I'm at the American Historical Association Meeting! This is my research.

Hello from the AHA in Atlanta! So much to see! So many people to meet!

I'm presenting my research in a poster session on Saturday.

I’ve been reluctant to talk about my own research on my blog, as I feel like I should write posts about writing, rather than my own research. In fact, I’ve spent the last year thinking more about other people’s writing and research than my own. Because I’m not currently working in an academic job, my own research has taken a backseat to other priorities. I am, however, resurrecting it and presenting a piece of it in a poster session at the 2016 American Historical Association this week. Putting together my poster reminded me why I like and care about my research.

I'm a historian of modern Latin America, specifically of early twentieth-century Guatemala. Despite the fact that Central America isn’t the most marketable specialty for historians (a fellow historian once told me that no one cared about Central America because exactly nothing interesting had happened there) (!!!), I’m still stuck on the place. I live most of the year in Mexico now, but my heart is still somewhere in Guatemala.

My interest in Guatemala started during my Peace Corps service there (2004-2006). I lived in a small indigenous highland pueblo comprised of a population that was 96% ethnically Kaqchikel Maya. I worked with four groups of women to help them raise dairy goats to improve childhood nutrition. The project had mixed success, but I learned one hell of a lot from the experience. (If I weren’t so interested in history, I would probably be studying the politics of international development efforts. They are problematic to say the least, but that’s a different blog post.)

One of the things that struck me during my service was the palpable racism I felt all around me. Huge tensions existed between the idea of the Guatemalan nation and the reality of its large Mayan population. As one Ladino (non-Maya) friend lamented to me, “I just don’t get why we can’t all speak the same language!” Many non-Maya people viewed the Maya with barely concealed contempt, seeing them as an obstacle to both national economic and cultural progress. [Note: there are also plenty of Ladinos who are very critical of racist attitudes, too.]

On the other hand, tourists flocked to highland towns to have authentic encounters with Maya people, particularly the Maya women who dressed in their beautiful traditional clothing. Tour buses crowded indigenous markets to purchase handmade textiles. Tourists paid big bucks to visit tiny indigenous villages around Lake Atitlán and flew to the remote Petén region to marvel at the pre-Columbian city of Tikal. Clearly, the Maya were a business in Guatemala, even as Guatemalans tried to figure out how to culturally assimilate them.

These tensions so piqued my curiosity that I went to graduate school just to see if I could get a handle on this paradox. How did U.S. tourism to Guatemala contribute to racist discourses about native peoples? When did native identities begin to have the economic and cultural value that we see today? How had historic racial and cultural tensions contributed to the current state of the nation? How was I complicit in these processes?

When I went back to Guatemala in 2011 to complete my PhD research, I found some things in the archive that I thought might help me to start answering my questions. Among other things, I found documents related to four historical episodes that seemed promising:

  • A Tarzan movie filmed in Guatemala in 1935
  • A 1934 Carnegie textile collecting expedition to Guatemala that resulted in a fashion show at Macy’s
  • A marimba band that played at the 1937 world’s fair in Dallas
  • Some information about early archaeological tourism to the Quiriguá site in the 1930s

I’m not sure how close I came to solving all of my research questions, but studying these four things gave me a better idea about how and why we think about the Maya today the way that we do.

For my AHA poster presentation, I’m presenting a little bit of my research about the Carnegie textile expedition and the resulting Macy’s fashion show. Here’s the skinny: (excuse the overly formal writing style—not much time to edit!)
In 1934, a painter and industrial textile designer named Ruth Reeves received a $10,000 grant from the Carnegie Institution of Washington that funded a four month research trip to Guatemala to collect indigenous textiles. Reeves, best known for her Art Deco textile work in New York City's Radio Music Hall, rather than ethnographic field work, seemed an unusual choice to evaluate traditional Maya textiles and assemble a representative collection. Nevertheless, the resulting textile and costume collection would form the core of the Carnegie Institution's growing store of ethnographic material culture from Central America. The textiles also served as fresh inspiration for a new line of industrial textile designs Reeves envisioned based on traditional Mayan motifs and design elements.

Public enthusiasm for the wild, colorful textiles piqued the interest of the legendary Macy's department store. Seizing the opportunity to offer its customers new ethnic home decor and fashions, Macy’s commissioned Reeves to design new fabric patterns based on her interpretations of the traditional textiles that she obtained during her research trip to Guatemala. In an exposition jointly sponsored by Macy’s and the Carnegie Institution, Reeves unveiled the new collections, juxtaposing the original Guatemalan huipiles with her adaptations of the Mayan patterns and motifs. Reeves's collection sparked new interest in the use of primitive aesthetics in industrial textile design and inspired other artists to incorporate Drawing on the success of the Macy's show, the Carnegie textile collection toured select cities around the U.S. and received rave reviews for the unique beauty and high quality of the designs.

I argue that Reeves's Guatemalan textile designs helped to construct both a new racial and gendered discourse about native peoples, but also a new modern, middle-class sensibility and identity for U.S. consumers.

First, the commercial reproduction of original Guatemalan textiles commodified Mayan material culture in order to create racial and gendered representations of supposedly primitive cultures. Commercial interests, such as Macy’s appropriated these representations to construct new class-based U.S. identities rooted in shifting ideals of modernity. Textile expositions and retail sales of imitations in public venues commercialized Mayan culture, reducing complex cultures into bite-sized representations marketed mainly to U.S. female consumers to display in their middle class homes. The expositions also employed highly gendered representations of Maya Indians, linking the cultural productions of native women to popular conceptions of women as bastions of feminine traditionalism and cultural reproduction.
Secondly, the artistic traditions of non-Western cultures gained popularity in the U.S, not only because of underlying cultural narratives about the regenerative properties of immersion in “primitive” cultures, but also an imperialist nostalgia that romanticized the supposedly unadulterated indigenous traditions of vanishing cultures. The expositions of Indian clothing shaped public perceptions and what would become popular memory of the Indian past as an authentic and unchanging relic of pre-Hispanic cultural traditions. Representations of the Maya through public expositions of their textile arts created a reductionized and romanticized version of native peoples and assigned them cultural value based on the production of their “traditional” material culture alone, which in turn was given value on how closely they resembled the stereotype. This sanitized version of history romanticized the brutality of historical processes of domination and the forcible integration of native peoples into an expanding capitalist system.

 Finally, in Guatemala, the incipient intellectual movement later known as indigenismo drew inspiration from the U.S. craze for authentic and tangible pieces of Indian folklore, which transformed native people into folkloricized and gendered national symbols in order to render so-called uncivilized native people into mythologized foundational representations of the nation.

And that’s it! Folklorization! Shopping! Textiles! Romantic memories of an invented past!

Come visit me at the poster session! I’m going to try to bring cookies. :)

{Photo: a piece of a Guatemalan huipil from San Antonio Aguas Calientes, 2015.)