I have just completed my third field season in Tihosuco. My work is part of a larger community-based heritage preservation project run by the Penn Cultural Heritage Center, part of the Penn Museum. My study is one of ten(!) sub-projects, all related to the history and heritage of Tihosuco, and many are focused on learning more about the Caste War of Yucatan, alternatively known as the Maya Social War. This war was a highly successful indigenous rebellion fought from 1847 to about 1901. While much of what we do focuses on the history of the Caste War, we are also interested in learning more about the impact that it continues to have on those who live in Tihosuco today.
My particular project focuses on the colonial era houses in the town. I am interested in how they were and are used, what people think about them, and how their preservation is being viewed and managed by various groups. The ‘past’ in Mexico has become increasingly politicized: both indigenous groups and government agencies are seeking control over archaeological sites, ruins, buildings, and other types of heritage because of their perception of having a very real economic value. Much of this stems from seeing the benefits of tourism and development that are happening around the country. In the Yucatan peninsula, the focus is on both cultural heritage and ecological resources, the sites that have both tend to be even more successful. Because of my research surrounding these opinions and questions about property and ownership of historic structures, I have spent a lot of time speaking to people about how they view the colonial houses, and how they view the town of Tihosuco overall. The way I went about asking these questions was different depending on who I was speaking to and what kinds of materials I was using to both prompt responses and display the answers.
The most basic level of asking for views of Tihosuco was just that, asking. I conducted a series of interviews with the owners of the colonial houses. I asked questions about the history of the houses since the re-population of the town in the 1930s, I asked about changes that had been made to the structures over time, and I asked about what the owners thought was the relationship between the Caste War and the houses. The answers were surprising. I heard a great many stories about the houses being used during the war, but no true connection between the causes of the war (inequality in terms of wealth and power, economic struggles, enslavement of the indigenous populations) and the existence of the houses in the town. My work in the coming seasons will be to dive deeper into these connections, particularly focusing on how these symbols or remnants of the past are being used to further political agendas and how the concepts of power, property, and ownership have manifested themselves in the colonial houses.
My second method of asking for views of Tihosuco was to ask children what their opinions were on the historic buildings of the town. I did this by holding a workshop in the museum with school-aged children that took place during their summer course. These were not formal interviews. They took the form of activities where I gave a brief talk on the various houses in Tihosuco, and then noted some of the characteristics that can be used to identify them. We then asked them, through an activity, to write down what they believed were the importance of some of these structures, why they mattered, and what they represent. We then asked them to draw what they saw as the most historic thing in Tihosuco. The answers were wonderful and varied, from the houses to machetes, from wells to the church, from trees to rocks. I hope in the future to use these drawings to create an exhibition for the town, and to further explore how the children in town see these structures that they live in and around.
As part of a project being done by Drew Leventhal, we looked at yet another view of Tihosuco: the people themselves. Drew took portraits of people around the town, and we then interviewed them about the importance of the Caste War, and their views of Tihosuco. We included some of this text (transcribed, but in their own words) alongside the photos. This formed an exhibition of photos that was in the museum during the anniversary celebration of the Caste War, and will hopefully also be exhibited elsewhere in the future. This project, asking the people to tell us in their own words what the Caste War means to them, is yet another way in which we view Tihosuco and our work there. The inclusion of the text is a critical way in which we seek to change the narrative surrounding anthropological portraiture, making sure the voices of the subjects are heard.
Every year, as part of a wrap up of our summer work, we create an exhibition of all of the sub-projects that goes on display in the central plaza in Tihosuco. This summer, we produced over 60 ‘lonas’ or banners that displayed photographs of our work over the course of the year. The lonas are a way in which we can switch the views of Tihosuco, so that the residents can see us and the work we do, not all of which is visible to the community on a daily basis. We show old pictures of people and places that we have collected and scanned, photos of the archaeological work, maps of the sites, the documentation process of the historic structures, oral history work, the work with the museum, and the Maya language revitalization projects. One of my favorite parts of the summer in Tihosuco is watching people interact with these banners, recognizing familiar faces and places.