Travel as Research: A Historian’s Recent Trip to Huautla de Jiménez, Mexico

Editor’s Note: Today’s post was contributed by David Korostyshevsky, a PhD candidate in the University of Minnesota’s History of Science, Technology, and Medicine program. His research focuses on post-Enlightment discourses of intoxication and addiction in the Atlantic world. Contact him at koros003@umn.edu.

 

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Oaxaca City (all photos courtesy of the author)

As historians, we are used to traveling to attend academic conferences, visit libraries, and study in archives. But sometimes, we ought to travel just to see the places about which we are writing. I learned firsthand about how fruitful the unexpected results of such a trip can be earlier this year, when I traveled to Mexico City, Oaxaca City, and Huautla de Jiménez. Such travel yields sources and context otherwise inaccessible to the historian.

In 1957, Robert Gordon Wasson, a vice-president at JP Morgan, published an article in Life Magazine in which he described his discovery of and experience with hallucinogenic mushrooms in Mexico. He found these mushrooms in Huautla de Jiménez, a small village in the northern mountains of Oaxaca inhabited by indigenous Mazatec people. After several trips in the early 1950s, he was finally invited to participate in a ceremony led by a curandera María Sabina. His Mexican mushroom trip made a profound impression on him. Publishing extraordinary descriptions of it in Life, Wasson became an unwitting, and later, reluctant, stimulus for a nascent psychedelic counterculture in the twentieth century.
While the emergence and growth of psychedelic counterculture was largely fueled by LSD, which closely associated with Timothy Leary, Mexican magic mushrooms were also sought. In the wake of Wasson’s article, countercultural tourists, including a young Leary, traveled to Mexico in search of mushrooms. In the early and mid-1960s, Huautla became an epicenter of countercultural tourism in Mexico, attracting Mexican jipis alongside North American and European visitors. By 1968, however, they overstayed their welcome. At the request of local officials, the military arrested and expelled the hippies and closed the road to Huautla to outsiders for the better part of the 1970s.

In order to better understand the story as it unfolded on both sides of the border, I decided that I had to see the place for myself. It felt awkward reading and writing for so long and so extensively about a place that I had never visited. So, with my preliminary exams and prospectus well behind me, I packed my bags and headed to Mexico. Moreover, since Huautla remains a remote, difficult-to-access locale, I was not even sure that I would make it. In the very least, I hoped to find some coverage of the 1968 events in Mexico’s newspaper of record, Excelsior, at the Hemeroteca (newspaper archive) at the Universidad Autónoma de Mexico (UNAM). Indeed, I found the newspapers I was looking for, though it took several days of old-school archival work, filling out paper request slips, flipping through bound dusty volumes of bound newspapers, and reading microfilm.

But I also made it to Huautla, and how I got there and the friends I made along the way is a story of random chance, serendipity, and some very good luck. While Huautla has become much more accessible to outsiders since the 1970s, it is still very remote. Getting there for a couple of first-timers with no local contacts seemed like a difficult task.

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Hualta de Jiménez

My visit to Mexico City coincided with that of a friend of mine I had met as an MA student, a doctoral candidate in modern Mexican history at an Ivy League university. As he was in the midst of a long-term stay for dissertation research, I crashed at his AirBnB in the beautiful CDMX neighborhood of Coyoacan. One evening, I had a chat with his host, who asked me what my research was about. As I explained, she exclaimed that a friend of hers was a teacher in Oaxaca who had done a lot of work in the Mazatec region, including Huautla. All of a sudden, a random conversation, followed by a flurry of emails with the local contact, placed Huautla within my reach. We booked the only AirBnB that was listed in Huautla, a local inn called Casa Cejota, and were on a flight to Oaxaca two days later.

With sparse cell phone reception, meeting with our contact and finding the van service that would take us there took several days, during which we fully enjoyed the sights, smells, and tastes of Oaxaca City. We left for Huautla early on a Friday morning, crammed into a full van of fellow travelers.

Our local contact arranged an interview with the municipal president and his staff, who in turn arranged interviews with some local villagers, including the son of a local anthropologist who remembered the hippies and a curandera who, as a child, knew María Sabina and still maintains the mushroom rituals. We also had an extensive conversation with the proprietor of Casa Cejota, our AirBnB rental, who was a local businesswoman and owner of a small tourist shop just off the town’s center square.

These interviews, while falling far short of extensive anthropological fieldwork or oral history, nevertheless gave me a sense of my subject by illuminating Huautla’s conflicted relationship with mushroom tourists. Many local people welcome tourists seeking spiritual healing and who are respectful of local custom. They do not want the kind of tourism that happened in the 1960s, a period they associate with hedonic drug use disrespectful of local rituals.

On the other hand, the political leadership sees tourism as a lucrative source of revenue for modernization, schools, clinics, and other social services. To this end, some discussed their desire to modernize the town’s infrastructure by widening the streets (for buses) and building hotels that could accommodate increased tourist flows.

These interviews also opened the way for future ethnographic research. I intend to return during mushroom season, usually the rainy autumn, to interview visiting tourists and the shopkeepers who serve them. When completed, this project will offer an important analysis of present-day motivations driving tourism patterns and the benefits and pitfalls such tourism offers to the inhabitants of what is still a small, remote, mountain village.

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Maria Sabina’s home

The trip also yielded a significant amount of primary sources that are unavailable in any archive. The tourism shop owned by the proprietors of Casa Cejota contained a trove of local periodicals, newspapers, and newsletters published since María Sabina’s death in the 1980s. These sources reveal the growth of María Sabina’s fame in Mexico, changing local perceptions of her legacy, and the current role of magic mushrooms in local discourses about tourism in the region.

Most importantly, this experience taught me that it is vital for a historian to travel. More than just visiting archives or collaborating with other scholars, we must also experience first hand the sites about which we read and write, especially if, as US-based historians, we engage with international or non-US topics. Learn more about some of my initial findings at the 2018 meeting of the American Historical Association in Washington DC where I will deliver a talk entitled “Demarcating Ritual and Transgressive Intoxication: Magic Mushrooms, Marijuana, and Tourism in Huautla de Jiménez” on Friday, January 5, 2018. Click here for time and room information.

 

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