Saturday, 28 June 2014

Oaxaca - The United States of Mexico

I am very excited to start blogging about Oaxaca and Mexico, a country I know very little about, despite its important place on the world stage. Like most people, my 'knowledge' of Mexico mostly consists of news reports about drug cartels, illegal immigrants or violent gangs.

During the next few weeks, I'm looking forward to learning more about this country, through the lens of Oaxaca, I want to discover Mexican music and literature, I want to learn about Mexico's great linguistic diversity, about the cultures that survived the European conquest, the modern-day Aztecs and Mayans.  I want to find out about Mexican telenovelas and read some Mexican literature.  I want to prepare a traditional Oaxacan dish (if you have any suggestions, please leave a comment below!)

Which United States?

When we hear the words 'United States', I'm sure most of us think 'USA', so it was interesting to discover that the official name of Mexico is Etados Unidos Mexicanos or the United States of Mexico/Mexican United States.  In the 21st century, the USA and USM are two different sides on the see-saw, with the USA very much in the ascendant and Mexico considered to be somehow less developed and less important, despite the fact that Mexico has the world's 14th largest economy, just behind Spain and just ahead of South Korea.  They're also not doing too badly in the FIFA World Cup!

Say Oaxaca?

Oaxaca by Alex Torres
Oaxaca is a part of Mexico that isn't that well-known to the rest of the world.  I really only found out about Oaxaca when I was blogging about Enrique's Journey and Honduras.  Many illegal immigrants riding the trains to the border of the USA pass through Oaxaca and this got me interested in finding out more about this less familiar Mexican state.

I started by pronouncing Oaxaca as o-aksaka but, I now realise that it's pronounced more like wahaka. The pronunciation of Oaxaca got me thinking about the links between Mexico and the United States. Wahaka sounds a lot like a Native American Indian word and it made me understand that our modern perception of Mexico/USA means we separate Aztec culture from US Native American Indian culture when, actually, they're very much related to each other.

Native Americans and the arrival of Europeans

Oaxaca by Alex Torres
Funnily enough the last place I blogged about beginning with the letter O was Oklahoma.  I learned a lot about Native American culture, when I was blogging about Oklahoma and I feel there is a real 'trail of tears' in the Native American story that stretches from Oklahoma to Oaxaca and beyond.

I'm reading a really interesting account of  the Spanish conquests of Mexico and Peru by BBC books called Conquistadors by Michael Wood (2000). It's an informative and clearly-written account of the 16th-century conquistadors, Cortes and Pizarro.  It's a pretty horrific tale and, from a 21st century point of view, a real tragedy that the great cultures of Mexico and Peru were destroyed by Europeans without a second thought.

The Mexican Jigsaw

Oaxaca by Alex Torres
The chapters on Cortes and the Aztec Empire have given me a real sense of Mexico, as it existed in the 16th century, long before modern borders and states.

In fact, the big division, culturally, in Mesoamerica seems to have been between the Aztecs and the Mayans.  Even in modern times, Yucatan probably has more in common with its neighbours Belize, Guatemala and Honduras than it does with the rest of Mexico.  I'm speaking in cultural terms, of course, economically, with its thriving tourist industry Yucatan is a world apart.

When Europeans first started arriving in Veracruz and other parts of eastern Mexico, the Aztec culture was slightly beyond reach, hidden away in the Mexican valley.  The modern name Mexico, comes from this specific geographical area, once sheltering the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, now occupied by the conurbations of Mexico City.

Between the valley of Mexico and Oklahoma were much smaller cultures, eking out an existence in the harsh deserts of Chihuahua, Colorado and Mojave.  Aztec rule had barely reached these northern deserts, when the Spanish turned up on the scene.

Oaxaca's place in the jigsaw

Oaxaca en México.svg
"Oaxaca en México" by Yavidaxiu - Own work. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
What is now Oaxaca was only part of the Aztec empire for 30 years before the Spanish arrived and changed the political landscape forever.  Oaxaca is a very mountainous place, most of the state is 2,000 metres above sea-level, which made it inaccessible in past centuries and, to an extent, protected from the radical Europeanisation that happened in other parts of Mexico.

You can still see this today, in the fact that Oaxaca is Mexico's most ethnically complex state with sixteen officially recognised indigenous cultures.  More than half of Mexico's speakers of Native American languages live in Oaxaca and the Spanish language isn't as ubiquitous in Oaxaca, as it is in other parts of the Mexico.  I guess Oaxaca is the Mexican equivalent of Oklahoma, but much more so!

Missing pieces of the jigsaw

It wasn't until the 19th century that Native Americans felt the pressure from the growing power of the United States of America and that nation's manifest destiny and expansion westwards.  Mexico lost around half of its land area during the 19th century, the missing pieces of the Mexican jigsaw being modern states like California, Arizona, Texas and New Mexico.

I'm embedding a useful YouTube video below, from the Open University, which explains the changes that took place in Mexico and the United States in the 19th century.  I thought it was quite poignant to note that, whilst the 19th century was all about borders crossing people, the late 20th and early 21st centuries are all about people crossing borders.

I guess the fate of these two countries will be forever intertwined and I hope the future of US-Mexican relations will be one of mutual respect, cooperation, promotion of Native American cultures and a sense of shared history.

Image credits:

Oaxaca doesn't really have an official flag, so I made my own image which combines the Mexican national flag, but replaces the national seal with the Oaxacan state seal.

For this blog post, I wanted to highlight the work of Flickr member psicoloco aka Alex Torres, who is originally from Mexico City.  You can see more of Alex's beautiful photos on his photostream.

Thanks Alex for sharing these images with us using the Creative Commons license.  

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