In the wake of globalization discourses and the so-called “spatial turn,” space and place have become central concepts in the social sciences and humanities and in migration studies in particular. Increasingly, and despite the widespread transformations in the ways we move and communicate today, place-making has gained important attention as a practice among diaspora groups, forced migrants, and refugees. To further advance insights in this field of research, the present study investigates the role of communication technologies in the place-making practices of the Yanacona indigenous community, which has been internally displaced in Colombia. In-depth interview data revealed that, for the Yanacona community, place-making is a collective process driven by cultural values of cooperation, collaboration, and solidarity. Building networks of support, protecting the community from disappearing, and restoring the collective identity are three practices that the Yanacona have adapted to make a place in the city of Bogotá. In this process, smartphones and social media are particularly relevant for many of the interviewees, who expressed both advantages and negative implications of these technologies for their community. Results also revealed how indigenous communities take on processes of social construction of technology, challenging the archaism discourse that hinders these communities, especially in the Global South. This study recognizes the relevance of paying attention to emergent indigenous media practices and networks in Colombia, arguing that they can be crucial for a community’s cultural survival after forced migration. This article is part of the Global Perspectives, Media and Communication special collection on “Media, Migration, and Nationalism,” guest-edited by Koen Leurs and Tomohisa Hirata.
Yana means night and Cona means man.
And so our name, Yanacona, carries the meaning of
“men who help each other in times of darkness.”
—Wilson, traditional healer
In the wake of globalization discourses and the so-called “spatial turn,” space and place have become central concepts in the humanities and social sciences and, more particularly, in digital migration studies (for an overview, see Leurs and Smets 2018; Smets 2018). Mobility and communication patterns sparked initial postmodern narratives highlighting a “placeless culture” that seems to supersede possibilities of dwelling, belonging, and place-making (Meyrowitz 1985, 8). With the increasing flow of people around the globe, however, the idea of placelessness has been contested by many scholars emphasizing that places are not overridden by media and transportation technologies, but conversely, that such technologies have become central for the place-making possibilities of many individuals on the move (Moores 2012).
Notwithstanding the efforts made to highlight the relevance of physical places, it has been argued that a deterritorialization approach still frames a significant part of research conducted on this topic (Jean 2015). In other words, scholars have mapped very well the drivers of different forms of migration (e.g., economic, political, cultural, humanitarian, or environmental), and to a lesser extent, there is evidence of what people leave behind when they move (Schewel 2019); but what is not yet clear is why and how they make a place where they arrive. Specifically focusing on forced displacement and migration, much uncertainty still exists about re-emplacement and place-making processes, with significant consequences for the recognition of forced migrants’ agency in reconstructing their own landscapes (Jean 2015)—a crucial observation if we consider that, at this date, 70.8 million displaced people are still struggling for a place in the world (UNHCR 2019).
Digital technologies play a crucial role in myriad processes surrounding forced migration, leading to an increasing use of academic concepts such as “connected migrants,” “digital diasporas,” or “mediatized migrants” (Leurs and Smets 2018). These terms suggest, however, that we may not have sufficiently understood the link between media and migration through the lens of reterritorialization (Andersson 2013). While research has predominantly focused on understanding digital technologies in relation to transnational practices of (forced) migrants, far less attention has been paid to localized processes of place-making, especially in underexplored contexts of internal displacement (Mooney 2005).
To respond to these gaps, this study explores the role of digital communication technologies in the place-making practices of the internally displaced indigenous Yanacona community, in Colombia. According to UNHRC (2019), by the end of 2019, Colombia led the sad list of countries with a high number of internally displaced people, with more than seven million affected. In this context, indigenous communities are among the most vulnerable groups, facing greater challenges when they settle in urban areas. Rural migrants like the Yanacona must learn how to navigate not only new social and economic environments but also natural and cultural settings to create a sense of place (Jean 2015; Massey 2005). In addition, indigenous communities in Colombia often struggle with the archaism discourse in relation to (new media) technologies, which portrays them as locked in an archaic era and as opponents of modernization and technological innovation (Moreno and Julian 2011; Duarte and Vigil-Hayes 2017).
The commitment of the Yanacona people to recover their social and cultural fabric, together with their adoption of (new) media technologies (ONIC 2019), offers an important opportunity to understand the interactions between these technologies and their re-emplacement process in urban areas. Thus, this study is relevant not only for a better grasp of localized media practices in the context of place-making but also for a deeper understanding of how to include and support the emergent indigenous networks as place-making practices, which can be crucial for the preservation of these groups in the Global South.
Reterritorializing People-Place Relationships
Central to studies on re-emplacement and place-making processes is the conceptualization of what constitutes a place today. In the past decades, there has been growing consideration of spatial dynamics in the context of forced migration, with a number of scholars arguing for a revision of the conventional notion of places as static settings with defined, tangible boundaries (Jean 2015; Massey 2005). The conventional notion still permeates policy work regarding forced migration. It entails an essentialist approach in which “people and cultures are understood as localized and as belonging to particular places” and thus “places become fixed locations with a unique and unchanging character” (Brun 2001, 17). In this sense, an understanding of peoples’ experiences, identities, and needs as bounded naturally to their places of origin has deep-reaching consequences for the ways in which host societies and institutions perceive and deal with displaced communities, which, in turn, are often represented as uprooted. Uprootedness implies that forced migrants can never belong to a territory outside of their own (Brun 2001) and therefore can never achieve re-emplacement.
Against this background, refugee studies and migration studies in general, as well as research concerned with place-making, are increasingly focused on adopting a reterritorialization approach as a useful way to understand the people-place relationship from a nonessentialist perspective (Eastmond 2006; Jean 2015; Massey 2005). This approach “recognizes the strong sense of connection to places left behind and their associated traumas while at the same time recognizing the possibilities of constructive (re)building of connections to place within a context of resettlement” (Sampson and Gifford 2010, 35). Paying more attention to matters of re-emplacement implies considering places as fluid cultural constructions where identities are shaped by situated, embodied practices (Brun 2001). As Cresswell (2004, p. 39) argues, a nonessentialist approach conceives of place as an event that “is marked by openness and change rather than boundedness and permanence.” In this perspective, place is itself relationally performed and practiced (Massey 2005): it is a platform that allows forced migrants to articulate new connections to places, to endorse them with symbolic and social meanings, and to negotiate identity and power in this process.
