Helena Valero’s Extraordinary Life

Fragments from an interview with Alejandro Reig, May 1997, San Benito, Ocamo, Upper Orinoco

Helena Valero in her house in San Benito, Ocamo River, 1997. Photograph by Kike Arnal.
An extraordinary woman

Helena Valero was a 12-year old girl in 1932, when her family of caboclos was attacked by a group of Yanomami foragers in the Maricoabi stream, a small affluent of the Bimití river, itself a tributary of the Rio Negro, in the northernmost part of the Brazilian Amazon. Showered by poisoned arrows from many sides, the family—mum, dad, and three children—spread out and fled across the stream and into the forest. But her father, narcotized by the darts, left his daughter in hiding to come back later for her. The rest of the family reunited after two days, but the eldest girl was taken by the attackers. What came after shaped forever the life of Helena, who came of age among the Yanomami, was moved between different warring groups, bearing four children from two different fathers, eventually making a life as a shapeshifting woman, an intermittent stranger switching in and out of the society that hosted her. Twenty four years later, in 1956, she managed to escape her captors with her children and her latest husband, Akawe, reaching the village of Iyewei theri in the mouth of the Ocamo river upon the Orinoco, where she made contact with the logger Juan Eduardo Noguera, who took her and her family downriver to the village of San Fernando de Atabapo. Here she found her younger brother, and then her father, who had been searching for her intermittently throughout these years, in the frontier town of Cocuy.

This story has been told in two books, the first one signed by the Italian anthropologist Ettore Biocca, and the other one by Helena and edited by Spanish anthropologist Emilio Fuentes. The latter is a well-informed and annotated text, which fully acknowledges Helena’s authorship, offers a daunting and admirable picture of her experience, and a unique in-depth chronicle of Yanomami society and culture in times before the contact with national society. Eventually, Helena and her children reached Manaus where she re-joined with her mother—her husband had stayed in the Caubauri river and formed a new Yanomami family. Helena’s children were schooled and she worked in Manaus and in Tapurucuara for 15 years, never managing to be fully accepted back into the society into which she was born. In 1971 Father Cocco, a Salesian missionary and Yanomami ethnographer, asked for her help in opening up a new mission post in Ocamo. Helena came back to settle in the Yanomami village which had been her last station in the life which she fled from, and became a useful mediator between both of the worlds that she belonged to.

I interviewed Helena in a series of visits in the years of 1997, 1998, 1999, and 2000, as part of a wider effort to gather the voices of unassuming Amazonian everyday people ignored or effaced from the public narratives through which Venezuela recognized and incorporated its Southern frontier. Helena managed to survive living in the margins, in-and-out of the society that she was taken into—and then also in the margins of her society of origin. Recurrent fights and blames erupted in the communities where she lived, in which she was made responsible for disgraces because she was napëyoma, the foreign woman, despite her acquisition of Yanomami language and customs from childhood, marrying twice and bearing yanomami children. In her testimonies we see her once and again fleeing the villages with and without her children, foraging in the forest and scraping food from gardens, eventually coming back after conflicts were appeased. Her spiritual strength, capacity for adaptation and love for her children allowed her survival, but she never abandoned the idea of running away.

It knew that I was going to tap on the testimony of a low-key hero of Venezuelan and Brazilian Amazonian history. But meeting her made me realize that, beyond these titles, I had the privilege of talking to an extraordinary human being, living in a low profile the latter part of an epic existence, either in serenity or in abandonment—and which of both I needed to find out—in the tranquil riverside of the Upper Orinoco. She was aided by sympathetic nuns and eventually supported by researchers, other locals and travelers.  Beyond this small circle, her significance was never fully recognized by the cultural and political establishment of neither of her countries, perhaps because of its complexity. To my knowledge, these might be the last interviews done to her before she passed away in 2002. And listening back to these twenty five year old tapes is an experience of Amazonian intimacy that opens up meanings that go beyond what I can immediately make sense of.


Amazonian leadership

Thanks to the testimonies gathered from Helena, her first husband became a case study of political anthropology of lowland South America. Husiwe was eloquent, brave and generous, and led his people successfully in raids against other groups. Eventually the community got tired and decided not to join him, but he kept on fighting their enemies on his own, until he got killed. From this case, coupled with other examples, anthropologist Pierre Clastres developed his theory of power in Amazonian societies, considered to be societies against the state”. While the community can delegate command on a leader in the event of war, in peace he ceases to be obeyed, and the community works against the building of any permanent power over individual and collective wills.


