Q&A with Mónica M. Salas Landa on Visible Ruins

Q&A with Mónica M. Salas Landa on Visible Ruins

The Mexican Revolution (1910–1920) introduced a series of state-led initiatives promising modernity, progress, national grandeur, and stability. Far from accomplishing their stated goals, however, these initiatives concealed violence, and permitted land invasions, forced displacement, environmental damage, loss of democratic freedom, and mass killings. In Visible Ruins: The Politics of Perception and the Legacies of Mexico’s Revolution, Mónica M. Salas Landa uses the history of northern Veracruz to demonstrate how these state-led efforts reshaped the region’s social and material landscapes, affecting what was and is visible.

In this Q&A, Salas Landa describes some of the theoretical frameworks which underpin Visible Ruins, dives into some specific examples of archival and ethnographic research she did, and tells us what she’s working on next.

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Walter Benjamin appears throughout the introduction of Visible Ruins and provides some foundational frameworks for your thinking. Can you discuss how his work and/or the work of other writers and scholars in or outside of your field informed your research and writing practice for this book?

Walter Benjamin’s ideas on history, as applied to ruin studies within anthropology through the work of Ann L. Stoler, profoundly influenced my approach to researching and writing this book. My discussion around the term “ruins,” for example, builds on her insightful take on how the past continues to linger in the present through ongoing processes of ruination and what these processes have left behind. Partly influenced by Benjamin herself, Stoler sees ruins not just as romantic relics from long-gone eras but as leftovers of political projects that we too quickly assume have ended. However, for her, and in my book too, it’s crucial to see how what remains of “the past” continues to affect the politics of the present.

My interest in these leftover materials also led me to employ Walter Benjamin’s figure of “the rag-picker” as a key methodological framework for this project. As a rag-picker, Benjamin sought to sift through the remnants of history, picking out what has been discarded, lost, or broken. These weren’t just random bits and pieces; they were significant materials not only because they reflected the aspirations of the past (like the “dreamworlds” of nineteenth-century consumerism) but also because in decaying form, ruins, such as the old Parisian arcades that fascinated him, could expose the deep-seated and hidden contradictions they were built upon. Rendering visible then, the obscured exploitation, fragmentation, and alienation that went into creating these early showcases of industrial affluence opened up possibilities for change. This blend of aesthetic and political insights, focusing on how we see and understand our world, was at the heart of Benjamin’s work and it’s a big part of my own project too.

So, as a “rag-picker” myself, I delved into the material leftovers of various revolutionary projects in the lowlands of northern Veracruz to unpack what I call the aesthetic dimension of governance—how the state imagines and then crafts a shared way of seeing the world, and the pushback against this vision. My journey, however, didn’t just take me through dusty archives where Benjamin once spent years researching; it also led me into places where people live amid the remnants of state interventions. Through ethnography, I tried to understand how they continue to grapple with the aesthetic weight and force of these interventions. Their struggles with issues of inequality and invisibility, as Benjamin might say, became the “invisible ink” I used to write the book.

In the introduction of Visible Ruins, you write about the ruin as a fragile, enduring force of history. What kinds of ruins appear in this book, and how do you think with them?

In my book, I use the term “ruins” to capture the physical remnants of Mexico’s revolutionary projects, such as agrarian reform, economic nationalism, and indigenismo. For instance, in the lowlands of northern Veracruz, experiments in land redistribution have left behind a trail of legal documents that have ignited disputes over land control and are still treasured by locals, including cattle ranchers like my late grandfather, whose story and documents I examine in the book. Furthermore, urban and rural dwellers coexist with remnants of Mexico’s industrial heyday—consider the deserted oil wells and failing or abandoned infrastructures that once spurred economic development in the latter part of the twentieth century. Others live in the shadow of a reconstructed monumental pyramid or are surrounded by photographs and representations that expose their alterity. These elements—legal papers, oil infrastructures, an iconic archaeological site, and a collection of ethnographic images—are what I refer to as the “ruins” in the title of my book, each playing a pivotal role in the narrative. One vivid example, which I discuss in chapter 4, illustrates how I encountered and engaged with these tangible traces of the revolutionary past during my fieldwork.

During an early visit, I attended an event in the community of Tajín that featured a 1940s film commissioned by American anthropologist Isabel T. Kelly, who conducted her research under the auspices of both the Smithsonian and Mexico’s National School of Anthropology and History. Encountering Kelly’s work unexpectedly shifted my focus toward the history of indigenismo in the region and its enduring influence. I delved into the production, dissemination, and reproduction of Kelly’s visual archive, exploring how these images were employed across international, national, and local contexts. My archival research and fieldwork revealed that these images highlighted the alterity commonly associated with the Totonac population, while also masking the intense violence these communities faced, which was linked to Tajín’s main cash crop: vanilla. By examining both the materiality and the history of Kelly’s collection, I gained insights into how indigenismo’s framework and focus established a governing mode of visibility that altered what was and is possible to see in the region.

Your book focuses on the perceptual fields that were dictated by a postrevolutionary state in Veracruz through initiatives that promised modernity and progress. Though your book takes up the postrevolutionary period, you write that these aesthetic choices have a lasting impact. Where do you locate the reverberations of postrevolutionary aesthetics in Veracruz today?

Each chapter of my book dives into how specific state-led projects have shaped the way things and people become visible or invisible. But I was equally interested in showing how these aesthetic configurations keep influencing life even long after Mexico’s institutional revolution came to an end. Take chapter 2, for instance: it looks at the advertising blitz of PEMEX, the state-run oil company born after the oil industry was nationalized. We’re talking about a full-on media storm here, with ads, press releases, glowing editorials, and even travel guides that showcase oil infrastructures as symbols of modernity, progress, and wealth. But there’s a dark side to these infrastructures and the publicity around them: the heavy debt behind their construction, corruption among those who managed them, and the everyday risk and toxicity faced by those living surrounded by this industrial landscape. Despite the oil fields and revolutionary ideals dwindling, these infrastructures and narratives persist. Today, PEMEX still touts its safety measures through ad campaigns while the government keeps trying to celebrate its industrial heritage, all while glossing over the ongoing pollution, neglect, and violence that the locals endure. This is only one example of the lasting reverberations of postrevolutionary aesthetics in Veracruz that I discussed in the book.

What did conducting both ethnographic and archival research uncover that one or the other alone would have lacked? How did these two modes of scholarship interact in the process of researching for this book?

Conducting both ethnographic and archival research for this project allowed me to uncover nuances that neither method alone would have revealed. I learned something early on from my interactions with interlocutors in the field: to truly grasp the aesthetic dimension of state formation and the endurance of the “revolutionary project,” one needs to see how different modes of visibility, established by distinct state interventions, work together over time. This led me to depart from the traditional ethnographic focus on a single community, institution, or organization—inspired by the work of Gastón Gordillo—and meant that my archival research had to encompass various academic areas (like agrarian history, oil nationalism, and indigenismo) and different periods (state reconstruction, consolidation, and dismantling). This approach enabled me to compose a richer, more layered narrative that better reflected both my experiences in the field and the stories of the people I met in the lowlands of Veracruz, even though it was unconventional. Ultimately, the mix of archival and ethnographic fragments allowed me to illustrate the state’s enactment of visual authority more effectively.

What are you working on next?

Currently, I am working on my second book project, which examines the politics of perception as it pertains to physical anthropology and the construction of its objects of study in Mexico—from the late nineteenth century to today. In addition to this, I continue to conduct research on ethnographic photography and the transnational production of indigenous alterity, as well as into the visual culture related to the oil industry in Mexico.