It has been quite some time since my sociology teacher assigned the entire class to watch the movie 'Birds of Passage'. The topic we were dealing with at that time in our “Race Identity and Cultural Diversity of Colombia” class was the influence of modernity in Colombia's indigenous communities, especially the Wayúu community. At that time, I had been living in Colombia for two months and, although I was aware of some aspects concerning the country's indigenous communities, there were just as many, not to say significantly more, things I did not know. I was aware that, in general, the indigenous communities were going through a process of loss of their traditions, their culture, their language – and that this was mainly caused by the influence of western culture – but how this was happening was unclear to me. Thanks to the movie I was able to understand a lot. I learnt what difficulties indigenous communities face, and how Western culture is affecting their lives. Among the many themes that are addressed in the movie, the ones that struck me the most were undoubtedly cultural assimilation and transculturation. These are terms that were not entirely new to me. Most probably you readers have already heard of them too. However, since my purpose within this article is to analyse these phenomena within this, in my opinion very well-done movie, I would like to give more precise definitions of what they designate.

“Cultural assimilation refers to the process, in which minority culture absorbs into the dominant culture, within a particular society. This process of change in minority culture could be gradual or quick, as well as by choice or by force. For instance, when a country is invaded by means of military conquest invaders usually impose their native culture on their subjects. The subjects must accept the foreign culture and their culture gets completely absorbed in the host culture. [On the contrary], in case of assimilation by choice, a group might be influenced by the dominant culture and gradually, their native culture becomes similar to the host culture or dominant culture.”

“The term transculturation encompasses the progression from one culture to another, the acquiring of another culture, as well as the subsequent emergence of a new cultural phenomenon. Transculturation can result from colonialism, particularly in the post-colonial period where the indigenous people struggle to re-acquire their sense of identity.”

The difference between the two phenomena may be somewhat difficult to understand but, in reality, they are quite different from each other. Thus, while cultural assimilation represents the gradual loss of cultural aspects of minority groups, in contrast, transculturation aims to create a new cultural phenomenon through the fusion of two and/or more cultures.

Within the movie, one can clearly see these two phenomena and the consequences they have on the Wayúu community. One of the aspects visible from the beginning – and which accompanies the entire movie – is undoubtedly the aesthetics. The way the protagonist family dresses, in my opinion, does not reflect tradition. The very house they live in, and the furniture have a great Western influence. As for the individual scenes, at the beginning of the movie, when Rapayet – a poor orphan raised by his uncle, Peregrino, who occupies a special place in Wayuu society: he’s the “word messenger”, meaning he carries word between parties to disputes and helps to mediate them – asks Ursula for her daughter’s hand Zaida in marriage, Ursula asks him if he also speaks Spanish. She sends a signal of approval when he answers yes to the question, but that he still prefers to speak wayuunaiki. I personally would call this an example of transculturation as it represents the union of the two languages, the Wayúu – and therefore traditional – with Spanish, a symbol of modernity. I don’t see it as cultural appropriation for the simple fact that the Wayúu language is spoken very often in the movie. This is probably one of the few aspects that represent a non-break with the Wayúu tradition.

On the contrary, there are many moments in which cultural assimilation is perceived. For example, when Rapayet, after receiving the dowry for his trade with the North Americans, appears directly in front of Ursula, not respecting the tradition of having to send Peregrino, the messenger, to deliver the news. The character of Leonidas himself, Ursula’s youngest son, is in my opinion the personification of the break with Wayúu tradition. He uses weapons and violence a lot, gives little importance to Wayúu necklaces and talismans, and in one scene even tries to touch Aníbal's daughter without her permission, at a time when, according to Wayúu tradition, she could not be touched in any way. Another aspect that in my opinion represents the non-respect of the Wayúu tradition is related to dreams. They turn out to be of great importance within the Wayúu community, but very often, within the movie, their meaning is not respected. In one scene, when Ursula, Rapayet and Peregrino discuss whether they should go to the party organised by Aníbal, Ursula is the only one who thinks it is not a good choice (because of the dream made by Zaida). In the end, however, they decide to go, thus not respecting the message sent through the dream. The non-respect of the Wayúu tradition is also seen when Aníbal sends an alijuna – an outsider – as a messenger to request that he be compensated for the damage received by the family. It can be understood that the messenger should always be a member of the Wayúu community. This means that – as Ursula and Peregrino also say – one could not accept the proposal made by the alijuna sent by Aníbal. Rapayet, however, convinced by Zaida, does not respect this tradition and accepts the alijuna's proposal. Aníbal himself, when he kills Peregrino, goes against tradition (according to Wayuú values, one cannot kill a messenger).

In my opinion, in this movie, it is possible to see both aspects of transculturation, especially thanks to the figure of Ursula, who seems to be the only one who does not want to integrate herself into modernity – even though she does – and of cultural appropriation, which, in the end, leads to the destruction of the family and its traditional values.