The Wild West Meets the Southern Border
August 8, 2019 7:48 AM   Subscribe

“An interesting paradox of the reënactment scene’s obsession with authenticity and historical accuracy, this “getting it right,” is that accuracy is measured in terms of the minute details of a particular event, which does not necessarily amount to historical accuracy in the broader sense … When I went to Tombstone for the first time, with my family—all of us born in Mexico—we quickly noticed that there were no Mexicans being portrayed in the reënactments. No Native Americans, either. Non-whites seemed to have been completely erased from the popular narratives.” Valeria Luiselli on the re-enactors of Tombstone (The New Yorker)

Valeria Luiselli's novel Lost Children Archive was longlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize.
posted by adrianhon (12 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I read this in the print issue and found it a remarkable and horrifying article. I had read before about the explicitly racist and genocidal motivation of white people settling the "frontier," but the details about this in the article were still shocking. And the celebration of that racism in current Tombstone fits the pattern in a way that makes my skin crawl.

The even worse part was reading the letters published in the New Yorker in response to this article: several white people wrote in to say that Tombstone is such a great place to live and full of the nicest people! Barf.
posted by medusa at 7:56 AM on August 8, 2019 [5 favorites]

"The Old West"™ is one of the most caustic and destructive falsehoods ever perpetuated on the nation. It's at the root of so many right-wing, libertarian fever dreams foisted on the country.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:34 AM on August 8, 2019 [14 favorites]

Key and Peele took on race and reenactment in their usual hilarious fashion.
posted by wemayfreeze at 8:39 AM on August 8, 2019 [15 favorites]

Take the genocidal settler colonialism out of American culture and all you're left with is the corn syrup
posted by Rust Moranis at 9:07 AM on August 8, 2019 [6 favorites]

I found this to be singularly unsurprising. American culture is built on some pervasive myths. Colonists are equated with survivalists (even though the early colonists had no skills to survive without help from natives). The "revolutionary" spirit that led to independence from England is equated with every mythical form of anti-establishment "don't tread on me" libertarian fantasy; and of course the idea of manifest destiny is as racist as it gets.

In terms of the Tombstone re-enactment. I would be curious to know if any Mexican or Native American actor would even apply for a job there. Re-enactments seem to fall wholly in the realm of "things white people do" Key and Peele notwithstanding.

I can see how Luiselli would place the mirror between the re-enactments and the border vigilantes, but I can also imagine that neither of those fantasies need the other in order to perpetuate.

also I will plug Luiselli's The Story of My Teeth. it's fantastic
posted by OHenryPacey at 11:10 AM on August 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

As a Southern Arizona native I would like to point out that, for the most part, all these racist asshats are not natives. Please stop shipping your old, racist parents and relatives to our beautiful multicultural home. We don't want them and we're running low on water anyways.
posted by nestor_makhno at 12:07 PM on August 8, 2019 [11 favorites]

It is strange to read of the Lewis and Clark expedition in Stephen Ambrose's Undaunted Courage. Principally a biography of Meriwether Lewis, Ambrose clearly adores his subject. Yet a thinking person cannot read this account without being struck by the greedy, exploitative origins of the "expedition" and the general boneheadedness of Lewis. Taught as a child to consider the Lewis and Clark expedition to be a Grand Adventure, as an adult I found it disgusting and stupid. The "Old West" isn't what it used to be; in fact, it never was.
posted by SPrintF at 1:17 PM on August 8, 2019

Glad I drove past Tombstone and went to Bisbee instead, it's a fun daytrip from Tucson.
posted by greatalleycat at 2:35 PM on August 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

Greatalleycat, that’s exactly what I tell people to do. Tombstone is not worth much more than a cursory glance and it’s a big tourist trap. Bisbee is awesome.
posted by azpenguin at 3:53 PM on August 8, 2019

Look, it could always be worse. You could have old white men attempting to play Hispanics and Native Americans who are there to be defeated.

I read the article. I'm not sure a tourist trap ever claims to be accurate or authentic. Reenactors are volunteers--it's a hobby. The group of people who do hobbies are composed of the type of people who are interested in the topic. What kind of people do you think self-select for that sort of thing? Re-enactors are a bunch of Dwights. (Probably is a subset of the type of people who read Bill O'Reilly books on historical topics. I had a high school history teacher who cos-played military in the state's national guard.) What do you expect?

(In other fields, we've found ways to harness this phenomena in productive endeavors such as volunteer fire departments for people who like to cos-play fireman. I used to have a coworker who totally got a chubby doing that sort of thing.)

People do things they enjoy. It's fun to imagine being glamorous or in the winner's shoes or a hero. If you go to the place of medieval dinner theater where they ride horses around and joust while you eat, it's all about princes and princesses and kings and knights, you know, aristocrats and nobility. It's not about the reality of 99.5% of people of the time who were illiterate peasants, starving and living in filth.

It's probably a commercial vs non-profit thing too. Old World Wisconsin is an educational reenactment place where people recreate the lifestyles of early farmers. I remember that being balanced, men and women, and all sorts of different ethnicities were represented. But being part of the state historical society that place actually has a mission other than profit and filters for people who want to do that for authenticity.
posted by Blue Tsunami at 4:04 PM on August 8, 2019

Related twitter threads from the past two days...

jbouie the fact that many americans think of plantation as vacation destinations to be enjoyed like disney world is sort of all you need to know to understand how we got to this place in our politics

@sairasameerarao This is how decent white people who tell the truth about slavery on plantations are reviewed by white people.
My husband and I were extremely disappointed in this tour. We didn't come to hear a lecture on how the white people treated slaves, we came to get this history of a southern plantation and get a tour of the house and grounds. The tour guid was so radical about slave treatment we felt we were being lectured and bashed about the slavery. My ancestors were from Sicily, never owned slaves, and my husbands were German, and none of his ever owned slaves. I am by far not a racist or against all Americans having equal rights but this was my vacation and now we ar crossing all plantation tours off our list, it was just not what we expected. I'll go back to Louisiana and see some real plantations that are so much more enjoyable to tour.
And more...
@EscoBlades I went down the rabbit hole of reading reviews from folks that visit plantations expecting history, but wrapped in sunshine and rainbows.

[four more "reviews"]
posted by pjenks at 5:06 AM on August 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

And from Michael Twitty's Afroculinaria: Dear Disgruntled White Plantation Visitors, Sit Down. "Going to what few plantations remain, your job is to go with respect and homage and light...Right now we need people to exercise their compassion muscle over their dissatisfaction or disappointment. Right now we need people to see the parallels. Right now we need people to remember the insidious ways history repeats itself. Right now we need people to remember the righteous who sacrificed so we could tweet and leave awful online reviews."
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:04 AM on August 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

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