Oaxaca Community Museums Are Source of Pride, Attempt to Stem Tide of Outmigration

My friend Bruce lives in Baja, California (Mexico).  We are carrying on a correspondence about safety, Oaxaca sights and sounds, and life as gringos in Mexico.  He recently sent me the article written below and asked me to comment on it.  Here is what I wrote back to him: “Thank you for sending me the article about Santiago Matatlan and the Field Museum of Natural History excavations there in 2004.  I began going to Teotitlan del Valle in 2005 and was not aware of the archeological program in Matatlan, although I have been to that village several times to see the ancient tradition of handmade mescal harvesting and fermentation.  The church there is very beautiful.  Teotitlan has a community museum and archeologists worked there in the 70’s and 80’s to excavate the base of the church to discover orginal Zapotec stone carvings.  (American and European archaeologists and cultural anthropologists have been in the region for a long time.) There is a movement to create community museums throughout Oaxaca, since there is so much history there. ”  The community museum in Teotitlan is operated and staffed by a committee of volunteers.  Since this is a communitarium endeavor, the group decides what is exhibited and what related activities deserve investment.  I imagine it is the same for Matatlan.  I have been the the Field Museum in Chicago where there is an extensive permanent exhibit on the Zapotec civilization at Monte Alban.  It is considered one of the finest examples of mesoamerican political organizational structure.  The article below is well worth a read, an important review of how small villages in the Oaxaca valley depend upon tourism to bolster their agrarian economy.  The difficulty for most villages in the Tlacolula valley is that people rarely venture into the villages, and only stop along the convenient highway shops where tour buses can easily enter and exit.  This cuts off the majority of people from benefiting from the tourist dollar.  And, this article was written pre-2006, when Oaxaca erupted in protest against a restrictive local government.  I will see if Matatlan was able to complete its museum and generate tourist interest on my next visit.  Saludos, Norma

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****Now for the article:

Artifacts are a field of dreams for a remote Mexican village

Residents have the support of a Field Museum Team to put them on the beaten path for tourism cash by exhibiting 6th Century relics

By Hugh Dellios

Tribune foreign correspondent

Published October 3, 2004

SANTIAGO MATATLAN, Mexico – The ancestors on the hill left no written record. Until a team of Chicago archaeologists came, nobody really thought much about them. And, strangely, some of the urns they left behind showed supernatural figures with two left hands. Nevertheless, this small village hopes a connection with the 6th Century Zapotec community on the nearby hilltop will help preserve their 21st Century future, or at least keep some of the teenagers from leaving for Los Angeles.

With the help of a Field Museum team, a group of energetic young men is trying to set up a small community museum to exhibit the ancient Zapotec artifacts dug up by the archaeologists. The main objective is to honor and preserve the area’s history. But the group also wants to put the village back on the tourism map so more jobs are created and fewer young people are forced to look for a life elsewhere.

Known locally as “The World Capital of Mescal,” a tequila-like beverage, this village faces the same stagnant fate as other rural pueblos across Mexico and the situation could get worse when a new highway, diverting the few visitors the town gets now, is completed

The site’s promoters faced tough questioning last spring about the archaeologists’ permits and intentions. Although eventually approved, the approval process gave the Field Museum team a fascinating window into how decisions are made in a traditional Mexican village.

Monument to the future

“This museum is so people don’t forget us,” said Abel Lopez, a mescal factory owner working on the project. “It will be an attractive place for people to visit before they disappear down the road.”

Whereas Santiago Matatlán has an official population of 4,000 residents only about 2,500 people actually live in the village. The rest of them are working in the United States.

“Those who have been to the states start talking about Sunset Boulevard and Venice Beach, and the young people start getting antsy. They say, `I’ve got to see it!'” said Ambrosio Escobar, head of the museum committee, who once worked illegally on a fishing boat in Alaska.

For many years, the village survived by harvesting agave to make mescal, which was shipped to nearby Oaxaca or sold to visitors along the highway. But now others have stolen much of that market, and only about 10 small, horse-powered mescal factories remain.

Oaxaca, 45 minutes away by car, is rich with tourists. And guidebooks already promote a tourist circuit that passes near Santiago Matatlán, including the well-known Zapotec ruins at Mitla, the carpet-making village of Teotitlán, a giant, 2,000-year-old tree at Tule and sulfur springs at Hierve de Agua.

“The museum is for the people who don’t want to leave,” said Mario Santiago Nolasco, 24, one of the young men who call themselves the village’s “culture promoters.” “People are bombarded with so much from outside these days. This is to preserve what is ours.”

The archaeologists, led by Gary Feinman, chairman of the Field Museum’s anthropology department, have been excavating at El Palmillo hill since 1997. The team is researching the terraced homes of Zapotec commoners for clues to the structure and demise of the empire that dominated the Oaxaca Valley 1,300 to 1,500 years ago.

Among their finds are skeletons, pots and beads from a tomb, urns showing the Zapotec deity-like figure Cocijo and a hollowed-out rabbit bone that may have served as a beverage straw or snuff tube. All of it is stored in cardboard boxes at the village hall.

“I think the best pieces are display quality,” said Feinman who said the museum also could show the excavating techniques and the long history of agave use. “Even though it would be undoubtedly small, we can do something you don’t normally see in museums.”

Asked about the two left hands on depictions of Cocijo, Feinman said the answer to the mystery might not be so dramatic. “They just lost the mold for the right hand?” he said. “I could be wrong.”

Part of a national effort

The young men promoting the museum plan say their interest also stems from stories their grandparents told them about the hill and the ancient people who lived there. In one myth, the hill was a temple above a great emptiness where a giant snake lived.

The Mexican National Institute of Archaeology and History seeks the establishment of local museums. It has supported Santiago Matatlán’s project, which would be among at least 15 similar programs in Oaxaca state.

Feinman and his wife, Linda Nicholas, an adjunct curator at the Field Museum, helped present the museum proposal at two town hall-like hearings last spring. They were met with suspicions about outsiders and a grilling over what they might be up to on the hill.

The “culture promoters” and community leaders helped lay those suspicions to rest. Ultimately, the project was approved by a show of hands among the several hundred in attendance. The promoters were given a 19-page permit, which some of those assembled “signed” with thumbprints.

“The former village leaders never told his people that [Feinman] was up there excavating. They didn’t know what he was doing,” Escobar said. “The community is totally in agreement now.” Still, the project hasn’t cleared its last hurdle. The museum committee was told it could use a municipal storehouse for the exhibition, but committee members say they will need about $10,000 to repair the leaky roof and the walls.

The village administrator was recently replaced; his successor is not as interested in the museum project. And yet to be known is the opinion of a new mayor who should be elected in December to fill a seat that has been empty because of a decade-long spat among the village’s principal families and factions.

“Matatlán has a lot of history,” said Gregorio Hernandez, 33, another promoter, “and we’re going to rescue it.”

Copyright © 2004, Chicago Tribune

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