Latest Blog Entries

Earthquakes, Protests, and the Challenges of Archival Research in Oaxaca, Mexico

Chris Gatto, PhD Candidate, History

On Thursday, September 7, 2017, a magnitude 8.1 earthquake struck off the Pacific coast of Mexico, killing over 100 individuals and damaging thousands of homes in the southern states of Chiapas, Oaxaca, and Tobasco.[1] This was the strongest earthquake the country had experienced since 1787. While earthquakes are a fairly common occurrence in Mexico, this particular event caused more alarm and destruction than could have ever been anticipated.

The earthquake struck at approximately 11:30 pm, and I acutely remember standing in the bathroom of my Airbnb in Oaxaca City, brushing my teeth and getting ready to go to bed. I was concluding nearly two months of archival research in Oaxaca for my dissertation, entitled “From Cochineal to Coffee: The Making of a New Rural Society in Miahuatlán, Oaxaca, 1780–1880.” The door to my small apartment began to shake violently, and my initial thought was that someone was trying to break in. As I walked over to see what was happening, I immediately fell to the ground, as the floor beneath me began to shake. The power in the city then went out, and in complete darkness it became all too clear to me and everyone else in the city what was occurring. 

While my first thought was to text my anxious mother (before she uncovered the news of the earthquake on her own), I then began to consider how this would affect the work I still needed to get done. I was finishing nearly six weeks of research in the Archivo Histórico de Notarías, a vast archive inside the Church of Santo Domingo right in the heart of Oaxaca City. This archive is home to nearly 2,000 volumes of notarial documents from the early 17th century all the way up until the 20th century, including land purchases and rentals, wills, contracts, and inventories. Needless to say, this archive plays an essential role in my dissertation, which explores the dramatic agricultural transformation that occurred in the southern part of the state from cochineal to coffee cultivation over the course of the 19th century.

The Archivo Histórico de Notarías is now fully digitalized, but researchers still need to spend considerable amounts of time with the original documents, identifying book and page numbers before proceeding to the Dirección General de Notarías, an office located in the Ciudad Administrativa about 15 minutes outside of the city, to begin a complicated process (trámite) of requesting digital copies. While I knew the Archivo itself would be closed for several days (as it was, although thankfully with limited damage), I was also concerned about the Ciudad Administrativa, where I needed to travel with a flash drive to collect all the images I had been identifying over the past month.

The first image above depicts the main square of the Ciudad Administrativa on an average day, while the next two images reflect the damage suffered following the earthquake. Suffice it to say, these offices would not reopen for quite some time, as government workers refused to return to the campus until proper working conditions had been restored. I remember visiting the Ciudad Administrativa during that week, hoping I could find someone, anyone, that could help me gain access to the hard drive and expedite the transfer of images. However, I was promptly turned away, as they insisted I would have to return the following week. Unfortunately, I did not have another week, and I flew back to Chicago on September 16 with the sick feeling that so much time and effort had been expended for nothing. While I was determined to return to Oaxaca soon to complete my research, I knew there were further challenges I would eventually have to overcome…

The Ciudad Administrativa, along with the Ciudad Judicial, are the two largest government offices in Oaxaca. However, on any given day, access to these offices is severely restricted, since they become the site for a range of protests from different social organizations and unions across the region, including taxi drivers (taxistas), teachers’ unions (maestros), and indigenous rights activists. These groups block access to the Ciudad Administrativa in different and often inventive ways (as shown in the images above), and when this happens, nobody can enter or leave the campus until the groups disassemble. These protests have become so routine that the public has become accustomed to the disruptions and adjust their schedules accordingly. Whatever one thinks of the validity of these protests (I happen to be quite sympathetic), they cause significant disturbances in the life of ordinary residents in the city, and you will often hear people expressing sympathy for the causes but not necessarily the tactics.

In organizing my trip back to Oaxaca, I knew I would have to allow several days for a procedure that should only take a couple hours. On the week of October 23, 2017, I flew back to Oaxaca, allowing five days (Monday through Friday) to get my work completed. I anxiously checked my Twitter feed on an hourly basis to identify reports of potential blockades (bloqueos) at the government campus. As it turns out, I was able find a small window early Tuesday morning to enter the Ciudad Administrativa and complete the process of acquiring nearly 1,000 images that will hopefully form an important part of my dissertation. Shortly after I entered, the campus was closed off, and we could not leave until 6pm that evening. The campus experienced similar protests on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday of that week, and thus I was incredibly fortunate to find the small window that I did to get my work completed.

