Duby-Blom, Gertrude (1901–1993)

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Duby-Blom, Gertrude (1901–1993)

Swiss-born Mexican photographer, sociologist and defender of the Lacandón Maya peoples of Chiapas State and their rapidly disappearing rain forest environment. Name variations: Queen of the Rain Forest. Born Gertrude Elisabeth Loertscher in Berne, Switzerland, in 1901; died in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas State, Mexico, on December 23, 1993; married Kurt Duby; married Frans Blom.

Celebrated by many environmental activists as the "Queen of the Rain Forest," Gertrude Duby-Blom had a long and adventurous life in both Europe and Mexico, never tiring of the struggle to achieve social justice and environmental harmony. Born in Switzerland in the first year of a new 20th century bursting with hope, Gertrude Elisabeth Loertscher grew up in a solidly conservative, middle-class milieu, her father being a pastor of the Reformed Church. But her views quickly diverged from those of her parents, not only because of her own intellectual independence but also because one of her neighbors was a leader of the Swiss railway workers union. Ideas of social justice, gender equality, and a world without war were beacons pointing to a better world for the young girl. In 1924, Gertrude married Kurt Duby, son of the radical union official. This marriage did not succeed, however, and by the late 1920s Gertrude Duby had become a political activist, organizing a Social Democratic youth movement in Zurich and working as a journalist for Swiss newspapers in several European countries. During a stay in London, she moved in circles close to the leftist Independent Labour Party and met and interviewed such political and cultural luminaries of the day as James Ramsay MacDonald, David Lloyd George, and George Bernard Shaw.

Even before the onset of the world economic depression, Trudi Duby as she was known to her friends, had become personally acquainted with the growing menace of Fascism. During a visit to Italy, the secret police looked up books she had recently checked out of a lending library and, deeming them to be subversive texts, arrested her. After hours of interrogation, she languished in jail for fully a week, but her Swiss citizenship proved to be a protective cloak, and she was deported with a warning not to return. Trudi moved to Germany in 1928 to be closer to the front lines of the rapidly unfolding drama of who would prevail in the Weimar Republic, the forces of the working class and democracy or the reactionary legions of Adolf Hitler and his private army of brownshirts. Duby learned how to be an effective public speaker at anti-Nazi mass rallies. Realizing that there were times when it was best not to provoke one's enemies, she was skilled at calming her audiences so that they left the auditorium morally inspired but not so emotionally fired up that they might go looking for fights with local Nazi toughs. Refusing to leave Germany even after the Nazi takeover, she remained loyal to her leftist comrades and often changed apartments in order not to unnecessarily endanger them or herself. Only when the situation had become completely untenable did she flee Germany.

Moving to Paris, Trudi continued to fight against Nazism both as a journalist and political activist. Along with thousands of other aliens, she was arrested in September 1939 and spent five months in a French detention camp. Once again, her Swiss citizenship saved the day, and she was released. Disillusioned with Europe and its grim political realities, Duby decided to immigrate to the new world. At first, she spent some months in New York City helping to resettle French refugees from Nazism. But she felt that this activity was at best temporary. As a child, she had been fascinated with a far-away and exotic land, Mexico, but in reality she knew very little about either the land or its people, culture and history. When playing Indians with her childhood friends in the Swiss woods, she adopted the exotic Aztec name Popocatépetl. Now, through an accident of history, she applied for and received entry into Mexico, a land respected by anti-Nazis for its generosity toward refugees. Mexico had been one of the few countries that had sympathized with the Spanish Republic in its ill-fated struggle against Fascism, and it continued to offer asylum for political emigrés like herself.

After her arrival, Duby soon got a job as a journalist for the Ministry of Labor. Her first assignment was to compile information on the working conditions of female factory workers. The geographical diversity and rich cultural traditions of Mexico intrigued her from the start, and every new job was a voyage of discovery. One of the most important assignments of these early years involved writing a series of articles about the women who had fought in the revolutionary forces of the legendary land reformer Emiliano Zapata. Although she had never had any interest in photography, her strong desire to document these remarkable women led her into her first venture with a camera, an old Agfa purchased from a fellow refugee.

In 1943 an event took place that would change the course of Duby's life. She received permission from the governor of Chiapas State to join a government expedition to the then-remote Lacandón jungle region near the border with Guatemala. Her interest in this area had been kindled on her sea voyage to Mexico three years earlier after reading a book by French anthropologist Jacques Soustelle, Mexico: Tierre Indienne. She was particularly intrigued by Soustelle's description of the Lacandónes, a people virtually unspoiled by European influences whose forbears had withdrawn to the dense interior of the rain forest to escape enslavement and cultural destruction by the Spaniards. Profoundly religious in their belief in a supreme being (Creator Hachäkyum—Our True Lord), they preserved their old ways: hunting with bows and arrows, wearing long white tunics, and never cutting their hair. More than being exposed to this strange and fascinating world and being able to make photographs, Trudi noted years later how she "fell in love with the jungle from the moment I first saw its incredible vegetation of great trees and exotic plants with leaves as big as parasols, the rare insectlike flowers, the enormous vines that hang from the tops of the trees with roots that curl around the trunks to eventually kill them so that other giant trees can grow in their places."

