by Zev Gottdiener
Dreaming Up Place: Landscapes Through Time, and The Politics of Sustainability.
Sitting under a faction of the ubiquitous bougainvillea streaming low across a friend’s yard, you have a front row seat to the march of a changing landscape. The once forested view of the past, across the dirt path recently figured with corralled horses and beer trucks servicing cruise ship flocks, now presents a flattened dirt canvas on which large earthmoving machines and workers lay the foundations for the first stage of the new tourist megaproject. You ask your friend what kind of changes he’s noticed since they started coming to the island almost a decade ago.
“Between the first and the seventh yes, but in between it wasn’t very noticeable.” You’re reminded how memory and the passage of time only become mutually exclusive partners in the making-of history. Mexico is, in many ways, a place contradicting geohistorical narratives; a heteroglossia wherein the owners of history embed their claims in the landscape. The present is as much matter of who is doing the changing as for whom. Are the changes transpiring right in front of your friend’s gate emerging in transit or transformation as representative of what will happen? Or is something moving beneath the surface of things, beyond control of anyone’s wishes? Does the island dream of itself or of some supranational imagined community of landforms with their own debates on time? It would be worth to hear their thoughts on our own push towards the future; how our own self-important dreams lead us on through the obscurity of what’s becoming.
The positioning of the past-present as already-becoming spurns you to search for regional analogues to what transpires in front of your friend’s house. After all, foreigners have been trying to develop this part of the state for centuries, and the metropolitan area uniquely displays a mix of modern cosmopolitan, colonial historical, and regional pre-Columbian influences. The remarkable preservation of the islands, owed to their classification as federal zones, belies numerous prospective changes that never fully panned out. It always made you wonder, why the mainland was peppered with hotels and commerce and infrastructure – like needles in a beach cushion, a crashing wave of humanity, or the fruiting bodies (the stipes) of some fungal growth whose appressorium pushed through the crust in the zone where land meets ocean – and the islands are bare, except for the occasional boatload of sunbathers enjoying the exclusivity and palatial expanse. You find a precursor to your emerging witness only thirty some odd years back.
The Isla de los Venados (Deer Island) lies on the other side of the port from Stone Island, off the coast of the city proper. As with all islands (including those that happen to have a large ejido community), beaches, and coastline, it is demarcated as a Federal Zone. This has meant, historically, that while open to people who seek to live through loop holes and land claims, who seek to further push the realm of habitation past the confines of the coasts, the government retains ultimate control over the land through ownership, if not use. So let’s say you start making a pretty penny off an island’s attraction, bolstered by the infrastructure you’ve laid down with your hard earned investment capital. The state can then come in and demand compensation for the use of its property. Well, you say, they never came knocking before when you were broke and dreaming up this paradise you’ve realized through no small personal and fiscal sacrifice. Well, the state replies, you didn’t have 100 condo units, a beach house, or pools and spas operating then. You weren’t pulling in the bullion off the splendor of the vistas. You weren’t stuffing the piggy bank with silver, or lining your house with trinkets won from the spoils of your venture.
While a stark reality of the situation, the omega word of the State can sometimes be drowned out by the very history and precedence it sights. In the late 80s and early 90s, there was a failed project planned for the Isla de los Venados, across the water from the playa hotel. A pamphlet from the time shows a large community that spanned the circumference of the island with highly fashionable and modern, yet thoroughly sustainable and traditionally Mexican in its materialism (they were to be constructed from Adobe). It all started when a guy showed up with a title for the island signed by Benito Juarez. There was lots of press coverage on the resulting uproar, and they published a copy of the document in the local paper. The argument went that despite the federal ownership of the island, the previously demarcated title was not answerable to the present legislation because, according to Mexican law, a presidential order never expires. However, since the island is still uninhabited, it seems the State won out in the end, and a specific vision of the future seems to have been shelved away in the archives of the region’s history. Such happens to a lot of visions in Mexico, and if one looks below the surface at how things actually happened, we see that much of what appears to be old and traditional, or new and modern in this country exists in a constructed space of social memory and local cultural representation.
An example of this is the town of Copola, an hour or so north of Mazatlán in the foothills of the Sierra Madres, a famed “traditional” locale where visitors can enjoy not only the relative cool of the hills, but a way of life and people seemingly untouched’ by the last hundred years or so. Never mind that the sound of blenders emanates from kitchens instead of the rhythm of the molcajete, or that the kids are coming back from school with Pokemon cards, or even that the style of the pottery available by the ton in the local craft market can only be described as pan-Mexican. All signs point to yes, Copola is a tourist destination. However, not that long ago it was abandoned; like many other old towns with old churches and old streets, old ghosts stayed put though waiting rarely pays. The town is near the road, but back always, so it remained in relative obscurity until a very curious thing happened.
A redneck, as your friend describes the man, a true redneck from the country. It turns out that his mother was born in Copola, and near the end of her life she decided she wanted to return. So this guy, whose Dad is as American as a crucible, moved down here with her, and they set up a stand serving food to travelers, and men then working on the road. They had a sign that was the important thing. The people traveling to Durango would stop in this picturesque place, and here’s an old Mexican woman and her half gringo son serving up whatever’s in the pot that day. They saw that it was a magnificent place, with a 16th century church and mountain meadow vistas, and cooler weather even in the summer. Because of this exposure, rich people from Mazatlán bought it up and started in earnest what is now a fairly bustling roadside attraction that appears, for all intents and purposes, stuck in a different century sometime in the past.
The point of all this is that things are rarely as they appear here. In the U.S. we all have innate archaeological inklings about the relative age of strip malls or neighborhoods. From the way things look, we can estimate their age back to a certain point in our collective memory. When we come upon places that seem out of another time, they are usually accompanied by a sign proclaiming them to be historic, and thus the period costumes and existence of a smithy somewhere on the grounds doesn’t strike such a chord. It’s safer somehow, when history is demarcated by boundaries, both spatial and lexical.
Taking this back to the view from your friend’s porch, the question becomes one of vision, such as in their remembrance of the changes witnessed the last seven or so years. He marked the difference with the endpoints of his own timeline of experience, and not the moraines off its progression. In his words, how we experience change involves a condensation on the glass nostalgic. A compression where structure hails from the wings, the national flag flies over the silent dead of the past, and memorial blankets reek of what Katherine Verdery calls the state’s etatization of time. What emerges is not so much a natural progression of events culminating in how it is now, but an embedded subjectivity that illustrates one way in which our minds map time. If we look closer at this process, we witness the explosion of historical teleology and the scattering about of memory substrate, like a big bang of the mind that maneuvers ever outwards back on itself in the golden spiraling ratio of our own humble play on nothingness. If you look at old photos of this place, how round the hills before dynamite, you can see the future is already here; the island has always already been dreaming.