Photos by Damon Casarez

FEATURED STORY: Carolina Caycedo

La Madre Monte and El Mohan

Many of us grow up hearing stories passed down from generation to generation. Mythology can be an especially powerful force in our youth, inviting us to consider — sometimes for the first time — the interconnectedness of all things and the repercussions of our actions. For LA-based artist Carolina Caycedo, these narratives materialized quite literally at a beloved sculpture garden just a few towns over from her childhood home in Colombia.

“[The town of Espinal] has such an interesting main park with vernacular sculptures of the different characters of these [mythological] stories.” Reflecting on time spent at the Parque Mitologico, Carolina immediately recalls a sculpture of one character in particular: La Madre Monte (Mother Woods), a powerful forest spirit with roots in Colombia’s indigenous traditions.

“La Madre Monte is a very green, very beautiful, exuberant woman…that’s almost like a tree. She’s always exuding leaves and flowers. She comes and applies justice to whoever is not treating nature well, on whoever is burning the forest or trashing it.”

Some Colombians attribute heavy storms, rain, and flooding to La Madre Monte, and it’s said that she can punish those who invade her territory by making them lose their way. For a young Carolina, stories of La Madre Monte helped instill in her a deep reverence for the natural world — reminding her to cherish the environment, advocate for it, and fear its power.

La Madre Monte’s fondness for flooding might not sit well with El Mohan, another mythological figure of the Magdalena River region. “El Mohan is an old guy with very long hair and a long beard. He’s always smoking tobacco and he lives at the bottom of the river, and he is very attracted to young women. The story [goes] that he would seduce them when they were on the riverbank washing clothes, drown them and bring them down to live with him.”

For Carolina, El Mohan would come to play an important role later in life during an action opposing the damming of the Magdalena River. “When the Quimbo Dam was being constructed and the displacement of folks [in river communities] was happening because of the construction, we actually made a kind of collective puppet out of traditional fishing net — with a big mask of the Mohan crying, because the Mohan was being displaced by the dam, too.” Carolina knew that as communities are displaced, so too are their stories and beliefs. In depicting El Mohan, Carolina and her fellow activists reclaimed a folkloric tradition under siege by development.

While physically far from Colombia today, Carolina still passes these stories down to her children, including her daughter, Una Santiago Caycedo. In doing so, she asks them not only to carry a piece of their homeland with them, but also to advocate for the natural world that surrounds them right here in Los Angeles.

Carolina Caycedo is a Colombian multidisciplinary visual artist, based in Los Angeles. Carolina’s art undertakes an environmental justice and eco-feminist perspective in her work, which typically examines environmental and social issues. Her work generates debate about the futures of shared resources, environmental justice, just energy transition and cultural biodiversity. Her 2015 work, One Body of Water, developed in response to the Bowtie Parcel intertwines the stories of three contested rivers of the Americas: the Magdalena (Colombia), Yaqui (Mexico), and Elwha (Washington, US) rivers.