For a middle-aged woman who had grown up in the Calvinist culture of Switzerland, the rain forest of the Lacandónes was like a trip to the moon. Yet she realized from the start of her stay in Chiapas that this endangered region would be her world from now on, to explore, study, understand, and defend. In the rain forest, she noted, she was:

held spellbound by the incredible musical sounds of the insects, from the highest notes to the lowest, and the singing of the frogs and all the hundreds of birds I had never seen. I listened in amazement to the peculiar cry of the howler monkey and the deafening sound of the tapir crashing through the undergrowth like a tractor. I was transfixed by the enormous flocks of parrots and the macaws describing a rainbow of colors in the sky. Then there were all the snakes of different colors slithering in between the fallen leaves on the floor of the jungle. I didn't feel any fear in the midst of this new environment: on the contrary, I felt quite at home and in my element.

Equally as important as discovering the rain forest in 1943 was Trudi's first encounter with Frans Blom. A Danish-born American anthropologist and archaeologist who had explored Mexico since 1919, he was in charge of the Chiapas expedition she had joined, and they quickly discovered that they were kindred spirits. In a diary entry, Frans described his newly acquired friend as "the kind of person with whom you can feel in close relation without having to do conversation. I like that gal." Frans had made an exception in allowing Trudi to join his expedition, a sound decision in light of what happened. He developed a severe case of malaria, and despite the fact that she was a novice in the jungle, her coolheadedness in the crisis probably saved his life when she rode on horseback for four days to get help, returning to Frans with supplies and medical assistance. Trudi and Frans quickly became inseparable, marrying in 1950. In 1951, the Bloms bought a house in San Cristóbal de las Casas, a picturesque town in the highlands of Chiapas. Immediately, they set about converting the house to a center for research. Called the Na-Bolom Center for Scientific Studies, it became part of their home. Na-Bolom means "House of the Jaguar" in the Lacandón language, and it was chosen because some Lacandónes had pronounced "Blom" as balum—their word for "jaguar"—or bolom in the language of the Tzotzil Indians of the highlands around San Cristóbal. Over the years, the Bloms' efforts resulted in the creation of a major research library containing 2,500 specialized works on Chiapas and more than 8,000 works on Mexico and Mesoamerica. Their 22-room house built around three patios but lacking plumbing or electricity became not only a research center for scholars but a place of intellectual excitement attracting artists, writers, and musicians seeking inspiration. Besides the research library, Na-Bolom would eventually encompass extensive gardens, an archaeological museum, a chapel filled with colonial art, and 14 guest rooms.

Starting in the 1950s, Gertrude and Frans made a number of perilous expeditions into the Selva Lacandona, the rain forest east of San Cristobal. Here they studied flora and fauna and got to know and deeply respect the Lacandón Maya, the indigenous people who lived there maintaining their traditional ways. Her photographs of the endangered rain forest, as well as its animals and people introduced all of them to an increasingly sympathetic outside world. Fiercely proud and remarkably independent, the Lacandón Maya had never been conquered by the Spaniards. In time, Duby-Blom came to see her herself as the protector and patron of this group of culturally endangered people, who by the mid-1980s numbered fewer than 500 souls. At first her interest in the Lacandón native peoples was, like that of her husband, largely anthropological and sociological. They collected artifacts to prevent their loss, inoculated the Lacandón to protect them from devastating diseases from the outside world, and tried in general to shelter them from the destructive influences of that same outside world. Within a few years, however, it became clear that even if Lacandón culture might be defended in the abstract, the relentless forces of economic change were dooming these gentle people to extinction. Gertrude Duby-Blom now recognized that it would be impossible to protect the Indian way of life without also protecting the rain forests in which they lived.

In the 1950s and 1960s, she made countless trips into the rain forest, the Selva Lacandóna, to not only communicate with the various Maya tribal groups but to photograph them and the wildlife of the forest. What she documented was rapid change bordering on environmental catastrophe. Deforestation on a massive scale using chain saws and bulldozers cleared millions of acres of forest of valuable trees. Profits were immense, and the companies that carried out the clearing cut not only the valuable mahogany, ceiba, and giant cedar trees but wasted less valuable trees. The majestic ceiba, sacred tree of the Mayans, were turned into paper and plywood.

Poor peasants from elsewhere in Mexico followed in the wake of logging operations. These homesteaders slashed and burned to clear the land, whose thin topsoil had been dependent on the Lacandón forest canopy for its nutrients and fertility. With these removed, and drained by crops and cattle, the soil was generally depleted in three years. Farmers and ranchers then moved on, leaving behind a barren, eroded landscape. Ranchers, many of whom were subsidized by the U.S. cattle industry, reseeded the land with forage grasses for large herds of livestock. Soon, the delicate tropical soil was exhausted by overgrazing.

