The thrust of civilization is commonly imagined as an arc curving ever upward. From the Industrial Revolution on, innovation, comfort, health and wealth have seemed to expand and improve limitlessly for much of the world. But take a long look at the remote, sinking town of Santiago Mitlatongo, in Mexico, and that arc appears to slump — and not just graphically. The geologic term is “slumping”; its foundation diminished by erosion, Santiago Mitlatongo is sliding down its mountain at a rate of about a meter per day.
The photographer Matt Black has been seeking stories of the indigenous tribes of southern Mexico and the migrants to the Central Valley of California for 10 years, traveling back and forth and documenting the effects on these changing cultures and economies. His series, “After the Fall,” which was first published in the September/October issue of Orion Magazine, is narrow in scope — it’s just one remote Mixteca town upended by a slow-motion tragedy — but the themes it illuminates are vast, implicating the last several centuries of North American history begun by Columbus’s landing 520 years ago this Friday (though observed in most of the United States on Monday).
“Here’s the story of this town where literally lives turn upside down,” said Mr. Black, 42, who first photographed this pre-Columbian society in December. “It looked like the entire town had gone through a blender,” he said.
“The Mixteca were one of the great civilizations in Mesoamerica. And it’s just completely unraveling.”
In 1998, after a cold spell had killed off the citrus trees near his home in Exeter, Calif., Mr. Black went to photograph the migrant communities that were suddenly out of work. He heard the Mixteca language spoken for the first time and was entranced. And he was curious to know how these people, who were discriminated against by Spanish-speaking Mexicans as well as by whites, could tolerate life as migrants here — what was so bad at home that this was better?
The Mixteca region, which straddles the Oaxaca, Guerrero and Puebla states in southern Mexico, has been subject to centuries of erosion. It’s unclear if it was initiated by the Spaniards and their crops, cattle and church-building, or even before the Spanish invasion, when the Aztecs exacted tribute from the Mixtecs, who perhaps overtilled their land to meet the demands. Either way, the erosion has probably been exacerbated by modern agricultural practices and the effects of climate change. Today, it’s a desert; the Mixtecs can barely feed themselves, so they migrate to the United States, leaving behind fragments of towns that can no longer function well enough to support themselves.
San Miguel Cuevas, another Mixteca town that Mr. Black photographed, has lost 80 percent of its population to migration, he said, making it essentially a ghost town. He was dismayed that this resilient culture, so profoundly tethered to the land, was witnessing that land swept out from underneath it by unstoppable forces. Walking the dusty paths of Santiago Mitlatongo, Mr. Black described an air of mourning. “There’s this whole other layer of meaning there culturally, and people would describe it to me like someone just died,” he said.
“Their land is like a member of their family.”
This migration story is also a cruel inversion of historical norms. It is heart-wrenching, Mr. Black said, that the Mixtecs, having for so long subsisted on their own land and hard work — using traditional techniques that span back centuries — are forced to abandon their now-barren land to work the massive machines of industrialized agriculture in the United States. These industrialized, subsidized crops in the United States are cheap, and Mexico imports, for instance, 80 percent of its corn from here.
The circumstances in this region are reminiscent of the dust storms that blanketed the Great Plains in the 1930s, which resulted from the erosion of crop-choked land. Those storms initiated a mass migration of “Okies” to California’s Central Valley.
“I’m from an area that was utterly transformed by the Dust Bowl,” said Mr. Black. “The Dust Bowl didn’t happen here, but that’s part of the legacy of this place. It really created this place,” he said, noting an uneasy feeling of witnessing history repeat itself.
“This is one of the great civilizations of the Americas,” he said. “I mean, the Mixtecs have the oldest, continuous written history in the Americas — older than the Aztecs, older than the Incas.” It survived colonialism and the Spanish conquest, and for centuries this forgotten Mixteca town escaped bludgeons of globalization. And now it’s tumbling down a hill.
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