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The Mixteca and Romanticizing Rural Poverty


The photographer Matt Black has a gallery up at Guernica featuring his photos of the Mixteca, an indigenous region of Oaxaca in southern Mexico. I’d place an example or two up here but copying the photos is seemingly not allowed. Black says this about his photos:

Over the past decade, I have traveled a dozen times to the Mixteca, documenting how migration, environmental degradation, and cultural change are bleeding the life out of the deepest heart of rural Mexico. Named the “Place of the Cloud People” by the Aztecs and home to one of the oldest pre-Columbian cultures in the Americas, the Mixteca has lost over a quarter million people to migration, leaving scores of villages little more than ghost towns. This ongoing project, an extended inquiry into the sources and consequences of this migration, is both a document of what is being lost and a sketch of what lies ahead for one of the world’s last bastions of traditional indigenous life.

There’s no question that the Mixteca has changed dramatically in recent years, for reasons Black states. NAFTA has ravaged traditional agricultural regions of rural Mexico, making it cheaper to buy American corn than Mexican. Overpopulation and deforestation have led to environmental problems. And it is places like the Mixteca which have fueled the boom in migration, both to the United States and to the cities of Mexico.

I’ve been obsessing over these photos for the last day or so, partially because I know Oaxaca pretty well (and the wife is a scholar of the Mixteca specifically) and partially because I can’t help but think that these photos romanticize a lost indigenous past that whites have deployed in art, journalism, and intellectual thought for at least the past century.

The process of increasingly globalized capitalism changing traditional culture has disturbed people for a long time, though most often those who are already integrated into capitalism. Black clearly sympathizes with the Mixtecs; I do too, but I think in a different way because rural poverty is horrible. The Mixtecs have maintained their culture for hundreds if not thousands of years, but they’ve also been stuck in grinding poverty while much of the rest of the world gained access to material possession, longer lifespans, better medicine, etc. I’m honestly not sure whether life in the slums of Mexico City or in a Juarez maquiladora is better than on the farm. But as we see across the developing world, millions of people are making this choice to leave for the cities. And the large Mixtec population in the Hudson Valley of New York absolutely live more comfortable lives than they did at home. Their choices should be respected even as we sigh over lost cultural forms.

In discussing these photographs with my wife, she noted that previous similar photo exhibits of impoverished rural Oaxacans have served to help Americans understand why Mexicans migrate while embarrassing Oaxacans she knew in the United States. They told her that such photos were not an accurate depiction of life in Oaxaca or that they only showed the bad side, noting strongly that not everyone lived like that.

I’m definitely not accusing Black of anything here. He may agree with everything I’ve said for all I know. The photos, and particularly the text linked above, suggest sadness over the fading traditional ways. I’m not entirely comfortable with this view, but I’d be curious to know what readers think about Black’s work.

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