Researchers in Mexico and across Latin America face these types of logistical challenges on a regular basis, and I do not mean to suggest that what I have faced is unique or atypical in any way. But my work in Oaxaca does show how precarious the work of historians can be, given that we are forced to rely on documents that readily become available or unavailable according to shifting circumstances beyond our control. I hope my dissertation can make good use of the materials I have been lucky enough to uncover, and shed light on historical processes that help us better understand such a dynamic and important region of Mexico.

 

[1] This should not be confused with the second earthquake that occurred near Mexico City on September 19, 2017, with a magnitude 7.1 that killed nearly 400.

 

The Aesthetics of Communal Survival: Recasting the Relation between Santa Muerte and Violence

 Agnes Mondragon Celis Ochoa, PhD student, Anthropology 









Image 1. Photo by Toni François, http://camara.cc/fotos-santa-muerte-en-tepito-2015/ 


Santa Muerte, a folk saint so little known before the turn of the century—in a religious landscape mostly populated by centuries-old figures—has become widely present in the Mexican public sphere in the past few years and, just as quickly, has been associated with criminality and drug violence in the media. This association has depicted Santa Muerte’s followers not only as criminals themselves,[1] but also as engaging in illegitimate, even blasphemous,[2] devotional practices. While this mass-mediated association resonates with old, Porfirian-age and ultimately colonial discourses linking Mexican lower classes to criminality[3]—which of course, says more about class hierarchies in Mexican society than about Santa Muerte devotees themselves—I consider there to be, indeed, a relation between this saint and violence that remains unexplored. By examining a collective ritual that takes place in Santa Muerte’s main shrine in the downtown slum of Tepito, Mexico City, I wish to explore one of the ways in which such a relation plays out.

Tepito is a neighborhood best known for its massive informal market—where, allegedly, one can buy commodities of all imaginable kinds—but is also remarkable for its strong communal identity, which claims a pre-Hispanic past and which was able to resist gentrification efforts by the local government.[4] It seems to have harshly felt the well-known effects of neoliberalism: unprecedented flows of money (especially of illegal trades), greater inequality, harsher capitalist competition, and the violence this brings about. The practices surrounding Santa Muerte, I argue, are means through which this violence is collectively acknowledged, evaluated and addressed, while offering a space by which the community of devotees reminds itself of such a fact and (ritually) reconstructs social bonds, which are crucial for both collective and individual survival.









Image 2. Photo by Saúl Ruiz, http://elcafedecamilo.blogspot.com/2012/05


On the first day of the month, devotees gather around the Santa Muerte shrine well before the main ceremony. Many are seen close to their Santa Muerte icons, either because they are holding them in their arms [image 1] or because they have placed them over a piece of cloth on the floor, like small, improvised shrines [image 2]. All sorts of small objects—candies, toy bills, beaded bracelets—can be seen in people’s hands or adorning their statuettes. The objects are gifts brought and distributed by devotees in return for miracles granted by Santa Muerte. As has become customary, devotees bring many such objects, which indicates the magnitude of the intended repayment. Devotees will offer them as gifts to several of the numerous Santa Muerte statuettes gathered on that day—insofar as all are equally indexes of the same Santa Muerte. While offering the saint her gratitude, however, it becomes unclear whether the recipient of the gift is Santa Muerte or (also) the devotee carrying the icon. Moreover, the gift is usually accompanied by a que te cuide y te proteja, “may she look after and protect you”, whose target is clearly a fellow devotee. In this way, the gift giver is demonstrating Santa Muerte’s efficacy to the recipient and encouraging others to engage in or maintain relations with her. As anthropologist Timothy Knowlton shows for a similar ritual,[5] these individual communicative acts, superimposed on each other—as can be seen in the accumulation of gifts adorning the statuettes [image 1]—constitute and help sustain this collective devotion overtime. 

But there is more to this. Gift giving, one of the classical concerns in anthropology, has been found to be at the very foundation of sociality, as acts that inaugurate (or, in our case, reestablish) social bonds and that carry the obligation to reciprocate. Following Nancy Munn,[6] a gift may initiate a reciprocal transaction, and thus a social bond—a connection between the two persons involved where the gift giver is constituted and remembered as a generous person and her action reciprocated through a return gift sometime in the future.

