Remembering the Andes in Cherokee Territory.  Byron Tenesaca

The Breedlove Brothers © Byron Tenesaca

Photography and Original Art © Byron Tenesaca 

Interview and Commentary © Juan Guillermo Sánchez Martínez

Translation © Anya Skye Tucker

When living far from the place we are born, it is always heartwarming to encounter a person who, like you, knows the experience of migrating, and remembers similar places to those that we ourselves long for. On June 6th, 2022, we met with Byron Tenesaca, a Kichwa artist and educator, in the Botanical Gardens of Tokiyasdi (Asheville, North Carolina.) While we walked, we recognized some of the plants, making connections with the Andes. Thus it was proposed that we hold an interview about his creative process, among languages, territories, and techniques. The following are some excerpts from the interview. 

Byron Tenesaca is a visual artist and bilingual educator who resides in Western North Carolina. He was born in an ancestral community in the Ecuadorian Andes, to a family of basket weavers and farmers. He was raised there by his grandmother, with whom Byron learned the system of reciprocity that exists between human beings and the mountains. At 11 years old, he journeyed with his grandmother to the United States to live with his biological mother (both of them fundamental in his work). After graduating from Western Carolina University (WCU) in 2015, he was selected for an artistic residency in The Bascom in Highlands, NC. His passion for art and education has brought him to take on roles such asSpanish language interpreter, children’s art teacher, Spanish teacher in secondary school, camp counselor and, most recently, HiSET instructor. Byron has a Master’s degree in Comprehensive Education from Western Carolina University. Recently, Byron was one of the 50 artists selected to be part of the inaugural exposition Appalachia Now! of the Asheville Art Museum. 

 Remendando la Llachapa Vida. (Patching the Llachapa Life) A brief documentary about María Francisca Guamán Morocho (Mami Pancha), an immigrant with a rich Andean heritage who now resides in NC.  © Byron Tenesaca

Juan: I always ask guests to introduce themselves, and to tell us the name of their territory. 

Byron: My name is Byron Tenesaca, I come from a Kichwa-Kañari community in the Andes, from a region that is today the South of Ecuador. I come from a family of weavers, farmers that have preserved tradition through food, and through being in harmony with the environment, dedicating their life to the good living for the future.

Juan: I was looking at your website, and I saw that you work with painting, photography, drawing, and digital design. What is your relationship with art, with creativity? How is it connected to your being, with your life?

Byron: Since I was little I’ve been drawing. When I went along with my mamá-abuela (mother-grandmother) to sell baskets in the city, I remember I collected little drawings, magazines that I found on the ground, or graphics that caught my attention. Then I went home, and on lined paper from my sister’s school, I drew them, I passed them to the paper on the window. I had a collection, already big, of comics. I also grew up tugging my mamá-abuela’s skirt, and when she weaved I was there at her side, always cared for by my mamá-abuela. 

Remendando la Llachapa Vida. (Patching the Llachapa Life) A brief documentary about María Francisca Guamán Morocho (Mami Pancha), an immigrant with a rich Andean heritage who now resides in NC.  © Byron Tenesaca

As children are in many transnational families, Byron was raised by his grandmother in Ecuador and later joined his mother in the United States, who had migrated North earlier. Byron told me that his mother used to send back packages with clothes for her children, games, sometimes important residency documents, and a video cassette…

Byron: And this cassette we put on the TV and we saw a woman talking in the mirror. At that moment, we didn’t know what this really big machine was that she had on her shoulder. She spoke and told us things. My grandma told me: “Look! This is your mama. One day, you are going to see her. Tell her hello!” But in my mind, I watched this video and all I really saw were hands and a really big machine, and in my child’s mind I said:  “Well, my mama is part robot. I have a mom like a robot…” (laughter…)

Between laughter and heaviness, Byron told me how difficult it was to arrive in Turtle Island (North America), a place unknown to a child of 11 who had until-then lived with his mamá-abuela in the Andes. Byron did not first end up in the mountains of North Carolina, but in the piedmont. Soon, the routine of going to school and staying cooped up in the afternoons contrasted with the liberty that he’d grown up with: going to the river to swim and fish. The years passed, and he finished studying at the University of Western Carolina, a great opportunity to meet the mountains again. He had wanted to be a doctor (from the influence of his mother), but soon he was reintroduced to art. 

