Mark Hulsether: Oaxaca, Mexico, Summer 2007
During the summer of 2007, I was invited to participate in a month-long National Endowment for the Humanities Institute in southern Mexico. It was in the state of Oaxaca, which is in the mountains about halfway between Mexico City and the place on the Pacific coast where Mexico and Guatemala meet. Oaxaca is culturally somewhat similar to the more famous state of Chiapas, home of the EZLN or so-called Zapatistas. During the past couple of years it has been a place of intense sociopolitical struggle, including a prolonged period in which the city was shut down by what was in effect a general strike led by the teacher¹s union. This struggle is moving into a new stage, but it had by no means ended during my time there. There were near-daily protest marches and activists were being kidnapped by police forces. Fortunately for me, each side was trying to blame the other side for a lack of tourists, so that it was relatively safe (as well as exceedingly interesting) to be a visitor.
Oaxaca has an extremely rich interplay of indigenous cultures and plays an important artistic/cultural role within Mexico, in ways somewhat comparable to a city such as Santa Fe within the United States. Its ancient (and still thriving) civilizations of the Zapotecs and Mixtecs are notably ³underrated² compared to the more famous Aztecs to the northwest and Mayans to the southeast. They likely were the first people to cultivate corn, thus placing them amid a highly select group of civilizations at the ground level of world history, and their influence in Meso-American history is comparable to groups such as the Mayans, Olmecs, Toltecs, and others that are mentioned far more often in the scholarly literature.
Our seminar was split evenly between historical and contemporary study; it was interdisciplinary, with special emphasis on history, anthropology, and the interpretation of ancient writing systems. In addition to seminars with world-class scholars in these fields, we made many visits to historical sites such as Monte Alban and monasteries built during the first wave of Spanish conquest. We also explored contemporary Oaxacan society, including its recent social conflict, indigenous cultural politics, and relation to the global economy.