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The American Indian Quarterly 30.3&4 (2006) 441-460

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"To Take Their Heritage in Their Hands"

Indigenous Self-Representation and Decolonization in the Community Museums of Oaxaca, Mexico

Today one of Mexico's most popular tourist destinations is one that at first glance might not seem of much interest to the casual traveler. The region surrounding the city of Oaxaca in southern Mexico has no beaches and no immense, American-style resorts. Yet tourists flock to it to experience the richness of Mexico's Indigenous cultures, layered together from the present day back to pre-Columbian times, which can perhaps be experienced more intensely in Oaxaca than in any other place.

Mexico was home to many Indigenous groups before the arrival of the Spanish in 1519, but in the ensuing years Indigenous people and their way of life have increasingly disappeared.1 The majority of Mexicans are, or consider themselves, mestizos, or racially mixed peoples of both Spanish and Indigenous descent. The controversy over Indigenous identity in Mexico is too complex to address in this article, so for the purposes of simplicity, Indigenous peoples are here defined as those who identify themselves as Indigenous and who, by and large, maintain cultural continuities with their pre-Columbian ancestors, such as fluency in pre-Hispanic languages, continuation in one form or another of ritual festivities, and in some cases, use of traditional garments.

Oaxaca has the largest Indigenous population in Mexico, with about 36.6 percent of the population over five years old, or about 1.027 million people, speaking an Indigenous language.2 It has a wide diversity of people, with at least twelve ethnic groups within the state, each with its own language. The most widely spoken languages are the many (sometimes mutually unintelligible) dialects of Zapotec (spoken by approximately 350,000 people within the state) and Mixtec (spoken by approximately 250,000 people).3 It also has a rich variety in its ecological environment, [End Page 441] and, with the exception of desert terrain, all ecosystems are represented in Oaxaca. The state is divided into eight cultural regions: the Central Valleys (Valles Centrales); the Isthmus of Tehuantepec (Istmo); Coast (Costa); Northern and Southern Mountains (Sierra Norte and Sierra Sur); and three of the most isolated, poverty-ridden, and highly Indigenous areas of Mexico—the mountainous Mixteca, Cuicatlán Cañada, and the Papaloapan.

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Figure 1
The Museo Comunitario "Hitalulu" (Mixtec for "Beautiful Flower") in San Martin Huamelulpan, Oaxaca. Photo by the author.

Natural and cultural attractions in the state are the reasons why it attracts tourists, whose spending in the state is a major source of income for the region. Some of its most famous attractions are the monuments left by its pre-Hispanic inhabitants: the archaeological zones of Monte Alban and Mitla have been a major attraction for travelers since the nineteenth century. The contemplation and description of these ruins by Europeans were always complemented by glowing commentaries on the contemporary peoples of the region and their traditional way of life and popular arts. Some tourists today spend large amounts on group or personalized tours to try to get a closer look at the "real" Oaxaca, but a group of community museums whose suggested entrance fees are [End Page 442] less than $US1 appear to be coming the closest of any organized tourist activity in allowing an intimate exploration of Oaxaca's archaeological, artisanal, and cultural richness and a real experience of its village life.

Yet the communities themselves, which conceive of, create, finance, and staff the museums, seem to reap their benefits as much as, or perhaps even more than, the outside visitors. Community museums have proved to be a way for the towns to construct and transmit their identities through the choice of themes important to the communities. All but one of Oaxaca's currently operating museums have chosen archaeology as one of the themes of their museum, although most also feature another theme or themes such as the...


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