This logic of reciprocity, although inverted, appears in devotional practices through which Santa Muerte followers attempt to harm others, to retaliate against others’ abuses of power or to counteract a competitor’s conspicuous economic success, situations that have become increasingly common, as mentioned, in recent years. The possibility to engage in these harmful practices, however, comes with a warning: Santa Muerte takes a loved one if a devotee fails to repay a favor. In other words, Santa Muerte takes revenge by mirroring the devotee’s harmful act, and thus breaking this devotee’s network of social bonds in the same way that she mirrors a devotee’s thankful repayment by creating a new social bond through gift giving, as the ritual above describes. 

Knowledge about Santa Muerte’s revengefulness, for devotees, is thus a recurrent reminder about the perils of destroying social relations. Communal ritual practices not only result from the collective acknowledgment that a network of friends and kin is fundamental for everyday survival—especially in communities that have faced the hardships of poverty[7]—but also that violence is ultimately unsustainable for social life. Santa Muerte followers then gather once a month in order to ritually suture back these severed bonds. In this way, the community becomes an agent that sustains itself into the future.

 


[1] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/12/25/la-santa-muerte-patron-saint-...

[2] http://www.excelsior.com.mx/nacional/2016/02/13/1074982.

[3] See Ricardo Pérez Montfort, coord., Hábitos, normas y escándalo: prensa, criminalidad y drogas durante el porfiriato tardío, Mexico City: Plaza y Valdés, 1997

[4] See Alfonso Hernández and Laura Roush, “The Vita-migas of Tepito”, Ethnology, 47 (2/3), Spring/Summer 2008: 89-93; Diane E. Davis, “Zero-Tolerance Policing, Stealth Real Estate Development, and the Transformation of Public Space: Evidence from Mexico City”, Latin American Perspectives, March 2013: 53-76. 

[5] Timothy Knowlton, “Inscribing the Miraculous Place: Writing and Ritual Communication in the Chapel of a Guatemalan Popular Saint”, Linguistic Anthropology, 25(3), December 2015.

[6] Nancy Munn, The Fame of Gawa: A Symbolic Study of Value Transformation in a Massim (Papua New Guinea) Society, Durham: Duke University Press, 1992

[7] See Mercedes González de la Rocha, The Resources of Poverty: Women and Survival in a Mexican City, Cambridge: Blackwell, 1994; Hernández and Roush, op. cit.

 

Exploring Mexican Chicago through Soccer

Franco Bavoni Escobedo, MAPSS AM’16

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chicago hosts the second largest Mexican community in the United States after Los Angeles. Between 2010–2014, 669,000 Mexican migrants resided in the metropolitan area, representing 7% of the total population and 40% of the foreign-born population. Unsurprisingly, scholars and observers alike adopted the idea of a “Mexican Chicago.” Contrary to what some might think, however, Mexican Chicago is more than the mere presence of Mexicans in Chicago. As Nicholas De Genova argues, Mexican Chicago is produced through migrants’ everyday-life practices, which tie this space irreversibly to Mexico and, at the same time, render it irretrievable for the US nation-state. This is not to say that Mexican Chicago pertains to the Mexican nation-state. Rather, says De Genova, it is the result of migrants’ particular social situation through which the meaning of “Mexican” itself comes to be reconfigured. Thus, Mexican Chicago has to be constantly reworked and reproduced through social interaction.

Few spaces are as emblematic of Mexican Chicago as the numerous Hispanic soccer leagues that exist in the city. A steady stream of new Mexican migrants after World War II, combined with soccer’s dramatic expansion south of the border, led in the 1970s to what David Trouille calls the “Latinization” of the game. The foundation of the Chicago Latin American Soccer Association (CLASA) in 1973 was followed by the exponential growth of Mexican soccer in the next decades. According to Raúl Dorantes and Febronio Zatarain, the main four leagues average 7,000 members each, but the total number of registered players in the Chicago metropolitan area is close to a quarter million. 

So how does one experience Mexican Chicago through soccer? The answer is not straightforward. My fieldwork with San Rafael, a Chicago-based team founded by migrants from a rural town of the same name in Michoacán, reveals how varying sets of relationships and situational factors can alter the meaning of “Mexican” in Mexican Chicago. A very brief comparison between the summer and winter seasons proves illuminating in this regard.

