Thursday, August 5, 2010

The blogger returns

This is my last week in Oaxaca, and on Saturday I'll return to the United States after two months abroad. I'm about to get academic here, so if you're looking for humorous reflections on crustacean-infested hotel rooms, grasshopper snacks, pinata abuse and generic cross-cultural shenanigans, I suggest you check out the AU Oaxaca blog, conveniently located here.

It's been a great trip and I've learned a lot about Mexico and indigenous rights and development. I'm currently working on an independent research project focusing on the Guelaguetza, a two-week festival of cultural heritage held every year in Oaxaca.

On the surface, the Guelaguetza looks a little odd to some tourists--men dancing with turkeys, women hurling pineapples at spectators, etc.--but the festival is a mixture of pre-colonial, colonial and contemporary influences. Representatives from Oaxaca's indigenous regions, wearing traditional clothing, perform folk dances from their region while a band plays folk music behind them. At the end of the performance they distribute the "Guelaguetza" (reciprocal gift), which is generally something representative of their region (hence the pineapple projectiles, courtesy of the ladies of Papaloapan).

My research focuses on the Guelaguetza's dual role (increasingly emphasized in recent years) as both a cultural celebration and a tourist attraction. Are the roles in conflict? How do tourists and locals view the event--and one another?

My interest in the subject is based on the assumption that tourism represents a unique space where representatives of different cultures interact in unique ways. Tourism can effect perceptions of culture, power and diplomacy. I've discussed the question of deliberate v. unintentional representation on this blog before, and I think it's fair to say that national representation isn't the primary goal of most tourists--but it ends up being a function they perform.

Without totally scooping myself, I'll say that my research showed that cultural authenticity was important to most of the tourists attending the official Guelaguetza, although few of them could articulate what constituted "authentic" indigenous culture in any detail. The event emphasizes cultural differences, but in a positive way. And while it offers an opportunity to witness the different clothing, music and dances of various regions, it doesn't provide much information on other cultural differences (such as customs, challenges, history, etc.) So the Guelaguetza is pretty successful in terms of entertainment, but less so in terms of education or cultural interaction.

From a public diplomacy perspective, this seems to be a missed opportunity, as tourism is one of the Mexican government's most effective PD tools. Then again, the majority of tourists attending the Guelaguetza are domestic, not foreign, so the opportunity may not be particularly significant. Like a good grad student, I'll conclude by saying that more research is needed to clarify the issues, but I definitely enjoyed putting in the groundwork. Below is a brief clip from the unofficial ("popular") Guelaguetza. Enjoy!

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