Aside from its physical dimension, place is also constituted by layers of social, cultural, and symbolic meanings that are given to them by its inhabitants (Moores 2012). In our global world, a place can be seen as a social position (Horst 2018), a virtual setting (Scannell 1996; Komito 2011), or an imaginary landscape (Appadurai 1990), to mention but a few components. Such complexity of places is relevant for forced migrants who find their multiple identities and social positions reduced to an essentialist category when faced with helpless-uprootedness narratives that still permeate modern nation-state policies (Appadurai 2019). More importantly, such complexity also indicates that places are not overridden by the mobility patterns of today, but that places are in the making every time people move (Jean 2015, 52).
In this regard, Moores (2012) argues that places are locations made “thoroughly familiar” (104). The development of familiarity entails a sequence of meanings chained together and endorsed through habitual practices, repeated day after day over lengthy periods of immersion in a specific environment (Tuan 1979). However, the everydayness of place-making neglects the narratives of forced migrants who often lack extensive periods of time to create a sense of place (Peña 2006), while reinforcing what Peña (2006) considers to be a Eurocentric way of thinking about places. As Peña (2006) highlights, if the sense of place survives globalized diasporas of displaced individuals, it is only because these individuals are able to carry place with them. In the process of rendering a place meaningful, this study focuses on the ways indigenous people in forced displacement use digital technologies as important practices that shape and are shaped by subjective and relational forms of place.
Place-Making, Digital Technologies, and Displaced Indigenous Communities
As early as 1990, Appadurai (1990) suggested the potential of studying “disjunctions of transnational electronic ‘mediascapes’ with the ‘ethnoscapes’ of mass migration—where, in some cases, both audiences and messages are in simultaneous circulation” (Morley 2001, 427). On this matter, a considerable amount of literature has been published on the intersections between media and migration in terms of transnational practices. Examples include studying the potential of media practices to engage in transnational political processes and cyberactivism (Conversi 2012; Horst 2008; Kissau and Hunger 2008); to connect with migrants’ original communities through virtual platforms (Komito 2011; Oiarzabal 2012); to stay updated with news media and television shows produced in migrants’ home countries (Georgiou 2013; Rinnawi 2012); or even to aid the migration process of other group members across borders (Fiedler 2019; Gillespie, Osseiran, and Cheesman 2018).
The emerging research field of digital migration studies has contributed to shedding new light on the role technologies play in forced migrants’ lived experiences of place (Leurs and Smets 2018). More generally, studies highlight that a focus on localized, daily media practices is particularly useful to understand individuals’ reterritorialization or (re)creation of a “sense of place” (Alencar 2020, 505). As Smets (2018) stated, “while forced migration has a vast global dimension that draws attention to interconnectivity, locality remains crucial” (p. 116). Given that forced migrants and displaced groups commonly move toward great urban centers where network coverage and digital devices are often taken for granted (UNHCR 2016), it is possible to acknowledge the agency refugees have in using digital media to orient themselves and navigate their way to finding a new life in the city (Alencar 2017; Kaufmann 2018).
Specifically focusing on indigenous communities, a large body of literature has concentrated on the absence and deficiency of technological infrastructure and access (Moreno and Julian 2011). For instance, Hernández and Calcagno’s (2003) investigation showed how the digital divide hinders indigenous groups and marginalizes their participation in media policies, whereas Dyson’s (2007) study with Australian indigenous communities revealed that their enthusiastic response to digital technologies plays at odds with access difficulties and poor infrastructure. Thus far, very few studies have been carried out to analyze indigenous communities’ use of digital technologies in the context of place-making processes. Most notable are the studies of Auld, Snyder, and Henderson (2012) and Brady and Dyson (2014), who explored the influence of sociocultural practices associated with place on the way indigenous Australians adopt mobile technologies in their community and when they move away for work. While the authors highlight that mobile phones serve as tools that connect the community to the place where they are located, the cultural context, and their social practices (Auld, Snyder, and Henderson 2012), they also acknowledge the importance of adopting localized conceptions of place to better understand the complex relations between culture and digital practices of indigenous people (Brady and Dyson 2014). For instance, Brady and Dyson (2009) found in their earlier study that aboriginal people were able to manage their individual expenses related to phone usage because the purchase of prepaid mobile phone services was the only option available in their remote locality, challenging cultural expectations of resource sharing among indigenous communities.
Within this context, cultural stereotypes associated with the exceptionalism of indigenous adoption of information and communication technologies (ICTs) are also evidenced in the literature. Duarte and Vigil-Hayes (2017, p. 177) argue that indigenous internet research is still very much focused on establishing a binary relation between “being Indigenous" and "being digitally connected," which contributes to enduring obsolete, colonizing interpretations of indigeneity (Moreno and Julian 2011; Harding 2016). Based on the analysis of several Facebook pages managed by Aboriginal people and groups in Australia, Carlson (2013) puts forward the argument that scholars should start considering Aboriginal social media use as a daily practice rather than as a peculiarity. In his own words,”Aboriginal people do not stop being Aboriginal because they are online" (Carlson 2013, 148). Another important contribution is that of Salazar (2002, 2009), who has advocated for the need to ground locally the research on indigenous use of media. Salazar’s (2002) research revolves around the emerging processes of indigenous convergence in Latin America, especially in relation to the new discourses of cultural and ethnic recognition as well as political self-determination. In doing so, he suggests that a sociological approach to technology can be fruitful as long as it integrates media as a tool of cultural strengthening in the hands of autonomous indigenous groups (Salazar 2002).
