In his two-hour indie documentary, Huicholes: The Last Peyote Guardians, Hernán Vilchez captures one of the last Mesoamerican civilisations to preserve their distinctive way of life in an ever-globalising world – still able, until now.
The Huicholes tribe has been a largely resilient culture that lives in parallel to contemporary Mexico. Carbon dating proves their people’s existence long before Christ and their beliefs predate those of mainstream religions, practicing an early form of animistic and pantheistic mysticism.
Every year they perform an 800-kilometre pilgrimage to the top of the Cerro Quemado, a sacred mountain in the fertile semi-desert area of Catorce, where the hallucinogenic Peyote cactus grows. Eating the fleshy gourd is at the heart of the tribe’s spiritual knowledge and core to their existence, connecting them to their ancestors and guardian spirits through psychedelic visions.
The earth where the cacti cultivate has evaded drought – which is widespread in surrounding regions – but is now falling foul to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). NAFTA grants mining concessions to Canadian multinationals out to quarry natural riches in the Huicholes’ holy land.
Since the treaty was signed, the asymmetry between incomes and expenditures has become stark. Some communities have seen corporations extract an average of 90 billion dollars in minerals in 20-odd years, leaving only one billion of that to be spent on local wages, land acquisition and indemnities. Foreign bank accounts have been fattened while Mexico’s national terrain has been decreased by a quarter, with 56,000 hectares of the desert being sold off.
What’s more, the unique biodiversity of the ecosystem which has been given UNESCO World Cultural and Natural Heritage status and is protected by conservation groups such as WWF is now under threat. There are 4,000 plant species and 250 bird species that could potentially become victims of the mining companies.
The film Huicholes: The Last Peyote Guardians is backed by the traditional authorities of indigenous people and shaman, and José Luis has broken decorum by granting Hernán unprecedented media access to the Huicholes community. Accompanied by the director, the shaman and his son, Enrique, have travelled beyond the Sierra for the first time in their lives to promote the film, which documents the beauty of their way of life and their plight in the face of imminent extinction.
Their hope? To remove the veil of mystery around their ancient customs in an attempt to manifest empathy from the modern world. We met up with them on the London pit-stop of their tour.
“Ohhh, I remember the first vision,” says José Luis, recalling the phantasmagoria of the Peyote. Wearing embroidered overalls and a palm leaf hat with beadwork dangling off the trim, he almost looks comical against the sober brickwork of London, but unknown to onlookers, he’s an earth warrior of the Huicholes tribe. “There was corn which is very symbolic for us and music – tunes and lyrics that gave me good feelings. When you take it, it’s like a vitamin pumping through you, so you have to remember to use it in a good way. This movie, this is not a coincidence or by chance, this is something the elders saw and now we are here accomplishing it as part of our spiritual way.”
The film was released in May 2014. Ever since, father and son have been touring in tandem, with screenings at grassroots venues such as universities and arthouse cinemas all over the world. “When I was five, I was very ill with an infection that made my skin pus and bleed. My father told me the only way to heal was to work with a xucuritame (an official of the tribe’s ceremonial centre), so I went and I began to feel relief from my illness.” Convinced of the power of his tribe’s knowledge, José Luis followed the path to becoming a mara’akame, or ‘a man who knows’.
What he has come to realise is that the proposed exploitation of the Cerro Quemado mountain-scape risks not only the health of Mexican miners and local people – for the process sees two million litres of arsenic laced water pass through the municipal dam, leaving deposits that waft toxic powder down valley into the airstream – but endangers the survival of his community by ripping apart the very fabric upon which it is built. The Huicholes are only just starting to develop their written language, and their yearly ceremonial migration to the site allows dispersed members of the population to meet and disseminate information among one another by word of mouth.
“To be Huichol, by obligation you have to work for your own culture. You can’t just go out and be a model. No,” explains Enrique, the eldest of José Luis’ nine children at 37 years old, and a father of five himself. One of his siblings is the narrator of Hernán’s documentary and hopes a degree in the environment and human rights will help fight for the Huicholes, but Enrique has chosen to stay in the community and work as a farmer and artisan.
Though he carries a solemn air about him, he too realises it is time to bridge the gap between his old, traditional world and the very scary present: “I was really afraid, because I’d never flown on a plane before and didn’t know what was going to happen. But if you don’t go out of your community, you don’t know what’s going on out there. It’s really enriching my knowledge; I feel happy with every new city we visit because I see each place has its own essence. Here in London, I love how the pyramids look.” Hernán laughs as he translates, and clarifies that Enrique is talking about the city’s skyscrapers.
José Luis reflects upon the journey as progressive so far: “The intellectuals, the people getting together to campaign, with their prayers we are activating an energetic connection with the spirits.” Back in April 2008, Mexico’s then president, Felipe Calderón, dressed as a Huichol live on television, made a pledge to protect the sacred site. He betrayed it one year later, by granting the mining concessions over 70per cent of the protected area. This led to Mexicans rallying on the streets calling their own leader ‘a jerk’.
The Huicholes escalated the issue at the United Nations Permanent Forum in New York City and in Vancouver, presenting their case in the homeland of their transgressors, First Majestic Silver Corp, who happened to be holding a shareholders meeting nearby. They headed there to protest in the hope of shocking investors into thinking beyond their stocks. Then there was a festival held in honour of the cause, headlined by Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine and Calle 13, which Hernán believes was a peak moment, “but because there was a mass of people and mass of money raised, the aim became clouded. The message is the important thing, not the hype.”
The mobilisation of this anti-mining movement has resulted in an outpour of donations to fund community projects for the Huicholes and underprivileged inhabitants of the affected area, such as home gardens, reforestation and the recycling of rainwater. “It’s all about permaculture,” imparts Enrique, “which relates to the old traditions we used to have – it is important to recapture the ancient knowledge of how to build a self-maintained habitat using basic systems.”
Similarly, support, education and micro-entrepreneurships are being given or set up for the locals who feel becoming a labourer in the mines is their most viable option. “Some people, without knowing the implications of mining, say, ‘Maybe I want to work in a mine? Bring the mines! Bring the jobs!’ They have a misplaced loyalty that seems to outweigh health risks – there are other ideas, let’s talk about that,” says Hernán.
Unsurprisingly, the director’s favourite story as a child was Sandokan: The Tiger of Malaysia, a prince turned pirate who led his men in attacks against colonial forces. “It was about the British and Dutch invading land, a kind of Robin Hood story of fighting for the poor, having adventures and finding love. He was a hero and I love heroes.” Now, at 44, he says his protagonists are the Huicholes. “There are a lot of temptations from the modern world, like money and exposure, but the Huicholes youth understands the need to protect mother-earth and to live in harmony as human beings. Spirituality is a realm above politics, if you don’t tap into it you will always be ruled by lower minds.”
Body Images: Teresa Madeline Geer and Hernán Vilchez