The Perilous Journey of María Rosa Palacios

Pilar braids Maria's hair.

Pilar braids Maria’s hair.

In 1905, the railway was in the process of being constructed when my great grandmother, María Rosa Palacios, at the young age of 15 left her home in Chota in the highlands. She made her way on mule and by walking on her long way to coastal Guayaquil to work for a wealthy family. The trip could have taken anywhere from 3 weeks to 3 months depending on the weather.

This historical information provides the context for a video I will make mixing panoramic sweeping shots with documentary footage—integrating both film techniques to create a tension between the historic, the contemporary, the performative and the ethnographic.

My great grandmother, as an Afro-Ecuadorian migrant worker, has been fundamental to my artistic production. She represents many ideas I have been asking that reference my racial genealogy and explore how personal memories intersect with history and collective memory.

Her journey allows me to create a video and a series of works on paper that not only intersect with her as a character but also allow me to research and think about the cultural transformations that occurred in Ecuador at the turn of the century as a result of the industrial revolution. The dialogue that ensues between the hardships and aspirations of one woman’s journey with the official narrative about travel before the railway was completed in 1908 is one of the main topics that “The Perilous Journey of María Rosa Palacios” will consider.

What was María Rosa’s journey like? How did she really do it? What did she think about? She was only a girl from a small town. By playing her I may be able to empathize with her in ways that I cannot predict. In re-enacting her journey I can show how 19th century ways of life persist in 21st century Ecuador. More importantly, I will delve into issues of representation, the outsider (touristic) and the insider (local) gaze and how film-making can reveal these different points of view.

The 25-minute film I am in the process of making will juxtapose performative video with ethnographic filming techniques recreating and then complicating an anthropological gaze. My performance underscores the impossibility of me passing as a “Choteña” after three generations, over 5000 miles of travel and the influence of other cultures and possibilities. That said, within the film, there will be moments of suspension of disbelief and glimpses into Ecuadorian realities.

In an effort to tell the “whole story” about the railway and its historic and cultural implications, I am making a series of works on paper, “Los obreros del ferrocarril/ The railway workers”.

This series is grounded in the official photographic record of the railway construction made at the same time my great grandmother was making her epic journey. The story of the railway in Ecuador begins with the vision of President Eloy Alfaro who wanted to unite the geologically diverse country that is Ecuador. Before the railway was completed, communication between the Andes and the coast was near impossible and travel was insanely dangerous. At the end of the 19th century Alfaro hired the Harmon Brothers, two US Engineers who used their American know-how to solve the challenges of building a railway along what is called the South American Rockies. They were successful because of the manual labor of thousands of indigenous workers from Ecuador and migrant workers from Jamaica.

“Los obreros del ferrocarril/ The railway workers” acts as a nexus between the official record—represented by archival photographs and newspapers—and landscape photographs taken recently. The workers are literally and figuratively embedded within the landscape. In working on this project I have found that while all the conveniences of 21st century life exist in Ecuador, 19th century (and earlier) modes of living persist.

 

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