SAN AGUSTÍN ETLA, Mexico — I arrived in San Agustín as if in a dream, after taking an overnight bus from Mexico City that pulled into the sleepy capital of Oaxaca before sunrise. After a short shuttle bus ride from Oaxaca City’s central station to the main market, a 12-peso taxi colectivo zipped out of the city, past flowering groves of hibiscus, nopal, and agave. As the sun rose, the taxi climbed perilous cobblestone roads further and deeper into hills of farmland. The clouds began to lift off the mountains, kissing their peaks as the day quickly warmed the frosty countryside.
As I arrived at the Centro de las Artes de San Agustín (CaSa) around 8am, the town was still asleep. The air tasted fresh and smelled of charred wood. The sunlight came and went, still burning off the remaining cloud cover and playing across the manicured gardens of the converted textile mill, looking out over the valley and village below — the same high spot where the colonizing Spanish built a church to symbolize god’s reign over all things earthly. Stray dogs played and slept lazily in the new sun at the entrance to the sprawling complex. Both the church and the arts center loom over the village of San Agustín, which has been undeniably changed by the presence of CaSa, which brings scores of tourists and development projects to the small town.
Oaxaca native Francisco Toledo opened CaSa in 2006 as a space for education, exhibition, and production. Today, it’s open to the public, but also serves as the artist’s personal factory, where his legacy is churned out by an army of local laborers. The expansive facility, built inside a 19th-century mill, includes fully equipped paper-making, digital, printmaking, photography, and textile studios, as well as two sprawling exhibition spaces, artists’ housing, and a retail store. Driving through the hills of Etla, a municipality of Oaxaca, you wouldn’t expect to find a jewel like CaSa amid the humble, tin-roof towns that pockmark the landscape. The changes the center has brought about are immediately apparent. Compared to the surrounding villages, San Agustín boasts a well illuminated and maintained main avenue, several new-age restaurants, and luxury accommodations catering to outsiders.
The development spurred by Toledo and his arts center adds to San Agustín’s charm, but it also brings to mind questions about gentrification and whether CaSa is truly benefiting the local community, or marginalizing it. During my stay at CaSa — where, full disclosure, I was artist-in-residence for a week — I saw that the arts center employs locals, provides arts education, and spurs infrastructure development. It was also obvious that local residents don’t participate in the same capacity that outsiders do. During events I attended at CaSa, the vast majority of attendees were from Oaxaca City or tourists from abroad.
When questioned, locals were quick to gossip, admitting that their neighbors have mixed feelings about the presence of the arts center. On the one hand, the economic benefits are undeniable, but on the other, their town, livelihood, and the identity of their community have all been transformed by the presence of Toledo’s arts center. For example, one local contracted by CaSa that I spoke to said her kids attend classes and participate in activities at CaSa, but added that the center is significantly behind on payments for her services. CaSa represents a standard sort of gentrification, where progress and access are bundled up with development. Along with bringing the town into the 21st century, this particular kind of change also encompasses an invasion of Airbnb vacation houses, tacky gift shops, and organic cafes. Furthermore, the influx of tourism translates to an influx of government and law enforcement, which many Oaxaqueños are against.
Now that CaSa is primarily funded by the government, rather than Toledo, it is also subject to the state’s famous ineptitude. Most recently, CaSa director Lourdes Báez Meza was called out for collecting checks from CaSa while simultaneously serving as director of the Celaya Municipal Art and Culture System. The revelation that she illegally occupied two government posts was shrouded in an alleged personal relationship with Celaya Mayor Ramón Lemus Muñoz Ledo, who eventually relieved Báez Meza of her post after she refused to step down under pressure.
Toledo’s love for his home state is well documented, and CaSa emerged out of his desire to create an arts center in Oaxaca, for Oaxaca, although the artist isn’t often seen at the center. The presence of CaSa has required San Agustín — like so many other Mexican towns — to operate within the nation’s extensive tourist economy. Art’s relationship with tourism is complicated; entire cultures and traditions are oversimplified and exoticized, but also preserved as commodity and economic stimulus. In Mexico, tourism is one of the safest businesses to be in, as the economy at large continues to be volatile and the peso fluctuates. The price of tourist commodities depends more on the dollar than on the peso.
The art center in San Agustín is just enough a destination to look exotic and remote on Instagram, although it’s only about half an hour from Oaxaca City. The excruciating lack of decent internet helps to slow down time and you can still buy local mescal, eat handmade tlayudas, and literally walk out of town into rolling hills and hiking trails. At the same time, CaSa is a fully evolved 21st-century arts center, with a diverse offering of performance, exhibition, production, and education spaces. Unfortunately, CaSa is also derivative of a larger institutional instability that threatens entire communities and artistic production in favor of tourism and development profit. The arts center has had both positive and dangerous effects on a community that may have wished to remain inconspicuous. The government sticking its nose into what should be an autonomous space threatens to undermine the efforts of Toledo, rotting his founding ideals with cumbersome and corrupt bureaucracy.