Among the Zapotecs of Mexico, National Geographic 1927

We bought National Geographic DVDs from the 1920’s to the 1960’s at a garage sale a couple of years ago and just got around to looking at the table of contents, to discover there was an article written by Herbert Covey in 1927 with photos of Teotitlan del Valle, our village.  I was eager to read it.

Herbert Covey’s view of Mexico was not unlike many of his adventurous contemporaries who were exploring indigenous Africa, Asia, and Central and South America at the same time.  In April 1927, National Geographic magazine published a rather lengthy first person account of his train trip from Puebla to Oaxaca and his travels around the villages, accompanied by black and white photos.

The travelogue, viewed through today’s lens, is appalling.  Covey reflects that era of colonial arrogance that we have associated more with Great Britain, France and other paternalistic colonizers who are determined to either remake the indigenous culture in its own image or to stereotype it into the “noble savage” ideation that sells exotic armchair travel.  It is a foretelling of the neocolonial relationship that the U.S. has had with Mexico since WWII, and is a retrospective of U.S-Mexican political relationship of dominance and weakness.  Moreover, it emphasizes the social, cultural and political superiority held by “more advanced” societies who look down upon the poor “other.”

The first paragraphs reveal the tone of the article.  Covey writes that there were only two eras in Mexican history that were civilized, the three hundred year period of Spanish colonization and the seventy year presidency of Porfirio Diaz (“affectionately” known as the Porfiriata)!  The Spanish conquest is only spoken about in the most glowing terms, and the populist Benito Juarez is referred to as the little brown Zapotec.  Other stereotypes abound and the language includes racist innuendos that made my stomach turn.

I read the entire article because these images are ingrained in our world view as a nation, and it is important to know how we are acculturated to accept (or reject) our Mexican neighbors.  These writings of almost one hundred years ago influence how we treat the immigration issue today and our economic relationship with Mexico around oil and other natural resources.

Wikipedia:  Paternalistic neocolonialism

The term paternalistic neocolonialism involves the belief held by a neo-colonial power that their colonial subjects benefit from their occupation. Critics of neocolonialism, arguing that this is both exploitive and racist, contend this is merely a justification for continued political hegemony and economic exploitation of past colonies, and that such justifications are the modern reformulation of the Civilizing mission concepts of the 19th century.

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