Gertrude Blom

Gertrude Blom

Gertrude "Trudi" Duby Blom (1901 - December 23, 1993) [cite linked authority file|id=n83-134641|accessdate=2008-05-12] was a journalist, social anthropologist, and documentary photographer who spent five decades documenting the Mayan cultures of Chiapas, Mexico, particularly the culture of the Lacandon Maya. She was also a pioneering environmental activist. Her home in San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas, Casa Na Bolom, has been preserved as a cultural and research center devoted to the protection and preservation of the Lacandon Maya and La Selva Lacandona rain forest.

Documentary photographer

Born in Berne in the Swiss Alps, Gertrude Duby was a journalist and anti-fascist organizer during WWII. In 1940, weary of war, she journeyed to Mexico, where, inspired by the writing of French anthropologist Jacques Soustelle, she decided to reinvent herself as a jungle explorer. She bought an old camera and taught herself to use it. Then in 1943, she convinced a government official to let her join an expedition in search of the legendary Lacandon Maya.

The only Maya never conquered by the Spanish, the Lacandon had lived free for centuries deep in the Chiapas jungle (La Selva Lacandona). They were rarely photographed and only had sporatic contact with the outside world, mainly with loggers and chicle workers. Not only did Blom photograph the Lacandon and write a book about her experiences with them, she found in the Lacandon Maya and their jungle home her life's avocation.

It was on a second expedition to visit the Lacandon that she met Frans Blom, a Danish archeologist and cartographer who was searching for Bonampak, the lost Mayan ruin. They teamed up on several subsequent expeditions and later married.

Casa Na Bolom

Moving to San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas in 1951, the Bloms bought a derelict monastery which they restored and named Casa Na Bolom. They took in paying guests for meals to finance their trips to the jungle. Eventually, Casa Na Bolom evolved into an inn attracting visitors from all over the world, including archeologists from major American universities and guests as notable as Diego Rivera and Henry Kissinger. Conversation in many different languages flew across the long table in the dining room, and Mrs. Blom became famous for the kitchen she kept.

For the next 12 years, until Frans Blom's death in 1963, the Bloms shared a passion for jungle expeditions in search of Mayan ruins. It was on these trips that Blom took the photographs of the Maya that put her in the documentary photography ranks of other great social observers with a camera, like Laura Gilpin, Dorothea Lange, and Eugene Smith. (Harris and Sartor 3) Eventually, Blom also built a permanent camp at Naja, the home of Lacandon spiritual leader, Chan K'in Viejo, who she considered her best friend.

Environmental activism

The systematic deforestation of La Selva Lacandona by loggers, immigrant settlers, and the Mexican government changed the direction of her life yet again. In the 1970s, Blom decided she must speak out, and thus became one of the first environmental activists. She traveled the world, lecturing from first-hand experience about the death of the jungle and showing slide shows of her documentary photographs. In three languages, she wrote hundreds of articles protesting Mexican policies. In 1975 she started El Vivero, a tree nursery that still distributes free trees for reforestation. Blom said, "I am hopeless, but I plant trees."

In 1983 a book of her documentary photographs ("Gertrude Blom - Bearing Witness") was published by The Center for Documentary Photography, Duke University. It also contains one of her most powerful essays, "The Jungle is Burning, " in which she writes: "If mankind continues abusing the planet as we are today, the effects in the near future will be far worse than the devastation that would be caused by any atomic bomb. "

In the late 1980s, concerned citizens and friends of Mrs. Blom urged her to create a non-profit organization that would protect Casa Na Bolom after her death. Today, "La Asociación Cultural Na Bolom A.C." continues the work of Gertrude Blom with events and programs dedicated to the well-being of La Selva Lacandona and its Mayan residents.

A legend in her lifetime, Gertrude "Trudi" Blom was fearless in the jungle and tireless in her efforts to save it; sparing no one her fiery anger and righteous indignation. It is rumored that Subcommandante Marcos, during the occupation of San Cristobal de las Casas in 1994, sent a fax to Casa Na Bolom stating that no matter what, he would never harm "the home of the great lady for us, Dona Gertrudis".

Blom died at age 92. The headline of her obituary in the New York Times read fittingly "Long a Chronicler of Mayan Culture" but a correction to the obituary added later-- almost as if the inimitable Mrs. Blom was speaking up from beyond the grave-- stated that she was also a horticulturist. This was a fact of which she had been quite proud, having once said of her gardening skills, "It is the only thing I do for which I was educated and hold a university degree."



* Harris, Alex and Margaret Sartor (eds.) (1984). "Gertrude Blom - Bearing Witness", Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 0-8078-1597-7
* New York Times, December 29, 1993.

External links

* [ Documentary Photographs of Gertrude Duby Blom]
* [ Casa Na Bolom and Na Bolom Cultural Association]

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