An Aymara storyteller shines a light on a disappearing way of life

During an intimate evening in the cozy confines of Pointe Claire’s Des Bons Voisins cabaret, celebrated Aymara Elder Roberto Alencar Zuazo recounted extraordinary stories of his life growing up in the remote Amazonian jungles of Brazil.

As the United Nations representative for his people, Alencar spoke out against a project to dam a large swath of his people’s traditional territory. After his life was threatened repeatedly, Maurice and Hannah Strong, the founders of the Rio Conference on the Environment, brought him to Canada. For the past 25 years he has worked here as an interpreter and author recording the folk stories of the Aymara, Jamamadi, and Apurina peoples. The February 20 event in Pointe Claire marked the publication of his first book, The Boy Who Spoke To The Birds.

Most of Alencar’s stories and legends are not recorded in books, however. That’s not an accident: many Aboriginal peoples use storytelling and verbal transmission to keep their legends fresh in the minds of their young.

“There is great importance in passing down stories and legends,” Alencar said. “I remember them because the transmission of oral knowledge is never forgotten. The love that children have for their parents ensures that we don’t forget what they tell us.”

The snowstorm raging outside the waterfront café contrasted with the warmth and energy emanating from the experienced storyteller. Sipping on hot beverages, the crowd hung on every word as Alencar shared his insights on the plight of the Aboriginals of Brazil.

Growing up in a remote village, he worked as a jungle guide for European scientific expeditions. “Going through the jungle it is important to be aware of your surroundings. You don’t want to disturb the wildlife and risk setting off a hive of wasps,” he said. “It was an eye-opening experience being a guide for the Europeans because what was second nature to me was completely foreign to them.”

During his time as a guide, Alencar learned several languages and grew close to the scientists he was leading through the jungle. After he learned he was being grossly exploited when being paid only a dollar a day for his services, one scientist helped set up a fund so that Roberto could go to school. He began earning more money and sought to help his fellow community members out.

Sadly, he observed, his fellow tribesmen have lost their knowledge of their traditional arts. “The people in my community lost their practice for arts after years of exploitation,” Alencar said, recalling that missionaries would purchase artwork for a tiny fraction of what they pocketed by selling the pieces to museums and collectors.

Alencar is working to revive the region’s indigenous art styles at the Amazon Arts School he co-founded with his sister Auxiliadora, who is also a well-known artist and activist.

Prior to the colonization of Brazil by the Portuguese, Native tribes used art as a way to pay respect to the natural forces of their lands. “When a boat was made the builder would incorporate the images of the animals that they would encounter, such as the alligator, the electric eel, panthers, and others,” Alencar noted. On clay vessels used for water they would use images of frogs because his people believed that the song of the frogs was a more powerful prayer for rain than any song humans could sing.

After 25 years away from the Amazon, Roberto is planning to finally return home. He hopes to take with him his skills learned in Canada and pass them along to his people in the hopes of a brighter future for their culture.