Although the latter studies are not directly concerned with place-making practices, their observations are important to highlight how a localized and sociological approach has been significantly absent so far. Such absence, as discussed throughout this section, can impede the support of emergent indigenous networks as crucial for their process of dwelling, wayfinding, and place-making.
The Migration of the Yanacona Community
In recent decades, the migration of the indigenous population to the cities has increased and become more relevant, with the impact of the armed conflict that continuously prompts the forced displacement of the rural population. In Colombia, indigenous groups constitute only 4.4 percent of the national population (DANE 2019), yet they have been identified as the groups most at risk of displacement (Soledad Suescún and Jiménez 2012). Indigenous groups often occupy territories with important natural resources, located in remote or border areas of the country, where the government has been predominantly absent (Soledad Suescún and Jiménez 2012). In the case of the Yanacona, this situation is aggravated due to the exploitation of their territory (Macizo Colombiano in the Cauca region) by armed groups such as the FARC, the ELN, and the paramilitaries to maintain illegal coca crops (UNHCR 2019). With the imminent damage to their main economic activity (horticulture) and the wave of violence that has plagued the Cauca region until today, the Yanacona fled in massive numbers between 2003 and 2008 (Observatorio del Programa Presidencial de Derechos Humanos 2019). In only five years, more than 45 percent of the Yanacona population migrated to the main urban hubs of the country, including Bogotá, Medellín, and Cali (Ministerio de Cultura 2010).
Today, the Yanacona community is scattered throughout the Colombian national territory; around 20 percent of the population is believed to live in Bogotá (Ministerio de Cultura 2010). Under these circumstances, in 2003 the Yanacona in the city founded the Yanacona Urban Council of Bogotá in order to be recognized as a displaced indigenous community by the local government. By 2010 the Urban Council was constituted by 170 families—approximately 630 members, including women and men, as well as elders and children (ASCAI 2016). Despite the efforts of the Yanacona, their participation in the city is not reflected in the development of policies that guarantee the exercise of the rights of this segment of the population; on the contrary, the tendency is for them to be integrated in a marginal way and under assimilative policies that lead to deculturation. Not until 2017 did the Mayor’s Office of Bogotá issue a decree for the recognition of cultural diversity and the guarantee of the rights of indigenous peoples living in Bogotá, with particular attention to matters of education, health, and social integration (Secretaría Jurídica Distrital 2017).
Governmental support and strategies to ensure the survival of indigenous groups in the city are critical for the Yanacona. According to the National Organization of Indigenous People of Colombia, the Yanacona’s forced migration process has taken a serious toll on their cultural and sociopolitical configuration (ONIC 2019). For example, their original language, a variation of Quechua, is today extinct, and their main ancestral practices, such as Mingas (cooperative voluntary work), have weakened. Their political configuration has suffered ruptures among migrant groups, who have formed smaller organizations that sometimes prevent the entire community from receiving government assistance by not recognizing themselves as part of the same sociopolitical unit (ONIC 2019). In 2005 the scale of these implications led the Regional Council of Indigenous People of Cauca to declare the Yanacona community in danger of disappearing (CRIC 2019).
In response to these challenges, various migrant groups, including the Yanacona Urban Council of Bogotá, were integrated into an initiative known as the Plan de vida Reconstruyendo la casa Yanacona (Rebuilding the Yanacona home life plan), which is conceived as a process that “allows us to identify ourselves as Yanacona and to ensure our survival on our time as Yanacona People, with our cultural, social, political, economic, environmental, and mythical characteristics” (Yanacona 2001, 8). In this initiative, displaced groups located in various cities of Colombia were integrated, in an effort to strengthen the Yanacona culture outside of their original territory and into societies of resettlement. Accordingly, the Yanacona families living in Bogotá are deeply involved with the recovery and protection of their culture, language, worldview or cosmovision, and social network, among many other aspects of their identity.
The present exploratory study recognizes the relevance of adopting a non-media-centric approach. In this perspective, digital technologies are seen as integrated in the everyday life of Yanacona migrants, as these are used to navigate the complexities of new social and cultural landscapes in the city (Leurs and Smets 2018). Moreover, a non-media-centric approach is useful to acknowledge the relevance of digital communication, not as a determining factor for daily practices but as coexisting with practices outside of media technologies (Moores 2012). Accordingly, Leurs and Smets (2018) have suggested that ethnography, participant observation, and interviewing are the most adequate methods that respond to a non-media-centric approach, since these yield context sensitivity, insights grounded in everyday experiences, and situatedness.
Thereby, this study comprised three weeks of fieldwork in April 2019, during which fifteen in-depth interviews of approximately one hour each were completed among members of the Yanacona Urban Council of Bogotá. Topics for discussion included participants’ personal stories of migration, everyday lives in the city, and sociocultural and communication practices, enabling the development of probing questions while making it possible to make a detailed analytical juxtaposition and comparison of qualitative responses across interviews (Bauer and Gaskell 2000). Additionally, these semistructured interviews were complemented with participant observation and informal conversations with various members of the community whom the first author of this article had the opportunity to meet during sociocultural gatherings organized by the Urban Council throughout her stay in the city. These gatherings ranged from informal encounters, like football matches or music events, to ceremonial activities such as the Ritual de Siete Ollas (Seven Pots Ritual, an annual gathering held in April to bring the Yanacona community together around food, cooking, and dialogue), or committee meetings of the community’s Urban Council. The last phase of the fieldwork included an informal group discussion about the relevance of digital technologies for the community, in which six members participated (four of whom had been previously interviewed).