Byron: Through art, I can learn more of anything, philosophy, math, anything. I began going to exhibitions at the university, and I joined the art program, and I don’t think my mom liked it (laughs…). Painting called to me strongly, and later photography, and from there came design. But I focused more on a dreamworld, and worlds in between here and the reality in which I grew up. Maybe a purpose of photography is that of going and taking pictures and speaking with and meeting different perspectives. 

In this search, now in the last years of university, Byron goes to live further into the mountains and meets some of the members of the Cherokee community.

Byron: I remember in high school, we learned about Native peoples, but it was different, I hadn’t learned about the Cherokee community. So I went and talked with Cherokee friends of my age, and it was interesting that I found more connection with this community than the Latinx or Hispanic community with which I had grown up with. I liked their weaving a lot, because when I saw them I said “it’s as if I was still watching my aunts, my grandma, weaving”. So this curiosity called me to learn a little more about the Cherokee culture. And the more I learned, the more I went back to my childhood. (…) The concept of “latin” and “hispanic” is something new and created here, and I’m not against it because I appreciate how it creates dialogue among organizations, but also it leaves out indigeneity. It’s like building a church on top of a huaca (a sacred Andean place), right? It’s as if we were only here since your country became independent, but if you go further, you learn that no, I am not what they call an “alien” (laughter…). Learning beyond the Aztec, for example, my Kañari culture which goes further than “the Inca,” this gives you more strength. Colonization has erased a lot, but where feet touch the earth, there we belong. 

As we see in Byron Tenesaca’s photography included here, there are series that capture events here in North Carolina (landscape, forests, overlays in Photoshop), but there also are series from the Andean communities of Ecuador. This double gaze of photographer and artist makes this work unique because it comes and goes between the solitary and the community. Thinking of this, I asked Byron: “from the eye of a photographer, how is this experience? Do you feel that the light, or the relationship with the camera, changes by being here or there?

 Andes: Cañar-Azuay © Byron Tenesaca

Byron: Maybe I have a bit more confidence when I feel comfortable there, for the familiarity. Here, what I have photographed is people, who at first are strangers, but after dialoguing with them, if there is the opportunity, I create a type of documentary photography of my experiences. I have also photographed places, above all during the artistic residency in The Bascom in Highlands. (…) And in this solitude, when being in a place so immense, natural, I went to places always documented by tourists, whose photographies have a certain type of light, a certain type of angle, so I went to these places during the rain or when no one was there, or after the rain, or at sunset. It is a different space (…)

Western NC, 2016 © Byron Tenesaca

Byron: There is a series that I call “Human Mounds”. I was reading a little about the mounds here in North Carolina, a mass of dirt, shells, and so many things that Native peoples here used to make these mounds. And this idea stayed with me, because also in these places there were remains of people, so I focused on this, in the human being as organic, as another knot in the fiber of nature, pachamama, so I represented it as a fruit in a fetal position, and I only photographed the back because it has a certain shape that is like an echo of the mountains, and then I overlaid this image in different places. This made me remember where I saw this shape before, why this idea was born, and it is where we call zambos (squash). I was also reminded of my aunt, who had a disability in her body, and my grandma always had to bathe her, as she could not stand up straight but always had to be in this shape (hunched over). So she bathed her, so I remember from an early age this image of the rounded back of my auntie. (laughter)

Human Mounds © Byron Tenesaca

Kay Pacha © Byron Tenesaca

Juan: This exhibition, “Human Mounds” is related to the one titled “Kay Pacha”,  which also has the same shape of the naked body in the fetal position, but now as a drawing.

Byron: Yes, this image goes from photography to drawing and later to printmaking, and I overlay it with the foods I grew up eating, and that are present in our region, creating a type of visual harmony, but also a harmony between the human being and plants. In cultivating your own nutrients, there is reciprocity between the body and the plants and the mountains. From mountains, water is born. There, we cultivate, and it feeds us. We eat a little bit of the mountain, and we transform ourselves into the mountain, and when we die we return again to the mountain (laughter). It is this space of living beings, that is Kay Pacha. 

Juan: From what you are telling me, it is as if the encounter with the Cherokee community, and your exploration through art, has taken you back to the Andes. Do you feel that art has guided you toward remembrance? That the Cherokee territory has opened space for you to remember?

