By Marcel Haas
If you ever wondered whether immersing yourself fully into academia is a good idea, this week’s post has some ideas that might convince you to do so. Let me begin by saying that I truly enjoy going to conferences. Think about the fact that the university allows you to go on a short holiday where you meet some interesting people, make great new friends (who can also be quite influential and helpful), and all you have to do is give a short presentation and listen to why people think that you should use different sources. Conferences become even more enticing when they are held in a different country than the one in which you are currently working. In my case, that foreign country was Mexico, and that conference the Annual Meeting of the American Society for Ethnohistory (of which I am a shiny new member).
Right away, I felt the rush of oncoming adventure when my plane touched down on the runway of Oaxaca’s Xococotlán Airport and I emerged into October’s tropical heat. The conference took place in a comfortable hotel a little outside the city center, which commanded a magnificent view of the valley. Oaxaca is an incredibly beautiful place that boasts architecture from the Spanish colonial era as well as modern art, markets, and restaurants that overlook the tremendous sight of ancient Monte Alban. The latter truly feels like the city of the gods it was meant to resemble. Built entirely upon the peak of the central mountain of the valley (which had been razed to create a massive plateau), it surely takes its place besides Mexico’s other archaeological highlights such as Teotihuacan and Palenque.
As a center of art, culture, and history, Oaxaca was the ideal place for a very special conference. The Society for Ethnohistory is generally focused on examining the history of Indigenous peoples of the Americas, but more specifically highlights the agency and achievements of Indigenous people in interaction with the colonizing Europeans (the latter part is mostly due to the source availability of course). In South Mexico, this focus allowed conference attendees to experience the region’s history while presenting their new research on exactly that. Coupled with the brilliant organization by the colleagues of UNAM and Oaxaca, the proximity to world-renowned archaeological sites (apart from Monte Alban, also the fascinating former Zapotec city Mitla is only a short cab ride away) made the conference week very special.
Besides its historic relevance and culinary excellence, it seemed to me that Oaxaca (and Mexico specifically) had also been chosen as a political statement in the face of increasing xenophobia in the United States. The choice reaffirmed the close connection of the Society with Mexico (especially considering that the “American” in its title does not simply refer to the US!), and the importance of Mesoamerica for the study of Indigenous peoples and the history of the continent. Importantly, a fiery speech by the outgoing president of the Society, Matthew Restall, emphasized the need for empathy for the suffering of other people, especially Indigenous women who have been the target of violence for centuries.
After five days of talks, presentations, round tables, receptions, and late-night chats, the conference came to an end. Exhausted, amazed, laden with ideas and photographs, I finally made my way back to Michigan. The week in Oaxaca had been special, but also a perfect example of the experience we as graduate students, early career researchers, and even established scholars can have at one of the many conferences throughout the academic year. Alright, why aren’t you applying yet?