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Imagining Precarious Life in Tulum, Mexico

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In 2012, Cultural Anthropology launched a photo essay section. This is the second photo essay, which continues to expand on this project to bring photography to Cultural Anthropology. The section is developing an experimental review process, which aims to include author–reviewer dialogues as well as online commentary. Once again, the authors offer to us a captivating set of images. For more information on how to submit your own photo essay to Cultural Anthropology, see here.

Life in Tulum

Until recently, Tulum was a small, quiet town. On the Caribbean side of Mexico, close to Mayan ruins, few cabanas lined its broad white beach and these drew mainly archaeologists. But targeted for tourist expansion with an eye to fashioning eco-resorts inflected by Mayan ontology and design, Tulum has become the head of a newly-founded municipality and, now with a population of 20,000, is programmed to grow to 250,000 in the next decade. Building is massive. Such as the exclusive city Aldea Zuma, an ecological island that will allow those inside to commune with nature, in luxury facilities, built on exploited ejido (indigenous) lands, and constructed by an itinerant and underpaid labor force.

The lives of these workers, a true precariat, are the subject of the photo exhibit by Laurence Cuelenaere and José Rabasa. Entitled “Imagining Precarious Life in Tulum, Mexico,” the photos aim to capture a moment, a slice, an encounter, to invite viewers to imagine how people, so precariously pitched, craft a semblance of life in the everyday. Of central concern to Cuelenaere and Rabasa is what, borrowing from Francois Hartog, they call “presentism”: a condition of temporality that, rooted to the here and now of getting by and making do, remains always grounded in the present. Seeing this as a marker of precarity, a condition that affects the totality of life and not just the labor or work of the precariat, Cuelenaere and Rabasa use photography to bring viewers into this presentist zone of an uncertain everyday. Exploring with their Nikon F2 and Hasselblad 500/C cameras the affective worlds of people returning from work, heading to one-room homes of cardboard recovered from debris, cooking and washing outside, greeting neighbors or dressing for church, the photographers trace the fragility of lives without future and past. What they also show is that, even amidst such uncertainty, smiles also glimmer suggesting something else: the potential for political insurgency.

The theme of precarious labor and life is taken up by many of the authors in the February issue of Cultural Anthropology. Registering this visually in the mode of photography, “Imagining Precarious Life in Tulum, Mexico” is a striking complement to these articles. A textual essay by Cuelenaere and José Rabasa on this photo exhibit is in progress.

About the Authors

Laurence Cuelenaere received her PhD in cultural anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley. She is currently an Associate Scholar in the Department of Anthropology at Harvard University. She has conducted ethnographic research in Bolivia and Mexico focusing on questions of belief, indigenous politics, and intercultural philosophy. Her most recent publication is “Paradoxes of Belief as Perceived in the Uses of Creer, Creencia, and Criyincia in the Northern Bolivian Highlands” (Ethnohistory, 2013). As a photographer, she studied with Nick Johnson at The New England School of Photography. Cuelenaere is currently working on a photo essay on precarious life in the Bolivian highlands.

José Rabasa is a long-term visiting professor of Romance Studies and Literature at Harvard University and Professor Emeritus in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of California, Berkeley. His research interests include: colonial/postcolonial studies; subaltern studies; Nahuatl poetry and painting; history of voice; historiography; and phenomenology. He has published extensively, in both English and Spanish. His most recent book is titled Tell Me the Story of How I Conquered You: Elsewhere and Ethnosuicide in the Colonial Mesoamerican World (University of Texas Press, 2011).