Byron: Yes. I think it is in a line of one of your poems where you say “Andes Apalaches”. Because of this, I stayed here after studying. It reminds me of where I was born, beside a river, together with the mountains (…) And there are many similarities. The more I learn about Indigenous communities from here, it becomes more remarkable the wisdom and the way of life from my childhood (…) Right now, I am learning more about weaving. The project I recently finished was 12 little baskets of paper, with my drawings, and on the base, which is the most important part of any basket, is the portrait of my family, which represents what has kept us together, the women of my family. And on the sides are some drawings of corn, or choclo, how we say it there, and also beans, which we call poroto, and potatoes, and zambo. The rim had to be shown to me by my aunt via Zoom. Really, one learns by seeing, they never tell you like this, like that, so it was hard for my auntie to guide me through the camera: “Grab with your left hand and with this finger, and you have to take it up or behind.” (laughs) it took me about six hours to weave one from paper, and I didn’t like how I’d done it, so I tried it again. And the third time, yes, I finally liked it. And the fourth was the first one completely finished. And now, I can make a basket in two and a half hours.

4 generations of basketweavers © Byron Tenesaca

Juan: Weaving is very present in many of your projects. Sometimes it could be a weaving of lines, sometimes a weaving of materials. And of course, I see that you are weaving a bridge between the Andes and Appalachia. How is this process of weaving for you?

Byron: Weaving is not only art or handicraft, but a moment for reflection, and for creating a space for your own and your family. I realized that here in Cherokee, just like in my family, we weave in community. You don’t weave alone. You are always with your aunts or your mother. And the children are around, playing. Here you create a space for reflection where you talk of ideas that maybe you can’t speak of when you are in other spaces. I was reflecting on how my grandma loaded so many baskets on her back to sell in the city. And how smart she was, going from house to house. The goal was to sell them in the city, but she began selling them as soon as she’d left the house, and when she reached the place she had to sell them, she was left with only one! (laughter) So we bought the essentials: lard, sugar, salt, panela (a block of cane sugar), because the rest we did not need. So I reflect on all of this while I weave, and in the connections with the communities here, after discussing with the Cherokee weavers Mary Thompson and Faye Junaluska.

Juan: I’d like to close this short conversation with a question about the future. How do you see this rebirth of many young people, who like you have grown up in the North but are reconnecting with their peoples? How do you see the future of these exchanges between the South and the North?

Byron: I would say that the future is in the past, as some elders say in some conversations I’ve heard. In order to create a future we must keep the past in mind. Of course things change, but learning from our errors and from the history of the first peoples (…) For instance, something like Indigenous justice. Here in the United States, prisons poison humans instead of healing them. Education that is focused on capitalism also does it. So as a teacher, I have an important role, in some way or another influencing the next generation. (…) Before, the governments held a certain control over our peoples because they couldn’t read, and they had them sign documents and things like that, including the father of my grandma, who was chosen to get some land for having lived all of his life working there, and the day he was going to receive it, the landowner told him to sign some papers because the laws had changed, and he made him sign. He gave him a little money and told him not to come back. Today there is resistance. To fight the system, we need to know about the system (laughter…). I feel optimistic for the changes, but being conscious about where we are. 

Byron ended our chat with the following message against machismo and patriarchal sexism: “The woman always has the role of keeping everything together (…) For this, I thank all of these women, mothers, grandmas, warmis that like the mountain, the Apus, nourish us so that we may continue with a future.” Illuminating with his art and his ancestors, Byron walks and creates today in Tokiyasdi (Asheville, NC) and reminds us of the importance of women: her stitch in the communal fabric and her strength to sustain family. His invitation is to plant from the seed, throw it some soil, compost, water, accompany its process with our hands and intentions, to finally harvest when the cycle closes. So we can see it with our own eyes and appreciate the miracle and the abundance of life on the Earth Mother. 

More about Byron Tenesaca, Cherokee weaving, and the Kichwa community in the United States

●      Sitio web de Byron Tenesaca

●      “Cherokee artists hold family, land and community in handmade baskets”, Rachel Greene. 

●      “Indigenous languages are at risk, but this NY group is doing something about it”, Demi Guo

About the translator

From the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina, Anya Skye Tucker only hopes to learn as much as she can from others. The Andes have been very kind to her. 

Photography and Original Art © Byron Tenesaca ~ ~ Siwar Mayu, September 2022 

Interview and Commentary © Juan Guillermo Sánchez Martínez ~

Translation  © Anya Skye Tucker

css.phpHosted by UNC Asheville and the Diversity Action Council