The lack of previous research on displaced indigenous communities in Colombia made it difficult to make an assessment of relevant demographic variables for this study. However, attention was paid to variability in demographics and backgrounds, bearing in mind the diversity of ages and roles found among the members of the Yanacona community in Bogotá (Ministerio de Cultura 2010). Thus, the study population consisted of both women and men, as well as youngsters and adults inasmuch as participants could be reached through snowball sampling. Specifically, seven women and eight men, ranging from twenty to sixty-two years old, were interviewed. Among the participants, four current authorities of the Urban Council were interviewed, including the political leader, the vice-governor, the leader of the musicians’ group, and the traditional healer of the community. The diversity in the roles of the participants was relevant to understand the use of (digital) communication technologies from various perspectives. Given the sensitive aspect of the research, all interviews took place in a comfortable environment for the participants: five interviews were held at the Casa de Pensamiento Indígena (the operations center of the Urban Council), four were held after the Ritual de Siete Ollas in the house of one of the members, four took place during a community’s football match, and finally, two were held in the respective homes of the participants.
Rapport with the participants and the overall community was facilitated thanks to previous contact with Yawar, former leader of the Yanacona Urban Council, who was able to provide the first author with a vital link to enter the community. Prior to fieldwork, Yawar highlighted the engagement of most of the Yanacona in (digital) media practices, such as television watching, radio or mobile phone use, and social media—a fundamental aspect for this study. In a spirit of knowledge co-creation, important in Global North-South knowledge production, Yawar was highly involved in the research design—for example, by evaluating the interview guide used in several occasions during fieldwork or by mediating the encounters with the community. His active participation in the study was key to our navigating power relations during the research process. As researchers, we often stand in a privileged position in comparison to research participants, a circumstance that has both practical and ethical implications. In the Colombian context, this privileged position can be exacerbated by the differences in social status and educational background that have historically permeated the country, especially regarding rural-urban relations, and more importantly, between indigenous voices and the larger society. These differences have framed the role of indigenous migrant communities in the country and encouraged the continued use of assimilatory policies, which are otherwise far from adjusting to the potential of these communities in the city context.
From this perspective, it is very important to consider and understand how to collect and interpret indigenous voices in order to avoid depictions that perpetuate epistemic injustices and jeopardize “realistic conditions of decoloniality” (Duarte and Vigil-Hayes 2017, 167). Such a complex endeavor, according to Harding (2016, p. 1074), involves defining one’s role and positionality as a “crucial step in achieving agency” to advocate for attention to the needs, experiences, and interests of marginalized groups, such as displaced indigenous peoples. For this undertaking, both researchers relied on knowledge acquired during previous work and research with indigenous communities in Latin America. The first author holds a master’s degree in media studies and currently runs her own social enterprise in Colombia, which specializes in participatory design projects with an emphasis on social communication. Prior to that, she worked with the National Organization of Indigenous People of Colombia (ONIC) to facilitate the integration of displaced indigenous peoples in Bogotá through inclusive design. Together with members of remote indigenous communities located in the Colombian Amazon, she also co-created educational games for the preservation of indigenous language. The second author is a Brazilian-born researcher working as an assistant professor in the Netherlands. Over the past seven years, she has been investigating the uses and appropriations of digital technologies by different forced migrant populations in Europe and Latin America. Her longitudinal research project focusing on Venezuelan refugees with both an indigenous and nonindigenous background in northwestern Brazil allowed for the development of participatory digital approaches aiming at improving place-making processes for these communities in the Brazilian Amazon city of Boa Vista (see Alencar 2020). These past experiences played a very important role in developing a research approach that is more sensitive to the conditions of indigenous lives and at the same time enables a bottom-up perspective on participants’ individual experiences and struggles.
All participants were guaranteed anonymity and confidentiality, were properly informed about the goals and scope of the study, and were asked to sign an informed consent to record the interviews and use the data gathered for academic purposes. Interviews were recorded and transcribed verbatim in Spanish and analyzed following Boeije’s (2010) thematic analysis. The phase of open coding resulted in the emergence of themes and categories related to participants’ migration journey, everyday life in the city, social connections, cultural practices, and technology adoption. During axial coding, these categories were carefully scrutinized in order to determine differences and nuances in meaning. Finally, selective coding allowed us to establish connections between the concepts and categories, facilitating the subsequent integration of the findings. The interpretation of data was informed by reterritorialization (Andersson 2013) and non-media-centric approaches (Leurs and Smets 2018) to the relationship between digital media and place-making. In the following sections, we examine the role of digital communication technologies in the daily practices of place-making among the Yanacona indigenous community in Bogotá.
Digital Communication Technologies for Collective Place-Making
After arriving in the city, the Yanacona enter a process of dispersion that according to the participants puts at risk their sense of community and cultural values such as solidarity, cooperation, and belongingness. The implications of forced migration (and thus of place-making) can be better understood when keeping in mind that, in the majority of the cases, indigenous groups do not migrate as individuals or as family units; they migrate as communities whose members rely deeply on daily encounters to perform and protect their collective identity. As Xavier, a thirty-four-year-old traditional1 male teacher who moved to Bogotá ten years ago, explains: “in the city context our togetherness sometimes disappears a little bit, because we are not together physically.” Indeed, the Yanacona expressed the relevance of being physically united as a main factor in the restoration of their sense of place. However, because of the challenges presented by the new urban environment (e.g., tight work schedules, the vast distances in the city, transportation costs, etc.), the Yanacona face important difficulties in finding each other in a big city like Bogotá.
In this context, digital communication can play a paramount role not only in facilitating encounters among the community members living in the city but as virtual settings that can ease the connectedness of the community and help its members feel closer to each other. Consequently, the media ecosystem of the Yanacona seems to be knit by the community’s effort to protect their way of life, worldview, and social network. In this case, similar to findings in other studies where indigenous communities adopt technology to maintain contact and support families or other members when moving to other locations (e.g. Brady and Dyson 2009, 2014), the Yanacona also engage in individual digital media practices to protect their sense of community, crucial to make a place collectively in the new environment (Duarte and Vigil-Hayes 2017; Carlson 2013). As observed during fieldwork, the majority of the Yanacona members interviewed (with the exception of young children or some elders) own a smartphone or a laptop and are actively involved in many social media networks, specifically Facebook, WhatsApp, and, to a lesser extent, Instagram.
