Postcard from Oaxaca, Mexico: Santiago’s ‘Migrants’ and protesters haunting MACO

Above, nine “migrants” from Alejandro Santiago’s “2501 Migrantes” haunt a balcony inside Museo de Arte Contemporaneo, MACO

There is a Zapotec saying…. “Why leave when you have it all here?”

Alejandro Santiago in 2501 Migrants: A Journey, directed by Yolanda Cruz, 2010
two of alejandro santiago's 2501 migrantes

“Returning to his native Mexican village after many years, the artist was startled by what he didn’t see. ‘Where are my friends, my relatives?’ Alejandro Santiago asked the remaining residents of the town, Teococuilco de Marcos Perez, in a remote mountain area of Oaxaca state. Upon learning that most of them migrated from southern Mexico to the United States in search of work, he vowed to honor the departed and ‘repopulate’ his impoverished hometown.”

“Alejandro Santiago dies at 49,” Valerie J. Nelson, Los Angeles Times, July 28, 2013

“To gain a better understanding of what Mexican illegal migrants go through, Santiago in October of 2002 flew to Tijuana and hired a ‘coyote,’ a human smuggler, to help him cross the border, a harrowing experience. ‘It’s an incredible sensation, a sensation of… fear, terror, anxiety, your heart palpitates,’ he says. This feeling of physical and psychological vulnerability inspired him to render the ‘Migrantes’ figures utterly naked…. ‘I try to make each piece have its own image, its personality,’ he says.”

“Mexico’s Alejandro Santiago evokes the toll of immigration with clay figures,” Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2006

Viewing even a dozen of these clay sculptures by Alejandro Santiago on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art, MACO, has a powerful impact on you. As abstract as their faces are, the artist succeeded in compelling you to contemplate these figures as individuals.

I cannot imagine the discomforting eeriness of walking among all “2,501 Migrants” when they were displayed on porches and fields in Santiago’s hometown with a current population of only about 1,000 actual people. Or even viewing several hundred at a time as were crowded into MACO or Centro de las Artes de San Agustin, CASA for special exhibitions, each statue seeming to whisper his or her own tragic story compelling the undertaking of such a treacherous journey in hope of finding opportunity in a land which once proudly promised shelter to the tired, poor and “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Trailer for 2501 Migrants: A Journey by Yolanda Cruz

While it’s been a month since we left Oaxaca, if you go there today, you might not be able to walk amongst MACO’s migrants. The best I can tell from afar, MACO is closed, its website hijacked. The institution where we have seen so many edgy exhibits touching on sensitive social and political issues through the years is experiencing its own crisis: MACO’s former employees are on strike.

Image from the Facebook page of the Ex-Workers of MACO

The strike shutting down the museum located in a historic colonial building on the city’s main pedestrian avenue appears over complicated issues not easily untangled. According to Reporte Clave, mismanagement of funds by MACO’s leadership led Oaxaca’s Auxiliary, Banking and Industrial Police to detain several officers of MACO and evict employees. The former employees claim this loss was compounded because Friends of MACO already had failed to pay their salaries for several months.

Hope all is resolved by the time you read this, but I’ll leave you with a few other images from our February visit. Perhaps when MACO’s hostage website is released, I will be able to provide more complete identification of them.

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