For the past ten years, Matt Black has been chronicling the environmental and social erosion of the Mixteca, an isolated region in southern Mexico that was once home to one of the most advanced cultures in the pre-Columbian Americas. Today, villages across the Mixteca are on the verge of collapse—some have lost up to five meters of topsoil to erosion and 80 percent of their population to migration. Matt Black discusses his project below:
TWO DAYS INTO MY THIRTEENTH trip to the Mixteca, I found myself stepping out of a world I thought I understood and into a landscape straight from the pages of a surrealist novel: houses sunk in mud, cornfields diced into gumbo, an ancient stone church split down the middle as if by a gigantic meat cleaver. I had come to photograph the erosion that was turning this part of Mexico into a modern-day Dust Bowl; little did I know that I would end up chronicling the death of an entire town.
I first caught a glimpse of Santiago Mitlatongo through the dusty windshield of a pickup truck I had hitched a ride in up a dirt highway into the mountains above Nochitztlan, one of the Mixteca’s provincial capitals. The truck stopped, and I looked over the edge of the road. It took a moment to realize what I was looking at was not the aftermath of an earthquake, or a mudslide, but a geological symptom of erosion: slumping, it’s called, and it’s essentially what one would expect to see when a piece of steep terrain is washed out from below. Like a sand castle amid lapping waves, Mitlatongo had simply given way.
The village was silent, but in a hellish sort of way. I understood perfectly when a woman later described to me the feeling of dread that would come over her as she passed through the ruins of her home town. “It felt like someone was chasing me,” she said. “I felt like someone was trying to kill me.”
Four months after the ground had begun to slide, the reality of what was happening was just beginning to sink in among the villagers. People had literally lost everything—not just their homes, schools, and church, but their livelihoods as small farmers, their very means of survival. Very few times over the course of my work have I encountered a situation quite as desperate as this: people were homeless, with nowhere to go but the forest, and the very real prospect of running out of food was looming. “Please tell your people, your government, that we need help,” I was told in tin shack shelters in which people had taken refuge amid the trees.
But what drew me to the story of Santiago Mitlatongo is not the graphic nature of its loss, or the shock value of its destruction, but what lies beyond it, what the death of the land means to a culture so deeply tied to the soil. The Mixtec concepts of parents, ancestors, and even king, all have direct connections to the idea of the earth, and the land is seen not as an inanimate object, but as a living creature that eats, drinks, breathes, and even understands. “Is it true that you talk with the land?” I would ask. “Of course, why wouldn’t I?” came the invariable response.
This idea of a sentient land made witnessing its destruction much more difficult, turning what we in the United States would call a disaster, or an act of God, into something much more akin to a murder. “It’s like a death in the family,” I was told many times, and at first I thought what people meant was that it was extremely sad. It took me a while to understand that it was, in fact, meant quite literally: a part of their family had died, and I was there to photograph the funeral.
On the last day of my final trip to Mitlatongo, in early June, I took one more walk through the ruins of the town. “The land feels, the land knows,” I had been told. It feels how it was opened. The land listens, just like a person would. It listens to me, and I know that it understands how I feel. As I walked, I tried to imagine the soil as a living creature, one that breathes and feels. I looked closely at the stands of grass, the strings of unpicked beans grappling up dried corn stalks, the patches of calla lilies still green under the stoops of wrecked houses. I looked at the soil, puffy and white, and the sudden explosions of life amid the destruction.
Deeper into the ruins of the town, I tried to imagine what it would be like if a piece of this land had been mine, a provider of food, a constant companion, a daily indicator of time and season. I tried to feel what it would be like if I had watched my grandfather and my father toil on the same little patch of soil from which I drew my food. I tried to understand what it would be like if the line that intertwined this land and me stretched back further than I could imagine, over thousands of years perhaps, to distant strangers who were my ancestors. As I walked, light clouds blew overhead and sent shadows gliding across the ruins of the town. It was silent, but the destruction didn’t bewilder me any more; the pitched ground and crumbled houses had become familiar. I walked, looking at the grass and the trees—and during these last few hours in Mitlatongo, I finally saw the land. I don’t know if it listened to me, but at last I understood what had been lost.