Nostalgia is not History

by Angelo Moreno

It’s not exactly accurate to say that I am an alum of the graduate program in history at CMU because I quit the program almost as soon as I began, realizing very early on that I didn’t have the guts for the kind of work it required. But I never quit a real and genuine interest in history as a discipline and as a way of asking questions about the world. After quitting, I became a librarian and have been working in libraries for about six years now, including a stint at the Clarke Historical Library. I have never been directly cut off from the world of professional historians, much less people associated with, in one way or another, CMU’s history department.

            When Marcel asked me to contribute to this blog, I wanted to say no. What would I write about? I am not even an alum! I thought about it for a bit and remembered that a question had been circulating in my mind for the last couple days as a result of my current job teaching research methods (supposedly) to the children of the wealthy elite at a private high school in Mexico. It turns out that some of these privileged teenagers have a genuine and somewhat enthusiastic interest in “history.” Specifically, they are nostalgic for a period of time in Mexico that neither they nor even their grandparents actually experienced: the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz from 1876-1911. As a casual student of Mexican history, this nostalgia startles me. The most widely accepted scholarly narrative of the Porfiriato, as the period is known in Spanish, is that it was characterized by, among other things, a dictatorial government that restricted the rights of the people of Mexico. In addition, the regime carried out organized violence against rural and indigenous communities in order to forcibly implement its idea of order and progress in the country (Turner 1969; Balbas 1927). How could Mexican teenagers in 2019 be nostalgic for that?

            Like a good librarian, I played around in scholarly databases for the answer. I quickly came across an article written by Dr. Jacqueline Avila (2016), a scholar at the University of Tennessee. Avila (2016) analyzed a genre of film that emerged in Mexico during the 1940s called cine de añoranza porfiriana, or “films of Porfirian longing.” According to Avila (2016), these films “nostalgically shape[d] the period as a carefree, bygone era for the bourgeoisie, a utopian space far from the social, political, and economic instability taking over Mexico during the late 1930s and 1940s” (p. 2). This line resonated with what I have come to observe about my elite students: though they are not, on the whole, an intellectually curious lot, they are most certainly, at this early stage in their lives, products of their bourgeoise households. As such, they often uncritically express anxiety about what they see as a socially, politically, and – most important for them – economically instable country. Many of them fear that the most recently elected president, the leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), will bring chaos and stagnation to the country by curtailing the privileges of, quite literally, their families and their class. Avila (2016) described the porfiriato as a time when

“[c]ommerce and industry flourished, giving rise to new consumer cultures, lifestyles, and social stratification, and the Porfirian elite class became the embodiment of cosmopolitanism. The wealthy, perceiving themselves as the pillar of civilization, enjoyed the pleasures of the Porfirian regime by means of all things foreign…” (p. 4)

It would not be a stretch to use this same language to describe the last couple decades of neoliberalism in Mexico, and I believe my students are unconsciously aware of this. They perceive that with the election of AMLO to the presidency, this period is coming to an end. Perhaps, then, their anxiety and invented nostalgia is logical?

Screenshot from a Facebook page dedicated to posting humorous material in support of former Mexican dictator, Porfirio Diaz.

Screenshot from a Facebook page dedicated to posting humorous material in support of former Mexican dictator, Porfirio Diaz.

            For those of us who have imagined and fought for a world in which many worlds fit, and a world free of exploitation and oppression, these are scary times in the western hemisphere. It would be easy to simply write off this Porfirian longing as bizarre, “ignorant,” and marginal, but I fear that it is more than that. I fear that my students are genuinely willing to defend their privileges and comfort up to the point of accepting and supporting a political regime that uses violence and coercion to maintain “order” and to keep them isolated from the great majority of their compatriots. Nostalgia and history are not the same. Historians have a duty to aggressively interrogate nostalgia if they are interested in truth and justice.


