2023 Summer Culture Field Trips Heritage Mexico Museums Nature Reflection Sera Park Temple Summer

Who Tells Your Story? Who Controls the Narrative?

I love Hamilton. It’s my favorite musical of all time. Now, you may wonder why I am talking about an American musical about a founding father while writing a blog about my study abroad experience in Mexico. It’s because the musical asks a good question, “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story,” the question of narrative control. Who controls the narrative? Who is telling your story? This was an important question to keep in my mind during my time in Mexico. It reminds us that the power to shape narratives and influence perceptions is a crucial aspect of cultural representation. During my recent travels, I had the privilege of visiting two intriguing museums: Casa de los Venados, a private museum of Mexican folk art owned by an American couple, and Choco-Story, a chocolate museum owned by a Belgian family that delves into the history of cocoa and its significance to the Mayan culture. These experiences sparked profound contemplation about the complexities surrounding cultural representation and the role of foreign owners in controlling the narratives of Mexico and the Mayans. While both museums have positive attributes, such as supporting local artists and animal conservation efforts, it is crucial to critically examine the implications of foreigners shaping these narratives.    

An artwork at Casa de los Venados at the main entrance that shows the local, tradition way of life in Oaxaca that was commissioned for the museum by the American couple.
The museum consists of folk art from all over Mexico collected by the owner. The objects are not placed by region or labeled, so bringing in the problem of not acknowledging the different cultures behind the artworks as they are all brought together as if they are same, creating stereotypes.

Nestled in Valladolid, Casa de los Venados stands as a testament to the vast and vibrant world of Mexican folk art. Owned by an American couple, it houses an extensive collection of artworks from different regions. Stepping into Casa de los Venados, I was immediately struck by the awe-inspiring display of colors, textures, and craftsmanship. The museum serves as a sanctuary for local artists, providing a platform to showcase their work. While appreciating the museum’s efforts in preserving Mexican culture and supporting local communities, I couldn’t help but question the power dynamics at play. How does a foreign owner shape the narrative and representation of Mexican art? What perspectives might be overlooked or marginalized? While the museum undoubtedly brings attention to Mexican folk art, it raises important discussions about cultural ownership and representation.    

The Choco-Story museum started with explaning different Mayan culture, then introduced the importance of cocoa to Mayans. Cocoa was greatly appreciated and was offered as a drink during ceremonies, either as an offering or consumed by the participants. This bronze statue is a Mayan carrying a mecapa, or tumpline, with what I assume cacao beans inside, but there was no description next to the object.
This is a censer from the Classical period of the Mayan age that shows a lady embellished with cocoa beans on her torso and her arms. Cocoa was an important staple for the gods, and required protection of a fertility goddess.  

A visit to Choco-Story, a chocolate museum owned by a Belgian family, offered me a fascinating glimpse into the intertwined history of cocoa and the Mayan culture. The museum’s exhibits narrate the journey of cocoa, from its origins in the rainforests of Mesoamerica to its global significance as a beloved treat. Alongside the historical context, Choco-Story is an animal refuge that protects abused animals. Yet, as I immersed myself in the rich narrative, I couldn’t escape the nagging question: Should the story of cocoa and the Mayans be primarily told by foreign owners? How can we ensure that indigenous voices and perspectives are adequately represented? While the museum provides educational value and promotes conservation, it underscores the need for critical reflection on the control of cultural narratives by outsiders.   

This is ‘Kin,’ a jaguar from Mexico City, who came to Choco-story in 2022, having been recovered by the PROFEPA (Federal Attorney for Environmental Protection) from the “Black Jaguar-White Tiger Foundation,” where extreme mistreatment of animals was happening (here’s a wiki link for more information). He had no fangs or claws, preventing him from returning to wildlife.
It was interesting to see how the museum tried to connect their animals in the refugee to Mayan culture and history. This sign next to Kin’s cage explained the significance of jaguars to Mayans.

We must navigate the nuances and power dynamics at play. The control of narratives by foreigners can inadvertently overshadow or distort indigenous voices, reinforcing a skewed perception of cultural heritage. To achieve a more balanced representation, it is crucial to engage in critical thinking, challenge existing power structures, and actively promote collaborations that amplify local perspectives.    

The museum ended with how cocoa became popular in Europe. One couldn’t help but feel that there was a Eurocentric perspective present in the museum, especially at the end, which focused on cocoa in Europe. These mannequins of Europeans seemed inappropriate in a museum about cocoa and Mayan culture.

Empowering local communities and ensuring their voices are heard is crucial in reclaiming the narrative and representation of cultural heritage. Foreign owners can play a vital role by actively collaborating with local artists, scholars, and community leaders. By engaging in meaningful partnerships, they can create spaces that embrace a more authentic and diverse portrayal of cultures. Supporting initiatives that prioritize community ownership, such as indigenous-led museums and cultural institutions, can also help shift the balance of power and ensure that cultural narratives are controlled by those they represent.    

There was a huge presence of skulls in Casa de los Venados, which perpetuates the typical stereotypical image of Mexico and the skulls. While skulls are one part of Mexican art and culture, there is more which may not have been thoroughly represented in the museum coming from an outsider’s perspective.
A section that talked about human sacrifice in Mayan culture in Choco-Story, which had nothing to do with cacao. It highlights the idea of the “savage” Mayans that is often mainted in Western view of the indigenous groups, like the movie Apoclypto.

My experiences at Casa de los Venados and Choco-Story provided profound insights into the complexities surrounding cultural representation and the control of narratives. While acknowledging the positive contributions of foreign-owned museums, we must critically examine the power dynamics at play and advocate for a more inclusive and balanced portrayal of cultural heritage. By empowering local voices, fostering collaboration, and supporting initiatives that prioritize community ownership, we can challenge the notion of who controls the narrative. Only through collective efforts can we ensure that cultural representation remains in the hands of those whose stories are being told, fostering a more authentic and inclusive understanding of diverse cultures. It was interesting to visit these museums and think critically about what I was looking at and what was being presented to me.  

Discover how I surprisingly stumbled upon my own cultural narrative told in Merida.

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