Monday, August 9, 2010

Eat, Shop, Learn

An effective model to present community history?

In El Paso, you can find delicious Mexican food on every major street, but Mercado Mayapan offers more than a tasty, affordable meal. Recently, while enjoying a plate of enchiladas Zacatecanas, I started thinking about Mercado Mayapan through the lens of this “Off the Wall” blog. Mercado Mayapan is an offshoot of La Mujer Obrera, an organization that provides vocational training and other services to Mexican immigrant women. Mercado Mayapan is self-described as a “social purpose business.” Aside from providing work experience and training, Mercado Mayapan seeks to celebrate Mexican culture and heritage. The complex includes four sections: a market specializing in Mexican food staples like fresh tortillas and pan dulce (sweet bread); a commerce area with stalls selling artisanal, fair trade products from Latin America; a museum and cultural area; and a food court that serves traditional foods from Mexico. Mercado Mayapan also offers cultural programming each month that range from showcasing foods from different Mexican states to music and dancing. These dynamic activities make Mercado Mayapan an intriguing choice to address intersections in history, culture, and politics outside a traditional museum setting.

The mercado’s bright streamers, artwork, and soft folk music encourage visitors to spend time in the comfortable atmosphere. The mercado's open floor plan allows visitors to move easily through each section; ideally, somebody who goes for lunch can walk off their meal in the commerce area and museum—eat, shop, and learn under one roof. Most programming draws on Mexican culture, yet the Museo Mayachen focuses on history from a US-Mexico border perspective. The museo currently has two exhibits documenting the experiences of garment and migrant workers and Chicano activism in El Paso. The museo declares itself the “first community museum in El Paso.” That effort is visible in the large amount of photographs and objects donated by individuals. The photos and objects are placed prominently in the exhibits and are accompanied by short, bilingual text panels. The informative text panels provide a starting point for these topics that are underrepresented in El Paso history. However, there are no hands-on educational activities, options for visitors to leave their comments or personal experiences, or guidance in finding other sources to learn more about these topics. This absence makes the exhibits one dimensional rather than interactive and limits how much the public might take away from this experience.

For an organization with limited resources and an expansive vision, Mercado Mayapan is a notable achievement in empowering low-income women, relating history from a bottom-up perspective, and celebrating the border’s Mexican heritage. La Mujer Obrera has traditionally worked without assistance from other community organizations in El Paso for fear of their vision being co-opted. I wonder how much collaboration with local history organizations, museums, or universities might enhance the museo’s exhibits without straying from their commitment to community involvement. Without this kind of input, the museo may be unable to move past conventional exhibitry, leaving it lagging behind the commerce area, food court, and marketplace. So far, eating and shopping are the most interactive and compelling activities at Mercado Mayapan. The potential exists for learning, as embodied in Museo Mayachen, to become a fully developed aspect of the mercado as well.

~ Vanessa Macias

1 comment:

  1. What seems potentially very powerful about the combination of exhibition/education with a place like the Mercado is that people who go there are in a playful mood. I'm interested increasingly in the way that a mode of play can be marshaled to engage people and encourage them to think through some of the issues that you raise, like the history of the border. Of course, museums are trying to create fun interactive experiences, but I think there's something powerful when it happens in an unexpected place.