 

References

Avila, J. (2016). México de mis inventos: Salon Music, Lyric Theater, and Nostalgia in Cine de añoranza porfiriana. Latin American Music Review, 38(1), 1-27. DOI: 10.7560/LAMR38101

Balbas, M. (1927). Recuerdos del Yaqui: Principales episodios durante la campaña de 1899 a 1901. Mexico City: Sociedad de Edición y Librería Franco Americana

Turner, J. K. (1969). Barbarous Mexico. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Adventures and Conferences

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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 Xococotn 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?

 Oaxaca, 2018

Game, Set, and Match! Or: How the History Department Sets Us up (For Success)

By Marcel Haas

The life of a graduate student can be surprising at times. One minute you sit hunched over your desk reading yet another book for this or that colloquium, the next minute you are boarding a plane that is supposed to transport you to a far-away university where you will spend months slowly forgetting most of what you read in that book I mentioned earlier. In a graduate program that is as international as ours, we all end up flying somewhere far away eventually – with all the exciting, frightening, and downright lifechanging consequences. In today’s blog post we will explore a side of CMU’s history department that has been the subject of many whispered conversations: our program’s matchmaking capabilities.

It is easy to imagine how a prolonged stay in a foreign country can either make you dissolve into terrible homesickness, or make you fall in love – with the country, the city, its people, and (maybe, if you are very lucky) that special someone and his or her very special accent. Most of the department’s graduate students at least know someone who fell in love in such a way, and many of them can now look back to long and happy relationships, marriages, and even little ones, which all have grown out of the international exchange program. In whatever way the connection came into existence, it makes many of us perfectly happy “long-distance relationshippers,” mostly because all too quickly our time at the partner institution is over and, as much as we can joke about it, we can only rarely smuggle a full-sized human through customs.

In consequence, the department can from time to time look forward to an international wedding. The latest one of these took place on December 29 last year, when Scarlet Muñoz and Tom Garbe tied the knot in the stunning cathedral of Puebla, Mexico. Tom came to CMU from the University of Strathclyde for his year abroad in 2012. On his very first day in Mt Pleasant he met Scarlet, who had come to Michigan from CMU’s partner institution in Mexico, the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, and who would stay for the PhD. I will refrain from recounting their next five years together – many of us have been there for at least some of this time – but I will point out their amazing commitment to each other.*

With a date set and a place found, the happy couple went on to invite a colourful assortment of guests, starting of course with the two families hailing from Mexico and Scotland respectively, and including professors and friends from all over three continents. The ceremony was an astonishing mix of cultures and faiths, as the Catholic priest reprimanded the Anglicans in the audience for the role of Henry VIII, and as our former Vice Dean Tim Hall and his wife Sheree served as members of the assembled godparents. After emerging from the cathedral into the lively night of Puebla’s beautiful Zocalo – serenaded by the exotic sounds of the bagpipe (at least to the ears of the numerous local bystanders) – the wedding party made their way to the Bodegas del Molino, the historic 17th century residence of the Archbishop Juan de Palafox y Mendoza, where the celebration would last in historical style until the early hours of the morning.

The party continued as international as the ceremony had ended. While the Scottish half of the newly united family taught the traditional Ceilidh dance style to the bemused international audience, the Mexican half did not fall behind in showing their Salsa and Merengue skills. Like the happy couple, party and ceremony had truly become transnational, not in the least also thanks to the history department’s exchange program, which had made their union possible over five years ago. Flying back from Mexico (and back from warm weather into the icy misery of winter Michigan), I wondered who would be the next to fall prey to the graduate program’s matchmaking capabilities.

 

* That commitment ultimately made it possible for the couple’s friends and colleagues at CMU to enjoy a prolonged Christmas holiday in the sun of Mexico, which (at least to my mind) made the last five years definitely worth it.


Marcel Haas is a German doctoral student interested in the political and social relationships of European colonial powers and indigenous peoples in North America. He went to the University of Strathclyde in Scotland for his year abroad, and his heart has been lost there ever since.