Fragments of Helena Valero´s testimony, interviewed by Alejandro Reig, May 1997, San Benito, Ocamo, Upper Orinoco


Praying and crying on the run

“Then we were running, just running ….. and I was there praying, and the children said to me: “Mum, who is it that you are talking to?, you are talking a lot!  I’m behind them praying, right? They said: “With the one you are talking to, you talk a lot”. So I said, I’m praying, come on, let’s go, let’s go… I was crying over there (as we ran). Late in the afternoon we arrived at a fallow. There was a bush plant there, I broke it and I washed their bodies, because they had mosquito bites all over, there are lots of mosquitoes there at the headwaters.


A bridge across the river—carrying an ember

(…) I said to this one here (one of her children): look, sit down with your brother.

I put the little child on his legs, and I broke a vine and I swam up river, I swam and I went to tie a vine to go across the headwaters of the Orinoco. It is quite wide over there also!!

I broke two vines, then I twisted them, I put one here and I tied them. Then I went back and brought the liana to the side, and I tied it as I had tied the other one, and I was rolling it out like this to this side. But there were dolphins over there, they jumped out: ¡Poooh! ¡Pah! That was in the headwaters of the Orinoco (area), we were going across, around the mouth of the Manaviche stream, I think.”

“So I said to the boys: I tied it up, let’s go! Then the one got up, and I pulled the smaller child onto my neck. He threw his little arm here and there we went. We went down into the water. José went ahead, with his hand like this. His bow ahead with his string taut. We went, and in the middle of the river dolphins came out, everywhere. Then it went Boooh!! Like a roar, there by the water. And a huge snake came out, go, go, go, (I said). We went… and his arm got tired, and I said let us rest, we stood in the middle of that river, hanging on to that vine. For a while. Well, after he rested, I said Let’s go! You go here, there’s that bunch of sticks that’s like this, you grab on them and climb up there, that’s where you go out to land, I said, well. That’s how he did it, didn’t he?”

“Then I went on to where I had tied that vine, I climbed into the ravine, and I went out to land, I said to him: sit down here for a while, I left the toddler on his legs, I pulled out the liana there. For them not to cross behind me at night.

No, they were not chasing me. I had my ember with me. An ember of fire tied up, and here I was going through the creeper. I couldn’t have found an ember, where would I find another one? Then, I pulled out all that lianas and pulled them out and threw them into the river. Chom!!!!”


Chased by jaguars and demons

“I took the trail and then there was this big bunch of bananas, half-ripe. Look at these bananas over here, we are going to eat them. No not here in the path, let’s wait a bit, maybe a devil comes this way and finds us, so let’s go that way. We went a bit ahead, moving around the garden, and there was this big bunch, of the type they call paushimi, brightness. Beautiful, ripe. Half of it was black, scratched by the birds, so I pulled it out, let’s make a bit of banana compote for the children. I did, they drank. My child said: throw out the rest mummy, but I took it, I wrapped it and put it in the basket I carried on my back. I said let’s find a place to sleep here, so we looked on the other side of the garden edge. The sun was very low, inside this garden we’re going to sleep because we are already far away, but I don’t know where we’re going. I have never been here. Then we accommodated us around a big tree, we took plantain leaves, I put my hammock around the trunk of the tree and I lay down, and I put my children to sleep, I put another plantain leaf on their hammock. So dusk arrived… and at 9 o’clock, Sir:  I’m not lying, I say this because I heard it, I didn’t see it but I heard it, this sound like ¡Craach, crach…!! Pounding the plantain trees, Crach, crach, crach!  A bunch came down. Then another one, they knocked down two plantain bunches. I said: now they’ve found me, they’re going to kill all of us. It was night already, at night where were we going to run to?

I said well, leave it, leave it in God’s hands, God knows what he’s doing, I said.

The boys were sleeping.There was a little lake nearby. There was this bunch of toads singing (with a hoarse voice) Uaaaaaaaai!!! Uaaaaaaai!!! Uaaaaaaai!!!

Here comes the blessed tiger! I was chased by the tiger from the beginning, since I was 12 years old, the tiger chased me. He didn’t eat me because he who is high up there saved me. Sacred Heart of Jesus saved me.

Then, listen: the tiger, he fell in that lagoon, the tiger fell Cha-paaa! He fell to catch the toads The toads went silent. Silence. I knew, the tiger is eating toads Then they sang again, UUaaaaaaaai!!! Uaaaaaaaai!!!, another group of toads That’s where the tiger went, he ate there and went that way.     

A long time it was silent over there. And I’m standing there thinking I can’t sleep, sitting there, praying. The boys asleep. I didn’t get up, they didn’t get up either. So that I don’t scare them, right? I was praying, just sitting there, for a while. The daylight was coming, I was praying to God that it would get clear already. There was a nice moon, of course, right? Because the tiger was around. Then it dawned, I said well, you stay here, come on, I’m going to look if these Yanomami  took my bananas. I went to look, the banana bunch was secured there with sticks. The other bunch I don’t know where it is. There wasn’t a single plant on the ground!

