bought. And I always asked: “Why does my grandfather have so many beaded bracelets?” And what I was able to find out was that my grandfather, since he was meraya, had the power to drop those beads. When my grandfather would start to sing and sing at dawn, he would stretch out a white cloth and the beads would fall, and he would distribute them to the women during the day. The women made necklaces, bracelets, or waist straps with white beads. But when they were menstruating or about to menstruate, those white beaded straps disappeared completely; you could only see the string, the thread. I am thinking of doing a work about that, about what my grandfather told me of how those small stones appeared even though he never visited the city.
Fisherpeople: At one time, it was the man who provided food, fish. But there were families that did not have male children and women also had to dedicate themselves to fishing, because, if not, how would they feed themselves? Then the man had to teach his daughter how to fish. For example, in my case, my grandfather only had one son and three daughters. The man had already married and left to live with his family. There were three daughters left, who fished, because they had no hope that their father, who was already elderly, could get into the river. They fished, they went with the trap, arrows, hooks, etc. It is like feminism that women and men can do the two things at once; that they are not different.
Toé leaves: They are protective. They also predestine you, or if you are suffering from some sort of evil you bathe with them. They also make you see the person who has done you wrong. It is like a sort of protection that shows you what you should do. But to use this plant, first you have to ask its permission, because it is suspicious.
That is why I wonder, since I have seen the toé plant on some people’s doorways in Lima, if they have asked permission. Because in my culture, my grandfather would say to me that we should not urinate in front of that tree or that we should not suddenly pull off a leaf from that tree, because something could cutipar us (do us harm), that we were playing with its spirit. According to my grandfather, it was something that children could not play with, that not even he could play with, to be able to take its leaves.
My grandfather wrapped mapacho in a white leaf and only then would he take a leaf. We draw its leaves on the edges of our works as a sign of protection and recognition of the power of the toé plant.
River: For us, the river is the source of life. For example, if not for the river, here in the communities—I am talking about many years ago—we would not have potable water. We did not have that water that they have in the city. So, what did we do to get water for drinking or cooking? We would simply grab our little jar or bucket, go to the river, and we kept it there. We nourished ourselves with that and nothing happened to us; we did not need to put chlorine in it or anything. But now I think that the river water is more contaminated than it used to be and we have gotten used to city water, and now when we drink river water it makes us sick.
Kion: It was vital during the pandemic. But it also has something very important for us women: if a woman can’t have children, when she takes ginger like that, loaded up, with egg, lemon, and other things, she is able to get pregnant. She does not have to do all those tests that they do and that take years to be able to have a baby; you simply take your ginger, and that is enough.
Fire: Healing. Here in the community we have had to use it a lot. Most of us have big pots and small stoves at home. And, in order to cook with the big pot and feed the family, you had to use coal, and this is represented in many paintings. I have seen people cut a drum in half and pour water and eucalyptus into it. Sometimes they burned it and that is what we have done.
Morrin: Ancestrally, mothers also had their morrin, which means a delicate job. When a woman makes embroidery in morrin her abilities can be seen.
Art: There is no word for that.