i n t r o d u c t i o n
Writing the Emerald City
The anxiety of modernity creates the desire for new myths and traditions—be-
liefs that will bring under control the changes that have undermined all seemingly
fixed and stable cultural, political, and economic relations.
—Gregory Grandin, The Blood of Guatemala, 2000
The beautiful city of Oaxaca is being adorned with new and beautiful avenues like
Porfirio Díaz Avenue, with new buildings like the school of the same name; and
the improvements are occurring without interruption not only in the capital, but
also in the towns of the districts. Public morality is becoming established, vices are
being persecuted . . . [and] new schools are being erected . . . in order not to detain
the course of civilization for the masses, who are struggling incessantly with dif-
ficulties and innumerable hardships.
—Francisco Belmar, Breve reseñsa histórica y geográfica del Estado de Oaxaca, 1901
In its early-twenty-first-century incarnation, Oaxaca City appears to the uniniti-
ated (at least to those who restrict their touristic movements to the centro histórico)
to be a relic of Mexico’s colonial past. Yet beneath the palimpsest of the present
city lies a neglected history. Much of what the contemporary visitor sees of this
Mexican provincial city was constructed or reconstructed during the late nine-
teenth century and early twentieth, under the reign of President Porfirio
When Francisco Belmar, a philologist and Mexican Supreme Court judge, wrote
the above passage in the introduction to his Breve reseñsa (Brief Historical and Geo-
graphical Outline of Oaxaca State), he, like other elites of his era, envisioned the
state capital as part of Mexico’s transformation into a new and modern era. Paying
homage to the state’s theatrically elected (read, presidentially selected) governor,
General Martín González, Belmar extolled the government’s efforts to rebuild,
expand, and regulate the city after its bellicose days in the nineteenth century.
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