Another important aspect is that all informants attested to an increase in the use of these technologies since their migration to the city despite the fact that many expressed a tension between the benefits and drawbacks of technology use. For example, Yaruk, a young adult actively engaged in social media to stay in touch with her Yanacona friends in Bogotá, expressed how smartphones have impacted the quality of life shared among the community: “When we did not have cellphones, or internet on our cellphones, we were more aware of our community, of the things we were doing together.” The tension observed by many Yanacona like Yaruk reveals the complexity and contradictions of digital technology use in the daily life of the community—a complexity that has been addressed before by taking a critical look at (new) media as a practice embedded in the localized context of today’s migrants (Andersson 2013; Leurs and Smets 2018).
Altogether, the experiences of the Yanacona regarding digital communication in the context of postmigration provide a more nuanced understanding of how new media platforms and practices become crucial for the protection of indigenous communities’ values and safety in an urban environment. Specifically, the following sections discuss three digital practices that the Yanacona engage daily in their process of collective place-making: (1) fostering social support through indigenous networks; (2) enacting citizenship; and (3) restoring cultural identity.
Fostering Social Support through Indigenous Networks
Several studies have highlighted social connections and informal knowledge networks as a fundamental aspect of place-making. Whether it is to develop an emotional bond with the society of resettlement (Denov and Akesson 2013) or to better cope with harsh postmigration conditions (Alencar 2020), social relationships and networks seem to play a crucial role in regaining a sense of home. In a similar vein, the Yanacona expressed the importance of collaboration and cooperation with others in their new place. All informants reported seeking the help of another Yanacona member (a relative, friend, or acquaintance) who had migrated to the city before and who could guide them upon arrival. In general, respondents mentioned that they relied on their support networks to search for information about jobs, scholarships and study programs, legal and administrative procedures, suitable places to live with few resources, and tips for transportation in the city.
Under the conditions of dispersion faced by the Yanacona in Bogotá, the community members live scattered in fifteen different districts in the city (DANE 2019), sometimes two hours apart because of traffic complications, and the support they offer to each other is increasingly mediated by communication platforms. Jorge, a thirty-two-year-old member of the Yanacona Urban Council who experienced a hard time after migration, describes Facebook as useful to “establish social relations in a place where it is not easy to socialize.” Facebook and WhatsApp are the most used platforms by the community to seek and offer support. More concretely, the Yanacona have created their own private Facebook group, in which they publish information of interest not only to new Yanacona migrants but also to the community at large. The Facebook group is also used to summon the community periodically, announcing social gatherings that usually take place in the Casa de Pensamiento Indígena, the operations center of the community, located in the city center.
Active participation in such gatherings is as important as participation in the Facebook group. Estella, a Yanacona member who arrived in Bogotá with the first migrant group two decades ago, talked about how these gatherings strengthen her sense of belonging to the community: “In the Casa de Pensamiento Indígena I find my people. Before I felt so alone, but not anymore… we meet to play our music, dance our music, and it’s like family.” Similarly, other participants expressed feeling at home thanks to social encounters where the majority of the Yanacona are involved, despite the tremendous struggles that some members undertake to pay for transportation or make up hours of missed work. The value that Yanacona people perceive in simultaneous participation in both settings (virtual and physical) underpins the relevance of studying media engagement as spatial practice, with the potential to support reterritorialization processes (Andersson 2013, 390).
Another important aspect of sharing information among the Yanacona migrants is how their social network has helped them cope with the feeling of being an outsider, a feeling commonly acknowledged by the interviewees. Xavier, who volunteers as a schoolteacher for the community, explains how “seeing oneself as a stranger” can be frightening in a territory so different from one’s own. In his account, Xavier mentioned the help of several Yanacona community members who assisted him with advice through the WhatsApp group: “They welcomed me, they said, ‘Look, the city works like this, don’t worry, you can work around this and this area.’” Additionally, informal conversations with other Yanacona revealed how this type of advice is often accompanied with maps, transportation routes, or pictures of landmarks in the city that circulate among the newcomers who are afraid of navigating the city alone.
In this regard, media technologies can be very useful to deal with the imagined idea of an unknown place (Appadurai 1990) shared by many Yanacona before arriving in the city for the first time. Many participants mentioned being concerned about “getting lost in a dangerous city,” “the overwhelming size of the capital,” and the insecurity and difficulties related to transportation and housing—concerns that had never been part of the daily life of this community before. The circulation of images, accounts, and ideas about Bogotá is foremost valued among the Yanacona, not only because these can shape their relation with the new environment (Brun 2001), but also because it has the potential to foster the migration of members left behind, with whom they have frequent contact despite distance. As a result, acquiring a smartphone is often one of the priorities that participants have before migrating, acknowledging that it is an indispensable tool to overcome the challenges faced after separation from the community (Brady and Dyson 2014).
The historical conditions of marginalization of indigenous communities in Colombia (Moreno and Julian 2011) have very serious consequences for the process of re-emplacement of the Yanacona community to this day. According to participants, the development of local policies that guarantee the participation of the Yanacona in affairs of public interest is far from sufficient to address the needs of the community in the city.
The obstacles that the community experiences in relation to its own governance and self-determination have motivated several initiatives among the Yanacona leaders, who seek to overcome the conditions that put the community at risk of deculturation. Initiatives include the pursuit of their own health and education system, as well as the demand for economic resources to support the livelihood of the migrant community members due to their status as victims of the armed conflict in the country. For example, Yawar, former leader of the Urban Council, accounted for his experience in trying to reach an agreement with the local government for the establishment of an appropriate health-care system for the Yanacona in the city: “It is hard because they do not understand the importance of what we ask for, of our traditional healers… They want to fit us into their own ways.” As Yawar explained, the local government does not seem to give enough importance to the characteristics of indigenous traditional medicine, which the community seeks to access, and which are not contemplated in the national public health system. As a result, the Yanacona community is forced to finance an independent health system in the city, which operates under precarious conditions. Similarly, the Yanacona also struggle to access educational institutions that raise awareness and recognize the importance of indigenous culture in the country at a minimum, and which employ Yanacona teachers at best. In light of these challenges, the Yanacona have set up a provisional educational structure in the Casa de Pensamiento Indígena, which operates intermittently and focuses on teaching the customs and knowledge of the community.