Summer Season

 

 

 

 

 

An atmosphere largely reminiscent of rural Michoacán characterizes the summer season games. Although many players are of the 1.5 and second generations,[1] most supporters are first-generation migrants who have lived several years in the United States. As Luis Escala-Rabadán points out, participants “reconstruct their place of origin” through the soccer experience despite being far away from it. For example, since the heat in both San Rafael and Chicago is usually intense, attendees north and south of the border congregate under the trees to seek refuge from the sun and chat. In both locations, Mexican snacks, chicharrones, are available for purchase on the sidelines of the field. Whether in Chicago or San Rafael, most participants also enjoy a few beers while watching the game, and drinking continues for hours afterwards. Moreover, soccer games in both sites pit teams that represent specific towns against each other, which reinforces a sense of pride among participants. Finally, in both Mexico and the United States conversations are in Spanish. 

Besides the similarities between both sites, attendees in Chicago intensify their sense of proximity to San Rafael by talking about the town and using certain idiosyncratic references that only someone from the pueblo would understand. For instance, they often talk about belonging to los de arriba or los de abajo (those from above or from below). The dividing line is the village’s church. Those whose homes are located before it are from abajo, while those who live after it are from arriba. In Chicago the distinction is mostly used to joke around: Rodrigo, without hesitating, teasingly refused to give Óscar a ride because he was from arriba. Thus, during the summer season, “Mexican” acquires a very specific meaning for first-generation supporters: as one of them put it, “it’s all about meeting with the people from the pueblo.”

Winter Season       

 

 

 

 

At la Pershing, the facilities where the San Rafael indoor soccer games take place, things are different. The first-generation supporters from the town are mostly absent, and players are predominantly of the 1.5 and second generations. Still, the space is filled with Mexican features. As one enters the premises, the booming Mexican music can be immediately heard. The majority of players wear Mexican teams’ jerseys, and the multiple screens show the Mexican soccer league on Univision, a Spanish-language television network. Next to a cash register there is an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, another conspicuous symbol of Mexicanness. 

However, instead of vendors selling chicharrones, there is a fast food restaurant where customers can buy American food such as hot dogs, popcorn, and nachos. Whereas the use of English is extremely limited in the summer, the norm at la Pershing is a combination of both languages. On and off the soccer field, continuous code switching between Spanish and English soon becomes apparent. There is also a store where people can acquire sports equipment. When I walk in and ask for shin guards in Spanish, the clerk asks me to please repeat my question in English, as she cannot understand. It then dawns on me: this is just another face of Mexican Chicago, no less Mexican than the one that emerges during summer season games. As a 1.5-generation player told me, this is an opportunity to feel “more Mexican” as opposed to feeling “more American” while at work.

In sum, although the San Rafael soccer team is doubtlessly embedded in Mexican Chicago, its meaning varies significantly in different settings and according to the actors involved. However, this is just the first step of the analysis. As Lisa Wedeen argues, the importance of these practices does not reside simply in what they mean to their practitioners, but also in the ways in which they produce specific logics and generate observable political effects. That is, precisely, the goal of my research.                                            


[1] “First-generation” refers to migrants who arrived in the United States as adults; the “1.5-generation” grouping consists of individuals who arrived as children under the age of eighteen; and “second-generation” designates persons born in the United States to Mexican parents.

References

De Genova, Nicholas. 1998. “Race, Space, and the Reinvention of Latin America in Mexican Chicago,” Latin American Perspectives, 25: 87–116.

Dorantes, Raúl and Febronio Zatarain. 2007. …Y nos vinimos de mojados: cultura mexicana en Chicago. Mexico City: Universidad Autónoma de la Ciudad de México.

Escala-Rabadán, Luis. 2012. “Migración, redes sociales y clubes de futbol de los migrantes hidalguenses en Estados Unidos.” In Offside/Fuera de lugar: futbol y migraciones en el mundo contemporáneo, edited by Guillermo Alonso Meneses and Luis Escala-Rabadán, 133–150. Tijuana: El Colegio de la Frontera Norte.

Trouille, David. 2008. “Association Football to Fútbol: Ethnic Succession and the History of Chicago-Area Soccer since 1920,” Soccer & Society, 10: 795–822.

Wedeen, Lisa. 2008. Peripheral Visions: Publics, Power, and Performance in Yemen. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.