Edward Rothstein, last seen at LGM deciding that the state of Colorado actually does have history, drops a real stinker today. Rothstein goes to Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, and tells us why it is so much more authentic and real than listening to Native Americans in the United States tell stories he doesn’t want to hear.
Most of it is almost boilerplate wealthy east coast elite condescenion toward romantic places with brown people, whether it is the Taos School in 1912 or Santa Fe today or places in Mexico that are Santa Fe-esque without all the annoying tourists or whatnot, like Alamos or San Miguel de Allende or Oaxaca. Ooh, everything is so bright. The people are so charming. The food is so hot and spicy. I can buy handicrafts. Etc. Etc.
But the real issue is in Rothstein’s discussion of why indigenous history is so real in Oaxaca compared to the United States:
In the United States, in institutions ranging from the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington to regional natural history museums, the real arbiters of indigenous history these days are representatives of contemporary tribes. They oversee the display of a museum’s tribal artifacts and reshape accounts of the past, in many cases relying mainly on frayed strands of traumatically disrupted oral traditions. And everything is meant to increase self-esteem with promotional banality.
But here, something else happens. When you stand on a flattened hilltop above the village of Atzompa, some seven miles outside of Oaxaca, and look over at a nearby peak, you can glimpse the immense ruins of Monte Albán, a pre-Columbian plaza of breathtaking expanse used for ceremonies and games. Below those ruins, where perhaps 25,000 people lived in the early part of the first millennium, you can make out faint remnants of terraced farming on the hillside. The past is visible in the landscape.
I’d glad Rothstein, as a wealthy white elite, can summarily dismiss the National Museum of the American Indian and every other attempt for Native Americans to tell their own stories because they don’t suit his aesthetic desires as a cultural arbiter. I suppose the Lakota and the Crow and the Nez Perce should have to hold meetings with Rothstein and other New York elites before telling any story that might help them reclaim their past after four centuries of oppression and genocide. I’m not saying that one can’t criticize the NMAI, but it’s galling and near racist that Rothstein has so little sensitivity for the half-millennium of genocide that has created a situation where a lot of Native American peoples are trying to hold on to what they have about their history while telling stories that make modern Americans remember that they are still alive.
Moreover, both in that second paragraph quoted above as well as elsewhere in the piece, he talks about Mexico being superior because he can see state indigenous power on the landscape in the form of ruins. He makes a passing nod to places like Cahokia in the U.S., but those aren’t nearly as cool as Monte Alban I guess. So I’m glad Rothstein is judging indigenous peoples on their ability to construct large buildings. But there isn’t the first attempt to understand why Indians are so visible in Oaxaca today, as opposed to the U.S. Some of it is the ruins of massive structures of course, but there’s also the enormous 4 million pound gorilla that the United States committed systemic genocide against its Native American populations in ways that Spain/Mexico was never able to accomplish. So Oaxaca, traditionally isolated from the center of power in Mexico City, remains majority indigenous today.
And that leads to yet another problem with Rothstein’s piece. Like many Mexican elites and foreign tourists today, he loves the ruins and the Indian culture and the food and the pottery. But he doesn’t seem to care one iota about the poverty in which they live. Being indigenous in Mexico is not just about providing a background for wealthy whites to play out their fantasies. It also means endemic poverty, racism, disease, alienation from traditional cultures due to massive economic pressures unleashed by NAFTA and policies in Mexico City, no recourse to the government, etc. Rothstein couldn’t care less about any of those things, or at least there’s no evidence he even began peeking below the surface of Oaxaca.
Finally, there’s Rothstein’s bizarre decision to conflate Oaxaca’s indigenous past with the Ethnobotanical Garden of Oaxaca. It’s a cool place but it’s not indigenous in the least except that the plants are native species. So maybe native peoples and native plants are all the same in Rothstein’s mind. Moreover, it’s housed not in some indigenous area but behind Oaxaca’s largest Catholic structure, a vestige of Spanish colonialism. But Indians, Spanish, it’s all the same so long as it’s old and Rothstein can have his authenticity sensors stimulated.
Really, it’s good that the Times still employs a museum critic, but Rothstein is about as out of touch with the everything outside of New York City as one can be. And he certainly shows little understanding of Mexico.