To put forward initiatives like these, many Yanacona have learned to navigate digital platforms that allow them to manage their various projects (Duarte and Vigil-Hayes 2017). A great part of the work of several community leaders interviewed is to inform a large number of Yanacona people about the legal framework that protects displaced communities in the country. In doing so, these leaders engaged in the development of digital skills such as managing programs for drafting documents, sending emails, writing online petitions, or searching the web to find alliances with organizations that can support their postmigration process, among others. Paulina, who was recently reelected governor of the Urban Council, talked about how digital technologies feel “indispensable” in her daily life as leader: “If WhatsApp rings it must be something. I keep an eye on it, whether I am talking or in a meeting, if I hear my WhatsApp, then I have to check.” Another of Paulina’s responsibilities is administering the Facebook group where she uploads important documents drafted by the Urban Council. In this sense, the platform has been important in developing the political process of the community, which has adopted a new configuration in its participatory process. Many participants expressed the advantages of extending their sociopolitical activities into a digital space (Komito 2011). “In the Facebook group we post information for all the members… so it is there for everyone to participate,” said Estella, vice-governor of the community. The accounts of the Yanacona in this regard provide evidence of how, in their process of place-making, the community not only must learn how to navigate new social (Jean 2015) or political environments (Horst 2008) but also virtual ones. Isin and Ruppert (2015, p. 12) argue that digital contexts constitute “spaces of relations between and among bodies acting through the internet” and that the act of doing politics online does not take place in a void but is firmly embedded in existing sociocultural and political structures. Accordingly, digital environments can be transformed into social spaces where members participate actively in protecting the community and fostering better conditions for the recognition of their citizenship rights.
Yet the shift of the Yanacona’s participatory process in digital spaces is not always perceived positively by all members. Xavier, for example, is concerned about the rising relevance of what he called a “virtual leader” among the Yanacona:
The indigenous leader in our territory is the one who is physically attending the process, who with the cane in his hand says “Come on, let’s go to the Chagra [a form of collective horticulture among the Yanacona], I will lead,” that’s our leader. But here our leaders have become those who write a well-organized document. Our leader became more theoretical than practical; thus, sometimes, he is the one who posts and speaks very beautiful in the networks.
Like Xavier, other members expressed the risk of downplaying the role that elders have traditionally had in the community. A generational reconfiguration is occurring as elders have lost leadership in recent years because of their inability to manage virtual platforms fluently. “Youngsters are not prepared, they lack experience to guide, they need to learn that first,” agrees Rodrigo, an elder member of the community who migrated with the first group. Such distinction between the “virtual world” and the “real world” was commonly described by the participants, even though they recognized the relevance of incorporating digital skills to manage their needs and claim their rights to dignified life in the urban context.
Restoring Cultural Identity
Cultural practices associated with and determined by place are particularly relevant to provide a sense of historical continuity and thus can play a role in dealing with disruption in matters of identity, memory, and belongingness after forced migration (Denov and Akesson 2013; Jean 2015). At the same time, a sense of continuity allows many forced migrants to face the challenges of a state of “in-betweenness” that is the result of negotiating which cultural practices can be preserved and which must be left behind. This is the case of the Yanacona community, whose re-emplacement processes have forced them to abandon certain traditions (e.g., working in the Chagra) or to adapt them when possible to the new environment. An example mentioned by most of the participants is their frequent engagement in private music events, where the group gathers to play, dance, or learn chirimía, their traditional music.
Despite the spatial conditions of the urban environment that make it difficult for some to continue participating in cultural events, various members are strongly committed to their organization. For example, Abner started a WhatsApp group a couple of months after migrating, with the purpose of organizing an assembly of musicians that could prompt gatherings among the Yanacona in Bogotá. For him, music is not only about the continuation of an important practice related to oral tradition and storytelling but also about “keeping the Yanacona spirit alive.” Others have followed Abner’s initiative, starting different WhatsApp groups, for example, to arrange language lessons of Runa Chimi (a variation of Quechua that is being recovered) or to organize cooking workshops around their traditional kitchen. Since not everyone can participate in each activity, these groups are also used as platforms to circulate photographs or videos of the activities, enabling the construction of a diasporic public sphere within their community (Appadurai 2019). For members like Luzimelda, a forty-nine-year-old woman who lives in one of the most remote areas of the city, receiving content through WhatsApp is a way to experience a sense of belonging to the group. “I feel good when they send me things, because I feel taken into account.”
Equally important for many of the interviewees is the potential that cultural practices like playing music or cooking have to make them “feel Yanacona even away from home.” Thus, the impact that these practices can have on their sense of place is reflected not only in the community’s efforts to keep in touch but also in their awareness of how these practices reaffirm their identity as more than displaced individuals (Brun 2001).
