By Eduardo Vázquez Martín
from the book MIXTECOS

The Mixtecos do not remind us of the powerful civilization of warriors, the workers of gold and the builders of pre-Hispanic days. Rather, they resemble more the land of the mixed-race Porfirio Diaz (a Spanish father, a Mixteca mother). Nowadays, however, the poverty of the homeland in the mountains is determined by the absence of thousands of Mixtecos who seek opportunities to survive in the industrialized countryside of southern United States or in Mexico City.

The landscape is the ochre colors of an unproductive earth, severe outlines of an uncultivated geography which makes interaction difficult not only with the centers of production and trade, but also within the community itself. Tiny, impassable roads lead into small villages where well-kept churches stand next to basketball courts and local government headquarters. On the streets and roads old men can be seen working hard, while on the basketball courts younger people plan trips and exchange information about possibilities of work here and there, or think about writing to an uncle in Mexico City or to another relative in San Diego, California.

Within the Mixtec language, second in importance after Zapoteca, the number of dialects has multiplied over the years to such an extent that communication between Mixtecos is often impossible. Without vital natural resources, without favorable conditions for trade, and without sufficient resources to improve their agriculture, the Mixtecos have survived through emigration. The diaspora has not brought about the disappearance of their family ties, their culture, nor their religion. The mass migration has deeply transformed the Mixteca culture, but it has not destroyed it. On the contrary, the culture has survived and adapted to new social conditions.

The Mixtecos have taken their language with them in their travels, as well as their family relations, their myths and social responsibilities from their community of origin. This luggage works as a powerful fabric which has resisted the changes imposed upon them by adaptations to city life or to the industrialized countryside of southern United States. Perhaps, because of this, the culture has been strengthened in a way that allows these expatriated Mixtecos to recognize their renovated identity, their sense of fundamental permanence. Through the process of its integration in the national and international workforce, the Mixteca people have enriched their vision of the world and share with other groups their social customs and rituals. They can celebrate Halloween in the United States, but also the first communion of a young girl dressed in white videotaped as a souvenir for the parents in the barrio Nezahualcoyotl. Economic integration brings along with it cultural integration, but for the Mixtecos this has not represented a dissolution of their commitment to their "tribe:" they still return for religious festivals.

The Mixtecos have paid a high price for their integration into modernity. Their experience up north has brought not only greater cultural references and the opportunity to find much-needed employment, but it has also brought persecution of immigrants, jail, extortion, less than minimum wage salaries, inhuman working conditions, racial discrimination, deportation and even death.

The little bit of mail that makes it to the Mixteca homeland brings letters from prodigal sons, and with them some dollars and pesos, austere descriptions of the new life, photographs of them in their Sunday best, greetings and salutations for family and friends.


The return of Mixtecos to their land brings resources that allow the religious festivals to continue and also strengthens the family economy. The children born outside the Mixteca homeland learn their grandparents¹ language, but they are also promoters of new values, ideas and clothing. Cultural collision not only happens among Mixtecos, mestizos and Creoles, but also between Oaxacan and urban Mixtecos. It is common that the renovation of a church or school, of the basketball court or the water pump, have been made with donations from the immigrant families.

I once went with Eniac Martínez to San Agustin Tlacotepec in the Mixteca mountain homeland. Just as in all Mexican communities, they celebrate the festival of the Patron Saint. Aguardiente flowed through the village¹s muddy streets. The church was adorned with flowers and paper decorations. The stage for the battle of "Conquest Games" was built next to the church, and the castles and toritos made with gunpowder were all ready. Cars of several brands from San Diego, Tijuana or Mexico City were parked in front of adobe houses, their owners being Mixtecos who had accumulated small fortunes at places such as the Mercado de Jamaica. Mixtecos coming from different cities prepared themselves to take their place in the festivities: neighbors from Mexico City joined a local band; others, according to their relationship, were seated next to the mayor and helped cover expenses for the festivities. At dawn, a drunk municipal president pronounced something like a speech and the festivities began. People on bicycles started arriving from the highway, and suddenly the music began and the whole village of Tlacotepec became a single theater of several stages. When the Spanish Conquistadors defeated the last of the Mexicans, gunpowder smoke filled the air and the castle towers were in flames. Mixtecos from inside and outside the country mixed together, drinking toasts to each other, but the impression remained that there was an unbridgable difference between them which only the festivities could, for a moment, erase.

Mixtecos reinvent their relation to what they hold sacred and thus strengthen their identity. In regard to the religious festivities, each assumes their place according to the economic level each has acquired in their new life. Social dynamics have adjusted to a different speed and time is accelerated: social roles and reputations are subject to variables that go way beyond the life itself of the Mixteca homeland. It is faith that binds tightly the social ties which economic dynamics split, and thus makes possible the return to the land.


Fundamentally an ambiguous territory, daily life transcends the social situation which attempts to constrain it. Ideas are confronted by a materialization which escapes anthropological explanation. Eniac Martínez undertook a project which is strongly documentary, but he aimed his camera at the everyday. He didn¹t try to make the photographs an instrument of scientific record&emdash;that is, if social disciplines can be considered sciences&emdash;on the contrary, he privileged the photographic experience. Even so, his images work as a record, and this is probably one of his great virtues. When he showed me the first prints of the trip to Tlacotepec I saw something that reminded me of the San Augustin festival, but I could hardly say I was looking at what I remembered. It was something else, not the portrait of the whole community but, on the contrary, photographs that captured the experience from an angle, closest to what is known by the term metonymy, taking the part for the whole.

While documentary or journalistic photography tries to show an image in the most representative way, the photographer seduced by chance prefers to chase that particle of time in which the whole reveals itself in a different way. Time alone supplies the image. Epiphany and pandemonium appear in front of our eyes at the same time. To photograph this, to give it a name, does not mean to reproduce it but to create it. With such certainty, Eniac Martínez follows the routes of the Mixteca diaspora. Confronted with the complicated circumstances in which immigrants risk their lives in order to illegally cross the border to the United States and there build a new life, the photographic gaze follows light and shadow in order to witness the appearance of beauty, the certainty of fear, the outcome of work, the passion of the game or the unrepeatable encounter of forms.

The gaze of Eniac Martínez accepts from the beginning a pact without which the photographs would be unimaginable. On the one hand, the photographer knows that his participation in the time of the Mixtecos does not unite him to them forever; he is only a privileged witness, and the tie that binds him to the photograph is fragile and can break at any moment. On the other hand, he is united with them by a complicity that comes from a value judgment&emdash;that is, the reflection that makes him understand how the experience of taking photographs aids a social fact, product of a profound injustice that comes from ancient historical roots and new social conditions&emdash;though he does not feel sorry for the others¹ misery and suffering. He does not look upon them as a handicapped community, living its historic fate without a willful intervention, but rather of a community of men and women reacting against the forces of history with forms of resistance and adaptation. We observe the struggles of the Mixtecos through the gaze of Eniac Martínez, which never falls into the traps of epic-making or pity.

More an accomplice than someone who pities others, this photographer¹s gaze never loses consciousness of what his work means: the search for an unique image that will translate reality into its own language, seeing the spectacle of life through the eyes of the photograph. One single image synthesizes the fabric of experiences that occur in these photographs: the three clocks that mark different times in a church, barely resisting abandonment and poverty, describe the convergence of Mixteca time in the Oaxacan countryside with that of the Mixtecos who, living elsewhere, live in the time of the cities. The other clock marks, perhaps, the time of the image suspended in photographs, an autonomous time which defines a space which makes us witnesses and guests merely by looking at it.

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