In books, articles, and lectures, Duby-Blom exposed these events in the Selva Lacandóna to the world. Her photographs sensitized people to the rapid disappearance of the largest rain forest north of the Amazon. She pointed out how a civilization that had lived in harmony with nature for many millennia was now losing both its culture and its environment. People who had once scorned money as worthless were now fascinated by what it could buy, including transistor radios and battery-operated record players. Culturally, most of the Lacandónes had become alienated from their own traditions. One group became converts to the Southern Baptist religion, another to Seventh-Day Adventism. Only the community at Najá, led by its charismatic chieftain and spiritual leader Chan K'in Viejo, kept alive the flame of traditional Mayan religion and culture. Duby-Blom became a close friend of Chan K'in, deeply respecting him for his knowledge of Mayan oral traditions and its complex morality and cosmology. Chan K'in prophesied that when the last of the mighty trees were cut down, the world would come to an end. His view of his endangered part of the world was part of a much larger organic vision of things. He repeatedly said that "the roots of all living things are tied together," so that "When you cut down a tree, a star in the heavens also falls."

For a while in the 1970s, it appeared that the tireless efforts of Trudi Duby-Blom and her husband (who had died in 1963) had finally brought at least a partial halt to the destruction of the Selva Lacandóna. Mexican President Luis Echeverria set aside 2,400 square miles of jungle, giving it to the Lacandónes people as a forest reserve.

But the results of this apparent reform were to be tragic. People living in the area were moved out, and soon lumber operators moved in to clear-cut vast tracts of rain forest. The entire scheme was apparently a ruse to get the Lacandónes to sign away the lumber rights to their own land. A reserve on paper only, the destruction of the land continued into the final decades of the 20th century. Lacandón culture also rapidly disappeared, as Chan K'in Viejo lamented that his very own sons had little interest in continuing his way of life after he died. He noted sadly that for the young Lacandónes, "The car is their new god." By the time almost 80% of the rain forest had already disappeared, in the early 1980s the Mexican government again announced a plan to provide a sanctuary for the endangered species and peoples of Chiapas. Named the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve, it called for the preservation of 3,312 square kilometers of the Selva Lacandóna, but almost from the day of its inception it became clear that a policy that was ecologically sound on paper would never be realized on the ground. The reserve was not policed and its rules were neither honored nor enforced.

Remaining physically as well intellectually alert into extreme old age, Trudi Duby-Blom continued to preside over her world at Na-Bolom with dignity and authority. Remembering that her generation had been unable to halt Fascism in the 1930s, she often felt in her final years that she had also failed in preventing the destruction of the Selva Lacandóna and the culture of the Maya peoples who lived there. In the late 1970s, she established a tree nursery and gave away free seedlings to all those in Chiapas with an interest in reforestation. Close to Na-Bolom, the seedlings from her nursery helped to reforest the devastated highlands that had once been so green and protective of living things. Gazing through her thick eyeglasses at hundreds of saplings in her nursery, she mused, "When I was young, I thought I could change the world. Now I think I can save some trees but not the forest. But that doesn't mean I should stop fighting." Gertrude Duby-Blom died in San Cristóbal de las Casas of heart disease and pneumonia on December 23, 1993. Her dear friend Chan K'in Viejo died three years later to the day, December 23, 1996.


Brunhouse, Robert L. Frans Blom: Maya Explorer. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1976.

"Chan K'in Viejo, 104; Led Mexican Tribe," in The New York Times. January 2, 1997, p. A13.

"The Death of the Lacandón Culture and Rain Forest: An Interview with Gertrude Duby Blom," in Mexico City News. March 18, 1983.

Duby-Blom, Gertrude, Alex Harris, and Margaret Sartor. Gertrude Blom—Bearing Witness. Chapel Hill: Duke University Center for Documentary Photography/ University of North Carolina Press, 1984.

"Gertrude Blom: Guardian of the Rain Forest" (Filmmakers Library/Sintra Productions, 1989) [videorecording].

Herrera, Juan Felipe. Mayan Drifter: Chicano Poet in the Lowlands of America. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1997.

Hudson, A. Landis. "Falling Stars and Burning Fields: The Politics of Land Use in the Selva Lacandóna of Chiapas, Mexico" (M.S. thesis, State University of New York College of Environmental Science, 1994).

Kurlansky, Mark J. "Woman in Love with a Jungle," in International Wildlife. Vol. 15, no. 5. September–October, 1985, pp. 34–39.

Lyons, Richard D. "Gertrude Blom, 92, Long a Chronicler of Mayan Cultures," in The New York Times Biographical Service. December 1993, p. 1775.

Pappe, Silvia. Gertrude Duby-Blom—Königin des Regenwalds: Eine Biographie. Berne: eFeF-Verlag, 1994.

Peerman, Dean. "Gertrude Blom: Prophet Crying for a Wilderness," in The Christian Century. Vol. 102, no. 39. December 11, 1985, pp. 1146–1150.

Perera, Victor and Robert D. Bruce. The Last Lords of Palenque: The Lacandon Mayas of the Mexican Rain Forest. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985.

Simonian, Lane. Defending the Land of the Jaguar: A History of Conservation in Mexico. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1995.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia