Fragmenting Pasts and Futures: Wandering Oaxaca and Beyond

By Hilary M. Leathem, University of Chicago

This comic emerges out of preliminary ethnographic fieldwork I conducted in Oaxaca this past summer. I quickly became interested in the ways in which the prehispanic past and indigenous culture (whether this be Zapotec, Mixtec, Mixe, Chontal, etc.) are mobilized by various institutions, like the Alfredo Harp Helú Foundation (FAHH) — a private, philanthropic institution — and INAH (the National Institute for Anthropology and History). INAH and the FAHH exert considerable oversight over “culture” and “the past” — patrimony, in short — and I wonder how one might make sense of this increase in oversight and the commodification of these entities during a time of rapid urbanization and expansion.

In the end, I have focused more on conceptions of “pastness” and the enchantment and allure of Oaxaca. By the same token, these two things also inform a politics that is steeped in both nostalgia and restlessness. Haphazardly, one can conclude that this boom in urban development coupled with a mobilization of indigenous culture and history might mean a “return” to the past or the reification of a prehispanic past. I would, instead, caution against this and argue that for Oaxaqueños, there is no desire to return to the past or go back in time. Rather, the nature of the materiality of time in Oaxaca makes a “return” impossible and unnecessary. Their landscape, their ruins, their city, by default, places the past in the present, and also contains echoes of the future. The theme for Oaxaca’s music festival (Instrumenta Oaxaca) this year was “Fantasieren: ghosts of the past, echoes of the future,” and so as this place of fantasy, haunted in many ways by the past, draws an international crew of musicians to its heart, one can make out a faint cadence punctuated by social dissonance.

Just as a note: The mural of the young girl holding the blossoming heart was drawn by a street art collective named Lapiztola, who dedicate their time and energy to the silences present in Oaxaca’s political discourses.

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