Though he’s dedicated eight years to chronicling the indigenous communities in Oaxaca, the Sierra Tarahumara, and other pockets of Mexico, Austin-based photographer Diego Huerta soon realized that much like Jon Snow, he knew nothing. Or at least, less than he thought he did. Sure, he can confidently get around the mountains of the Sierra Tarahumara, has formed a relationship with the Rarámuri community, and through his powerful images, can get people thousands of miles away to relate to a Wixárika woman in Jalisco. However, when it came to the various, diverse indigenous groups in Mexico, Huerta had only scratched the surface.
“At the end of last year, I started to deeply research more about which indigenous communities actually live in Mexico, and I was surprised to learn that it was much more than what I thought,” he said. “Some of these towns are almost extinct, and you can only find information and statistics about the majority of these groups, but no real documentation. There isn’t a legacy to help them preserve and protect their customs.” That’s when he decided to start Nación Nativa.
On March 20, Huerta set off to photograph the more than 50 indigenous groups in Mexico – some with as few as 60 members. His journey started in a familiar location: Copper Canyon with the Rarámuri. Three years ago, he first witnessed the Tarahumara’s Semana Santa celebrations. And this time, Huerta documented everything – from the hilltop bonfire announcing the beginning of Semana Santa to the Rarámuri men basking in an orange glow, as they warm up in front of a fire after more than 12 hours dancing.
In the month since he launched this new project, most of the pictures he’s shared have come from Copper Canyon. He originally planned to travel through Mexico for 12 months, but considering the pace he’s set so far – one that allows him to speak to these groups and actually listen – it’s very likely that Nación Nativa will take more than a year to complete despite his full-time dedication to the project. Huerta divided his journey into five parts: Ruta Norte, Ruta Altiplano, Ruta Pacífico Central, Ruta Centro and Ruta Sur.
“I look for the face that speaks to me.”
He’ll remain in each of those places until he gets the perfect picture, something that is difficult to define until he sees it. “I look for the face that speaks to me,” he said. “I look for traditional ways of dressing in everyday life just as much as on the days of celebration for every community.”
What he’s hoping to capture is a way of life threatened by soda companies and other outside forces. He turned down the chance to photograph two Rarámuri officials because they dressed in baseball caps or in a suit and tie. But he jumped at the chance to take pictures of the Chichimecas-Jonaz – going as far as recording them and showing off the group in more than a two-dimensional way.
And when the photos and videos finally make their way on to social media, Huerta sometimes fleshes them out with anecdotes, often with the goal of subverting the prevailing narratives that can surround these communities. With his images of the Chichimecas-Jonaz, for instance, Huerta dismissed the pejorative “savage” and “uncivilized” stereotypes that have been associated with their name with his account of meeting the group’s leader, Venus. “15 minutes later, I was shooting portraits of him and his parents,” he wrote. “This would be the first portrait of them as a family. His dad mentioned, ‘You came at the right time,’ since Venus likes to wander around the country and not stay at home. So savage and terrible are the Chichimecas Jonaz that they welcomed me with open arms to their home.”
Editor’s Note: Images included in this article are both from Diego Huerta’s Nación Nativa project, as well as his previous work photographing indigenous communities in Mexico.