The Pilgrimage of a Group of Jicareros in the Ethnographic Film Venado by Pablo Fulgueira

Venado, an ethnographic film produced by Centro Ceremonial San Andres Cohiamata and directed by Pablo Fulgueira in 2009, follows the pilgrimage of a group of jicareros – the chanters, shaman, singers, musicians, and doctors of the Wixáritari people of central Mexico. In the film, the ethnographers document the journey that the Jicareros take multiple times a year (up to seven months annually), in which they bring sacrifice and ritual feasts to their far away gods and deities.

Through this journey, the jicareros take on different leadership positions in the documented ceremonies, and although the film does not necessarily make it clear if these roles are predisposed or decided specifically for the ceremonial sacrifices and feasts, they clearly portray the power structure of the contemporary Wixáritari people. As the ethnographers follow the jicareros through central Jalisco and other parts of Mexico, they actively pursue shots and scenes in which the traditional ceremonies and journeys of the Wirraritarie people are contrasted against very contemporary Mexican backgrounds.

While the ethnography’s purpose is to document the travels and rituals of the Wixáritari people – bringing light to how modern conditions have changed their traditional way of ceremony, the message that the film conveys is that despite contemporary setbacks and constantly changing environments, the Wixáritari are able to sustain their traditional way of life.

The Wixáritari (Huichol) people, who live in central Mexico alongside the Sierra Madre Occidental, are an indigenous people who are constantly evolving in a contemporary world. Venado attempts to document how they enact their traditional ceremonies within the context of modern Mexico. Not to say that the Wixáritari people are culturally static in any way, as like any other Mesoamerican people, they had been adapting and evolving up to the point of European contact, and have been adapting and evolving more ever since. Yet, Venado attempts to break down this dichotomy between the source of forced adaptation (modern Mexico) and the adapting culture (the Wixáritari), to show the reality of Wixáritari ceremony and its role as a keystone element of Wixáritari society.

In order to understand the message of the film, the viewer must be somewhat familiar with how important of a role ceremony and symbolism has in Wixáritari culture. To an ethnocentric perspective, these multi-annual journeys of ceremony and sacrifice can be compared to Christian pilgrimages of faith or Muslim pilgrimages to the holy city of Mecca. However, one could even argue that these ceremonies are even more important to the Wixáritari people than pilgrimages are to abrahamic religions, because they literally tie Wixáritari culture together through ideological symbolism. The viewer must also be familiar with the geography of Central-Western Mexico, along with Wixáritari gods and symbols, as these two non-human actors are very closely tied together in the film.

The Wixárika Jicareros travel “on the sun’s path” in order to pay sacrificial and ceremonial homage to the rain goddess, the moon goddess, the sun god, the mothers of maize, and the blue deer. They travel 3000 kilometers into the Sierra Madre in order to sacrifice to the sun and enact ritual in the place “where the sun comes from”. Along this journey, the ethnographers document the important role ritual has in Wixáritari culture – and the viewer gains a better perspective into contemporary Wixáritari society through the documentation of their ceremonial practice.

In the beginning of the film, the ethnographers document a ritual naming ceremony. This is the moment in which the Jicareros give names to the key elements in their story of the world’s creation – the story that they reenact along their ceremonial journey through sacrifice, music, and chant. In this scene, the Jicareros name the sun “President Felipe Calderon”, and the moon after the name of his wife. They also originally name the fire “the machine”, but then change it to “pig” to better fit their working metaphor.

These names are representative of how the Wixáritari journey works in a contemporary context. Venado shows that the Wixáritari live in a modern Mexico that is constantly evolving; however, they too are a modern people and they too are constantly evolving. Their way of life is based in traditional ceremony, but they have learned to adapt their ceremonial journeys to the modernity of the world that they live in.

Venado forces its viewers to analyze a people who’s whole ideology is based in the practice of tradition. The journey on the sun’s path, the ceremonial sacrifice of the deer, the offerings of water and corn, and the harvest of peyote all act as the fiber that holds Wixáritari culture together. In a scene in which the ethnographers document three Jicarero leaders speaking to each other about why they take their sacrificial journeys, one Jicarero says to the others, “This is how it always has been done”.

Later in the film the same Jicarero leader extrapolates by saying, “Sometimes [the gods] give us life, other times we get sick and die… Maybe because we follow this tradition someone looks after us”. These ceremonial journeys that the Wixáritari people take symbolize the well-being and structure of their culture. Venado affects its viewers understanding of cultural relativity by deeply exploring how much importance ceremony and ritualistic practice can have in a modern society.

By raising an understanding and tolerance of symbolism and ritualistic practice in Wixáritari society, the film also forces the viewer to question symbolism and ritualistic practice in his/her own contemporary life. The film also exposes its viewers to issues of development and contrasting societies in modern Mexico. The scene in which the Jicareros travel through Chapala depicts this contrast and conflict in ideologies very well. These factors by themselves are not necessarily “issues”, but they are important things to consider when thinking about the larger context of indigenous Mexico.

A unique aspect of Venado is that the ethnographers chose to include no narration, except for a few scenes in which they briefly interview Jicarero members. This makes the film incredibly accessible to essentially anyone who wants to watch it. The ethnographers and producers of Venado succeeded in their message simply through documentation and natural dialogue alone, and did not depend on any kind of narration.

Anyone interested in Indigenous Mexican culture, or ceremonial practice alone, could benefit from watching this film. However, this film needs to be understood in a culturally relative context. The filmmakers did not make this ethnography to simply document the Wixáritari people through an ethnocentric lens, but instead they made it to help better understand the Wixáritari people’s relationship with modern society, and how their ceremonial journey fits in with the context of the contemporary world.

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