We are a group of people who share one culture, one way of being, of feeling, of thinking. So it is important that we don’t get lost among others here, that we don’t disperse, neither culturally nor physically.—Abner, leader of the musicians’ group
The commitment to restoring an identity diluted by the discourse of “helplessness and uprootedness” (Jean 2015) has begun to permeate the ways in which Yanacona members use their private social networks as well. For example, many youngsters talked about uploading public content on their Facebook or Instagram profiles in an attempt to gain more control over media discourses that harm indigenous communities today (see Moreno and Julian 2011; Rodríguez and El Gazi 2007) and to recuperate some of the dignity of being regarded as inferior and abject in the new society (Appadurai 2019, 562). Lucía, who recognized herself as an active social media user, mentioned sharing often on Facebook her thoughts on the political struggle of indigenous communities in general, and pictures of the events organized by the Yanacona Urban Council more specifically. For her, this is a way of “taking responsibility” and “contributing to the strengthening of the community.” Conversely, other members expressed privacy concerns in this respect; Paulina sees as risky the circulation of media content outside of the private platforms that the Urban Council manages, because they can affect significantly the lives of the Yanacona who have fled their territory due to the armed conflict:
Those networks just as they are good, they are bad too, because people can use information to harm you, and we come from a lot of problems with illegal armed groups, so the less they know about our community, the better.—Paulina, current Yanacona governor
Finally, many participants place great emphasis on “resisting Westernization” in light of the challenges to transmit the Yanacona way of life in the city, especially to the young generation born in Bogotá. The struggle for the emancipation of the Yanacona identity reflects broader decolonial movements observable in many Latin American countries focused on decomposing the mechanisms underpinning new forms of economic and political oppression enabled by global digital platforms through the “invisible work of technology users” (Casilli 2017, 3947). Some parents, for instance, were concerned about the drawbacks of social media use and the impact that these practices can have on how their children grow up (e.g., self-absorption, dependency, hate speech against indigenous people). In the Plan de Vida Yanacona, the community also states that mainstream media discourses of individualism, discrimination, and the relevance ascribed to fame and money (Yanacona 2001) can have potential negative consequences for the upbringing of their children. “My greatest mission is that my children don’t get lost in this city; sometimes you are not home all day, and they are born here, so if you don’t teach them our ways, they will get lost” (Estela).
Conclusions and Discussion
This study explored the role of digital communication technologies in the place-making practices of displaced indigenous communities in the city of Bogotá, Colombia. Fieldwork revealed that digital media practices among the Yanacona people in Bogotá are significantly shaped by their efforts to recover and maintain a sense of community that is at risk due to the challenges that the new urban environment poses for them (Auld, Snyder, and Henderson 2012). In accordance with the present result, previous studies have demonstrated that indigenous social and political struggles are translated into the digital sphere (Carlson 2013) and have highlighted the importance of looking into the complexity of technology adoption by indigenous communities, instead of interpreting their digital practices as “exceptional cases” or “evidence of progressing economic development” (Duarte and Vigil-Hayes 2017, 167). At the same time, it is also encouraging to compare this finding with that of Brady and Dyson (2014), who invite us to revisit the significant role that physical space still plays today, despite the innovations in transport and communication technologies. For the Yanacona, the physical environment of the city is perhaps the feature that has most impacted their increasingly relevant media practices, while these media practices simultaneously contribute to ease the dwelling challenges posed by an urban environment. Such dialectic relation lies at the core of exploring the role and importance of digital communication technologies in place-making processes and can be seen as an overarching aspect of this study.
In this perspective, the Yanacona are found to be concerned with the collective appropriation of spaces, where being physically together plays a major role for the community. In this sense, moving in and around a new territory to find each other physically, spend time together, and engage in sociocultural practices as a group shapes the media practices adopted in an environment that poses multiple barriers to doing so. The relevance of digital technologies, in particular mobile phones and social media, surfaced in three main ways. First, the Yanacona have developed a network of support afforded by constant digital communication practices that allowed many of them to ease their process of migration into the city. Supporting others in the same situation and sharing gained expertise about the city has helped participants from the Yanacona community to cope with the feeling of being an outsider in a dangerous and chaotic city, as imagined by many of the migrants (Appadurai 1990). Those networks of support also reflect the Yanacona core values of collaboration, cooperation, and solidarity, and, at the same time, they emphasize the relevance of social connections as a strategy for place-making, as suggested by previous studies (Alencar 2020; Sampson and Gifford 2010).
Second, digital communication technologies have also aided the efforts of the Yanacona, particularly the connected leaders, to protect the community from disappearing. Here, struggles to obtain economic support to carry out cultural and social activities are expected to be diminished, as they seek the support of governmental organizations through emails, calling, finding and surfing websites, or drafting online petitions. The urge to protect their community from disappearing by implementing their own education or health-care system, for example, has pushed the Yanacona to adopt media practices with important implications not only for their lifestyle but also for their conception of the leader figure. Similar to Smets’s (2018) findings about the informal economy of solidarity among Syrian refugees in Turkey, the increasingly developed skills of Yanacona connected leaders can eventually yield power dynamics that are already starting to be considered as part of the community’s organizational and political processes in Bogotá.
Third, mobile phones and social media platforms have played a fundamental role in the restoration of their collective identity and practices of cultural transmission among the Yanacona. During research, it was found that a widespread media practice among the community is to use mobile phones for filming and recording cultural events, particularly related to music; these recordings are then shared with absent members in order to aid their sense of place. These mediated practices of collective memory integrate the “archives” on which forced migrant communities rely to sustain their cultural identity in the face of assimilatory policies in the host society (Appadurai 2019, 561). As Jean (2015) argues, the relevance of cultural practices among displaced individuals can empower them in the recovery and maintenance of their identity, of which forced migrants are frequently deprived. The potential of a digital archive contributed to by many of the Yanacona lies not only in the possibilities of sharing it with absent members but also in their efforts to resist dominant discourses and prevent the dilution of their identity, especially regarding the Yanacona born in Bogotá.
Overall, the three media practices of network support, rights claiming, and identity restoration highlight that for the indigenous community, place-making is a collective process in itself; it is “everyone’s job” (Friedmann 2010, 161). Place and its associated sociocultural dimensions are inextricably intertwined in overarching conceptions of home adopted and shared by indigenous communities, reflecting Massey’s (2005) relational understanding of place as a creative and participatory endeavor that is conditioned by our memories and worldviews. In their expressions related to the sense of home and belongingness, all participants highlighted that members of the community are crucial for place-making: either to support or to be supported, to protect or to be protected, and to transmit their identities in a collective process of remembrance. Hence, it is important to bear in mind that the collective character of home among indigenous communities constitutes an important aspect shaping their experiences of place. More than “reiterative social practices” Cresswell (2004, p. 39), carrying a sense of being at home for indigenous populations may also involve engaging in these practices collectively. For the Yanacona, sociocultural practices that could be exerted individually, such as cooking their typical food, knitting ruanas (ponchos), or playing their typical instruments, carry a sense of being at home only when they are engaged in collectively, through Mingas (cooperative voluntary work) or during tulpas (traditional collective cooking around the fire). Equally important, collective place-making among the Yanacona community, sustained and experienced through multiple daily practices, serves as a strategy for reterritorializing their language, rituals, performance, and art. Consequently, the social and the cultural are intertwined in a complex fabric that underlines digital communication technologies as important tools in their daily life yet not as central, all-permeating practices.