It was the devil who went around cutting them down! Scaring us, you know. He thought I was going to be scared, I’m not scared! I defended myself, more than the devil, as best I could

What is it with the tiger? he didn’t eat me! Look: for seven months the tiger chased me, and he didn’t eat me. And even when I was a young girl, and I hadn’t had my first period, I was a child when they took me, and he chased me, every night he would come

Every night it came!!!”


Noguera, the ticket  for the journey

The brother of Justo, the headman of the Iyewei theri, he said: look, a napë just passed through, on the river, towards the upper Ocamo, the day before yesterday, three days ago. (…) He is felling down timber, he said. Cedar, right? Then I explained to this man, the dad of Juancito: Look, a napë passed by here, I am going to talk to him and we are going with him. You’re not going to say you don’t want to, if you don’t want to go, I will go alone with my two children. Then he said: I have to go too. I cooked some plantain soup, we drank it. 

Night fell, Juan Eduardo arrived. Around 9:00 at night, Uuuuuuuuuu (outboard motor’s sound): a motor. He pulled up. He left for the house. There he was talking: “I come to look for people to tie up wood. There’s a lot of wood, and there are no people to work. Ah! I’ve come to look for people to tie it up.” Then the people came, about four men arrived.


I heard them talking but I didn’t let them see me, I was lying down listening, but I didn’t say anything. Then they tied it up… They slept, the next day in the morning they came down. Roooooo (outboard motor’s sound) came the motor, I said “here comes Ewadro, here comes Ewadro”, they called him Ewadro, right? “There comes the napë“, they ran to him. So I went, I grabbed my son, I threw him on my  back, and I went with him. Look, I said (to her husband), I’m leaving with the intention of asking for a lift at once, I’m not going to stay here anymore. “Well,” he said, “let’s go!” We got off. The boat was shored up. I arrived and sat down at the back, there was a log like this, on top of that log I sat. The women Indians all came with me, all those Iyeweitheri yoma (Yanomami women from Iyewei theri). They sat around me…

Then he arrived. Juan Eduardo moored, the woman came out first. Good morning, good morning! Greeting those Indians. Good morning, how are you? They didn’t answer. There I said good morning. “Ay,” she said, “Here is one who speaks Spanish. Good morning” she said. Good morning, I said. How are you? I am here, I am fine, and I come here to talk to you and your husband, I said. And I want you to get me a ticket (to take me with you). Well, she said, I’ll go talk to Juan. Then she shouted from there: Juan! Juan! Here is a lady who wants to talk to you. Then he went ashore. Good morning, he said, what’s up? Look, I said, Sir, can’t you get me a ticket? I want to go to San Fernando de Atabapo. They told me that my mum and dad live there, they have a house there. So I want to go there. “And who are you?” I am Helena Valero, daughter of Valero. The Indians stole me, a long time ago from Brazil, I was 12 years old. In 1932, I said. “Ah… don’t tell me! Yes, your father always tells me about that, well, of course”, he said. “Why don’t you go get your hammock from the house and let’s go” he said.

(…) “How many are you?” I said: me, these two little boys, and this is their father. “Let’s go!” He said. Then… I went to look for my hammock, I put it in a little basket, we’re coming! And those Indians say: You are leaving? I said, I’m leaving. What am I going to wait for? I was waiting for the napë to take me. Then I’m going to look, to see if I can find the remains of my family, if anyone is alive. Isn’t it? Because people don’t die all at once. An old woman who liked me was crying. And she (Noguera’s wife) told me to get on board at once, we got on board, we left. We got off: HHHUUUUUUU (outboard motor’s sound). We went down (…)

We were embarking and they shot at us, but the engine took off faster. They were shooting, yes? They shot!!! (the Witokaya theri) Chun, fu chum pu chun! Arrows to the side! (…) The late Juan Eduardo shouted: “Fuck, no arrows here!” He said. “If you sink us, I’m going to finish you off with gunshots!!!” he said to them. They stopped, they got scared too. We got off, we left! There we arrived, in La Esmeralda, we moored. Lemon! They picked lemon, they picked a lot of avocado.”


Husband’s rage defused

“Nobody was afraid (at his shouting) and the National Guards were around. He was screaming and dancing, and he went all the way to and back from Maracoa (the further end of the isthmus where the village stands, where the Atabapo river connects with the Orinoco). The nuns I was staying with told me: your husband is out there, go and get him. Curripaco Indians had brought some barbecued fish. I went out and said Hey, what are you doing? Come inside, the sisters say you should eat something. He looked at me, put his arrows down, sat down and started to eat the fish. All his anger disappeared.”


Alejandro Reig

Alejandro Reig is a researcher, teacher and writer on socio environmental issues, with a focus on Amazonia. He has a PhD Anthropology from the University of Oxford and is widely published. His recent co-authored book, Migrantes, offers a global vision of human mobility.

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