Oaxaca Misunderstood. A review of Oliver Sacks’ “Oaxaca Journal”

OAXACA MISUNDERSTOOD
Oaxaca Journal (National Geographic Directions) by Oliver Sacks[1]

Reviewed by Martha W. Rees

Oliver Sack’s journal of a fern tour of Oaxaca, Mexico has a day-by-day coverage of field trips to botanical and fern sites, as well as to archeological sites and contemporary communities. Oaxaca is endowed with one of the most diverse biological communities in America, with more species of pine and oak than anywhere else, and important rain and cloud forest reserves. New species are found every day (google it). Oaxaca is also one of the most diverse cultural regions in the Americas: with 17 separate language families it is one of the most indigenous, and not coincidentally, poorest, areas of Mexico (see Martin et al. 2011). As a result, Oaxaca is the object of European and Asian search for meaning–the exotic, the ‘primitive’, with the lamentable outcome of profound misunderstanding of this wonderful place.

Sacks, whose earlier works on neuroscience I have greatly enjoyed, unfortunately, falls into this group, repeatedly recurring to ethnic and racial stereotypes about local people and practices. For example, Sacks calls Isaac Vásquez in Teotitlán del Valle the “living embodiment of an ancient and noble tradition” (p. 115). Although cotton and other fibers have been used for textiles in Mexico for 7000 years, Teotitlán weaving hasn’t been around that long: it originated with Spanish looms and wool in the sixteenth century, but really took off after US migration in the 1950s (Stephen 2005). The Vásquez’ ‘embody’ themselves, for sure, but they also take credit cards and fly to the US to show ‘genuine American Indian rugs.’ Anthropologists, historians and others who work in Oaxaca get really bent out of shape by these stereotypes, and not just because they’re incorrect; but because they represent a hierarchical social system.

Sacks’ trip to Oaxaca relied on a discredited local ‘expert’. In addition, for some bizarre reason, the group did not visit the Ethnobotanical Gardens [http://www.jardinoaxaca.org.mx/], one of the most beautiful and complete inventories of Oaxacan plant species, and incidentally designed by local artist, Francisco Toledo, the same one who designed the ‘uncanny, red-earthed Martian plantscape’ (p. 25) with the native agaves that Sacks objects to. I wish there had been some basic fact checking (cacahuate is peanut, not chocolate, for starters), but also had someone who knows the history of the region rein in Sacks’ enthusiastic but ill-informed picture: Piñas are not the agave stems (p. 111), and the fall of Monte Albán (and Teotihuacán and the Mayan cities) is not particularly mysterious (p. 124), except to befuddled outsiders. I don’t know if their guide is, in fact, or identifies himself as a Zapotec, but certainly his ‘trance-like’ states (p. 125) make him seem as mysterious as the fall of Monte Albán. It’s not “strange” that the peoples of America are so “advanced” in some areas (e.g., astronomy) and “primitive” in others (e.g., the wheel) (p. 151). They didn’t use the wheel to carry stuff around because they didn’t have animals to pull carts and wagons.

The knowledge and experience of the natural world carried by indigenous peoples has brought recent efforts to make sure that these same people, and not drug companies, plant nurseries and academics reap the profits of this knowledge with intellectual property regulations. It is important not to pick and remove specimens; it is also against the law. Unfortunately, this tour apparently went roaming through the countryside picking up archeological and botanical specimens with no concern for these rules (specimens can be exported, but only with official paperwork and permissions).

Because of its biological and cultural diversity and heritage, Oaxaca is a reservoir of resources for the human race that deserves to be known and appreciated by folks all over the world. In fact, that’s the most common comment I hear from people after they tour the Ethnobotanical gardens—that they had no idea of the diversity and the multiple and important uses indigenous peoples have made of it. It’s a shame that this book does not treat either the resources or the people with respect or with the courtesy of basic correct information.

 

Citations

Martin, Gary J., C. Camacho B. and C. A. Del Campo Garcia, S. Anta Fonseca, F. Chapela Mendoza y M.A. Gonzalez Ortiz. 2011. Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas in Oaxaca, Mexico. Management of Environmental Quality 22(2), 2011:250-266.

Steven, Lynn. 2005. Zapotec Women. Duke University Press. Second edition

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NOTES

[1] 2002, Paperback, Vintage Departures.

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