Despite the exploratory nature of this research, the findings reported here yield several important practical implications to be considered. More broadly, studying the place-making practices of displaced indigenous communities in the Global South rendered it evident that the process of making a place should no longer be considered only as a matter of dwelling, wayfinding, and familiarization (Moores 2012); on the contrary, for some displaced individuals, and especially for rural migrants, place-making can become a matter of cultural survival that depends on the possibilities that they find for appropriating spaces, both physical and virtual. This suggestion is in line with Peña’s (2006) claim about the need to widen our conventional definition of place that finds its cradle in the privileged position of those who have never struggled to dwell in the world or to adjust to the demands of mainstream identity narratives in a new context (Appadurai 2019).
Moreover, and related to the previous point, if the cultural survival of an indigenous community like the Yanacona relies heavily on the possibilities of finding spaces that can be adapted to their collective practices, then ensuring access to these spaces should be a priority for both national and local governments. As mentioned by many of the participants, despite the fact that local governments started to put in place policies to support the Yanacona community’s initiatives for preserving their culture in the city, indigenous migrants are often forced to abandon many of their practices and adjust to education or health-care systems, for example, that do not leave room to incorporate the complexities of their place-making processes. What is most important to bear in mind is that such spaces should encompass not only a physical and social dimension but also a digital one. In this sense, and as many Yanacona expressed, tackling the lack of education regarding digital media practices could be favorable for the community, since these practices are increasingly inserted in their daily life. In this case, indigenous displaced communities could benefit from media policies that recognize the emergence of indigenous networks and their increasing relevance for coping with the forced migration process that these communities endure (Dreher, McCallum, and Waller 2016). In this regard, policy-makers should shift their focus from the ever present digital divide that permeates indigenous communities today (Dyson 2007), and pay more attention to the myriad ways in which these communities are learning autonomously how to involve digital communication technologies in their daily life, especially in urban environments.
If the debate is to be moved forward, a better understanding of the place-making process among internally displaced people needs to be developed. As mentioned in the results, it is likely that many of the digital media practices of the Yanacona are shaped by their condition of being internally displaced; yet it remains uncertain to what extent or in which ways being displaced within their own country’s borders changes both place-making and media practices. These questions are relevant if the implications for both expectations and opportunities of return are considered within internal displacement, which is a current and very important societal issue in Global South countries, even more so given the global scale of the current COVID-19 pandemic.
For indigenous people, the pandemic can become a new cause of displacement, forcing many to seek access to better health conditions and sanitary facilities provided in urban hubs. The lack of access to ICTs and internet connection in many communities may prevent people from being properly informed about the current situation in order to take precautionary measures or to reduce health-related risks. These challenges are reinforced by existing political conflicts related to illegal exploitation of indigenous lands (e.g., illegal mining and logging) in different Latin American countries (Darlington, Venaglia, and Kaxinawa 2020). In the case of Colombia, for instance, quarantine measures can worsen the current food insecurity and reinforce a sovereignty crisis, with the potential for armed groups to gain control over land and natural resources belonging to indigenous peoples. Against this background, further studies need to be carried out in order to analyze the implications of new challenges in forced displacement for the struggles of place-making among indigenous communities during and beyond the coronavirus crisis. The development of approaches that recognize the specificities and diversity of indigenous lives, communication practices, and networks, while decolonizing their digital experiences, offers promising pathways for doing justice to the efforts, agency, and need of indigenous people to rebuild a new life elsewhere (Casilli 2017), as the current crisis situation will certainly determine new conditions for the migration of these communities both internally and transnationally.
Contributed to conception and design: CS, AA
Contributed to acquisition of data: CS
Contributed to analysis and interpretation of data: CS, AA
Drafted and/or revised the article: CS, AA
Approved the submitted version for publication: CS, AA
We are grateful to the authorities of Yanacona Urban Council of Bogotá, who facilitated the contact with the Yanacona community. We would like to acknowledge the great support of Koen Leurs and Tomohisa Hirata, who carefully guided the editorial process of the Global Perspectives, Media and Communication special collection on “Media, Migration, and Nationalism.” The Etmaal Conference 2020, organized by the Amsterdam School of Communication Research, offered useful feedback for the elaboration of this article. In the same vein, the insights shared by Delia Dumitrica and Tonny Krijnen provided valuable input in considering intergenerational power relations within the Yanacona community. Finally, we would like to emphasize that the stories shared by the interviewees are undoubtedly a powerful reminder that, while we cannot choose the place where we are born, we do have the responsibility to question all the things that are determined by such fortuitous events.
The authors received no specific funding for this work.
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
Camila Sarria Sanz (MA, Erasmus University Rotterdam, the Netherlands) is a communication designer and currently a research assistant in the Department of Media and Communication, Erasmus University Rotterdam. Her research interests include forced migration, indigenous media practices, citizens’ media, and design thinking methodologies.
Amanda Alencar is assistant professor in the Department of Media and Communication at Erasmus University Rotterdam, where she specializes in media and migration and intercultural communication. She is vice chair of the Intercultural Communication Division within the International Communication Association (ICA) and has recently guest-edited two special issues in the (open-access) peer-reviewed journals International Communication Gazette and Media and Communication on the intersections between media, communication, and forced migration processes.
During the interviews, the participants used the word “traditional” (e.g., traditional teacher, traditional healer) to emphasize an educational system or a health system developed within the indigenous community, operating for generations, and based on the values and beliefs of the Yanacona culture.